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Reporter swaps fact for fiction in Flagstaff-set murder mystery

Mary Tolan
Jake Bacon
Mary Tolan

Flagstaff is the backdrop of a new murder mystery! Mars Hill Murder is the debut novel from Mary Tolan, a long-time reporter, columnist and former journalism professor at Northern Arizona University. It tells the story of Miles Harper, a struggling local reporter trying to make good at work by cracking a murder mystery.

KNAU’s Bree Burkitt spoke with Mary Tolan about writing a fictional story set in a real-life town.

Bree Burkitt: As a journalist — and a former journalism instructor — you deal primarily in nonfiction. What was that like for you to be kicking around this fiction plot, and then eventually, to turn it into something on the page?

Mary Tolan: It was different because you do have to pay attention to how you're writing and all, but you're creating characters rather than writing about people you've actually interviewed. And so, it was amazing, and so much fun. I love reporting and reporting is very high pressure — I think even if you're writing a feature story. And for fiction writing, it's just so fun. You're in your head, you're imagining things, you're writing it down. “Does this work? Does this not work?”

BB: Mars Hill Murder takes place in Flagstaff. There are a lot of familiar locations — Mars Hill itself, we see downtown Flagstaff, we see the trains as a character. How did you decide to use your real-life surroundings for the setting of this book?

MT: It just seemed so natural to do it because here I was and I've been here so many years, and I love Flagstaff. . . I just observed things I went, "OK, do I want to put this in there? Do I want to put that in there?" And it, it became easy because the characters really became real people to me. I love my characters and so they were doing things and going places, and I thought, "Oh, wait, they better go check out this place and they have to hike at Buffalo Park." I didn't really want to go elsewhere. I've read a lot of great novels — mysteries and otherwise — where they're set in locations where the author does not live and so I think that's very valid, but it just seems really easy to do it — where I go all the time.

BB: A key feature of Mars Hill Murder is you have these really larger-than-life characters. As someone who is a reporter, I think we recognize these characters — they're composites of all these people we've seen many times. Tell me a little bit more about that process.

MT: You say a composite and it's true. Like, there's not one person in this book – one character in this book who's exactly like so and so that I know. But as we know, in the newsroom — whether it's radio or print or online, or, and also at the university — I mean, wherever you work, there are characters. So, Miles Harper, who's one of the main characters, he was based on my observations of colleagues over the many, many years, and also a little bit of my grown sons, but not anyone in particular.

BB: Mary Tolan, thank you so much, and congrats on the book.

MT: Thank you so much, Bree.

Mars Hill Murder is out now. Mary Tolan will be at Bookman’s in Flagstaff on Friday, Nov. 17 for a reading and discussion.