Libraries and Llamas with Author Sharon Owen
By Jon Lewis
Mystery, She Wrote
By Jon Lewis
Photos by Jeannine Hendrickson
The mystery writer Sharon Owen spent the bulk of her career in the medical field, so it’s not surprising that the protagonist in her Aimee Machado series is a hospital employee. What makes the character unique, though, is her position as a forensic librarian.
Aimee also happens to be multiethnic (Chinese and Portuguese), has earned a black belt in jujitsu and lives in a loft above a llama barn on her parents’ ranch in Northern California.
“There’s nobody like that out there, and my publisher thought so, too,” says Owen, who is at work on her fifth book in the Aimee Machado series and is under contract for a sixth. Owen is published by Seattle-based Coffeetown Press under the Camel Press imprint. She uses the pen name Sharon St. George.
Owen says the idea for her series rounded into shape during the 10 years she worked at the Shasta College library. Her earlier jobs included working as a medical transcriptionist, serving as the medical staff coordinator at Redding Medical Center (now Shasta Regional Medical Center), and a volunteer stint in the library at a 400-bed teaching hospital in Connecticut.
Her first book, a hospital-based mystery, was not published but it did win a prize in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers contest. That motivated her to stay with her chosen genre. “I decided to stick with hospital-based books,” Owen says. “That’s the reason I ended up with a protagonist being a librarian. I wanted to do something I knew well. Who even knows hospitals have their own libraries?”
The character of Aimee is inspired by Owen’s granddaughter, Aimee Rose Santone, and her character’s martial arts prowess stems from Aimee’s father, Scott Redden, a sixth-degree black belt and assistant instructor at the Redding JuJitsu Academy. The llamas are based on the fact that Owen and her husband, outdoor writer John Higley, raise llamas on their property in Palo Cedro.
Owen says she’s not interested in gory tell-alls but would rather focus on stories where she can rely on her knowledge and background. “I know how much goes on to keep patients safe, and in order to keep patients safe, it’s important to know what can go wrong. I try to write my story where there’s an element of realism but not enough to scare people.”
Owen grew up in Red Bluff and earned an associate’s degree at Shasta College. She put her education on hold after marrying and starting a family. Some 30 years later, she seized the opportunity to complete her bachelor’s degree in English at Western Connecticut State University.
Her three years at university also allowed her to pursue her interest in performing—which began as a child when her mother enrolled her in dance classes. “I gave up the dance lessons but I was still fascinated by being on stage, so in my late 30s I decided I wanted to get involved in theater.” That desire led to a role in the Riverfront Playhouse production of “6 Rms Riv Vu” in 1990. “It was me and Wilson Smith and I really enjoyed it.”
With some electives to choose from at Western Connecticut, Owen says she opted for an acting class that led to advanced classes in playwriting and literature for the stage, and ultimately a minor in theatre arts. “Everything I learned helped with development of character and expression. It was great the way the two dovetailed. It was perfect for a returning student; I got to major and minor in where my passion was.”
After returning to Redding, Owen reestablished herself at Riverfront, directed one play and then auditioned for the role of Helen Martins in Athol Fugard’s “The Road to Mecca.” The 1997 show “was the highlight of my acting career. It was just an incredible experience.” Owen and co-star Samantha Fork each earned best-actor “Arpee” awards for their performances.
Owen returned to the Riverfront stage 20 years later to take the role of Daria Chase in the January production of “The Game’s Afoot,” giving the community theater company the distinction of casting an actual mystery writer in the popular whodunit by Ken Ludwig.
Inhabiting the mind of Aimee Machado is Owen’s favorite role these days and the novels give her a foothold in the sprawling universe of mystery writers in a “huge, huge genre” that includes everything from police procedurals “to cozy mysteries where the cat talks to the old lady” to action and suspense stories like the ubiquitous Jack Reacher novels.
There’s one genre that outperforms ’em all: the romance novel. “They’re kind of like popcorn or potato chips. They’re just devoured by readers,” Owen says. But even in that field Owen is making inroads.
Harlequin Worldwide Mystery, a publisher of pocket paperbacks, has contracted with Camel Press to publish the first two books in Owen’s series. “One of the things my publisher likes about my books is that the protagonist is on the outs with her boyfriend, so there’s just enough of that romance kind of element. I even had a reader ask me if they’re ever going to get back together again. People like the mysteries and others follow that relationship role,” Owen says.
Owen’s longtime role with the Writers Forum was highlighted in March when a C-SPAN crew stopped in Redding to produce segments on local history and literary events/non-fiction authors. An interview with Owen and fellow writer Steve Callan (“Game Warden’s Son” and “Badges, Bears and Eagles”) aired on BookTV on C-SPAN2. Callan’s two books also were published by Coffeetown Press.
“Steve and I were on C-SPAN2, to the delight of our publishers,” Owen says.