Define Your Characters with Snappy Dialogue and A Keen Sense of Place: A Guest Blog by Jim Nesbitt

nesbitt-car-1
Author, Jim Nesbitt

I’m a Chandler junkie. As in Raymond Chandler. Always have been, always will be.

One of the founding fathers of the hard-boiled school of crime fiction, Chandler’s at the head of a semi-long list of writers who taught me a lot about the trade before I ever tried my hand at it.

Most of them are dead. Which means they won’t be calling me out for hanging their names on what I’m about to say about character and dialogue. Not even Chandler, although his cantankerous spirit might just give it a go.

What I learned from Chandler was the importance of character and dialogue over plot. Chandler was, more or less, a ‘pantster,’ the term the modern wags use for writers who tend to make it up as they go along rather than outline elaborate plots and character sketches before they start telling a story.

One of his famous quotes, usually taken out of context: “When in doubt, have a man

raymond-chandler
Raymond Chandler

come through the door with a gun in his hand.” This line appears in one of the two published versions of his classic essay on the need for realism in crime fiction, The Simple Art of Murder, which is also a diatribe against the set-piece cozy and amateur sleuth who is an ace at deductive logic.

Chandler dropped this line while explaining the need for constant action in the short crime fiction stories of the pulp magazines where he learned his new trade. But when you line up that quote with the body of Chandler’s work, it takes on a broader meaning that represents the second primary lesson I learned from him — use action and concrete descriptions of place to drive a story largely told through character and dialogue.

Character and dialogue are intertwined. You show a character’s traits — you define them — through dialogue, either snappy exchanges with other characters or the internal dialogue they have with themselves.

Dialogue between characters is a dance where they reveal themselves by what they do and don’t say and the way they say it or stay silent. Internal dialogue is a character dancing in the dark with themselves, but the same revelations occur. Or should occur. If they don’t, a writer has blown a golden opportunity to define a character and give the story life, depth and context.

I’ll give two examples from my latest work, The Best Lousy Choice: An Ed Earl Burch Novel. My main character, Dallas PI Ed Earl Burch, is a cashiered vice and homicide detective. He’s also a terminal smartass who doesn’t know when to shut up. I don’t tell you that — I show it through dialogue with a crooked West Texas sheriff looking to frame him for the murder of a prominent local rancher who died in a suspicious barn fire.

“You run the ID on those shooters I blew away? Bet they’re either freelance talent or connected to some other drug lord slimeball. Looks like you got a little turf war going on. Or maybe Dirt Cheap crossed his cousin. Just guesses on my part. But either way, it ain’t a good look for an anti-drug crusader like you, Sheriff.”

Burch looked at Willingham. The anger that colored his face and flashed in his eyes was gone. He wore the stone mask of a poker player and his voice was a husky whisper as he asked a quiet question.

“You a barnburner, son?”

Burch was flummoxed. No smartass quips, no barbed conjecture. All he had as a comeback was the brass to meet the sheriff’s stare head-on and not flinch.

“Let me put it to you this way — are you a man who could set another man’s barn on fire, burn up his horses, burn up the man himself? Are you that kind of murderin’ sumbitch, a fire worshiper, a man-burner?”

“Jesus, Sheriff — you need to make up your mind what you want to frame me for. First you have me as a gun for hire workin’ for this Malo Garza fella, now you got me as the second coming of Ben Quick’s daddy in The Long Hot Summer. I’m way too ugly for any frame job that needs me to look like Paul Newman.”

“Ugly will do, my friend, if I find out you did the crime.”

Burch also has frequent conversations with his dead partner, Wynn Moore. Burch blames himself for getting his partner killed while they were tracking a narco and murder suspect in Dallas years ago when he still carried a gold shield.

These conversations are real as a dime to Burch and show both the guilt that still gnaws at him and the left-handed relief he’s found when Moore appears. They also reveal the simple and brutal approach to police work Burch learned from Moore.

He felt shaky from his session with Bustamante and fished out the bottle of Percodan and a dented nickel flask from his bag. He shook out a pill, broke it in half and popped it on his tongue, washing it down with a long pull of Maker’s. It wasn’t quite noon but he needed a Percodan cocktail to get rid of the jangles and keep the demons in their holes.

He stood under the fan in his boxers, smoking another Lucky until he felt the half-hit and e-less whisky take hold, then carried the Colt into the bathroom and placed it on the porcelain top of the toilet tank. He reached into the shower stall to turn on the water and wait until it was as hot as he could stand it, then stepped into the scalding spray.

You ain’t right, sport model. Poppin’ them pills, sluggin’ whiskey and it ain’t hardly noon yet.

Keeps me sane, Wynn. On track and movin’ down the trail instead of curled up in a corner screamin’ about demons and snakes with wings.

Turnin’ into a goddam junkie and day drinker, you ask me.

I ain’t askin’.

Never could talk sense to you, sport model. One more thing, then I’ll shut my yap. You fly the black flag on this one. Take that rulebook we usta have to work around and chuck it right out the fuckin’ window. You sabe?

Rulebook already chucked, Wynn. No quarter. No prisoners. No judge and jury.

Good deal, sport model.

Chandler’s novels and short stories are packed with detailed physical descriptions of the rooms, places and streetscapes where his stories take place.

These “concrete descriptions” help create a Los Angeles that is so real that it becomes a character unto itself. Far more than mere backdrop, these descriptions of place define the characters that live and move through this landscape. So much so that it’s hard to imagine Marlowe anywhere else but L.A. Or James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux without New Iberia and New Orleans.

This struck a chord with me, largely because of my upbringing and lineage. I come from a long line of North Carolina hillbilly storytellers. My parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins told stories of our kin and the mountains my ancestors called home, creating a keen sense of family and place in my sister and me, even though we grew up in suburban Philadelphia.

9780998329420
The Best Lousy Choice (2019)

As a journalist, I was always fascinated with how the land shaped the people who lived there, even as they struggled to make a living from it. I also fell in love with the harsh beauty of West Texas, with stark mountain ranges that look like the bones of the earth on display for any and all to see.

It seemed like the perfect place for the bloody tales of revenge and redemption I was trying to tell in my Ed Earl Burch novels, a land so forbiddingly beautiful and demanding that it shapes the characters in my books and gives resonance to their dialogue.

It’s another way of revealing who your characters are. And showing instead of telling is the essence of the writer’s trade.


Jim Nesbitt is the author of three hard-boiled crime thrillers set in Texas and northern Mexico that feature Dallas PI Ed Earl Burch, a cashiered vice and homicide detective. His latest, The Best Lousy Choice, is available at BookPeople in-store and online now.

Invisible People: ‘Bloody Bead,’ a Guest Blog by Helen Currie Foster

My father never went anywhere without a paperback in his jacket. While his office held plenty of scholarly tomes, his pocket frequently held a mystery, a thriller. We still have some of his 1950’s classics with wildly lurid covers.

Do you recognize that passion––wanting a book with you always? Were you the fourth-grader hiding a book in your lap at school, with one ear cocked in case the teacher called on you? Were you the kid who walked home from school poring over the latest Harry Potter while trying not to fall off the curb?

All became easier with phones and e-readers. Now the new Bullet Book Speed Reads series headed up by author Manning Wolfe delivers mystery thrillers, co-authored with other Texas writers, the perfect size for a plane trip, an afternoon on the porch.

9780692168271

I had immense fun working with Manning on our Bullet Book Bloody Bead. Here’s why.

With characters like George Smiley, Sherlock Holmes, Encyclopedia Brown, we mystery readers train ourselves to grab at every clue–the criminal’s limp, the square-toed hunting shoes, the odd whistle in the night. (You got it, Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Speckled Band.”) We’re desperate, like those famous sleuths, to use our brains, figure out who did it, and how and why.

But Bloody Bead begins with one of the invisible people in our world, a garbage man. Do you know who picks up your garbage? Could you describe that person? Have you ever spoken to that person? Do you know what that person knows about you, or others on the truck route, just from dealing with your trash and recyclables? No spoilers here, but I relished re-seeing the world from that viewpoint. Furthermore, while we’re on invisible heroes: let’s hear it for cadaver dogs, too. But no spoilers.

In my legal series, my character Alice, the lawyer protagonist in the Coffee Creek Mystery Series (Ghost Next Door is the latest), can tell you a great deal about her clients and their enemies. But it’s not clear to me whether Alice yet knows the actual people who collect her trash and recyclables. Must ask her. In fact, working on Bloody Bead made me curious about the host of invisible potential characters around us, every day…

How about that clever red-haired guy at the HEB supermarket who rings up my groceries like a genius? What does he see? The mechanic at the garage who could psychoanalyze each customer by what he discovers while inspecting their vehicles? The lab tech who takes your blood? Hmm.

Humans possess a powerful drive to hear a tale told. Tell me a story! And let me figure it out!


Titles by Helen Currie Foster are available online and in-store now. Bloody Bead, her novella co-written with Manning Wolfe, is currently only available in-store. Call BookPeople today at (512) 472 – 5050 to reserve yours today!

A Genre Writer’s Journey: A Guest Blog by Billy Kring

9781548537456I’ve read books and stories in magazines since I was a tadpole, and that’s where my love of them began. When I started writing, it was a combination of things that kicked it into gear for me. The first was Amazon opening the gate wide for writers. I took that route because I knew I needed to work at the craft to become better, and to see if I would stay at it.

I learned one thing fast: writing the story is only the first part, and the fun part. The rest of it was tough. Doable, but not easy, at least for me. I got into Amazon writing after it had been going for a while, so didn’t get to ride the “newness” wave of it that some others did. But, I learned something every day. So, after puttering around for a bit, I decided to write a suspense/mystery (because I like to read them) that would allow me to use my background to help the story along, and made a female Border Patrol Agent the protagonist. In the first book, Quick, I had such a strong character with her (a Florida Homicide Detective), that a couple of readers told me it shouldn’t be called a Hunter Kincaid Mystery. Like I said, every day is a learning experience.

It still happens today, with over a dozen novels out there. And for me it has been a fun, wonderful ride, and still going strong. I still base my stories on real incidents, and don’t have any desire to change that way of doing it. I’ve made friends in both the traditional and self-published venues. They’re great people, and I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention having a legendary authority on crime and mystery writers like Book People’s Scott Montgomery as a friend.

I’ve co-written with two authors, and that is a different, fun experience, too. The first was with George Wier, who had the idea of a steampunk series. The first two novels we wrote were Journey to the Moon, and Journey to Mars. These weren’t mysteries, but a lot of fun to do. The other collaboration (just out) was my newest novella, Iron 13, co-written with my friend Manning Wolfe. My background helped with this one as well, and dealt with the brutal terrorist/smuggling group, Mara Salvatrucha joining with an Al-Qaeda genius bomb-maker to assassinate high ranking political figures in Washington, DC. Manning and I created some realistic protagonists in it, each one with their own weaknesses and problems. You know, like real people have!

The novella is one of Manning’s great ideas, called Bullet Books, made for speedy reading when time is tight, and she has a number of these out now, and more to be coming in the future.

My next novel will be another Hunter Kincaid adventure/mystery on the Texas border, and will be out by Thanksgiving. It is called A Cinnabar Sky, and involves a car trunk full of liquefied bodies, a fingertip, an orphan, cartels, hitmen, a billionaire, and Hunter getting in trouble with her bosses (again). I hope you’ll come along for the ride.


Billy Kring is the author of twelve novels that include two mystery series, The Hunter Kincaid series, and the Ronny Baca series. Before taking up writing, he was a Border Patrol Agent and consultant on international border issues and anti-terrorism in locations such as Eastern Europe, South America, the Caribbean, the Pan Pacific, and Mexico.

Why Do the Weirdest Crimes Happen In Texas?

The following essay is a guest blog post by Heather Harper Ellet, author of the debut novel, Ain’t Nobody Nobody. She will be at BookPeople on October 28th at 7PM to read from, discuss, and sign her novel.


Last week at Deep Vellum Books in Dallas, I read from my East Texas crime novel Ain’t Nobody Nobody (Polis, 2019). Afterward, a man in the audience asked in all polite sincerity, “What is it about Texas?  Why do all the weird crimes happen here?” The man was from Australia. Even he knew we were famous for something other than Dr Pepper.

The previous day, my mother’s 1000-person East Texas hometown was a top headline on CNN because a man had robbed the bank there to pay for the wedding he was having that weekend. And if you weren’t the terrified teller, it really was kinda sweet. And proved our Australian friend’s point quite nicely.

Admittedly, the Australian’s question stumped me. The Texans in the audience, native and not, looked at each other with the same befuddled look, as if the answer should be obvious but was not at all obvious at the same time.

“Is it the guns?” someone suggested. It’s a fair question of course. I’ve lived in Texas my entire life and there’s a lot I take for granted—the absurd details that blend into the background, the fact that guns are collected like stamps. I can’t get into a family member’s truck without double checking beneath the seat to make sure something doesn’t discharge. (It should be noted my mother-in-law has a bullet lodged in her leg to this day for this very reason.) But I don’t even think about it until somebody asks me to write something like this. We all nodded—“Yes, guns!” —while knowing that this singular fact doesn’t tell the entire story.

I think the flavor of our crimes points to a larger Texas mystique, a brazenness that Texans seem to have in spades. In my small town growing up, a larger-than-life bail bondsman was murdered in his front yard not far from my school during an armed robbery gone horribly wrong. It was incredibly sad and scary but not entirely surprising because even at thirteen-years-old I knew that the victim carried a roll of ten thousand dollars in his boot at all times.

“Maybe it’s the water?” a friend joked later, which is also not far off. I’m reminded of a fascinating 1990 study comparing the trace amounts of lithium in Texas drinking water.  The Texas counties with the most naturally-occurring lithium in their drinking water had lower incidences of crime, suicide, and drug addiction. (Also note: my home county ranked on the lower side for lithium.)

Texas’s most bizarre crimes point to a bravado that’s found few other places, I’m told. Funeral director Bernie Tiede kills an unlikeable old woman and the small town of Carthage defends him. A man plants tens of thousands of plants of marijuana in woods that aren’t his. This year alone, I’ve read three stories about crimes involving pet tigers in houses.

As a writer, I have a love/hate relationship with the audacity of Texas. Writing about it is hard because, fair or not, Texas can be a character who takes up too much space in the room. Texas is that best friend you would die for but would think twice about taking to a fancy restaurant in case he gets into a fistfight with the waiter. Texas is like garlic. Even a little bit flavors the entire dish. Texas is so big that sometimes I don’t want to say the word because then, as an author, I have lost all control over the tone of the scene.

Ultimately, it’s that unique Texas audacity that best answers our Australian friend’s question. And I think it is best articulated by the list of stereotypes Lawrence Wright outlines in his face-slappingly brilliant God Save Texas: “cowboy individualism, a kind of wary friendliness, superpatriotism combined with defiance of all government authority, a hair-trigger sense of grievance, nostalgia for an ersatz past that is largely an artifact of Hollywood.”

Or maybe it’s the Dr Pepper.

The Australian nodded politely as we Texans outwardly brainstormed explanations for our lunacy as if this were some sort of party game we played often but he didn’t yet know the rules. Afterward, he bought my book, and we chatted about the plans for his trip—a visit to a small town not unlike the one where my mother was raised.  I laughed and signed his copy with “Stay safe in Texas!” and as I scribbled the words, writing TEXAS in swirly cursive like a junior high crush, it pained me to realize just how much I really meant it. Stay safe, friend. Then I watched as he disappeared out the front door and into the dark Texas night.


Heather Harper Ellet will be attending our Place & Crime panel October 28th, 7PM, with L.A. Chandlar and Mark Coggins at BookPeople.

‘Voodoo Macbeth’ and How 1930s Art Crossed Divides

The following essay is a guest blog post by L. A. Chandlar, author of the Art Deco Mystery Series who will be at BookPeople on October 28th at 7PM to read from, discuss, and sign her latest entry in the series, The Pearl Dagger.


My favorite thing about writing the Art Deco Series, is bringing to life the vibrancy, humor and adventurous spirit of the 1930s. That era is often overshadowed by the Depression, but there was so much art, civil rights, humor, and liveliness going on in spite of the hardship. The theme of beauty out of ashes was profound to me. That’s the story I wanted to tell, because that vivacious way of life has something to teach us today.

Art is in the background of each of my novels and in this one, I discovered a work that was a seminal point for art and history and most importantly, for humanity. In 1936, a youthful Orson Welles in tandem with the Federal Works Project formed the first all-black theater cast. They performed Shakespeare’s Macbeth with both professional actors as well as amateur. Despite the incendiary race relations outside the doors, inside the Lafayette theater they performed an eerie, poignant play that was wildly successful. It was sold-out for weeks then toured the country. This was Voodoo Macbeth.

In The Pearl Dagger, many of the characters are moved by the play, but Lane’s love interest, Finn Brodie, is especially affected since it reflected aspects of his own life and some of the ghosts of his past that he must face when the possibility of a crime syndicate rising from the ashes forces them to take an investigative trip across the Atlantic to London. I even have a culmination adventure scene at an actual performance of Voodoo with the real-life actors in attendance. I would do anything to be able to go back in time to witness a show.

Voodoo Macbeth wasn’t the only way that art transcended the divides and barriers of the races in the thirties. There are more examples than I could ever possibly share, but a favorite one is that my characters often dance at the uptown club, The Savoy. With its four-thousand capacity hall and double stages at either end so the music never stopped, it was the first intentionally integrated dance hall featuring Chick Webb, Benny Goodman, and numerous other Jazz and Big Band greats. A Jewish dance hall owner partnered with a black manager to create a place where inside the doors, it didn’t matter if you were black or white, uptown or downtown, Catholic or Jewish. All that mattered was if you could dance. The place was sold out with a line four blocks long the night it opened and stayed that way for years. There’s a famous conversation that I highlighted in my book where in real life someone saw a celebrity walk in. The guy says to his friend, “Hey, Clark Gable just walked in.” His friend looks over and says, “Oh. Can he dance?” Dance was all that mattered.

The power of art is staggering. It draws people together and reminds us of the goodness that is possible. In our own rocky climate, it makes the joy of telling these stories even more wonderful. My favorite quote about the way art overcame the racial tensions of the day was from a woman who danced the night away at The Savoy hundreds of times. In an interview of the documentary Savoy King, with shining eyes she exclaimed, “We fought a war…with music and dance!”

One of my most beloved characters whom readers ask me about all the time, is Lane’s artistic Aunt Evelyn. She actually represents a few artist friends I have in New York City. Aunt Evelyn is a funny mix of high class socialite with eccentric, worldly artist. She has friends in all places high and low. My real-life friends who are successful artists, have this wonderful capacity to draw people to themselves who would otherwise not have anything in common. It’s the art that compels them to unity. One time, I walked into my friend’s studio. He is Japanese American and surrounding him was the most disparate group of men I’d ever seen: a Hispanic college kid with torn jeans, an older white man with a three-piece suit straight from Wall Street, and a middle-aged guy dressed in glorious drag complete with matching shoes and purse. All four of them were enthralled in close discussion. I loved it! This is why Aunt Evelyn is the way she is. (Plus, she enables to me to have fabulous cameo appearances from the first lady, to Diego Rivera, to Albert Einstein.)

Many of my characters were real people, with real lives, real weaknesses and strengths. I am enamored with the way art transcends social and cultural divides. It’s such a joy to share these stories. My dearest hope is that my readers will be inspired and that the joy of the adventure –even in the midst of hard times—will help them believe they can create their own beauty out of ashes.


Hear more from L. A. Chandlar when she stops by BookPeople on October 28th at 7PM for our Place & Crime Panel where she’ll be joined by the likes of Mark Coggins and Heather Harper Ellet for a discussion on setting in each of their new titles.

HEROINES OF THEIR OWN STORY: SCOTT BUTKI INTERVIEW CRISTINA ALGER

I’ve heard much praise for Cristina Alger, mainly due to the success of her novel, The Banker’s Wife, so I had high expectations for her new book, Girls Like Us.

Alger met the hype and them some. With fascinating, deep characters and excellent plots with good twists, I was enthralled with this book.

Girls Like Us Cover ImageThe novel centers on the investigations of three grisly murders on Long Island, inspired by the real-life Gilgo Beach murders.

As the book begins, FBI Agent Nell Flynn has returned home to Suffolk County for the first time in ten years following the death of her father, a local homicide detective, with whom she’s always had a complicated relationship. Her mother was brutally murdered when Nell was just 7.

Intending to spread his ashes and take care of his affairs and leave, Nell instead gets pulled into investigating local murders.  She becomes increasingly convinced that her father, who died in a motorcycle accident, should be the prime suspect and his follow cops were covering his tracks.

Alger worked as a financial analyst and a corporate attorney before becoming a writer. Her other books include The Darlings, and This Was Not the Plan.

She was nice enough to agree to do an email interview with me.

Scott Butki: How did this story come together?

Cristina Alger: I’ve always been a true crime addict, and when the bodies of four young, female sex workers were found on Gilgo Beach in Long Island (a town which happens to be not too far from where I live) I followed the case with obsessive interest. The more research I did, the more questions I had, not just about the killer but about the police officers conducting the investigation. Eventually, all my late-night research blossomed into a novel.

Scott: Which comes first for you, characters or plot?

Cristina: I was a lawyer in my past life, and most of my novels come from true crime stories which pique my interest. If I find myself researching a news story or cold case for long enough, I can’t help but wonder how I can turn it into background for a novel. So I’d say plot comes first, though character goes a long way in refining the details.

Scott: How did you come up with the intriguing premise of a FBI agent realizing the primary suspect in a series of grisly murders might be her recently deceased father, himself a homicide detective? 

Cristina: When I decided to write a book loosely based on the Gilgo Beach murders, I realized the thing that interested me most about the case was a theory that kept cropping up on true-crime web forums (and which I kept considering myself): the killer was actually a member of the Suffolk County Police Department and was actively working to keep the case cold. I used that theory as the springboard for the novel. I’ve always been interested in the relationship between adults and their parents — that theme comes up again and again in my writing — so it added an extra element to have Nell, the protagonist, investigating her own father.

Scott: How did you do research for this book?

Cristina: I had the best stroke of luck when researching this book: a bookseller friend of mine introduced me to her husband, a retired Suffolk County Police Detective. He was an amazing resource for me, and offered up so much background on his career and cop culture generally. After I met him, the book really started to click into place.

Scott: What do you want readers to take away from this book?

Cristina: As a thriller reader myself, I’m tired of reading about women who are crazy or manipulative or in need of saving. The suspense market feels flooded with these stories. I hope readers walk away from my books feeling like an alternative exists: there are thrillers which highlight strong, independent women, women who are the heroines of their own stories.

Scott: What has it been like getting praise from such authors as Lee Child and Nelson DeMille for your books?

Cristina: I mean, dreamy! I can hardly believe it. They are the writers that made me love thrillers in the first place. I’m deeply grateful for their generosity.

Scott: Have you been able to draw on your past work as a financial analyst and corporate attorney when writing these books? If so, how?

Cristina: Law school taught me two things: how to research and how to write in logical, pared-down prose. I lean on those skills every day as a writer. My previous work life taught me discipline. I’m used to long hours and hard work, and that discipline propels me through those rough patches when I’m not feeling inspired.

Scott: I have heard your last book, The Banker’s Wife, is currently in development as a limited TV series by the team behind Homeland. What’s it like having one of your books turned into TV? How much involvement will you have with the project?

Cristina: I’m over the moon about the team developing The Banker’s Wife. The director, writer, producers and lead actors are amazing (and all women!). I’m not intimately involved in the project, though I’ve hung around as a resource — particularly when questions about finance crop up. But for the most part, I try and stay out of the way — this book’s in great hands.

Scott: I understand you love thrillers. Who are some of your favorite current authors of thrillers?

How long do you have? I have so many. I will read anything by Laura Lippman, Meghan Abbott, Karin Slaughter, Gillian Flynn, Alafair Burke, Jane Harper, Flynn Berry, Lee Child, Nelson de Mille, and John Grisham. I also love Nordic Noir: I’m Traveling Alone by Samuel Bjork and Snare by Lilja Sigurdardottir are recent favorites.

Scott: What are you working on next?

Cristina:  Another thriller! And I’m having my third child in a few months, so lots of projects in the works.

SCOTT BUTKI INTERVIEWS MEGAN MIRANDA

I jumped at the chance to interview Megan Miranda, as I’ve heard lots of positive buzz about her best-selling novel All The Missing Girls, which The New York Times Book Review described as “Hitchockian,” and The Perfect Stranger.
The Last House Guest Cover ImageI predict her new book, The Last House Guest, will also land on the best-seller list and have positive buzz.

Her new book is set in Littleport, Maine, which is a town where some, including strong protagonist Avery Greer, live all year round while other wealthy folks, including Sadie Loman and her family, visit only on the summer. Sadie and Avery have a fierce, long friendship.

As the book begins Sadie has been found dead and the police are ruling it a suicide, but Avery can’t shake the feeling people in the community, including Sadie’s family, blame her for the death.

Scott Butki: How did this story come together?

Megan Miranda: I had the characters and the premise from pretty early on, but their story, and how it could best be told, developed over the course of several drafts. When I started The Last House Guest, I knew I wanted to set it in a town where there would be this contrast of insiders (the characters who live in the town year-round) and outsiders (those who visit each summer). Avery and Sadie grew from this idea. But as I worked through earlier drafts, I realized that Avery embodied both sides of that equation—she is someone who grew up as an insider, but now feels like an outsider to her own town.

The friendship between Avery and Sadie—and all that happened because of it—became the heart of the story. Which then gave rise to the structure: At the start of the story, Avery can’t seem to accept or move past Sadie’s death a year earlier. And she keeps circling back to that pivotal night with each new discovery, looking for the things she might’ve missed the first time around.

Scott:  Which comes first for you, the characters or the plot?

Megan: The characters always come first, though they tend to develop alongside the plot. They work in tandem, with plot roadblocks forming character, and character choices informing the story direction. But the characters are always the element I’m most interested in following—both as a reader and a writer. I think this is why I’m not much of an outliner before I start—I need to get to know the characters first, and write my way in to their story.

Scott Butki: Should readers new to you start with this book or one of your earlier ones?

Megan: They can definitely start with this one! Each of the books stands alone, with a new set of characters, and a new setting. They can be read in any order.

Scott: How are you reacting to the popularity of your books?

Writing a book can feel very solitary—but these characters live inside your head for so long, and finishing their story, getting it to where you hope it will be, always means so much. To see it then resonate with others has been such a wonderful experience. I’ve been so grateful that people who have enjoyed these stories have helped spread the word about them.

Scott: Can you talk about the relationship between Sadie Loman, from a wealthy family that visits a vacation town every summer, and Avery Greer, a townie dealing with the grief after her parents die.

Megan: When Avery and Sadie meet as teens, they each find something in the other that fills a void in their lives. Avery had spent the time before meeting Sadie feeling adrift and alone, unable to escape the way others in town see her. And Sadie has a complicated relationship with her own family, never quite living up to expectations. Both of them are able to become someone else through the other’s perspective. But just as with the town itself, their friendship looks different when viewed from the outside versus the inside.

Scott: Why did you decide to begin the book with Sadie’s death?

Megan: There were two reasons I wanted to start the book here. The first went to story: Starting with the end-of-season party from the year earlier introduced each character with their alibi—when and how they were accounted for on the night of Sadie’s death—which is key to unraveling the mystery that follows.

The second reason went to character: For Avery, this is the pivotal event that shatters her world. And this is the night she keeps coming back to in more detail throughout the book as she gains understanding.

Scott: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

Megan: One theme I keep coming back to—in All the Missing Girls, The Perfect Stranger, and The Last House Guest—is this focus on identity, tied tightly to experiences in the past. How people are viewed, and how they view themselves. The one common thing I find at the heart of each main character, despite everything that happens throughout their story, is a sense of resiliency.

Scott: What have you figured out for this, your tenth book, you wish you knew when writing your first?

I wish there was something universal I’ve taken away from the writing process, but the thing I’ve learned the most is that every single book is different. Sometimes the structure and story come together right away. Sometimes they don’t. I guess the one change in my process is that I panic less when a draft doesn’t work at first. I’ve come to accept and appreciate that trial and error is part of my process, and to trust that I’ll get there in the end.

Scott: How did you go about researching this book?

Miranda: When I was writing the first draft, I asked my family if anyone wanted to take a trip up to Maine with me. Which is how I ended up spending a summer vacation in a minivan with my parents, my husband, and my 2 kids. We drove up and down the coast, stopping at so many beautiful towns along the way. We also spent several days in Bar Harbor, which is where we used to spend a week each summer when I was growing up. It made me think a lot about perspective, and how that can shift over time. I had last been there as a teenager, and was now visiting with my own children, hiking the same trails, visiting the same places. I wanted Littleport to feel like a character in and of itself, and a place that can have two different perspectives, both as an insider and an outsider.                     

Scott: The last question is my bonus question: What is a question you wish you would get asked in interviews but never are. Here’s your chance to ask and answer it.

Miranda:  Why are you drawn to small town settings?

I love the dynamic that a small town provides, where characters know everything about one another—or think they do. For me, a small town feels like a living, breathing character. Something that might shift and twist, just as the story does.

The Cozy Mystery as a Light Thriller by S.C. Perkins

If I asked you how you like your morning coffee or tea, would you have a specific strength you always enjoy your day-starting drink that never, ever changes? Or are there times when you mix it up, taking your normally dark-roast coffee with a splash of cream or occasionally skipping the milk and sugar in your English Breakfast for a stronger kick? If so, while it’s still your preferred morning brew at heart, a little change every now and again often makes for a new and enjoyable outlook on the drink you love. I’d like to believe the same can be said for sub-genres within the crime-fiction world, including my personal favorite, the cozy mystery.

Murder Once Removed (Ancestry Detective #1) Cover ImageWhen my own debut cozy, Murder Once Removed, came out this past March, BookPeople’s Scott Montgomery dubbed it a “light thriller,” and I couldn’t have been more delighted. Though I can respect and understand the purist’s stance that a cozy should not deviate from the elements that have traditionally defined the lighter take on mysteries, I have to admit I’m happy to see varying “strengths” of cozy mysteries on the market. And because of this, I think we might be seeing more and more cozies that could be considered light thrillers.

But before I get into why I think cozies might be going for more thrills, let’s look at what generally constitutes a cozy mystery and what aspects might give them a little more of the thriller factor.

It’s no wonder the word “cozy” is used, and it’s a big clue, with the book having traits including:

  • a lighter tone with a slower pacing;

  • while the murder happens, it takes place off the page and the gore level is minimal;

  • the protagonist is an amateur sleuth with an interesting profession and is someone with whom the reader might like to be friends;

  • the charming small town (or fun big city) where the reader wants to visit;

  • there’s usually a little bit of romance, often with a dose of will-they-or-won’t-they banter;

  • and the cast of secondary characters who occasionally fly their oddball flags provide a sounding board for the protagonist, a sense of family and/or the voice of reason, and some comic relief.

Also, the protagonists in cozy mysteries are everyday people just like us who get to do what all of us who love mysteries wish we could:  right wrongs, save a life or two, and do it all without seeing anything too creepy, getting hurt too badly, or having the local law enforcement throwing us in jail for interfering with an investigation! We can only dream, am I right?

Anyway, when a cozy mystery veers toward a light thriller, it’s because it draws more heavily than normal on one or more of the aspects of its darker cousin, including—

  • a faster pace;

  • a mystery that involves potentially higher stakes;

  • the protagonist knowing who the villain is instead of attempting to discover whodunit, and racing against time to stop a tragedy from happening (or from happening again);

  • the threat level from the villain starts high and never seems to ease;

  • stronger language and/or a more sinister climactic event;

  • and a heroine or hero who isn’t just flawed, but also may have physical or emotional challenges that leave them more open to attack.

So, how does Murder Once Removed incorporate some thriller-like aspects? Well, without giving too much away—no spoilers here!—my genealogist protagonist, Lucy Lancaster, finds an old photograph called a daguerreotype and some journals that connects her wealthy client, Gus Halloran, to a U.S. senator. Very quickly, Lucy finds out that someone wants what she’s found and is willing to kill to get it. The threats to Lucy’s life, and those of her friends’ lives, come at a faster rate than your traditional cozy mystery.

Plus, while I chose the setting—Austin, Texas—because it’s a big city with a decidedly small-town feel, its urban status helps to set the stage for a darker feel to the narrative (which I hope is pleasantly offset by Lucy’s positive attitude, slight naivete, and doses of humor sprinkled throughout.)

As to why I think we might be seeing more of these types of lighter mysteries, I believe it’s solidly built on the precarious world we live in today. With so many tragedies and so much negativity around us, we all need some of the many optimistic qualities that the cozy mystery embodies:  good-yet-imperfect people trying to do right, warmth, friends and family, and the notion of how one person with a can-do attitude can really make a difference in the world and bring about a happy ending.

They’re also just so dang fun to read, too. And the writing from cozy authors is as well-crafted and stellar as you’ll read anywhere, making the cozy mystery not just a respite for the world-weary reader, but also a treat to enjoy.

If you happen to like the “light thriller” style of mysteries (or think you might be willing to add a dash of them into your reading lineup), here are just a few of the series I would recommend:

The Sarah Booth Delaney mysteries by Carolyn Haines

The Bibliophile mysteries by Kate Carlisle

The Noodle Shop mysteries by Vivien Chien

The Speakeasy Murders by Susanna Calkins

The White House Chef mysteries by Julie Hyzy

FINDING CHARACTERS IN A PATCH OF DEAD LAWN

Patricia Smiley was kind enough to write a piece for us about creating characters for her books. She’ll join us in the store January 9th for a panel discussion with Matt Coyle & Puja Guha to discuss their various subgenres.

Writers are curious people. We obsess about human behavior and construct theories about what motivates it. Sometimes our stories are personal. Sometimes we use newspaper articles filtered through our own sensibilities. Sometimes we simply make stuff up. That works, too.

The Second Goodbye (Pacific Homicide #3) Cover ImageWriter curiosity is never more important to me than when I create characters on the page. Finding depth and poignancy in each one is important because I want readers to care about the people in my books. Like many writers, I create a biography for all my characters, even the minor ones, which usually includes a sociological and psychological profile, a back-story, descriptions of speech patterns, gait, quirky habits, and a history of successes and failures that drive his/her behavior.

The essences of real people I know often inveigle their way onto the pages of my novels. This is especially true for Davie, her grandmother, and her boss Frank Giordano. The gender or appearance may change, but the core attributes remain. Character inspiration isn’t limited to friends and relatives. Strangers often make an impression, as well. Once long ago I was stopped at a red light on my way to work. I glanced over and noticed a homeless man on a bus bench, dressed in grimy clothing, gently brushing lint from the shoulder of his well-worn coat. That gesture was a poignant lesson I never forgot—that we can maintain our dignity regardless of our circumstances. Years later, that man’s ethos made its way into the character of Rags Foster, a homeless junkie in Pacific Homicide. When I began researching the second novel in the series, I used the war in Vietnam as a plot element. I interviewed former veterans, fictionalizing the pathos of their stories to craft Outside the Wire. I used the same process for The Second Goodbye, the third novel in the series, and had particular fun with a minor character named Gerda Pittman, a comic version of a former boss.

I’m always on the lookout for characters to populate my stories. For example, several times a week, I walk to the grocery store past a few remaining post WWII bungalows dwarfed by flashy new construction. Along the route I often see a wiry older man with slicked-back gray hair, working in his front yard. I’ve never noticed anyone else with him. Even on the hottest days, he wears a tidy wool suit jacket that has seen better days. The jacket is dark blue with wide lapels, outdated padded shoulders, and is paired with mismatched trousers. His dress shirt is buttoned to the neck without benefit of a tie. The ensemble seems from another world, possibly Eastern Europe or the Middle East.

In this Westside L.A. neighborhood, the summer-ocean breezes once cooled the houses. But the days have become hotter, even in winter, so his front windows are often open to catch any random puff of air. The exterior of the house needs paint and repairs but the gutters along the street are clean and tidy. Many days I see him bent over, sweeping away the debris with a battered kitchen dustpan and brush. Later, when I walk home with my bag of groceries, the area is spotless and any residue that may have crept onto his walkway has been swept away. He never looks up from his task to nod or say hello. I accept his terms.

What piques my curiosity is his front lawn, which is a patch of hard-packed soil except on the rare occasion when it rains. He apparently doesn’t like the look of the weeds that sprout in the aftermath, because he plucks each one out by hand until the area is once again a tidy field of brown dirt, raising all kinds of dramatic questions: Was there ever a lawn? Did the high price of water force him to let it die? Nonetheless, the compulsive weeding tells me he has a keen sense of order. I want to know the story behind his dignity and pride: where he’s from and what’s happened in his life that allows him to find purpose in a small patch of dead lawn.

Someday I’ll answer those questions in a book. The character may not be this man. It may be a woman. Her part may be small but she’ll be a metaphor for something important in the book. I’ll give her a happy ending. Maybe after all she’s been through she deserves that much, at least.

Puja Guha on writing spy fiction

Puja Guha has just finished her Ahriman Trilogy that deals with a spy and assassin in love with each other as world events, government plots, and despots not only tear them apart, but often pit them against one another. Puja will be joining private eye writer Matt Coyle and police procedural author Patricia Smiley to discuss their subgenres at BookPeople January 9th at 7pm. Here she discusses what draws her to spy fiction.

Ahriman: The Spirit of Destruction Cover ImageWhen people first learn that I write spy fiction, I get two reactions. The first is surprise, bordering on shock. How could this five-foot-three Indian woman write something like spy novels? Once they get over the fact that I’m a writer, the question that follows is, wouldn’t I be better suited for non-fiction books about economics or international development? That question always makes me chuckle, since the thought of writing a book on that makes my stomach turn.

The second, and more fun one, is from those who know me a little better, or at least know about my travel schedule (especially if they know about my trip to Afghanistan a few years ago). That reaction tends to go something like this—“Oh, you write spy fiction – because you’re secretly a spy!” I have to admit I love that reaction. There’s something about their perception that changes, as if they start to see me as a lot more bad ass. I may not be a spy, but I certainly like to think of myself as someone who could be, at least in terms of the fun portrayal of what that life is like that we see in a lot of movies and books. Obviously, the reality is far from the action sequences of The Bourne Identity but it’s fun to think that there are people like that around the world.

Perceptions aside, I love spy fiction. I grew up reading all sorts of thrillers, devouring the books off my Dad’s bookshelf, including Tom Clancy, Frederick Forsyth, Michael Crichton, Robert Ludlum, and John Grisham. Spy fiction was a sizeable portion of that, offering action and adventure combined with mystery and investigation. Those books also gave me another opportunity to travel and explore nuanced characters, including the cost of deception on an emotional and personal level. I read so many of them I guess it’s no wonder I ended up writing in this genre. Sometimes I use it to explore new places that I haven’t gotten to visit yet, like Iran, in my first book Ahriman: The Spirit of Destruction. More often, writing spy fiction gives me an opportunity to showcase a place that I’ve already been—to bring readers to it, to see the sights and experience the culture, the sound, and the smells, all within a “web of intrigue”. That last phrase makes me smile, I love the twists and turns that greet me when I’m plotting out one of my novels. A lot of it takes me by surprise, when the characters draw me in a direction that I didn’t anticipate. Being able to share that journey with readers is something that I cherish.

In this day and age, I also relish the opportunity to expose bits and pieces of culture from the places I’ve visited and later write about. People have a lot of different ideas when they think of countries they’ve seen in the news like Kuwait, countries they often know very little about like Madagascar, or even places they may have seen a lot in TV or movies like Paris or New York. My parents gave me the travel bug when I was little, and I’ve taken it to a whole new level, having now visited 55 countries and counting. Certainly, a ton is different between each of these places, but at a human level, it’s more incredible how much is the same. I love being able to show that to my readers when I take them somewhere new, or to expose some endearing detail of a place or culture they might not have expected. Putting that into a mystery or an adventure just adds to it, they get to have as much fun reading it as I do writing when they go along for the ride.

That’s enough about me and why I write spy fiction. If you’re a reader in this space, I’d love to hear from you. What draws you to it? What keeps you coming back?