Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Staying on Target--a visit from Donna Andrews

RHYS: Even people who don't like puns have to admit that Donna Andrews comes up with THE best titles for her Meg Langslow mysteries. My favorite so far: We'll Always Have Parrots. Brilliant. And who could not love her zany characters, especially Meg's family members who get her into ridiculous situations. Donna has won many awards including the Lefty for best humorous mystery several times. She's the queen of chuckle. So I'm delighted to have here as our guest today on Jungle Reds, celebrating the publication of her latest book Some Like it Hawk (which happens to go along with our theme this week!)

Most mystery readers are picky about accuracy.  We mystery writers ought to know that, because we almost all start out as mystery readers.  And if we forget about accuracy along the way, our readers aren't shy.  If you know it and we blow it, you tell us. Sternly.

And the four things we hear about the most if we get them wrong: guns, cars, computers, and one-way streets.

Actually, not just guns but any weapon or combat technique; not just cars but any vehicle from a skateboard to a space shuttle; computers means all technology, especially forensics; and it's not just one way
streets but any local geography, history, or customs.  But guns, cars, computers, and one-way streets sounds snappier and is easier to remember.

I try to avoid the one-way street problem by setting much of the action in my Meg Langslow mysteries in my imaginary town of Caerphilly, Virginia.  (And yes, it is imaginary; and would you believe that after
I'd already used it in a book, I realized I wasn't sure I was pronouncing it correctly? According to Rhys Bowen, who is my guru for all things Welsh, it's car-FILL-ee.)  (note from Rhys--actually Donna it's care-fill-ee but please continue)

But to get the guns, cars, and computers right, I have to do research.

In the interest of research, I've gone caving, been pelted with paintballs, played Extreme Croquet, ridden roller coasters, studied Kenpo, and visited a llama farm. But I'm always looking for chances to
learn about something that either is already appearing in one of my ooks or could inspire a plot twist.

Which is how I found myself yawning as I stood outside a Maryland gun range on Sunday morning with fifteen other people--members of the Chessie Chapter of Sisters in Crime or their spouses or friends.  We'd
made arrangements for a private session so some of our members who had little or no experience with firearms could get some of that all-important hands-on knowledge we need for our books.

At ten o'clock, our instructor opened the doors and we all filed in, looking at what was, for most, a strange new world, filled with weapons, ammo, military-looking gear, and taxidermied animal heads.  I took the
course Virginia requires you to pass to become a private investigator at a training school that shared space with a Virginia gun range, so I wasn't surprised by the ambiance, but I could see some of my colleagues
taking mental notes and quick snapshots with their cell phones.

I wish I'd had my own iPhone at the ready a little later, when the instructor asked how many of us had never used a gun before. The look on his face when he realized that he had a dozen or so complete beginners
was indescribable. For a moment, I suspect he contemplated queueing up the safety video we'd just watched for a second viewing to cover up his own escape out the back door. And it was worse than he thought--since my experience with firearms has been limited to expeditions like this, I probably should have raised my hand, too, but I didn't want to demoralize him any further.

It was about then that I realized why I'd been in a slightly serious mood all morning.  What we were doing was just a little dangerous. Almost all of us were either complete beginners or had very limited
experience with firearms--that was why we signed up for this outing. The one member who brought her own gun confessed that she was woefully out of practice and needed a little refresher course. If one of our band
of beginners was either overconfident or so nervous that he or she forgot some of the basic safety routines the instructor was trying to drill into our heads, Bad Things Could Happen.

Luckily, they didn't.

One of our members got a slight burn when a spent cartridge went down er blouse.  I felt one bounce off my head, but it doesn't seem to have done any damage.  A few people found the experience of holding and
shooting a gun so unnerving that they didn't use up their allocated number of bullets.  I couldn't figure out a graceful way of asking if I could have their unwanted extras, so I contented myself with the
fourteen that were doled out to me. And I was reasonably pleased with my results.  My target has fourteen holes in it. Not that I'm planning on taking up competitive target shooting, but if I'm going to do something,
I like to do a good job of it.

I brought my target home, and I'm thinking of posting it in my office, in a place where it can be easily seen by anyone peering in through the sliding glass doors.  I imagine a burglar peering in: "Oooh . . .
computers.  Printers. TV. And--wait a sec--look at that target.  She's no sharpshooter, but . . . maybe I'll go next door."  (Sorry, neighbors.)

I'm under no illusions that my few expeditions to gun ranges make me a firearms expert. Fortunately, since I'm writing an amateur sleuth, I don’t have to be.  It's unlikely that Meg Langslow, my protagonist, will
be going out shopping for a gun.  She's had them pointed at her often enough over the years, but so far she's been able to take them away from the villains using her wits, her guts, and the occasional blunt weapon.

But the next time I have to write a scene in which Meg sees a gun, or hears a shot, or smells gunpowder, I'm a little more ready.

Luckily I didn't have to do too much strenuous research for Some Like It Hawk, which came out this summer--unless you count that caving, which I'd already done.  And The Hen of the Baskervilles, scheduled for 2013,required only multiple visits to the Virginia State Fair and any other
fairs I could find.  But as soon as I turn in The Hen of the Baskervilles, I will be starting on another Christmas mystery, Duck the Halls, and I need to find a not-too-painful way of doing a bit of
research for that: I need to smell a skunk.  Not faintly in the distance; I want to get really up close and personal with an annoyed skunk.  Just for a little while, and then I want to leave. Without
getting sprayed.  I want to experience it, not live with it for days. Any ideas?

RHYS: Thanks you, Donna. And Donna will be giving away a copy of SOME LIKE IT HAWK  to the wittiest or funniest comment of the day.


  1. Donna, you are too funny! DUCK THE HALLs is priceless.

    WHO thinks of your titles? Are there any famous rejects? Anything you've wanted to use but can't?

    And! WINNER! of Avery Aames Clobbered by Camembert no that we're talking cheese) is LESLIE BUDEWITZ! LEslie, contact me h ryan at whdh dot com for your copy!

  2. Such a fun post Donna--and welcome to JRW! Our New England chapter of Sisters in Crime had a gun outing a number of years ago. I was not a good student I'm afraid--I still have the photo of Dana Cameron and me and one other sister--I'm holding my rifle like a bunch of gladiolas. But the worst was skeet shooting where the instructor yelled at me for closing my eyes when I shot. It was all great experience even though Hayley would never shoot a gun. As far as I know....

  3. I remember that day, Lucy! Lynne Heitman was the only one who really looked like she knew she was holding a gun. What I remember was when a wild turkey wandered into the range after we'd been shooting at the target for about 5 minutes.

    Donna, have you put any wild turkeys in your books? Seems like they're turning up everywhere, and they're brazen creatures, though not too bright.

  4. Hank, I usually think of my titles. But I'm opening it up to my readers by holding an ongoing contest on my website. If you come up with a title that I like and my publisher approves, you win a free, signed copy of that book, assuming I can still track you down. And Some Like It Hawk is the first winner of that contest--Sarah Smith of Reno, Nevada suggested it.

    Although both The Hen of the Baskervilles and Duck the Halls are, again, my creations. I had to retitle The Hen of the Baskervilles--I was going to call it The Bantam Menace, but the marketing folks weren't crazy about the idea.

  5. Donna, I love the titles as well. I can always count on you for a smile at the bookstore! I'm personally waiting for the one with "Starlings" in the title! At our condo, they woke me up early on the weekends -- and I used the time to write.

    Hallie, my Wild Turkey comes in a bottle and can make me rather brazen :)

  6. Lucy, never say never. If she had to take a gun away from a bad guy and he headed toward her with murder in his eyes? Or toward someone she loves?

    Hallie, I have thought of turkeys. I might someday use wild turkeys or, worse, feral turkeys, which have become a menace in some areas of Virginia. Domestic turkeys that have gotten loose and bred not in the wild, but in suburbia, where thanks to dog leash laws and a woeful shortage of wolves they have no natural predators. They're not as fat as domestic turkeys, and they've regained the ability to flutter up into backyard trees, from which their copious and pungent droppings rain down on the unfortunate suburbanites who live below. Doesn't that sound like something out of one of my books?

  7. Donna,

    I remember Jim Born (an agent with the FDLE) complaining that the thing we all get wrong it the "smell of cordite." Evidently, cordite hasn't been used in making cartridges in decades.
    However, another cop-writer - maybe Lee Lofland? - admitted that even if the phrase is inaccurate, it conveys a vivid image in almost every reader's mind. So he said we could let it stand.

    PS Also? Feral turkeys sound like something out of my worst nightmare. One more reason I'm grateful I left the D.C. suburbs for Maine lo these many years ago.

  8. LOVE Bantam Menace. Someday. And there's gotta be something with Robin.

    WINNERS! of The Bookie's Son via Andrew GOldstein:

    "This was the only part of this experience that I didn't enjoy…too hard to pick 3 winners, there were so many good ones. I think on another day I might have picked three different entries but today I picked Ramona, Darlene Ryan, and Marianne in Maine. I also decided to give away another book to Skipper Hammond for Team Losing It. Please let the other commenters know that the competition was extremely close and that I greatly enjoyed the exchange."

    SO..congratulations Ramona, Darlene, M in M and Skipper Hammond,, email me via h ryan @ whdh dot com.

  9. Giblets of Fire?

    What can I say, no matter what the topic, I think FOOD.

  10. Yay, Donna's visiting! One of my favorites!

    Welcome! I used your books to turn my husband on to mysteries. He's a theater person (Ph.D.), though he works in academic publishing, and he knows how difficult it is to write really good comedy. And as a pun aficionado, he's nuts about your titles.

    I, on the other hand, have no chance at winning this book, because I am not a funny writer. I admire well-written comedy also. Unfortunately, I just can't write comedy worth anything. Maybe a little snark or sarcasm for a character but that's it. Tell those of us who are less gifted (or just plain gift-less) at writing humor the secret, please.

    Can't wait for Some Like It Hawk, though Ben will steal it to read first.

  11. Hi Donna! Welcome to Jungle Red!!! Some Like it Hawk. Tee hee hee. And The Hen of the Baskervilles is priceless. Well, let's hope not priceless in the bookstores, but you know what I mean...

    Research...Lucky for me my cops don't carry guns. They do sometimes have to deal with them, however, but my hubby is a former cop, and I have reader/friend who is a lieutenant in a local force and knows EVERYTHING, so he vets my manuscripts for me.

    One way streets? I hate them. In the book I just finished, The Sound of Broken Glass, I had my characters driving the wrong way in a one way system. Fortunately, a friend who lives in the are corrected me before anyone else saw the boo boo. It's always something.

  12. I just found these books last week! How exciting to have the author here at JRW. Love it.

    How about "Crow for the Gold" Olympics themed and reminiscent of the horrible birds in my yard. I can't think how to put racoons in a title. (The other horrible thing in my yard.)

    Yay! I won "The Bookie's Son!" I'm so excited. Thank you!

  13. Hi Donna -

    How did you come up with name Caerphilly? My story also takes place in an imaginary Virginia town, pulled from several Virginia towns I've encountered, but I haven't yet thought about naming it!

  14. Giblets of Fire??? No, Donna, no, step away from the title...

  15. RTFL! I think The Bantam Menace and Giblets of Fire are brilliant titles.

    Donna, love the way your books have openings that are remarkably funny and compelling. My favorite opening is The Penguin Who Knew Too Much. :)

    I can hardly wait to read The Hen of the Baskervilles and Duck the Halls. If only you could write 'em as fast as we read 'em.

    Cathy AJ

  16. Love the titles . . . I think "Giblets of Fire" is great! All I can think of is "Fair Weather Fowl" and "When The Chirps Are Down."

  17. Donna, if you go hang around an off-ramp you'll probably find a skunk carcass you could...err...sniff for realism. You don't want to get any closer. When I was a teenager the boys next door got sprayed. They had an odour for weeks although a concoction of peroxide, baking soda and Sunlight dish detergent helped a lot. Should you get too close to the afore-mentioned carcass, don't leave the peroxide/soda/Sunlight mix on your hair too long or you could end up looking like a skunk instead of smelling like one.

  18. The Bantam Menace is brilliant, but I can well imagine St. Martin's not wanting to go there. ...

    But if you want to come out here and shoot wild turkeys, be my guest. Because they're my pest. :)

  19. Welcome, Donna:

    It's always a happy day for me when I hear that you have a new book out. Your titles long ago endeared you to me, not to mention Meg's crazy family!

    About problems with one-way streets: I used to work in the downtown area of a big city. Mid-morning one day, a one-way street near our office was changed to one-way going in the opposite direction. ALL the cars that were parked on the street that day received tickets for parking on the wrong side of a one-way street! For some reason, I can see a relative of Meg's, perhaps Rob, receiving one of these tickets and fighting it!

  20. Hi Donna, I won't win the book. I've been trying to think of something funny to say all day. That is definitely not funny. So there you are. I'll just have to be normal and buy the book.

  21. How about:
    Bye Bye Birdy
    Endless Dove
    Dove Story
    Happy Go Ducky
    Just my Duck

    Ok I'll be quiet now! :)

  22. I like your books and all the bird titles.

    Bird's Well That Ends Well

    Can't think of any other funny ones.

  23. Thank you, everyone, for the title suggestions, and I hope you don't mind if I add them to the list on my website, so you will get credit if I ever end up using one.

    Good advice on the skunks, although in the DC area, where people get a little hyper about security sometimes, I could get into a whole 'nother kind of trouble lurking near on-ramps.