Friday, March 14, 2014

How to Build a Mystery Writer--Miranda (aka Dean) James

DEBORAH CROMBIE: One of the best things about being a mystery writer is the wonderful people you meet in the this astonishingly generous community (astonishingly because I don't know of another group of writers--and readers--who are so supportive of one another's work and success--and Dean James was one of the first friends I made as published mystery writer. I've been lucky to call him a friend in the years since, and I am now a huge fan as well.

I adore the series Dean writes as Miranda James, featuring Charlie Harris, a librarian in a small southern town, and his Maine Coon cat, Diesel. In THE SILENCE IN THE LIBRARY, the fifth book in the Cat in the Stacks series, when Electra Barnes Cartwright, centenarian and the reclusive author of a beloved juvenile mystery series, agrees to appear at the Athena Public Library, book collectors come out of the woodwork to meet her. The last thing Charlie Harris and his Maine Coon companion Diesel expect is to find themselves in the middle of another murder investigation.

Here's reviewer Lesa Holstine on why we love these books: "As intriguing as the mystery is, it's still James' characters that bring readers back. Who can resist Charlie Harris, a kind, Southern gentleman, a family man who loves his adult children, his boarders, and his friends? And, as much as we love Charlie, it's even harder to resist Diesel, the Maine Coon cat who warbles and chirps his way into hearts while keeping his eye out for killers. Charlie and Diesel are in fine form in The Silence of the Library as they find their way through the maze of crazed book collectors."

And here's Dean on why he started down the road to (fictional) murder:

DEAN JAMESThe summer I was eight my father took me to the public library in Grenada,
Mississippi, where I got my first library card. I still remember the first book I checked out, a juvenile biography of Abraham Lincoln. Decades later, I have no idea why I chose that book among the hundreds of others in the children’s section at the Elizabeth Jones Library. I do remember that, after my first visit, I worked my way through the many juvenile biographies on the shelves. I also strayed away from non-fiction with titles like Miss Minerva and William Green Hill by Frances Boyd Calhoun (I had to look up the author because I had no memory of who wrote it). I also vaguely remember a character named “Danny Dunn” – according to Wikipedia, the main character in a series of science fiction/adventure books. Somewhere in there I also discovered Edith Hamilton and her books on Greek and Roman mythology. Again, I have no idea what attracted me to these books, but I do know that I found them fascinating.

Looking back I can see that most of this early reading eventually led me to major in history in college and even to go on to graduate school and an eventual Ph.D. in medieval history. I don’t recall reading anything about the Middle Ages in my younger years, but as a teenager I read Anya Seton’s Green Darkness and Katherine and Roberta Gellis’ Bond of Blood. Those books ignited my interest in medieval England and an important part of my life.

Around the age of ten I also discovered mysteries, in the form of Nancy Drew. My cousin Terry had a few of the books, and during a summer visit I picked up The Secret of Shadow Ranch. I was immediately hooked on mysteries, and along with other reading I sought out as many of the juvenile mysteries as I could find. There were many: Trixie Belden, the Hardy Boys, the Dana Girls, Cherry Ames, Ken Holt, Rick Brant, the Three Investigators, and Judy Bolton, among others. 

Later on I graduated to more adult fare, with the romantic suspense novels of Victoria Holt and Phyllis A. Whitney. The 1960s and 1970s were the heyday of the so-called “Gothic” novel, and I read every one the library had, by writers like Mary Stewart, Velda Johnston, Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels, Anne Maybury, Jane Aiken Hodge, and the inimitable Madeleine Brent, who turned out to be Peter O’Donnell, creator of Modesty Blaise. As an adult I discovered more traditional mystery writers, like Agatha Christie and Sue Grafton. I read more and more and in the past forty years, I estimate that I must have read more than four thousand mysteries.

When aspiring fiction writers ask for advice, the first thing I tell them is Read. Read and read and read. Good books and bad ones. Then analyze what makes the good ones good and the bad ones bad. Particularly if you’re interested in writing genre fiction, you need to know the history of the genre, how it developed, and what came before. Learn who the towering figures are, read them, and learn from them. There are good reasons that Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Dashiell Hammett, Georges Simenon, and Raymond Chandler are still in print. After you’ve sampled the giants, move on to their successors. Crime fiction has a long and distinguished history, and you can only benefit from knowing it.

DEBS: I read so many of the same books! (Although Dean seems to have missed out on the "horsey mysteries"--was anyone else addicted to the Walter Farley Black Stallion series?) And even though I doubt we were consciously analyzing what made these books work when we were eight or ten, I'm sure they influenced us as adult writers.

Readers, do you remember your first library book?

Dean will be giving away a signed copy of THE SILENCE IN THE LIBRARY, so tell us and get your name in the hat!

Dean (aka Miranda) James is the New York Times and USA Today
best-selling author of the "Cat in the Stacks" series. A librarian and
bookseller, Dean lives with two cats, Pippa and Toby, and thousands of books
in Houston, Texas.


  1. I was in the library weekly as a kid, and always had more books checked out than I could possibly read. Not much has changed since I buy more than I can read these days.

    In fact, we were checking out picture books when I was young enough. I remember loving Nate the Great as a kid, a series of picture books I say led me to mysteries as an older kid and adult.

    But no, I can't remember for sure what the first book I ever checked out was. I'm impressed with Dean's memory.

  2. Oh, the library . . . definitely a wonderful place. I could happily have lived there!
    The first book I remember checking out of the library was one of the Lucky Starr stories written by Paul French [a pseudonym for Isaac Asimov]. And then I read every science fiction book in the library . . . . I still enjoy well-written science fiction.
    Interestingly enough, I discovered mysteries when I happened onto a copy of Isaac Asimov's "The Caves of Steel" . . . .

  3. Libraries were a big part of my reading experience growing up. I am an only child and was expected to keep myself occupied. We couldn't afford to buy books.

    Can't remember my first library book but one book I do remember checking out multiple times early on is "Little House on The Prairie" by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

    Also several Encyclopedia Brown and Nancy Drews, so I started on my mystery fixation early on!

  4. I don't remember my first library book, but I do remember my first mystery series, which I checked out of the library. I broke my collar bone when I was in kindergarten and I remember spending days on the sofa with The Secret Seven books by Enid Blyton. By second grade I discovered Trixie Belden, and that is still my favorite juvenile series. I have a substantial collection and still pull them out to read occasionally.

  5. I don't remember the first book I checked out, but I do remember blazing through all of the Encyclopedia Brown and Great Brain books. There was also a "modern" version of Nancy Drew mysteries out when I was growing up, "The Nancy Drew Case Files," and I checked those out by the stack.

    Thanks for stirring up some great memories!

  6. A block from my grandparents' house, the "Sewer Socialist" government of Milwaukee had built a natatorium that shared a wall with a small neighborhood public library-- a prime example of their "mens sana in corpore sano" contribution to the lives of the city's immigrants. I swam at the natatorium with my grandmother whenever I'd stay over at her house-- and I got my first library card at that library before I could actually read.

    I got another card at the West Bend public library because we spent our summers at a lake nearby. That was in the days before the Salk vaccine, and one of the rules for avoiding polio was "Don't play with strange children," a way of boosting our herd immunity. I was three years older than my middle sister, and all the other cousins and family friends who spent their summers out there with us were younger still, and we all-- imported from the city as we had been-- were the "strange children" the local kids were told to avoid.

    So I read. All those biographies (there was one of Lucretia Mott and another of Frances Willard, my first subtle introduction to feminism). All the animal books ("Lad, A Dog" and "Beautiful Joe"). And then the westerns-- the entire set of Zane Greys-- and the science fiction shelf, where I read from Asimov and Bradbury to Zelazny. I read when I wasn't swimming in the lake, or lying crosswise in the coarse cloth hammock, looking up at the blue sky peeking through the leaves as I let my hair drag through the clay dust beneath me, sweeping away the footprints I had left.

    We went into town about twice a week, and those trips included visits to the wood-floored A&P, the local bakery, and of course, the library, where a slow-moving ceiling fan stirred dust motes in the hot summer air, and where I could return the last stack of books and retrieve at least half a dozen more, enough to last until the next trip into town.

    Books were my friends. I wanted nothing but to read them, and someday to join the company of those who wrote them. I couldn't figure out how to do that, so I picked up a law degree by default; my first book wasn't published until I was nearly forty. My first hardcover was published seven years after that. I took the dust jacket off of it and stared at the cloth binding almost as long as I'd stared at those leaves above the hammock. A REAL book, like the ones I'd checked out of those libraries as a child, from one of those publishers whose names I had seen on the books of my childhood. That it won a prize was only icing on the cake. Mine might have been a dream deferred, but it was one that was finally realized.

  7. Welcome Marianda James (aka Dean)! We read a lot of the same books as kids — and your series look wonderful. I love libraries and cats, so I know I'll love your books.

  8. Also — Mark, you beat Joan to the first comment this morning! My world is upended!

  9. Ah, Nancy Drew. One summer I decided I was going to write my own Nancy Drew like story. (I was around 10) After all, how hard could it be, right?
    Ha! I think I got about two sentences on my yellow pad and it never went any further. I'm happy reading the marvelous things all of you write, instead.
    Now I paint.

  10. I can't remember what the first library book was, but I know I developed a life-long love of the library very early. There was the school library and the local library right across the street - and in summer the bookmobile! Everything appealed to me, still does which is probably why I'll never catch up.

    Had almost forgotten Victoria Holt and Phyllis A. Whitney.

    And love the Cat in the Stacks series - more books with mystery thrown in, what could be better?

  11. I grew up in a home filled with books so I have no idea what my first library book was. I do have wonderful memories of spending a lot of time at the library, which was a Duluth MN Carnegie library built in 1912 and now - sadly - demolished.

  12. Second grade, first library card. The library was cattycorner from my Catholic elementary school, but the school also had a wonderful library, and I got to access the books there, too.

    Don't remember the first book I ever checked out, but I did go through all the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, and Hardy Boys books the school library had.

    The cover of the Nancy Drew book makes me worry for poor Nancy. She's definitely going off that horse. Heels down, girl!

  13. As a french canadian, I read french written books when I was young and I don't remember titles and authors . Your memories fascinate me.
    As a young adult, my first love was historical romances bought in second hand library : a lot more choices in english brought me to read in your langage. I read a few of Victoria Holt. With Robert B.Parker and Sue Grafton , I discoverd mysteries.
    As a retiring project (in a couple of years now ) I want to write and to prepare myself as well as to enjoy myself I read a lot. It is a good thing to be a library member as I could not afford to buy every book I read but as the choice is limited, I get to buy a fairly amount too. What is important for me now is to read a book in his written langage, not a translation.
    Your book has everything to attract me.

  14. Hi Dean--thanks for looking after me in Houston last week!
    We liked so many of the same books and I was a huge Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt fan in my late teens. I wish there were more like them today.
    And I also remember the first time I was allowed in the adult library but didn't know what to look for among all those shelves... so I gravitated to mystery.
    Long live the Coon Cat!

  15. Dean, I am a huge fan of yours! Great to see you here today!

    I don't remember my first library book; I just remember always going to the library. Kids were allowed to borrow up to four books at a time. I'd read all four as soon as I got home! I mostly went to the bookmobile when it came to my neighborhood. One time I borrowed, and read, four books from the bookmobile. I had the opportunity to go to the main library after school the next day, so I took the books back so I could borrow some more. The employee who checked the books in said "you just borrowed these yesterday. Why didn't you read them?" She was shocked when I told her that I read all of them right after I got home the day before!

    The first mysteries I read were Nancy Drew books. I believe I owned every Nancy Drew book ever written. (For birthdays and Christmas I always requested Nancy Drew books. Later on, I read most of the other mysteries that Dean and others mentioned reading as youngsters.) I read the Drew and other mysteries to pieces, lent them to a friend, re-read them, etc.

  16. It feels like I've been reading since I was born, so I really don't remember the name of my first library book. But I've loved mysteries all my life, starting with Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Cherry Ames,and all the Walter Farley books, then moving on to the gothic. I absolutely loved all Anya Seton's books, Mary Stewart, Phyllis Whitney. Then I got hooked on Regency novels through the great Georgette Heyer.

    As an adult, I started reading Roberta Gellis (loved all her books), Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham,and Dick Francis. I love historical novels (especially medieval and late middle ages).

    One day in the early 80's I went into the library and picked up the first Richard Sharpe book by Bernard Cornwell and was hooked for life. I always peruse the "New Books" section at the library. That's where I found Rhys!

    I could go on and on. The bottom line is: I just love books!

  17. Yes, Mark, you beat Joan this morning! Insomnia?? Or did Joan sleep in?

    Ellen, thank you for the lovely memory. That was "good read" to start the day.

    And Joan, I read the Issac Asimov's, too. And Bradbury, and Zelazny, and Andre Norton... Does anyone else remember the E.E. Doc Smith series?

  18. I hope this isn't a double-post, I tried on my phone first. I loved reading as a kid (wish I had the same time now to read) and although I can't remember that far back it would of had to been a Nancy Drew Mystery book, I had to have read them all. Mysteries are my favorite type of book to read.

  19. The Adriance Memorial Library in Poughkeepsie, NY is where I got my first library card. I remember working my way through all of the "orange" biographies -- first the females and then the men. I also read Nancy Drew and any book I could find on "children in foreign lands" (especially books with pictures of great native costumes).

    I so remember the walk to the side door, to the Children's Section, and exactly how the room was laid out. I could tell you which wall held the biographies!

    I wanted to get old enough to walk up the front steps to the main library, but we moved when I was ten.

    Then I made my way to the Elting Memorial Library, in New Paltz, NY.

    Love libraries!

  20. I can't remember my first book--but my first mystery was Nancy Drew's "The Secret of the Old Clock." Hooked from that moment. Loved all the Walter Farley books. And Dean, we certainly shared many of the same tastes--loved anything by Mary Stewart, Madeleine Brent (who knew??), Joan Aiken Hodge, Victoria Holt, etc. Science fiction, biographies,anything in any section of the library--we were never restricted by age at the local library. And yes, Deborah, I still have a copy of EE Smith's "The Spacehounds of IPC" on my shelf. Great memories today!

  21. Welcome, Dean!

    My fist library book is lost in the mists of time, but I remember taking out the book that made me a science fiction fan.

    The Argyle Free Library didn't have a large section of what we'd now call Young Adult books back in 1975. To be fair, I doubt many libraries did - after consuming everything in the kids' section, most of us precocious readers were steered toward classics in those days: SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON, DRACULA, KIDNAPPED, etc. I read all of those (and THE SCARLET LETTER, under the erroneous impression that it was racy.)

    Then what? Fortunately, someone had donated an entire collection of Robert Heinlein's "juveniles." One of the volunteer librarians handed me a copy of STARSHIP TROOPERS and my love affair with science fiction was born.

    PS - Dean, you have got to persuade the good folks at Berkley to put an actual Maine Coon Cat on the cover of the Cat in the Stacks series!

  22. I suspect my first library book was WAIT UNTIL THE MOON IS FULL by Margaret Wise Brown, a favorite even now.

    Our small-town library had all kinds of great things. Like you, Dean, I zipped through every Gothic I could find. They still have a special place in my heart, and I'm tickled to see a growing reinterest in Mary Stewart.

    By the way, I've had several people here at Seattle Mystery Bookshop ask if you'll be doing more in your vampire series; they're sorely missed!

    Libraries are fabulous resources!

  23. Welcome, Dean! So much fun to see you here again. I can't remember my first library book, though most of the books that people have been mentioning were among mine as a kid. It might have been Caddy Woodlawn.

    Yes, Debs, E.E. Smith and tons of other sf/fantasy novels and My Friend Flicka, Misty of Chincoteague, and the other horsey books. And Albert Payson Terhune's dog books. What fun to remember all of this!

  24. Welcome Dean and congratulations! I love the titles of your novels. How did you come up with the titles?

    I remember going to the library near my after school day care. The library seemed custom made for little kids. They had little kids' chairs and low tables for kids. I cannot remember the books I checked out when I was very little. I think they had to be picture books.

    My grandfather gave me a subscription to the Nancy Drew book club as a birthday gift one year and I still have the books.

    I started reading Agatha Christie when I was 12 and it was a challenge for a kid. I pushed myself to read the book and finish it despite having NO pictures nor illustrations inside.

    I read Dana Girls,. Susan Sand mysteries, among other mysteries. I also read Victoria Holt. She also wrote biographies of different historical figures under the name Jean Plaidy and I used these books to supplement my dry history books for my major at university.

    Look forward to reading Cat in the Stacks mysteries.


  25. You had me at "librarian is a small southern town." Whether I win the copy or not, I am adding this mystery series to my much loved series reading list.

    I was as giddy as any reader whose books they cut their reading teeth on could be to find books in common with you, Dean. Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden were my first mystery series loves, and Mistress of Mellyn has a special place in my reading history. It was a book that my mother had on the shelf, think it was maybe a book club choice or the like. As a young girl, having absorbed much of the Nancy Drew series, the title and even the author Victoria Holt's name intrigued me. It was my first step into more adult mysteries, too. Agatha Christie followed, and my love for mysteries was solidified.

    My hometown library and elementary school library were both essential elements of the formation of who I am. While I don't remember the first book I checked out, I do remember when I started browsing in the adult section and I thought I was quite the bold, bad kid looking at the crime thrillers and their scandalous covers and titles. Of course, today they would be the mild covers.

    I do remember the first books that were given to me from someone outside of my immediate family. The lady who was like my grandmother (all grandparents were dead when I was born) gave me a picture book version of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and my first chapter book, The Little Colonel by Annie Fellows Johnston. I still have them.

    I was in a Target store yesterday, and as with any store with a book section, I was browsing their selection. I came across the Nancy Drew series in a special edition for Target, and I couldn't resist picking up a couple of them. My youngest granddaughter, who is four, may want to read them, as well as the couple of older ones I still have, and if she doesn't want to read them when she gets a bit older, I'll be glad to read them myself.

  26. Deb:
    No insomnia, no sleeping in . . . I was finishing some work on the bulletin for Sunday’s service and my computer crashed. Unfortunately, it took me a quite a while to get it back online . . . .
    The time change has made me crazy, though . . . the comments page says my comment was posted at 1:19 am but it was actually 2:19 when I posted it. I don’t know what causes this hour disparity [which will last until the time changes in back in November] but it is extremely frustrating . . . .

    And E. E Doc Smith . . . “Skylark of Space” . . . I loved it; read every book in the series . . . .
    I really liked Bradbury, too . . . I had the opportunity to meet him many years ago when we were living in California; got a book signed, too!

  27. My first library book--what a fabulous question! NOt counting those blue biographies--Dorothea Dix, girl of the Streets (or something) Thomas Edison, Boy Inventor--I bet it was---gosh, no idea. Misty of Chincoteague?

    Mushroon Planet? Black Beauty?

    HI dear Dean! xoxoxo

  28. I couldn't possibly remember my first checked-out-myself library book. Mom took my older brother and me to the Toronto Public Library (Beaches branch) for puppet shows and story hour and books. The first books she got for me were Millions of Cats and The Little House and Papa Small and Ping and Blueberries for Sal, and on and on. And one I can't place the title of (also Wanda Gag, perhaps?)with pictures of a girl and some geese and a music box. And of course Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel.

    Anyway, when I could choose my own books, I was heavily into many of the same books as Dean (well, is that a surprise, since we're all fans of JRW?)

    Trixie rules!

  29. I don't remember my first library book, either, but I remember that the first book I bought with my own money was a blue-covered copy of the original of Nancy Drew's "The Secret of the Old Clock" for $.10 at a rummage sale. I still have it, along with my other Nancy Drews, the only girl I ever really loved...

  30. Dean, those biographies were my favorites as well. I used to spend hours with them in the school library. The youngest children weren't allowed to check books out, but I was very happy there in my quiet corner.

  31. Welcome Dean and Miranda--so pleased about your success!

    My first library CARD was in the Berkely Heights NJ library--many happy hours spent there!

    Hank--the Mushroom Planet--loved those books. And how about THE BORROWERS?

    Beverly--love your comment: I feel like I was born reading.... me too!

  32. Julia, Heinlein, yay!!! I read every single one. Multiple times.

  33. And big apologies to Dean for getting the title of the book wrong... blame travel and dyslexia.

    Silence OF the Library!!!

  34. My first, at the age of 5, was an adult-section book about the building of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris (filled, of course, with gorgeous etchings). The librarian was suspicious until I read her the first paragraph, then harrumphed and put it on my mom's library card. The next time we went to the library, there was an envelope marked Top Secret at the desk for me. It contained my first (non-age-restricted) library card.

  35. we were able to get our first library card at 3yrs old and could take 1 book a week - increased to 2 books at 5yrs or 6yrs

    My Daddy took us to library every Saturday and we were taught to respect books as we did anything else, especially that did not belong to us

    My first book

    "Three Little Kittens, They Lost Their Mittens"

    Loved that book

    Our library was in an old house that had a "u" shaped small sunroom and that was the childrens's still there many, many years later ;)

  36. Mother took us to the library every Saturday afternoon. We lived in St. Joseph, Missouri. The poet, Eugene Field, had spent some time in our town and later wrote a poem called "Lover's Lane, St. Joe". In his honor, the library had a statue of "Little Boy Blue" from another one of his poems, right by the stairs that lead down to the children's section. The story of the little boy who disappeared and left his toys waiting for him was very scary to me as a child. So, my first mystery, which was never solved by the way, was what had happened to that little boy?

    The first book I remember checking out was "Millions of Cats". I later bought a copy for my boys and will get one for my granddaughter soon.

  37. I'm on the west coast, so these posts are often up an hour or so before I got to bed as it is. I just never check in early enough to beat Joan, apparently.

    But now maybe it needs to be my mission. Got to upset the natural order of things every so often. :)

  38. Have Spacesuit Will Travel by Heinlein and Five Boys in a Cave. Read 5 boys every year from 3rd-6th grades! 5 boys author was Richard Church. I'm sure I read ton of the golden classic picture books before that! :)