Saturday, September 27, 2014

Some like it hot! Deborah Coonts talks about mixing sex and murder

HALLIE EPHRON: Today our special guest is Deborah Coonts, a very funny writer who goes where I, for one, don't dare. She mixes romance and mystery. SEX and mystery. Oh yeah, and humor. And, as she says, tongue firmly planted in cheek: "After fifteen years learning the craft of writing, I am now officially, an overnight success."

Book 5 in her Lucky series of funny, heart-felt mysteries, LUCKY CATCH, came out in August. (The series first, WANNA GET LUCKY? was a NY Times Notable Crime Novel for 2010 and a RITA finalist.)

And yes, she has definite opinions about sex and mystery. I'll let her tell you. In my opinion, she makes some seriously good writing sense...

DEBORAH COONTS: Sex and murder. Ugly little bedfellows.

They do sort of go hand-in-hand, though, don’t they? Especially when you’re talking about a motive for murder. Heck, I’ve been spending time in Texas where the trial of a woman who ran her husband down, then backed up and did it again… and again…and again… made titillating headlines for weeks.

Love and hate, such a fine line.

But what about love and sex, not as a motive for murder but as part of the story?

I’ve found folks have pretty strong opinions about that. Some think that love and sex just sully a great mystery, diluting it. Others, such as myself, think a story is a slice of life, tugging at common human threads to pull us in. And what’s life without love? And where there is love, there is sex. But what is the right balance of between the sheets time and between the ears time?

Now, I’m here to give you a definitive answer. Wait for it...

It depends.
I know, sort of a cop out, but it’s really true. The story dictates the balance.

Technically my stories are romantic mysteries. I know that’s not a “real” genre, but to readers it is. And this means that, while the mystery is the main plot thread, the romance better be pretty darn important. And my setting, Las Vegas, also plays a part in reader’s expectations.

If Vegas is about anything it’s about sex. Gratuitous sex.

But, in a story, nothing can be gratuitous
—every scene, every word, every…. dalliance, must serve the story. It must either advance the plot or develop character.

In the first book, WANNA GET LUCKY, the romance was integral in showing my protagonist’s growing ability to learn to trust, to open her heart. Having been raised in a whorehouse, her mother the madam, her father unknown, trust was a big issue for her.

The key here was to advance the romance without taking from the mystery. I remember reading a romantic suspense story a while back and, while being chased by the bad guys, the police and just about everyone else, the hero and heroine pause to have a romantic interlude. I read that section twice, then I stopped reading. Yep, I was done. Fatal storytelling flaw. I don’t know about you, but if the entire Universe is armed and after my blood, I’m really not thinking
about sex, nor would I be in the mood if propositioned. And I wouldn’t care if it Tom Selleck, Colin Firth, or Robert Downey, Jr. was doing the asking. But, hey, that just might be one of my weird little peccadillos.

And this is a really good point. In mysteries, the mystery has to be front and center. The romance must add, supplement, complicate, but it should never overshadow.

The story dictates the balance.

And I’ve discovered that even in writing a series, the balance is fluid. Each story is different, so the amount and importance of relationship stuff is different. In the third book, SO DAMN LUCKY, there was a sex scene that was integral to my protagonist’s
story line, but not to the murder. That scene went toward the end of the book. The danger is over, so the sex was a release, not only for the characters but the story as well. And it was hot. I could do that at that point in the story. Just thinking about that scene now still leaves me blushing. And I cringe to think my son read that one. Of course, he’s grown and married, so sex isn’t a huge surprise. But still….

And in the latest book, LUCKY CATCH, the sex takes a back seat (not literally—but, now that I think about it, that’s an interesting idea) as Lucky is caught in an awkward position: having to clear her current lover’s name and enlisting her former lover’s help. Love—here I used it as a complicating factor. Can Lucky really trust the man she loves, even when the evidence against him starts piling up?

So, as one would suspect, when talking about love and sex and a good balance, nothing is straightforward.

So what’s your take? Do you like some spice in your mysteries or do you like them hard-boiled?

HALLIE: I so admire it, enjoy reading it, so cannot write it. Every time I try to write about sex I end up writing about... oysters. Or brie cheese. Or ripe peaches.

What about the rest of you? Hard-boiled or over easy... or maybe a little of both, please? Today Deborah is giving away an eBook to a lucky commenter.


  1. As far as I'm concerned, a little spice is a good thing, but it's all about balance and relevance to the story being told . . . .

  2. I agree, Joan. I also think there are all kinds of readers out there. Romance and mystery are blockbuster categories, so of course there's crossover appeal.

  3. Well, Russ and Clare. Just saying.

    As long as it's in character, serves the plot or character development, and isn't gratuitous, then go for it.

    And, really, Las Vegas? A character named Lucky? I would've been surprised if there was no sex!

  4. For me life just lacks color without romance. So I have to add it to the stories, where it fits. And Joan, your point is very valid--anything that gods into a story, sex, death, whatever, must serve the story.

  5. Vegas does just beg for something at least a teeny bit naughty now, doesn't it? I grew up in Dallas where, to hear folks tell it, they don't have sex. So, when I moved to Vegas it was culture shock. And I wondered what it would be like for a young woman--yes, Lucky--to be searching for meaningful in a town that is a monument to superficial. So, that's Lucky's personal struggle....or one of them:)

  6. Absolutely--everything else in life has sex. Even plants engage in sex. It's an integral part of life, striving to connect in that most basic way. How can a book that has any basis in reality overlook at least some romance?

    Deb, one think about your book DAMN LUCKY--at least you maybe don't/won't get a disgruntled reader writing to you/leaving a review with his/her hair on fire about "bad language". Ha. Big clue in the title, even for the most dense.

  7. Good point, Karen... which leads me to ask Deborah, how DO you feel about mixing salty language with your murder and romance?

  8. When I wrote my science fiction novels (under contract and in a hurry), I had to comply with what the publisher wanted, which was sex-and-violence. When you might have to give the advance back, you don't ask a lot of questions, you just get it down on paper.

    I found that I could handle writing the violence better than I could handle writing the sex scenes. I think they were too graphic in the first book (although one of my friends pointed out that she liked them because they were from the point of view of the woman, which hadn't occurred to me, but, yes, of course, since my main character and several minor ones were female, as am I.)

    I think I got better by the third book. The scenes became hotter and less graphic at the same time. I think this is a skill one can develop, and alas, a short deadline doesn't always let you develop it as well in the earlier books if they are written in a hurry. (I'm talking about my writing experience here, not anyone else's.)

    Author Jacqueline Lichtenberg says your first novel is your master's thesis in novel writing. If that is so, perhaps each one you write earns you another degree. But I will say this-- the ability to write a good sex scene is a skill to be respected. It is not easy.

  9. Ah, let's see, first salty language. Again, I think the words you choose, the lexicon you use, says something about you as a person, your values, your self-confidence and self-image. It does the same for fictional characters. And again, if I use salty language as a writer, it has to fit the story and the character. Vegas is that kind of place. Middle-american sensibilities are cast to the wind as visitors shrug off their real-life selves. A bit of salt fits in that world and it's appropriate to my character. She is a corporate exec--a gal in a tough world. she sues four letter words but sparingly. So, when se says one, it has power.

  10. Now titles--I chose my titles, Wanna Get Lucky, Lucky Stiff, So Damn Lucky and Lucky Bastard for a reason. First, the made me smile. (A man once to told there was some innuendo in them....really?????) And as a way to let potential readers know these books aren't cozies, and if a bit of naughty offends you, please don't read them. And you know what? I have yet to receive an email regarding my use of four-letter words. So, with the title gambit worked or no one is reading the books:)

  11. SO funny Deb--they have innuendo??? I bet you were so relieved that man was able to explain it all for poor li'l you...)

    The sex thing, the language thing. Sheesh. My sex (in books, okay) is mostly longing and remembering and anticipation. I don't use food, but I do use double entendres. And often, I don't really MEAN to, but then when I think about how they could be interpreted by the other person, well, there it is. All about point of view.

    If I had to write a real sex scene? HA. Let's just say, continuing the spirit of this week's blogs, you are BRAVE.

  12. Hank--I cringed when I wrote my first sex scene. I thought I would get laughed out of writing. And then I knew my sone would read it. And, then.... Well, I counted on my editor to save me. He didn't change a word. I'm still not sure whether that was a good thing or a bad thing:)

  13. For some reason men always want to explain my writing to me as if clever female is an oxymoron....

  14. Hank, you mean you have sex, like REAL sex, like not in books sex???? You can't be from Dallas....

  15. I don't mind (and enjoy when it's done right) sex in mysteries, but I shy away from writing it myself. I think it has something to do with the fact that my parents read my books!

  16. Writing sex scenes is making sex, or your idea of good sex, very public. Totally terrifying, I agree. Even still, I will hem and haw and find all kinds of ways to avoid writing that sex scene. And when I finally I can avoid it no longer, I write with one eye closed....

  17. Men, yes. As Lucky would say, "Men, each one a royal pain in the ass in his own unique way." She's really not THAT cynical, but every now and then....

  18. You said it perfectly. Whatever happens in the story has to fit the story and and characters and not detract. Some books I enjoy have little romance and no sex, others have a lot of sex, but if it seems right to the story I don't even notice it's "a lot" but just enjoy the story because that seems what might naturally happen. And a lot are in-between with some romance, hint of sex . . . .

    And how could you be in Vegas without something a little bit funny and spicy,including the language?

  19. It's funny, I'm just finishing the first book in another series set in Napa. There's romance, and some sex--I'm assuming they do that in Northern CA--but no bad language. It just didn't suit my protagonist.

  20. Yeah, I've always wondered if there was sex in Dallas.Here in Houston a doctor was just found guilty of poisoning her lover when she found she was part of a love triangle. You'd think a doctor at MD Anderson would be busy enough without having a girl friend and a mistress. And the mistress is also a doctor at MDA!
    Your series sounds fun.

  21. Deborah, you certainly sound like you have great balance in your books, and I am so adding them to my TBR list. Sex is a part of life, for the most part, and it stands to reason that it is a part of characters' lives. Like Pat D mentioned, even the busy MDA doctors seem to have time for a love triangle. (Been following that bit of spice.) I do agree that the sex needs to be a natural part of the story's flow, not the stop-in-the-middle-of-a-life-and-death chase. Although, the actors that you cited would be hard to pass up, even in that situation. Hehehe!

    I love your titles, too, Deborah, and the lead character's name. Just those two aspects of your books are enough to convince me that the sense of humor I enjoy in books is running rampant (rampant is not a bad thing here) in your writing.

    And, just a side note to an author here who shall not be named, whose character Jane and Jake kept me up last night. I have to admit that I was in hopes of that white, fluffy robe losing its tie. Of course, it wasn't a deal breaker for my love of that certain author's latest book. I now have a glowing review to write and some Lucky books to add to my reading list.

  22. "In a story, nothing can be gratuitous"
    That pretty much sums it up. Add whatever you will, as long as it adds to the storyline and does not distract or detract from it

  23. Pat D.---Dallas is sort of buttoned up, but doctors? At MDA? Dear God. I've never met a man worth ruining my entire life over. A month or two, maybe even a few years, sure. But life? Heck no.

  24. Oh, and Pat--if you're around next Saturday, the 4th,come see me and share some laughs at Murder By the Book, 4:30 p.m.

  25. Kathy--thanks! Let me know what you think. I love to laugh, and having the opportunity to give others a chuckle or two is an incredible blessing.

  26. Libby--Perhaps even in life nothing should be gratuitous, except maybe kindness. But for sure in a story all the excess needs to be carefully excised.

  27. If your coffee is suspiciously sweet, check for antifreeze. I'd love to see you Deb but can't make it. I have a memorial service that afternoon, then an opera that night. And off to Deadwood the following morning. Next time?

  28. Am I correct in understanding that the doctor in question was in a lesbian love triangle?

    I'm way behind the curve on this one!

  29. Thanks everyone for your comments and lively interaction! I sure enjoyed it! And thanks to Hallie for hosting and Hank for setting this up!

  30. I'd like to weigh in before this is all over. Although I'm far from a prude, I like my sex in novels to be easy-over. Nora Roberts, for example, overdoes it in my opinion and I find myself flipping thru her hot and heavy sex scenes to get on with her very good stories. Deb, your LUCKY books have much better balance. (And they're way more fun) I also think there's a difference between sex and romance, but then... I've lived a lot more years than most of you (and married 3 times). In my own writing, I use romance but go light on the sex, leaving it more to the imagination. Kinda like seeing someone in attractive, sexy clothes versus seeing them naked. I figure that entices a wider reading audience.

  31. Karen, no. Two women, one a doctor, and one man. Shame on him.
    He was trying to have a baby with his girl friend. Doctor/mistress found out and doctored his coffee. He lived and appeared at her trial this past week.

  32. Thanks for the explanation, Pat. I got mixed up with all the pronouns!