Saturday, February 28, 2015

"You Can't Make this Stuff Up!" Lourdes Venard & Characters Inspired by Obits

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Delighted to introduce Lourdes Venard, seasoned journalist, freelance editor and editor of First Draft, the newsletter for the Sisters in Crime Guppies chapter, who's come up with a brilliant (and rather poignant) inspiration for creating characters — writing obituaries. Yes, obituaries. She has also self-published a book, Publishing for Beginners: What First-Time Authors Need to Know. The ebook is free on Kindle this weekend hereRead on....

LOURDES VENARD: One of the hardest things for writers may be to create a character, with all their eccentricities and mannerisms, as well as a rich backstory. Sure, you can sit in coffee shops and listen in on conversations, or even plumb your own life. Or you can read the obits.

When I was a young reporter at The Miami Herald, I was offered the chance to move from one of the neighborhood bureaus to the main City Desk—a coveted spot for cub reporters. The catch?  I would also be writing obituaries.

Morbid as it sounds, this was actually appealing. The Miami Herald’s obituaries were little biographical gems, insights into the lives of the famous and not-so-famous. I found I loved it, and hard as it was sometimes to make that initial call to family members, I found the relatives wanted to share their stories. It was almost as if they had been waiting for that call: so tell me about your grandmother, your aunt, your cousin. I listened, sometimes open-mouthed, sometimes with tears in my eyes, as the stories spilled out.

I wrote about well-known Miami politicians, celebrities and Florida pioneers. But I also wrote about those who readers had never heard of. There was the Olympic fencer from an aristocratic Hungarian family who, when he immigrated to the United States, had to work as a gravedigger for a time before he became a fencing teacher. There was the Dixieland jazz musician who was a musical child prodigy at age 4 and as a teenager ran away to New Orleans, where he discovered jazz; he later played with The Jackie Gleason Show orchestra. There was the teacher with the wonderful name of Bain Lightfoot, whose earlier careers included professional ice skater, newspaper reporter and tavern owner. “He had read a lot, he was intelligent,” his wife said. “He found he could do a whole bunch of things.”

I even wrote about the Miami Beach civic activist who was a prolific writer of letters to the editor, which The Miami Herald printed—until the paper implemented a policy limiting the number of letters it would print from one person. The letter writer was devastated, but found a way around it—he would send letters signed with his wife’s name. I guess he got the last laugh: a full obit in the paper.

I wrote several times of long-married couples who died just a week or two apart. But perhaps one of the strangest obits I wrote was about a divorced couple who died together. The couple, in their 80s and married 57 years, had divorced nine months earlier. A few weeks before their death, they had begun dating again. They were on their way home from one of those dates when they died in a car accident. “They couldn’t live with each other. They couldn’t live without each other,” said one relative. “As luck would have it, they died together.”

As humorist Dave Barry (a Herald colleague at the time) always likes to say: You can’t make this stuff up!

I always tried to be respectful in the obits, but I also strove to make them interesting, looking for those offbeat or unique tidbits. This style of obit writing first gained favor in the 1980s. In the book The Dead Beat, by Marilyn Johnson, she writes about this focus on “regular people”: “People whose lives had been considered dull as linoleum to the general public were offered up as heroes of their neighborhood and characters of consequence. Even more important, every particular of their quirks and foibles—the brand name of their cigarettes, their taste in horror movies—was presented as a clue to the mystery of their existence in the fascinating story of their lives.”

The truth is, as I found out as a young reporter, was that everyone does have a fascinating life story, even if it’s not always apparent at first glance. In these stories, I found what fiction writers strive for: to build well-rounded characters whose lives are not always neat and tidy, but filled with heartbreak, humor and persistence in the face of adversity. In short, life in all its messiness.

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Readers, do you read the obits regularly? What's the most unique one you've ever read (not using names)? What else do you want to talk about this lovely Saturday? Please let us know in the comments!

In addition to working at major American newspapers for 30 years, Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and editor of First Draft, the newsletter for the Sisters in Crime Guppies chapter. She has also self-published a book, Publishing for Beginners: What First-Time Authors Need to Know. The ebook will be free on Kindle this weekend — click here.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Cara Black Researches MURDER ON THE CHAMPS DE MARS in Paris

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: I'm thrilled to introduce novelist Cara Black, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of fourteen books in the Private Investigator Aimée Leduc series, set in Paris. Her latest, MURDER ON THE CHAMPS DE MARS is set in Paris (bien sûr!) in April of 1999: 

Aimée Leduc has her work cut out for her—running her detective agency and fighting off sleep deprivation as she tries to be a good single mother to her new bébé. The last thing she has time for now is to take on a personal investigation for a poor manouche (Gypsy) boy. But he insists his dying mother has an important secret she needs to tell Aimée, something to do with Aimée’s father’s unsolved murder a decade ago. How can she say no?

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Reds and lovely readers, please welcome Cara Black, one of my very favorite novelists. I feel as though her Aimée and my Maggie Hope are fictional sisters in their love of both red lipstick and solving mysteries.

Cara, Kirkus Reviews gave MURDER ON THE CHAMPS DE MARS a starred review, saying, "Aimée's 15th outing is a killer, with all the suspense, all the surprise and all the Parisian flavor you'd expect from Black.” How does that feel when you’re so far into the series?

CARA BLACK: I choked on my coffee, Susan. Really amazed me and I kept pinching myself while I cleaned up my splattered key board. Who knew after after so long in the game? I never intended to write a series set in Paris, I was thrilled to even get published in 1999. My first book was a story about my friend’s mother, a hidden Jewish girl, that I felt passionate to tell. When my editor asked for another book saying ‘what’s Aimée up to next? you are writing a series, aren’t you?’ I lied and said yes and ran to the keyboard. She launched me into my life of crime. Now on Aimée’s 15th outing she investigates a missing Gypsy in the elite quarter of Paris, the 7th arrondissement. I wanted to get this part of Paris right. I’m honored to keep going and have reviewers appreciate the story I’m trying to tell. There’s so much about Paris that I haven’t plumbed, so many stories and such history that I still want to capture.
SUSAN: So, let's talk research in Paris - cafes, croissants, and shopping right?

CARA: I wish! Well, sometimes a little, no actually a lot in the cafes. I’m an eavesdropper in a cafe, on a bus, in the Metro, in a shop, at the park on the benches. Shopping for me is mostly old books, old photos, trinkets from the 90’s or earlier that I find at old bookstores, in the flea markets, and things from the 90’s which is Aimée’s era. Often it means I’ve got to buy another roller bag to bring my finds home. 

I know some ‘flics’ Parisian cops who I take to lunch/dinner with a lot of wine and ask them about procedure, old cases, what it’s like now as opposed to then (90’s) working a homicide, ask for introductions to other police branches. I’ve hung with our FBI a bit who work at the Paris Embassy and have they got stories!!  I go to to archives, libraries and crawl in the sewers and quarries and climbed into a reservoir and cut my knee.

SUSAN: Aimée’s a single maman with a 5 month old bébé and just going back to work - even though it’s her own detective business and office  - how did it feel to write that? Did you put in your own experiences as a mom?

CARA: I drew on those feelings, a new mother leaving my son for the first time, and it’s what a lot of women feel. Guilty, nervous and yet also wanting to use their skill set and re-join a ‘normal’ world without dirty diapers. Aimée gets spit-up on her vintage Courreges and she’s still nursing and leaks, my own experience, on a silk blouse at a meeting. She’s trying to balance going back to work, the responsibilities of being a single maman and get some sleep. 

SUSAN: Historicals have a new meaning these days, don’t they? If we’re talking time frame how do you handle all the technology and dating the book?

CARA: Good question, Susan. In Maggie Hope’s world there’s documented history, it’s a rich world, and communication was simpler. No FB, Twitter, texting, Instagram, CCTV - how lucky is that? But in the 90’s, the time of Aimée’s stories, no FB, Twitter, Instagram either. I’m so glad. A young reader told me last year ‘you’re writing Historicals, right?’ In a way, I guess since it’s the recent past. Aimée still pays in Francs (the Euro is 2 years away) and uses a cell phone and computer and hacks with the best. It’s the era of pagers and Europe was ahead in their cell phone use.

SUSAN: Rumor is you and Rhys Bowen will get into trouble again - can you address that?

CARA: Yes, Rhys’ new book comes out the same day as mine so we’ll do a launch together in Scottsdale. Then a bad girls redux mini tour in LA. I love traveling with Rhys and we have been known to misbehave.

SUSAN: OK, more on you and Rhys misbehaving in the comments, please! And are you really taking someone to Paris? Can I come too?

CARA: Yes, and you know I want us to meet there and visit Paris, Brittany and Normandy for research for a new Maggie Hope book, right? That thing we talked about? Everyone is welcome to enter the Sweepstakes for a trip avec moi in October - there’s an entry coupon in the new book or go here. Please update your passport and pack a bag… So who will I take to Paris?

SUSAN: Me, me, me! (Oh, wait — was that out loud?) Reds and lovely readers, there's so much I want to talk about with Cara — how Aimée's changed during the course of the series, what it's like when your protagonist becomes a mother (personally, I adore reading about Aimée's trials and triumphs with her bébé), and — um, hello? — when did the 1990s become "historical"?

Please let us know what you think. Cara will choose one lucky commentator to win MURDER ON THE CHAMPS DE MARS!

Cara Black is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of 14 books in the Private Investigator Aimée Leduc series, which is set in Paris. Cara has received multiple nominations for the Anthony and Macavity Awards, a Washington Post Book World Book of the Year citation, the Médaille de la Ville de Paris—the Paris City Medal, which is awarded in recognition of contribution to international culture.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

A Day in the Life of Houston's Murder by the Book

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Last summer I had the honor of appearing at beloved mystery book shop, Murder by the Book, in Houston, Texas, to promote THE PRIME MINISTER'S SECRET AGENT and talk about historical mysteries. I appeared alongside fabulous New York Times-bestselling authors Lauren Willig and Beatriz Williams. The evening was facilitated by Murder by the Book's publicity manager John Kwiatkowsky and Sally Woods.

Readers, it was heaven. 

What was so wonderful? The books, of course (my credit card took a serious dent), meeting Lauren and Beatriz (I've been a huge fan of their novels for years and it was lovely to meet them in person), and most of all, the staff, who were knowledgeable and professional and fun and funny. Do you ever meet people and just know that you're going to be fast friends? Well, that's what happened to me when I met John and Sally.

We all read mysteries and thrillers, but I thought it would be fun to take a peek "backstage" at a particularly fantastic mystery bookshop — and what happens behind the scenes. John and Sally, take it away!

JOHN and SALLY: Working in a bookstore comes with all the usual challenges of working retail, and throws in challenges of its own. Those challenges can be trying to figure out which blue book a customer saw on the new release table at another bookstore, trying to remember the name of a long out print book, or explaining for the 5th time why you don’t know if a book is available for the Kindle.

It also comes with some pretty special rewards. We have a lot of customers that have moved away from Houston, but always include a trip to the store when they’re back for a visit. We get to meet authors that we love, hand-sell books that we’re excited about, and spend our days surrounded by books.

Each bookstore is different. Working at a Barnes and Noble is different from working at a specialized indie bookstore. (If you want to know what working at big box store like B&N or Borders is like, read Elaine Viets's Murder Between The Covers, she nails it!)

One of the comments we hear all the time is, "I'd love to work in a bookstore and spend all day reading." We laugh, but know that reading is the last thing we get to do when we’re at work. Here’s what a typical day behind the counter looks like...

9:30 a.m. - Get to the store. If last night's event ran long, start the day by putting the store back together. That includes putting away event chairs, picking up stray books that wandered off the shelf, and picking up empty wine glasses left on bookcases. (If it's Tuesday, put out this week's new releases).

9:45 a.m. - Sort books from last night's event and get them ready to mail out.

10:00 a.m. - Open the store.

10:15 p.m. - Answer email, and update the store’s Twitter and Facebook accounts. Add any newly scheduled events to the website, while still helping customers and answering the phone.

11:00 a.m. - Dave, our UPS driver, shows up with 45 boxes of new books. Each book has to be checked in, sorted, and shelved, while still helping customers and answering the phone. If there are any damaged or missing books, they have to be called into the publisher for credit or replacement.

11:45 a.m.: Answer the phone:

Employee: Hello, Murder By The Book!
Customer: Is this homicide?
Employee: No, we're a bookstore.
Customer: I need homicide.
Employee: I think you should hang up and dial 911.

11:52 a.m. - A customer comes in asking for Victoria Holt’s series about a midwife. You realize she’s looking for the series by Victoria Thompson and give her the first in the series.

12:30 p.m. Thirty minutes for lunch

1:15 p.m. - Patrick, our mailman, brings an advanced reading copy that that’s been eagerly awaited. A happy dance ensues.

2:05 p.m. - Check for online and email orders.

Tracy Carlson

3:00 p.m. - Archie, our FedEx driver, shows up with 3 boxes full of special orders. Each book has to be checked in, sorted, and customers need to be contacted to know their books have arrived.

4:00 p.m. - Meet a teenager in town for a lung transplant. His family is in Houston temporarily, and he loves mysteries. Show him some staff favorites, and recommend some great places to visit while in town.

4:45 p.m. - A customer from Shreveport stops by the store on one of her quarterly trips to Houston. After spending 45 minutes helping her pick out titles, she asks for a hug when you carry her bags out to the car for her. Your bookseller heart skips a beat.

5:00 p.m. - If there's an event that evening, put out chairs, set up the signing table, put out wine.

5:45 p.m. - Take Jack Reacher, the store dog, out for a potty break.

6:00 p.m. - Close for the day, unless there’s an event.

If there is an event:

6:10 p.m. - Author arrives. Take them to the back to sign presales (books ordered by people who couldn’t make it to the signing).

6:30 p.m. - Introduce the author to the crowd.  Double check for last minute orders for signed books while trying to pay attention to the author’s talk.

7:15 p.m. - Author talk is winding down, tell the crowd we have time for one more question. When the talk finishes, line customers up so they can get their books signed.

8:00 p.m. - Signing line is finished, take the author to the back to sign books for people that couldn’t make it, and the rest of the store stock. Once the stock is signed, thank the author for coming and put the store back together.

8:30 p.m. - Head home (11 hours after the day started). This is where we actually get our reading done.

As you’ll see, there wasn’t any time for reading. We might get a few minutes to read while we’re on our 30 minute lunch break, but any reading is done once we get home and finally put up our feet at the end of a long day. That book we just recommended? We read it while we were off the clock.

At the end of the day, we all love what we do. No one ever worked at a bookstore to become rich. We do it because we love books, and we love finding the right book for the right reader. And that’s the best perk of this job, having someone come back and tell you they have found a new favorite book or author.

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Thank you John and Sally, for taking the time to drop by today and all that you do. (Also — Jack Reacher! He's adorable!) Reds and lovely readers, have you ever been to Murder by the Book? Have you ever worked in a bookstore or wanted to? What does your ideal bookstore have? (Mine has a few cats.... No offense, Jack Reacher.) 

John and Sally will be dropping by to answer all of your questions, even "what's the name of that book, you know — the blue one...."

John Kwiatkowski, Publicity Manager at Murder By The Book since 2010
In previous career incarnations, John has sold model and toy trains, and been a barista.  Prior to joining the Murder By The Book team he managed one of the local chain bookstores.  When his nose isn't in a book he loves going to concerts, seeing musicals, going to Las Vegas, and spending afternoons in Hermann Park.
John's favorite authors include: Arturo Perez-Reverte, Tasha Alexander, Kelley Armstrong, Melissa Marr, Daphne Du Maurier, Wilkie Collins, Jacqueline Sussan, Victoria Laurie, and Louise Penny.
Sally has been in the bookselling biz for almost 20 years.  She comes to MBTB via various Houston indie bookstores.  She did have a life prior to bookstores, but that seems long ago.  She is also somewhat new to the mystery genre and is learning about new authors all the time.
Some her favorite authors include: Stephen King, John Sandford, Dean Koontz, Sue Grafton, Kevin Brockmeier, Dan Chaon, Gillian Flynn, Joyce Carol Oates (especially the short stories), Margaret Atwood, and newly discovered Peter James.