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Kelli Stanley is one of those writers who cannot separate her self from her writing.
Even when she's doing something else, she says somewhere in the back of her brain, she's wondering how a person she sees on the street might fit in a novel, or how she would describe a particular sunset or rainy day.
She thinks it might have come from her early interest in theater--she started college as a drama major--and now says "that need to study and capture and represent life is embedded in who I am. Acting is so much like writing."
Her first mystery, described as Roman noir, was Nox Dormienda. She followed it up a year later with City of Dragons, set in 1940s San Francisco.
A San Francisco resident, Stanley works half-time as the publications director at San Francisco State in the Center for Teaching and Faculty Development. She says she is grateful to have a job that gives her the flexibility to develop her writing career.
Squeezed in among the work, the writing, the thinking and the research is a little time for watching classic films (particularly noir), reading, visiting antique stores, playing the piano and playing ball with her dog.
But mostly, she's thinking about writing.
You seem to have sprung on the scene with Nox ... were you writing before that?
Nox was my first attempt at a novel. I'd written a few screenplays, but gave that up to finish my master's degree in classics.
My last short story, before writing Convivium (a prequel to Nox that was web-published and nominated for a Spinetingler Award), was written in high school.
I was in graduate school when I wrote Nox, and exercised my creativity in school by concentrating on Greek and Latin translation, particularly poetry. In fact, poetry is the one genre I've consistently written throughout my life. I used to write sonnets on a regular basis. And I was familiar with Steven Saylor's excellent [Roman mysteries], and I thought, gee, I love mysteries, noir, crime fiction ... maybe I could do this.
It's funny; friends and family always told me I should be a writer, but I really didn't have the confidence until I was in my 30s and finishing up my degree.
I did "spring on the scene," as it were, because until I received my publishing contract, I wasn't a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers or any other organization, and actually knew nothing about the publishing world beyond what I could glean from sources like the Literary Marketplace and online sites. Honestly, I didn't want to invest in myself until I'd received some kind of professional validation. Once I knew Nox was going to be published, I basically earned the equivalent of an advanced degree in book publishing over the course of two years.
I credit my experience with both poetry and screenplays as helping refine my ear, and certainly giving me a feeling for rhythm, diction and dialogue. I was blown away by the award nominations Nox received, and truly couldn't believe it when the book won the Bruce Alexander Memorial Historical Mystery award. My friend was standing by, thinking I was going to faint.
I've been very fortunate to see everything I've written published ...three novels and two short stories. Actually, now that I think about it, I have one short story that isn't published yet ... it was written for a special project, so I need to send it out to other markets. I'm working on the sequel to City of Dragons right now, a series I'd like to write for the rest of my life. I am hopingCurse d [the sequel to Nox] does well enough for me to continue the Arcturus Series as well.
Why the switch from Roman times to 1940s San Francisco?
I never want to be pigeonholed as a writer, and that's easy to do if you write historical mysteries, particularly if they're set in a time as unique and distant as ancient Rome. I never intended for the Arcturus stories to be my only series, and I also plan to write at least one stand-alone thriller and a graphic novel.
Secondly, I love the era of the '30s and '40s and wanted to tackle the classic noir period with the gloves off. We tend to look at the period through the lens of both nostalgia and through the censorship rules that governed the film industry.
I wanted to showcase both the beauty and cultural ugliness of the era, as well as subvert traditional expectations by putting the usually demonized femme fatale in the protagonist role.
Finally, I knew it would be extremely difficult to move to a major publisher with my first series ... publishers typically don't touch series begun elsewhere. Luckily for me, City of Dragons sold very quickly in January, despite the recession, and now is giving me a chance to break out to a wider audience.
Have you always been interested in history?
Always ... though not every era with equal verve or interest. Ancient history fascinated me as a kid, and then I fell in love with the Elizabethans. And later on, decided to get my master's in classics.
But my one consistent passion as far as history goes has always been the '20s through World War II. Even when I was 10 or 11 years old, I loved classic film, Deco design and (of course) fedoras. So with City of Dragons I feel like I'm writing my deepest historical passion ... even though I don't think this era necessarily reads as history.
What kind of research did you do for the new book?
I do a lot of research ... not just to make sure my details are accurate, but because I find inspiration and plot ideas in what I discover. With 1940 San Francisco, the era is well-documented through film, music, radio, newspapers and magazines, so it's easy to get inundated with information and lose track of what you're doing!
I typically do research before and during the writing of a book. I'm a general outliner, but I still don't know what detail I might need to explore until I'm in the middle of things. One of my favorite tools is Ebay. I buy ephemera from the era, which then becomes part of the fabric of the story. My protagonist Miranda, for example, is a private eye and former escort. Through a piece of ephemera--a guide to New Year's celebrations in San Francisco--I discovered the existence of Diane's Escort Service. And Diane became an important character in the novel.
I can be a bit obsessive. The phone numbers used are all real phone numbers (I purchased a 1940 San Francisco phone book), and the weather is accurate to the day. And so are the movies playing at the various theaters!
City of Dragons sold in a two-book deal, and I'm writing the second one now. If luck is with me, I'm hoping to continue the series for a good, long time. I'd love to write Miranda through World War II and into the Cold War. A short story prequel to City of Dragons will also be published next year, in the next International Thriller Writers Anthology First Thrills. It features the "bestsellers of today and tomorrow," and I'm very honored to be published alongside writers like Jeffrey Deaver, Ken Bruen and Heather Graham.
Just recently, I sold the sequel to Nox--now called Cursed--to my editor at Thomas Dunne/Minotaur. So that impossible dream of moving my first series to a major publisher has actually come true. I'm hoping that with two series I'll be able to write full-time. That's my ultimate goal.
If you like contemporary novels with a historical twist, Marion Moore Hill has some books for you.
The Oklahoma-based author writes stories in which past events are critical to what happens in the present. Her characters must research some historical event to find the clues necessary to solve the current mystery.
Her Deadly Past Mysteries series debuted with Deadly Will. It focuses on the legacy of Nathan Henry, who copies an actual bequest made by Benjamin Franklin, which specified that money left to Philadelphia and Boston be lent at interest for 200 years after his death. When the trust dissolved, each city received millions from the accrued interest.
The fictional Henry wills the money to his own descendants 200 years later, the time of the present story. The heirs meet at his mansion in Philadelphia, where mayhem ensues, and some of the heirs die.
The protagonist, a Dallas history buff named Millie Kirchner, fears for her life. In order to trap the killer, she must learn more about the Colonial period, including studying characteristics of Franklin's spelling and the height of 19th century furniture.
"I hadn't realized that chairs used to be taller than they are now," Hill noted.
The sequel, Deadly Design, finds Millie at an archaeological dig at an old Virginia house possibly designed by Thomas Jefferson.
According to Hill, it is modeled on Jefferson's real second home, Poplar Forest. "It was kept a kept a secret from most people in [Jefferson's] lifetime because it was where he escaped for solitude from the many visitors who overran Monticello," she said.
Millie in confronted with two murders; to solve them, she combines information about an old grave, the Lewis and Clark Expedition and clues found at Monticello.
Hill's books are a painless way to learn some American history while reading an intriguing story.
The research, of course, was not exactly painless.
"I didn't love history when I was a student, because then I had the view of history that many students unfortunately have: that it's names and dates to memorize," Hill confessed.
It was only later that she realized history is a collection of stories about interesting people. "Since I've always loved stories, I began reading more history and now can't seem to get enough," she said.
A cooperative husband who enjoys touring historic sites made it easy to combine research with vacation trips.
"He was the one who told me years ago about Ben Franklin's unique will. And it was his idea to visit Poplar Forest, Jefferson's retreat home, soon after the nonprofit corporation bought it and began restoring it," she said.
Hill finds there's no substitute with getting up-close-and-personal with a place she wants to write about.
"When I began writing Will, I had never been to Philadelphia and tried to research it from afar, but that didn't work for me. We ended up visiting historic sites in and around Philadelphia several times before I completed the manuscript," she recalled.
On one trip, she and her husband were sitting in a restaurant discussing where, at nearby Valley Forge National Historical Park, would be a good place to find a body.
"Then we noticed two women at the next table were sneaking looks at us. My husband asked if they were wondering what we were talking about. They hesitantly admitted they were, and we told them about the book. They were local women and got into the spirit of the idea, mentioning other places they knew around town that would be eerie places to stash a body," Hill said.
Later, she volunteered at Poplar Forest, and that led to more sources who could answer her many questions. When the book reached the cover-design stage, Hill sought suggestions from the chief archaeologist at Poplar Forest. "He e-mailed me a picture of an actual pottery sherd they had found on-site, part of a set of china that Jefferson had really used while staying there." It became part of the book's cover, and Hill noted, "Can't get any more authentic than that!"
Hill also uses the Internet for research.
"I happened upon the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia when I was at the UVA website, trying to figure out what clue my character could discover at the university that would be related to my mystery. I ended up having my protagonist find an old newspaper there with information about a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition that helps her solve the mystery," she said.
She also corresponded by e-mail with many librarians, archivists, law enforcement personnel and other authorities.
When writing Will, she needed to find someone knowledgeable about an array of early-American antiques, especially to appraise what each would be worth in this century.
"I found an article by Charles Dorman, who had been curator at the museum in Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia. I wrote him a letter telling about my novel and listing nine early-American antiques that I thought would fit well with my story."
Eventually, he called her and went over her list. He not only gave a value for each item, but suggested details that she had no way of knowing.
"For example, one item was a rifle used by Mr. Henry's son during the Revolutionary War, and Mr. Dorman said that, since the soldier was a wealthy young man, he would have been part of Philadelphia's famous Silk Stocking Company, and his rifle would have had a silver inlaid stock and would have been made by 'his kinsman,' William Henry of Lancaster," she said.
By the time Hill sold that book, some years later, Dorman had died. But she found another curator at the historical park to help her update the values. That contact also led her to the park's bookstore, where her books are now sold.
Hill followed a circuitous path to her present vocation.
"I had wanted to write stories, specifically mysteries, ever since I was a little girl and loved Nancy Drew," she said. "It occurred to me one day that someone had written the books I enjoyed so much and that maybe I could do something similar one day."
And, after a career that included being a legal secretary, newspaper reporter, ad copywriter, and college teacher of English and journalism, as well as co-owner of a small ethnic grocery store, that is what she did.
"In writing fiction, I find myself drawing on all those experiences for plot ideas and character creation," she said.
Hill's website is www.marionmoorehill.com
It's not enough to write a book and find someone to publish it. You've also got to go on the road to sell it.
Michelle Gagnon knows this.
Gagnon, a Bay Area writer whose new book, The Gatekeeper, comes out in November, was prepared to do another book tour.
But she wanted to share it with someone, preferably another writer of thrillers with a book coming out the same time. She found Mark Coggins, whose book, The Big Wake-Up, is also out in November. He has photographs of where his story is set, leading Gagnon to speculate that they might offer a PowerPoint presentation at their signings.
She's not a big fan of readings. "What you really want to hear from an author is for them to talk about writing in general, or how they market," she said.
Timing is crucial in the book-tour department.
"Your book has a limited shelf life," Gagnon said. "So it's important to tour the month your book comes out."
Gagnon saw a dramatic difference in sales between her first and second books, which she attributes to the timing of the second tour.
Sharing the tour with another writer means less work and more synergy. Often she had contacts at one place, while the other author had contacts elsewhere.
"Having two or more authors makes it a more interesting event," Gagnon said.
In the past, she found that readers might have been drawn to a book signing because they are fans of one of her tour partners, and then become interested in her work as well.
When last year's book (Boneyard) came out, Gagnon toured with Simon Wood and Rhys Bowen. "That was weird in a way," she recalled.
"Simon and I do thrillers, full for doom and gloom," she said, while Bowen's book is much lighter. "She would talk about why she doesn't write thrillers, and then we'd come in and say why we do."
Gagnon also does blog tours, admitting that last year she "went a little nuts." She estimated that she wrote 32,000 words of posting to others' blogs.
As Gagnon noted, the process of creating buzz for a book inovlves a lot of trial and error. "Each book I've learned a little more," she said. "Fifty percent of your marketing works, but you don't know which 50 percent."
After years of reporting that has resulted in three nonfiction books and countless articles for British newspapers and magazines, Tarquin Hall has turned his attention to mystery fiction.
His debut story, "The Case of the Missing Servant," is a delightful mix of serious crime, over-the-top characters and a fascinating portrait of modern India.
His protagonist, Vish Puri, who describes himself as "India's most private investigator," is kind of a wimp, Hall said.
"He's overweight, he can't run fast, he's not an action hero," Hall went on. "But he is wily, and you have to be wily in India to get things done." Puri is also a typical Punjabi, he said, proud of his heritage.
Puri is based on a lot of Indian men, particularly the detectives Hall met in Delhi. "They live in a society where it's important to let everyone know your social status. You immediately tell someone that you're someone of standing," he said, noting that Punjabi culture has become increasingly ostentatious. "It's all about flash and bling."
But Puri is also a committed family man, as the novel makes clear.
To succeed in India's complex culture, Hall said it is crucial to know who's who.
"How a turban is tied or how a sari is tied ... any Indian recognizes these things" and therefore knows a good deal about the other person's status.
"People are not predisposed to do business with people of certain backgrounds," he said. "They're like dogs sniffing around each other, trying to figure out, what's his background, what's his caste."
By way of contrast, Hall said, "I was just in France. I had a hard time looking at people and knowing who was French, who was German, who was British. They all wear the same Chinese-made clothes, and they all look like Americans."
India, by contrast, "is the most class-conscious society I've ever come across. People are very conscious of who you are, and can be extremely prejudiced.
"Skin color is important," he said, explaining that people lighten their skin to look "wheatish," that is, fair. "If you have a wheatish complexion, you're considered more attractive."
Another way in which Vish Puri is absolutely typical of Indians is that he has a sizable staff. In part, that's because Puri, as a middle-class Punjabi, would have a hard time infiltrating a Tamil household, or a Brahmin one. So he has a staff of operatives, whom he addresses by affectionate nicknames, which Hall said is very typical of families.
(It may take American readers a while to get used to the fact that Puri is universally known among his family and friends as Chubby!)
The staffing also reflects a reality of Indian society: "Everything in India is labor intensive," he said.
Hall, who divides his time between London and India, is working on a sequel, "The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing."
Penny Warner's writing career is a testament to talent, persistence and luck.
A mother and teacher based in Danville, CA., Warner began writing nonfiction when her son, now a father himself, was a baby. That first book was on party giving.
Although she didn't know it at the time, she was building what in publisher-speak is known as a "platform," proving she could interest readers and get them to look for her latest work.
It took her six years to break into print.
The experience led to Lesson No. 1: never give up. "In most jobs, there's an apprenticeship," she says. "You'd study for three or four years." In effect, that's what writers are doing when their early work is not publishable.
She got ideas for books on babies and events from the people in the parenting classes she taught. They were looking for ideas on how to feed a picky eater or how to throw a good birthday party without going to the pizza place.
And that was Lesson No. 2: look for a niche you can fill.
"I wanted to write fiction, and I thought, 'how hard could it be?'," Warner says with a laugh. The result was two manuscripts with a nondescript protagonist-"a suburban housewife," Warner admits--that ended up as so much scrap paper.
Eventually she decided to use her background in teaching special education, and created a character with a disability: a small-town publisher who was deaf.
"I liked the idea of her being a fish out of water, of using her other senses to figure things out," she says.
There weren't a lot--OK, any--mysteries featuring deaf women who solved crimes, and Warner's agent balked. "She thought it wasn't mainstream enough."
As a result, Warner looked for another agent.
Lesson No. 3: Stick with what you believe in.
Her newest series is about a downsized college professor who becomes a reluctant event planner. How to Throw a Killer Party is due out in May 2010.
For more on Penny Warner, see her website: pennywarner.com