LA Times Festival of Books –Mysteries: A Question of Character

by Mk

in Book Festivals,Events

Mysterious CharacterAfter my first panel session, Mysteries: Dangerous Histories, I was really looking forward to this one and it definitely did not disappoint.

Denise Hamilton, the award-winning author of the Eve Diamond crime series, moderated Mysteries: A Question of Character, my second author panel session at Los Angeles Times Festival of Books last weekend.  Her latest project was serving as editor for Los Angeles Noir 2. Please see my article, LA Times Festival of Books – Mysteries: Dangerous Histories, for more information on Denise’s novels.

With her on the panel were Diane Mott Davidson, Lisa Jackson, Stuart Woods and Carolina Garcia-Aquilera.

Diane Mott Davidson lives in Colorado and Florida, and writes an award-winning series of cooking mysteries featuring Goldy Schultz, the Colorado caterer. Her first novel was published when she was in her early 40’s and she’s published at least 14 more since then. Her latest is Crunch Time: A Novel of Suspense. She says she finds that she writes more slowly now than she once did, taking her time to get each novel just the way she wants it to be.

Diane was told that back in the day that if she wanted to write mysteries, she should first outline other people’s mystery novels. She still thinks that’s excellent advice. Since she loved to read mysteries, outlining wasn’t a hardship so that’s how she learned her craft. She has the distinction of being the first mystery author to include recipes in her novels and she had to fight to get them published that way.

She has an interesting or, as she puts it, weird process for developing her story. She writes to her main character, Goldy, with questions and Goldy writes back to tell her what’s going to happen next. I wouldn’t take that too literally if I were you because, while Diane was saying it, she was motioning with her hand to indicate all of this happens inside her head. It’s a very interesting way to process plot development, and I found it intriguing. She also keeps a wall calendar for each book, on which she writes all of Goldy’s catering events to keep them all straight.

To research Goldy’s character, Diane worked free for a caterer so she could get more authenticity. She learned that the catering staff at any event is completely invisible, an ideal situation for someone trying to observe people and solve a mystery. She also phones the local police department to ensure she gets police procedure right.

Diane teased us by saying she would be serving cookies at her book signing after the panel session. I’m sure they were as delightful as she was!

Like all of the authors in this panel, Lisa Jackson has a wonderfully ironic sense of humor, which really shone forth in this discussion. She lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest. Her sister is author Nancy Bush. Initially they wrote books together but their work has diverged as Lisa’s books have gotten darker and more suspenseful. Their last collaboration was Wicked Game. Wicked Lies, another collaboration with Nancy, comes out next month. Lisa’s latest solo book is Devious, with Born To Diecoming out in July 2011 and available for pre-order now.

Lisa does her research online or uses professional researchers, doing most of her research as she is writing the book. She also works with a couple of cops she knows to ensure she gets that part of her books correct. In preparation for a novel, she writes a 70-page synopsis but she doesn’t always follow it because things change as a book is being written. She says keeping characters straight gets harder as she gets older; however, her readers have much better memories and always let her know if she messed something up.

In talking about how much she writes, Lisa said she’d have to give up sleep if she wrote more than she does now. She writes her initial draft up to page 150 without looking at what she has written. By that point, she really knows the characters and then she can go back to the beginning to edit anything that no longer fits as well as flesh out the story more along the direction she now knows it’s headed.

She joked that her favorite of all of her books was Shadow of Time because it sold well. She also likes Shiver and Cold Blooded. She has very eclectic reading tastes and loves to read all kinds of books but she tries to stay away from her own genre to ensure she keeps a fresh voice for her own novels.

Our next panelist, Stuart Woods, grew up in Georgia but now splits his time among Key West, Maine and New York City. He’s a licensed private pilot and an avid boater – oh yes, and an award-winning novelist. The novel that launched his career was Chiefs (Will Lee Novel) and that book is his favorite. He found it to be the most fulfilling and satisfying. When Stuart wrote it, he didn’t realize he had written a mystery. He has had 28 novels on the New York Times bestseller list. His newest novel, from the Stone Barrington series, is Bel-Air Dead.

For Stuart, plot is almost everything. He believes, quite rightly, that no one reads a book just to see a character’s rambling introspection. He calls books about introspection, “Once you put it down, you can’t pick it back up” books. He’s written about boating and flying so he could write those things off as a business expense. (Denise jokingly asked if any IRS auditors were in the audience.)

He used to name too many characters with names that began with an H, and was asked to stop doing that. Stuart forgets his characters’ names even as he writes them. Someone wrote to ask him who Adele was in Strategic Moves. Stuart has no clue and he doesn’t know who killed her either. He ponders why readers keep asking him things like that.

Stuart thinks of his characters as existing in a parallel universe. He knows everything about them but they know nothing about him. He spends very little time on description in his novels because he believes readers fill in descriptions from their own imaginations anyway. For example: He was once asked to describe a character to some people at a dinner. In mid description, a woman interrupted him to say he was incorrect in his description because she knew the character was much taller than that.

He never has any clue how his book will end and never writes an outline. He has refined his writing process so now he can write one chapter in one hour, and does that several days a week. That way he is able to put out three books a year. When asked about research, Stuart opined that apparently women work a lot harder than men since he does no research at all. He sees no need for research when he can just make it all up. As for police procedure and medical procedure, he believes everyone is an expert on those things from seeing so much of it on TV. When he said, “Women authors need to relax a little,” you could have heard a pin drop in the lecture hall filled with mostly women. An awkward moment…

Stuart lives inside of the book while he’s writing it. He does the same thing when he’s reading a book. He doesn’t read novels in his genre because he doesn’t want to take the chance of mistakenly plagiarizing something from someone else’s book.

He attended the Cordon Bleu in London. “It was a lot cheaper to cook for girls than to take them out to dinner.” Again an awkward moment for this largely female audience.

Stuart’s recipe for a Vodka Gimlet:

  • 1 bottle of excellent vodka, minus 6 ounces (“You can figure out what to do with the 6 oz.”)
  • 1 bottle of Rose’s Lime Juice
  • Add the entire bottle of lime juice to the vodka bottle (cap it and slosh around to mix)
  • Add vodka bottle to freezer.
  • Freeze for 24 hours.
  • (My addition: Freeze cocktail glasses at the same time and have fresh lime for twists.)
  • When ready, pour and enjoy!

(Legal drinking age disclosure: Don’t try this if you’re not at least 21.)

 The last author in this panel, but definitely not the least, was Carolina Garcia-Aquilera. Carolina is a Cuban-born licensed PI in the Miami area. Not coincidentally, she has written the award-winning Lupe Solano Files series of eight novels about a Cuban-American PI who solves crimes in Miami. Carolina also made the movie One Hot Summer for Lifetime TV in 2009. In other words this is one busy, multi-talented lady!

Carolina became a licensed PI as research so she could lend greater authenticity to her novels. She was a PI for 10 years before publishing her first novel. She’s very strict about not letting her main character do things that are illegal for PI’s to do. Among other research she does, she relies on her street contacts. For example: She boxes in a gym with Anthony, the pimp and is always asking him questions about his (now former) business. As soon as she said that, she buried her head in her hands and mumbled, “Ah dios mio, now I’m never going to be asked back here again.” We all cracked up.

When it comes to work process, she doesn’t quit writing for the day until she has completed one chapter and is happy with it. She believes she is very lucky because she set Lupe up, her main character, to never get older – to stay 28 years old forever. Carolina believes that, although Los Angeles has a sizable Cuban population, her characters could not live in LA. Miami and the Florida Keys have an ends of the earth mentality which is integral to her novels.

To find plot lines for her books, Carolina only has to read the Miami Herald because Miami is a hotbed for crime. Her mantra is that she provides “3 bodies per book or you get your money back.” When she doesn’t know what to do next, she just kills someone.

Carolina’s favorite book was her short story, “The Recipe,” which was published in the 2006 Miami Noir (Akashic Noir). That story was based on a true crime she investigated. She could write about it because it was public information and the perpetrator was dead. Although she told us in vivid detail about this cannibalistic BBQ crime, I’m not going to relate those details here for obvious reasons. She always loved to read detective novels in Spanish while she was growing up in Cuba, and still reads them in Spanish today.

As I hope you can tell, this was a lively session. I don’t know about you but I’m looking forward to diving into some of these authors’ novels. So many great books, so little time!

If you enjoyed this article and want to read more about the LA Times Festival of Books author panel sessions, just click on the title below:

LA Times Festival of Books – LA Stories
LA Times Festival of Books – Stories from the South
LA Times Festival of Books – A Conversation with Carolyn See
LA Times Festival of Books – Mysteries: Dangerous Histories
UCLA vs. USC – Which Is Best for the LA Times Festival of Books?

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