Saturday, February 21, 2009
Mystery Author Rosemary Harris at Velma Teague Library
Rosemary Harris appeared at the Velma Teague Library on Friday, Feb. 20, introducing herself as the author of the Dirty Business Mystery Series for St. Martin's Minotaur. She went on to say the first place she appeared after her launch party last year was The Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale. She said she had become an online friend with me. Rosemary said you might hesitate to call someone you meet online a friend, but I truly was one. She said, "Lesa knew I was a rank beginner, so she showed up at the bookstore to support me." So, when she had the opportunity to appear at the Velma Teague Library, she jumped at the chance.
Harris said she was an accidental author. She doesn't have five or six half-finished manuscripts. She lives in Connecticut, and one winter was so bad, they had seventeen snowstorms. That winter, there was a small item in The New York Times saying a mummified baby had been identified. She commented that the media has changed in the last five or six years. She was fascinated by this item, and, at that time, she had to dig for the story. She snooped around online, and became more hooked, so she called the doctor who assisted with the autopsy. He was the Director of the Henry Lee Institute at Yale. He told her the baby had not been 100% identified. Harris thought, what if they were wrong as to who the baby was? Her "what if" became her first mystery, Pushing Up Daisies.
Rosemary made her heroine, Paula Holliday, a gardener because Harris is a gardener. It took her one month to write the first thirty-five pages. Then, she hit the wall all first-timers hit. She decided to get past that brick wall by getting to fifty pages. Then the goal was 100 pages. It took her one and a half years to write the whole book, and a year to get an agent. It was torture to send her baby out in the world, and wait. It can be disheartening. After one year, she wrote a strong cover letter, and sent it, along with the first chapter to ten agents. Three answered. Harris said, no matter what you hear, agents don't have jobs unless they have someone to represent.
Harris said her latest book, The Big Dirt Nap, also came from information she read in the newspaper. She has numerous story ideas from articles clipped and filed from papers.
Here's an idea from the papers. Everyone knew the story of the chimp that attacked the friend of its owner, and had to be killed. The lady with the chimp lives near Harris in Connecticut, and she met the chimp. Harris' husband, Bruce, jogs, and a dog followed him home. They identified the owner, and took it home to this unusual property where there were dogs, and a wagon in the Wizard of Oz style. It was a nontraditional home setting. And, then the chimp came out. When she heard about the chimp in suburban Connecticut last week, she knew it was the chimp she'd met. She said that has got to end up in a story. Harris tweaks real-life stories for her books.
The inspiration for the latest mystery, The Big Dirt Nap, was the story of a woman living with her son on a reservation. She wasn't a Native American, but her son's father was. There was controversy as to whether she should be allowed to live there. Harris did research as to laws and history. Then, she made up her own tribe. She said there is a proliferation of casinos in Connecticut. Many people don't know the owner of Subway is backing a tribe in Connecticut in their fight for legal recognition. There are lots of stories behind casinos. There are Malaysian investors. And, there are lots of fun stories about them.
The Big Dirt Nap also includes a corpse flower. That is a plant, native to Indonesia, that only grows in the U.S. in cultivation. It needs to be hand-pollinated in order to bloom, and it only does that every seven to ten years. When it flowers, it smells like rotten meat.
In this story, Paula Holliday goes to a hotel to write a story about the corpse flower, and spend a girls' weekend with a friend. Her friend doesn't show up. But, a guy tries to pick Paula up, and ends up dead, with a hole in his head. She identifies the body, and is stuck there, without her friend, who still doesn't show. The story covers the three to five days it takes a corpse flower to bloom. The denouement of the story occurs when the flower blooms.
According to Harris, there was less pressure with the second book because she had a two book contract. With the first one, you do the happy dance when you write The End. But, the more you write, the more you learn. She said now, she could have changed a number of things in her first book. She thought the first one was funny, but it's only been with the second book that reviewers are commenting on the humor.
Rosemary Harris is working on the third book, to be called Dead Head. It's almost finished. It's another story ripped from the headlines. A while ago, there was a San Diego housewife who had been on the lam for 35 years. She had walked away from a work release program in Michigan, where she had been sentenced to twenty years after selling drugs to an undercover cop when she was nineteen. She was ripped from her middle-class family, and sent back to Michigan. Harris uses this as the basis for the next mystery.
She said she writes mysteries with gardening because she likes digging things up. Gardening and mysteries have parallels, with lots of overlap. To Harris, it's a mystery when anything works in a garden. She finds seeds a mystery.
One thing she learned while writing The Big Dirt Nap is there are over 100,000 missing persons in the U.S. No law enforcement will look for healthy adults unless they suspect foul play. That happens to Paula's friend.
In answer to a question, Rosemary said she includes bits of gardening. She doesn't want to write a craft mystery. Paula has to have a job, so she made her a gardener.
Harris had no idea she was writing a series when she wrote her first book, but her agent asked if she was, and, of course, she said yes. It's easier for an agent to sell a series. If a writer starts with a standalone, there's a lot riding on one book. Many mystery authors write a series first, and then say, but I really want to write a standalone. She said it's probably hard to maintain a long-running series, but, in saying what I really want to write, it negates the importance of the series. It reminds her of actors who say I really want to direct.
When Rosemary wrote Pushing Up Daisies, she was told to take out the one line of sex in the manuscript. When she questioned that, she was told in the lifespan of the series, an author can't have the heroine sleep with a man in every book, or she's not a "nice girl." A series is like real life in that the character has to deal with ramifications.
Harris said she takes her hat off to Sue Grafton and Lee Child, who can keep series characters going. Dana Stabenow recently did a guest appearance on Harris' blog, Jungle Red Writers, where Harris blogs with five other mystery authors. Dana has written sixteen books in the Kate Shugak series. She has a timeline to keep track of all the details, such as foods, friends from the past, and Kate's experiences. It's a big timeline, by the time you get to sixteen books.
In Harris' series, Paula is a gardener because it gives her a chance to be thrown in with lots of people, day laborers, people at the local diner. It's a great job for an amateur sleuth. She can be all around.
When asked if she set out to write mysteries, Rosemary said no. She just ran with the story she wanted to tell. She didn't know the book was going to be the first in a series, or a traditional mystery or a cozy.
In doing her research, she starts from scratch. She does research online. She has a number of email exchanges, with people in Australia, cops, and an expert in Texas called the Poison Lady. People love to talk about what they do. She doesn't have to do a great deal of research because her character is an amateur sleuth. Harris doesn't get too involved in the details of forensics. She writes a traditional mystery about a puzzle, with a smattering of forensics.
She admits she does get criticism and questions about the books. One email said Springfield could not be a college town because there was no college there. However, Springfield, CT is a town that Harris made up; it doesn't exist. So, she could place a college there. Many first time writers get facts wrong about guns. Harris said she used a Taser as a weapon in book two, and she was excited because while she's here in Arizona, she's going to tour the Taser facility in Scottsdale.
When asked about Babe, a character in the books, she said Babe is an aging, but ageless rock-and-roller who owns the diner. Many people like Babe. One young guy in the publishing house wanted her phone number. She did start out as a person Harris knew, but she grew into her own character. Babe is so popular that Rosemary wrote a short story about her, "Growing Up is for Losers." It was nominated for a Derringer, which makes her proud because it was her first, and only, short story. It's on her website.
The second book in the series was supposed to be set at the Philadelphia Flower Show, but she shelved it so she could include Babe in the second book. Series books need secondary characters to bring the books to life.
Harris said she writes a biographical sketch of her main characters - what's in their handbag, refrigerator, so she knows what kind of person she is, and how she will react.
She admitted there is a little of her in all of the characters. "If you don't climb in to their skins, you're just writing words." There is a little of her in each character.
The Dirty Business books are set in Springfield, a fictional town in Connecticut. Harris wanted to avoid the "Cabot Cove Syndrome", in which everyone in a small town is killed. Paula is a gardener, so she can travel. She can work for individuals, companies, write articles. So, she can leave town. Paula is originally from New York, so she might go there in a book, where there are more crimes. And, they don't always have to be murders.
Rosemary Harris uses greed, lust and revenge as themes. She doesn't read serial killer books. Her books are about the puzzle. What do ordinary people do in extraordinary circumstances? Motivation is greed, lust, and revenge.
Rosemary Harris's website is www.rosemaryharris.com
She blogs at www.jungleredwriters.com
The Big Dirt Nap by Rosemary Harris. Minotaur Books, ©2009. ISBN 978-0-312-36968-2 (hardcover), 256p.
(Rosemary Harris & Lesa Holstine)