Saturday, March 12, 2011

Blackwell, Coonts & Littlefield for Authors @ The Teague

Deborah Coonts, Juliet Blackwell and Sophie Littlefield
There were so many authors coming into town before Tucson's Festival of Books that we were able to host two days of Women in Crime for Authors @ The Teague. Juliet Blackwell, Deborah Coonts and Sophie Littlefield starred in the first panel.

Juliet Blackwell served as moderator, and started by thanking me. She said I am a big supporter of the authors, a "huge player" in the mystery field. She told the audience about my blog, saying most authors slowly build a reputation, and it helps to have someone with name recognition in your corner. She went on to say that most authors have love affairs with their local libraries. They know what an influence libraries have on kids. And it was so wonderful to see the community really using the Velma Teague Library. The library has been busy every time she and Sophie have visited.

As moderator, Juliet said Sophie has an outstanding record of writing. They met two years ago at a mystery conference in Alaska. They both live in the Bay Area, but they met in Anchorage. They met in the bar because that's where mystery writers connect with others. Sophie told her she had written nine books, and Juliet was impressed. Then Sophie went on, but none are published yet.  It wasn't long before she landed a multi-book contract.

The first two books in that series are out, A Bad Day for Sorry and A Bad Day for Pretty. The next one, A Bad Day for Scandal, is due out in June. Then, Sophie wrote a young adult novel, Banished.

Sophie's latest book is Aftertime. Littlefield wanted to try another genre. That novel is part apocalyptic, with zombies. The zombies aren't the focus of the novel though. It's about how one goes about reconstructing society. Sophie and Juliet laughingly referred to Aftertime as The Stand in bra and panties.

Blackwell also reminded the audience that Littlefield won the Anthony Award for Best First Novel for A Bad Day for Sorry.

In introducing Deborah Coonts, Blackwell mentioned that Kirkus Book Reviews is notorious for not liking any books. Their reviews are always negative. But, they referred to Deb Coonts' debut novel, Wanna Get Lucky? as "Deliciously raunchy," and went on to say, "Although Agatha Christie is probably spinning in her grave." But that fits the setting since Coonts writes about Las Vegas. The second book in Deb's book is Lucky Stiff.

Juliet said she managed to publish her first novel. Her first series was written with her sister, under the name Hailey Lind. That was the Art Lovers' Mystery series. It was set in San Francisco, and featured Annie Kincaid, an ex-art forger, now a faux finisher. She said Annie legitimately gets entangled in art crimes. And, she said, "I think Lesa referred to them as caper novels." Sophie pointed out that Juliet did the cover of the fourth book in the series, Arsenic and Old Paint.

Juliet also writes two paranormal series. The third book in her witchcraft mystery series will be out in June. They feature Lily Ivory who runs a vintage clothing store in Haight-Ashbury, and she's a witch. Blackwell tries to be careful, presenting traditional beliefs in her books.

If Walls Could Talk was the first book in the Haunted Home Renovation series. Mel Turner is a reluctant contractor. She renovates high end homes in San Francisco. The second book in that series will be out in December.

The authors were asked how they find time to write. Deb has a writing schedule. She goes to the gym, writes until she can't write anymore, has breakfast, then writes more. She tries to write 1,500 to 2,000 good words a day.

Juliet said it isn't the writing. Authors have to find time for marketing. They're expected to be on Facebook and Twitter. Twenty years ago, writing was a private profession, not a public one. Most authors like to write in a room alone. There's an amount of pressure to be in constant contact with readers and reviewers through Twitter or Facebook. That isn't a natural fit for many authors.

Deb wanted to be a writer. She wanted to be published. She said for her first promotional event, she had an audience of 150 people. She was handed a microphone and told, "Go out, and be funny."

Sophie said she's naturally introverted. But, she can talk to readers. But, she has a hard time doing radio. It's hard to carry on a conversation with just one person on the radio, when that person might not be a reader. In discussing a writing schedule, though, she said she made a promise that her kids would always come first. Some things can go, and usually it's sleep that can go. Littlefield is grateful every day that she's still employed as a writer.

Coonts said she's on the opposite end of the spectrum from the others, just starting out as an author, trying to dig in when the business of publishing is imploding. Sophie and Deb met at Bouchercon, the mystery convention. Sophie said she's seen Deb's book all over. It had nice promotion. Coonts mentioned that Sophie wrote the blurb for Deb's latest book. "Lucky Stiff has outrageously imaginative characters, high-stakes action, sizzling love affairs, deadly enemies, naughty humor, and never-saw-it-coming twists. Irresistible."

That was Juliet's segue to ask about the sex and romance in Deb's books. Coonts answered that she was going through a divorce when she wrote Wanna Get Lucky? She thought she was writing a stronger romance novel, and the mystery was just there. She's proud of the relationships in the books. But, her publisher didn't know where to put her book. Coonts said just put me where Janet Evanovich is. Deb's been called "The Janet Evanovich of Las Vegas."

Deb's interested in her characters and having them grow. Sophie asked if Coonts shoots, and she said yes; she was raised in Texas. Her significant other is from New York, and he hadn't ever seen a gun. So, when he saw one at her place, he asked, "Who knows how to use that?" According to Coonts, in Las Vegas, you can shoot anything. In her third book, she has her character, Lucky O'Toole go to a shooting range with Dane, the security guard, and he thinks lucky doesn't know how to shoot. Deb finds it a funny scene.

So, what scenes do they love to write?  Deb said in Wanna Get Lucky? porn stars and swingers are in town at the same time. The climax is at a swingers' party in Spanish Trail where Coonts lives. Her father told her about wife-swapping parties in the '70s and some of the games played. Deb was still nervous about setting the party in her neighborhood until one of the neighbors said, oh, the neighbor a couple doors down holds a swingers' party once a month.

Since Juliet writes about witchcraft, she's always at risk of offending people. With witchcraft, you're walking a fine line. In the Bay Area, there are a number of people with Wiccan beliefs. And, different segments have different beliefs, so you can't please everyone. But, she hears how well she represents the community. Blackwell does lots of research. And, she likes to write about vintage clothes. She's not interested in long description. She won't stick around to read long narrative in a book. It's a difficult balance. How much narrative is enough. Blackwell went on to say her books are cozies.

Deb asked Sophie about her heroine, because she's pretty edgy. Littlefield said she's the only writer of bondage cozies. Her character, Stella Hardesty, is fifty. She's a plain, everyday gal. She was a victim of domestic violence, and now she has a business correcting abusers, bad guys who hurt women. Sophie had to do quite a bit of research on devices, so when she was in a shop, she knew all the devices for bondage. She said as a mystery writer there's a whole body of knowledge that you never knew you had. She had the same discovery when she did research for her apocalypse novel, Aftertime. Sophie was a homemaker before she started writing. Every day she's learning something new. After her apocalypse book, she knows how to make gasoline from plants. She said, "My job is a joy."

When Deb said her stories about characters, not the story of Vegas, Sophie agreed. Littlefield said Aftertime is a story of characters, not the zombies, although they are important to the story. The book shows how lonely her character was. But, that book is the first of hers with a sex scene. In cozy mysteries, you write, "They gently closed the bedroom door." But, her father came to see her on tour, and this was the one book she didn't want him to read. Aftertime is the first of a three book series.

Juliet mentioned that the authors all wrote books in which the places are almost characters. Coonts said she lives in Las Vegas because she did what every parent does. She allowed her fifteen-year-old son to pick where they would live. He picked Vegas because he was into golf, and wanted to be the next Tiger Woods. Now, she's glad he isn't.

But, Deb found magic in Vegas. It can be naughty, but, as she pointed out to the audience, that can happen right off Grand Avenue. There are shows, and silly things people do. They let their hair down in Vegas, and enjoy themselves. They're relatively sane. Vegas is a character in the books. The setting is a fictional hotel/casino. It's over-the-top. Coonts said Lucky isn't going anywhere because you have no imagination if you can't find a story in Vegas.

Asked about the story ideas, Deb said the porn stars do come to Vegas for the annual video awards, as in Wanna Get Lucky?  Coonts went, and sat in the back, and couldn't believe how seriously they took the awards. She said her son did go with her when she did research for the latest book. In Lucky Stiff, a female oddsmaker ends up in the shark tank at Mandalay Bay. Deb asked the attendant what would make the sharks attack a body. That was enough for her son. He never accompanied her again.

Littlefield's Bad Day series is set in rural Missouri. Sophie lived there for eighteen years, grew up there. Her new series is set in California. She's lived there for the last eighteen/nineteen years. Sophie said she can't do what Juliet does, though. Juliet gets all the city details right.

The apocalypse series is set in California's central valley. There's not a lot of vegetation there. Then, as you go toward the Sierras, you come to the foothills, gold country. Then it's forested. So, in a short time, you go from stark to lush. The vegetation and livestock is killed off in the book, and the characters have to find shelter. Sophie said authors ask, how can we punish our characters the most? What can we take away that hurts the most? So, in this series, Littlefield's character is a botanist, suffering from the loss of the plants. She knows the California wildflowers, the sense and smells. The plants will return in the course of the books.

When Blackwell maybe she writes about the Bay Area because everyone says, "Write what you know." Deb responded she prefers, "What can you imagine?" Juliet bases her stories on enough local detail to give the books the flavor of the area, a flavor of San Francisco. For instance, Blue Bottle Coffee is the current local favorite, replacing Peet's. There are coffee wars in the area between people who favor different brands.

Juliet's witchcraft series is set in Haight-Ashbury, hippie central in 1968. That gives a bit of flavor to the books, but hippies can't afford to live there now. She hates the term gutter punks, but that's what local street kids call themselves. They act like hippies, but have no social agenda. It's a local thing.

Deb Coonts said the locals are pleased that she's written a positive book about Las Vegas. She puts real places and people in her books, and they like that. Blackwell admitted she uses real places because she lacks imagination for some things. Deb did worry about setting a murder in Mandalay Bay, but that's the only shark tank in Vegas. She does give the Vegas police department a hard time in her books, because Vegas police are rude.

Since Coonts hadn't had the chance to introduce her character, I asked her to tell us about Lucky O'Toole. Lucky's in her early 30s. She was raised in a whorehouse. Her mother, Mona, owns the bordello. Mona's a real pill. Lucky never knew who her father was. At fifteen, she lied about her age and got a job as a cabana girl at a casino. She calls herself the chief problem solver at the Babylon, a position that doesn't really exist. As Head of Customer Relations, she handles guests and handles problems. Her best friend, Teddy, is a female impersonator who wants to get the girl. That's Lucky.

Deb said Vegas is defined by what's in town. There's the World Series of Poker, NASCAR, bull riders. Lucky deals with the fall-out. She's vulnerable, and doesn't trust people easily, but she wants someone in her life.

Deborah Coonts' third book is done, and turned in. The next one is called So Damned Lucky. What's it about? A magician disappears in the book. The UFO people are in town, and it involves Area 51. And, there's 300 miles of storm drains under Vegas, with people living underneath the city. And, there's a French chef.

Sophie Littlefield's A Bad Day for Scandal is due out in June. It's Sophie's favorite of her three books. The second in her apocalypse series, Reapers, is due out in July. And, her second young adult book will be out in October.

The third book in Juliet Blackwell's witchcraft series is due out in June, Hexes and Hemlines. Dead Bolt, the second in her Haunted Home Renovation series, will be out in December.

The authors were asked about their investment in their characters. Do the characters talk back?

Coonts admitted the French chef held her third book hostage. He was going to be the comic relief. She found herself stuck in the middle of the book. Then, one night, she was lying in bed in a fleabag hotel in San Antonio, and the French chef told her who he was. The book went fine then.

Juliet agreed, saying she's been in a weird place in her books. She knows where the story is going, but the characters wouldn't do that, or say that. In her first Art Lovers' Mystery, the landlord took over. He was just supposed to be the landlord, but he became a love interest for Annie. Blackwell said that's exciting. It feels like art, as if something is coming out.

Sophie said that is exciting. She has proposed a new YA series. While writing, she had difficulty with a plot point. When she understood the motivation, the entire plot followed from that. She likes to know her characters.

Characters need a backstory, a history, according to Juliet. But, it's important to know how much to tell the reader.  There's a whole history readers may never see.

Asked about outlining, the authors said there are two schools of thought. There are outliners, and there are pantsers, writing by the seat of your pants. Once you're established as an author, you can submit a proposal, and have it accepted. Until then, you may have to follow an outline.
 Sophie pointed out that Jeffery Deaver spends eight months outlining. Thriller writers tend to outline more than traditional mystery authors. They get everything worked out, and then just plug in dialogue. Authors who write character-based novels tend to be more pantsers.

Blackwell turns in an outline. Then, she gets a little money. When she turns in a manuscript, she gets a little more money. She's keeping her stories in San Francisco. She'd love to shift the stories to Oakland, where she lives. She's tried that, but her Manhattan editors say, I don't think so. She said it's a great discovery when you realize editors are working in publishing because they love books. They're not in it for the money. They're rooting for your books. They're not in it to give authors a hard time.

Deb said she completely wings it when writing her books. They're character-driven. Juliet knows her characters, and knows what would be fun.

Fun. That's an afternoon spent listening to Sophie Littlefield, Deborah Coonts, and Juliet Blackwell talk about books.

Juliet Blackwell's website is

Deborah Coonts' website is

Sophie Littlefield's website is


holdenj said...

Really enjoyed the update on some authors I like to read! I have some catching up to do, new titles are coming fast and furious!

Lesa said...

They certainly are coming fast and furious! I'm so pleased to see all of them continuing series I enjoy.

Kay said...

Lesa, I *so* enjoyed reading this. Love Sophie's & Julia's books and have Deborah's books on my 'want' list. I hope we see much more from all these authors. By the way, I agree with Julia's comments about you! I have found many great new to me authors via your blog & posts to DL.

Lesa said...

Thank you, Kay! This was a fun program. I love the books by all these authors. I hope you enjoy Deb's when you get a chance to get them.

And, thank you. I love to introduce readers to new authors.

Ricky Bush said...

Yep. I'm with Deb...I wing it, so I guess I'm a panster.

Lesa said...

I never did like following an outline, Ricky.

Kris said...

What a wonderful event, sounds like it would have been fun to attend. Thanks for sharing it with those of us who don't live there.

Lesa said...

My pleasure, Kris. Thanks for taking time to read about the event. It was so much fun.