Thursday, February 19, 2015

Vicki Delany and Kate Carlisle for Authors @ The Teague

No, I'm not back in Arizona, but a little of my heart will always be there. And, a piece of it will always be with the Authors @ The Teague program. Vicki Delany and Kate Carlisle recently appeared at the library. Thanks to Stephanie Rumsey for continuing the program, Anna Caggiano for writing the recap, and Judy Coon for the photos. I hope you enjoy the recap!

Vicki Delany and Kate Carlisle (courtesy Judy Coon)

At 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 5, the Velma Teague Library was pleased to welcome two mystery authors courtesy of the Poisoned Pen Bookstore. Librarian Stephanie Rumsey introduced Vicki Delany, president of the Canadian Crime Writers Association, and Kate Carlisle, a past winner of the Golden Heart and Daphne du Maurier Awards and a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers and Romance Writers of America.

The serendipitous convergence of lighthouses and wine is largely responsible for Kate and Vicki’s joint book tour. Displaying their respective book covers to the audience, Vicki pointed out a certain lighthouse-shaped similarity. Meeting at the Malice Domestic conference last year, the two authors shared dinner – and the aforementioned wine – and decided that, since both of their upcoming mysteries involved lighthouses, it would be a great idea to promote their books together. Unlike most decisions made under the influence of wine, it actually did turn out to be a great idea in the sober light of morning, and they’ve been enjoying themselves ever since. After all, as Vicki dryly (pun intended) observed, where better to talk about coastal lighthouses than the desert of Arizona?

By Book or by Crook, Vicki’s 16th published novel, is a bit of a departure for her. Her 15 other
novels, 10 of which have been published by Poisoned Pen press, include the Constable Molly Smith series (a fairly traditional police procedural), the more humorous Klondike Gold Rush mysteries, and various standalone psychological suspense novels.

By Book or by Crook, however, is a traditional cozy mystery. The break from human angst and tragedy proved to be tremendous fun to write. Moreover, it’s the only book she’s written under a pseudonym. This is actually a Penguin work-for-hire series, in which the publisher provides a setting (a fictional library inside the real Bodie Island Lighthouse, North Carolina) a vague idea of the main character (librarian Lucy Richardson), and the bare-bones concept of the plot. Since they own the copyright, the work is authored by “Eva Gates,” and Vicki’s name doesn’t appear anywhere. When an audience member later asked if she or the publisher came up with the pseudonym, she noted that it was a collaborative and surprisingly difficult effort, since they wanted to come up with a name that was easy to spell, but not already on Amazon (her first choice was taken by the author of a child’s potty-training book). She ended up naming “Eva” after her grandmother Eva – not the venerable Eva Gates preserves company in Bigfork, Montana.

The talk then moved to Kate’s Fixer-Upper series, This Old Homicide, which revisits Shannon Hammer, a building contractor specializing in renovating Victorian homes in Lighthouse Cove. While Bodie Island is a real lighthouse (sans a library), Lighthouse Cove is a mashup of two towns on the Northern California coast: the Victorian National Historic Site of Ferndale and the lovely coastal city of Mendocino. Kate admitted that her choice of Mendocino might have been influenced by the fact she likes to have an excuse to go there for research. Since they’re set in a small town, the two books in this series have been a very different writing experience from her Bibliophile Mysteries, set in San Francisco.

Shannon’s father, Jack Hammer (insert audience groan here – Kate swears she didn’t choose Shannon’s surname just to make that pun), originally ran the company. When Shannon’s mother died, her father began taking her and her sister to the construction sites. They were essentially adopted by the workers, who gave them gifts like little pink tools and little pink hardhats, culminating in her father’s gift of a very nice set of grown-up pink Craftsman tools when she took over the company. On the plus side, the distinctive color meant that none of the men would abscond with her tools. Unfortunately, when they were used as murder weapons in the first book, it also made her a prime suspect.

In her new book, Shannon’s very dear neighbor is found dead. A teller of tall tales, he may or may not have found a necklace from the wreck of a 150-year-old Spanish clipper ship that sank with a princess and a fortune in jewels onboard. Could it be a motive for murder?

Vicki Delany (courtesy Judy Coon)
Vicki then discussed By Book or by Crook’s protagonist, Lucy Richardson, a Harvard librarian from a wealthy, influential Boston family. Following the collapse of her engagement to her long-term boyfriend (Vicki noted rather gleefully that she left him kneeling in a restaurant), she escaped to her aunt in the Outer Banks to laze around in the summer sun and contemplate her future. This soul-searching ended when her aunt introduced Lucy to the director of the Bodie Island Lighthouse Library (pronounced “body,” leading me to hope that a future title will be “The Bodie in the Lighthouse,” because why waste a good pun).

After Lucy is hired, the library board chair is found murdered during a special evening reception in honor of their important summer exhibition of Jane Austen first editions. Even worse (for book lovers, at least), someone starts stealing the Austens one at a time in the order in which they were written. Lucy is forced to turn amateur sleuth to discover why someone is out to destroy the library. Lighthouses can turn a pretty profit by charging admission (and even becoming a bed and breakfast, as an audience member pointed out) – is there a financial motive to the crimes?

Vicki doesn’t believe in writing what you know, as the old axiom says, but rather writing what you want to know. So when she was offered this book set in the Outer Banks, she agreed despite never having visited. She quickly changed that, driving down the first week of October, 2012. In a textbook case of bad timing, she pulled up to the entrance of Cape Hatteras National Park just as a brown-uniformed ranger was closing the gates for the government sequester. All her pleading (“But I’m writing a book! I drove all the way down here just to see this lighthouse!”) was in vain. Fortunately, the trip itself wasn’t in vain, since she toured the similarly-designed Currituck Beach Lighthouse, owned by the conservation society. Currituck is a charming, tiny town with a bookstore, well-known for wild horses (which she didn’t see). She was also able to tour the beaches and the nearby town of Nags Head to get a firsthand feel for the setting. In the book, Lucy’s cousin owns a bakery, while the cousin’s fiancé owns a restaurant overlooking the sound; though both are fictional, they’re based on real places.

During her return trip last September, she climbed the 210 steps to the top of the Bodie Island Lighthouse (which isn’t nearly big enough to contain a library, alas). In addition, she drove out to the marshy walking trails at 7 p.m. to see what time the light turned on, taking lovely, spooky pictures. On her drive back, she narrowly missed hitting a deer that jumped in front of the car. This inspired a sequence where Lucy is being pursued on the road leading to the lighthouse, only to be saved by a deer jumping out in front of her pursuer. Vicki would never have expected deer to live in such a sandy, sparsely vegetated area, so she never would have thought of that plot point if it hadn’t happened to her. Even with all the online resources available today, you just can’t beat the hands-on research of a site visit. If you plan to follow in her footsteps, though, keep in mind that everything shuts down in the winter months. Alternatively, Kate pointed out that you can tour one of several lighthouses in California, instead.

Agreeing on the importance of this kind of research, Kate marveled about how often she’ll stumble across something she had no idea existed. In the Bibliophile Mystery due to come out in June, Ripped from the Pages, Brooklyn the bookbinder returns to her parents’ Napa commune for the excavation of a trendy wine cave tasting room. In an act of heroic self-sacrifice, Kate also went to Napa to research (i.e, drink wine). Yet again, research (and wine) proved the catalyst for great things, since Kate was amazed to see the original cave built by Chinese railroad workers who’d traveled to California for the gold rush. The winery had hired them to excavate a storage cave by hand – you can actually see the pick marks, since they had no heavy machinery. It was entirely made by manual labor. She wouldn’t have known that eerie cave was there, let alone put it into the book, if she hadn’t traveled there herself.

Kate Carlisle (courtesy Judy Coon)

Besides loving research (and wine) and writing about lighthouses, Vicki and Kate both write books about books. In each of Kate’s Bibliophile Mysteries, Brooklyn works on a rare book, whether taking it apart, putting it back together, or authenticating it. Each of these books serves as a catalyst for the mystery. Moreover, she tries to insert references from each book into her plot. In Ripped from the Pages, the cave excavation work reveals a wealth of silver, furniture, artwork, and other hidden treasures – plus a corpse with a suitcase containing a very rare copy of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, one of Kate’s childhood favorites. In another book, Brooklyn is working on a copy of Oliver Twist (which famously features a band of child thieves), while part of the larger plot features a band of book thieves. Her first Bibliophile mystery ambitiously featured Faust, which she had to reread since Marguerite was an important character for her story. Another includes A Secret Garden. However, in A Cookbook Conspiracy and If Books Could Kill, the cookbook and the collection of unknown Robert Burns poems were entirely fictional. In the case of the former, it’s a fortunate circumstance, since the home remedies in the cookbook were truly horrendous.

Because Jane Austen is so prevalent in pop culture right now, her writing is an important aspect of the plot of Vicki’s By Book or By Crook. To capitalize on that, she made this fictional Austen exhibit so wildly, improbably successful on a nationwide scale that the library decides to set up supplementary lectures about Jane Austen, allowing Lucy’s preparatory Austen research to enhance the novel. In future books, Vicki plans to have the plot very loosely reflect the classic novel the library’s book club is currently reading. In one plot, when Lucy’s mother tries to persuade her to return to Boston to marry her intended, the son of her father’s law partner, the book club will be reading Pride and Prejudice. In another, they’ll be reading Kidnapped when Lucy sees a shipwreck on the shore. Vicki’s currently considering which book to feature in the fourth installment of the series, so your suggestions are welcome!

Both Vicki and Kate agree that they never use so much of the book-within-a-book technique that readers who are familiar with the source text would be able to guess whodunit. It’s just small parallels, like the “Easter eggs” hidden in video games. Kate feels like these are not only exciting for the reader to catch, but a fun test for herself to see what sort of references she can bring to the book.

The reason Kate chose bookbinding as Brooklyn’s profession is that Kate loves books as physical objects. She says she was a lonely child who went to the library all summer long, and haunted used bookstores for their lovely smell. From the time she was about 5 years old, she would make her own blank books as gifts for her mother by using the cardboard sheets the cleaners sent back with her father’s shirts, bound up with paper and pretty ribbon. Most authors say they began writing when they were very young, but Kate made blank books instead! She only started writing 30 years later, inspired by a master bookbinder friend who studied at UT Austin and took apart 12th century books for a living. She realized that a bookbinder protagonist would be ideal for her, and began taking classes in bookbinding once she sold the idea to publishers.

Vicki pointed out that two of the major trends in cozy mysteries right now are writing about books and food; she’s trying to combine the two in her Lighthouse Library Mysteries. Although she has no recipes in this series, she does mention a ton of food, thanks to Lucy’s bakery-owning cousin. Although the series is a work-for-hire venture, she’s actually on her own in terms of developing the books from here on out. Even with the first book, the outline provided was so minimal that most of the book is her own creation. She made up everything about Lucy’s character other than her occupation, name, and age. Personality quirks like Lucy’s insecurity about her clothing in comparison with her perfectly-put-together mother – who is the sort of person with the perfect Ralph Lauren blouse and matching accessories for every occasion – help make a character a well-rounded, flesh-and-blood person instead of a cardboard sketch.

Vicki is currently taking a holiday from lighthouses to write another series for Berkely Prime Crime, based on her own original idea of year-round Christmas mysteries set in the fictional town of Rudolph, New York, near Rochester. It’s the sort of classic Christmas-card setting that everyone always pictures, regardless of where they live. Towns like Snowflake, Arizona just can’t compete, as one of her characters declares when a reporter from a famous international travel magazine comes to visit. Watch out for Rest Ye Murdered Gentlemen and We Wish You a Murderous Christmas, soon to be decking a bookshelf near you!

As far as their writing routines go, these two authors are completely different. Vicki writes between 3-4 hours a day nonstop, on a tight schedule. She doesn’t tend to write when she’s touring because interruptions throw off her routine. Kate, on the other hand, writes for 8 hours per day, but not straight through; she’ll wander back and forth between writing and other things. They did agree on the need for self-imposed discipline in order to succeed at writing. In Vicki’s former life as a systems analyst, although the deadlines for projects could be a year or two in the future, smaller chunks of the work had to be delivered periodically to keep people on target. With books, however, you can easily find yourself having waited until the last minute. While pumping out 20,000 words per day under pressure can actually be done, Kate assured us that it can’t be done well.

Vicki shows her manuscripts to a few trusted friends for feedback before submitting them to her editor, while Kate has a romance-writer friend who exchanges chapters with her for mutual editing. Kate will generally edit the last chapter while the new one is being reviewed, so her completed first draft is really more along the lines of a second draft. If she has time, she finds that reading her manuscript aloud to feel the rhythm of the words is very helpful. Vicki also likes to leave what she’s written for a few days so she can look at it with fresh eyes. Vicki emphasized that editing your own work all by yourself just isn’t possible – your mind glosses over what you think you already know, so you see what you expect to see rather than what’s actually there. Both of them write on a computer, rather than by hand.

When an audience member mentioned seeing more books lately with typos, errors, and continuity problems, Kate noted that sometimes editors will ask authors to move around parts of the story at the last minute; edits under pressure can lead to something that’s dependent on an event later in the story happening out of sequence. Vicki recently had a minor character named Frances who, as she discovered when reading the manuscript proof, had her name spelled two different ways. A good copywriter is essential to help catch things like that.

When asked how they started writing, Kate notes that she was driven to it during law school by the desire to kill her contracts professor, “the worst person in the world.” She’d take Fridays off to study, and would instead write stories in which the despised teacher met a grisly end. Although she was a legal secretary who came from a family of lawyers, she only lasted a year in law school before she quit. She knew she was capable of doing it, but hated “lawyer thinking” – her mind works in terms of right and wrong, not arguing the other side. So, all her legal research went into writing three books about lawyers which received very good rejections. Proving that persistence pays off, this New York Times bestselling author wrote for about 20 years before she finally sold a book. It wasn’t until she figured out a series hook that she managed to get published. A “hook” is the concept that sustains the series, like bookbinding or a library in a lighthouse.

Vicki, meanwhile, began writing by emulating Kate’s childhood bookbinding adventures. She wrote a story for her daughters one Christmas, including their own names, and hand-bound it with red ribbon. She enjoyed the experience so much that she took a course at community college, which unfortunately taught her that she really didn’t want to write kids’ books for a living. However, since she needed to turn in writing to complete the course, and already liked mystery novels, she tried her hand at that.

Both also wrote for wish fulfillment, to a certain extent. Vicki set her Constable Molly Smith Mysteries in a setting modeled after the real town of Nelson (not named after Admiral Nelson, like she had initially assumed), because she wanted to be there rather than in downtown Toronto working as a systems analyst. This was also why Kate chose wine country as a setting; she took so long to sell her books that she put everything in them that she wanted to be near.

When asked why she didn’t write any mysteries incorporating the show business experience she gained working behind the scenes on Solid Gold, The Gong Show, The Dating Game, and The Newlywed Game, Kate confessed that she did actually try that in her first, unpublished book. When searching for a hook for a series, she thought of using a wardrobe mistress, since she loved the idea of featuring the costumes. It might have been viable if the character worked for a small theater in more of a cozy-friendly environment, but traditional mystery readers don’t find Hollywood and show business very appealing. She’s decided to leave it to her ex-boss Chuck Barris to write the show-biz mysteries. The writing experience she gained on the shows came in handy, though -- as script supervisor, her first writing job was trying to drag funny stories out of the couples on The Newlywed Game. Once you’ve done that, you can do anything.

Vicki isn’t inclined to write books based on her own job experience, either; readers will wait in vain for The Royal Analyst Bank Mysteries to appear. She has a great deal of other life experience to draw on, though. She’s traveled throughout the world, although there are still some places she hasn’t been. She lived in South Africa for 7 years, and went on safari with her daughter, a Canadian diplomat, stationed in Sudan. That setting found its way into Juba Good, one of her “Rapid Reads.” These are novellas written for adults with low literacy skills, who are learning English as a second language, or even just commuters who want a very fast read for the train. They contain adult language, themes, and plots, but are written at about a second or third grade reading level. In some ways, she is following in the footsteps of her mother, who taught first and second grade. Vicki confessed that, contrary to what you might expect, Rapid Reads are much harder to write than a regular novel, since you have to carefully analyze each sentence to make sure it’s not too complex. At this point, librarian Stephanie pointed out that the Velma Teague Library owned a copy of one of her Rapid Reads, A Winter Kill, in our special adult literacy collection. An audience member immediately proceeded to check it out. The Velma Teague Library: always at your service!

The library is grateful to both Vicki Delany and Kate Carlisle for a very entertaining evening, despite the lack of actual wine (or lighthouses) on site. Thanks also to The Poisoned Pen for selling books at this event. For more information about Vicki and Kate’s books, see and

By Book or by Crook by Eva Gates. NAL. 2015. 978-0451470935, 352p.

This Old Homicide by Kate Carlisle. Penguin. 2015. 9780451469205. 336p.


Brenda Buchanan said...

What a terrific discussion! Thanks for posting it here for those of us not fortunate enough to be in Arizona to enjoy.

Kay said...

What a lovely event! I would have loved to be there. In fact, I just finished one of Vicki's Molly Smith mysteries. And I was just today talking about seeing Carolyn Hart and Earlene Fowler at the Velma Teague. Good memories!

Catherine A. Winn said...

This was so interesting! I'm a devoted Constable Molly Smith fan, that's how I discovered Vicki, and can't wait to read her other books. And now I have a new author, Kate, to read and enjoy!

Lesa said...

Thank you, everyone! I used to recap all these events, so I appreciate Anna's fabulous reporting of this one. She does make you feel as if you were there, doesn't she? I'm a Constable Molly Smith fan, too. Actually, a fan of both authors. I agree, Kay. Good memories.

Anonymous said...

Awww, thank you, Lesa! I'm so glad people enjoyed it. :-)


Lesa said...

Of course, they did, Anna. You did a great job. Thank you!