In Addition to Murder, A Good Mystery Novel Needs . . . . ?

I am not a joiner. Nor a Facebooker, not a Twitterer—sorry, that should probably be Tweeter. So this will be my first blog. But I’ve not been writing much of anything recently, for a variety of reasons, so perhaps it’s time for a change.

I have lived Berkeley, California, for many years—married here, raised two daughters while my husband worked. Home to a major university, with good schools and libraries and many other amenities, Berkeley is a fine place to live. But on weekends, and vacations, and nearly any other time we were free, we found ourselves exploring the vast California near-wilderness to the north. First with a cab-over camper on a truck, then with a fifth-wheel trailer, the LaPierre family including dogs (and one Manx cat), camped in the redwood groves and on the beaches, hiked in the forested inland mountains and visited the small towns there. We attended the yearly sheep-dog trials in Booneville. In the 1980’s I went to Mendocino for the demonstrations against coastal oil drilling

When my girls were old enough to be thoroughly wrapped up in their own affairs, thank you very much, it appeared that I was finally free do what I’d always and forever wanted to do, and hadn’t had the time. Or the nerve. I’d write a novel. Which, it turned out, was pretty much what everyone else in Berkeley was doing including two people in the neighborhood, one of them on my very block. Undaunted (or so I told myself), I joined a writing group, started a story set in Berkeley (write about what you know) and couldn’t seem to make it work. Too familiar, too flat—boring!

Finally it occurred to me that a more interesting what I knew was that  northern area I had explored and loved, and I decided to try a story set on the Mendocino Coast, in an invented town, Port Silva, based loosely on the real town of Fort Bragg. I spent time in the area, visited the library there, picked up locally written histories and the local weekly newspaper. I hung out in restaurants and bars and  grocery stores and listened. I got the feel of the place and the people, drew a map for my version of the town, and had–ta da!–the setting. It was the setting, I feel now, that drew me on. Suddenly I had hope and energy, and my writing group friends were supportive. The dedication in the second of my books to be published reads: “This is for the Wednesday Night Barracudas, with deepest gratitude and affection.”

Then came the characters. Story-lines move and occasionally hang; but then and still, story-line for me is usually  a one-step-forward, two steps back and regroup: who’s in danger, who turns up dead or escapes. Characters are what make the story real. And in this story, the characters are not from Berkeley. Port Silva has an art gallery or two, bookstores, restaurants, hardware stores; but no Macy’s, no Target. There are wealthy people with second homes on the Mendocino Coast, of course, but the ordinary citizens there are accustomed to sweeping Pacific storms that cause power failure and close roads, to limited access to some necessities, to other hardships of distance. To taking care of themselves and others.

In my ten books set in California’s far north, some characters appear in a single book, others appear and then reappear and have come to seem like friends I’ve known for ages. Volatile Police Chief Vince Gutierrez appears in the first book and continues throughout the series, along with his wife, school teacher Meg Halloran, and her daughter, Katy. Piano teacher and very private single mother Charlotte Birdsong appears fully  only once, in Grandmother’s House, with brief references later. Private investigator Patience Mackellar and her adult daughter, Verity, debut in 2001 in Keepers, along with Detective Johnny Hebert, and are featured in the next two books. And on they all go, or come. The cast in the tenth book, set in Trinity County, is different,  but similar in that they too live in a far place. Their story happens in Run A Crooked Mile. 

And there were the dogs, of course. Meg Halloran has a Komondor named Grendel, Charlotte Birdsong a Labrador-Poodle cross called George. Patience has a terrier, Ralph, and Verity’s adopted daughter, Sylvie, an Akita cross named Zak. And in Run A Crooked Mile,  a yellow Labrador retriever named Tank plays a large part.

I should note that the last five of my ten books were published by Perseverance Press/John Daniel & Company, and are all still in print. For thoughts about Mendocino County, and Trinity County, see the piece on my own web page called “Hard Times in Small Places,” the most recent entry in the section “The Music of What Happens.”

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10 Responses

  1. Janet, you’ve said that when you first came to Northern California from Arizona, you felt you’d come home. I had that experience too. And I’d just like to add that the first time I read one of your books, I felt like I’d come home, mystery-wise. Finally there were characters and settings I could identify with, that resonated with me. I can’t remember if it was UNQUIET GRAVE or THE CRUEL MOTHER, but I know it kept me up all night!

    • Thanks, Meredith. I’ve been looking over my oldest books, just to see how they stood up; and I was pleased to remain unembarrassed by them. One never knows.
      Janet

  2. You claim to be not a joiner, Janet, but I’ve been on panels with you and have watched a riveted audience when you talk about your books! It’s nice to see you here.

    • Camille, that’s the old “once a teacher” effect. I’m sure you’re familiar with it, and apparently it lasts forever. Nice to know, eh?
      Janet

  3. Yes, California is home. Totally understand. Your books are so unique. Northern California is a character in them. So glad you’re blogging here, and I’ll keep a look out for your next post.

    • Thanks, Janet. Just spent a hour down at the good ol’ S.F.Bay with the dogs, and as usual, it reminded me how much I do love our northern California places.
      Janet (one of many).

  4. What I love about your characters is how real they are and how inviting their daily lives are. It would make me want to stop by for a visit, I mean if I didn’t understand the deadly danger that might put me in.
    Thanks for this blog. I’ll be looking forward to your next.

    • Thanks, Sue. Those characters are very real to me–people I feel I’ve actually spent time with. One of the rewards of writing fiction, I guess.
      Janet

  5. I couldn’t agree more about setting. For me, a well-defined setting is like another character. And California settings I love in particular. (I moved back to Oklahoma six years ago but I still miss California — every day.)

    Now I’ll have to look up your books! Thanks for your post.

    Pat Browning
    author of Absinthe of Malice
    with Metaphor for Murder in the works,
    both set in the Fresno area
    of the Central San Joaquin Valley

    • Nice to hear from you, Pat. I do particularly love northern California but in general I feel that settings in any novel are important. They’re interesting in themselves, to me; and they help the reader in understanding the characters who live there. I’ll look for your book (s) and learn more about the Central San Joaquin Valley.
      Janet

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