Tuesday, June 20, 2017

SPECIAL FEATURE: The Mystery of a Sleuth

Joyce T. Strand, Author
The Jillian Hillcrest Mysteries (3)
The Bryn Bancroft Mysteries (3)
The Judge's Story
The Reporter's Story
How do you start to write a novel? Do you begin with a plot, a character, a genre? What comes first?

I started to write mystery novels in 2009. I selected the genre based on my love of reading all types of mysteries or suspense thrillers--noir, spy, cozy, hard-boiled, contemporary, historical. The only type of mystery I didn't like was true crime--too many loose ends!

After agonizing for a year about what should come first, I realized that for me, the character not only was first but would drive the plot.

 As I get ready to publish my ninth novel in November, I'm reminded of my process in the following discussion, which has steered me through the penning of my eight published mysteries. 

“Every man [and woman] at the bottom of his [her] heart believes that he [she] is a born detective.” John Buchan [bracketed additions mine!]

My path to writing a mystery began with choosing my character—the sleuth who would be the hero and solve the crime.

As an ardent reader of mysteries, I have many favorites—Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, a police detective who doesn’t always play by the rules but usually gets the guilty one. I immediately connect to almost all of John Grisham’s crime-fighting lawyers who fight for the
rights of their clients. Kathy Reichs whose background as a forensics anthropologist resulted in the Temperance Brennan series that pulls me into the bone-analysis process for unearthing the guilty party.

 I enjoy reading how Patricia Cornwell’s Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a medical examiner, figures it out even while she is threatened by culprits. And I’ll never forget the orchids grown by the rotund Nero Wolf created by Rex Stout as he and his assistant Archie manage to solve an intricate mystery without Wolf leaving his house.

 But how could I—a public relations executive with a thirty-year background of writing biotech and high tech articles and speaking to the public on behalf of my Silicon Valley companies—how
could I possibly write about crimes from the perspective of any expert? I didn’t have Michael Connelly’s crime reporter background, nor John Grisham’s lawyer training or practice.

But, I proceeded with John Buchan’s theory that we all believe we are born detectives. Therefore, anyone can be a detective. Beginning with my first novel, I determined that I would exploit my own background to feature a credible and interesting amateur sleuth.

I found many examples of other authors who have produced outstanding mysteries without depending on skilled crime scene investigative skills. British author Dick Francis relied on his experience as a jockey, and his non-detective characters encountered criminals and plenty of crimes to solve around the horse racing industry. Mary Higgins Clark creates everyday protagonists, whose crime-fighting varies with her settings, and they certainly find evil-doers. Nora Roberts manages to mix crime and romance and also uses settings to vary the plot. Even Nancy Drew was an amateur who as a teenager managed to solve crimes.

So, you guessed it, my first amateur sleuth, Jillian Hillcrest, was a public relations expert at a biotech company in Silicon Valley. In my first three novels, she got involved and solved crimes inspired by real California cases. My next three contemporary mysteries featured her boss, a financial executive turned winemaker. After all, I know about wine. I drink it all the time.

My next mystery, scheduled for release in November 2017, will feature an out-of-work young woman who has been somewhat marooned in the unincorporated small town of Ramona, California when she breaks up with her fiancĂ©. I currently live in Ramona and have selected it as the setting, because it is unique in so many ways—it’s a contradiction of rural roads and ranches surrounded by scenic mountain views peopled with cowboys on horses, and peppered with vineyards, wineries, and a growing artist community—all less than 35 miles from downtown San Diego.

My newest contemporary character, Emily Lazarro, is also a contrast of characteristics—she tries to please everyone, which thwarts her desire to be independent. But in the same way that I learned about the community, so does Emily. And despite running into difficulties and even a murder—or two—Emily also grows into her sleuth’s role.

As with all my amateur sleuths, various events draw Emily into the need to solve a crime. But I can’t tell you any more, or that would be a spoiler. But just know that Emily is at the center of it all.

Joyce T Strand Amazon Author page

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