(That’s our best Desi impression, and it’s appropriate here because Lucy Burdette, who is in real life our own successful mystery writer Roberta Isleib, has written a delectable, delicious brand new book, and it’s out now–and she’s coming to R. J. Julia Booksellers on Wednesday, Sept. 5 at 7 p.m. to read from it.)
She’s here on Books New Haven to tell us the real mystery behind her mysteries: how does she think them up? That is, after all, what everybody always wants to know from authors: where do ideas come from? And Roberta/Lucy has a wonderful answer:
How a Book Might Get Written by Lucy Burdette
Though it’s hard for me to believe, my tenth book, a Key West food critic mystery called DEATH IN FOUR COURSES, has hit bookshelves this week. Lots of new writers, and people who don’t write, and even those who do but who imagine that someone must know an easier way, ask me about my writing process. Though it’s an ugly, tortured path, I did think of a couple of things that dependably move my stories forward.
The first is no revelation: Plant butt in chair and write. Remain there until I hit my predetermined word count. Lately I’ve been trying for around a thousand words a day. If it takes two hours to write those words, then YAY!, I have time to do other things that all sounded more appealing as I fended them off while writing. On the more painful days, especially when I don’t know where I’m headed with the story, it might take seven or eight hours because I’ve checked my gmail inbox every five minutes. And then remembered there must be some urgent laundry to do or the dog needs walking or I can’t go one more minute without organizing that messy kitchen drawer. But I try to stick with it and to ignore the voices in my head telling me this is the worst dreck I’ve ever written. Because I know I can always (almost) fix it later. As my good friend Hallie Ephron famously tells her students: “Hold your nose and write!”
The second important part of my process is visiting the scene of the crime, either before or while developing the story. (And I’d be the first to admit, this is no hardship when it comes to Key West.)
A research outing might go like this: As I’m wandering through the crowds at the Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square on the Key West harbor, I spot a tarot card reader set up at a card table, wearing a deep blue turban with an enormous teardrop rhinestone bisecting his forehead. My mind begins to spin. What if my protagonist, aspiring food critic Hayley Snow, is addicted to having her cards read because she’s insecure about making her own decisions? And what if her tarot reader sees a card scary enough that even he gets rattled? And what if Hayley uses what she thinks she sees in his reactions to dig herself into deeper trouble? And so Marvin the card reader is born as a character. Only then one of my pals says ‘who’d go to a psychic named Marvin?’ So I change his name to Lorenzo, but later he admits that he grew up as Marvin but who’d want their cards read by a guy with that name?
Then, as I’m walking and biking around Key West, I notice that homeless people are everywhere, including perched on the stone walls around Mallory Square watching the performers and the tourists. After all, if you had to spend your nights outdoors, you might choose the tropics too. And I think about how they blend into the scenery, but probably notice all kinds of things that visitors wouldn’t see. And so Turtle, the homeless guy, is born into the story. One cool night once the crowds have thinned down at the Old Town Harbor, he notices two men arguing. When there is a man found hung in a sailboat’s rigging later, he doesn’t connect the dots. Or maybe he does, but he would never voluntarily go to the police with this information. But Hayley might worm it out of him.
And then suppose, while I’m attending the Key West Literary Seminar on food writing, that I get the idea that the keynote speaker for my fictional writing conference threatens to tell everyone’s secrets. Because secrets are caustic. Hmmm, how many people would kill to protect their interests?
So with those ideas and story fragments, I go back to my desk and apply seat to chair again.
Isn’t it a miracle that books get written as often as they do?
Lucy Burdette is the author of the Key West food critic mysteries, most recently DEATH IN FOUR COURSES. She also wrote 8 mysteries as Roberta Isleib. You are invited to follow her on twitter (www.twitter.com/lucyburdette) or facebook (www.facebook.com/lucyburdette) or check out her website (www.lucyburdette.com) where the artwork is gorgeous and the recipes to die for.