Maine Crime Writers’ own Vicki Doudera is a million-dollar broker with a busy coastal firm handling luxury real estate. She is the author of nonfiction books on real estate relocation, and of the Darby Farr Mystery Series—A House to Die For, which was selected for the Best of 2010 list in Suspense Magazine, and Killer Listing, as well as the upcoming Deadly Offer, due out in April of 2012. Sarah Graves, also of Maine Crime Writers, caught up with her long enough to ask her a few questions:
Sarah: I know you wrote two non-fiction books before you began writing fiction. What made you decide to add fiction to your repertoire?
Vicki: Moving to Maine and Where to Retire in Maine are my two non-fiction books, published by the folks over at Down East. I’m very proud of them, especially Moving to Maine, which helped a lot of good people decide to make our state home. It still sells well and a new edition is in the works. In my nonfiction period, I also penned scores of magazine articles (one of my favorites — “A Brief History of Briefs” — chronicled the history of men’s underwear for the Old Farmer’s Almanac.) One piece even made it into Reader’s Digest. And yet…I always wanted to write fiction.
My inspiration came in a curious way. After five years as a full-time, non-fiction author, I realized that my extroverted self craved company. On a whim, I took a real estate class in Portland, heard all the things that can go wrong in a transaction, and flipped to the back of my notebook and wrote, “Bludgeoned buyers… slaughtered sellers… and an agent ready to solve the crime.” That was the genesis of Darby Farr, my intrepid real estate agent sleuth.
Sarah: Once you made the leap to fiction, did you find it easier or more difficult than non-fiction? Were there any particular challenges that you weren’t expecting?
The going was difficult at first. Writing non-fiction involves structure and organization, and I couldn’t get the hang of how to do something similar in fiction. One day, while sitting at a signing at L.L. Bean, it hit me that I could impose some sort of order on my novel as well. I began to outline, plot out scenes, and give more of a structure to the story, which eventually became my first mystery, A House to Die For.
I enjoy writing fiction for many reasons. I love that I can carry a story around in my head, and work out scenes or develop characters while walking the dog or driving to an appointment. And feedback comes to me much more quickly with my mysteries. It took years for me to meet the readers of my non-fiction books.
Sarah: Because I write about the town I live in, people sometimes think I’m using real people as characters. Do you take care to make your characters different from the people you interact with in real life? Do they believe you when you tell them they’re not in your book?
Vicki: You would not believe the characters I meet every day in real estate! Last week I encountered a genuine cat hoarder while trying to show a property. Trust me, it’s a challenge not to use some of these colorful folks just as they are, but that is where imagination comes in.
Sarah: What kinds of things did you read as a child and young adult? Did they form you as a writer at all? Is there a writer you wanted to be like, or that you still emulate in any way?
Vicki: I began learning about suspense at a young age. As a first grader I was absolutely hooked on the gothic TV series Dark Shadows. Once I could read, I devoured Nancy Drew, Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier – all the names most of us (female) mystery writers would drop.
As far as who inspires me now, my friend Tess Gerritsen is a role model. I met her back when she was writing romance novels and believe me, her fame has not changed her one bit. I believe we all influence those around us. I enjoy mentoring young writers, and encouraging women in midlife to follow their artistic dreams.
Sarah: Is there a kind of thing you absolutely don’t want to write? Something you see being done by others (who shall of course be nameless) that you deliberately avoid?
Vicki: I don’t want to write super disturbing books because ultimately I think of mysteries as entertainment, and to me, being unable to sleep is not any fun. I recently read a best seller in which the climax consisted of an entire family getting slaughtered in the middle of the night. I felt exploited as a reader, and sorry that I forked over the money for the book.
Sex scenes…believe it or not, I’d like to try writing some, just to see if I can do it. Not sure if they fit in my Darby Farr Mysteries, but perhaps a stand-alone…
Sarah: How do you approach a new project? With an outline? Or do you just plunge in and sort it all out later? Do you re-write a lot?
Vicki: I start a new book by creating a handwritten outline in one of my kids’ cast-off school notebooks. My outlines are pretty bare bones – I basically need to know the villain, ending, setting and some characters, and the high points of the story. I have a rule that I don’t rewrite until I’m done with each draft – that’s to keep the perfectionist in me from endlessly honing the same three paragraphs! I keep pushing forward and then I re-write, probably two or three times. Then it’s off to my stellar readers – my husband, agent, and good friend Lynda Chilton, and more re-writing.
Sarah: Do you structure your writing time? Say, so many pages per day, or so many hours per day? Do you like having deadlines?
Vicki: I’m doing a weekly quota right now as an experiment. I’ve never really written like that, but I think I’ll have a happier winter if I keep myself humming along. I do like – and desperately need – deadlines.
Sarah: How do you find time to write? Because I have to assume that real estate can be a real time-eater. Do you ever just go somewhere that you can’t be reached, to get some writing done?
Vicki: Way back when I was writing magazine articles, my husband Ed and I owned a ten-room Camden inn. We also had three kids, so life was hectic. He’d give me a glass of wine and say, “You’ve got an hour. Go write.” I had a little room in the attic with a reconditioned Mac and I would go up there and produce something in that short amount of time. It trained me to focus.
My schedule changes every day. Whenever I have free time, I sit down and get something written. Depending on the season, I may have a couple of hours or a couple of days. In terms of being reachable – I’m always available to make that big sale, but at times I’ll ignore my phone or silence it for a while.
Sarah: Are you sensitive to criticism? Or have you (unlike me, say) found a way to be philosophical about it?
Vicki: You definitely need a thick skin when you create any kind of art, and no one likes what my father used to call “constructive criticism.” (I’m cringing just thinking about it.) I keep in mind all the positive feedback I receive and let the other stuff go. You can’t please everyone, right?
Sarah: Where do you see Darby Farr going next? Will she come back to Maine, or will we see her in other locales?
Vicki The third mystery comes out in April — Deadly Offer — and Darby is in California wine country to solve the murder of a boutique vineyard owner. I’m writing the fourth now and that one’s set back in Maine. It’s really fun having Darby roaming the streets of Hurricane Harbor again. I can definitely see the appeal of setting a series in one place. But Darby, like me, enjoys traveling, eating regional foods, and drinking local cocktails, so she’s hitting the road for the fifth mystery. Maybe the Deep South… or Arizona? Or Austin..? Wherever she goes, murder is sure to follow.
Sarah: Thanks, Vicki. Good luck on the fabulous fourth — and fifth! We can’t wait to see where Darby turns up next.
Even if Vicki’s books weren’t so good, I would just be happy looking at those covers … they are TO DIE FOR!!
Thanks for the great interview. I love a good mystery but I agree I don’t want to read gorey stories. I have enough in real life that keeps me awake nights!