I’m still in Key West. Yes, I know it’s been warm in New England. Everyone seems to delight in telling me this. My friend and fellow Level Best editor, Mark Ammons wrote to say, “80 degrees here today, no humidity, sucker!” To which I reply, are you sitting on your balcony in your pjs and bare feet staring out at the turquoise-blue Atlantic? I thought not.
So I thought I’d continue on the Key West theme with an interview with Lucy Burdette about her new Key West-based mystery series. If you haven’t read the first one, AN APPETITE FOR MURDER, you are in for a treat. In her real life, Lucy’s alter ego, Roberta Isleib has been something of a mentor to me–asking me to be the editor of the Sisters in Crime New England newsletter, blurbing my first book, and also teaching me at Seascape, the weekend long workshop she runs with Hallie Ephron every fall, which I heartily recommend. Lucy also blogs over on Jungle Red with fellow Maine Crime Writer Julia Spencer-Fleming.
Here’s our interview.
So the obvious question–why Key West and why a food critic?
My husband and I visited KW about six years ago and fell madly in love with the place. The more time we spend there, the more interesting layers we uncover. The town hosts so many different kinds of people, reaching from the richest of the rich at one end to a significant homeless population on the other, and of course, the visiting tourists in between. There are folks who were born and raised on the island and lots of others who come to party or who come because they don’t quite fit into a traditional lifestyle but find they feel comfortable on this quirky island. There’s a thriving artistic scene, great food, and a fabulous literary history. So when thinking about pitching a new series, Key West was a natural!
The food critic piece was suggested by my new publisher. Since I love food and cooking and even better, eating at restaurants, the theme seemed like a natural. (My husband likes to tease that my surname “Isleib” means ‘large lunch followed by a restful nap’ in German.)
Hayley Snow, your protagonist in the Key West Food Critic Mystery series, is younger than your series protagonists in the past. Why did you choose to write about someone at Hayley’s stage of life? What was different about writing from the point of view of a character Hayley’s age?
Funnily enough, Hayley is pretty close to the age of my first mystery protagonist, professional golfer Cassie Burdette. But she seems younger, because she’s a little dizzy–not nearly as serious as Cassie. AN APPETITE FOR MURDER was commissioned as part of a light, cozy series, so I couldn’t saddle Hayley with the kind of family trauma and drama I’d given to both Cassie and my advice column protagonist, Dr. Rebecca Butterman. So she comes from fairly normal divorced parents and is experiencing an identity crisis about her future and her career.
I wanted Hayley to have an impulsive streak that would explain both why she follows a man she barely knows to Key West and why she bombs around the island nosing into a murder case–her youth explains some of that, and her personality, the rest.
Of course, Hayley has a great friend, Eric, who is a practicing psychologist, as you once were. He’s also a little older and wiser. Does Eric sometimes say things or give advice you’d like to give to Hayley?
Seems like I can’t write a series without inserting a psychologist into the mix! I was a practicing clinical psychologist before I segued into writing, and I love using that background in the books. I also like showcasing psychologists and therapists who are smart, loyal, sensible people–unlike the goofy characters you often see in the movies. So Hayley’s friend Eric serves as a kind of mentor for her, what Michael Hauge would call a “reflection character”–someone who’s on the protagonist’s side and helps her achieve her transformation. (Here’s a good article on the subject should you want to read more: http://www.storymastery.com/articles/98-what-are-friends-for-the-kings-speech.)
Eric is playing a different role in the second book, DEATH IN FOUR COURSES, as he’s one of the possible suspects in the next murder. It’s been very interesting to write–Hayley is finding it necessary to grow up and step up a little in order to be a good friend to him.
Your story “The Itinerary” from The Rich and the Dead, the MWA anthology edited by Nelson DeMille has been nominated for an Agatha Award for best mystery. Congratulations! Recently when my Level Best Books co-editor Leslie Wheeler and I taught a workshop in mystery short story writing at the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, we used the first sentence and first paragraph of your story (available here) as an example of a great opener. I love they way it moves you through a full emotional gauntlet, while economically telling you everything you need to know about the main character. How would you contrast writing a mystery novel with writing a short story?
Writing a short story is wicked hard. It’s interesting to me to look back and notice that most of the stories I’ve written feature characters from my novels. So that means I know them quite well and hopefully can pluck out the right details to show their character, even in a short format. Detective Jack Meigs, the hero of “The Itinerary”, was one of the main characters in the advice column mystery series. I just loved him and really hated to see that series end, so this was a good chance to write about what I imagined might have happened in his life after ASKING FOR MURDER.
Aside from showing character though, a short story has to have a perfect little gem of a plot. It seems so much easier to me to brainstorm a meandering novel with multiple suspects than to come up with something that has to be cleverly wrapped up in 5000 words!
What are you working on now?
I should have sent back the revisions from my editorial letter on the second food critic mystery, DEATH IN FOUR COURSES, by the time this blog goes live (or else I’m in big trouble!) There were a few “plotholes” to fix that my editor put her finger on–and after a few months away from a manuscript, tweaking comes as naturally as breathing.
Once that’s en route, it’s back to hacking the first draft of book three out of the weeds, which involves Hayley judging a cooking reality show. At a charity event for the Waterfront Theater in Key West, I donated naming rights to a character. The auction winner instructed me to use a local character named Randy Thompson, who performs as a drag queen in a local bar. So I’m working on his character, which as you know Barbara, necessitated visiting said drag bar with friends in tow. This series is so much fun!
And thanks so much for inviting me to visit the Maine Crime Writers–waving hello from the far reaches of Route 1!
Here are Lucy’s particulars:
twitter: www.twitter.com/lucyburdette —
AN APPETITE FOR MURDER (NAL) on bookshelves now!