Chapter 1: Where Do You Get Your Ideas?
By Elaine Viets
NOTE: This is a continuing series about my May 2013 Dead-End Job mystery, from conception to publication.
I grew up Catholic. Many of my female relatives followed the traditional ways: They had lots of children. "One out and one on the way," they’d cheerfully declare.
I write two mysteries a year. I’ve become a literary version: one book out and another on the way.
I survived the mystery trifecta: good reviews from the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and Oline Cogdill, who reviews for major outlets, including McClatchy Tribune Wire Services, which go to some 200 newspapers. Other readers and reviewers liked it, too.
I had a six-city book tour and visited local bookstores. When I returned from the "Final Sail" tour in mid-May, I did a blog tour that lasted into July.
My duties as Josie’s mother-of-the-bride were ending. "Final Sail" was launched. Time to plan the birth of my next Dead-End Job mystery.
This long-running series is set in South Florida, so I face a different challenge than an author starting from scratch. Many of my readers are familiar with my main characters: St. Louis woman Helen Hawthorne and her husband, Phil Sagemont. Their landlady at the Coronado Tropic Apartments, Margery Flax. The other Coronado denizens, including Peggy and her parrot Pete.
Helen’s awful ex-husband, Rob, made Helen’s life a misery until he was bopped with a ball bat and buried in a church basement in a St. Louis suburb. Helen and her sister Kathy covered up Rob’s death (in more ways than one) to protect a young life. Not even Margery, Helen’s surrogate mother, or Phil know their secret. But someone has been blackmailing Helen and Kathy for more than four novels.
I want my readers to see these characters as old friends, and each book is a visit with them.
In "Pumped for Murder," I changed the series’ focus and made Helen and Phil private eyes. The PI partners open Coronado Investigations. This would prevent "Cabot Cove syndrome." The village’s death rate in "Murder She Wrote" was higher than Manhattan’s. Helen was funny, but not a joke.
Helen still works dead-end jobs. My series seems most successful when those jobs reflect South Florida. In "Final Sail," Helen is a yacht stewardess. Perfect. Fort Lauderdale calls itself the Venice of America.
I met my editor Sandy for breakfast in early May to discuss Helen’s next job. Sandy is smart, supportive and points out plot holes and flat characters.
We ordered breakfast. For business dining, my criteria is: How will this meal look on my shirt? When I’m nervous, food leaps off my fork and slides off my spoon. I settled on melon chunks that could be speared and green tea.
I came armed with a list of jobs. Sandy shot them down and explained why they wouldn’t work. Unfortunately, she was right.
By the time she’d called for the check, I’d drunk enough tea to float the yacht in "Final Sail." Now I sipped and prayed for inspiration.
"No!" I said. "This is South Florida. It’s sex, sun, skin, and scandal. Drugs and booze, yes. Tea, no!"
Sex, sun, skin, scandal. That was the trigger.
"Beach concessions!" I blurted. I told Sandy about newspaper report on Florida companies that rent or give lessons for JetSkis, parasailing, paddleboarding and other sun and fun recreation. The paper said they’re bitter competitors for tourist dollars, hurling accusations of theft, graft and skulduggery at one another.
"In my novel," I told Sandy, "that competition will be cut throat. For real."
I smiled. So did Sandy. "I like it," she said.
I took a last sip of tea. "Cheers," I said.
Love CSI? Listen to my interview with crime scene investigator Sharon Plotkin Spotts. She’s handled crime scenes from burglary to homicides for 18 years in South Florida. "The Dead End Jobs Radio Show" streams Monday 1 P.M. ET and Wednesday 6 P.M. on global Internet radio, radioearnetwork.com.