HANK PHILLIPPPI RYAN: Listen. Hear that applause? It’s every single one of us Femmes, giving an absolute standing ovation to the amazing wonderful talented (and determined) debut author, Liz Milliron!
Nothing makes me happier than when a friend and colleague succeeds—and with her new novel ROOT OF ALL EVIL, Liz has hit it out of the ballpark. I was so pleased to read an advance copy—and wow, readers, this is a solid home run.
(Come on, it’s baseball season.)
Anyway, hilariously, Liz wrote the book she didn’t expect. And, as she tells the tale, it all began with a compliment.
“You have a nice start to a procedural.”
This was the feedback I received from an editor years ago when I submitted the very first short story in The Laurel Highlands Mysteries for review. Say what? Let’s be clear: I did not want to write a procedural.
Procedurals are hard. If your amateur sleuth isn’t an expert on crime scene specifics, not a problem. She doesn’t need to be. But if your protagonist is a cop, and he screws up, big problem. Unless you are deliberately trying to write an inept character, which I wasn’t.
Unfortunately, I was terrible at coming up with what an editor friend calls the Very Good Reason for a sleuth to get involved in a murder. This is why when I envisioned the story, “An Idyllic Place for Murder,” the protag was a cop. I naively thought that if I stayed away from the hard-core forensic details, I could avoid the procedural and stay more traditional. Not so much.
At this point, I had a few choices.
Abandon the story? But I liked the concept and the characters. I was too stup…stubborn to give it up.
Change my characters’ jobs? Along with my cop, I’d come up with a county public defender. Both characters lost no time telling me that I better not even suggest a career change for them. That option was out.
Learn about lawyers and cops?
Yes. I went with Option 3. I attended Lee Lofland’s Writer’s Police Academy and bought his book. I bought Leslie Budewitz’s Books, Crooks, and Counselors. I attended a local Citizens’ Police Academy and one from the Pennsylvania State Police. I contact a friend of a friend who is a public defender.
And despite my fears, I discovered something: people love to talk. All I had to say was, “I’m writing a book…” and sources opened up.
Cops love to tell stories and so do lawyers. And the stories can be pretty hilarious. Tell someone that you want to write a story about their profession and make sure you get the details right, sit back, and prepare to take notes. I shouldn’t have found this so shocking, but I did. After all, the newspapers are filled with stories about how horrible police are, and I’ve lost count of the number of lawyer jokes out there.
TV has long portrayed public defenders as a “lesser” kind of attorney, so much so that I know people who truly believe only the worst lawyers are resigned to the ranks of public service. There’s a lot of glamour in Law & Order, but not a lot of authenticity sometimes.
Sure, no one wants to read about every excruciating detail of police work (can we say “as exciting as watching paint dry”?), but you can write with authenticity.
I also discovered that authors are magical people…or at least non-authors think we are. I encountered such a level of awe at my ability to write fiction it was almost embarrassing. I do not charge into dangerous situations. I don’t even play those roles on TV. I only write about them. But I guess the statement, “I want to tell your story,” is a powerful thing to hear. So powerful that it opens all kinds of doors.
I will be forever indebted to the folks who gladly gave of their time to help me craft a story, to make it engaging, but also true enough to real life for them. What Lee calls “believable make-believe.”
Should I ever run out of ideas, I’m sure it would only cost one round of drinks for my police and law contacts to refill the well. But I’ll tell you a secret: writing procedurals still scares me. Now I know I have people to learn from. It’s that having gotten a glimpse into this world, I realize what a responsibility I have to tell the story right.
Tell me, have you ever been scared to try something only to get a delightful surprise once you did?
HANK: Caviar? Oh, that’s not what you mean. But YAAAAY Liz! How about you, Femmes?
One commenter will win a signed print copy of Root of All Evil (US entries only, please).
Liz Milliron has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people's stories, for as long as she can remember. She survived growing up through reading, cutting her mystery teeth on Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark and, of course, Nancy Drew. As an adult, she finds escape from the world of software documentation through creating her own fictional murder and mayhem. She lives near Pittsburgh with her husband and two teenage children, and fantasizes about owning a dog - one of these days. (Headshot courtesy of www.erinmclainstudio.com)