08 August 2006

Author Answers with Elaine Viets

Perhaps that old piece of writing advice -- write what you know -- is true. Or at least it is for this week's author, Elaine Viets.

Viets is the author of the Dead-End Job mysteries and she takes her research for the books very seriously, working the actual jobs that end up in her books. She's also the author of the Mystery Shopper series.

For more about her, check out her website or her contributions at the Lipstick Chronicles.

WN: What’s your writing process like from when you get an idea to when it gets published?
VIETS: Because I work the Dead-End Job series, my writing process is a little different from other writers. First, I get the idea. Then I get the job. The novel grows out of the job, and the people and situations I encounter. My newest novel, MURDER UNLEASHED, is set at a dog boutique.
After I spent some time at the boutique, I was able to include many of the things I'd learned about dog lovers, their hopes and fears. I learned that women buy special purses to smuggle dogs into "no pets" condos and that groomers fear that the wrong spouse will pick up the dog in a divorce custody fight. Those two elements became an important part of the plot. Even the murder weapon came from the shop -- a pair of lethal-looking ten-inch grooming shears. The weather cooperated, too. I worked there during the hurricane, and I got to see how people reacted when their lives and pets were in danger.
Once I work the job, I write a very long chapter by chapter outline: some 100 pages with scenes and dialogue. When it's approved I write the book. Then my editor reads it and may ask for rewrites. When those are approved, I get the copyedited version of the book to read, and I have to approve all those changes. Then I read the page proofs. At long last, usually about a year after I turn in the manuscript, it's a book.

WN: Why did you decide to become a writer?
VIETS: I can't hold a real job.

WN: Authors often do research for their novels, but for your Dead-End Job series, you actually worked the jobs your heroine does. Why did you feel that level of research was needed?
VIETS: Until you stand at a cash register for eight hours, and your back aches and your feet hurt, you're not a bookseller. I worked at a bookstore for a year for MURDER BETWEEN THE COVERS.
Until 30 people curse you and slam down their phones in your ear, you're not a telemarketer. I went through that for DYING TO CALL YOU.
It's one thing to say that there is no adequate day care for the working poor. It's another to see a baby crawl across the filthy carpet in a telemarketing boiler room, while his mother tries to earn enough money to feed herself and her child.
That's what I learn when I work those jobs. I get details you can't find any other way.

WN: Some authors say they don’t read books in the same genre they write in, yet you say on your website that you love mystery books. How do you make sure that your writing doesn’t absorb the style or voice of the mysteries you read?
VIETS: I wish I could absorb the style of Michael Connelly by reading his work, but it never happens. No matter how hard I try, I write like Elaine Viets.
It's important to read other writers, and to know what's going on in the mystery world. I read between four and five novels a week.

WN: What is the best/most influential book you have ever read and why did it inspire you?
VIETS: I can't say one book influenced me. A accumulation of books and magazines added layer upon layer to my writing, starting when I was very young. I read Mark Twain over and over as a kid. I still reread him, and each time, I appreciate his work more. He knew how to describe his world and make it live.
I read Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" because it was forbidden by the Catholic Church when I was growing up.
I was fascinated by the world of Nancy Drew, the young sleuth who lived every teenage girl's dream: No mother, no chores, a convenient boyfriend and a rich daddy who did everything she wanted. She was the first independent woman sleuth.
Agatha Christie created classic mysteries, and understood that her sleuth was always an outsider, and not necessarily one who was appreciated or respected by the world.
When I needed a good laugh, there was always MAD magazine.

WN: If you had to live the life of one of your characters, who would you pick and why?
VIETS: I want to be Margery, the 76-year-old landlady of the Coronado, when I grow up. She's a stylish wise woman, who wears cool shoes and makes a mean screwdriver.
Florida has a lot of women like her, who enjoy being old, smart and free.

WN: What piece of advice helped you out the most as a writer?
VIETS: Believe in your work. Take it seriously. Don't sell yourself short and self-publish. You've worked too hard to throw your writing away. Learn the business of writing. Yes, it's an art. But once you write that artful book, you must also learn the best way to sell it and find the readers it deserves.

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