Interview: Leslie Langtry

Please welcome Leslie Langtry, author of the Bombay Family of Assassins Greatest Hits Series, the Merry Wrath Mysteries, and more.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
My perfect day would involve a very nice beach resort and a good mystery novel. At one point, there’d be some pretty spectacular shopping, followed by a gourmet steak dinner – served with a nice Argentinian malbec. I’m pretty sure somewhere along the line, cake will be involved. And then I would sleep for about 36 hours.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase/expression, or meal?
Let’s see…I already mentioned cake…and my phrase probably includes swearing so I won’t go into that here. I have a signature color – Orange. I have an orange car, my living room/dining room is orange, orange day lilies are my favorite flower, my ipod is orange (so is my ipod cover)…and so on. It’s a very happy color, but now that I think about it, it’s possible that it might be time for an intervention.

Which books/authors inspired or influenced you the most?
That’s an excellent question – there are so many! To keep the answer simple, I’ll start with my first inspirations – the ones who made me want to write: Agatha Christie and Carolyn Keene. I know, Carolyn Keene was just a pen name for a stable of authors, but I devoured those books. As I got older, I grew into Agatha Christie – and obsessively read all of those too. Someday I’d like to write the perfect mystery. Something like Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. I’m not sure I’m that clever, but I’d like to give it a shot.

Do you listen to music when you write?
I do! I listen to classical music on my local National Public Radio station. I can’t do complete silence, but I can’t write when there are lyrics. One of my favorite composers is Michael Daugherty. I love his Superman inspired Metropolis Symphony for Orchestras. It’s a great one for writing comedy. I also like listening to the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Good stuff!

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
Hmmm…I think my latest book, MARSHMALLOW S’MORE MURDER would definitely be a marshmallow s’more with Hershey’s milk chocolate. My Girl Scout troop loved making S’mores. They’d eat 2 or 3 – feel full, but keep making them. I probably ate hundreds of S’mores back in the day. Those were the days!

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
I love this series because 1) I’ve been a Girl Scout volunteer for 13 years and was a leader for 10 (I have enough material for at least twenty more books); and 2) I’m from a small town in Iowa and I miss it. In this book however, Merry takes her troop to Washington DC. DC has always been one of my favorite cities – so many possibilities for trouble. Trouble is awesome.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
I write funny mysteries. There has to be a ‘fish out of water’ theme in my books. I like dropping my heroine into situations that she’d never imagine (and probably never forgive me for). I also plug a lot of my Girl Scout troop experience in my books. You wouldn’t believe which scenes have really happened. It’s kind of hard for me to believe it sometimes.

Tell us about your main character.
This book is the third in my latest series – Merry Wrath Mysteries. Merry Wrath is an ‘accidentally’ outed CIA agent who is forcibly retired, and decides to go back to her hometown of Who’s There, Iowa, to figure out what to do with the rest of her life. She becomes a Girl Scout leader and finds that this volunteer work might be just as dangerous as her many undercover field ops.

As a result of having spent most of her time in the field, domesticity is very confusing for Merry. She buys a house and has very little furniture. Her living room drapes are Dora the Explorer twin sheets she found on sale somewhere. Merry is a little neurotic, but tough and can handle anything you throw at her. I’d like to think there’s a little bit of me in Merry. Except for the Dora Curtains. I’m more of a Muppets gal myself.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
She would be a mix of Carol Burnett, La Femme Nikita, and Sandra Bullock, I think. Kind of a girl-next-door/killer/comedian.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
Oh wow. I guess Agatha would be the first one on the list. Mildred Wirt Benson – who wrote some of my favorite Nancy Drews (and she was a fellow Iowan – we both went to the University of Iowa) would be there. I’d invite Mark Gatiss who has written episodes of one of my favorite shows – Sherlock – for the BBC. I’d love to meet Rhys Bowen – I love her Royal Spyness Series. Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next & Nursery Crime Series’ are beyond awesome. Last but not least would be Joan Hess. Her Maggody Series cracks me up.

What’s next for you?
I’m just about to send my publisher the fourth Merry Wrath book – MOVIE NIGHT MURDER, which will come out in September. Before that, in July, my third series starts with UKULELE MURDER. It’s the first book in a continuity series with several authors and it takes place in Hawaii. I’ve never been there. Someday I’ll go and have that perfect day I described above. That would be nice.

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Leslie Langtry is the USA Today Bestselling Author of the Bombay Family of Assassins Greatest Hits Series, Merry Wrath Mysteries and UKULELE MURDER – which is the first book in a multi-author continuity series taking place in Aloha Lagoon, Kauai. Leslie lives in the Midwest with her family and assorted dogs and cats. Her favorite food is cake.

Websites:   www.leslielangtry.com www.merrywrath.com   www.alohalagoonmysteries.com

Facebook:   https://www.facebook.com/LeslieLangtryAuthor

Twitter:   https://twitter.com/LeslieLangtry

Sidekicks: We Are Family

My favorite mystery series have character arcs that span the entire series. One tool for said over-arching character development is exploring the relationship between the protagonist and his sidekicks as they develop shared experiences.

We are all familiar with Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache canon where over time the Inspector’s experiences seem to soften him while his disciples, a couple of whom are  like his own children to him, are strengthened by his example of vulnerability.

In Adrian McKinty’s The Troubles series, set in 1980’s Belfast at the height of sectarian unrest, the strongest relationship is between DI Sean Duffy, a Catholic and DC (later DS) “Crabbie” McCrabben, a Presbyterian. At first their relationship is tentative as one would expect. But by the most recent book, Rain Dogs, Duffy is the godfather of Crabbie’s boys.

There is a touching scene where they both travel to London for the day and Duffy brings back two Toblerones chocolate bars for the boys.  Crabby frets because he forgot presents. Duffy suggests Crabbie pass the candy off as his own but Crabbie refuses. He wants his kids to know that their Uncle Sean thought of them. Who couldn’t love both of these characters more by the end of this scene? They ennoble each other.

I just started reading and listening to the Rebus series. In the most recent book, Even Dogs in the Wild, Rebus is retired. Inspector Siobhan Clark, his former sidekick, has convinced her superiors to bring him back as a consulting detective for a particular case. Also in the broil is Rebus’ former nemesis, Inspector Malcom Fox, who had been with the Scottish equivalent of internal affairs and whom Clark is kind-of now dating. Being the twentieth book, the theme of which is parents and children, the characters’ rich history and family-like relationship provides bedrock for the story.

The upshot of which is I’m going to spend a lot more time working on my sidekicks’ back stories.

Final thought: I genuinely appreciate the different topics we focus upon in Mysteristas as they make me ponder those aspects of my own writing, contemplation of which I would made time to indulge in.

Bookish Sidekicks

We’ve talked a lot this month about fictional sidekicks, but what about real, live ones for writers and readers?  It takes sidekicks to help us along the journey to a good book.  Here are ten examples that we book lovers can’t live without:

  1. Friends and Family—They give us our first tags when they say, “You’re such a bookworm!”
  2. Furry and feathered pals—They curl up on our laps or at our feet or perch on our shoulders, and they are delighted to hold us captive while we read (or write).
  3. Co-workers—It doesn’t take long for them to learn not to interrupt us—and thwart those who try—when we’re reading (or writing) on lunch break.
  4. Neighbors—They pass books around the neighborhood, like…well, sort of like a game of “musical books.”
  5. Book clubs—Their members introduce us to countless new authors.  As a bonus, they will give us insights into the book issues we can’t fully appreciate without further discussion.
  6. Teachers—They help writers hone their craft to build more entertaining stories for readers.
  7. Critique groups—They make writers dig deeper, and they point out inconsistencies.  With their help, they pre-empt those embarrassing problems that could allow readers to lose confidence in writers.
  8. Editors—They take the book to its next level.  Period.
  9. Production support—They turn our dreams into a physical medium.
  10. Booksellers—They are the Book Gods’ right hand.  They are the quintessential link between writer and reader.

Yay for bookish sidekicks!  Without them, we wouldn’t have many of the books we love.  Who are your favorites?

Side Kickin’ It

Sidekicks exist to make the hero look good. They tell jokes, answer phones, make coffee, and even take a bullet (usually in the shoulder) when the story needs more drama. Sidekicks are fabulous. I want one. Sometimes I think I am one.

For my first point, I’m going to follow Keenan’s lead and tell you my favorite sidekick (and hope it takes me somewhere!). Unlike, Keenan, I’m going to be a bad Mysterista and name a non-mystery, not-even-from a-book favorite.  This one is a deep cut from Seinfeld, Darren. I think he only appeared in one episode as Kramer’s intern. If you remember the episode, Kramer formed Kraymerica Enterprises and convinced NYU to give him an intern.

Like a good sidekick, Darren played a straightman to Kramer. He translated Kramer’s lunacy into a semblance of corporate BAU and, to my delight, he managed Kramer’s daily schedule of hanging out with Jerry,George, and Elaine. It wasn’t until he executed Kramer’s vision that the bubble burst. He dropped a rubber ball filled with oil off the top of a building. Darren was comic sidekick gold.

After graduating from law school, I got a job as Darren. More specifically, I was a work-from-home sidekick to a guy with a lot of capital and plenty of Big Ideas. That wasn’t the actual job description, but close enough. I kept track of his rooftop gardening and international travel schedule, wrote blog posts, and interviewed many Washington regulators who seemed confused by my angle (I was too). This reminds me of another sidekick I loved, Manjula, Bernadette’s virtual assistant in Waiting for Bernadette. I might have actually been more of a Manjula than a Darren. If you haven’t read the book, Bernadette outsourced her assistant to India.

This was not a job that I applied for. It just happened. My name was floating on the wind in the right circles and the job happened to pay as well as my adjunct professor gig. But then again, what didn’t?

It just goes to show that wherever you go, there you are. I went to law school to become a lawyer and save the environment while wearing cute shoes. Instead, I let the wind blow me where it would and became Darren. This is true of most literary sidekicks. At least in my experience, they develop organically during the writing process. Currently, I’m writing a book about a geeky professor type. About three chapters into the manuscript, she acquired a flamboyant roommate with a ton of common sense, as much as I have to give anyway. I didn’t plan it that way, but the manuscript needed an injection of everything my main character didn’t have. Enter the sidekick.

We are all the main characters of our own lives (except when the kids are young), but in the grand scheme of things, most of us must be sidekicks, at least from time to time. Is it just me or are there any other sidekicks out there? Alternatively, do any of you have any good good polenta recipes?

Children as stakeholders

I kid you not, even as I type this, a tiny human is sitting on my lap trying to trace her finger along the mousepad as I gently push it away. Kids, amirite? And I have three of them.

I’ve been struggling lately to write consistently. No, scratch that. Not lately. All the time. I even bought dictation software hoping that speaking my book aloud would somehow be easier to do that typing it. The verdict is still out on that. Sure, I can say my book aloud, but I still need children to be outside the 20-foot radius, and preferably not yelling, for the microphone to pick up only my voice. And for me not to dictate, “Paloma, out of there. Benny, what are you doing? Don’t touch that!” into my mystery plot.

Right this minute, my middle child is asking for fruit snacks. Such a simple request but it derails my train of thought and then I’m up getting snacks, and not writing, and oh, look Facebook — what did my mom post today? Why, hello Instagram.

Having kids is a trip, isn’t it? Every since I became a parent, I can’t read mysteries, of any kind, where there is even the slightest hint of violence to children. Or children go missing. Or children witness a horrific event. I certainly can’t write them either. I can’t watch television shows, here’s looking at Law and Order: SVU, and Criminal Minds, where children may be harmed. My husband has to watch them alone.

But, children can be interesting stakeholders in mysteries. In Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (the TV series), Miss Fisher takes on a young ward, Jane, who later becomes an important catalyst for the season finale, bringing Miss Fisher and her antagonist to a fatal conclusion  (I don’t want to spoil the show for anyone). In Bloodline (on Amazon Prime), a show about a dysfunctional family in the Florida Keys, protecting children is a big theme and crimes are committed in order to preserve the family unit. [Watch it, it’s so good.] The protection of children can also provide a great discussion of morality. A reader may think lowly of a woman who kills her husband in cold blood, but that judgement quickly changes when it’s discovered the woman killed her spouse to protect her child. Now, not only is the reader sympathetic, but the quest for justice has also changed. The love a parent has for a child is like no other. Therefore, children present interesting challenges and conflicts for characters in mysteries.

What do you think about the role of children in mysteries? Do your characters have kids? Do you prefer to leave them out? My mysteries are all young adult, therefore I write about kids. It’s presents its own set of challenges, but I’ll leave that for another post.

Interview: Marni Graff

Please welcome Marni Graff, author of The Nora Tierney English Mysteries and The Trudy Genova Manhattan Mysteries.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
A sunny day on the river where we live in coastal NC: walking our Spinone, Radar, along the water, then writing on the screened-in porch with a big cup of iced tea–and making good writing progress. Eating a nice dinner with my husband, preferably one he’s cooked as he’s an excellent chef, then watching something like Grantchester or Midsommer Murders at night. Staid but relaxed and comfy!

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase/expression, or meal?
I use a perfume called Juniper Sling, which is a Penhaligon product, and the juniper reminds people of a cool gin and tonic. I get lots of compliments on it and recently gave that perfume to Nora to wear in my next English mystery. Her partner, DI Declan Barnes, will notice it and like it!

Which books/authors inspired or influenced you the most?
I’d have to say the Golden Agers: Christie, Sayers, Marsh, etc. and Daphne Du Muarier and Conan Doyle. I started Death Unscripted coverwith Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames and the rest early on, and just kept reading. I could read when I started kindergarten and never looked back. Books are my guilty obsession–I can never have too many waiting to be read. Mysteries became my favorite early on and P D James became my hero in modern crime writing, although my books are very different from hers. I was fortunate to interview her years ago when writing for “Mystery Review” magazine, and we became fast friends which lasted until her death last year.

Do you listen to music when you write? 
I use Pandora radio to suit my mood, or to put me in the mood of the scene I’m writing. I have channels for the American Songbook, Chet Baker, Billy Joel, Diana Krall, and then the classicals for when I don’t want lyrics:  Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and Baroque. I also have an Adele channel, Jack Johnson, and James Taylor if I’m in a different kind of mood.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
Dark and sweet, for sure! Because Trudy is a gal of many sides, with a cheery smile and upbeat manner than can turn darkly serious when murder’s around.

What made you interested in writing this particular story? 
Actually, P D James, my friend and mentor, insisted I write this series after I’d already started writing my Nora Tierney English mysteries. She knew of my nursing background and my work for a NY movie studio as a medical consultant. She felt readers love a behind-the-scenes look at different worlds, and Trudy Genova was the outcome. Death Unscripted is the first in the series, and it’s dedicated to James.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
I’m not writing about serial killers or psychopaths in my books, although I do read and review some of those on my crime blog, Auntie M Writes (www.auntiemwrites.com). In both series, despite the particular theme for each book, there is the thread of exploring “what motive would convince an otherwise rational person to convince themselves it’s reasonable to commit murder?” After all, we are who we are by the choices we make. I’m fascinated by that idea as I think any person has the capacity to murder, given the right circumstances.

Tell us about your main character.
Trudy Genova grew up on an apple orchard in Schoharie, NY, the same village one of my daughters-in-law comes from, so I know the area well. She’s moved to the Big Apple for nursing work and now is a medical consultant for a movie studio. She lives in a flat on the West Side, and loves to read mysteries so much she’s considering writing one. She has a good friend at the studio she pals around with, and generally is adjusting to life in a big city after her almost-fiancé married a German woman when he was stationed there. She’s smarting from that betrayal, but loves her job. That means correcting script pages of medical scenes at home, and some days she’s sent to things filming in NY. It could be a movie or television show or TV movie. Part of the job includes ‘baby wrangling’ as a nurse must take child actors under 14 up to the studio for rehearsals and taping. No parents are allowed on set. And that includes taking the young actor to Wardrobe to get their outfits and running their lines with them. During Death Unscripted, Trudy is working on a soap filming for the Internet, “Thornfield Place,” Her task this week is to teach a womanizing, aging actor, Griff Kennedy, how to fake a heart attack. During taping, he performs so well, only Trudy realizes something is seriously wrong, but not before Griff points his finger accusingly at Trudy. He sinks to the floor, dead–but not from a heart attack. She soon finds herself the main suspect and insinuates herself into the investigation, to the chagrin of the senior detective on the case, Ned O’Malley, and his sidekick, Sergeant Tony Borelli.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
Trudy would be part adult Nancy Drew, for one, for  her noisiness and investigating skills, which she’s learning. She also has a slightly snarky, funny side, so let’s say she’s a bit of Meg Ryan at her younger best. And then throw in Emma Thompson for her quirky but literate side. This is a gal who’s a lot smarter than people sometimes think.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
Oh, boy, that’s a good one. Definitely Agatha Christie. I was able to visit her Devon home, Greenway, and it’s filled with her presence. Probably Dorothy Sayers, too, and Josephine Tey and Conan Doyle. Then P D James because I miss her and her books so much. And we’d have to have Scottish author Val McDermid, another writer I’ve interviewed and see now at St Hilda’s Mystery and Crime Conference in Oxford, because any time Val is at something, there is certain to be tons of laughter!

What’s next for you?
I’m heavily into writing the fourth Nora Tierney English Mystery, The Golden Hour, with scenes in Oxford, Brighton and Cornwall, but most of the action in Bath. Nora’s an American writer living in England with a nose for murder. The first two of those have won awards for Best Classic British Cozy and the third is shortlisted for the same award. Then I’ll turn to the next Trudy Genova Manhattan Mystery, Death of an Heiress, where Trudy’s the medical consultant on a movie being made for TV filming in the historic Dakota building, former home to John Lennon and a host of other celebrities.

***

Marni Graff is the award-winning author of The Nora Tierney English Mysteries and The Trudy Genova Manhattan Mysteries, all available in trade paperback, ebook and as Audible books. A member of Sisters in Crime, Graff writes a crime review blog (www.auntiemwrites.com) where she frequently interviews authors whose work she’s admired. She’s also Managing Editor of Bridle Path Press and mentors the Writers Read group in Belhaven, NC. She is a frequent contributor in nonfiction and poetry to ezines and journals such as Southern Writers Magazine, Southern Women’s Review and Shelf Pleasures.

www.auntiemwrites.com
@GraffMarni
www.facebook.com/bluevirgin.graff

What does a sidekick do anyway?

This month, we’ve talked about what characters can be a sidekick, our favorite sidekicks, spinoffs, and sidekicks we’d love to see get their day in the sun as the main character. We’ve mentioned that sidekicks are a beloved trope in fiction.

But what does a sidekick do?

We often think of them as junior partners (see Batman and Robin). They are often less experienced, make more mistakes, and are funnier than the main character. But if a character is only around to make quippy statements, well, I have editor friends who would give you some probably unwelcome advice – if that’s all the character does, no matter how much you love her, she might have to go because she’s taking up valuable space.

We writers are told all the time: every word counts. Every word must advance the plot or reveal character. For sidekicks, this can be a bit tricky. They aren’t the main character, so how are they going to advance the plot? And if they aren’t the main character, does it matter if readers understand who they are?

I would argue that sidekicks can advance plot and it does matter if we understand them. Moreover, they are a valuable tool for understanding the main character. And because I work better with examples, let’s take one of my favorite sidekicks of my creation – deputy coroner Tom Burns.

Let’s take plot first. How does Burns advance plot? Well, he’s going to be present at the crime scene and he’s going to examine the body. Sure, my protagonist, PSP Trooper First Class Jim Duncan. Duncan is going to make observations of the scene based on his experience and that scene is going to include the body. But Burns is going to be a bit more detailed. He’s going to handle the body. Examine the fingernails. Talk about medical stuff (he does have a medical degree, if not a license to practice) that Duncan won’t see because he doesn’t have that education.

Later, Burns is going to be present during the autopsy. He’s going to help write reports. Deliver the results of toxicology. Explain findings and give time, cause, and manner of death.

In other words, he’s going to provide information. Information that Duncan needs to further his investigation and probably can’t get from any other source. And that information will lead him in a certain direction – rightly or wrongly.

And that will advance plot.

Okay, now let’s talk about character. Burns is quippy. He says all the things that the more upright Duncan wouldn’t or couldn’t say. Burns has a slightly twisted sense of humor (so I’ve been told and good, because I intended him to have one). But when the pedal meets the metal, he’s serious. He’s good at his job. Detailed. Professional.

What does that tell you about his character? Hopefully, it gives the picture of a man who is serious about his job, but has the sense of humor many who work with death develop to protect themselves – and he’s not overly serious about life. He’s younger. He also respects Duncan as a professional and a person.

But Burns’s presence also helps you understand Duncan. How does he react to Burns? How does Duncan talk to him? Does Duncan treat him with the same level of respect? Does he see Burns as a partner in the investigation or just another hoop he has to jump through? The answer to each of these reveals Duncan’s character.

And because these two are friends, Burns get’s into Duncan’s private life a bit. Gives advice. Makes observations. That also reveals character – for both men.

Readers, think about your favorite sidekicks. Do they advance character and plot? How so?

Mary Sutton | @mary_sutton73