What I learned writing historical mystery…

How many of you write historical mysteries? I love reading them—Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody, Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs, Rhys Bowen’s Georgiana Rannoch. Recently, I decided to try writing one. I’m pleased to say, I’ve just finished the second (of what I’m sure will be many!) draft. What have I learned by writing historical fiction?


Historical Details Shape Plot and Setting

First, I love the fact that the details of history can help shape not only my plot but also the everyday lives of my protagonists. It’s like having a cheat-sheet. The challenge, of course, is getting it right. And, not just being accurate, but finding the right balance between historical details and story. History can play so many roles in the novel, from those spicy tidbits sprinkled throughout the text, to the rich tapestry of everyday life that forms the background or setting for your story.

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Historical Research is Fun

Second, as a nerdy academic, I love doing the research! It’s so fun to look through old newspaper advertisements, or to use William Brohaugh’s English Through the Ages, Etymonline, or an old Baudeker’s guidebook. Of course, the Internet is a vast source of information about everything from the food and clothes of an era to the political events that shaped it. It’s amazing where you can find helpful information, especially stuff to help you paint a vivid picture of the details. First hand accounts in documentaries, autobiographies, and nonfiction, are great resources too.

Anachronisms are Tricky

Third, even the dreaded anachronism can be fascinating. What words and gadgets existed and when? Anachronisms are things or words used in the wrong time period, either because they didn’t exist yet, or because they were already out of use. There’s also the issue of region or place. Words used here might not be used there, even in the same time period. For example, in the US we say “cafeteria” and in England they say “canteen.” And on top of that, some words or things might feel out of place, even if they aren’t. Even though it would be fair game to use a phrase like “hang out” in a 19thCentury novel, it might make your reader stop and question its accuracy. So, you need to use words that not only are right, but also sound like they’re right. And, worse, sometimes words sound right, but aren’t. Here’s where a good editor comes in.

Facts versus Truth

It might sound like writing historical fiction is full of landmines and pitfalls, but those same challenges and obstacles can become a great help in fashioning a believable and engaging story. And, while emotions and reactions are also period and place dependent, a good historical novel adds the fleshy truth of experience to the bare bones of historical fact. A great historical novel makes people, places, and the past come alive.

How about you? What are you favorite historical novels? What do you look for in an historical mystery? Do you have any tips for writing one?



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Cate Holahan’s One Little Secret…

Today on Mysteristas, it is a pleasure to interview USA Today Bestselling author, Catherine HolahanIn a former life, she was an award-winning journalist that wrote for The Record, The Boston Globe, and BusinessWeek. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, two daughters, and food-obsessed dog, and, by her own admission, spends a disturbing amount of time highly-caffeinated, mining her own anxieties for material. 

KO: Welcome Catherine. I’m excited to talk to you about your new novel, One Little SecretBut first, the opening of The Widower’s Wife is one of my very favorite crime fiction beginnings. What’s your secret to writing those first sentences?
CH: Rewriting! I wish I could say that those lines come to me as a fully formed melody, but I get an idea and a few notes only. I have to tune it for awhile before I get it the way I want.
    Often, it’s not until I finish the first draft and have the characters voices clearly in my head that I write a first line that makes it through to publication.


KO: With your last two novels, Lies She Told and One Little Secret, you start with a prologue. Your latest pulled me in like a “riptide,” as one of your characters might say. Your use of prologues has a very noir feel and reminds me of some of my favorite classic films. How did you decide to use prologues to set the stage and then work backwards from there? 


CH:  I think of psychological thrillers and domestic thrillers as slower burn kind of stories. You have to get to know the characters, see past the veneer, before you start to realize the bad stuff that they are capable off. I do want to tip the reader off to the drama coming so that they have that sense of anticipation as the layers of the characters fall away.

KO: Reading your new novel One Little Secret, I was struck by some of your metaphors. A writing teacher once told me to use metaphors like weapons 😉 How do you decide where and when to use metaphors? And is there a trick to creating such memorable ones?
CH: Thanks! I think metaphor is a main way to show without telling the reader. I spend a lot of time thinking about the way people do things and the associations that I have with those actions, and then try to create a metaphor that doesn’t sound trite and fits with the tone of the novel.


KO: I love the cover! In the acknowledgments of One Little Secret, you say characters either come to you full blown or elude you. You describe it as your controlling them or them controlling you. Which was it with your stunning cast of characters in One Little Secret? I especially love the detective, Gabby Watkins. How did she come to you?

CH: Gabby Watkins was inspired, in part, by a female detective whom I interviewed for the book. The detective I dedicate the book to was kind enough to show me around a police station and speak with me for a couple hours about her job and the way she has reacted to some facts that may have differed from her male colleagues. I wanted a female detective to unravel some of the issues of sexual consent and domestic violence in the book because I wanted my law enforcement character to see things through the eyes of a mother, wife, and woman, as well as those of a police officer. I thought that would create a nice contrast with the other female POV characters in the book.

KO: Describe your writing process. Do you outline or wing it? After writing four novels, including USA Today bestseller The Widower’s Wife, and One Little Secret, which is bound to be a big hit, what have you learned that you might share with other writers?

CH: About the big hit part—from your lips to God’s ears, as my mom would say. 🙂 I am an obsessive plotter. I create elaborate Excel spread sheets with my plot points and character arcs and graphs of how plot points intersect. But then one of my characters evolves in a way that doesn’t jive with my carefully laid plan, and I tear it up, re-plot and rewrite.

KO: One Little Secret is an interesting cross between a closed-door mystery ala Agatha Christie and a psychological thriller ala Paula Hawkins. Have you ever considered writing something other than domestic thrillers?
CH: I am most drawn to domestic thrillers because I think the biggest secrets many people keep are secrets from those closest to them. However, I am working on a women’s fiction novel where the mystery is secondary to the emotional development of my female character. I am really proud of the writing in it.


KO: There’s a lot of water in your novels. One Little Secret is set on a beach in the Hamptons. How do you decide on your settings? How do your settings affect your plots and characters?
CH: I think water is such a key part of human existence and, as a result, imbued with a lot of symbolism. It’s clear but it covers. It gives life but it’s deadly. Also, I just love looking at the water and swimming and the sea. My mom is Jamaican and some of my earliest memories are being at the beach with my mom on the island. So, perhaps there is some psychological tie there.


KO: What are you working on now? Is there another novel in the qeue? 
CH: Yes! My agent is selling two more novels. One involves technology, privacy,  and paranoia. The other is a story about a young woman coming to terms with an old family betrayal and involves surfing. Got to work in water, I guess.
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KO: Again, I loved your new novel. THANKS, Cate!
CH: Thanks so much for the interview and for taking the time to include One Little Secret. I am happy that you enjoyed it and hopeful that readers will like it too!


Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

If you like Agatha Christie, check out Tracee de Hahn.

I’d like to welcome mystery writer Tracee de Hahn to Mysteristas. Tracee is the author of the Agnes Lüthi mysteries, Swiss Vendetta and A Well-Timed Murder. Trained as an architect, Tracee has an eye for detail. She lives with her husband and Jack Russell Terriers in southwest Virginia, but travels frequently to Switzerland where her novels are set.

KO: Your protagonist, Agnes Lüthi, is a relatable character, and you do such a great job showing her dealing with the loss of her husband while investigating the murders in Swiss Vendetta and A Well-Timed Murder. You’re an expert at balancing the emotional backstory while advancing the plot. Can you tell us how you developed this character? Do you have any advice or tricks you can share for hitting just the right emotional note while keeping the suspense?

TdH: When I read for pleasure, I am drawn to characters who are “regular plus,” meaning they rise to the occasion, as we all hope to if confronted by the dreadful things we put our characters through. This might be considered the baseline for Agnes’s organic development. She would have a family, and a situation in keeping with her life in Switzerland. At that point, plot considerations entered into decisions – if she’s married then what role does her husband play in her life? I didn’t want the complication of a husband because, honestly, I wanted the possibility of a romantic attachment with Julian Vallotton, so….. the husband died.

After I finished the first draft I realized how and why he had died. It was in an even later draft that this information was revealed to Agnes in the story. It was already her story, but including the revelation in Swiss Vendetta certainly elevated her crisis in a spiraling parallel with revelations about the murder investigation in progress. I think the link between personal and plotline/professional crisis can work in many ways, but they need to enhance each other, not detract.SwissVendettacoverfinalcopy

KO: Reading your Agnes Lüthi mysteries reminds me of the best of Agatha Christie. Swiss Vendetta is a locked room mystery, and A Well-Timed Murder has a cast of characters, each with their own secrets and motives, much like a Christie story. Who are some the main influences on your writing?

TdH: Agatha Christie, of course! I am also a devoted fan of Martha Grimes with her Richard Jury mysteries and the great cast of characters she has created. Outside the mystery genre three of my favorite books are James Clavell’s Shogun, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. All books with intricate story lines connecting a great number of characters.

KO: The Agnes Lüthi Mysteries are international mysteries. How important is setting to your mysteries? Any advice for using setting to enhance the mystery or move the plot forward?

TdH: Setting is key to my writing. I’m not sure I know how to separate idea from place. Perhaps because my early training and professional life was that of an architect. Agnes’s story – the location, the characters, her family life – are directly related to life in Switzerland.

Swiss Vendetta grew out of the idea of an isolated château and an ice storm.Place was first, then who would live there, and from that what kind of crime would occur.

A Well-Timed Murder was greatly influenced by two Swiss industries: watchmaking and elite international boarding schools. Again, what kind of crime would happen there, and why.

?Bern?, SBB poster, c 1930s.Plot is a way of saying what happens to people, and in some cases, things only happen to people because of where they are or who they are around. Switzerland is a place of deep roots and, simultaneously, international connections. You find people from all over the world living together (boarding school) or coming together (international watch fairs), but there is not a ‘melting pot’ like in the US. People retain their customs and language of origin. I like the conflict this can create.

When writing about any place no matter how familiar or exotic it may seem, it is critical to be true to the character of that place. While murder may be committed the world over out of rage, or jealousy, or greed, the how likely changes. Gun crimes are practically non-existent in Switzerland, so don’t use a gun unless you have a terribly convincing reason. Place always matters!

KO: I think of your novels as what Lisa Preston called “Cozy Plus.” Do you have a cozy audience in mind when writing?

TdH: I like the idea of cozy plus! Perhaps that is precisely what I have in mind. I’m personally not an edge of my seat, unable to go to sleep reader. I like to sink into a story and get to know a cast of characters without double checking the locks on my doors. On the other hand, my books aren’t necessarily PG. I think it is a shame that cozy can sometimes be deemed off-putting. If you characterize cozy as excluding gratuitous violence or gratuitous bad language then I’m in. This means you may find some sex, or the possibility of sex, and some language. But that isn’t at the heart of the book. When I think about Martha Grimes’s Richard Jury series I see the evolution over two decades from a hint of romance to suggestion of sex, well, maybe more than a suggestion, but nothing explicit. In today’s world, I don’t think people are offended if someone screams Damn! when their hand is trapped in the burning embers of a fire.

KO: What are you working on now? Will we see Agnes again in another outting? 

TdH: I’d like to do another Agnes Lüthi sometime but right now I’m at work on a mystery set in Kentucky, where I spent most of my life. In it, a young woman inherits a distillery only to find a dead body among the bourbon barrels the day she takes possession. Earlier you asked about setting, and after years living in Lexington, Kentucky I was thrilled to set my fictional distillery there. Of course, there has been a great deal of ‘required’ research at distilleries throughout the state.

Keep an eye on my web page and on social media for news about this one!

KO: Thanks, Tracee! We will! 

Tracy Whiting, International Woman of Mystery

Today, it’s a pleasure to welcome Tracy Whiting to Mysteristas. Tracy is the author of the Havilah Gaie mysteries, international action adventures with a cozy flair. And she’s also one of my colleagues at Vanderbilt University, where she is a distinguished professor of French.

Tracy has been a commentator on NPR, FOX News, and MSNBC and her work has been reviewed in the Washington Post, the Nashville Scene, and Ms. Magazine. Her first foray into mystery, Miss Baker Regrets, was published as Book II in Bricktop’s Paris: African American Women in Paris Between the Two World Wars (2015).

Tracy’s second mystery–a cozy with an action thriller twist, The 13th Fellow: A Mystery in Provence, is set between Paris and a seaside Provençal town called Cassis (not pronounced like the liqueur) in the South of France; its heroine is the amateur detective and American professor, Havilah Gaie, who, like the author, is inquisitive, a foodie, globetrotter, and an avid reader. Tracy’s favorite places to write are Paris, France and Newport, Rhode Island. Otherwise, she resides in Nashville, Tennessee with her daughter and husband.


KO: You’re well known for your nonfiction, especially your work on Black women in France, Hip Hop, and more recently on the speeches of Barak Obama. How did you move from writing nonfiction to writing fiction, and mysteries in particular?

TW: I always wanted to write fiction and I particularly fancied mysteries—from Christie to Mosley. I’ve always loved academic murder mysteries with their send-up of our antics—like Publish and Perish. I think I really became moved to jump into the fray, so to speak, after reading and teaching Stephen Carter’s doorstop-of-a-book, The Emperor of Ocean Park. He’s a Professor of Law at Yale. In many respects, he became my model for an academic who wrote mysteries though non-academic Pamela Thomas-Graham’s Ivy League series was also a forerunner to Carter. There are of course other women academics who delved into the genre. But Carters’s world was much more diverse, inclusive, and provided insight into the Martha’s Vineyard black elite along with academic intrigue.

My first mystery is actually contained within Bricktop’s Paris. The book is in two parts—nonfiction, covering American women in Paris in the Jazz Age, while the second part recreates that world in fiction. That mystery is more noir (here I was channeling Mosley’s amateur detective, Easy Rawlins, and of course “place”—Paris—was essential to creating the atmospherics). Bricktop is the detective. Josephine Baker is her catalyst. F. Scott Fitzgerald plays a singular fascinating role as do Gertrude Stein and Natalie Barney—the famous American salon hostesses.

KO: What is the inspiration for your elegant polyglot amateur sleuth, Havilah Gaie, who describes herself as an academic version of Pam Grier’s characters?

TW: Of course, Pam Grier was an inspiration—minus the sexist tripe of that film genre! I think it was important at times to remind the reader of Havilah’s blackness. Grier allowed me to signal that. I also wanted readers to continue to get a glimpse of cosmopolitan blackness in the mystery genre. Havilah is a mixture of women academics I know as well as strong, Southern women family members. She’s feisty and well-accomplished in a profession still dominated by men who sometimes don’t take her seriously despite these accomplishments. She’s also insanely hilarious and just plain befuddled romantically when it comes to men. There is a lot of food in this series. And Havilah likes to eat and feels no guilt about it. She’s a foodie and she’s fit.  All these characteristics make her relatable, I think.


KO: The international settings are part of the adventure in your mysteries. How does place and setting inform your writing? How do you choose your locale?

TW: As a professor of French literature, history and culture, travel is extremely important in my academic life. So, I needed my detective to embody that part of my life. I wanted to allow the readers’ imaginations to travel with Havilah. To taste the foods, experience the places and cultures with her. These are travel narratives as much as mysteries that aim to give the reader a glimpse into cultural differences and sometimes hysterical miscues and encounters. I choose locales based on places I’ve been and thoroughly explored, quite honestly. I’ve spent time in many different countries, small towns, and cities because of my research and my love of travel.  I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica, and about 55 countries. The French were everywhere due to their involvement historically with slavery, colonialism, as well as their status as arbiters of culture globally from the 17thcentury onwards and their important place in the Eurozone today. So, this small country, in comparison to the US, keeps me moving globally—through Europe to South America to Africa to the Caribbean to Tahiti. France is central to my work. I love the French; I think they are sometimes misunderstood. And there is such a diversity in the country itself, from North to South, East to West. We won’t run out of places. Hopefully, my readers will be intrigued enough to visit those places.

KO: I love the chemistry between Havilah and French police agent, Thierry Gasquet. What’s the trick to maintaining that romantic tension throughout the series?

TW: I do love their banter! Havilah can only go so far, I think, without her feeling she’s losing herself. She’s been disappointed in love before. It’s that fear of vulnerability that keeps them both circling each other. That I think produces a lot of the tension.

KO: After Paris-A-Go-Go, where is Havilah Gaie going next?

TW: Aix-en-Provence. One of my favorite cities in Provence.

KO: Thanks, Tracy. I can’t wait!

If you haven’t read Tracy’s clever mysteries. Check them out!


Author Tracy Whiting on train platform in Paris about to board Orient Express/Carlson Wagon Lit (doing research for Paris-a-Go-Go!).


Tracy’s daughter, Haviland, from whose name our amateur detective, Havilah, is derived, with the cabin steward.

What I learned Writing Middle Grade Mystery

Before doing research for my middle grade mystery, I knew only the two principles set out by middle grade mystery superstar Chris Grabenstein, who says, the two essential elements of middle grade fiction are farts and underpants.

Armed with a farting ferret and a petting zoo wearing underpants, I started Kassy O’Rourke, Cub Reporter.


But even the loudest stinkers and baggiest undies don’t make a novel. Having a hard time getting off the ground, I reviewed various plotting techniques, including Alexandra Sokoloff’s screenwriting tips for novelists, tips from Hallie Ephron, Paula Munier’s Plot Perfect, and Jericho Writer’s Plot Template. I spent a lot of time combining techniques, making charts and filling out templates. Then one day I just started writing and didn’t look back.

Lesson one: I’m not a template kind of gal.

Reading up on middle grade, I discovered it’s pretty squishy and can be anywhere from 20-80K words, aimed at 8 to 12 year olds (although some say 7 to 14). MG can have multiple pionts of view but those POVs are presented in separate parts rather than alternating (eg. Wonder, The Candymakers). MG is split about half and half first person and third person.

What surprised me is how many are written in present tense. Although not MG, one of my favorite YA, The Hunger Games, is written in first person. So, I decided to try it. Kassy is first person present tense. My other novels are third person past tense.

Lesson two: writing in first person present is hard.

Of course, no sex (or even romance), no swearing, no drinking or drugs, and not much violence. I had to invent MG swear words like “Crapulence,” “Shitake Mushroom,” and “Shih Tzu Puppy.”

Lesson three: I can’t write a novel without swearing.

In fact, the main reason I decided to write middle grade was to kick my fictional swearing, drinking and drug habits. 

Middle grade mystery is like cozy with younger protagonists … missing what Becky Clark calls cozy dust. But if I can get my hands on some of her magic cozy dust, maybe I can cross-market Kassy. Any cozy readers out there like a well aimed fart? Okay, maybe not.

Another reason I decided to try middle grade is because my sense of humor, especially my penchant for madcapped slapstick action, is sometimes lost on adults. Hopefully kids will be more open minded when it comes to slipping on the occasional fruit or vegetable.

Less tied to adult expectations of believability and realism, I learned perhaps my most important lesson writing middle grade mystery …

Shih Tzu Puppy, writing middle grade mystery is a woodchucking blast!


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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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May You Hit the Jackpot in 2019!

January 2nd would have been mom’s eighty-first birthday. For years I visited my parents in Nevada for New Years and mom’s birthday. This year I couldn’t face the smoky casino without her… It was hard enough with her.

Last year, I lost my mother to kidney cancer. She was one tough cookie, feisty up to the bitter end. And I was blessed to be there with her.

Every winter, my parents went south to Nevada from Idaho, to escape the snow…and because mom loved to gamble. On my last visit, I arrived in the afternoon, and mom was sick and not eating. By evening, she said, “I don’t feel crappy for a change. Let’s go to the casino for dinner.” After dinner, she wanted to play a video poker machine. About ten o’clock—way past my bedtime—my parents finally went home, and I went up to my room, exhausted from the long trip from Nashville.

At 6:00 the next morning, I got a call from dad. “If you come over and the car’s not in the driveway, we’re here.” Then he went on to explain why.

At midnight mom poked his arm and asked, “Don’t you want to go to the casino and play a machine?”

He said, “Not really. I want to sleep.”

A few minutes later, she poked him again. “Are you sure you don’t want to go play? I’ve got a terrible urge to play a machine.”

“Okay. If you really want to…” He got up, dressed her, lifted her into the wheelchair, then into the car, and off they went, back over to the casino.

At 3:00 AM when they finally decided to call it a night, they went to the parking lot and their car wouldn’t start. They waited half hour for a taxi—probably the only one in the tiny town of Mesquite. Mom was getting tired of waiting, and it was a pleasant night, so dad decided to push her in the wheelchair two miles back to their condo. Mom had a blast.

Even though she hadn’t slept all night, mom was like the energizer bunny and wanted to meet for breakfast. Usually, dad ordered whatever mom wanted, and they shared. But this morning, when he asked, “What do you want?” She said, “It’s a secret.” Dad and I exchanged worried glances. She grinned. “Get whatever you want. You deserve it.”

By the next morning, mom was in the hospital with excruciating pain in her side. Up until then, she’d resisted hospice or morphine, now she moaned for something to “make it go away.” The morphine kicked in within minutes and her whole body relaxed in relief.

I’ll never forget mom’s last words.

The next morning, the nurse came into mom’s hospital room, and asked, “How do you feel, Virginia?”

 “You really want to know?”

The nurse gave us a quizzical look. “Of course.”

“I’m pissed off,” mom growled.

“Why are you pissed off, Virginia?” The nurse winked at me.

“Because you won’t let me sleep.”

“Okay. Fair enough. Do you have any pain this morning, Virginia?”

“Yes, I have pain.”

“Where?” The nurse was concerned.

“In my ass,” mom snarled. “And it’s you.” Classic mom.

I grimaced, but the nurse just laughed.

Those were mom’s last words. She died that night. 

But mom died the way she lived… Giving ‘em hell.

Jackal, book four in the Jessica James Mystery series is set in Las Vegas in honor of my mom.

Here’s hoping you hit the happiness jackpot in 2019!!

runts playing with sharkey


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Photo by Caio Resende on Pexels.com

Joy Castro takes us to the heart of New Orleans.

Today on Mysteristas, I’m interviewing Joy Castro, author of the Nola Céspedes mystery novels, Hell or High Water, and Nearer Home. Nola is my new favorite sleuth. She is feisty, funny, and whip smart. She doesn’t suffer fools but has a soft spot for those in need. If you haven’t met Nola Céspedes, you’ve got to check out these novels.


KO: I love Nola Céspedes in her two outings so far. Will we see Nola again in a third crime novel?

JC: Thank you so much, Kelly!  I loved writing them both and would love to write more.  I’ve outlined two more Nola novels so far, and I noodle around on them from time to time, when I can’t concentrate on my current main project.

One is about industrial environmental crime that poisons the Pearl River and Lake Pontchartrain, and the other is about a drug cartel that wants to rule New Orleans.  The drug-cartel one has a little old evil stone-cold matriarch who spouts a twisted version of theorist Simone Weil as a justification for the use of violence, so I’m having fun with that one.

The novels are kind of geeky and issue-driven, obviously, but there’s also a lot of action and wit.  I tend to love both kinds of things:  the serious stuff and the fun.


KO: What was it like turning to crime writing from memoir and other genres? What do you like about writing crime and detective fiction?

JC: In memoir, I write to discover, to pursue answers to the serious questions that haunt me.  When I begin writing a memoir or personal essay, I don’t know the answer—or if I’ll even find one.  I just know the question, and I know I’m on the trail of something painful and elusive. In this way, there is a kind of connection with sleuthing or detective work, and the hope is that, through writing—through confronting the issue and thinking/feeling hard about it, through tracking down its ramifications—I’ll find or create some kind of meaningful shape that illuminates the issue and makes it cohere both aesthetically and at the level of meaning.  This doesn’t always happen, of course, and then the piece fails, and it stays in my notebook, and no one else ever sees it.  I have quite a few of those…


When writing crime fiction, on the other hand, I first need to generate the resolution, the solution, before I begin drafting, so that I can carefully lay each brick in the road to lead to that conclusion.  You know:  clues and so on.  It all has to add up.  If I sat down and wrote to discover, the novel could meander all over the place and never actually lead to anyone’s solving the crime—which, of course, might be more interesting from a literary or philosophical standpoint, but there’d be a lot of disappointed crime-fiction readers when they got to the end.  And I like the nice tight snap of a surprising ending as much as anyone.  Who doesn’t love closure?  So I want to furnish that particular pleasure in my crime fiction.  When I write crime novels, all the sleuthing’s been done already in my imagination before I set pen to paper, and the challenge is to craft a narrative I already know in a logical, cause-and-effect pattern.


KO: Your Nola novels perfectly balance suspense with contemporary social issues. How do you strike that balance?

JC: Oh, thank you!  That’s my goal, so I’m glad that’s how you found them.  I always say I want to write “beach reads for smart people”:  books that are action-packed page-turners yet engage the troubling facts of our day.  To achieve that, I do a ton of research—political research, historical research, psychological research, scientific research—and then really work hard to comprehend and digest it fully.  To let it become a part of me.

And then I forget it.  I don’t have my research notebooks open on the desk with me (I mean, I don’t write at a literal desk, but you get the gist) when I’m writing the novels.  The goal is to have absorbed the new information so thoroughly—and then put it out of my conscious awareness—that the right detail just rises effortlessly to my mind as I’m drafting, the way the right detail just naturally rises to your mind when you’re telling a story about something that really happened to you.

Then the information gets woven in seamlessly, instead of feeling like an info dump, or like a little sermon or history lecture.

At least, that’s the hope.  I don’t always achieve it.  Sometimes my agent will say, “You’re sounding like a professor in this passage,” and I’ll know there’s more work to be done.

And as for the politics, I’m thinking about politics all the time anyway, so I couldn’t help infusing the novels with those issues even if I wanted to—which I don’t. I engage regularly on Twitter about politics, if anyone wants to connect with me there.

KO: How did you choose New Orleans as the setting for the Nola novels? What are the opportunities and challenges of setting your novels in a city with so much character of its own?

JC: I love New Orleans.  Love it, love it, love it.  But I’m an outsider, so I wrote the novels with the attentive care and respect of an observer, not the deep authority of an inhabitant.

I went there for the first time in my 20s, with the man I was falling in love with. It was his home, and I fell in love with the city as I was falling in love with him.  The people, the food, the music, the complicated and painful history—which doesn’t scare me, because that’s the kind of history I have myself, too, so I’m used to finding what’s beautiful and salvageable in something that’s been wrecked, and I’m very stubborn about cherishing and defending what’s mine. I feel a kinship to New Orleanians in that way.

So my lovely former husband and I went there every year together, visiting friends and family, for over 20 years, and I spent one of my sabbatical years there—after both novels came out, actually.  It has been such an education and a joy.

In setting the books in a beloved and well-known place, I see mostly opportunities: the chance to learn new things, to immerse myself in a place that overwhelms and enchants me, to be open to transformation.  Who wouldn’t want to do “research” at Tipitina’s or Jacques-Imo’s?  What writer wouldn’t want the opportunity to contend with New Orleans’ vexed layers of history?

The main challenge is getting every detail right.  As an outsider, I can’t take my knowledge base for granted or rely on memory, and New Orleanians are justly protective of their city—especially since so many tourists come for a weekend and think they know the place.  I knew I was writing for the locals, and I’d have to measure up.  So I had to “walk the job” of every single setting, even the not-so-safe ones, like the site of the former Desire Projects, and I had to work very hard to render everything accurately.  I wanted the books to cover far more of the city than just the French Quarter or Uptown and to tackle the political conflicts that may not meet the eye of the casual visitor.  What made me the proudest, in that regard, was when New Orleanians who’d read the books couldn’t believe I wasn’t from there.  I felt very relieved and grateful every time that happened.

On the other hand, I did once get a very irate email from a New Orleanian. She was upset that I had invented a parking lot, and she said she couldn’t believe anything else in the books because I’d made such a careless mistake.  That illustrates how seriously the local readers take such things—and I don’t blame them:  it’s horrible to be publicly misrepresented, as anyone from a subordinated group can attest.

So that’s the challenging part.  On the one hand, my work is fiction; on the other hand, if it’s going to work in the mode of realism and create any kind of verisimilitude, then it needs to cross its t’s and dot its i’s.

KO: What are you working on now?

JC: I’ve written a few short stories lately, and one will be coming out next April in Ploughshares, but my main project is a new novel.  It’s a stand-alone literary novel about a Latina sculptor in Chicago who has a Very Mysterious Past.  There are crimes in it, but I wouldn’t call it a crime novel per se—except in the sense that Beloved or The Round House can be said to be crime novels.  I’ve got a full rough draft, and I hope to finish it next year.  It’s called Almost Heaven, and I suppose you could call it domestic suspense.  I’m a huge Patricia Highsmith fan, and she’s the gold standard for me in that regard.  I’m aiming high.

Thanks for joining us on Mysteristas, Joy Castro!

Follow Joy on Twitter: @_JoyCastro