Why my story goes to the dogs...
"Do we need this cat?" My editor wrote in the margin after reviewing my second manuscript. My initial reaction was the same as if he'd suggested I euthanize the 19-year-old cat our family had raised from a kitten. I grieved as though the kitten were real.
That's the dream and the job for a writer: creating characters so real that you forget they don't exist. In Address to Die For, it happens often with the animals, all of whom real aspects of the human characters that might otherwise remain hidden.
Belle, the McDonald famliy's golden retriever, believes she is the series' main character. Her boundless enthusiasm buoys Professional Organizer Maggie when her spirits are flagging. Belle's insistence on frequent walks give Maggie an excuse to investigate in places they both might not venture alone. Maggie confides in Belle and Belle's barking often signals danger moments before Maggie realizes how much trouble she may be in.
Munchkin, the mastiff sidekick of Maggie's friend Stephen Laird, opens the door to the friendship between Maggie and Stephen and allows Stephen to share a portion of his mysterious past as he tells the story of the dog's ill-fitting name.
Mackie, the West Highland White Terrier belonging to Elaine Cumberfield, reveals the lighter side of Elaine whose background as a middle school principal sometimes overpowers her gentler fairy-godmother demeanor.
Mozart, one of my favorite animal characters, is a German Shepherd with a walk-on role in Address to Die For, but he'll come into his own later in the series. Mozart is a retired Marine trained by Stephen as a companion for Maggie's friend Tess Olmos and her son Teddy. Bilingual, Mozart responds to commands in German and in English. He's one of Belle's best friends.
Are the animals real? To me they are. They are loosely based on real-life dogs but are also uniquely themselves and often surprise me. Their intuitive nature provides clues to plot and characterization and their comedic timing provides a welocme break when intensity builds. As I told my editor in the case of the kitten, it's often more important to strengthen them than to consider cutting them from the stories.
If you go for walks with biscuits in your pockets for the dogs you meet, or if animals are an important part of your family life, you'll feel right at home with Maggie in Orchard View and set Belle's tail wagging every time you visit.
1. Where do you get your ideas?
Ideas are easy. Mystery and thriller writers have a dark side, which means we're constantly looking at the world through a slightly dodgy lens. We're self-entertaining. So, whenever you see us looking off into space, we're probably thinking things like:
What if that person jogging just did something awful and is pretending to be exercising instead of just running away?
What if that person who came in late or left early is using this event as an alibi?
What if the person who always volunteers to go to the dump after big community events is disposing of bodies as he does his volunteer bit?
This ski boot locker is just the right size for a severed head.
The ideas are the fun part. If you can sketch out an idea in ten to twenty words, it may well work as a novel. The hard part is the other 80,000 to 100,000 words.
2. Are your characters based on you? Or anyone else?
Yes and No.
Maggie is a bit like me. Only taller, younger, thinner, braver, tidier, and she lives in a much cooler house.
Maggie's husband is a bit like mine, though he hates home maintenance chores and would have divorced me in a flash if I ever suggested moving into a house that was in the condition Maggie's was when they moved to Orchard View.
I have two boys who play instruments and have some of the attributes of David and Brian -- but they are both grown men now. Brian and David are probably 2 parts my boys, 3 parts their friends and 5 parts kids I made up.
Although there was an unsolved murder in one of the towns I grew up in, no one in my family has ever been on the lookout for a murderer, and none of us have ever found a body in the basement. Right now, I don't even have a basement. Which is comforting in many ways.
As far as the other characters go...if they seem like real people, I've done my job well. I want you to miss them when you finish the book. However, I have to know them better than anyone I know or have met in real life. I think all authors joke about making someone the villain or the dead body in their next book, most of us know that real people just aren't interesting enough to come to life on the page.
I tried once to covert real people into characters in a work of historical fiction. It was really difficult to make the characters do anything that I didn't already know they had done. I changed the names to make it a little easier, but it was still very very difficult.
Characters who are completely fictional are much easier to work with -- although if you craft them properly, they'll often be a little difficult to control. Which is probably the most fun thing about being a writer.
For my friends and family and neighbors, I absolutely positively promise that none of you appear in the books.
3. Do you need to base your settings on a real place in order to be able to describe them?
I do. Which is 180 degrees from my approach to characters. Orchard View is loosely based on Los Altos, CA, although its borders are a lot more fluid than any you'd see on a map, and the McDonald's property doesn't exist.
I didn't call the town Los Altos because I knew that I'd want to move some streets around and that I'd get things wrong. With a pretend town, I have the best of both worlds. The framework of a real place, with the freedom to manipulate it. I also wanted to be able to throw a bunch of murders in without in anyway implying that the Los Altos Police Department is anything like law enforcement in Orchard View.
4. Are you an organizer in real life?
No. Maggie is much more organized than I am. When she said she wanted to become an organizer, I joined the National Association of Organization Professionals and attended a number of their meetings.
They had a great time telling me about all the odd and often incriminating items they found in their clients closets. And I was delighted to listen. I'm pretty good about getting rid of things that I no longer use, and about developing systems to help find and store things. But my husband will tell you that I never put anything back where I found it and that I have more shoes scattered around the house than I do in my closet.
5. Do you have a favorite character?
I think the animals are my favorites. They help me reveal aspects of the characters that might otherwise remain hidden. And they can express themselves in ways that well-behaved humans never would. Initially, the animals were a way to get to know the characters and were never intended to make it into the books. But once I'd imagined them, they insisted on following their people onto the pages.
There are several animals that were part of the first drafts of each book that I later needed to take out. I miss them, but I saved their stories and will one day have to put them in short stories or on my blog.
I hope you can tell from the animals in the books that I have lived with animals all my life. The animals in the books are based on real animals, most of whom I've known personally.
6. Will there be more stories about these people?
Absolutely. I've contracted with my publisher to write three books and will keep writing them until someone tells me to stop. As long as readers keep reading them, I will keep writing them. Maggie and her friends are getting into trouble faster than I can write their stories. They are about three disasters ahead of where they are in the books.
7. Throughout the book Maggie catalogs an outsider's experience of being thrown into Silicon Valley culture. Is this based on your own experience of moving to the area?
Yes. I moved to Palo Alto in 1982 from the East Coast. My husband's relatives moved here before the Gold Rush, and he worked for Hewlett-Packard, so I was thrust immediately into the frenzy of a booming economy I knew nothing about. I love to garden, but many of the plants that thrive here are ones I had thought of as house plants.
The first thing that flummoxed me was trying to figure out when Silicon Valley people do their laundry. On the East Coast, a beautiful sunny day with a mild temperature, low humidity and bright blue sky was a day to be out celebrating the gift of good weather. Laundry was for rainy days. And no one in the Bay Area makes contingency plans for foul weather -- which was something we always did growing up.
There are a lot of other oddities, too. Our housing prices are insane. My brother in Maine owns about 40 acres of beautiful land that cost about a quarter of what we paid for our first house -- a teeny-tiny three-bedroom that was within sneezing distance of all the neighbors.
Maggie's property is unusual, and she makes a point of saying they only have it because it's been in the family for generations. There's no way she and Max could otherwise afford it.
Perhaps to make up for that, the recreational areas are world class and within a relatively easy drive. It's possible to ski in the morning and surf in the afternoon -- if you have the energy to do so.
8. How does the final book compare to the idea you originally had when you set out to write the book and if things changed, why?
What a great question! The finished book is very different from the way I first imagined the story. I think that's always the case. Characters turn out to be more or less interesting than you'd thought they'd be, so you cut one way back and give the other one free rein. You had fun researching parts of the book and learned way more about the subject than a reader needs to know. My first drafts probably have whole chapter's worth of research I'll eventually cut. And I always seem to have a bit too much of Maggie sitting around and thinking about what she needs to do. Which often means I'm sitting at my computer wondering how she's going to get from point a to point b in an interesting fashion.
Typically, the person who is the murder is someone I didn't even know was going to be in the book.
My process involves writing an outline or road map of the story that I think is complete. But, about a quarter of the way into the outline, I get stuck muddle about for a bit before I decide to rewrite the remaining bit of the outline. I do that several times while I build the first draft.
I throw out about 25% of the initial draft and add in new scenes that add a sub-plot, characters, depth, and all sorts of other writerly things.
So...from the first time I imagined the plot to the published book? Maggie and her friends are the same, and the primary problem is the same, but many other things have been tried out and discarded in favor of others.
9. How long did it take you to write this book?
The first Maggie book took the longest, because I had to get to know all the characters. I spent about two months researching the story, creating the house, and developing the characters. I spent another month creating a tentative outline and three more to write the first draft. Then I took some time off and spent about six to eight weeks revising and polishing, slashing and rewriting.
10. Did anyone help you?
Absolutely. I belong to a number of writers organizations and have friends in all of them, most of whom I communicate with daily online. Years ago, when I wrote my first novel, I was part of a critique group I met online. Several of us are still in touch. All of us are published. We spend a lot of time encouraging each other, consoling each other, and holding each other to our goals.
My family helps by chipping on the household chores when I'm spending too much time with my imaginary friends. I've had gazillions of teachers who've helped, including my college English professor who wrote a note on my very first college paper "Miss Cooper, Did you sprinkle these commas in with a pepper grinder?" To make matters worse, I couldn't read his writing, so I very shyly asked him to tell me what he meant. He read it with a twinkle in his eye, but I decided then and there that I'd better learn a little more about grammar and punctuation.
My editors and my publisher have been a huge help, doing things I didn't know anything about or didn't even know needed doing.
And my friends have been my cheerleaders every step of the way.