Scott D. Parker
I think by now, most of us can hum the theme song to “Cheers” and, if not, at least know the sentiment of the song: you want to go somewhere where everybody knows your name. I don’t frequent bars, but I do frequent Murder by the Book and dang if it isn’t a place with people who know my name. Fellow Do Some Damage scribe Joelle Charbonneau was to have her first signing at the store and I had called ahead to reserve a copy of her book, Skating Around the Law. No sooner do I enter the door than Dean James reaches behind the counter and delivers Joelle’s book to my hands. That, my friends, is the type of service that’s few and far between in this day and age. It’s noticed and appreciated.
Joelle Charbonneau, a Chicagoan, was one of three authors at Murder by the Book last Saturday, JoAnna Carl and Jan Grape were the other two. Since I literally had just picked up Joelle’s book, I hadn’t read anything by them so I automatically felt at a loss. In addition, I tend to read the grittier material, hard-boiled fiction and noir stuff. Ironically, that kind of reading is in direct contrast to the types of mysteries I watch on television: Castle, Masterpiece Mystery [Foyle’s War; Wallander; Collision], Monk, CSI: Miami. Not exactly blood and guts, you know? I’ve been contemplating the types of books I write and this light vs. dark debate is the primary question I’m trying to answer. Needless to say, I was pretty excited about the event.
After brief introductions and biographies, the authors read their first chapters (or portions of chapters) for us. In all the author events I’ve been to, this was a first for me. JoAnna kicked it off by reading from The Chocolate Pirate Plot. Jan followed with What Doesn’t Kill You. The third member of the “J” Gang was Joelle who read most of her chapter. Here’s what struck me by all three authors was the audience reactions. There was about a dozen of us and we laughed, chuckled, or gasped at all the right places. I think it’s great, as a writer, to read aloud to other people and see if they react like you expected them to do.
Each writer talked about the inspiration of their new book. For JoAnna, this is twelfth book in her series featuring Lee McKinney. Jan demurred, saying there were too many inspirations to mention just one. I can concur with that, seeing that some of my ideas filter down from dozens of sources. Joelle’s mother is a world class rollerskater so it was natural for Joelle to write a skating book. Her agent was, according to Joelle, probably thinking of a romance novel. The only problem was that Joelle kept seeing a dead body at the end of chapter one. Thus, a mystery with some romance.
Seeing as we here at Do Some Damage just discussed our writing habits, I asked them to talk about theirs. Interestingly, all three authors don’t outline, at least in the traditional sense. They generally have an idea of whodunit and a place to start and little else. They all stressed the concept that they, the writers, were, in fact, the first reader and they wanted to just keep going. As Jan said, “You have to tell the story to yourself first, then you can fiddle with it.” Personally, I think that the fiddling is where many writers—this one included—go astray. If we can’t even garner enough interest from outline to prose, how the heck will our readers.
The entire event was just plain fun. As a buyer of Joelle’s book, I earned myself a tour T-shirt complete with tour dates on the back. Tres cool. After I finish Joelle’s book (and Russel McLean’s The Good Son that I picked up at his event a few weeks ago), I’ll be tackling Jan’s and JoAnna’s books.
I spoke with Jan a bit about her time as a bookseller in Austin. She had opened a mystery bookstore in the 1990s, and, at one point, Texas had four mystery bookstores. Jan had to shutter the doors of her shop after business dried up. Now, if I remember correctly, Murder by the Book is the only mystery bookstore left in Texas. So, people, if you have a independent bookstore near you, frequent it. Get the folks who work there to learn who you are and what you like. Then, one day, you’ll be able to walk in the store and they’ll know your name and you’ll feel right at home. You might even hear that familiar theme song...