Elaine Viets writes two national bestselling mystery series.
Her Dead-End Job series is a satiric look at a serious subject – the minimum-wage world. Elaine and her character, Helen Hawthorne, work a different low-paying job each book, from telemarketer to hotel maid. Publishers Weekly called her hardcover debut “wry social commentary.” Clubbed to Death, set at a South Florida country club, is her seventh Dead-End Job.
Elaine’s second series features St. Louis mystery shopper Josie Marcus in Accessory to Murder. The debut, Dying in Style, tied with Stephen King on the Independent Mystery Booksellers bestseller list.
Elaine won the Agatha, Anthony and Lefty Awards.
What is your current project? Tell us about it.
A: CLUBBED TO DEATH is my latest Dead-End Job mystery. It’s set at a country club, and I worked at one in South Florida for nine long months. I thought the club motto should have been, “Do you know who I am?” I was in customer service and dealt with the problems of people who have no problems. My favorite was the doctor who came storming in, demanding his monthly bill. He didn’t want his wife to see it. Turned out the doctor had brought one of his office employees to the club for a day of “relaxation.” She’d relaxed about $3000. The doctor said his wife “wouldn’t understand.” I figured she’d understand perfectly. We had to tell the doctor that the law required his wife receive a copy. Oddly, this wasn’t the first time this had happened.
Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract, how you heard and what went through your head?
A: I’d been writing for a newspaper for more than 25 years, when I was fired. I wrote my first mystery, set at a newspaper. I killed a number of fictional editors, which was very satisfying. The novel took four months to write. My agent shopped it around New York and sold it after eight weeks.
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writer’s block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.
A: Every writer I know has self-doubts, and most of us have writer’s block. For me, writer’s block usually means to I need to be around people. Not friends – readers. I will go to some place like McDonald’s or a local restaurant and listen to conversations. A touch of reality helps jumpstart my fiction.
What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
A: I wish I’d attended the major mystery conventions before my first novel came out. It would have given me a head start. If you are serious about writing, go to the conventions for your genre. Meet the booksellers at the conference stores and at your local stores. Buy books, or at least some small item. When you are an established customer, ask your local store what sells and what doesn’t.
What’s the best or worst advice (or both) you’ve heard on writing/publication?
A: Harlan Coben talked at Sleuthfest about editing. He said books should be carefully edited, but we have to let our work go into the world, and that can be hard. “When you find yourself changing ‘a’ to ‘the’ you’re over-editing,” Harlan said.
What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?
A: For my Dead-End Job series, the story grows out of the job. When I cleaned hotel rooms for MURDER WITH RESERVATIONS, a maid told me a bank robber had hidden out at the hotel and was killed there. The money was never found. That became the basis for that novel. For MURDER UNLEASHED, I did my research at a pet boutique in Fort Lauderdale. For the first book, SHOP TILL YOU SHOP, I worked at a dress shop that sold bustiers to bimbos.
Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six-foot man…please do tell.
A: My husband Don and I were at dinner in a mall restaurant. I’d bought a reference book called “Cause of Death.” I said, “Look, this has great ways to kill people.” The couple in the adjacent booth moved closer to the wall.
Is there a particularly difficult set back that you’ve gone through in your writing career you are willing to share? Or have you ever been at the point where considered quitting writing altogether?
A: My first series, the Francesca Vierling mysteries, was discontinued by Dell in 2001. My husband had cancer and we’d also lost our money in the post 9/11 crash. I went to work at a bookstore to pay the mortgage. That became the basis for my Dead-End Job series. I set my second book in that series, MURDER BETWEEN THE COVERS, at the bookstore.
With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears if you were beginning this writing journey today?
A: I prefer to call new writers “pre-published.” Writing is both a business and an art form. When I started, I thought all I had to do was write the novels and the publisher would handle the selling. Later, I learned I needed to find a balance and do both, with the publisher’s help.
What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?
A: Losing my first series really hurt. I had to rethink writing and marketing and learn the business. I also had to let go of a series character who was closely tied in with my identity. I’m glad I did, but it was hard.
What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why?
A: A short story in Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P. Kelner’s bestselling anthology, “Many Bloody Returns.” I’d never written a vampire story before. It was a challenge I enjoyed.
Dean Koontz recently shared his take on the concept on “the writer’s sacred duty.” What comes to your mind at the mention of “the writer’s sacred duty?”
A: I try to entertain readers and to play fair. When I write a mystery, all the clues are there for the reader to solve it.
Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?
A: Women writers are often not treated with respect unless they “write like men.”
Yet one of the most successful writers is Charlaine Harris, who had the courage to strike out and write a unique vampire series. She now has a TV series and seven books on the New York Times bestseller list – and she doesn’t write like a man.
Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?
A: I’d like Alan Ball to make my mysteries into an HBO series.
What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?
A: Everyone knows everyone, and that’s both good and bad.
How has your unique life journey prepared you to be an author? What is one of the more unique or strange life experiences that has really given you an extra oomph in your writing?
A: I was a newspaper reporter for more than 25 years. That career taught me how to write on deadline, what dialogue sounds like and good ways to do research.
Describe your special or favorite writing spot or send a picture if you’d like.
A: My office. It’s lined with bookshelves and the window overlooks the Intracoastal Waterway. At night, I like to sit at my desk and watch the boats without lights running on the water. I know there’s a novel outside my window. I spend a lot of time mentally plotting my books while I drive, so I’m sending a picture of that favorite place.
What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?
A: Long-term deadlines. Newspapers have short deadlines of days or weeks. Books can take a year or more.
What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?
A: Quit making excuses and sit down at the computer.
Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?
A: I try to write 1500 words a day. The next morning I revise, then write another 1500.
Plot, seat of pants or combination?
A: Plot. Mysteries are intricate puzzles. I use the plot outline as a road map. I don’t follow it exactly, but it keeps me on track and lets me know when to introduce clues and key scenes. As I write, I make adjustments if the plot is not working.
What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?
A: Saggy middles are overcome by ruthless editing. The key is to try not to fall in love with my words. I have to start slashing.
Have you received a particularly memorable reader response? Please share.
A: Yes, a Japanese professor teaches my books at her university as an example of American culture. I find that flattering and a little scary. Some people aren’t even sure South Florida is America.
Have you had a particularly memorable peer honor? Please share.
A: Yes. I had a series of strokes in April 2007 as I was about to leave on tour for MURDER WITH RESERVATIONS. Instead of touring, I went through brain surgery, a coma and a month in the hospital, and I’m still doing physical therapy.
More than 200 mystery writers organized a “tour by proxy” for me and sold my books from New York to California. These were working authors with their own careers, but they took time out to help me. They saved my hardcover career and I’m extremely grateful.
How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?
A: Quite a bit. I hire a freelance publicist, PJ Nunn, in addition to the good but overworked publicist provided by my publisher. I also speak at conferences, including Sleuthfest and Malice Domestic. For each novel, I post reading discussion questions, the cover jpg and a sample chapter on my website. I blog on Wednesdays at The Lipstick Chronicles with Nancy Martin, Michele Martinez, Sarah Strohmeyer, Lisa Daily, Kathy Sweeney and Harley Jane Kozak. It’s at www.thelipstickchronicles.typepad.com
Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?
A: Support your local bookstores, even if all you can afford is a birthday card. Books and gift certificates make classy gifts. It’s in your own self-interest. Bookstores promote and help writers. You will need them when your book is published.