Sisters in Crime program at McClatchy Library shares murder mystery writing techniques

By Leigh Stephens

Dorothy Place

She walked up the steps of the library, hoping to learn how to murder somebody.  A chill ran through her body. Did murder lurk in her heart? Oh, yes!

She walked into the library meeting room, expecting to find people with evil smirks on their faces, spine-tingling auras, and dressed in flowing black garb.

Sitting at the front table were three sweet, little old ladies with colorful books in front of them.  Before them in the expectant audience were men and women with ages ranging from college age to retirement – a coven of writers, seeking clues for completing their murder mysteries.

The panel coordinator greeted her, “Are you here for murder?”

Four members of Sacramento Sisters in Crime gathered at the Eleanor K. McClatchy Library at the end of May to share their techniques and tips for writing Murder. This was one of the events celebrating the 30th anniversary of the founding of Sisters in Crime.

The Sacramento organization has recently published Capitol Crimes Anthology 2017, which is a yearly collection of short mystery stories written by Sisters in Crime members.

Panel coordinator Virginia Kidd is the co-author of the book, Cop Talk, Essential Communications Skills for Community Policing, written with former Sacramento Police Captain Rick Braziel.

The retired CSUS professor has also authored scores of short stories and plays. She taught in the Journalism and Communications Studies Department.

Virginia says her five cats help her in her writing – walking across computer keys, moving papers and telepathically sending her ideas.

While talking about her start as a writer, “I remember putting on a play that I wrote for my fourth grade teacher. She allowed us to perform it.”

When asked about her start in mystery writing, she said, “I always loved Nancy Drew. As an adult, I started by writing articles, and then I started a mystery novel with the mistaken notion that it would be easy. My current mystery in-progress is about a character who is at a conference.  Her nature-loving roommate rescues a trashed jade plant, unaware that the pot holding the plant is a smuggled historical artifact. The two have just stumbled into a smuggling ring.

“To write mysteries you have to be logical and imaginative at the same time. You have to conform to a genre pattern, but also be original. Classic whodunit mysteries must show clues and hide them at the same time.”

The first panelist and veteran writer Michele Drier is the current president of Sacramento Sisters in Crime. She is the author of the Amy Hobbs mystery series including Edited for Death and Labeled for Death.  She also is the author of the Kandesky Vampire Chronicles. Her newest book is a psychological thriller: Ashes of Memories.

A fifth generation Californian she says, “I was born in Santa Cruz to a pioneer family and now live in the Central Valley with cats, skunks, opossums and wild turkeys. My maternal grandmother belonged to a writing club in San Francisco in the early part of the 20th century.  She wrote poems and jingles, one of which won her a travel trailer during the Depression.”

Michele continues, “Most murder victims end up bashed in the head by a blunt-force instrument. Motivation often ends up being about sex or money. When I start a mystery, I ask ‘What if?’ What would happen if…?

“Writing the middle part of a mystery is the hardest for me.
I find that most murderers are people whose community has let them down…people in their lives who should support them.”

Drier talked about the current trend of self-publication. Major name book publishers are incredibly hard to break into. The major publishers publish only one in 50,000 books submitted.  It has become easier for writers to publish and market their own book. It’s important to promote yourself as a writer by having readings in local bookstores, using social media like Facebook and Twitter, and networking with other writers.

Second panelist Linda Townsdin talked about the importance of setting. She says, “I am the author of the Spirit Lake Mystery Series, inspired by my wonderful childhood in Northern Minnesota.”

Linda grew up near the Ojibwa Native American tribe and uses the rich memories and extensive research to make her mysteries come alive. She has worked for a national criminal justice organization, which gives authenticity when writing her mysteries.

“I love all the parts of writing, “ she says.  “Before I write, I use all kinds of research: books, videos, etc.  It’s important to constantly read. It’s essential that you keep writing.  It’s so rewarding when people come up to me and say, ‘I loved your book’!”

Her recent books are Focused on Murder (2014), Close Up on Murder (2015), and Blow Up on Murder (2017).

Blow Up on Murder features Britt Johansson, a former Pulitzer prize-winning Los Angeles Times photographer. While working in Northern Minnesota, she stumbles across an international crime ring that ultimately pits Britt and her brother against a psychopathic killer.

According to reviews, “Her hometown of Spirit Lake is the perfect location for all kinds of dirty deeds: easy entry points along the vast wilderness of the United States/Canadian border, an Indian reservation that’s off limits to most law enforcement, and a dangerously mistaken perception that nothing happens in small towns.”

The third panelist Dorothy M. Place repeats her co-panelists, “A writer must read to write!”

Dorothy says she started writing after her retirement. She got the idea for her suspense thriller, The Heart to Kill, from Euripides’ play Medea. It is the sad story of a woman who sacrificed everything for her husband.  She was discarded by her husband and threatened with exile.  To seek revenge, she murdered their two sons.  The Greek chorus asks, ‘How does she have the heart to kill her own flesh and blood’?”

In Dorothy’s novel law student Sarah Wasser returns to her apartment and hears a telephone message that her best friend from high school, JoBeth, has just murdered her two children. Sarah secures a position on JoBeth’s defense team and returns to her hometown in South Carolina.

Dorothy says, “After working on the novel for five years, I actually ended up in the same place as Euripides.  Each time I read about a mother who has murdered her children, I ask myself how did she have the heart to kill?”

Born in Jersey City, Dorothy now lives and writes in Davis, California. She says she began creative writing as a hobby and then a second career a dozen years ago. Since 2005, ten of her short stories have been published in literary journals and magazines.  Two of which were selected for awards from the Mendocino Coast Writers and the prestigious Estelle Frank Fellowship in 2010. She is working on a collection of short stories, Living on the Edge.

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2 Responses to Sisters in Crime program at McClatchy Library shares murder mystery writing techniques

  1. What a great write-up. Thanks so much. It was a great panel and a good turnout. A wonderful opportunity to “meet the folks.”

  2. Michele Drier says:

    Thanks so much, Leigh. It was a great panel and, audience and talking about murder…one of my favorite things

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