The Craft of Writing — November 2022
I am thrilled to welcome Anthony and Agatha Award-winning mystery author Elaine Viets to the Craft of Writing blog today as we continue our year-long interviews of mystery, suspense, thriller, and fantasy authors. Elaine is the author of several series from cozies to dark mystery, so it will be fun to get her perspective on the different sub-genres. And she’s a fellow contributor to the Kill Zone Blog.
Elaine’s latest novel, Late for his Own Funeral, was released in 2022, and her short story We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us About won a silver at the Florida Writers Association. It appeared in the anthology The Great Filling Station Holdup.
Meet Elaine Viets
Elaine Viets has written 34 mysteries in four series: the bestselling Dead-End Job series with South Florida PI Helen Hawthorne, the cozy Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper mysteries, and the dark Francesca Vierling mysteries. With the Angela Richman Death Investigator series, Elaine returns to her hardboiled roots and uses her experience as a stroke survivor and her studies at the Medicolegal Death Investigators Training Course. Elaine was a director at large for the Mystery Writers of America. She’s a frequent contributor to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and anthologies edited by Charlaine Harris and Lawrence Block. Elaine won the Anthony, Agatha and Lefty Awards.
Welcome Elaine Viets, and thank you for joining us!
Please give us some background – have you always wanted to be a writer?
At first, I wanted to be an artist, until I realized I didn’t have any artistic talent. In high school, my teachers steered me toward a career in writing and encouraged me to go to Journalism School at the University of Missouri. I worked my way through college proofreading medical books, Missouri Supreme Court briefs and phone books. That last job was incredibly boring. I was hired by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after graduation, as a fashion writer. Later, I became a feature writer and finally a humor columnist. I was syndicated by United Features in New York. Working for a newspaper was good training to be a novelist. I learned the importance of deadlines and also how to write realistic dialogue. You never want someone to quote you absolutely accurately, with every um, uh, and hesitation.
Why did you decide to write mystery novels?
I love reading mysteries. I had my mother’s set of Nancy Drews, the red-backed ones. Nancy drove a roadster. I had no idea what that was, but figured it was sort of like a Miata, which was definitely cool. I graduated to Agatha Christie and by then I was hooked. I had a three-book a week mystery habit. When the newspaper business began to fall apart in the mid-1990s, I quit to write mysteries.
Tell us about the first novel you wrote and how you came up with the story.
My first mystery was called “Backstab.” It was a newspaper series featuring a six-feet-tall columnist named Francesca Vierling. Since I am six-feet tall and had been a columnist, it wasn’t much of a creative stretch. I enjoyed satirizing the newspaper life of the time and killed off a number of editors. (Especially the ones who butchered my copy.) I wrote about the quirky side of my hometown of St. Louis, and some of my favorite people and places, including a bar and restaurant called Dieckmeyers, which served the city specialty, brain sandwiches. Brains – usually cow brains – were breaded and deep-fat fried. In “Backstab,” two of Francesca’s good friends die suddenly. She’s convinced they were murdered, though the police are not. She investigates their deaths.
You’ve written four different series. Can you tell us a little about each one of those and how they differ from each other?
The first series, the Francesca Vierling series, is a newspaper mystery, set in the mid-1990s. It stopped after four novels, when Dell ended its paperback mystery division.
The Dead-End Job mysteries came second. Helen Hawthorne, a St. Louis woman on the run from her greedy ex-husband, winds up in South Florida, working low-paying jobs for cash under the table. I’ve written twelve books in this series, and Helen had a different dead-end job for each mystery, from hotel maid to cat groomer. I worked many of those jobs. The worst was telemarketer.
My publisher asked me to start the Josie Marcus, mystery shopper series featuring Josie, a single mom and mystery shopper. My own mother was a mystery shopper, so I knew a little about that profession. I wrote 10 Josie books before I ended that very cozy series.
My current series is the Angela Richman, Death Investigator mysteries. I’ve just turned in book seven in that series, “The Dead of Night,” based on a legend from Transylvania University. (And yes, that’s a real university in Kentucky.) All these series are available as e-books.
What’s your writing process? Do you start with plot or characters or some combination? Are you a plotter or pantser?
Some combination. I always know the killer and the victims when I start a mystery, and I have a good idea of the story. I used to be a dedicated plotter, and worked out every scene in advance. My outlines were often 80 pages. But now that I’ve written more than thirty mysteries, I’m turning into a pantser. I’m letting the story develop. It feels freer that way.
What are your plans for future novels? Do you have another series in mind?
I have one more Angela Richman mystery on my contract with Severn House, and then I’ll have to decide my next move.
When you’re not writing, what do you do for fun?
I live in Hollywood, Florida, right on the ocean, and I love to go for long walks along the water. These walks are not only peaceful, they’re a good way to work out plots. Plus, I see so many quirky people, like the man who rides a bike with his cockatoo on the handlebars. I enjoy going out with my husband Don and our friends. I also enjoy reading. My condo has a 24-hour library, so if I need a mystery in the middle of the night, I can get it.
What advice would you give an aspiring mystery author?
Read. Whether you are traditionally published or indie, know who the leaders are in your subgenre. Read the masters and the emerging writers. Check out the Latina and Latino writers, writers of color and LGBTQ+ writers.
Study your craft. Know the basic rules of grammar, and the “rules” of mystery writing. You may want to break every one of them, but know them first. If you have problems with grammar, hire an editor or ask a friend for help.
Join. Writers understand other writers. Join the Mystery Writers of America, the International Thriller Writers, and Sisters in Crime. There’s also the Short Mystery Fiction Society if you write short stories. Join local writers groups, too. I belong to the Florida Writers Association.
Attend the conferences. The Bouchercon World Mystery convention, ThrillerFest, SleuthFest and Malice Domestic are just a few. These conferences are good places to find editors and agents, discuss the issues currently affecting writers, or find a writing partner.
And last but not least.
Write. Every day if you can, even if it’s only for ten minutes. Writers write. As much fun as it is to hang out in the bar at writers’ conferences, you still have to sit alone at the computer and write.
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
Thank you, Elaine, for being with us today.
And thanks, Kay, for interviewing me.