Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Janet Dawson: Guest Post

Janet Dawson will be our guest at a Literary Salon, May 12, at 7 p.m. in Berkeley, CA. I asked her to share some thoughts on the publication of her latest mystery, Bit Player. To RSVP and for directions to the Lit Salon, leave a comment at the end of the post.

Janet Dawson has written ten novels featuring Oakland private investigator Jeri Howard. Her first, Kindred Crimes, won the St. Martin's Press/Private Eye Writers of America contest for best first private eye novel. It was nominated in the best first category for three mystery awards, the Shamus, the Macavity and the Anthony.

JANET DAWSON: The Plot With A Mind Of Its Own

BIT PLAYER was supposed to be a short story.

In two earlier Jeri Howard novels, KINDRED CRIMES and TILL THE OLD MEN DIE, I mention that my protagonist Jeri Howard had a grandmother named Jerusha who went to Hollywood. Jerusha Layne worked in the movies as an extra and bit player before quitting the business to marry Jeri’s grandfather.

A bit player is one step up from an extra, someone who speaks dialogue (bits, in actor parlance) but is in the background. Think about the sales clerk selling the star some perfume. That’s a bit player.

Giving Jeri’s grandmother the Hollywood pedigree made for a great backstory. As the series progressed I thought it would be fun to have Jeri investigate an unsolved Hollywood murder in her grandmother’s past.

I must confess that the plot was influenced by the nonfiction book A CAST OF KILLERS by Sidney Kirkpatrick, which explores the 1922 murder of Hollywood director William Desmond Taylor. Like the victim in my plot, Taylor was shot and killed in his bungalow one dark night in Tinseltown. I won’t go into details about that crime and its many suspects. An Internet search on William Desmond Taylor will net multiple links and all sorts of information.

A few years ago, in between drafts of the standalone I was writing at the time, I began what I thought was a short story. When I reached 60-plus pages, I conceded that the story wanted to be novel. But I didn’t have time to write it then. Plus I wasn’t sure that the plot of Jeri investigating an old Hollywood murder was enough to sustain a novel. So I put BIT PLAYER aside.

In 2009 I took out the story again, determined to take a Number 2 pencil to it and whack, trim, cut, and prune that story into submission. It wouldn’t submit.

So I threw up my hands and said, “Okay, you’re a novel.”

I contacted Meredith Phillips, editor at Perseverance Press, who had earlier expressed an interest in another Jeri Howard novel, if I planned to write one. It looked like I was going to do just that. I turned the short story into several beginning chapters and a synopsis and Perseverance Press bought the book. I fleshed out my plot-in-the-past with a contemporary crime involving collectible movie memorabilia—and more murder, of course. 

BIT PLAYER was published in April 2011 and I’m pleased at the reviews as well as the reaction from mystery fans who tell me they are delighted that Jeri Howard is back on the case.


Clark Lohr said...

it's gotta feel good to find a novel hiding in a short story.
Clark Lohr

H.L. Banks said...

I'm currently writing short mystery stories and can't believe the amount of discipline involved. I like to spread my words across the page but impossible when crafting a short story. I do believe it's a great way to further develop my writing skills. Thanks for the post. I enjoyed it.

Janet said...

Clark, the novel was clamoring to get out!

H.L., Glad you enjoyed the post. I like the bigger canvas provided by novels. It's difficult to limit myself to the short story format.