Thursday, January 31, 2013

Elaine Viets: How to Keep a Florida Series from a Dead End

The lastest issue of Mystery Readers Journal: Florida Mysteries (Volume 28:4) is now available in both PDF format and hardcopy. Check out the Table of Contents and order it HERE.

Elaine Viets, one of the contributors to this issue, writes two bestselling mystery series, the Dead-End Job mysteries and the Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper mysteries. Final Sail, her latest hardcover (NAL, 2012), explores the world of the haves and the have-yachts. Elaine won the Agatha, Anthony and Lefty Awards. 

How to Keep a Florida Series from a Dead End

My Dead-End Job series started because I worked in South Florida.

I'd been writing the Francesca Vierling mysteries set in my hometown of St. Louis, even though my husband, Don Crinklaw, and I now lived in South Florida.

Florida seemed like such a juicy setting for a series: We lived in a condo on the beach and each day more characters paraded past on the boardwalk:

A pony-tailed hippy rode a bike with a cockatoo perched on the handlebars.

A stately disabled woman motored on her scooter, an alert Boston terrier at her feet.

Dealers boldly sold pot to tourists at a beach restaurant.

Retired mobsters discussed their cholesterol at the Italian restaurant two doors down.

Beach bunnies flirted with the strapping lifeguards in the tower near my window.

They were begging me to put them in a book. But my series was set at a St. Louis newspaper. I'd been a reporter for more than 25 years. The Midwest is charming and quirky, but it lacks South Florida's outrageous style.

Then Don and I had a bad year: he was diagnosed with stage three cancer (he's fine now, thanks), we were audited by the IRS, we lost our money in the stock market and my Francesca series was canceled, along with dozens of other series when Dell wiped out its mystery division.

I went to work as a bookseller at a Barnes & Noble in Hollywood, Florida, and learned the obvious: When you make $11 an hour, people treat you worse than if you have a well-paid corporate job.

My Dead-End Job series was born. I started making notes about the colorful characters I met at the bookstore:

The furious man who screamed at me when I didn't process his return fast enough. The other customers defended me, bless them.

The old man who brought his lunch and read at the store all day, but only bought a book when his Social Security check arrived.

The woman who talked on her cell phone while I rang up her books.

It was all fodder for a new series. Helen, like me, is a Midwestern woman. We have similar views of the world, except I had a better marriage.

The bookstore wasn't the first book in my Dead-End Job series. I set Shop Till You Drop (Signet, 2003) where I had my first retail job: a high-end clothing store where the owner went to federal prison.
Murder Between the Covers (Signet, 2003), the second book in the series, was my bookstore mystery. I worked as a telemarketer for Dying to Call You (Signet, 2004). That's where Helen met her future husband, private eye Phil Sagemont. Yes, Helen works as a topless bartender to solve a murder in that book. No, I didn't work that job.
For Just Murdered (Signet, 2005) I worked in the bridal department at Zola Keller, a chic Fort Lauderdale store. I killed the mother of the bride in that novel, but the publisher wouldn't let me call it "One Dead Mother."

The Dead-End Job series went hardcover at book five, Murder Unleashed (NAL, 2006), where Helen and I worked at a dog boutique. Murder with Reservations (NAL, 2007) was the hardest job I ever worked. I was a hotel maid and made 28 beds, cleaned 17 toilets and the honeymoon Jacuzzi daily.
My back killed me.
Clubbed to Death (NAL, 2008) was the most unpleasant job: customer service for a country club whose motto should have been "Do you know who I am?" I hated waiting on spoiled rich people.
Killer Cuts (NAL, 2009) was a lot more fun. I was an assistant to a South Beach hairstylist.

After five books, Helen and Phil wanted to marry. But that plan changed on their wedding day.

I had a change of plans, too. Jobs, even dead-end ones, were getting hard to find. Florida's unemployment rate was one of the highest in the USA. I was able to work at a designer resale shop for Half-Price Homicide (NAL, 2010). I learned trophy wives were allowed unlimited shopping, but their controlling husbands wouldn't give them cash. The wives bought expensive items and sold them at the resale shop for personal cash.

Helen and Phil married in that novel. Their lives changed, and so did the direction of my series. Florida unemployment was now at 11.4 percent. More than a million people were out of work. I couldn't take a job for research when so many people needed real employment.

But Helen keeps working those dead-end jobs. In Pumped for Murder (NAL, 2011), newlywed Helen and Phil started their private eye agency, Coronado Investigations. Helen works at a gym and falls into extreme bodybuilding.

I attended private eye conventions to learn about the gumshoe business and did more research. For my May 2013 book, Board Stiff, I learned stand-up paddleboarding.

Actually, it was more like fall-off paddleboarding. In nine feet of water.

Call it in-depth research.


jan godown annino said...

Elaine - such a lively laundry list of lives you've led!
It reminds me of George Plimton.

Congrats to you & your hubby on getting past that awful time. I have enjoyed reading the tropy wives
resale shop mystery. Will look for your others (past & future...)

Janet, I'm new to posting on Mystery Fanfare & I do appreciate it.

Janet Rudolph said...

Welcome, Jan, hope you'll stop by again soon.