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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Getting Cozy with Mysteries: An Interview with Laura Levine

Laura's writing career includes everything from being a local newspaper reporter, to advertising copywriting, to sitcom writer for classic TV shows (The Bob Newhart Show, Three’s Company, Laverne & Shirley, The Love Boat) and now as a writer for cozy mysteries. Let’s learn about how she made the switch to novels.

Your early writing background was in writing for sitcoms. What made you decide to write your cozy mysteries? When you wrote the first one, did you have the idea for a series already?
I wrote my first mystery because I’d been unceremoniously booted out of show biz (at fiftysomething, I was considered an Untouchable), and was looking for something to do in between crossword puzzles. 

I’d always adored Agatha Christie and had recently discovered Sue Grafton and her terrific heroine, Kinsey Millhone. I knew, however, that I’d never be able to write a tough gal heroine like Kinsey. It’s just not in my writing genes. So I decided to make my heroine, Jaine Austen, sort of what I’d be like if I were tracking down a killer: a scaredy cat detective, who winds up solving cases in spite of her gaffes and fears.

(Jaine, for those of you who have not yet made her acquaintance, is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles with her significant other—her cat, Prozac.)

Because I came from a sitcom background, I decided to make my story a comedy-mystery. That was THIS PEN FOR HIRE, the first book in the series. At the time I wrote that book, I had no idea that, when it comes to mysteries, publishers want to buy series and not stand-alone books. So I had no thoughts about an ongoing series when I started writing. It was only after my publisher asked me to come up with some ideas for additional books that I considered expanding it into a series.

What part of writing do you like best - starting, ending or deciding who is the
victim and why?
What part of writing do I like the best? When it’s over and I can sit back and goof off!!!

If I had to choose which part of the process is the least demanding, it’s the editing and polishing after I’ve finished my first draft. Also, plotting out the story can be fun. I write out each scene on a separate index card and spread them out on my dining room table. The mystery scenes are one color; the comedy scenes are another. This way I can get a good idea of how my story is flowing. It’s a fun process, but also challenging, because with a mystery, you’ve got to make sure all the puzzle pieces fit.

Hardest of all? The writing, of course! I grit my teeth when authors say, “My characters write my books for me.” If only! My characters lounge around eating bon bons while I do all the heavy lifting.

Your series deals with a quirky freelance writer who has a pet cat, who appears on the book covers. Is this cat based on your own pet?
Prozac, my heroine’s demanding diva of a cat, is the polar opposite of Mr. Guy, a cat my husband and I had the privilege of sharing our lives with for seventeen years. Mr. Guy was feral cat; he adopted us. He was very shy, but very affectionate and loving. Like I said, not at all like Prozac, whose life is all about “moi, moi, moi!”

How much of your stories are based on your own life (outside of the murders of course) and those you've known in the L.A. writing scene?
My stories aren’t usually based on my own life. With a few exceptions. I drew on my years as a sitcom writer for LAST WRITES. I used a cruise my husband and I took as inspiration for Jaine’s shipboard adventure, KILLER CRUISE. And I got to kill the mean girl in my high school (and loved every minute of it) in KILLING BRIDEZILLA.

Although I don’t use many of my life experiences in my books, my friends tell me that Jaine’s voice is my voice, that they can hear me talking when they read my books.

You've written 14 or 15 books in your series. Do you think you will ever run out of ideas for your books? Do you ever experience writer's block?
Gaak, yes, it’s hard coming up with new ideas after fifteen books! Thank heavens for my editor at Kensington Books, John Scognamiglio, who is often tossing ideas my way. The man is a veritable Idea Machine.

I also cut out human interest stories from the newspaper and put them in my “idea box,” and rummage through them when looking for inspiration.

We have all experienced rejection in writing and publishing. Give me an example of one you’ve had, and how you learned to write past it.
I spent nearly two decades as a sitcom writer. In show biz, rejection is the name of the game. Trying to break into sitcoms, I wrote scads of spec scripts before I finally got an assignment. I could literally wallpaper my living room with all the rejection letters I’ve gotten in my life. (Okay, maybe my bathroom.) But it’s been a lot. I got used to people saying no a long time ago. It’s the way of the world. No is the rule. Yes is the exception. But my advice to aspiring writers: Keep writing. The more you write, the better you get. And if you’ve got talent, sooner or later, someone is going to say yes.

One additional note: Pay attention to what kind of rejections you’re getting. If you’re constantly getting form rejection letters or emails, clearly a generic note being sent out to anyone who’s submitted a manuscript, that’s not a great sign. But if you occasionally or often get encouraging notes from people who say they like your writing, and ask you to submit to them again, that’s a very good sign. It means you’re on the right track.

How has writing your novels differed from screenwriting?
What has delighted me most about writing novels has been pride of authorship. When I worked as a sitcom writer, I considered myself lucky if sixty percent of what I wrote made it to the screen. In sitcomland, scripts are constantly being re-written by staff writers. Now, as a novelist, every word in my books is mine. Good or bad (and I hope most of it is good), it’s all mine, and that’s a wonderful feeling.

What is some of the best writing advice that you’ve received or could give?
The best piece of advice I can give is something I’ve already mentioned: Keep writing! No matter how stinky things seem at the beginning of your book, just plow ahead. Don’t let your inner critic shut you down. (And your inner critic always shouts loudest at the beginning of a project; that’s when you’re most filled with doubts.) Keep writing in spite of your doubts, let the momentum build. And remember, you can always come back and fix the beginning later. The important thing is to get started and keep going.

What is the next book coming out? Can you give me a short synopsis?

I thought you’d never ask! The next book, coming out in the fall of 2018, is DEATH OF A NEIGHBORHOOD SCROOGE.
In her next adventure, Jaine gets what she thinks is going to be a dream job, housesitting with her neighbor Lance in a posh Bel Air mansion over the Christmas holidays. But things go from festive to fatal when the grouch next door, the neighborhood Scrooge, is found bludgeoned to death with a frozen chocolate yule log.

Jaine becomes a suspect in the case when her fingerprints are found on the murder weapon. So she sets out to find the real killer—all the while fending off a bunch of unwanted internet dates set up by Lance, and watching in dismay as Prozac, her fickle feline, falls head over heels in love with Scrooge’s beautiful young wife.

Will Jaine find the killer? Will Prozac dump Jaine for a new love? Will Jaine survive her dates from hell? The answer to these, and many more burning questions, are waiting to be revealed in DEATH OF A NEIGHBORHOOD SCROOGE.

That's all for today's interview. The new book sounds intriquing and fun! If you'd like to learn more about Laura's writing and buy a few books, here are a couple of links to get you started.

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