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Mystery writers talk about their craft
By Sarah Long | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 4/5/2009 12:04 AM

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A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to hear four female mystery writers talk about their work.

Erica Spindler is a New York Times best-selling author of 28 novels. Hailing from New Orleans, Spindler began her career in romance but morphed from passion into suspense.

Spindler confessed that she liked surprise endings; "I love it when readers say they never guessed how the book would end." Spindler said she works hard to reveal the twisted mind, but that she often throws in "red herrings" or other false clues to heighten the suspense. Spindler starts her tales with the skeleton of an idea, "And then I just go with it."

Her latest book, "Break Neck" is set in Rockford, Ill. Spindler utilizes a variety of cities for her stories, but she is currently working on a book set in California's Wine Country.

"Old vines look like graveyards," she said ominously.

In another life, Francine Matthews was a CIA analyst. She didn't like wearing stockings or getting up in the morning, so she bargained with her husband: If she could write a book and get it published, she would quit her job and write full-time. One year later, her first book was published: a mystery set in Nantucket, a favorite childhood haunt. Now there are three more Nantucket mysteries, a series of espionage novels, and another series of mysteries with writer Jane Austen as heroine. This last series is written under the name of Stephanie Barron. In plying her craft, Matthews starts with the ending and constructs an outline back.

"Concentrate on what motivates the killer," she said. "Focus on the relationships of the characters and what each knows and doesn't know." Matthews said that at some point her characters take over and she becomes their scribe. "If this doesn't happen, it will be a bad book," she said.

Both of Mary Jane Clark's parents worked for the FBI. Clark told the crowd of librarians that growing up in New Jersey, she often went to the library as a child but she didn't consider writing.

"Even a 10-page term paper seemed scary," Clark said.

Her ambition was to work in TV news. After college with degrees in journalism and political science, Clark landed a job as a desk assistant at CBS News in New York and worked her way up to become a producer and a writer. Clark is the author of 11 murder mysteries investigated and solved by the personnel at KEY News, her fictional television news operation. Clark said she doesn't always know who the killer is going to be as she is writing.

"All my characters have a motive," she said. "I write with many short chapters to ratchet up the suspense," she added. Clark's most recent book, "It Only Takes a Moment," is about a kidnapping. "As an FBI agent, my father worked on kidnappings, leaving me with more than an average fear," she said.

Nancy Atherton is the author of the Aunt Dimity mystery series with 13 installments so far. Described as a "cozy" mystery series set in England, Aunt Dimity herself is a lovable ghost. There are no murders, no crimes, and no detectives in Atherton's books. If you liked Nancy Drew when you were a child, you'll like this series as a grown-up. Atherton said she never does an outline before beginning a new book and rarely plans story lines.

"I don't want to know what's going to happen before it happens, so I let the story unfold as I go along. I can't wait to find out what happens next."