By EMILY HOWIE and ABBY YOCHELSON
Traditional mystery authors Jo Dereske, Carolyn G. Hart, Katherine Hall Page, Patricia Sprinkle and Jacqueline Winspear participated in a panel discussion held at the Library on April 24.
The presentation, "Deft, Daring and Delightful: Mystery Writers Discuss Their Craft," was the eighth annual Judith Austin Memorial Lecture sponsored by the Humanities and Social Sciences Division.
The authors were in town to attend the 2006 Malice Domestic Convention and agreed to add the Library's program to their activities. Malice Domestic is an annual Washington-area event that salutes traditional mystery books in the vein of Agatha Christie.
The first question for the panelists concerned the importance of geographic setting as an element in their mystery series. Patricia Sprinkle, author of the Thoroughly Southern series set in fictional Hopemore, Ga., said that in Southern books the place is a character in the book. "Most Southerners tell stories; we like to entertain each other, make each other laugh, and we like to listen to what people say," she said.
Jacqueline Winspear, author of the Maisie Dobbs historical mystery series, set in post-World War I Great Britain, said the essence of place is what is remembered, such as the sounds, smells and the rhythm of the speech. She tries to bring to her work memories evoked by the senses, such as a description of Maisie driving through Kent in the spring seeing the fabulous wildflowers or smelling the hops in the field.
Jo Dereske, former librarian and author of the Miss Zukas mysteries featuring a librarian sleuth in fictional Bellehaven, Wash., resides in the Pacific Northwest. Dereske said she received comments that she should make the setting a "little less beautiful," so in one of the books she had it rain throughout the entire story.
The panel was next asked to discuss how much of themselves they incorporate into their sleuths. Katherine Hall Page, whose Faith Fairchild series features a caterer, said she likes to cook, but she is not like Faith. However, Page said, as a series progresses, the author's values, political thinking and perspectives enter the character, inevitably. "So, I'm getting more like Faith or she's getting more like me," she said,
"The Body in the Snowdrift," the 15th book in the Faith Fairchild series, was awarded the 2006 Agatha Award for Best Novel.
Carolyn Hart, author of the Death on Demand series featuring Annie Darling, a mystery bookstore owner, said her character Annie is based on her daughter Sarah. "Sarah is cheerful, energetic and does her very best, just like Annie," she said.
Hart learned at the Malice Domestic Convention that she will be the recipient of the 2007 Malice Lifetime Achievement Award.
Each writer was asked how she conducts research for her books. Do they use libraries and librarians, and how much do they use the Internet? Winspear said she does her primary research herself, using such tactics as walking the same streets of London that Maisie walks with pre-World War II maps. The streets in London were completely changed and rerouted by the Blitz. For secondary research she depends on libraries and archives. "I have great help from the librarians and archivists, who direct me to things that I would not see otherwise, to find that specific bit of information that will really make the difference."
Winspear noted that she is careful about Internet research, as "anyone can write anything" and post it on the Internet.
Hart said her research depends on the nature of the book. For some books, a visit to the place in which the story is set ensures that the atmosphere is correct. For other books, finding a diary is a great help. This was the case for a story that Hart set in the Philippines during World War II.
Dereske said that she uses libraries and the Internet heavily and relies on interlibrary loans, which she hopes never go away. Hart recalled once asking another writer where she got her information about snakes and was given the name of a herpetologist. She called the herpetologist, who said to her, "Another writer dumping on snakes."
"I ask really embarrassing questions," said Sprinkle, "and I appreciate librarians because they steer me to things I might not get otherwise." Katherine Hall Page revealed that she had nominated her local librarian for New York Times Librarian of the Year and her librarian won the award.
In response to the final question, about how the Internet and e-mail have changed their relationships with readers, the writers all said that having a Web site and e-mail allows them to have a more immediate and informal relationship with their readers. They like the instant feedback they receive and feel that they receive e-mail from readers who would not take the time to send a handwritten letter.
The Humanities and Social Sciences Division created the Judith Austin Memorial Lecture series as a tribute to Austin's outstanding contributions during her 20 years of service at the Library in the Local History & Genealogy and Main Reading Rooms. Austin, who died in 1997, was a devoted mystery fan and regularly attended the Malice Domestic Convention. This year's panel may be viewed at the Library's Webcast site at www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feature_wdesc.php?rec=3888
Emily Howie and Abby Yochelson are reference specialists in the Library's Humanities and Social Sciences Division.