Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Giving Birth to a Dancing Star

Welcome guest Joanna Campbell Slan

Two weeks ago I finished the scrapbook page I donated to the Malice Domestic auction. That’s a photo of my workspace. Um, some of it. That’s all the mess I could fit in the viewfinder. Trust me. The mess extends to the left and right of the photo.

You’d think I’d have a tidy process for creating. You can probably see the wipe board in the background. It has the entire day-by-day plan for Book #4 in the Kiki Lowenstein Mystery Series. I turned that book in last month. I just haven’t gotten around to erasing my notes.

The wipe board makes it seem as if my book planning process is orderly.
It isn’t.

Sometimes I start with an idea or an obscure fact that niggles at me. In Photo, Snap, Shot, my protagonist, Kiki Lowenstein, explores a 132-year-old St. Louis society called The Veiled Prophet. Oddly enough, I first learned about this secretive group when I was visiting a museum in Memphis, Tennessee. They had a display that referenced King Cotton parades and noted that similar events were held in a variety of cities, including St. Louis. Businessmen banded together after the Civil War to participate in civic pride demonstrations, often modeled after Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans. From this common zeitgeist came the King Cotton Parade in Memphis and The Veiled Prophet Parade in St. Louis.

Sometimes my books start with a challenge. Joe Konrath, Linda Hengerer, Kathryn Lilley and I were chatting at SleuthFest several years back when Joe challenged each of us to come up with a great opening line for a book. Here’s mine: “I was in the trash dumpster searching for my lost paycheck, when I reached down and grabbed Cindy Gambrowski’s severed leg.”

That became the first line of Book #4, tentatively called Make, Take, Murder. It will be out Spring 2011.
I’ll admit that I have NO idea where that image of the severed leg came from, but I’m glad it did!

Sometimes my books begin with an experience. I was invited to a May Day celebration at a private prep school in St. Louis. In an elaborate outdoor ceremony on the grounds of the headmaster’s house, girls danced around a May Pole, wrapping it ‘round and ‘round with colorful ribbons. After the younger girls took their turns and sat down, a change of music announced the seniors. These young women were dressed in white bridal gowns. Marching two-by-two, they made a formal procession in front of a large seated crowd. When their stately march brought them face to face with the headmaster, who was sitting in a chair on a platform above the grounds, the maidens stopped and curtsied.

Seemed to me like a perfect setting for a sniper attack.

Hey, that’s just the way my mind works. To paraphrase Castle, the TV program, only two types of people spend their time dreaming up ways to do other people in: serial killers and mystery writers.

The sniper attack is the opening scene in Book #5 of the Kiki Lowenstein Mystery Series, tentatively called Ink, Red, Dead. (You know, the reason this is all so tentative is that the publisher has the final word on titles.)

Nietzsche once said, “One must feel chaos within to give birth to a dancing star.”

I think he’s right. Out of the confusion of everyday living, out of the messiness that is my life, ideas bubble up. They aren’t orderly. They aren’t fully formed. They nag at me, attach themselves to me, and refuse to go away. There’s a mess in my head, but I’ve come to believe, that for a writer, messiness is a very good thing indeed.

Joanna Campbell Slan is the author of the Kiki Lowenstein Scrap-N-Craft Mystery Series. (She defies you to say that fast, three times!) Paper, Scissors, Death was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Photo, Snap, Shot is out just this month, and it’s the third book in the series.
Visit Joanna at
or at
Joanna blogs every Monday at