The following post is reprinted with permission from Matthew Gunby, Head of Circulation at the Meredith Public Library, in Meredith, New Hampshire.
Authors visit Meredith Public Library to Promote Sisters in Crime 30th Anniversary
by Matthew Gunby
On Thursday April 20th, authors Connie Johnson Hambley and Jessica Estevao visited the Meredith Public Library. They discussed their works, their writing process and how their membership in Sisters in Crime had helped them as writers. One of the great things about having authors for these events is the personal stories they share about their individual journey towards becoming an author. Also, it is interesting to learn how each author approaches their craft.
Sister’s in Crime is an international organization of authors and writing enthusiasts. All experience levels are welcome, and it provides great networking opportunities as well as assistance from experienced authors on all stages of the writing process. The organization is nurturing and supportive, but also realistic about how the publishing industry and writing process work. Jessica Estevao mentioned one activity promoted by the organization, Shameless Self-Promotion for Hussies, to help authors gain the confidence they need to market their materials. One section known as the Guppies is for great unpublished authors. New England’s Sisters in Crime chapter is the second largest in the nation.
Connie Johnson Hambley had many careers before she published her first novel. Some of her previous jobs included being a lawyer, banker, instructor, and journalist. She has been a member of Sisters in Crime for four years and this is her first year on its Board of Directors.
Connie is completing a trilogy of books that consists of the published works of The Charity and The Troubles. Many series, particularly in the mystery genre, tend to have the same investigator or sleuth with each book consisting of a different mystery. Characters will often develop over time, but the world remains relatively compact. This is not the case with Hambley's thriller trilogy. Each book expands the world and scope of the overarching story. In her first book, the protagonist witnesses a gang murder and is framed for the crime. Each subsequent book explores the whys and hows of the powerful network behind the murder.
Hambley wrote the book seventeen years before it was published, and discussed the idea of publishing it while on a long flight to China while still working in marketing. She was sitting next to a co-owner of a small publishing company and the idea of actually publishing it began to take form. Ultimately, she decided to publish the first novel on her own, because she knew what would be required to successfully market a product even though she was new to writing. Yet, this serendipitous event helped to spur along the process. She has had books both traditionally published and independently-published since then.
Jessica Estevao joined Sisters in Crime a short while before her first novel was published. She was at a talk by Lorna Barrett, and the author suggested Jessica join the organization. She does not believe she would be a published if not for the support of Sisters in Crime. She started to truly work on her first novel when her youngest son began kindergarten. She noted that she finally had 2 hours and 20 minutes every day when all of her children were at school. A friend mentioned to Jessica that there was a publishing opportunity that did not require an agent, just a manuscript of 70,000 words. Unfortunately, hers was originally closer to 85,000 words. She noted that she became very grateful for contractions in the critiquing process.
Jessica Estevao writes under several names, and she shared with the group her reasons for doing this and why it is a fairly common practice for authors. One reason is reader expectations. While readers are often omnivorous in their tastes, it can be shocking to pick up a book anticipating a cozy read and finding something far grittier.
As Jessica Estevao she writes historic mysteries set in Old Orchard, they also tend to have some supernatural elements, for instance the first book involves a pyschic. As Jessie Crockett, she tends to write contemporary, cozy mysteries. She is about to start a new series set in 1920s England under a new pseudonym, Jessica Ellicott. All of her novels have an amateur sleuth as the protagonist.
Some publishers also require authors previously published by a different publisher to use a different nom de plume. It is also a way for authors to bypass certain publishing contract limitations. She compared the experience to that of a custody battle for one’s own name.
Both authors were drawn to the mystery genre because of its structure. Jessica spoke about the desire to have the reader be one or two steps behind the sleuth in solving the case. Not so far behind that they cannot relate, but definitely not a dozen steps ahead of the protagonist. Connie said that she used her background as a lawyer when designing her story. She considers how it translates to the audience and how best to transport them into the world she has created. Pacing and usage of the reader’s bias can also be incredibly helpful in the crafting process. One example of this, is in trying to understand the antagonist’s motivation. She sometimes tries to make her reader a little uncomfortable, a technique that makes the reader want to keep reading. Connie also volunteers at a therapeutic riding stable and this work provided a great deal of insight into a short story she wrote and is now developing into a longer work. At one time, she worked with victims of human trafficking and learned a great deal about what they had gone through, and how their backgrounds were often far different than most would imagine.
The authors both discussed how realism and real events play into their fiction. Jessica owns a coffee mug saying “ignore my browser history I am a mystery writer.” Connie noted that her first novel was included in a counter-terrorism organization’s collection because its depiction was so realistic. She also said that realism in her novels was similar to having the reader walk across a plank, eventually they do not realize that there is nothing beneath them and they are totally immersed in the fiction. All of the pieces are real, it is how they are cobbled together that is the fiction. One reader wrote to Connie informing her she knew she was actually talking about a real gang, the Clover Club, in her novel The Charity. In this case, Connie had not intended to have this connection, but in researching the Clover Club--a Boston-Irish businessmen's association rumored to be affiliated with Whitey Bulger and organized crime-- Hambley saw how accurate the connection was. In other instances, both authors have used real historic events as building blocks for their fiction. Jessica noted there was an actual instance of the pier on Old Orchard having sufficient weight on it that it started to sway. This caused a panic and Jessica thought that this provided an excellent backdrop for a fictional event to occur in.
Both authors noted that real murders tended to be domestic and did not provide them with much in the way of ideas, but local police logs could be treasure troves of interesting tidbits through which fiction could be weaved. They also both do research for their books, though this can vary significantly from book to book. Jessica noted that even just holding an object she might use as a potential bludgeon in a novel is a form of research. Every trip to the grocery store or post office can give a glimpse into a new character. Other times the author needs to physically travel to the location their story is set in, to get an authentic sense of the sights, smells and sounds of a location. If the setting is in the past the setting may only be accessible through reading. Jessica noted she learned a great deal about the social implications of pigeon racing in the research for her newest novel set in 1920s England.
What truly made this event special was the interplay of the two authors and the great anecdotes they had to share. As well as being successful authors they are both very capable presenters and we are grateful they shared their time with us on Thursday. We wish them and the Sisters in Crime organization continued success and hope to host another similar event in the future.