Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Today's Mystery Author Guest: C. E. Lawrence

As promised yesterday, fellow mystery author C. E. Lawrence is visiting my blog today. To read her bio and see her photo, please page down to yesterday's post.

Above is the cover photo for her recent release, Silent Kills, the third book in her Lee Campbell thriller series. In the book, a vampire is loose in New York City. Not the usual kind, with fangs and a long black cape. This vampire uses modern medical technology to drain the blood of his victims. When a young woman is found in Van Cortland Park, in the East Tremont section of the Bronx, Chuck Morton calls in his old friend Lee Campbell to help profile the unusual killer. It is obvious at once to everyone that this is the work of a serial offender in the making. The bizarre nature of the crime, coupled with its undeniably ritualistic elements, can mean only one thing: the Van Cortland Vampire will strike again. The only question is how soon?

Below are C. E.'s answers to my interview questions. Please leave a comment for her, and if you have a question of your own for her, ask it!

1. Who or what inspired you to start writing and when did you start?

My parents were both great storytellers. My dad used to tell us “Ruthie and Paulie” stories at bedtime – adventures he had with his younger sister, our Aunt Erma Ruth. Sometimes they were true, but others were made up, and involved colorful characters like Uncle Evil Eye, a nefarious villain based on his Uncle Levi. (He was actually a very nice man, but there was something odd about one of his eyes, so my father spun that into the fictional Uncle Evil Eye.)

Uncle Evil Eye played mumbelty-peg with a jackknife he carried around. We didn’t know what that game was, but I Googled it recently and it involved tossing a knife into the ground. Kids used to play it in schoolyard when my dad was young, but can you imagine anyone allowing that these days?

I was making up stories by the time I was four or five – I illustrated them on long sheets of office paper my Aunt Clara brought me from her job. Later, when I was old enough to boss other people around, I wrote plays and corralled my siblings and cousins to be in them. Our curtain was a pink flannel blanket strung up on the clothes line, and we served those little multi-colored mints at intermission. All my productions involved mints.

2. What tools and process do you use to “get to know” your characters before and while you’re writing the books?

I get to know my characters as I write them. It’s like being at a really long cocktail party, where everyone has enough to drink that they reveal the truth about themselves. I don’t make lists or anything like that – I tried that when I was an actor working on a character, and frankly I never found it very helpful. I just like to have a person enter a scene and watch what they do.

3. How do you construct your plots? Do you outline or do you write “by the seat of your pants”?

When I wrote my first five or six novels, I always outlined! Now I do a combination of outlining and “seat of the pants” – I know who my killer is, and what the climax will be, but nowadays I tend to let the middle take care of itself. I’m always thinking about the plot, but now I outline as I go along.

4. In the age-old question of character versus plot, which one do you think is most important in a murder mystery and which one do you emphasize in your writing? Why?

I think it’s kind of an artificial separation. Without character, there is no story. And without story, there is no character – to me, the best stories are crucibles that shape the characters in them. Take Rick in Casablanca, for example – look at where he is at the beginning of the story vs. where he is at the end. It’s the challenges and conflict he faces that define who he becomes. He starts as a bitter, cynical drunk and ends up a hero.

For me, the problem arises when the writer doesn’t work hard enough to create a strong or interesting enough conflict to challenge the characters. If you don’t throw a lot of curves and twists at your characters, they can’t rise to heights of greatness. They remain flaccid, undefined. You have to test them, and that’s difficult – coming up with plots twists is gritty, sweaty work. In the end, as I tell my students, story trumps everything. But I see story as a true partnership of character and plot, a beautiful dance in which they become inseparable.

5. What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer and what inspires you and keeps you motivated?

When I set out to write a play about physics, that was probably the biggest challenge I had ever faced. I think I ordered every book on physics in the Mid Hudson Library system! The result was the play Strings, which I was lucky enough to have produced in New York. I was even luckier to have a brilliant cast, led by Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey) his lovely wife, Mia Dillon, and the supremely gifted Warren Kelley.

As for what keeps me motivated, it’s story, story, story. I just love stories, and I want to keep telling them as long as people want to hear them.

6. What is a typical workday for you and how many hours a day (or week) do you devote to writing?

I feel sheepish telling the truth about this, because I know a lot of people say you have to write every day. For me there is no typical workday. If I’m on deadline or “on fire” with a project, I might write up to five hours or more a day. But it’s not unusual for me to not write anything for a week or two at a stretch. It just depends. In between projects I collect material and ideas but I may not write anything at all during that time. Sometime I just have to let the well replenish itself.

7. What advice do you have to offer to an aspiring author?

Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t write. If you need to write, if it’s as natural as breathing to you, then go ahead and write. Be in it for the long haul, because it is a long haul.

8. Now here’s a zinger. Tell us something about yourself that you have not revealed in another interview yet. Something as simple as your favorite TV show or food will do.

I absolutely adore The Office (American version.) And I’m pretty sure I’m related to Dwight Shrute on my father’s side.

9. What are you working on now and what are your future writing plans?

Right now I’m working on an ebook that will come after my 4th Lee Campbell thriller, Silent Slaughter. It’s a tough one to follow, though, because the serial killer in that book is a nasty piece of work. It will be hard to top him.

I’m also working on a musical about Rasputin, as well as one about a real life murder that took place on Bond Street in the 19th century. Jack Finney wrote about it in Forgotten News: The Crime of the Century and Other Lost Stories, and I’m aware of a play and a novel based on it, but so far no one has done a musical about it.

10. Is there anything else you would like to tell my blog readers?

Yes, yes! Please visit my website. Also, I’m available to book clubs anywhere in the New York or Woodstock areas. I’m in New York City October-May and in Ulster County from May-September. I have a car. And I bake cookies.

Cookies! Yum. If I was in a book club in New York, I'd be contacting you. Thanks, C. E.! Now, who has a comment or question for her?


Beth Groundwater said...

Here's a comment from Facebook: "I adore her Lee Campbell series. She is also a gifted instructor and a generous mentor to her students. Kudos, Carol."

C. E. Lawrence said...

Thank you so much, Carol - your kind comments are much appreciated! Nice to hear from you. ( :