Monday, January 10, 2011

1st Books How I got started

Murder in the Marais, my first book in the Aimée Leduc Investigation series, just came out in a tenth anniversary edition. I'll be getting back from the ALA midwinter Library conference in San Diego when you read this so I'm posting a blog post I wrote for Meg Waite Clayton on her Stories of How Writers Get Started ( last year. Meg's a great fiction writer btw check out her blog and her books even though she doesn't do murder but writes wonderful literary fiction. This is what I wrote for her blog and it reasonates for me right now because writing, like life, is a journey and I can't believe in less than two months Murder in Passy, Aimée's 11th investigation will come out.

Here's the dirty, dark secret of starting my life of crime.
When I began writing I never thought I’d finish a book much less set it in Paris, even get published or write a series.
I wasn’t a doctor, a policewoman, a sketch artist or with the FBI. I was a mom, a preschool teacher and had old friends in Paris. The total sum of my qualifications apart from reading and loving mysteries.
I did grow up in a Francophile family in the SF Bay Area and attended a French Catholic school. My father was a Francophile and loved good food and wine. In the 50’s my uncle went to France and studied with the artist George Braques, so talk at our dinner table was a lot about France. Later, I lived in Europe, mostly Switzerland and France and did every kind of black market job under the European sun.
But it was the story of my friend’s mother, a hidden Jewish girl in Paris during the German Occupation, that drove me to write. I’d heard this story when I visited the Marais with my friend and just felt somehow, someway I had to write this. As I told Meg before, this led to three and a half years of writing what became Murder in the Marais.
During the process I’d discovered I couldn’t write as a French woman, I can’t even tie my scarf the right way. But I began spending more time in Paris in the mid-1990’s to develop Aimée Leduc, my PI turned computer security sleuth. I interviewed three female detectives in Paris who ran their own detective agency and took qualities from each. It became important to me that my character Aimée be half-American, half-French be a young, contemporary woman like the Parisian women I know, have a strong fashion sense and be fierce in her pursuit of justice. The justice that eludes people sometimes in daily life. And that she know much more about computers than I do.
But when my editor accepted the first manuscript (Marais) she asked...”Where’s Aimée going next?” I hesitated. “What do you mean?” “Well, where’s she going to discover crime next. Which part of Paris?” Long pause. “You are writing the next book aren’t you...this is a series?”
“Of course,” I lied.
“You’ve started I assume?”
“Matter of fact, the story takes up right after the Marais.” I said the first thing that came into my head while running to my computer.
“Good a continuation, her next case, the next part of her life...that man she met..what about him?”
My editor was feeding me ideas and I wasn’t going to ignore them. “Yves the journalist, yes, the relationship will go somewhere and she’s going to Belleville.”
My bright idea since I’d just stayed in that district with my friend, a single mom who’s daughter was the same age as my son. I slept on her couch, took her daughter to school, paid her gas bills and saw another side of Paris in doing so.
“Belleville...where’s that?”
Ok this was before the movie Triplets of Belleville.
“But that’s where Edith Piaf lived, she sang on the streets.”
“Fine,” my editor said.
And there I was powering up my computer, searching for my notes, napkins from the Belleville bistro, my photos and I had a goal. Aimée was going to Belleville, murder somehow would be involved, a problematic relationship with Yves, the man she got involved with in the Marais, would ensue and I was off.
And that’s how it’s been with each other book. Aimée’s got office rent to pay, a business to run, upkeep on a crumbling 17th century Ile Saint Louis townhouse flat with archaic plumbing, a bichon frise named Miles Davis to walk on the quais of the Seine and a penchant for bad boys. In part Aimée’s journey; her progression in life and investigations mirror what I discover in Paris, the society, immigration issues, in that book about Belleville corruption in the government and it’s a flow streaming into politics. We meet Aimée in November 1993 and now eleven books later (in the forthcoming Murder in Passy) it’s November 1997 - only four fictional years have passed. But the background setting she experiences are the seasons, the current scandal, Princess Diana's death in the car crash. Each book is a long snapshot of the time, Aimée's life in this era in the 90’s when people still paid in francs, smoked in the cafe's, Google was still an idea in the head of two guys at Stanford. And the Paris I rediscovered visiting often for research.
But to get the details, the stories, the insight from the ‘experts’ I needed and still need help.
Friends have friends, and their introductions in Paris open doors. In my case doors to private detectives, police, and local cafe owners. Over the years I’ve built up these connections, nourished them with bottles of wine over dinner and running possible scenarios by these experts, some of whom have become friends.
“I want you to get it right,” a retired Commissaire once told me, “if you’re writing a book set in Paris, a real city, you need to get the police system and all the details correct.” I appreciate that and the time he takes meeting with me and talking. He was in charge of the Princess Diana investigation and has provided a wealth of details.
Ok so many crime writers kill people on the page for a living but in my case it pays for my habit. Going to Paris and doing research. There’s so much I don’t know, I tell my husband, so I have to visit the archives, libraries, interview computer hackers, go in the sewers, visit the Morgue etc. he just nods. “I know.” In Paris on the cobblestones, in the metro I get a spark of a story, a detail, overhear a conversation I’d never hear otherwise. My novels aren’t set in the beret and baguette Paris, or the tourist areas, but off the beaten track, the backstreets and courtyards of quartiers not often seen. More like a sociological slice of life in the darker side of the city of light. The areas Aimée explores from the quarries underground in the Latin Quarter to her decaying elegant 17th century apartment on the Ile Saint Louis. It’s a trip to Paris without the airfare to an area you probably haven’t seen before.

Over the course of the books Aimée’s developed, I’ve gotten to know her more. It’s been an organic process, certainly not one I expected. So in beginning a book, I think back to my editors words, start with a particular part of Paris that intrigues me, of a story that could only happen there and feel driven to tell it. This district of Paris is a character. The murder, while important and propels the plot, isn’t the focus, it’s how the murder impacts Aimée and why she would investigate, the family and friends surrounding the victim, the community and this little part of Paris that's affected. A way to explore moral ambiguities and the grey areas when murder isn’t black and white.

Cara - Tuesday


  1. Cara, I've recently come across your book, Murder in Marais. I've totally enjoyed it and plan to read the whole series. Thanks for this post which gives me more insight into your writing process. From a fan, UK.

  2. Thank you, Emily, that's so kind of you to say.
    I hadn't really thought about my writing process until Meg asked me to put it down in words. Thinking about it, it's something I always want to know about my favorite writers. My dream is to sit round a fire with Phillip Kerr and ask him where Bernie Guenther came from!
    Happy warm reading in the UK,

  3. As bad as my legs are getting, I may never see Paris (or worse, Istanbul) again, but we'll always have Aimee. Thanks. Marilynn