Ma's Crime Scene

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Writers are often asked where they get their ideas. This puzzles most writers, because the problem is not coming up with ideas; the problem is finding the time to turn them all into stories.

Harlan Ellison, when asked the question, famously answered:
There's a swell Idea Service in Schenectady; and every week I send 'em twenty-five bucks; and every week they send me a fresh six-pack of ideas.

Of course, there is no such service. Ellison was responding to the absurdity (for him) of the question. Ideas are all around us. What you have to do is notice them.

The idea for my African Violet Club mysteries started percolating years ago. Periodically I’ve grown African violets, sometimes with more enthusiasm than others. While relatively easy to grow, you do have to pay attention to how much water to give them, when to fertilize (and how much), and placing them in a spot where they’ll get sufficient—but not too much—light. Growing show-worthy plants requires a whole different level of expertise. But they’re so pretty, and there’s nothing like an African violet in bloom to brighten a dreary winter day.

So, in one of my early ventures into raising African violets, I was browsing through a catalog from The Violet Barn, a grower I’d seen as recommended for quality plants, when I stumbled upon a hybrid called Ma’s Crime Scene, described as “So red, it’s criminal.”

My pulse quickened. This, for a mystery writer, was the equivalent of being hit over the head with an idea. Cozy mysteries often have a craft or hobby as a hook into the stories. But there are already so many with food or books or quilting or antiques or you-name-it as an interest, it’s hard to come up with something new. I didn’t remember there being a series featuring African violets. I searched. There wasn’t. (Still wasn’t the last time I looked for one.) What a fabulous ideas for a mystery series!

Of course, it takes more than a hobby to make a story. Orson Scott Card in “Characters & Viewpoint”  talks about needing two ideas to rub together to come up with a story premise. I had one. Meanwhile, I had lots of ideas for other stories and worked on those. It was only once I retired that I came up with two other ideas to rub up against this one.

While I was working, my latest attempt at growing African violets had failed due to the intense curiosity of Agatha and Spenser, my two cats. Agatha in particular found the plants at least as intriguing as I did. On a daily basis, I’d come home to a plant knocked over on the floor, spilled out of its pot, with dirt decorating the rug. While resilient, African violets can only take so much abuse. But in retirement I thought I’d be able to thwart this behavior, so ordered five new plants from The Violet Barn.

I also decided to join the Tucson chapter of the African Violet Society of America. I thought I could use some pointers on growing better plants. I also thought it would be an opportunity to meet new people. One of the things I have to guard against is isolating, since I enjoy spending time alone. Getting involved with various groups is my way of forcing myself out and interacting with other people. Because I don’t want to turn into the crazy cat lady.

Interestingly enough, the African Violet Society meets in a retirement home. Few—if any—of the members live there, but most are senior citizens. The location exposed me to what a retirement home is like, how residents live in separate apartments, that there was a dining room for meals, and that there are all kinds of activities and outings for the residents to take part in.

To me, the retirement home resembled nothing so much as a dormitory when I went to college. It was a kind of self-contained world, with people moving in and moving out, its own secrets and intrigues and alliances. I’ve always loved Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher. What if my sleuth was a resident in a retirement home? I loved that idea.

I still had one problem.

There’s a reason cozy mysteries usually take place in small towns. As I’d discovered when writing my Community of Faith series, which takes place in Tucson, it’s difficult to come up with a justification as to why an amateur sleuth would be better at solving a crime than the police. The Tucson Police Department is a sophisticated operation, as is the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. So it appeared as if I’d need to move the retirement home outside of Tucson and create my own fictional small town.

But, unlike Massachusetts, where almost every town and village has a police department, in Arizona smaller places are usually served by a sheriff’s department. Would it be believable that a small town here would have its own law enforcement?

Google is your friend. I did some searching and came up with one small town with its own police. I wondered why the exception. It happens to be near a mining town and—totally making things up—I theorized that the mining company had wanted it there and exerted influence to make it happen. Which gave me another idea as to why my small town would have its own police department.

So those are the three ideas that came together to form the basis of my African Violet Club mystery series. I still had a lot of work to do: a lot of character development, details on what the town was like, who my victims would be, etc. But those are details. I’ll be back with more posts on how I wrote this series to tell you about those.

Watch for True Blue Murder, the first in my African Violet Club mysteries, coming Spring, 2016. If you want to be notified of the release date, sign up for my mailing list

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