Monday, August 10, 2009

Laurie R. King’s guest post: It’s a Crime: Getting started

I love Indy bookstores. I love to shop in them, talk to the owners and employees, I appreciate they way they made my career, and I was happy to run a contest this May supporting them. And when my friends at Keplers asked me to write not one post but three for the Well Read Donkey, I was happy to agree.

Now, being a crime writer, I like a bit of structure, so with three posts, what else should I talk about but beginnings, middles, and ends? But being my kind of crime writer, those three topics probably won’t have quite the sort of sequence you might expect. Anyway, today’s for beginnings.

Writing began as a thing I could fit into the corners of my life. My first forays into the world of fiction were in 1984, when I had finished my MA thesis and found the urge to throw words onto paper took a while to die down. I spent a month in Oxford, England that summer with my two kids (then ages 4 and 18 months) and mother, who had never been out of the country before and found it an unnerving experience. I wrote at night when they’d all gone to bed, ending up with about a third of what, twenty years later, became the futuristic novel Califia’s Daughters (by “Leigh Richards.”) When I went home, I fiddled with it a bit, but gradually put it aside. I was busy.

It wasn’t until three years later, the first September in my adult life when everyone but me went back to school, that I took out my pen and began to write seriously: “I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes,” I wrote. “Fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him.”

If I may be forgiven a truism, the difference between a writer and a wannabe writer is that the writer writes. The writer puts words on a page, one at a time, until there’s a book, and then another book, and then a third, all of them fit into the corners of a life made up of small children, a family, a garden that brought us to the edges of self-sufficiency, and all the canning, driving, and laundry that kind of life entails. I wrote 280 pages and called them The Segregation of the Queen (later to add 100 pages that moved it from a series of loosely linked adventures into a novel, changing its name to The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.) I wrote another book that was a little longer and a little more like a real novel, and called that one A Letter of Mary. While I was writing it, I began to send Beekeeper out, to one publisher, then another, and a third. By the time I finished Letter of Mary, I decided my failure to sell the first one meant that the publishing world didn’t want to hear about Mary Russell and her relationship with Sherlock Holmes (hah!) but that was okay because I was thinking of making a change anyway.

The third book A Grave Talent, started with the idea, What would Rembrandt look like if he were a woman? This was not a seed that could be planted in the ground worked by Russell and Holmes, since that would-be series was more or less based on, What would Sherlock Holmes look like if he were a woman? A book can only explore so many alternate identities at once.

I kept the idea and moved it from 1920s England to a place and time closer to home: San Francisco, at the time I was writing, 1989. I found an agent that spring, and turned over to her the responsibility of mailing out manuscripts and filing the rejection letters.

I started Grave Talent at home in California, and took it with me during a six-month sabbatical to England. I worked on it during a holiday in Brittany that summer, and finished it that fall during my son’s soccer practice. (By this time the kids were 6 and 9.)

Soccer, basketball, piano, dance: all times when I probably should have been shouting encouragement and bonding with the other moms. Instead, I sat behind the wheel of our Volvo station wagon with my oversize artist’s clipboard, buff-colored legal pad, and Waterman fountain pen, and wrote. I would drive, deliver, and write while I waited, then drive back. I would park so I could look up occasionally and see what was going on, or hear the sounds if it was piano, which would give me something to talk about on the ride home and make me feel like not a completely awful mother. But mostly I would write.

New mothers, through sheer self-preservation, quickly learn the art of the nap. I learned the art of the on-off writing switch, wasting no time getting started, working all out for my given hour, and capping my pen when other people needed me. My life was full, and the corners of my life were full, and my daughter didn’t fully realize that Mom was writing a book until Mom told the family that it was sold.

In December, 1991, St Martin’s Press bought A Grave Talent for the vast sum of $2500. Adding foreign sales made the total something approaching a real income. In a few years, we built a study for me, and so the kids could have separate rooms. The corners of my life grew a little wider, the time dedicated to maternal responsibilities shrank a bit. I was a writer, a real writer who earned actual money. Eventually, mine was the primary income in the house. I have a big study now, with built-in bookshelves and a laser printer and computers and all that stuff.

But this year, I took my laptop on holiday with me, and I wrote a large portion of next year’s book, just to see if I could. And you know? I think I could still write with a pen at the wheel of a parked car, if I had to.


Laurie R. King's web site links to her blog, the Virtual Book Club, Mary Russell's Twitter page, and lots more.


  1. "I have a big study now, with built-in bookshelves and a laser printer and computers and all that stuff."

    But do you have high-speed internet access yet? Ha!

    Thanks for reminding the wanna-be writers out there, Laurie, that "I don't have time" is NOT an excuse to not write. One must MAKE the time. You are living proof of that.

    --Marjorie from Connecticut

  2. Great post, Laurie, but you buried your lede. Yes, writers write. But I think the key here is that successful writers KEEP writing. I never realized that "Grave Talent" was your third book, or that you had any trouble selling the absolutely wonderful "Beekeeper's Apprentice" (which I adore, in case that isn't obvious). Your perseverance in the face of rejection shows that this was what you were meant to do. It's also a reminder that the best way to deal with rejection, sometimes, is to ignore it.

    I try to do this (wrote my second novel while waiting for the first to sell, now have a mystery out that was first drafted while waiting to hear about another ms...), but it helps to read your success story. Thank you.

  3. Hi Clea, it's true, the chief characteristic of a successful writer is that s/he refuses to take no for an answer. Stubborn as donkeys, all of us.

    And Marjorie, I have highish speed internet, from a satellite disk, which works just fine.

  4. Laurie, I am so glad! I somehow missed that update on your personal info. Forgive me. I am glad that you too can while away some of your free time (IF you have free time) watching silly videos on Youtube like a lot of us do. Back to writing talk, I find it very interesting that you can write an ending and then go back and write to get to it. I would never have thought of that. Thanks as always for sharing so much for your working process with us. It is much appreciated.

    --Marjorie from Connecticut

  5. What a great story. Thanks for sharing (and inspiring me to dust off my 65,000 word manuscript and look at it in a different light).

    Would love to know your advice for landing an agent, but maybe I'll just wait for the next post.

    Thanks again!