Friday, May 7, 2010

Steel Magnolias With Dead Bodies

Today we welcome Lila Dare, author of a new Berkeley Prime Crime series about the ladies who run a southern beauty salon.

The first book is titled TRESSED TO KILL and it just came out this week! Here's what Publishers Weekly had to say about it in a starred review: "Fans of the themed cozy will rejoice as new talent Dare debuts her Southern Beauty Shop series . . . Dare turns this off-the-rack concept into a tightly plotted, suspenseful mystery, and readers will love the pretty, plucky, smart, slightly damaged heroine and the rest of the charming cast."

We got to know Lila at Bouchercon last fall, and she is just as fun and feisty as you'd expect. Oh, and she's brave and smart - she took our haiku challenge and ran with it!

When Sophie told me that this week’s theme is “haiku,” my first thought was: You’ve got to be sh-- kidding me. My second was: How in the world do I connect five women who cut hair and solve mysteries to seventeen syllables of Japanese poetry? I was not forethoughtful enough to include a character who writes or spouts haiku (as Rick Riordan did with Apollo in the delightful Percy Jackson series which my tween daughters devour). I haven’t written haiku myself since, say, the seventh grade when we had a poetry block in Language Arts. But then, inspiration struck, as it does at the weirdest times. (Ever noticed that?)

To me, the challenge of haiku is conveying a meaningful thought or image in a very structured form. Although the form seems restrictive, it forces the poet to distill the image to its essence. That, I thought, is exactly what genre writers do. Ta-da! I have now connected my cozy mystery to haiku. Stick with me now, and I’ll try to get you past your initial reaction: “OMG. That is the weakest, most tenuous connection I’ve heard since six degrees of separation became popular.”

Genre books have conventions, restraints, guidelines (some spelled out, others not) that writers mostly have to adhere to if they want to be published. (I say “mostly” because there’s always someone who breaks the rules and gets away with it—sometimes brilliantly.) They might not be as rigid as three lines with five, seven, and five syllables, respectively, but they’re restrictive in their own way. For example, the protag in your YA novel can’t be four years old or twenty-seven; your genre romance heroine can’t dismember her lover and feed him through a wood chopper; your cozy mystery can’t feature a sadistic serial killer, a pedophile or any character who could be played by Pee Wee Herman. (I’ve focused on the “can’t haves” here, but some genres also have a lengthy list of “must haves.”) The challenge, then, for the writer, just like for the haiku poet, is saying something meaningful, sharing a unique worldview, within constraints.

TRESSED TO KILL, the first in my Southern Beauty Shop series from Berkley Prime Crime, features five women ranging in age from seventeen to sixty. Violetta Terhune runs a beauty shop from the front rooms of her Victorian home in fictional St. Elizabeth, Georgia, and the other women, including her daughter Grace, still smarting from a recent divorce, work for her. It’s very Southern and funny and I think of it as “Steel Magnolias with dead bodies.” Of course, a body shows up and when the police suspect Violetta, the ladies investigate and find the murderer (surprised?) with many laughs along the way. That would have been enough to satisfy the genre’s requirements, but I wanted to do more (as many genre writers do). I wanted to say something about families and about how the strongest families aren’t always made up of people we’re related to. (I grew up as a military brat and spent twenty years in the Air Force, so that’s a theme that resonates with me.) Working within the framework of the genre—they mystery is still the focus-- I think I manage to convey that. (Read it and let me know if I succeeded.)

At its essence, the cozy mystery is comforting in a world filled with whack-jobs spraying bullets in workplaces, teens knifing each other for a pair of Air Jordans, and movie execs inflicting another Nightmare on Elm Street sequel on the public. It affirms that order will triumph and evil-doers will be punished, and posits that ordinary people (hairdressers, caterers, knitters, readers . . . you and me) can make a difference. And that’s a darn fine message.

Let me get back to today’s theme with a haiku that (sort of) sums up the Southern Beauty Shop series:

Five ladies who style
Plunge in with smarts, heart, and laughs
To trap a killer.

You’re wondering how I ever made it out of seventh grade, aren’t you?

What do you think of the constrictions that writing genre fiction puts on an author? How do they force you to distill your story and your theme to its essence? One commenter will be selected to received a signed copy of TRESSED TO KILL!


Lila Dare said...

Hi Pens Fatales!

Thanks to Sophie and the others for inviting me to the site today. I'm on a book tour--signing at the Barnes and Noble in Manassas, VA tonight--but I'll be checking in throughout the day to see what all you Fatale-ists have to say.

Juliet Blackwell said...

Welcome to the Pens! Can't wait to read the book, it looks like such fun. And I love the point you make about genre writers -- we do, indeed, work within certain frameworks, yet I think our work is the richer for it. Thanks for the great post!

Rachael Herron said...

Hi there! I love this post -- what a great way to tie the two things together. I've always been a big believer in creativity within constraints -- I think that's why I love writing within a genre (for me, contemp. romance).

Anonymous said...

It's officially Friday afternoon on the East Coast, so to answer your question:

Lila Dare asks things
Too massive for my small brain;
I will drink instead.

Great to see you slumming it with the Pens, Lila. And good luck with your debut! See you at Bouchercon.

Sophie Littlefield said...

oops i think blogger ate my comment! don't listen to brad; you're hardly "slumming" here :)

Lila Dare said...

Juliet--Thanks for the warm welcome.

Rachael--I'm completely with you. I love being a genre writer and having a framework to write within.


Too much alcohol
Unfetters inhibitions,
Leading to jail terms.

evalyn said...

Well said! Haiku is like back-cover writing, everything distilled to it's essence.

Unknown said...

Welcome to the Pens! Great post :) I hope we get to meet at this year's Bouchercon :)

Lila Dare said...


I'll look forward to it.

Ann Summerville said...

Genres can be confusing and seem to change depending on which agent/editor/publisher you speak to. My take on cozy mysteries is no sex and no gruesome details and usually a family conflict thrown in. This looks like a fun read.
Ann Summerville
Cozy In Texas