In addition to authoring 20 Meg Lanslow mysteries, Donna Andrews is also a member of the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and the Private Investigators and Security Association.
Somehow, she was able to take time out of her incredibly busy schedule to answer CrimeHQ's questions about Die Like an Eagle, her best bird pun titles and how she comes up with them, and what is next for Meg Lanslow!
What comes first, the bird pun or the story?
Depends on the book. Sometimes I come up with a pun I like and keep it around in the hope that I’ll find a book to fit. Other times, I come up with the story and have to scramble to find a bird pun that matches.
For example, at an event, someone told me, “I have a title for you: Cockatiels at Seven.” I loved it and tried to find a way to use it.
At first, I thought I could easily work it into the book I was writing by adding a subplot involving the smuggling of tropical birds—but then I found that no one smuggles cockatiels; they’re too easily bred in captivity. I ended up using finch laundering instead—importing beautiful, endangered finches with forged papers falsely claiming that they were bred in captivity. But, I did manage to work some cockatiels into the story so I could justify the title. There could be a finch title in my future.
With Die Like an Eagle, I knew it was going to be about youth baseball, and I knew I wanted to give the name Eagles to the team my heroine’s twin sons play on. But, it took many emails back and forth with my editor before we came up with the title. For a while, it was going to be Eagle Opportunity, but we decided that wasn’t murderous enough.
And, sometimes the book doesn’t really come together until I find the title and know what bird I’m going to use. With the book I’m working on now, for release in 2017, I had the plot figured out—sort of—but I wasn’t really getting much traction on it. I knew Dr. J. Montgomery Blake, Meg’s naturalist grandfather, was going to be getting into some kind of mischief rescuing some creature—probably a bird who could lend his name to the title. But things didn’t really come together until I thought of the title: Gone Gull. So, now I’m cooking. There will be gulls!
Meg Langslow has found herself in the middle of a murder investigation quite a few times now. What advice would you give her as a concerned friend?
Well, if she could look ahead and see how many pages are left in each book, I would point out that she should never relax her guard until there are only a few pages left—she should know by now that I will always throw in a final twist or two. But alas! I don’t think she can see the page count.
So…try a little harder not to go into those dangerous situations alone? Charge your cell phone more frequently, and shop around for a carrier with fewer dead zones? Try to convince your dad that even if he thinks you’re the world’s greatest amateur sleuth, he should refrain from bragging about you in front of people who might turn out to be unscrupulous murderers? Don’t assume, just because Chief Burke has made an arrest, that the coast is clear?
Meg seems to take the hairiest of situations in stride. Whether she’s finding dead bodies or being put in direct and immediate danger, she usually manages to keep her cool. What would it take to really freak her out?
A threat to her kids. That’s one of the challenges of writing the books now that she’s a mother—getting the kids out of the way so I can get her into danger. Because, no matter how much she may want to solve a murder that’s causing problems for one of her friends or relatives, the kids come first.
In Die Like an Eagle, she punches someone in the nose. He was yelling at one of her kids and shaking him, and when she ordered him to stop, he tried to elbow her out of the way, so—BLAM!
One of my early readers was worried that she was overreacting. I don’t think so. The jerk asked for it.
In what ways are you and Meg alike, and in what ways are you different?
She’s braver than I am, more fit, and better at organizing. I am fascinated by organization; I aspire to be truly organized, but I can’t hold a candle to her. We do have similar senses of humor, and we share a tendency to let people talk us into taking on too much. We’re both working on that.
What kind of reaction are you looking for from readers when you mix zany bird puns with stone cold murder?
Well, when they hear the title, I’m looking for that amused groan people usually utter when faced with a good pun. But, beyond that, the value I see in the titles is what they signal to the reader—that this is a book where wit plays a bigger role than gore or violence; that you can expect murder, but not torture or sadism. Autopsies happen, but offstage—so does sex—and the bad guys don’t escape on the last page so they can come back for a rematch.
Which bird pun has been your favorite title so far?
That’s like asking a parent which is her favorite child! Though, at the moment, I am rather taken with Gone Gull. And, I’m trying to invent plots to go with No Egrets and One Good Tern.
What real world crimes have inspired you, if any at all?
I find inspiration less in real world crimes than in News of the Weird-style situations. For example, in Some Like It Hawk, the town of Caerphilly mortgages all its municipal buildings to pay for a civic improvement project. That really happened in the town of Buena Vista, Virginia, and the whole scenario is still playing out. The rose growers in Swan for the Money were based on the real rose growers profiled in Aurelia C. Scott’s brilliant nonfiction book, Otherwise Normal People. I didn’t invent Xtreme Croque (No Nest for the Wicket)—I read about it in Smithsonian Magazine. Fellow writer Ashley McConnell alerted me to the existence of feral emus in the Blue Ridge (The Good, the Bad, and the Emus). I ran into an article about heritage livestock just as I was casting about for a plot for the book that eventually became The Hen of the Baskervilles.
So, I probably pay no more attention to real-world crime stories than the average person—but if I hear someone saying, “The weirdest thing happened to me the other day,” I open my ears and hope a plot’s headed my way.
Any advice for aspiring writers hoping to launch a long and successful book series?
Do a little planning, but not so much that you feel as if you’re in a straightjacket. I know a lot of writers who didn’t set out to write a series.
I was a big series reader, so when I started planning the first Meg book, I threw in a lot of elements that I thought would be fun to play with in the long haul. I gave Meg a large and lively family because, for me, the one thing that makes an amateur sleuth plausible is that she’s doing it to protect family or friends. I made her a blacksmith so she wouldn’t be stuck in a 9-5 job, and so she could do cool stuff like craft fairs and Renaissance Faires. I gave her an actor/drama professor significant other so I’d have the scope to do academic mysteries or backstage mysteries. I gave her a doctor father who was an avid mystery reader because I knew his expertise would come in handy. But, I didn’t have a concrete plan for when or how I’d use all these, so if something good comes along—like Xtreme Croquet or feral emus—I can run with it.
What’s next for you and Meg?
I’m working hard on Gone Gull. After that…I’m not really thinking much farther at the moment.
What books are you currently reading?
At the moment, I’m mostly reading nonfiction, because reading fiction—especially mystery fiction—when I’m drafting tends to distract me. So, since the eyes must consume words, I read a lot of history and biography and popular science instead.
Right now, I’m in the middle of Ian Kershaw’s biography of Hitler and Scott Miller’s The President and the Assassin, about Willam McKinley and Leon Czolgosz, and when I finish one of them, I’m probably going to start Do No Harm, by Stephen Marsh, which is about neurosurgery—that is unless the library’s hold system coughs up The Octopus Scientist or Krakatoa. I’m kind of in the mood for octopi and volcanoes.
Though, I am getting started (any day now) on Jack London’s The Call of the Wild so I can discuss it with the nephew who’s reading it as part of his summer homework; and I plan to reread Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the same reason, along with Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover, and I’m going to steal back Karim Abdul-Jabbar’s Sasquatch in the Paint from the nephews so I can have my turn with it.
Clearly, this is venturing into what I’m not reading but hope to in a month or so, when I’ve finished my draft. I’ve got Laura Lippman’s Wilde Lake high on the TBR pile, along with Lyndsay Faye’s Jane Steele, Ray Daniel’s Child Not Found, Rachel Howzell Hall’s Trail of Echoes, Susan Spann’s The Ninja’s Daughter, Deborah Blake’s Wickedly Powerful, Charlaine Harris’s Night Shift… I could go on. For a long time. Actually, I don’t have a TBR pile. It’s more like a room.
Describe Die Like an Eagle in five words.
Hmm…dead ump in the portapotty?
What are you currently binging on Netflix?
Not currently binging on anything, alas—draft time, remember? Most of the TV I’ve watched lately has been while wrangling the twelve-year-old nephews, so I am well up on Futurama, Bob’s Burgers, The Regular Show, and Gravity Falls. Before my withdrawal into draft mode, I binged on Whitechapel, and lately, I’ve been occasionally unwinding after I make quota by watching an episode or two of either Columbo or early CSI.
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Donna Andrews is a winner of the Agatha, Anthony, and Barry Awards, a Romantic Times Award for best first novel, and three Lefty and two Toby Bromberg awards for funniest mystery. She is a member of MWA, Sisters in Crime, and the Private Investigators and Security Association. Andrews lives in Reston, Virginia.