Setting up in the press room has its advantages. After interviewing Lucy Burdette, author of the Key West Food Critic series, who was the only scheduled interview I had, a number of authors approached my table, sat down and spoke with me. The problem? I had only prepared questions for Burdette and am not the fastest at thinking on my feet, especially when unfamiliar with the author's work.
Lucy Burdette, author of the Key West Food Critic mysteries was kind enough to grant me half an hour following her morning panel "Ready, Set...," which provided attendees with an opportunity to "learn planning strategies, character motivations, and how to shape your story." The panel offered me the perfect segue into our conversation, which I started by asking how it was she makes Haley Snow, her protagonist, such an endearing character in whom readers can become invested.
"I think some of it has to be coming from my psychology background," Burdette said.
She mentioned that one of the authors she shared the stage with in her panel was a meticulous plotter who brought a storyboard complete with notes and Post-its for her presentation.
"I just don't work that way," Burdette said. "I think about who this character is, what matters to her? I think about even the crime in terms of what her stake would be, what would really draw her in?"
Burdette admitted that, like many cozy protagonists, Haley has "no business sleuthing. It's a stupid idea." "You really have to have some reason why it would matter enough to overcome that. It's the stakes."
The author discussed the evolution of her character from the first book, An Appetite for Murder, and the interpersonal relationships among her characters, particularly Haley and her mother. "In the first book she is kind of ditsy, but she's grown a lot, I think, and that's what makes it fun for me. In the second book I really had no idea that her mother would become such an interesting character. But I know mother and daughter relationships and my mother died early so I never got to the stage that Haley is, where she's almost grown up but her mother is still her mother and how do they negotiate that? It's the relationships that are the most interesting to me."
Burdette, who has written previous books under her given name, Roberta Isleib, said that she was asked by an editor if she could "write light" for a cozy series. Burdette told the editor "I think I can write light but I can't write the murder as though it doesn't matter, as though it isn't a really serious horrible thing with terrible consequences. I don't know if that makes me different from other cozy writers, but it's always in my head," she said. "Who was this person, and who was the person who was driven so far as to take someone else's life?"
I moved on to the romance that is so often teased yet remains unrequited in many cozy series and asked Burdette if she enjoyed teasing her readers. Laughing, Burdette said, "It's so funny because I say that I am a psychologist, so I should know how to make relationships work. But none of my main characters have ever been in a happy relationship, including Haley."
The author said that she received feedback from one reader regarding Haley's budding relationship with Wally, her boss. The reader was very disappointed by the abrupt introduction of romantic tension between two characters who'd never showed any interest in each other beyond professional. "I love hearing from people," Burdette said, "because it makes me think a little bit harder about what's going on. The truth is it really isn't going anywhere. There's not a lot of spark there so—" The author caught herself, then added "Well,you'll see in the one that comes out in July that things are headed for a change."
"You have to figure out as a writer, if you put the characters together happily, does that leech out a lot of tension or does it just annoy people that you have them undecided or trying to choose between two people over a long period of time?"
Speaking of the future of the series, the sixth Key West Food Critic mystery, Fatal Reservations, comes out in July. Burdette has just started on the seventh--and last that she is under contract for--which will come out in Spring of 2016. A common theme at Sleuthfest has been the keen eye with which publishers monitor sales. If a series isn't earning its share of the pie, a pie that is sliced very thinly in a heavily saturated cozy market, they won't hesitate to stop buying them.
Burdette hopes to continue with Haley, though, saying "There will definitely be seven and after that we'll see," before adding "I'd love to write more."
I'm sure there are plenty of people who would love to read more, too.
As I am setting up in the press room I meet author Susan Klaus, whose Secretariat Reborn was reviewed by FBR in 2013. Klaus does an internet radio show and is preparing to interview attendees. She is unfamiliar with our review, but immediately gives me a copy of the sequel, Shark Fin Soup, which she says was received even better than Secretariat Reborn.