For Bay Area-based author Janet Dawson, writing mysteries is a lesson in problem-solving, both for herself and her readers.
Dawson, 70, has written 17 mystery novels, most of which follow two series. The Jeri Howard series describes riveting tales of a private investigator set in California, while her California Zephyr series follows crime on a transcontinental railway in the 1950s.
Dawson will give a talk followed by a reception and book-signing with her latest novel “The Devil Close Behind,” the 13th in the Howard series, from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturday at the Half Moon Bay Library. Her time as a newspaper writer and at a publication in the U.S. Navy gave her a solid writing base. But it was the hours she spent getting up early and writing before work that helped shape her ideas.
In an interview with the Review, Dawson described how she develops her stories, her writing influences and how she found her style.
What do you enjoy about writing mystery novels?
“I’ve always wanted to be a fiction writer. I enjoy creating another world. In terms of writing mysteries, I like the aspect of putting together the puzzles so I can either fool or misdirect the reader or make the reader guess. I liken mystery writing to peeling onions, so you can see what’s under all those layers. Putting it together is a fun challenge.”
Does it take you a lot of time to develop the story for your novels?
“It’s different with every book. Sometimes I have the plot in mind and I know how I’m going to start and where I’m going to wind up. It’s the pesky middle that can be a problem. Sometimes I have to step back when I’m in the middle of a book and take a look and say, ‘This is where I am so far, and I want to wind up here. What needs to happen?’ I think as a writer I have to leave room to discover where my characters want to take me. Sometimes when I start out, I start with a character, and that was the case with my train mysteries. When I found out about Zephyrettes, I had to write a mystery about one.”
Who are some of your influences?
“I think all girls of a certain age read the Nancy Drew books, but I would say as an adult, Ross Macdonald was a big influence. He wrote a private investigator series in California with a character named Lew Archer. And one of the interesting things about those books is that all the plots in his novels seem to derive from the relationship between people; family secrets, that sort of thing. It’s a recurring theme in his work.”
How did you develop your own style and voice as a writer?
“I think it’s something each writer develops on their own. Harking back to something (acclaimed suspense writer) Mary Higgins Clark once told me, which was you have to trust your instincts as a writer. It’s important. Early on I asked myself if I was good enough and doing it right. But at some point, I thought, ‘OK, this is my voice, I’m trusting my instincts. This is the way I would say it.’”