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Sharing the Mystery of Writing : An all-day seminar will feature local whodunit practitioners discussing the genres of the craft and giving advice to budding authors.

November 04, 1994|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Read enough mysteries, and it's inevitable. You pick up a book that's been highly touted, you figure out whodunit on Page 17, and you think, "I could do better than this."

The Southern California chapter of the Mystery Writers of America will hold an all-day seminar Saturday for would-be Tony Hillermans and Sue Graftons at the Sportsmen's Lodge in Studio City. Featuring more than a dozen local practitioners, the program will offer advice on everything from the genres and subgenres of mystery fiction to the pros and cons of undertaking a series.

Among the participants will be former Los Angeles Times staffer Michael Connelly, who would counsel prospective writers that "you don't have to know everything about the book you're writing but have an end in sight."

Connelly, who won a 1992 Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America for his first novel, says knowing how to resolve his story was probably what distinguished "The Black Echo" from two earlier books he aborted after only 100 pages.

Recently published by Little, Brown, "The Concrete Blonde" is Connelly's third novel featuring Los Angeles police detective Hieronymous (Harry) Bosch. The fourth book in the series, "The Last Coyote," is finished and due out in the spring. Connelly, whose work has been praised by mystery buff Bill Clinton, is currently working on a non-Bosch mystery whose protagonist is a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver.

When Connelly wrote his first two mysteries, his day job was covering the police for the Valley edition of The Times. With his wife's blessing, he tried to put another 30 hours a week into writing fiction, working every weeknight from 8 to midnight and all day Saturday or Sunday.

"The work ethic is very important," says Connelly, who would produce something whenever he sat at his computer even if he had to rewrite it the next day. "You can't just do it when you feel like it or have some sort of creative urge." It took him 15 months to finish "The Black Echo," he recalls, including five or six complete write-throughs.

Connelly didn't join a writers group during his initial foray into fiction. In fact, he told no one but his spouse about his after-hours project--even his parents didn't know. Always "a pretty voracious mystery reader," he did not consciously analyze or outline his favorites before undertaking a novel of his own.

"It was all kind of a lark," Connelly says. "It was almost therapeutic, coming home writing what I wanted after working at the newspaper all day." Connelly liked finding a place in his fiction for details and insights he gained on the job but wasn't able to use in his journalism.

And he loved being able to embroider, even invent, the truth. "The Black Ice," for instance, takes its title from a street drug that figures prominently in his second book. "I just made that up," he says. "Some people probably say I did it at the newspaper, too. I maintain I didn't." But invention alone doesn't make a compelling mystery, he says. "Even if you're just making things up, it's got to have a flavor of reality to be good."

Catherine Dain, coordinator of the seminar, also writes mysteries, including a paperback series featuring a female private eye named Freddie O'Neal.

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Unlike Connelly, the Chatsworth woman completed her first novel, "To Shake a Dead Geranium," in only seven weeks. Her motive for writing a murder mystery? Her job editing a management magazine at USC had just been eliminated. "I was so upset about losing my job, and I was upset about my life, and I really wanted to murder someone, and the safest way to do it was in a manuscript," she recalls. "Otherwise, they go after you." The book was never published.

Dain labored over her second mystery, "Make Friends with Murder," for a year. Completing the first manuscript made it clear that she could write a novel, she says, but it created its own demons. "You realize the first one was a fluke, and you realize you don't know much about writing a book." St. Martin's published "Make Friends with Murder" in 1992.

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By that time, Dain had joined a writers group that met monthly. "If you wanted to talk about technical information, you could, but mostly we shared rejection letters," she says. "We moaned--we drank and we moaned."

Dain launched her successful Freddie O'Neal series, paperback originals from Berkeley Prime Crime, with "Lay It on the Line." Dain thinks the series benefited from the fact that it is set in relatively exotic Nevada, rather than Southern California, which may not be the crime capital of the world but is certainly the world capital of crime fiction. Dain had the feeling "people in New York were saying, 'Not another one!' "

Dain's fourth O'Neal book, "Lament for a Dead Cowboy," was published earlier this year. "Bet Against the House" is due out in February, and Dain is in the middle of No. 6, tentatively titled "Crap Shoot."

"There's an amazing sense of community among mystery writers," says Dain, who thinks the opportunity to network is one of the best things about programs such as the writing seminar. Keynote speaker will be Gerald Petievich, a former U.S. Secret Service agent and author of "To Live and Die in L.A." of whom Dain says: "Of the people who have been on the best-seller list, he is one of the most approachable and the most willing to help."

Where and When

What: Southern California chapter of the Mystery Writers of America Mystery Writing Seminar.

Location: Sportsmen's Lodge, 12833 Ventura Boulevard, Studio City.

Hours: 9 a.m to 4:30 p.m. Saturday.

Price: $75.

Call: (818) 709-3760.

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