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BOOKS & AUTHORS / ORANGE COUNTY

Piecing Together Scraps of Reality

March 14, 1995|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FOUNTAIN VALLEY — As a mystery writer, Earlene Fowler follows the age-old dictum: Write about what you know.

For "Irish Chain," the second book in Fowler's mystery series set on California's Central Coast, she tapped her experience of teaching a crafts class at a retirement home.

"The year I spent with these ladies, it was such a crackup," said Fowler, 40, of Fountain Valley. "You think retirement homes are really boring places until you get to know the people. It's like high school: romantic intrigues, people accusing people of cheating at cards. . . . One of the ladies always said, 'Let me tell you what happened this week!' "

Of course, it was never anything as exciting as what happens at the retirement home in "Irish Chain," where Fowler's amateur sleuth, Benni Harper--a widowed, 34-year-old folk-art museum curator--has helped organize a senior citizen's prom: Moments before the prom king and queen are to be crowned, the "king" and a female resident of the retirement home are found murdered in the woman's room.

Jeopardizing her budding romance with temporary police chief Gabriel Ortiz, Benni begins her investigation, which leads her to the town's Japanese community and a 50-year-old secret involving the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

That's a subject Fowler became interested in during the 1970s after learning that a Japanese American co-worker at an insurance company had been interred as a child.

"A writer is always thinking--it's like you're always scouting for something to use," Fowler said. "I told my husband that on our next vacation I plan to go to a place that I never intend to write about, so that I don't have to write down stuff every second."

Benni Harper was introduced last year in "Fool's Puzzle," which takes place nine months after Benni's rancher husband is killed in an auto accident. Library Journal called Fowler's mystery debut "the start of a promising new series."

Publishers Weekly says "Irish Chain" (Berkley/Prime Crime; $18.95) is "a well-textured sequel to 'Fool's Puzzle,' " adding that it "intricately blends social history and modern mystery. . . . Fowler's easygoing style, along with down-home Benni's charming personality, makes this a blue-ribbon cozy."

Besides the recurring characters, the books in Fowler's mystery series have something else in common: Each title is taken from the name of a quilt pattern.

The titles are appropriate, given Benni Harper's job as a folk-art museum curator. But Fowler, who started quilting in her late 20s and has studied the history of quilting, tries to make each title symbolic of the story. In "Irish Chain," she said, "the man who is killed is Irish, and it's a chain of events that lead up to his death."

The mysteries are set in the fictional town of San Celina, which is modeled after San Luis Obispo. Fowler fell in love with the university town more than a decade ago, when her sister lived on the Central Coast, and she continues to visit every couple of months. "What's nice," she said with a laugh, "is it's a tax write-off now."

Fowler grew up in La Puente, where 85% of the students in her high school and many of her friends were Latino.

"It's probably why I have so many Latino characters in my books. I didn't know I did until an editor pointed it out," she said. She made her character Gabriel Ortiz half Anglo and half Latino, she said, because she has two nieces with the same ethnic mix, and she is intrigued by what it is like "to grow up with feet in both cultures."

Benni's best friend is also Latino, and that character has six brothers. Fowler, who grew up across the street from a Latino family with seven children, said writing such characters "just seemed natural for me."

So did creating San Celina, a medium-size college and ranching town on the Central Coast.

Despite her suburban Los Angeles upbringing, Fowler was raised by "rural people," she said--her mother grew up on a farm in Arkansas, and her dad's parents were migrant workers. She also attended a little Baptist church where, she said, all the adults were from Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.

"I really relate to the rural background," she said. "Part of the fun of writing is being able to do stuff you never really got to do in real life."

*

Fowler describes Benni Harper as loyal, persistent and "pretty much fearless--more fearless than I am. And a part of her is introspective too. You can really get to know Benni by the end of my book. You see her grow inside."

Fowler concedes, however, that the county music-, "big stupid dogs"- and Tabasco sauce-loving Benni is much like her.

"I didn't think so at first," she said, "but everybody warned me when they read (the first book) and said, "That's you!' Writers think we're hiding ourselves, but we're not. She's kind of a smartass, and so am I, so I guess that part is."

That's not to mention that Fowler, like Benni, favors a wardrobe of Wrangler jeans, round-toed Roper boots, Levi jackets, flannel shirts and plain white men's T-shirts.

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