Friday, November 30, 2007

Livia Washburn on Writing and Research

Murder by the Slice
Livia J. Washburn
Publisher: NAL/Obsidian
Pub date: October 2007
Agent: Kim Lionetti

(Click to Buy)

I have had the privilege of being a professional writer for over twenty years. I live in a small Texas town with my husband, James Reasoner, and two daughters.

Awards: American Mystery Award and Shamus Award, both for Wild Night

Author Web site:

Murder by the Slice is the second book in the Fresh-Baked Mystery series. Retired schoolteacher Phyllis Newsom and her friends once again enter a baking contest and encounter a murder, this time at an elementary school carnival.

One of the things I really enjoy about the writing process is the research involved. There’s a lot of truth to the old adage about writing what you know—or what you can find out. For example, the novels in my Fresh-Baked Mystery series are set in Weatherford, Texas. While I don’t live in Weatherford, it’s nearby and I’ve been there many times and know the town well. It’s close enough so that if there’s something I don’t know, I can drive over and investigate it. The first book in the series, A Peach of a Murder, centers around Weatherford’s annual Peach Festival. I was able to attend the Peach Festival before I wrote the book. While I took a few dramatic liberties (this is fiction, after all), my descriptions of the festival itself are fairly accurate.

For the second book in the series, the recently released Murder by the Slice, my research drew heavily on personal experience. For several years, my husband and I were very involved in the Parent-Teacher Organizations at our children’s schools. We helped out with the elementary school carnivals, and we served as members of the PTO board. When I had an elementary school carnival play a prominent part in Murder by the Slice, I knew how such things worked and I also knew about the inner workings of a PTO board. (Although I should hasten to point out that none of the characters in Murder by the Slice are based in any way on any of the wonderful ladies who served with me on various boards! Fiction, total fiction!)

In an upcoming book in the series, my characters will get out of Weatherford for a change and travel to the Gulf Coast of Texas, where they will take part in a dessert competition at the annual SeaFair in Rockport, Texas. The SeaFair is a real event and has been going on every autumn for years, but this is the first year for the Just Desserts competition. When I read about it I knew this would make a perfect background for a mystery novel. My husband and I not only attended the SeaFair and Just Desserts—and got to sample all the entries!—we also spent several weeks in the Rockport area, getting to know it better. We had been there before, but a place tends to look different when you’re researching it as the setting for a novel. You have to find just the perfect spot for your murder to happen, and once you’ve settled on that, it opens up all sorts of exciting questions that have to be worked out for the plot, such as “Who’s the victim?” “Why was he or she killed?” and the all-important “Who’s the killer?” The setting can be a vital part of the answers to all of these questions and more, so it helps to be as familiar as possible with it.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that all the expenses incurred in a research trip are tax-deductible, however. Day-to-day living expenses aren’t, even if you’re in a different place and there only to do research. Only expenses pertaining directly to the trip are deductible.

Of course, it’s possible to do a great deal of research in libraries and online, too, and I certainly do my share of that. It’s not unusual for me to have stacks of research books piled up around my desk as I write (and for the Fresh-Baked Mysteries, that includes recipe books to get ideas from, naturally!). But there’s something special in writing about places that you know, a freshness and authenticity that it’s hard to get any other way. So if you’re an aspiring mystery author, look around. There could be a good place for a murder right there under your nose. . . .


Diana said...

I am curious about your decision to write about the real town of Weatherford, which is probably just small enough to still have the feel and mentality of a small town, even with 24,000 people.

What made you decide to write about the real town, instead of a somewhat fictionalized version of the town you know well? What do the Weatherfordians think of being featured as the site of a fictional murder?

Techapostle said...

Hey, congratulations on getting published. You write well.

I am a writer-poet-blogger all rolled into one and I am an aspiring writer too. Do take a look at one of my articles and leave a comment:
Do have a look.

Janet said...

"There’s a lot of truth to the old adage about writing what you know—or what you can find out."

I LOVE your addition to the old adage. So true.

Vicki said...

Your research sounds great! I love the idea of a small town. I haven't read either of these books will be making my way to BnN to buy them. :)

Phoenix Sullivan said...

Weatherford -- and the Peach Festival! How fun! I lived in Fort Worth for more years than I care to share here :o) and I still live only a skip-and-jump away. I'll definitely have to check out your books -- and your research!

Christine Carey said...

"There’s a lot of truth to the old adage about writing what you know—or what you can find out."

That's an awesome quote!!

So what exactly is deductible on a trip like that? Plane/car/hotel? And is there a certain amount you have to make as a writer before you can start claiming those? (Sorry to ask questions as if you were a tax advisor - your paragraph on it sparked them, but if you don't have the answers, that's ok!)
Thanks. =)

Livia J Washburn said...

I wanted to write about the Peach Festival in the first book, so I just decided to go ahead and use the real town. I think I present it in a fairly good light . . . well, other than all those murders, of course . . . No one who lives there seems to mind. All the feedback I've gotten from Weatherford residents has been good.

Taxes for writers are really complicated. I've been doing ours for years and it's always a big challenge trying to keep everything straight and do things the right way. A percentage of travel, hotel expenses, and meals for a research trip should be tax-deductible, and you don't have to earn a specific amount of money at writing to count them. Any materials you purchase just for the research or writing in general, especially books, would be tax deductible. However, you do have to make a profit at writing a certain number of years in a given period of time (I think it's two years out of every five, or something like that), or else the IRS will consider it a hobby rather than a business.

Something we discovered a couple of years ago about taxes. If your agent receives your advance or royalties at the end of December but you don’t receive them until the next year, you have to report it for the year the agent received it. My husband received a check from a different agency in the middle of February that we ended up having to report for the year before. This was a case of a lost check that we didn’t know had been sent until we received his 1099. As far as taxes are concerned you have to pay on the year your agent received payment, not the year you received it. But I'm not a tax expert by any means, so double-check anything you're in doubt about with the IRS or someone qualified to advise you. On second thought you may want to triple check those questions. Some of this is tricky enough the experts have problems, too.

Julie Weathers said...

I'm glad you posted this. I love Weatherford for several reasons. Now I'll have to go buy these books.

It's outstanding horse country, so it was the setting for the horse killings in one of my ramblings.

Julie Weathers said...

Hmmmm. Looks like I will be buying more books, since I am a Civil War buff.

Livia J Washburn said...

This whole area is great horse country. I'd had a couple ponies growing up, but had never been around full size horses that much until my daughter, at age 14, decided she wanted to volunteer at a therapeutic riding center. The riding center does amazing work with kids in need, and it's a wonderful place to volunteer.

If you like Civil war novels, you definitely should read my husband, James Reasoner's Civil War Battle Series. He hooked me on the first book and I enjoyed the ride for all ten books. He’s great at blending history with an entertaining story.