Blog Tour, Day #3 — Alice Duncan

November 26th, 2011

Alice Duncan is the only mystery writer I know who lives in (WEEEooooWEEEEooooWEEEEooooo) Roswell, New Mexico, home of the original almond-eyed infantalized aliens, but you’d never know it to read her (other than the fact that she writes about a bogus spiritualist).

Alice won the Holt Medallion for her first novel, and has gone on to delight readers with her fresh, idiosyncratic fictionalizations of the 1920s.  She almost makes me want to write historicals and that’s a big deal for a writer as lazy and non-inclined to research as I am.

I asked Alice some questions about her writing career and methods, but you hardy need them to read what she has to say.

It was (I don’t think you’re ever supposed to begin anything with “It was,” but what the heck) in October of 1993 when, as my daughter Robin and I were in New Mexico on vacation and were driving to Fort Sumner to see Billy the Kid’s grave (don’t tell Earl Staggs), that I wrote a description of the landscape. I wrote it in a little notebook snatched from my purse and hastily stuffed back into it and didn’t tell Robin or anyone else what I’d done, because I didn’t know what to do with it. I did, however, begin writing little blurbs in my notebook from time to time.

Around that time a buddy of mine persuaded me to read a modern-day romance novel. I’d always eschewed (geshundheit) romance novels because of their sleazy covers. But I read a couple and discovered that’s what I wanted to write, astonishingly enough. In spite of my overall rough life and a hideous predilection to choose the absolute worst men in the world, I wanted to believe in everlasting romance. Go figure. Anyhow, I started writing books, all historical, because I try to avoid reality as much as possible, and the world looks better when viewed through the mist of time (well, it does if you’re me. I’m sure the people who lived with smallpox, typhoid, malaria, diphtheria, ptomaine, etc., didn’t have much fun, but I can avoid those things in my novels).

After I’d written a couple of more-or-less novels, I took a class called “Writing for Publication,” taught by a wonderful woman named Meredith Brucker at San Marino High School in San Marino, CA. Meredith taught us exactly how to create and present proposals for novels and send them to agents and editors. So I did. By that time I’d become thoroughly obsessed with writing and selling novels. I was 49 years old, and had all but given up on my life’s dream. I went a little wild, became positively single-minded in my pursuit of publication and wrote constantly (when I wasn’t at my cursed day job, and sometimes even then. Don’t tell anybody).

Now that I sort of know how to write a whole book (it was daunting, trying to think up enough stuff to fill 400 or so manuscript pages), I like to write from a synopsis. Unfortunately for me, and maybe because I’m a Sagittarius—or was until the zodiac changed and dumped me into the realm of Ophiuchuses—I tend to have a straight-arrow personality. I mean, it’s easy to think of a beginning and an end, but all that stuff in the middle can be downright troublesome. That’s why I need a synopsis, from which I wander at whim.

I now write historical cozy mysteries set in the 1920s, an era that fascinates me, and I do believe my greatest creation is Daisy Gumm Majesty. Daisy, you see, was born in my own home city of Pasadena, California, and still lived there with her family. The first book to feature her was set in 1920. What’s more, Daisy earned her living as a phony spiritualist, because she could make more money doing that than she could doing any of the other work designated for women at the time, and she had to support her war-injured husband, Billy. I wanted the books to be historical cozy mysteries. However, one of the big muckety-mucks at Kensington decided the books didn’t have enough mystery in them (did I mention I’m plot-challenged? Well, I am). Therefore, they asked me to remove the dead bodies, add a subsidiary romance (because the heroine was already married) and they’d market them as romances. So I did, and they did, and the books tanked. Fortunately for me, Five Star was willing to pick up the series. Yay!

Probably my best piece of advice for any aspiring writer is: NEVER GIVE UP. There’s no guarantee your work will be published if you persevere, but it definitely won’t be if you give up. Also remember that, barring Alzheimer’s, the more you write, the better you’ll get at it.

My second piece of advice comes to you through me from Henry Van Dyke (THE STORY OF THE OTHER WISE MAN): Use what talents you possess: the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.

Since I’ve had three books published this year (including one of Daisy’s, GENTEEL SPIRITS), I’m giving links to all three of ‘em:

Thanks for a wonderful piece, Alice.  The 20s are my favorite decade, almost the only one other than the present one that I’d like to live in.

My own blog for today is over at Marilyn Meredith’s place —

27 Responses to “Blog Tour, Day #3 — Alice Duncan”

  1. Alice Duncan Says:

    Thanks for having me today, Tim. I guess I’m glad I live now instead of the twenties, because if I lived then, I’d be dead by now. If you know what I mean 🙂

  2. W.S. Gager Says:

    I love that you like the past. Sometimes what you find in research is something no one would believe you didn’t make up. Great post, Alice.
    W.S. Gager on Writing

  3. Jean Henry Mead Says:

    Great post, Alice. Your series sounds like my kinda book and I’m sure its generously laced with humor.

  4. Earl Staggs Says:

    A very interesting post, Alice, laced with your inherent charm. However, I didn’t miss the Billy the Kid jab. We have to talk.

  5. Alice Duncan Says:

    Thanks, guys. Really, I think Daisy is me, only without the crippling neuroses and with a supportive family 🙂

  6. Alice Duncan Says:

    FORT SUMNER, Earl!!!

  7. JOYE Says:

    Your books sound really good. I have visited the Lincoln county area of New Mexico several times and love the area-its openess and stark beauty.

  8. Earl Staggs Says:

    Alice, I understand why New Mexicans. . .New Mexites. . .whatever, cling to the Pat Garrett version. You need to read my story, “Where Billy Died” to get the real scoop.

  9. Theresa de Valence Says:

    Alice, what a great story!


  10. M.M. Gornell Says:

    Alice, the 1920s are one of my favorite periods in modern history! And Roswell has always intrigued me–so I’m hooked!


  11. Alice Duncan Says:

    Earl. We’ve had this discussion before. I’ve got “Where Billy Died.” I just have to figure out how to get it onto my Kindle. I’ll figure it out one of these days!

  12. Alice Duncan Says:

    Thanks, Joye! I love the Lincoln area in the Sacramento Mountains. It’s so lovely up there. So…well, not like Roswell 🙂

    Thanks, Theresa and Madeline!

  13. Pat Browning Says:

    Alice, you never fail to delight me. I especially like your quote:

    “Use what talents you possess: the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.”

    Words to live by!

    Pat Browning

  14. Caroline Clemmons Says:

    Alice, you know Daisy is one of my favorite fictional characters and you are one of my favorite human characters. Keep Daisy’s books (and your others) coming!

  15. Anne K. Albert Says:

    Great post, Alice. I love your sense of humor that shines throughout.

    Tim, thank you for the (WEEEooooWEEEEooooWEEEEooooo)I almost spewed my coffee! LOL!

  16. Alice Duncan Says:

    Thanks, Pat, Caroline and Anne. I keep that Van Dyke quote in mind every time I think I’ve written a crappy book, Pat.

    I loved the WEEEooooWEEEooooWEEEooooo, too. Actually, the only aliens we have here in Roswell are from south of the border 🙂

  17. Jackie King Says:

    I smiled all the way through your post, Alice. What a great sense humor you have. And I loved Genteel Spirits.

  18. Jinx Schwartz Says:

    I’ve visited the Billy the Kid site myself and loved that part of the world. Maybe that’s how I ended up in the high desert. Great blog.

  19. Alice Duncan Says:

    Thanks, Jackie. I appreciate your liking Genteel Spirits!

  20. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Boy, does Alice draw a crowd, or what?

    And it’s easy to see why. She’s delightful, the books are delightful, and people can spot the real thing.

    Come back any time you like, Alice.

  21. Alice Duncan Says:

    Thanks, Tim! And, Earl, I finally got your book to load on my Kindle. As soon as I finish it, we’ll have to battle out this Billy the Kid thing again 🙂

    Y’know what I liked best about Fort Sumner, Jinx? It was the wooden crosses that said: Somebody Or Other. Born on this date. Killed on that date.

    People didn’t often die of old age in them there days, I reckon.

  22. Jacqueline Seewald Says:

    Hi, Alice,

    I’m also impressed that you live in Roswell, NM. I expect one day you’ll treat us to an alien mystery.

  23. Prentiss Garner Says:

    Alice, I enjoyed hearing about how your writing began. i also enjoy your posts on DL.


  24. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    The WEEEooooWEEEoooo I stole from the book I’m writing right now, in which Junior Bender is in the kitchen of an enormous old apartment owned by a now-enormous former movie actress:

    In the kitchen, it took me about two minutes to find the wine and the glasses, but the corkscrew stumped me.

    I stood there, looking at approximately twenty closed drawers, and then something feathery and steamlike at the same time seemed to suggest through the air somehow that the second drawer from the left in the top row to the right of the sink just might be the one. I opened it, and there was the corkscrew.

    I looked around the kitchen, much as Dolores La Marr had looked around the living room, said “WEEooooWEEoooWEEooo” quietly and asked myself where the tray was. This time I just closed my eyes and stood there for a moment and when I opened them I was looking at one of a substantial number of closed cabinets. In that cabinet, I found the tray.

    I may have hurried a bit getting back to the living room.

  25. Alice Duncan Says:

    No aliens for me, Jacquie. I’ll leave that to others who really care about them 🙂

    Thanks, Prentiss!

    Tim, can you be sued for plagiarizing from your own unpublished work? I hope not, because I love the excerpt!

  26. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    It is so nice to see you here, and learn about your work. Your books are such a nice change from the dark streets of noir I tend to frequent. (Sorry, that should be mean streets.) Never mind. I like traveling back in time with you.

  27. Alice Duncan Says:

    Hi, Lil! Thanks for stopping by. And I’m glad you enjoy a change of pace every now and then. Funny thing is that when I first began writing books, I got dinged all the time for writing stuff that was “too dark.” Now I get comments about how I write “fluff.” Pooh on ’em all, I say 🙂

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