The Blog Tour, Day # 11: Mike Orenduff

December 4th, 2011

Mike Orenduff writes three kinds of books I like:  mysteries with strong characters and a great sense of place; mysteries with some humor in them; and mysteries that teach me something.  And he writes all three in every single book.

His series about Hubert Schuze, the mild-mannered proprietor of an Albuquerque shop selling Native American pottery (some of which Hubie has illegally dug up himself) work on all levels, and I learn something new with every one. I asked him to fill us in on the origins of his newest Pot Thief book.

The genesis of my latest book, The Pot Thief Who Studied Escoffier, was my decision to launch my fourth book at the annual Left Coast Crime Conference. LCC had scheduled their 2011 meeting in Santa Fe. Since my books are set in New Mexico, it seemed like an opportunity too good to miss. That turns out not to have been the case, but I’ll get to that later.

Santa Fe is a foodie heaven. My protagonist loves to cook. So the first two dots I had to connect in outlining the story were Hubie and a restaurant in Santa Fe. Since he’s a potter, I decided the restaurant would hire him to create their chargers, the decorative plates on the table at fancy restaurants that are just for show.

But why Hubie? He has a strict rule against doing anything other than replicas of ancient Native American pots. It was easy to explain why he would break that rule. It was the same reason he has broken rules in the past – money. But what plausible explanation could I give for the restaurant wanting him when there are so many superior ceramic artists right there in Santa Fe?

It took me a while to come up with the answer, and it came to me only after I remembered that I was writing a murder mystery. PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD. The restaurant wanted a potential fall-guy, and Hubie’s dodgy reputation made him the perfect candidate.

You might think the next step would be to decide who gets killed by whom and why, but I don’t like to rush into murder, so I turned next to what would happen at the restaurant other than the murder. Remember that I write humorous mysteries, so I needed a plot that could generate laughs. FIRST PIECE OF WRITING ADVICE: It’s easier to throw a murder into a humorous story than it is to throw humor into a murder story.

The basic premise I selected was that the restaurant would be a new one (that’s why they needed the chargers) and would be Austrian because that makes so little sense in Santa Fe. The restaurant would fail after the chef was murdered. The staff – anxious to save their jobs – would prevail upon Hubie to take over the kitchen, not because he is a professional chef but because they thought their only hope of success was to change the menu to Austrian/New Mexican fusion, and he was the only one who knew anything about New Mexican cuisine.

The notion of Austrian/New Mexican fusion became the basis for much of the humor. I made up a list of characters – cooks, pot scrubbers, wait staff, etc. and started writing. If you think I didn’t have much of an outline, you’re correct. SECOND PIECE OF WRITING ADVICE: Start with minimal structure and invite change at every turn.

I had a warm-up murder prior to the planned death of the head chef. But that murder spiraled out of control and took over the plot. I went with it. In fact, I abandoned the idea of the head chef being killed and got him out of the picture in a less violent fashion. I also changed the part about Hubie becoming the head chef and just had him give advice about New Mexican food.

I was two-thirds through the book before I figured out the ending, and it came out of my research on Escoffier. Each of my titles features a thinker from the past from whom Hubie gets ideas that help him solve the crime, although he is usually a bit slow to make the connection. I’ve already given away a large part of the plot, but I won’t reveal the ending. What I will do is provide the following snippet from the book:

The menagerie of eccentrics, posers, tourists, hawkers, Indians, Hispanics, turquoise-bedecked blondes, pony-tailed men, bikers, and local Sufis was so oddly diverse that it might have been a caucus at the Democratic National Convention.

The guy I was looking for fit right in. But then who wouldn’t in a crowd like that? He wore a white tunic with a stiff collar and harlequin pants with a drawstring. As I neared him, I could read the embroidery on the tunic – ‘Schnitzel’ in bold red letters with ‘Chef Kuchen’ in black script just below.

Kuchen stood up as I approached and towered over my five foot six inches. He had broad shoulders, a square jaw, and a crushing handshake.

“Gunter Kuchen,” he announced, and I thought I heard the click of heels.

“Hubert Schuze,” I muttered as I winced from his grip.

“Ah, Schuze. It is German, yes?”

“It is German, no,” I answered.

“Yes, of course. You are too short.” He waved a long arm around the room. “Everyone in New Mexico is short. Because of the diet, yes?”

“Perhaps,” I said, not wanting to argue the point.

“We will have coffee,” he said as he strode off towards the French Café that opens onto the lobby.

The coffee and pastries in the French Café are delicious, and it was late enough in the morning that there was actually a table available. I selected a palmier and Herr Kuchen took a brioche.

“The pastries here are good,” I opined.

“The ones at Schnitzel will be better. I have a pâtissier, Machlin Masoot, who knows well the Viennoiseries.”

I had no idea what that meant. I wasn’t even sure what language it was in. Perhaps the Austrian equivalent of Spanglish.

Now I can tell you why launching Escoffier at LCC was a bad idea. My third book, The Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein, was nominated for the Lefty, the award given at LCC for the best humorous mystery novel of the year. I didn’t know that would happen when I started writing Escoffier, and it was too late to back out of the launch when I discovered in January that I was one of the finalists for the Lefty in March. As a result, I was pulled in two directions during the conference – trying to promote my fourth book being launched there and my third one being considered for an award. Authors, particularly male authors, are not good at multi-tasking.

Einstein won the Lefty, but the launch of Escoffier went unnoticed. I would wager that virtually every one of the three hundred or so people at LCC remember that I won the Lefty, but not one of them remember that I had a book launch in Santa Fe at Collected Works Bookstore during the conference. I sold only a handful of books at that event. Now, nine months later, Escoffier still has fewer monthly sales than the first three books that had big launches.

*

Mike Orenduff grew up in a house so close to the Rio Grande that he could Frisbee a tortilla into Mexico. He came by his love of pueblo pottery during weekends, buying small pots from the pueblos his family visited and – in one case – acquiring one when his sister traded chocolate chip cookies for it.     His love of pottery expanded to a general interest in archaeology which he studied as an undergraduate.

While in graduate school at the University of New Mexico, Mike worked during the summer as a volunteer teacher at one of the nearby pueblos. He went on to serve as President of New Mexico State University and as a visiting faculty member at West Point and President of Bermuda College. After retiring from higher education, he rekindled his love of the Southwest by writing his award-winning Pot Thief murder mysteries which combine archaeology and philosophy with humor and mystery.  Among his many awards are the New Mexico Book of the Year, the “Lefty” national award for best humorous mystery and two “Eppies” for the best eBook mysteries.

The books, to date, are

The Pot Thief Who Studied PythagorasThe Pot Thief Who Studied PtolemyThe Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein, and The Pot Thief Who Studied Escoffier.

And for those of you who are wondering where I’ve gotten to, I’m drinking coffee and comparing beards with John M. Daniel at http://johnmdaniel.blogspot.com/  where we’re — or, rather, I’m chatting about the arcane literary practice called “blurbing.”  As in, “Hallinan writes one hell of a persuasive link description.”  — Michael Connelly

8 Responses to “The Blog Tour, Day # 11: Mike Orenduff”

  1. m.m. gornell Says:

    Interesting, Mike, on how you developed your latest. And I think I mentioned earlier how much I love the Austrian/New Mexico fusion concept!

    Madeline

  2. Mare F Says:

    Your characters are strong and very human which is one reason I so enjoy your books. Your humor is another.

  3. Jackie King Says:

    The way you write was very interesting to me, Mike, a bit like my own, only more literary. Also, I loved your ‘snippet.’

  4. Jean Henry Mead Says:

    Mike, I love Santa Fe, Hubie Schuze and the series, but can’t imagine why a 6 ft. 4 in. author would write about a 5 ft. 6 in. potter. Please explain your reason for making him diminutive. 🙂

  5. EverettK Says:

    I’ve got your first one sitting on my eReader, awaiting its turn in the queue. As a result, I’m sorry I can’t effuse my vast admiration for your work (not yet having sampled it), but based on this blog, I have high hopes for it! (Of course, based on Tim’s tour-blog today, maybe I shouldn’t let the fact that I haven’t read it stop me from praising it highly… 🙂 )

  6. Earl Staggs Says:

    Very interesting, Mike, reading how the book developed. Some of the steps and missteps rang familiar notes with me. Putting a book together is not an exact science, is it?

  7. Anne K. Albert Says:

    Love the excerpt, Mike, and I’m also fascinated by your approach to writing. Great post!

  8. BrendaW. Says:

    This was great.

    It is also interesting about the launch parties making a difference.

    I really enjoy this series.

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