Monday, February 24, 2014

@ The Poisoned Pen with Charlotte Hinger and Frederick Ramsay!

As I drove to my favorite bookstore (The Poisoned Pen) that Saturday afternoon, there was brilliant sunshine, not a cloud in the deep blue sky, and balmy breezes-- just the type of weather tens of thousands of people flock here to experience each winter. A lot of the people traveling the same streets as I had been to the Parada del Sol, but I had different fish to fry. I had set out to see two Poisoned Pen Press authors: Charlotte Hinger and Frederick Ramsay.

Charlotte writes the Lottie Albright series set in western Kansas, and the latest book, Hidden Heritage, was named one of the Best Mysteries of 2013 by Kirkus Reviews. It's one of my favorite series, and I was looking forward to seeing her.

Frederick Ramsay writes three series (and standalone novels, too), and he was here to sign his latest Ike Schwartz mystery, Drowning Barbie. I've seen him several times attending signings for other authors although this would be the first time I'd attended when the spotlight would be on him. I have yet to read one of his books, but I have two of them on my Kindle because-- after watching him interact with others-- I have the distinct impression that I'm really going to like his writing. Have you ever had that feeling?

I browsed the shelves, made my purchase, and sat down to read. All during this time, another customer in the store had kept catching my eye, and I didn't know why. He even told one of the employees his name, but it didn't mean a thing to me. I gave him the once-over at least three times, and I still didn't know why a very faint little bell kept jangling in the back of my mind. The man took a seat across from me. When he replied to a comment someone else made, I almost got whiplash. At the very same moment, he looked over at me and said, "Are you Glenore's daughter?" That's when I recognized him-- he worked with my mother twenty years ago, and I'd seen him whenever I went into the library to pick Mom up after work. We had a nice catch-up chat while we waited for the event to begin.

Just goes to show... I may not recognize a face, names may not stick in my brain for very long either-- but I remember voices!

"You've got me till spring!"

L to R: Charlotte Hinger, Barbara Peters, Frederick Ramsay
Charlotte Hinger arrived early, and from the coat draped over her arm, her sweaters, long wool skirt and tall boots, she looked like she wasn't from these parts. Sure enough, she told us that when she left Kansas, it was 7° below zero, and once she'd been filled in on the sort of weather we've been having, Charlotte exclaimed, "You've got me till spring!"

More and more people began to arrive, including Donis Casey, author of the excellent Alafair Tucker mysteries, and we learned that Donis and Charlotte had been roomies at Malice Domestic.

Bookstore owner, Poisoned Pen Press editor, and host Barbara Peters sat down between her two authors and asked them to introduce their characters to us. Charlotte told us that her series is set in western Kansas and features Lottie Albright, an historian and law enforcement officer who married into a devout Catholic family. Her husband is much older than she, and the oldest of the four children from his first marriage is older than Lottie. Family dynamics often play important roles in the books.

Retired Episcopal priest Frederick Ramsay told us that his main character, Ike Schwartz, is a Jewish sheriff in a Baptist town who finds every chance he can to question political correctness. Barbara Peters said, "Ike's also been involved in a long-term relationship that I doubted was ever going to end well." Ramsay smiled and said that one of the subplots in Drowning Barbie concerned how Ike was going to break the news of what happened on a trip to Las Vegas when he got back to Picketsville.

"Looks like they're trying to..."

Frederick Ramsay
Barbara then said, "Drowning Barbie is an unusual title. How on earth did you come up with it?"

Ramsay laughed. "Last January my grandchildren were playing with their Barbie dolls in our pool. When I asked my son-in-law what they were doing, he took a look and said, 'Looks like they're trying to drown Barbie.'"

Further fuel for his book came from a writers conference that he attended. "It was one of those days when I could have sworn I was wearing my collar," he said. A woman approached him and sat down to talk. "I'm crazy," she told Ramsay. It took Ramsay a minute to realize that the woman was serious. She went on to tell him that she was a meth baby who'd been pimped out by her mother.

Another piece of the manuscript that became Drowning Barbie involved a mobster who attempted to take control of a crime family. He was killed in New York, and although his body wasn't found, his killers-- who were responsible for many other deaths-- were sent to Sing Sing on the evidence the police did manage to gather. Later on, the mobster's body was dug up elsewhere, and the evidence obtained from the body did not match the trial facts. Should these killers get a new trial? As you can see, ideas for crime novels can come from anywhere!

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Ramsay went on to mention that when he'd started writing about Ike, they were roughly the same age. Now Ike is 30-40 years younger than his creator. Ramsay has no idea what guys in that age bracket are up to now, so he writes Ike "as an old-fashioned kinda guy."

Barbara then brought up the fact that Frederick Ramsay has written two books-- The Eighth Veil and Holy Smoke-- from the viewpoint of the New Testament as history. "These books are really interesting... and they may no longer be just a trilogy," she said, smiling at Ramsay. Ramsay enjoys telling the gospel through the eyes of people who had no investment in the events unfolding around them. They don't care what's happening, so he's able to put an entirely different spin on these mysteries. "Most people don't know the region's history, or if they do, it's through the cloaks of religion and Cecil B. DeMille," he said.

"It can be hard to explain the old morality."

L to R: Charlotte Hinger, Barbara Peters
The conversation switched back to Charlotte as Barbara reminded us that Hidden Heritage had been named one of the ten Best Mysteries of 2013 by Kirkus Reviews.

Since Hinger's series deals so much with history (her main character is an historian), she often finds herself trying to explain the morality of previous generations, "...the concept of shame, of having to get married, of what it meant to file bankruptcy, of being forced to go to the Poor Farm." These are concepts that Charlotte herself understands very well because two generations of her family span three centuries. "My father was born in the nineteenth century, I was born in the twentieth, and now I'm living in the twenty-first and watching my six grandchildren grow up."

In Hinger's books, oftentimes it's an old crime that causes a new murder, and she's done the same work that Lottie does in the books. "I've talked to so many people. I know of several couples who, back in the day, got married and didn't have sex for six months so they could prove to everyone that there hadn't been any hanky panky going on before the wedding.

"I've found out that when people are in their fifties, they don't want to talk to historians. By the time these people are in their 80s and 90s, they want people to know all sorts of things before they die!"

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Proving that life often imitates art, Hinger had to change one of the family names in Hidden Heritage because the exact same thing happened in real life as in Charlotte's plot. She definitely didn't want to open herself to a lawsuit!

"Barbara tries to keep my historical tidbits subdued so the book still qualifies as a crime novel," Charlotte told us with a smile.

Questions, Answers & Editors

A fan mentioned music, and Charlotte loved the fact that she'd noticed. "Music is important in the books because it's important to me," she said.

Donis Casey brought up the curandera in Hidden Heritage. "Yes," Hinger said. "Half of the medicine we have today can be found on the Plains, and there was always someone who knew how to use it." [A curandera is a healer who uses folk remedies.]

Another person mentioned writing groups, which don't work for Hinger. "Having people critique your work can be tricky," she said. "I trust Barbara Peters and I praise her abilities to everyone." Hinger shared some writing advice she was given and that she follows: "Don't trust anyone. Not enemies. Not friends. Don't change a thing unless the change resonates within you."

When asked if he had any advice to give us, Frederick Ramsay said, "Never teach middle school if you're my age." A student told him, "My great-great-grandfather fought in World War II." Ramsay thought a few seconds and could see that the math was right. He then told the boy, "My great-great-grandfather fought in the Civil War."  Ramsay laughed. "I think that boy still hasn't gotten his mind around that!" (And I sat there thinking that my grandfather fought in World War II and my great-great-great-grandfather died in the Civil War!)

Right now, Charlotte Hinger is hard at work on a book about nineteenth-century African Americans and their impact on the settlement of the West, which makes her editor a bit nervous. "I can't help but be reminded of John Dunning," Barbara Peters said. "He spent so much time writing The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, which turned into a sort of black hole. He emerged with a brain tumor and was unable to continue his brilliant Bookman series."

Charlotte divulged the fact that she's torn between two titles for her next Lottie Albright novel: Fractured Families or Ominous Origins. Most folks seemed to prefer the former, while I preferred the latter. Wouldn't you know it?

When Barbara couldn't see something across the room, she apologized. "I've just finished editing seven books for our fall list, and I'm practically blind!" Referring back to what Charlotte had said about her earlier, Peters said, "I think one of my strengths as an editor is the fact that I have absolutely no desire to write a book." At this point Donis Casey-- another of the authors Peters edits-- jumped in quickly to add, "Barbara doesn't try to write your book for you."

The rest of the very enjoyable event concluded with questions and prizes. Frederick Ramsay had brought his own questions, although he did notice from a comment made that "Donis, you're on page 102 of Drowning Barbie." He also let us know that he does "backwards research," writing the story first and then going back to do the research.

Charlotte Hinger has a color-coded system for her rough drafts. "The first draft is on pink paper: it's pink with promise. The second draft is on yellow paper because the light is beginning to shine through.

Ramsay had a deputy badge to give away. Due to a little snafu with the numbers, the man whose voice I recognized traded his number with Donis Casey. Which number was called? The number he'd just given to Donis!

What a fun afternoon! Glorious weather, a wonderful bookstore, two fascinating authors, and a group of crime fiction lovers. You can't get much better than that! (And... remember what I said earlier about not having read any of Frederick Ramsay's books? I've just begun to read Artscape, the first Ike Schwartz mystery!)


  1. Oh, another 'Live From the PP!' post! Yay! Thanks, Cathy. They both seem to have a great sense of wit.


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