Diane Mott Davidson is the author of sixteen bestselling novels. She has been called “the Julia Child of mystery writers,” because the murders in her books are solved by a caterer, and include several original recipes in each book. Davidson’s recent novels are Crunch Time, Fatally Flaky, and Sweet Revenge. Her newest novel, The Whole Enchilada, is on sale today. Davidson talks about how she gets her ideas, and how her characters’ lives have grown over the course of the series.
One of the most frequently asked questions of writers is, "Where do you get your ideas?" The truth is that ideas race through writers' heads at a dizzying clip. The problem then becomes: Which ones of these do I use?
Since 1990, when my culinary mysteries began to be published, my image for the use of ideas relates to food. We go to the refrigerator to take out ingredients to make meals. A writer goes to the emotional refrigerator to bring out characters and plots.
When I started writing, the most troubling ingredient in my own emotional refrigerator was the amount of spousal abuse I was seeing in my volunteer work. These were women who were working beside me -- one who helped me in organizing a particular group of volunteers said, "Look at where my husband broke my thumb in three places with a hammer." Her husband was a social worker. A dear friend showed up at an another meeting with her face covered in bruises. Her husband was an engineer. I heard many other stories from women who were married to professionals, including one doctor who became the model for the horrible ex-husband in the series. (This was all pre-O.J., and the phenomenon of spousal abuse among wealthy people was not in the general national consciousness.)
I knew I had to write about this, but in a way that emphasized that people could put their lives back together after abuse. So Goldy Schulz, my protagonist, is a caterer who has taken the lemon of her life and made it not only into lemonade but into lemon chicken, lemon bars, and lemon meringue pie. She has a son, Arch, who has aged over the series from eleven to, at the opening of The Whole Enchilada, seventeen. Like Goldy, he bears the scars of his father's behavior. But he, too, has gradually matured and become emotionally healthy.
Just as importantly, Goldy has a deep faith; wonderful friends; a supportive church community; and finally, several books into the series, a loving husband, Tom. Goldy's best friend, Marla Korman, is the other ex-wife of The Jerk, as they call Doctor John Richard Korman. Marla, who has inherited money and a smart mouth, helps Goldy in numerous situations, where having money or membership guarantees entry.
So those were the ingredients in my emotional refrigerator as I worked on the Goldy series. Other things that have happened to me figured into plots. One woman who was buying a copy of my second book, Dying for Chocolate, gave me a stern look, tapped my author photo, and said, "This is an extremely flattering photograph." The picture had not been retouched, but never mind. Her comment made me scuttle down to a high-end Denver department store for a makeover. The lovely, chatty woman selling the cosmetics asked me what kind of work I did. When I said I wrote murder mysteries, she did not pause before saying, "I sure could write a murder mystery about this place." And thus was my next book, Killer Pancake, born.
With each book, I did actual (unpaid) catering so I could see the issues and obstacles that accompany food service. Although I could not cook when my husband and I got married many moons ago, I learned on the job. (This was so many moons ago that it was the era when men rarely ventured into the kitchen.) Catering is very different from home cooking; it's like going from having a small vegetable garden to managing a thousand-acre ranch.
In the midst of doing all the cooking to develop recipes for the books, I realized we had to have our kitchen remodeled and enlarged. We had heard lots of contractor horror stories from friends and relatives, but we thought we were immune. Alas, it was not to be. When a job that was supposed to take three months took twelve, I killed off a contractor in one of the books. The murderer hits the contractor over the head with a two-by-four, shoots him through the head with a nail gun, and then hangs him from the rafters. (P.S.: Our contractor thought this was hilarious.)
Any mystery writer needs to learn the police procedure for his or her area, and my own county sheriff's department has been extraordinarily generous in this regard. In The Whole Enchilada, while trying to figure out why one of her long-ago friends has been murdered, Goldy does not have access to fingerprinting or DNA analysis. But she has lived in her small mountain town of Aspen Meadow, Colorado, for a long time. She can use her connections, and look at the relationships between people, to try to see what, exactly, might be going on.
Mystery readers -- in fact, I hope all readers -- enjoy puzzles, and that is what I try to construct. The best comment from readers, finally, also comes from the food world: "I just devoured your book." What writer could ask for more?