We are delighted to welcome author Janet Dawson to Omnimystery News today.
Janet's second mystery set on the California Zephyr is Death Deals a Hand (Perseverance Press; March 2016 trade paperback and ebook formats) and we recently had the opportunity to spend some time with her to talk about her work.
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Omnimystery News: Tell us a little more about your books.
Photo provided courtesy of
Photo credit Charles Lucke
Janet Dawson: I have written 15 books and have two series characters, as well as a stand-alone protagonist. Jeri Howard is a private investigator who is based in Oakland, California. She has been my protagonist in 12 books, including Water Signs, the novel I just completed. The first book in the Jeri Howard series was Kindred Crimes, which won the St. Martin's Press/ Private Eye Writers of America contest for Best First Private Eye Novel. Initially, I did not plan on writing a private eye series. Jeri was an amateur sleuth in early drafts. But I decided the plot didn't work with Jeri as an amateur. She needed a good reason to investigate the events in the plot, other than being curious and nosy. With a private eye, the protagonist is hired to sift around in the dirty laundry. After 12 books, I feel as though Jeri is a good friend and alter ego. I'm comfortable writing about her and her world. I know what her surroundings look like and I've had a good time exploring her relationship with friends and family. Writing a Jeri Howard book is, for me, like slipping into a comfortable pair of shoes.
My other series protagonist came to me and announced that she wanted me to write a book about her. Jill McLeod is a Zephyrette, a train hostess working on the historic train called the California Zephyr, which ran from 1949 to 1970. The books, Death Rides the Zephyr and the just-published Death Deals a Hand, take place in the early 1950s, so this is a historical mystery series. I am a railfan, as people who are fond of trains are called, particularly interested in historic trains. Many of the classic streamliner trains had train hostesses, but only on the California Zephyr were they called Zephyrettes. These women were the only female crew members on what was called the onboard crew. They were responsible for the care and well-being of the passengers. They did everything from make announcements pointing on the beautiful scenery, to making dinner reservations, mailing postcards, providing first aid and sometimes babysitting for passengers. Who would be better placed to observe behavior and solve a mystery. Jill is my amateur sleuth and I'm having fun with her and the 1950s setting. I also got first-hand information when I interviewed two former Zephyrettes.
OMN: How have your characters evolved over the course of their series?
JD: My characters develop over time, definitely. In my opinion, it makes for better stories and keeps that character more interesting. In Kindred Crimes, Jeri is recently divorced and has lingering issues with her ex-husband, an Oakland homicide detective. In subsequent books they have gotten past the bitterness and are friends, with her ex helping Jeri out on cases. Jeri has had a number of relationships with men through the books, and in the three most recent books in the series, she's found a guy who might be a keeper. In early books I made it clear that Jeri doesn't get along with her mother. So of course, in the fourth book, Don't Turn Your Back on the Ocean, I had her visit Mom. Fireworks ensued, and I think mother and daughter have a stronger relationship. As for Jill McLeod, she's solving mysteries on a train that's operating between San Francisco and Chicago. The train moves and so must Jill.
OMN: When starting a new book, which comes first: the cast of principal characters or the plot?
JD: It could be either. When I wrote Kindred Crimes, the first Jeri Howard book, I had a plot in mind and I created Jeri to deal with that storyline. I used my fictional plot to answer some questions about a real-life crime, something I also did in the second book in the series, Till the Old Men Die. Bit Player, the tenth in the Jeri Howard series, came about because of something I said in the first book about Jeri's grandmother being an actress in Hollywood back in the Golden Age. With the California Zephyr series, the character of my Zephyrette Jill McLeod came first. I explored her backstory to explain why this young woman would be working on the railroad. For both books in the series, I also had to know who the murder victims were, why they were riding the train, who wanted to kill them, and when during the journey that opportunity would come.
OMN: Describe your writing process for us.
JD: When I start a book I begin by writing whatever comes into my head concerning the plot, characters and setting. I just let the ideas flow. As that happens a plot takes shape and so do character sketches. Then I write a timeline that starts with what has happened before the book starts. I ask myself who these characters are and what in their pasts led them to this place and to the point where someone commits murder. I deviate from my timeline frequently, and may revise it extensively as I write the book. Characters I thought would have walk-ons turn out to be important to the plot and its solutions. That's the case with the book I just finished, Water Signs. I think it's good for me to have a plan when I start out. I also think it's good to let the plot and characters go where they will, with me following along. I remember something Tony Hillerman said about writing oneself into a corner and then writing the way out.
OMN: How do you generally go about researching the plot points of your stories?
JD: Research, ah, research! Challenging? Writing about another time period and making sure I get it right. I wish I had a time machine and could go back and ride the old California Zephyr in the early 1950s. My next best thing was exhaustive research, both online and at the libraries at the California and Colorado railroad museums. There I found trip reports which the Zephyrettes were required to fill out at the end of each run, detailing what they did and highlighting any problems. The best thing, however, was talking to the two Zephyrettes, one of whom was working during the time I was writing about. I took them to dinner one night, turned on a recorder and let them talk for two and a half hours. Talking with the experts is a good idea. I rode historic trains, and also a lot of Amtrak trains. I took lots of photos. I even went to the Western Pacific Railroad Museum in Portola, CA, and drove a locomotive for an hour. For the Jeri Howard books, I've visited the Oakland Police Department Homicide Section, which is part of Criminal Investigation Division. I've talked with defense attorneys. I did a ride-along with a cop. For Don't Turn Your Back on the Ocean, most of which takes place on the Monterey peninsula, I spent a lot of time down there, interviewing people and soaking up information.
OMN: How true are you to the settings of your books?
JD: All my books, so far, have been set in real places. Jeri Howard lives and works in Oakland, and I'm very true to the East Bay setting. Water Signs, which will be out next year, may be the most Oakland of all the books. The plot revolves around the Oakland waterfront. I do sometimes take liberties with the setting. In Bit Player, I put a fictional movie memorabilia shop on a block in downtown Alameda, across the street from the movie theatre. For the California Zephyr books, I must be very true to the setting. I am writing about a real train that ran on a real schedule, so I wrote the books with timetables, and car diagrams spread around me, even facsimiles of the dining car menus so I could tell the readers what Jill has for dinner, and how much it cost back then. I know railfans, and I know if I get it wrong, I will hear about it. One of the best compliments I ever got was when I did a signing at the Western Pacific Railroad Museum for Death Rides the Zephyr. One of the museum volunteers walked up to me and said he'd read the book. He also said, "I want you to know, you got it right, both the train stuff and the history."
OMN: What's next for you?
JD: I just finished a book! I'm going to work in my garden. Then I'll get busy on the next two projects, a short story I started a while back, and a novel I started last year. The novel features a brand-protagonist in a fictional setting, so it will be very different.
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Janet Dawson has written two novels featuring Zephyrette Jill McLeod and eleven novels with Oakland private investigator Jeri Howard. Her first Jeri Howard book, Kindred Crimes, won the St. Martin's Press/Private Eye Writers of America contest for best first private eye novel. It was nominated in the best first category for three mystery awards, the Shamus, the Macavity and the Anthony.
In the past, Dawson was a newspaper reporter in Colorado, and her stint as a U.S. Navy journalist took her to Guam and Florida. As an officer in the Navy, she was stationed in the San Francisco Bay Area. After leaving the Navy, Dawson worked in the legal field and at the University of California.
Dawson is a long-time member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.
For more information about the author, please visit her website at JanetDawson.com and her author page on Goodreads, or find her on Facebook.
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