Elaine L. Orr on When Real Life Happens in Writing

Elaine L. Orr, who writes three cozy mystery series, is a member of one of my email groups. In fact, when I went looking for this post (which I assumed was somewhere in my email back log), I found several of her responses to my questions – and they were very helpful, too. Elaine is writing today about how real life inspired her three different cozy series.

Cozy mystery author Elaine L. Orr.
Elaine l. Orr

Authors usually inhabit a world beyond writing, and what we learn from daily living can influence our books. I’m not saying our protagonists’ careers mirror ours, or that our characters resemble neighbors or college roommates. They could, but closely aligning our fictional people with real ones can limit a character.

As an example, I love Atlantic coast beaches, so writing mysteries set at the Jersey Shore (the Jolie Gentil series) seemed natural. Now I live in the Midwest, so it’s been especially fun to make a couple of quick trips to a beach to refresh my perspective. Of course, no one talks about “the beach” in New Jersey. People go to the shore.

My River’s Edge series, set along the Des Moines River in Iowa, is probably most influenced by real places. For about six years I worked for two members of Congress (one Republican, one Democrat). Much of the job entailed regularly being in many small towns in six counties so constituents could bring their concerns to Congress or get help with a government program.

the flood that helped inspire cozy mystery author Elaine L. Orr.
Flooding in Bonaparte, Iowa

Then came 2008 and massive flood damage along the Iowa and Des Moines Rivers, and I spent weeks in Van Buren County, Iowa, a picturesque locale dotted with small (river) towns. You develop a lot of empathy as you help people apply for FEMA assistance, and the word resilience takes on new meaning. (The photo shows the river’s encroachment in Bonaparte, Iowa.)

Though the town of River’s Edge is fictional, it embodies features of several communities. The views in my head are real ones, and to root the locale I sometimes refer to the county seat. Sleepy towns come alive with Fall Festivals and harvest celebrations. And parades! If you’ve never attended a July 4th or Corn Festival Parade, find one.

However, to create tension, life has to be about more than daily goings on. For example, I don’t know of any bodies found on barn floors (Demise of a Devious Neighbor) and I doubt you’ll find many murders at Farm Bureau dinners (as in Demise of a Devious Suspect).

The cover for cozy mystery Demise of a Devious Neighbor by Elaine L. Orr

Someone once asked why I’d placed the town baseball diamond along the river, because it could get flooded. Yep. Watch for that in a future book.

For each series, I want the protagonist’s career to be flexible — also interesting enough for me to learn more about it. For example, I’ve bought and sold a number of houses, so Jolie is a real estate appraiser. In an early (stand-alone) book, the sleuth was a teacher. Poor choice. She had to break her arm to be away from the classroom long enough to solve the crime

This spring I’ve done some substitute teaching. Middle school kids haven’t changed much over the last few decades. I have to be careful not to laugh at their antics sometimes.

But wait – a substitute teacher is in many locales and picks her work schedule. Perfect for an amateur sleuth. Ideas continue to percolate. I’ll need to pick a locale I want to visit.

Thank you, Elaine, she said, not entirely complaining about having to add still more books to the pile To Be Read. You can find out more about Elaine and her fiction at her site, www.elaineorr.com.

Anne Louise Bannon

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