By Erica Miner
When it comes to old adages, “Write what you know” ranks right up there with, “Practice makes perfect” and, “Have no fear of perfection, you'll never reach it.”
In a recent webinar, Level Best Books author James L’Etoile discussed how our writers’ life experiences influence what we write. His background of many years working in the criminal justice system infuses his murder mysteries with compelling authenticity. I am able to relate to that concept, as my own life experiences have proved to be a goldmine of material for my fiction.
My 21 years as a violinist with New York’s Metropolitan Opera have provided a sharp-edged realism to my Julia Kogan “Opera Mystery” series. The first in the series, Aria for Murder, takes place at the Met. My protagonist, Julia Kogan, is a direct clone of myself when I first started out at the company: a gifted young violinist debuting with the Met Opera Orchestra, trying to make her way in a difficult, demanding profession that is in many ways still dominated by men.
The people Julia encounters—fellow musicians, conductors, chorus members, stagehands, stage managers and the like—populate this story as reflections of my own relationships with company members. The real-world personality traits of people who were an integral part of my daily life at this home-away-from-home that was the Met Opera formed the basis of many of the characters I created in Aria for Murder.
But I also witnessed actual situations that initially inspired me to write this series: a number of nefarious goings-on that sparked my imagination and caused me to embroider and escalate the possibilities of these circumstances into behind-the-scenes murder and intrigue at this venerable institution. Writing this story also gave me a unique opportunity to kill off the people who made my life miserable! (Not all of them…I had to save a few for the sequels, which will thrust Julia into heaps of trouble at different opera houses across the country.)
The Met Opera is a unique world: the most prestigious opera company on the planet, where superstars like Caruso, Pavarotti and Domingo have been entertaining the cream-of-the-crop of opera aficionados for centuries. Standards are the highest on the planet; so are the stakes.
These elite audiences, however, have no idea what goes on behind all the glamour and glitz. Ultimately, revealing the dark side of the opera world is my rationale for creating these operatic whodunits. Under those crystal chandeliers, behind that “Golden Curtain,” hundreds of people are working in different jobs simultaneously, and always at odds with each other: opera superstars, comprimarios (lesser solo singers), directors, conductors, orchestra, chorus, ballet, stagehands, wardrobe, make up, wigmakers and more. Egos clash, tempers flare. There’s no love lost between any of them.
Take the orchestra, for example: 100 neurotic musicians thrown together in a hole in the ground with no air and no light, 7 days a week, days, nights, weekends. You see more of these people than your own families. Sooner or later, someone’s going to want to kill somebody.
Aria for Murder.
In Julia, however, I have created a protagonist who, unlike myself, is capable of rising above her fears to plunge herself into a murder investigation. I could never be that brave. That is where the beauty of writing fiction can transform “Write what you know” into “Create a character who is the kind of person you’d like to be.”
And what could be better than that?
Former Metropolitan Opera violinist Erica Miner is an award-wining author, screenwriter, arts journalist, and lecturer. Her debut novel, Travels with my Lovers, won the Fiction Prize in the Direct from the Author Book Awards, and her screenplays have won awards in the WinFemme, Santa Fe and Writers Digest competitions. Based in the Pacific Northwest, Erica continues to balance her reviews and interviews of real-world musical artists with her fanciful plot fabrications that reveal the dark side of the fascinating world of opera. Aria for Murder, published by Level Best in Oct. 2022, is the first in her Julia Kogan Opera Mystery series. Prelude to Murder, the sequel set at the Sante Fe Opera, was released September 2023. Book three,taking place at the San Francisco Opera is due for release in 2024. https://www.ericaminer.com
By Katherine Ramsland
Most of us enjoy a sense of the familiar. It’s predictable, comforting, and often preferable, even if lacking in thrill. It allows us to relax and gather ourselves. That’s why adding consistent rituals throughout your series can deepen your readers’ connection to your characters. They experience repeated rituals as an element of series consistency.
When I planned my “Nut Cracker Investigations” for Level Best Books, I wanted to develop ways to cohere my PI team. I have three primary and several secondary members, but I wanted the primaries to participate most clearly in closure and commitment. All for one, and one for all, that type of thing.
Annie Hunter, a forensic psychologist, manages the investigation agency; Ayden Scott is her PI, and Natra Gawani her data manager and confidante. My secondary team features a digital expert, a forensic meteorologist, and an attorney. They’re in and out as needed.
One ritual I use runs in the background: Annie likes red wine, so whenever the team has an opportunity to brainstorm over wine, they pick a label that matches the situation. Stormy Weather during a tornado, for example. Readers recognize this display of character (and sometimes they buy wine for book club signings).
A more important ritual is the case debriefing. Although there are plenty of times when the team brainstorms, it’s the post-case gathering that really unites them. No one else is allowed, no matter what part they might have played. This is a solemn Nut Crackers ritual. Here, they patch holes, lick wounds, plan improvements, and show how much the work means to them. They might tease or toast each other, or even mourn together. For them, it’s the best part of the case.
I include a debrief scene in every novel because I want readers to expect it, appreciate it, and watch how Annie responds to their own lingering questions. She might even use the time to set up the next case, whetting readers’ appetites.
Like Annie’s wine, rituals pair well with our sense of anticipation and connection. Here are three psychological reasons to develop some rituals for your series:
It’s worth considering rituals that put your characters in motion or reveal their qualities. Thus, you’ll get an added benefit, and readers will likely look forward to how these rituals play out.
Katherine Ramsland has played chess with serial killers, dug up the dead, worked with profilers, and camped out in haunted crime scenes. As a professor of forensic psychology and a death investigation consultant, she seeks unique angles. The author of 71 books, she’s been a forensic consultant for CSI, Bones and The Alienist and an executive producer on Murder House Flip and A&E’s Confession of a Serial Killer. She’s become a go-to expert for the most deviant forms of criminal behavior, which provides background for her Nut Cracker Investigations. Her second novel in the serial, In the Damage Path, is now available.