Respected mystery author Jan Burke was kind enough to put some time and thought into answering my questions.
The second part of the interview will be posted on Stuff and Nonsense tomorrow.
M: Disturbance is the eleventh novel featuring Irene Kelly. When you started, did you intend for this to be a series? Did you ever expect the series to last so long?
JB: I wrote the first book, Goodnight, Irene just hoping I could finish a manuscript. No intention of starting a series. But even before I sent that finished manuscript out, I started writing the second book, because at that point, I wanted to know what happened to Irene and Frank. By the time Simon & Schuster said yes to Goodnight, Irene, I had started the third.
I never take the continuation of the series as a given, so I am grateful to my readers for each book.
M: When I visualize Irene, I see her as looking a lot like you, though I know you don’t describe her that way. Do you identify with her?
JB: In my imagination, I see her as a person separate from myself. I like her, so I enjoy spending time with her. It may be hard to believe after all these years, but she surprises me all the time.
M: Your fondness for dogs is evident. How did you research the science of tracking/search and rescue dogs?
JB: My awareness of what were then called cadaver dogs but are now called human remains detection dogs (HRD dogs) and search and rescue dogs (SAR dogs) grew out of a lecture I heard at a training program on forensic anthropology. They dogs were mentioned as a way in which clandestine graves and other locations of remains could be discovered. Soon I was pestering my forensic anthropologist friends for more information, and they put me in touch with some of the best dog handlers in the country, several of whom have since become friends.
I also read scientific studies and books about these dogs, and attended sessions at forensic conferences about them, but the best part was talking to the handlers and at one point going out to a muddy field with a team and their dogs — a body in an advanced state of decomposition had been found on the site the day before, so it was an opportunity to teach the dogs (and me). I've met some wonderful dogs, too! I was also allowed to become part of a list about SAR and HRD dogs, so I heard lots of different perspectives there.
M: Irene is a crime reporter and her husband Frank is a police detective. Did you do any field research on detectives and police departments?
JB: Yes, I have been fortunate to form friendships with people in law enforcement and forensic science over the years. In the time since I started writing, one of my nephews has become a detective with a department in Southern California, so he now gets stuck with answering a lot of weird questions. But especially for new writers out there, I want to emphasize that I am careful about not wasting the time of overworked officers and detectives. I research whatever I can the old-fashioned way — I read, I take courses, I go to libraries. I buy textbooks used to train officers. I read publications like the FBI's Law Enforcement Bulletin. I contact public information officers.
So after I've done all I can to find answers and get background, when I'm ready for the little details that tell so much, that's when I contact people in law enforcement and ask for their time. I've found that they appreciate that I am not asking them questions that can be answered with a quick Google search or by reading Lee Lofland's Police Procedure and Investigation.
One part of research is building relationships, and to do that, you have to establish trust and respect. Doing your homework first is part of showing respect.
M: Is Las Piernas, where Irene lives and works, based on a specific town?
JB: It most closely resembles Long Beach, California, but it is definitely fictional. Please don't, as some have done, go looking for the leg-shaped cliffs off the Long Beach coastline — even though you'll have a nice place to sail while you do it. I've dragged in topography from as far away as San Clemente. There's some Laguna Beach, Seal Beach, and Venice Beach in Las Piernas. To the best of my knowledge, among these places, only Las Piernas has a zoo, although you could make a good argument for the Venice boardwalk counting as one.
Over at Crime Fiction Collective I've posted a review of Jan's latest book, Disturbance. One lucky reader of CFC or this blog will receive a copy of Disturbance courtesy of the publisher. Please comment on any or all of the posts by midnight on Saturday, June 18th to be entered in the contest.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this interview tomorrow!