Southern mystery writers share secrets of their trade

Living out diabolical fantasies in a completely harmless way may be one of the primary benefits of being a mystery writer, according to author and former Atlantan Patricia Sprinkle.

Sprinkle and longtime Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Celestine Sibley, who has written a number of mysteries, discussed the craft of mystery writing Jan. 17 at a program titled "Murder, They Write," sponsored by the Friends of the Emory Libraries. Susan Peters of Woodruff Library, a member of Sisters in Crime, moderated the discussion.

An avid mystery reader since childhood, Sprinkle began her mystery-writing career when her husband facetiously suggested that she write a mystery of her own to pay for all the ones she had bought. It was in that first book that she placed a dead body in the basement of a character based on a former boss whom she "loathed."

"I think that I showed amazing restraint in not making that character the murderer," she said.

Sibley, who has covered the police beat and politics in her journalistic career, came to mystery writing in a different way. She became "lonesome" while on a long train trip to California and "started pecking away at a story," she said. "I used my news background and characters from the street."

To force herself to finish that first mystery, Sibley committed herself to writing at least 15 minutes a day on the book. "If you decide to make yourself do it for at least 15 minutes a day, you'll probably wind up writing for at least an hour," she said.

Both Sibley and Sprinkle have developed recurring characters in their mysteries who somewhat resemble their authors. Sibley's Kate Mulcahy character first came to her on that original train trip to California. Kate's father was a retired police officer, and she had a quasi-relationship with a young police officer. Twenty years passed before Sibley finally wrote the book in which Kate marries the officer. After the officer's death, Kate moves to a log cabin in the country, where she "works as an aging reporter" for a newspaper.

Sprinkle developed her character Sheila over a period of several years. She started the first draft of the first book in which Sheila appears in 1974. Sprinkle put the unfinished manuscript aside for years before returning to it. Sheila originally had been in her early 20s, but Sprinkle wanted to write a character "dealing with first-time employment" outside her home. After Sprinkle increased Sheila's age to 38, the chapters began to flow.

Deciding who the murderer in any given mystery will be is a task that Sibley and Sprinkle approach very differently. Sibley said she may be well into the writing of a mystery before she decides who the murderer will be, whereas Sprinkle always writes an outline first and knows in advance which character will commit the murder. Sprinkle said that on a few occasions, she has encountered the quandary of ultimately liking the murderer. Sibley, on the other hand, has never liked any of her murderers, although she likes almost all the other characters in her mysteries.

Perhaps the thing that most distinguishes Sibley's and Sprinkle's mysteries is their southernness. "Southern writers all seem to be interested in history, a sense of place, family, religion and food," Sprinkle said. "You write what you know."

--Dan Treadaway