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Mystery writers swap notes

Though Detroit Lakes Library director Mary Haney urged spectators to make sure they were "wearing their bullet proof vests" and had "secured your valuables," the trio of writers known as the Minnesota Crime Wave made a pretty sedate entrance to Detroit Lakes' Trinity Lutheran Church on Tuesday.

In a program designed to kick off the Detroit Lakes Library Club's 99th year in style, mystery novelists Ellen Hart, Carl Brookins and William Kent Krueger -- aka the Minnesota Crime Wave -- talked for more than an hour about the "mysteries" of their profession.

"There's no subject you can't deal with in the mystery genre," Brookins said, adding that you can explore serious issues and moral dilemmas through the art of storytelling.

"You can explore anything in a mystery novel," Hart agreed. Though she briefly questioned whether she should be "doing something of more value" after the events of Sept. 11, Hart said that she finally came to the realization that she was "proud to be a storyteller."

"I write entertainment, and I think entertainment is important," she added.

"I like to think of my books as a place where people can escape from their busy, complicated lives and enjoy themselves for a while," Krueger said, echoing Hart's sentiments.

Though the three writers all create novels within the same genre, their approaches to writing are very different.

"I write these stories to find out what's going to happen," Brookins said, adding that he starts working on a story with just a "kernel of an idea," then builds a story around it. If he doesn't like the direction the story is taking, he simply revises it. "I love to rewrite," he added.

"I frequently discover 'who did it' about half way through the book."

Krueger, meanwhile, doesn't start writing his books until he knows exactly what he wants to say.

"I like to plot my books out as specifically as possible before I start," he said. "Consequently, when I finish the first draft it's pretty close to what the finished product will look like."

Hart, meanwhile, uses a method that falls somewhere between those two extremes. She starts her books by deciding on a title, then building the plot around it.

"For me, the title has to come first," she said. "I outline 6-8 chapters before I start. I have to know the crime -- I cast the book around that -- and also the central emotions that I want to convey.

"I know who did it, and why (before starting), but I have no idea how the book will end."

When asked how soon after finishing one book that they start work on the next, Brookins said, "about 20 seconds."

He wasn't really joking, Krueger explained, adding that he is much the same way. "When I finish a book, I'm usually already starting on ideas for the next one."

"Isn't it great to have a job that when you're not doing it, you're unhappy?" Brookins said.

When asked where they come up with subject matter for their books, Hart said, "You mine your life (for ideas)."

However, she added, one false assumption many people make about writers is that the central protagonist in their books is a projection of themselves.

"You can't assume these characters are that close to us (in nature)," she added. "Some of our opinions and character traits get written into these (characters) --but they do a lot of things I wouldn't."

Krueger, for his part, said his central protagonist is pretty much everything he isn't.

"Cork (O'Connor) is a larger than life character," he added.

The last portion of the presentation focused on a discussion of the merits of having a novelist's work adapted for television.

"I'm sure we would all like to have movies made of our books, to see your name up there (on screen)," Krueger said. But the problem is, the version that finally makes it to the screen often bears little or no resemblance to the original book.

For instance, he said, his central protagonist is both Ojibwe and Irish, and lives in Minnesota. One script "treatment" of a novel that he had written had eliminated the character's Ojibwe descent from the story -- which was set in Detroit, Mich., instead of Minnesota.

"I worked for 13 years in television -- and I don't know why people who write books (for a living) would want to get involved in it," Brookins said. "Books and movies should not be compared -- because it (making a movie vs. writing a novel) is such a different process."

Brookins, the author of a sailing adventure series featuring Michael Tanner and Mary Whitney, and the Sean NMI Sean private investigator detective series, lives in Roseville, Minn., has also had a variety of other careers: Freelance photographer, public television program director, cable television administrator, and counselor/faculty member at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul. He has also reviewed mystery fiction for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Mystery Scene Magazine. An avid recreational sailor, he has sailed to many locations around the world.

Krueger, author of the Cork O'Connor mystery series, set in the great Northwoods of Minnesota, has received numerous awards for his work, including the Anthony Award and the Barry Award for Best First Novel, the Minnesota Book Award and Friends of American Writers Prize. In 2005, his novel Blood Hollow received the Anthony Award for Best Novel. The next book in his series, Copper River, is scheduled for release this month.

Hart, who teaches mystery writing through the University of Minnesota and the Loft Library Center -- the largest independent writing community in the nation -- makes her home in Minneapolis. The author of 22 mysteries in two different series, Hart is a five-time winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Mystery, and a three-time winner of the Minnesota Book Award for Best Crime Fiction.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454