On this mild July evening, Sisters in Crime gathered in darkness in a room hidden away on the first floor of the Kingston Arts Centre for a crime chat. I say “hidden away” not because they intended to hide but because the first few buildings after Siri said I’d arrived were for sale or lease. Then the next building, marked “Kingston Arts Centre” was deserted, locked.
A mystery: where is this Crime Chat?
While I stood there, contemplating walking home, another person arrived looking for the event. Then another person arrived, but this woman had useful information. Like, WHICH BUILDING THE EVENT WAS IN.
She even gave useful seeing eye dog instructions: go through the entry and up the stairs.
“Find the stairs, Silkie!”
Once at the top of the stairs there appeared to be at least 3 different directions in which we could go, all with people. Someone invited me to sign in so, to sign in, I followed all the “sisters” who had followed me up the stairs. One even acknowledged that I should go first… but still went before me. Such is the life of a disabled woman.
Apparently my attempt to register for the event had been unsuccessful but the helpful people at registration said seats were still available.
Next step: to walk in and “find a seat!” Silkie did so, then settled under my seat for the event. She stayed there even when people were talking about dogs and how wonderful dogs are without acknowledging the dog in the room.
Silkie’s first event without support
This is the first real event Silkie and I have attended since returning to Melbourne. And, apart from my husband-assisted trip to the Cobargo Sisters of Crime event last year, this was the first event I attended with Silkie. And definitely the first event we attended without support. We’ve come a long way. A really long way from our initial training walking around Lake Tuggeranong in the crime-ridden city of Canberra!
Crime Chat authors
I learnt about this event from Amanda Hampson, an author of delightful novels who previously chatted about a novel, Lovebirds, in this podcast. Her latest novel, Tea Ladies, is a cozy murder mystery.
Photo of Crime Chat panelists:
Nilima Rao with her novel A disappearance in Fiji
Amanda Hampson with Tea Ladies
Louisa Bennet with Nosy Detectives and a thriller I can’t make out
Vikki Petraitis with The Unbelieved
Celebrating Australian authors
The Kingston Library is having an 8 day festival featuring about a dozen authors with a slew of books. This is the first event in their series.
An MC introduces Vikki Petraitis as the moderator for the crime chat. I’m surprised: Vikki is the moderator not the star – or perhaps they’re ALL stars!
Microphones aren’t working. Vikki jokes about using her teacher’s voice although she famously quit teaching last year. Personally I think acoustics of the room are excellent. I miss a few comments during the evening, but mostly because of frantically typing previous comments, working out phrasing and Oops! What did she say? (I prefer recording but still.)
Different approaches to writing
The focus of this crime chat is different approaches to writing, plot, character development etc.
They’re offering a prize for the best question, so I expect question time to be entertaining!
Vikki spruiks Benn’s Books as a kind of home for Sisters in Crime then proceeds by introducing the crime chat panel.
Her introduction of the prolific Amanda Hampson draws many laughs, including when she asks if Amanda was 3 when she settled in Australia.
Author Nilima Rao claims to be culturally confused then she discovered we all are confused. She also juggles writing, a day job and searching for a new wine bar. And she’s working on a sequel to her debut novel A Disappearance in Fiji.
Louisa Bennet’s book is revealed for the first time ever tonight, so this event doubles as a faux launch. Clandestine Press will officially launch her novel at the end of the month.
Lindy Cameron of Clandestine Press is the vice president and a founding member of Sisters in Crime, so there’s some trivia for you! And it helps explain why a book 20 days out from launch is here.
Vikki boasts – again – about quitting her day job and asks Nilima about the juggle between the day job and writing. Nilima says she hasn’t had a holiday in 4 years that wasn’t focused on writing, although she just dropped down to 4 days per week to do all the publishing and book launching things.
During her last holiday in Fiji, Nilima used her tour to take selfies with “her” book. But this was actually the cover of her book pasted on to someone else’s book (which she read in between selfies!).
Amanda talks about juggling family and work. She celebrates her current status of working/writing full time while living alone, so she’s available for events right through the year. (I didn’t know that – most authors are available around book launch time and publicists expect publicity pretty much on that date.)
Vikki worked fulltime while also writing for 31 years, which was a struggle timewise. But she needed to do it because writing didn’t initially pay enough to allow her to write full time.
Louisa’s husband checks in with her but supports her writing. She teaches writing online and writes from one extreme of cosy to harder crime. Louisa says it’s very exciting to look at a bookshop window and see someone published who’s been in one of her courses.
Vikki says she misses teaching. She actually grabs her grandsons sometimes and asks if they need help with fractions. A few weeks ago she enjoyed helping him with punctuation. An image of Pepe le Pew comes to mind for her when she tells that story. She says she doesn’t know why!
Vikki’s goal with true crime especially is to never be gratuitous. Her detail is forensic but readers don’t “see” the violence recreated. Her fiction continues her true crime practice.
Do other crime chat authors take a set of values into their stories?
Louisa loves dogs and creating the voice of the dog, Monty, in her Nosy Detectives novel was fun. It’s a cosy mystery so she doesn’t go into gratuitous detail, violence or explicit “things” going on. There’s a degree of innocence about it. The reason they’re called cosies is because you feel cosy reading them.
Don’t touch the dogs.
Vikki tells an anecdote of an author who killed a dog in a book. He received hate mail from readers, more mail than he’d ever had before. Vikki draws the conclusion that it’s ok to kill people but not dogs.
In Louisa’s harder crime she changes her remit, her standards for writing, but still doesn’t go into a lot of gore. She evokes mood and fear and horror without being explicit. In Jaws it was always really scary until you saw the rubber shark.
Vikki says she’s still scared of the rubber shark.
“It’s called violence porn, isn’t it?” Vikki asks. And asks how the protagonist could possibly be still standing after experiencing violence to the degree shown in some books.
TV warnings: those that are, those that should be according to Crime Chat
Amanda says tv used to have a warning for violence but now it’s gore. There are warnings for sex but Amanda thinks there ought to be warnings for LOOOONG sex. And warnings for patronizing older women.
There is ageism, saying the most patronizing things about “a little old lady”. If a 60-something woman saved a man from drowning the headline would be “grandma saves man”.
With tea ladies, the women who used to take the tea trolley around businesses, everyone has preconceptions. They are all capable competent and underestimated and the most overlooked people on the planet.
Everything Amanda writes is about empowerment.
In the next book in Amanda’s Tea Ladies series, her favourite line is “I’ll come too” from a man. One of the tea ladies says “You’d better stay here, it could be dangerous”.
Jokes from vulnerable men
Vikki decided to take aqua aerobics classes now she’s quit her “day” job.
An older man rushed up to her in the pool and said “I have a joke for you. Why did the woman put lipstick on her forehead? Because she wanted to make up her mind”.
“Did you drown him?”
“YES!” said Vikki.
A gentle walk through the forest between murders
Nilima’s novel is very gentle, you feel like you’re walking through the forest of Fiji. She didn’t explicitly start with a code of ethics for her writing. But she developed a code after her brother asked if there would be killer robots and nudity. In response to that, she pushed back and developed a code. Her (great?) grandparents’ experience influenced her story. And Fiji itself is a character in the story.
People do die but it’s all “off camera”, not grisly at all. Nilima can’t read sex scenes let alone write them so that’s not a thing in her books.
Tea Ladies know where the bodies are buried
Women are astute. What Amanda gave us in her novel Tea Ladies is characters who slip unseen into important rooms.
Amanda saw an “Australia remembers when” thing on Facebook, which included tea ladies. People reminisced. Someone wrote “the tea ladies knew where the bodies were buried”, which inspired Amanda.
She chose the peak of the tea ladies’ profession – the 50s and 60s – for a setting. Then she selected the rag trade as a primary focus. A key event happened in 1965 at the Melbourne Cup. The audience choruses “Jean Shrimpton”. She was the first to wear a mini dress to the Melbourne Cup, which caused a scandal. So Amanda set her novel around that event, a pivot in fashion.
Women vs men
Amanda: women are so collaborative. Women call in friends while men go “I know how to do it”. After a fire the tea ladies in her novel seek out the tea lady in the fire department. The fire dept tea lady served in the fire department during World War II so her knowledge of fires is remarkable.
40 year friendships between women tend to be robust, which Amanda writes into her book. Vikki says some you want to slap and “they obviously do”. But Amanda’s women work past their conflicts, valuing friendship over conflict.
Monty is based on a real life dog
The dog in Nosy Detectives is based on Louisa’s old dog who could open doors. He even took himself to the pub solo, to eyeball patrons eating burgers. Louisa consulted with a detective on her books to add depth and realism.
Some of the research details can get to you. She doesn’t know how detectives do what they do, she couldn’t sleep at night. But, she says, she doesn’t include that kind of gory detail in her cosy detective stories.
In contrast to writing her thrillers, Louisa finds joy in writing Monty, a dog who can solve crimes that hoomans can’t. He also understands what hoomans say. As a dog, Monty has excellent hearing and sense of smell.
In the first book, after his owner is murdered he decides to find the murderer. The detective assigned to the case is Rose, a woman bullied by her male coworkers. Monty comes to love Rose, so he helps her.
These cosy murders find humor in the different points of view of human Rose and dog Monty. Louisa’s stories take you on joyous adventures.
Nilima’s protagonist is a Punjabi Sikh police officer sent to Fiji in disgrace. His boss hates him, he has only one friend. And this forced relocation could redeem him or be the final nail in the coffin of his career.
A coworker, who becomes a second friend, is a native Fijian, the big Fijian smile, friendliness and sense of humor brings charm. Also the British doctor who’s the chief medical officer is another important ally who becomes a friend.
Characters are extensions of authors
Nilima found it challenging when she wrote too much of herself into her main character then realized she didn’t like some of those aspects of herself. Laughing, she says she feels vulnerable right now.
Amanda says all the tea ladies are aspects of her personality, she drives them then exaggerates them.
Louisa says “I’m a dog, find me a lamppost, I’M THERE!”
In her earlier books, a lot of the women were resilient, determined and action oriented. Wistfully, Louisa says she’d like to be as brave as them and kicking ass.
“You’re too busy with your lamppost!” says Vikki.
Louisa says that what her character Rose lacks in life is confidence, she’s easily pushed around by other detectives but is very talented.
Another character, Sally, is recovering from years of marriage to a cop who was gaslighting her. Louisa says she’s very happy in her marriage but the more vulnerable aspects of her characters do reflect herself. As she grows as a writer she has become more courageous in her writing, writing characters that get tested, who learn and grow and grow in themselves.
Vikki says all these books are singing out for sequels. What is next for these characters, can you see them going forward?
Nilima is way ahead of Vikki. She’s already working on a sequel with a character arc. Her first book focuses on working on a plantation. In her second book, characters are moving on. In the third book characters ask themselves do I stay or do I go back? She has a plot for book 2 already and is working on it.
The night prowler was a real phenomena occurring in Fiji around 1914. Nilima hasn’t learnt whether they ever discovered who the night prowler/flasher was. But she thinks she’ll have to resolve it within her books.
Amanda says Tea Ladies: The Cryptic Clue comes out next year. She throws ideas at her characters, looks at what happened in that year in the real world then works it out. She knows a former detective who worked in King’s Cross in the 1970s. Amanda listens to his aches and pains then he helps her plan murders before she starts working it on the page.
More Monty, more Rose?
Both. It was written to be a series. Louisa feels her characters have to learn and grow and not reveal too much too soon. Although her books can be read as standalones, they are a series. Rose left the police force then sent up an agency, the Nosy Detectives. Then a client walks in. Her third book comes out in October.
Audience Crime Chat questions!
What percentage of writing time goes in to research?
Louisa: her crimes are real. She might limit the knowledge she reveals because it’s a cosy mystery, but she knows the facts. If there’s a hacker in a story, she talks to a hacker. If she needs a self defense move, she finds someone to show her how to do it. She knows her antagonist and protagonist and writes a whole resume before she starts writing.
Amanda: tries to log it, reads 15 to 20 books as research. For tea ladies, fashion, historic, etc. 20% of the time writing is research but not all at once.
Nilima: spent more time on research because Fiji in 1914 was not well documented. The State Library of Victoria has the Fiji Times, which she’s read. Also Nilima researched political structures etc. For a lot of research materials “I just have to go back to Fiji”. [The audience sympathizes. Not.]
Vikki: spends a lot of time on the phone saying “I need to kill someone with a drug that won’t show up in autopsy”.
People have told Nilima their great-grandfather was very much like her protagonist, a copper ordered to leave Hong Kong for Fiji. She took things that happened, changed them up a bit and included them, while mentioning it in the author’s notes. However, she stresses, all her characters are fictional.
From cosy to hard crime in crime chat
How does Louisa switch between genres (cosy to thriller)?
She’s struggled with that, struggled to get a routine. It’s difficult to do both at the same time. Louisa can draft one and copy edit the other but one is dark one is light so she struggles to do both around the same time. She makes sure she finishes one before starting the other. Sometimes she gets overwhelmed, even had nightmares about some of the research for her darker stories. Then, moving on to a Monty story allows her to breathe, to relax, the chuckle while working. Having a Monty between a few thrillers is good for her.
The Kingston Libraries (located in Melbourne) have a series of author events over the next week. Find their upcoming events here.
Sisters in Crime have another event in South Melbourne on 28 July 2023.