I met Patricia Smiley back in 2012, when co-chaired the 2013 California Crime Writers Conference and I was the registration chair. Eventually, she roped me into becoming Vice President for Sisters in Crime/LA, which I still haven't forgiven her for... (I kid--it was a great experience and I'd still be on that board now if it wasn't the fact that I moved out of the area).
After publishing four books in the Tucker Sinclair series, Patricia took a writing hiatus of several years, which strikes me as a brave thing to do in this uncertain world of publishing we reside in. But I'm happy to say her latest novel, PACIFIC HOMICIDE (Midnight Ink), will be published in just a few days. I was excited to read it, as it's set in my old stomping grounds of West Los Angeles, and though I have scant experience with the police/crime in the area, Patricia brings the whole setting to vivid life, along with her protagonist, a smart, tough homicide detective named Davie Richards.
Holly West (HW): Your new book, PACIFIC HOMICIDE, comes out on November 8. What’s it about?
Patricia Smiley (PS): I’ll borrow from a blurb written by the talented Kim Fay, author of THE MAP OF LOST MEMORIES, who so beautifully encapsulated the essence of the novel. It’s about “…the emotional wounds that drive the best of cops to buck the system in search of justice.”
Some people may not know this, but patrol officers in high crime areas may draw their weapons every workday but most cops spend their entire careers without firing a gun in the line of duty. Davie Richards is a petite, red-haired woman, a second-generation LAPD detective, and an expert marksman. She’s also an outlier, a cop who killed a suspect to save her partner’s life.
While she waits for the police commission to rule that the shooting was within policy, she’s called out to investigate the gruesome murder of a young Russian girl whose body is found in the Los Angeles sewer system. As she hunts for the killer, somebody from her past is hunting her…and it’s no longer just her job that’s on the line.
HW: The Los Angeles police procedural is well trod, but always compelling, territory. Still, it’s important to set oneself apart. With this in mind, what when into planning the Davie Richards series, particularly Davie Richards herself and the West Los Angeles setting?
PS: Davie Richards is a composite of every strong woman I’ve ever known. Other characters in the novel speak dialogue that jumped directly from the detective squad room and onto the page. Those people probably recognize themselves, but they haven’t come after me—yet.
The LAPD is the subject of numerous police procedurals, but the only other novel set in Pacific Division (at least that I know of) is Miles Corwin’s series featuring Det. Ash Levine. Michael Connelly’s early books were set in Hollywood Division, as are many others. My book takes place in the LAPD’s Pacific Area Police Station, which covers the Westside of Los Angeles from Venice Beach and Playa del Rey to LAX, abuts Culver City to the east and extends to the intersection of Westwood and National Boulevards. Pac-14 is a diverse area that includes public housing, upscale homes, movie stars, and thirty-five known street gangs. It’s also the station closest to where I live. However, Homicide detectives travel far and wide to track down leads, so Davie will continue to venture outside the area in search of justice.
HW: As a procedural, PACIFIC HOMICIDE is a departure from your previous series, which featured an amateur sleuth. It’s also tremendously well researched. How did you conduct your research? Did you find writing a police procedural more challenging than your previous books?
PS: Researching this book wasn’t a challenge because I spent fifteen years as a volunteer and Specialist Reserve Officer (not sworn) for the LAPD at Pacific Area Police Station where the book is set, including five years working in the detective squad room. While at Pacific, my supervisor gave me responsibilities that were highly unusual for a civilian. He sent me to the LAPD’s Homicide Investigation School and Detective School, as well as to courses where I learned how to use law enforcement databases that enhanced my ability to support Burglary/Theft detectives in their work. I was eventually given my own caseload. I interviewed witnesses and suspects, wrote search warrants, presented cases to the DA’s office, and a variety of other tasks that supported the Burglary table. I also helped Homicide detectives as needed, including preparing for court and even reviewing a cold case, searching for possible new leads.
The challenge was my reluctance to write about my experiences, because I was afraid I wouldn’t do justice to the people I’d come to admire and respect. When I finished the book, I was still hesitant, so I sent the manuscript to a friend, an LAPD Homicide detective with over 200 murder investigations under his belt. I asked him to read it and tell me what I’d gotten wrong and if the book just plain sucked. His response is full of hilariously positive comparisons to famous authors (did I mention he was my friend?) and ended with the best unprintable blurb I’ll ever get: “FUCKINBITCHIN. Nailed it.”
HW: Are there elements of the book (or even the main plot itself) that are based on true-life situations?
PS: I would say they are “inspired” by real events. There was an actual case I read about online of a woman whose body was found in the sewer, but I fictionalized the details. That story, however, sent me off to research L.A.’s sewer system, which was fascinating reading.
Setting always inspires my writing. For example, there’s a scene at the L.A. Equestrian Center that was patterned on my recent foray into horseback riding lessons. I also drove to the Malibu Country Mart for coffee (hazardous duty pay, right?) and watched kids on the playground, as Davie Richards did when she interviewed Sheriff’s Deputy Moran. While I was there I observed a little girl on a slide confronting her fears. I used that as a metaphor that mirrors the decision confronting Davie. Lastly, working with officers and detectives over the years I often heard stories about the questionable and sometimes unfair discipline meted out by the LAPD brass and others. I created a plot twist inspired by those stories.
HW: Who are some of the authors who’ve influenced your writing?
PS: I’ve always been an avid reader and fell in love with mysteries as a young child when I discovered the Trixie Belden series. After I powered through those books, I went on to Agatha Christie and other classic mystery novels. I’ve always loved police procedurals, especially those written by Michael Connelly and Joseph Wambaugh. However, I was never inspired to write until I discovered two books: AFTER ALL THESE YEARS by Susan Isaacs and G IS FOR GUMSHOE by Sue Grafton. Both were well written and they made me laugh, something I love to do. They also had a romantic element. That’s when I thought it might be challenging and fun to try my hand at this writing thing. So, I created the four novels in my Tucker Sinclair series.
But the author who had the greatest influence on my career is Elizabeth George. I first heard her speak at the Mystery Annex of Small World Books on the Venice boardwalk at a signing with James Lee Burke. Later, I became a member of her writing group for nine years, during which time she taught me volumes about writing and the writing life. I’m a huge fan of her work, but I’m also honored to call her mentor and friend.
HW: You recently changed agents, which, to a lot of authors, is a daunting thing. How was that process for you and do you have any advice for writers facing a similar dilemma?
PS: I’ve actually had four agents in my career. I first signed with an agent at William Morris in New York. She loved my book and was just getting ready to send it out when 9/11 happened. New York publishing ground to a stop and nobody knew when it would come back. Two weeks later, she called to tell me she was leaving New York. Her colleague eventually agreed to represent me and sold the book soon after.
While writing those four books I was also taking care of my elderly mother, so after my fourth Tucker book, agent #2 passed along interest from my publisher for starting a new series, I turned it down and instead took a hiatus from writing. I’d started Pacific Homicide during those subsequent years, but didn’t have the time or inclination to finish it. One day out of the blue my mother said, “Your book deserves to be published.” She’d always been my biggest fan but she’d never read any of the pages and I kidded her about that. She just repeated the sentence. Those were the last words she spoke to me. She died the next morning. That’s when I returned to writing.
When I had a presentable draft, I sent it to my agent. He was willing to send it out, but didn’t have much faith in the outcome. He had done a great job for me in the past and I was extremely grateful, but I wanted an agent who agreed with my mother. We had always had a professional relationship and parted on good terms.
Looking for a new agent was a daunting experience because the new book was a departure for me. I’d gone from humorous amateur sleuth to hard-boiled homicide detective. I found the experience more difficult this time around. Back then you sent a letter. Most of those letters were answered, if only to jot a note on the query and return it, saying “Not for me.” This time I found most agents didn’t even acknowledge my email. The relationship with my third agent was short-lived. It wasn’t a good fit, so I moved on.
By this time I realized how important it was to know what I wanted and to say it out loud. I wanted an agent who loved my work, had a keen sense of humor about life and publishing, and who would actually read and critique my manuscript. And then…somehow the universe heard me and sent Sandy Harding of Spencerhill & Associates. She is everything I dreamed of and more.
HW: I know you’re part of a well-established writers group. How important has this been to your writing and career? How often does the group meet, what’s the format and do you have any pointers for writers who want to establish their own group?
PS: Writers groups aren’t for everybody but I can’t imagine functioning without one. You just have to make sure fellow members aren’t trying to rewrite your book and aren’t criticizing you, only suggesting how to make the words on the page better. If you’re starting a group from scratch and don’t know the members well, you should set some ground rules. If you are joining an existing group that’s been together for a long time, ease into the group gently and bring chocolate.
I first joined Elizabeth George’s writing group in 1996 and would still be there now if the group hadn’t disbanded when she moved to the Pacific Northwest. We met every Wednesday when she was in town. There were four readers and each was allotted thirty minutes for reading and critiquing. She set a timer so nobody would encroach on another reader’s time. Each writer had two choices: 1) we could either ask in advance for a “free for all,” a sort of brainstorming session during which anybody could speak at any time or 2) a “go around,” i.e., one person would critique without interruption, and then the next, and the next, and so on until all had spoken. The writer was not allowed to talk during this time, could not defend, justify, or explain their work. They could only listen and take notes. At the end, they could ask for clarification if needed. This worked exceptionally well for me and I still use this technique. My feeling is if the reader doesn’t understand something I’ve written, it’s my job to fix it. Being defensive is never a good choice.
After Elizabeth left Southern California, I joined another group for a while until I stumbled onto my current group. All members are successful published novelists, produced screenwriters and TV writers, including a director and a multiple Emmy winner. Their critiques have made me a better writer and a better person in ways I cannot even describe. We meet at members’ homes every week from 7:00 p.m. until 10:00 p.m. unless we are touring or otherwise committed. Group members travel from as far away as Hermosa Beach to the south to Agoura Hills to the north, so we try to converge somewhere in the middle. Writers generally read around 10-12 pages unless somebody has a pressing deadline, i.e., they’re pitching a series idea to studio executives and need to read the entire pitch. Over the years we have become close friends and supportive fans.
Patricia Smiley is the bestselling author of four mystery novels featuring amateur sleuth Tucker Sinclair. PACIFIC HOMICIDE is the first in a hard-boiled series about LAPD homicide detective Davie Richards and is set for release on November 8, 2016. Patty's short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and TWO OF THE DEADLIEST, an anthology edited by Elizabeth George. She has taught writing at various conferences, in the US and Canada. She served as vice president for the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America and as president of Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles. For more information, please visit patriciasmiley.com.