Festival of Books: What's the secret to making a crime novel work?

To write a good mystery novel, you've got to have a strong sense of place.

Otherwise, said novelist Steph Cha, it's just a plot.


At a crime fiction panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on Saturday, writers Daniel Pyne ("Fifty Mice"), Naomi Hirahara ("Grave on Grand Avenue"), Attica Locke ("Pleasantville") and Cha ("Follow Her Home") talked about accurately describing places portrayed in their novels, whether it's Los Angeles or Houston.

Locke discussed the evolution of Houston's diversity, which played a role in her two novels.

"Houston in '81 looked very particular -- it was drawn along stark black-and-white lines," she said.

"When I was in high school, I graduated high school in '91, I think there were 50 to 60 native languages spoken. I just try to show Houston as different than it was in '81, and that was very, very important to me."

Many of the writers talked about truly conveying the experience of living in these cities, including their multiculturalism.

"My characters tend to be from different ethnic backgrounds," Cha said. "A lot of the time, when you write characters of color, people think you're doing something, trying to prove a point. Sometimes the people around you aren't always white, and they are women, so I wanted to write that."

Hirahara talked about a shift in protagonists -- from Mas Arai, a Japanese gardener who was written in homage to her late father, to Ellie Rush, a mixed-race Japanese American LAPD bicycle cop -- between her two mystery series.

"I really wanted to reflect what it is like to be an Angeleno," she said.

Check out the Festival of Books schedule for this weekend.



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