As a mystery writer, Earlene Fowler follows the age-old dictum: Write about what you know.
For "Irish Chain," the second book in Fowler's mystery series set on California's Central Coast, she tapped her experience of teaching a crafts class at a retirement home.
"The year I spent with these ladies, it was such a crackup," said Fowler, 40, of Fountain Valley. "You think retirement homes are really boring places until you get to know the people. It's like high school: romantic intrigues, people accusing people of cheating at cards. . . . One of the ladies always said, 'Let me tell you what happened this week!' "
Of course, it was never anything as exciting as what happens at the retirement home in "Irish Chain," where Fowler's amateur sleuth, Benni Harper--a widowed, 34-year-old folk-art museum curator--has helped organize a senior citizen's prom: Moments before the prom king and queen are to be crowned, the "king" and a female resident of the retirement home are found murdered in the woman's room.
Jeopardizing her budding romance with temporary police chief Gabriel Ortiz, Benni begins her investigation, which leads her to the town's Japanese community and a 50-year-old secret involving the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
That's a subject Fowler became interested in during the 1970s after learning that a Japanese American co-worker at an insurance company had been interred as a child.
"A writer is always thinking--it's like you're always scouting for something to use," Fowler said. "I told my husband that on our next vacation I plan to go to a place that I never intend to write about, so that I don't have to write down stuff every second."
Benni Harper was introduced last year in "Fool's Puzzle," which takes place nine months after Benni's rancher husband is killed in an auto accident. Library Journal called Fowler's mystery debut "the start of a promising new series."
Publishers Weekly says "Irish Chain" (Berkley/Prime Crime; $18.95) is "a well-textured sequel to 'Fool's Puzzle,' " adding that it "intricately blends social history and modern mystery. . . . Fowler's easygoing style, along with down-home Benni's charming personality, makes this a blue-ribbon cozy."
Besides the recurring characters, the books in Fowler's mystery series have something else in common: Each title is taken from the name of a quilt pattern.
The titles are appropriate, given Benni Harper's job as a folk-art museum curator. But Fowler, who started quilting in her late 20s and has studied the history of quilting, tries to make each title symbolic of the story. In "Irish Chain," she said, "the man who is killed is Irish, and it's a chain of events that lead up to his death."
The mysteries are set in the fictional town of San Celina, which is modeled after San Luis Obispo. Fowler fell in love with the university town more than a decade ago, when her sister lived on the Central Coast, and she continues to visit every couple of months. "What's nice," she said with a laugh, "is it's a tax write-off now."
Fowler grew up in La Puente, where 85% of the students in her high school and many of her friends were Latino.
"It's probably why I have so many Latino characters in my books. I didn't know I did until an editor pointed it out," she said. She made her character Gabriel Ortiz half Anglo and half Latino, she said, because she has two nieces with the same ethnic mix, and she is intrigued by what it is like "to grow up with feet in both cultures."
Benni's best friend is also Latino, and that character has six brothers. Fowler, who grew up across the street from a Latino family with seven children, said writing such characters "just seemed natural for me."
So did creating San Celina, a medium-size college and ranching town on the Central Coast.
Despite her suburban Los Angeles upbringing, Fowler was raised by "rural people," she said--her mother grew up on a farm in Arkansas, and her dad's parents were migrant workers. She also attended a little Baptist church where, she said, all the adults were from Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.
"I really relate to the rural background," she said. "Part of the fun of writing is being able to do stuff you never really got to do in real life."
Fowler describes Benni Harper as loyal, persistent and "pretty much fearless--more fearless than I am. And a part of her is introspective too. You can really get to know Benni by the end of my book. You see her grow inside."
Fowler concedes, however, that the county music-, "big stupid dogs"- and Tabasco sauce-loving Benni is much like her.
"I didn't think so at first," she said, "but everybody warned me when they read (the first book) and said, "That's you!' Writers think we're hiding ourselves, but we're not. She's kind of a smartass, and so am I, so I guess that part is."
That's not to mention that Fowler, like Benni, favors a wardrobe of Wrangler jeans, round-toed Roper boots, Levi jackets, flannel shirts and plain white men's T-shirts.
Writers, she said, often tend to make their characters like themselves. It's easier: Whenever she need to describe what Benni's wearing, she said, "I can just look at my own closet."
Although Fowler always enjoyed reading, she didn't start writing until 1982, when she was 27. She began writing short stories, sending them to literary magazines and major publications such as Redbook.
But after 10 years, all she had to show for her efforts was a string of rejection slips, only one of which wasn't a form rejection letter:
"It was a handwritten note from an editor, who didn't even sign it. It just said, 'nice moments.' Of course, they didn't tell me which ones they were."
During her decade of writing and rejection, Fowler would periodically stop writing and sign up for a crafts class--everything from basket weaving to counted cross-stitch to quilting.
"I'd say to myself, 'I can't do it; I'm not talented enough, I'll just go make baskets,' " she recalled. "But for some reason writing just beckons to you. Somehow or another it just keeps calling you back."
When she returned to writing in 1992, Fowler decided to give up literary short stories to attempting a novel, telling herself that this time she was going to write "something for fun."
"I had always read mysteries for fun," she said. "I thought I'd try that and put in everything I love: cowboys, the Central Coast, quilts and crafts. That's why I made Benni the curator of a folk-art museum, so I could use all my reference books on crafts."
When she was writing short stories, Fowler also would occasionally take creative writing classes, "usually at junior colleges, because they were the cheapest."
At a class at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa in the spring of 1992, she wrote the first chapter of "Fool's Puzzle." Over the summer she completed all but the last two chapters of the book.
When she returned to OCC in the fall, her new creative writing teacher, author Jo-Ann Mapson, asked to read her manuscript. Mapson loved it so much she sent it to her agent in New York. The upshot? Within a week, Fowler had a three-book contract with Berkley. Fowler has just completed her third Benni Harper mystery ("Kansas Troubles') and is negotiating a contract.
"The first one has been doing pretty well; at least, that's what they tell me," she said. "They're sending me on a (West Coast) tour this time; I'm told that's a good sign."
There's no question Fowler is getting good mileage out of titling her books after quilt patterns.
"I've noticed even when I go to stores my books are turned out (on the shelf) because the covers are so pretty," she said. "It is easier to sell a book that has an attractive cover."
And as it did with "Fool's Puzzle" last year, Publishers Weekly recently included a color shot of the cover of "Irish Chain" in its book review section. Each illustrated cover depicts the murder scene with the title quilt pattern as a border.
"It's a marketing tool, which I didn't really intend on when I started out," said Fowler, who needn't ever worry about running out of ideas for new titles:
She has an encyclopedia of quilt patterns that includes 4,000 quilt names.