When Gayle Carline walked into the Hotel Huntington Beach for the first time Monday, she scanned the lobby and saw a multitude of possibilities — all of them lethal.
The piano in the corner of the dimly lighted room could fit a corpse inside, as could the hosting counter outside the ground-floor restaurant. And the sign a few feet away, which read "Please Wait to Be Seated," could easily be tweaked to "Please Wait to Be Murdered."
Welcome to the psyche of a mystery author. Carline, who has written four novels in the genre, often finds herself scrutinizing new locations for possible plotlines — in particular, places where a body's discovery can set a plot in motion.
"Mystery authors can be kind of a strange bunch," the Placentia resident said. "So while you're touring some really beautiful scenery, like my girlfriend who writes for the Wine Lover's Mystery series — she was up in Napa touring the vineyard and started thinking, 'You know, I bet you could hide a body here.' I mean, it sounds macabre, but we kind of do go out and go, 'I think you could hide someone out here, or some thing.'"
Carline has kindred spirits in that regard, for sure. When she spoke recently to a local women's club, one member asked her to set a mystery inside the venue — and within moments, the women were brainstorming about possible locations for the victim's remains.
For others with similar imaginations, Carline will join 17 other female mystery authors at the first Ladies of Intrigue conference Saturday at the Hotel Huntington Beach. The daylong event includes lunch, book signings and seminars, plus panel discussions on international plots, strong female characters and the importance of setting.
While Carline will give the introduction Saturday, the featured speaking slots will go to Carolyn Hart, author of the "Death on Demand" series, and Rhys Bowen, an English author with three series to her credit.
So what kind of personality spawns a mystery author? Jill Amadio, a Dana Point resident who will appear on the character panel, credits her work to innate curiosity.
"I think we like puzzles," she said. "My book is a cat-and-mouse game with the murderer and the sleuth — the amateur sleuth. It's fun to see where it goes. Some of us don't always know, until we start writing the mystery, where it's going to go. Sometimes things will show up on my computer screen, and I'll look at it and think, 'Oh, that's interesting.'"
For Amadio's latest novel, "Digging Too Deep," she did research by driving to the Southern California locations where the action takes place. One of those settings came naturally: Balboa Island, renamed Isabel Island in the book, was Amadio's home for 12 years.
"After a couple years, I realized there was no crime on the island," she said. "So I thought, 'Let's put a murder there.'"
The board of Sisters in Crime Orange County, a mystery writers society that meets monthly in Irvine, conceived Ladies of Intrigue as a complement to Men of Mystery, an annual event that spotlights male authors. Ironically, that event was founded by a woman, Joan Hansen, who founded the Literary Guild of Orange County's Festival of Women Authors and wanted to launch an event that focused on men instead.
Hansen, who also serves on the committee for Ladies of Intrigue, helped line up some of the authors. Is there a significant difference, then, between male and female mystery writers?
Carline doesn't believe there's a huge one — most of the time, at least. The heroine of her own novel series, Peri Minneopa, got her name from an in-joke between Carline and a friend.
"We had this running joke about our favorite superhero — Peri Menopause, private eye — and she goes around solving crimes by eating chocolate and crying and slapping people because she's so impatient," Carline said. "So when I went to create a character for a book, I wanted her to be more realistic.
"And I Googled — I went on a search for a last name that could be mangled into 'menopause.' And Minneopa is actually a state park in Minnesota. The word means 'water falling twice.'"
If You Go
What: Ladies of Intrigue
Where: Hotel Huntington Beach, 7667 Center Ave., Huntington Beach
When: 8:45 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
Authors featured: Carolyn Hart, Rhys Bowen, Jill Amadio, Cara Black, Lisa Brackmann, Jan Burke, Carol Higgins Clark, Kim Fay, Naomi Hirahara, Tammy Kaehler, Sheila Lowe, Jeanne Matthews, Jeri Westerson, Patricia Wynn, Aileen G. Baron, Terri Nolan, Patricia Smiley, Gayle Carline
Cost: $60 for Sisters in Crime members, $70 for nonmembers
Information: (714) 960-4000 or http://www.ocsistersincrime.org