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Friday, June 15, 2012


Our guest today is Dorothy St. James is the author of the White House Gardener Mystery series. She’s a gardener who likes to experiment with new methods and new varieties of plants. Half the time those experiments are complete disasters, but that doesn’t stop her from getting out there the next day to try something new. Dorothy also writes romance as Dorothy McFalls. Visit with her at her website.

Dorothy is offering a copy of The Scarlet Pepper, her latest White House Gardener Mystery to one of our readers. To enter, just leave a comment. -- AP

Character Inspiration

Unlike other writers, where the inspiration for the character came like a gift from the gods or perhaps had lived in their heads for years begging to come out, mine didn’t happen quite that way. My inspiration came via email from an editor I’d worked with. She explained that they wanted to develop a series that built on the success of Julie Hyzy’s wonderful White House Chef Mysteries. Instead of a chef, my editor wanted a gardener.

Was I interested in submitting a proposal? Heck yeah, I was interested. A writer never turns down work. But what happened next, surprisingly, turned this project that wasn’t mine into one that is as near and dear to my heart as if it had been my own idea.

The publisher wanted a heroine in her early 40s who was the organic gardener at the White House and an amateur sleuth. I had the freedom to take that broad outline and make her my own. So I invented Casey Calhoun and made her from my hometown of Charleston, SC. And I made her a new employee at the White House so Casey could discover the ins and outs of Washington, D.C. along with me.

When I started writing the proposal, I quickly discovered that making Casey a busybody with a nose for crime-solving irritated me. When a crime is committed in or around the White House, there are at least three different police agencies, competent agencies, who will respond: the US Park Police, the Secret Service, and the D.C. police force. None of them really needs a gardener butting her nose in where it doesn’t belong.

What I needed to do was give Casey a reason to involve herself in an investigation, even when her help wasn’t welcome. It had to be a compelling reason, something that was so ingrained in her DNA that she couldn’t back down, she couldn’t stop herself from seeing things just a little differently.

I made her see life through the eyes of a frightened child.

To make that happen I gave her a back-story. A dark and checkered past. Until the age of six, she lived with her parents who moved from city to city, always changing names, always changing their stories of who they were. Shady characters came in and out of their lives. Then one day, her father abandoned both her and her mother. A few days later, a gang of armed men searching for her father attacked. Casey survived. Her mother didn’t.

After the tragedy, Casey went to live with her strict, but loving, Grandmother Faye and her two maiden aunts in historic Charleston. Charleston is well known for their beautiful gardens, which also fit well into Casey’s back-story. Over the seasons, Casey watched her grandmother and two maiden aunts, Willow and Alba, working in their elaborate southern garden. Through their dedication to tending their flowers and keen eye for details (one aphid could quickly turn into an infestation,) Casey learned lessons of love, patience, and how to be a super sleuth.

Now that’s a character who will keep me on my literary toes!

And that’s how Casey Calhoun, the free-spirited organic gardener was born. The intrepid sleuth has a talent for sniffing out more than the overuse of fertilizers on the South Lawn. Thanks to her gardening experience and shady past, she has a knack for seeing plots--which have nothing to do with planting and everything to do with murder.

In the first book in the series, Flowerbed of State, Casey stumbles across a plot involving evil bankers.

In the second book, The Scarlet Pepper, which came out in April, it’s the press and the president’s puppy who are causing Casey all sorts of hair-raising trouble as the Fourth of July holiday quickly approaches.

Thanks for joining us today, Dorothy. Your books sound like perfect beach reads. Readers, if you’d like a chance to win a copy of The Scarlet Pepper, post a comment. -- AP


Dorothy St. James/Dorothy McFalls said...

Thank you for inviting me to hang out with you on your blog today, Lois! I'll be popping in and out all day (during breaks from revising book 3 of the White House Gardener Mystery series--OAK AND DAGGER.) So if you have any questions, please ask away!

Julie Hyzy said...

Great post, Dorothy. Thanks for the shout-out. I get so many people asking if Casey and Ollie could ever combine forces, but I think we have too many duplicate officials with different names LOL! Love the insight into how you came up with Casey's backstory. Love the new title, too!

jenny milchman said...

I so enjoyed meeting Dorothy and learning more about this series at Malice, this year! Thanks, Lois, for the feature, and Dorothy, it's nice to "see" you again :)

traveler said...

What an interesting post. Learning about the book and the character Casey was wonderful. The series sounds special. Best wishes.

DirtyMartini said...

It's nice when your publisher suggests your character and plot...hard to go wrong with that...nice post btw...:)


petite said...

This inventive series and the background about it sounds fascinating and unique. What a great feature.

Anonymous said...

The character sounds interesting. The reader can tell when the author has taken the time to do the work on the backstory. You have good material to draw from. PS A writer I know created a cozy series from a publisher's concept and won an Agatha Award for the first book! You never know where these ideas will go.
Sally Carpenter

Dorothy St. James/Dorothy McFalls said...

It's true, Sally! You never know what's going to happen when presented with a new idea.

Alan, I was floored and considered myself extremely lucky that the editor thought of me for the series. Who wouldn't turn such a great opportunity down? I later learned that I wasn't the first author the editor had approached with the idea. I wasn't even the second. So...I suppose some authors did turn her down. Their loss, my gain!

Hi Jenny! Waving madly. Malice went too quickly. I loved meeting everyone!!!

Thank you so much for stopping by, Julie! I want to be just like you when I grow up. :)

Ollie and Casey teaming up. Hm... Maybe we could have an alternative-universe sci-fi short where Ollie and Casey cross paths. That would be a hoot!

Pat said...

Having read Julie's books, I order both of your books. I just received them and after reading this wonderful blog, I will pull them from my TBR pile. Can't wait.

Pamela Beason, Author said...

What a wonderful description of using backstory to add credibility and depth to an amateur sleuth! I do get annoyed with some amateur sleuths who get involved in improbable investigations. It's always a challenge to come up with a good reason for a non-law enforcement character to do detective work, and it sounds like you have created a great one. Your series sounds fascinating, and I can't wait to read it!

Radine Trees Nehring said...

I, too, was interested in how you developed your character's backstory to fit circumstances you were faced with. Isn't it wonderful, how various authors (you, me, everyone else) develop their stories. As an organic gardener myself, I am very interested in reading your series.

Anonymous said...

I love to garden and your books sound great. Can't wait to read one.

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