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Merry band of rogues testify on 'criminal behavior'

Authors William Kent Krueger, left, Ellen Hart and Carl Brookins shared insights on their writing at the library Saturday, drawing chuckles and nods. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

A band of "armed and dangerous" mystery writers took Park Rapids library patrons captive Saturday, sharing wit and wisdom on the intricacies of spinning their tales.

"We should be approached with a great sense of humor," the authors cautioned their audience.

Minnesota Crime Wave members, bedecked in hoodlum gear, include William Kent Krueger, who pens the Cork O'Connor series; Carl Brookins, known for the Tanner-Whitney and Sean Sean books, and Ellen Hart, who has authored the Jane Lawless mystery series, set in the Twin Cities.

Hart, a former chef, told her audience she had a choice of writing murder or committing murder. She chose the former, her characters including a culinary detective and a food critic.

"I've always loved to read - and harbored a desire to write," she said. "This is a great area for writers," she said of Minnesota. "If you shake a pine, 20 writers fall out. Maybe it's the winters..." she hypothesized.

In her late 30s she'd reasoned if she didn't take the plunge, she'd regret it.

A series of events pointed her in the direction of mysteries, author P.D. James her "most important influence" in developing the architecture of mystery." Audience heads nodded, expressing affinity.

Brookins said he took up writing at a young age. "It was part of my life." He has written safety manuals for the Minnesota Department of Transportation but prefers fiction. "You can make outrageous statements without checking the facts," he said. "You can lie with impunity."

Krueger credits his parents reading to him daily. "I grew up thinking in terms of stories I wanted to write," he said.

His first work, "The Walking Dictionary," penned in third grade, sent his parents and teachers into a state of euphoria, anticipating a budding writer. "Everyone went crazy."

At 40, with no book written, his friends leaving their wives, Krueger faced his "mid-life crisis" with a three-pronged approach. He had his ear pierced (his daughter pointing out it was the "wrong one!"), got a tattoo - "which I'll show you if you buy my book" - and he began to write "Iron Lake."

"I love the loose but strong structure of mystery," he said of how the story unfolds.

The trio's formation came about when "we were all singing in the drunk tank," Brookins said, in response to a query from an audience member, drawing chuckles.

An author spends considerable time on promotions, Hart said. "It's a big drain," she said of money, creativity and time spent.

"As a group, we share responsibility," she said. "And if no one shows up, it isn't just my fault."

When/how do you write? an audience member wanted to know.

"Daily. We write every single day. We begin in the morning. It's a good part of the day," the male wordsmiths told the audience.

"I'm awakened by a member of my staff," Hart said. "I'm served breakfast in bed. I write from 11 to 12 then I move to the pool...

"Do any of you believe this?!"

There are potential Pulitzer Prize-winning authors who will never be published, Brookins said. "Because the key to being published is to write every day, to press forward," he said, even in the face of rejections.

Sean Sean, Brookins' short, funny and sometimes very dark private detective, "is the antithesis of the classical detective," Brookins said. His stories evolve linearly. "I'm constantly being surprised. I do an enormous amount of revision. I love revision. But the process is messy," he admitted.

"The title comes first," Hart said. "I don't recommend this, but it works for me. I use the title to find my way into the rest of the story.

"A single decision can be the fulcrum in the way a life spins," she said, comparing reality to fiction.

Hart does not outline. She casts her book around a central crime, and moves forward. "It's like driving a road at night. Headlights keep you on the road," without peripheral distractions.

Krueger admits his process changes, depending on circumstances and deadlines. "I usually take the story through completely." He likened a "compelling idea" to "a seed rolling around in my head for a month," sprouting motives, sequence and characters.

He outlines books, chapter by chapter, before beginning to write.

"I'm fearful of waking up and thinking, 'what happens next?'" Krueger confided.

"I like that question," Hart said.

"I don't," Krueger said.

"All writers are cosmic vacuum cleaners," Hart told her audience. "We store (experiences and characters)... and wait for the time for them to be used."

The Minnesota Crime Wave authors' visit is part of the Kitchigami Reads/ Kitchigami Writes project, made possible from the Minnesota Legacy Arts Fund.