Writing Mysteries From the Inside Out

Naomi Hirahara is the Edgar Award-winning author of the Mas Arai mystery series, which features a Japanese-American gardener and atomic-bomb survivor who solves crimes.  Nominated also for Macavity and Anthony awards, the novels in the series include Summer of the Big Bachi, Gasa-Gasa Girl, Snakeskin Shamisen, Blood Hina, and Strawberry Yellow, released in March.  Her crime short stories are featured in Los Angeles Noir, Los Angeles Noir 2: The Classics, A Hell of a Woman, and The Darker Mask.  She also has an award-winning book for middle-grade readers, 1001 Cranes, and is at work on another novel for the same age group.  Her new series, based on a female LAPD bicycle cop, will launch in 2014. Hirahara, born and raised in Southern California, has led numerous writing workshops, most recently at UCLA for undergraduate students.
Her website is www.naomihirahara.com.

Q. Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? 

A. I certainly knew at a very young age. I was attempting to write novels during my summer vacations between fourth and fifth grades.  They were all about Ma and Pa and their ten children — as far away from my reality as possible!

Q. What inspires you? 

A. The unexpected.

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about your latest project?

AStrawberry Yellow, the fifth novel in my Mas Arai mystery series, takes place in the strawberry fields of Watsonville, California. My amateur sleuth is a Japanese-American gardener and atomic-bomb survivor who solves crimes.

Q. I’ve heard that writers often bond to their characters. What does it feel like to finish a story and let go of that bond a little? 

A. I miss them. In fact, today someone mentioned Angela, a character in my first middle-grade novel.  I started wondering, what is she doing now, and then I had to stop myself.  She’s not real . . . or is she?

Q. Do you have any advice/cure/ for the infamous “writer’s block”?

A. Sit down at the computer and notepad and start writing, “I am so blocked.  I don’t know what to write.”  In time, you will start to come up with something.  Sometimes your work is telling you that you are going in the wrong direction.  You have to be sensitive to your work’s voice and turn the steering wheel in the right direction.

Q. How did you get started in the writing industry and what is your best piece of advice to people interested in pursuing writing as a career?

A. Journalism was my way in.  Journalism, of course, is very different than fiction, but that’s how I was able to deal with various aspects of being publishing: meeting deadlines, dealing with criticism, making public mistakes, recording dialogue, rewriting, investigating crimes, and understanding story arcs.  And also establishing some sort of platform. Journalism is not a viable career as it once was.  Today we have technical writing, copyediting, and online writing.  I wouldn’t count anything out. Experiment to see if you can forge a supplementary income stream in addition to fiction writing.

Q. What is one interesting thing about you that most people don’t know?

A. I am addicted to iced tea. The more exotic, the better.  Also, I write on a ten-year-old laptop, which confounds my husband and other family members.  I have the dumbest phone ever. So those are three things — not very interesting, but a part of my daily life.

Q. What is the best food you’ve eaten in the past week?

A. Mushroom soon tofu (Korean tofu soup).

Q. Is there anything new on your plate? What can we expect from you in the future?

A. The first installment in my new mystery series featuring a 22-year-old female bicycle cop will be published by Berkley Prime Crime in April 2014.  I’m currently completing a middle-grade steampunk novel and the sixth in my existing Mas Arai mystery series has a pub date in spring 2015, about the same time the second in the bicycle cop series will be released.  So I’m juggling a lot of projects simultaneously!

Q. What is one thing you are really looking forward to with the Summer Writing Institute?

A. Helping writers develop their ideas and manuscripts to the next level.

Q: How important is networking and social media in the field of writing?

A. It really depends on what you’re writing as well as your personality and skill sets.  For me, networking with people face-to-face has been invaluable.  I often use social media to maintain those relationships.

Q: Do you have any practices regarding the above question that you have found successful? Any websites you swear by, any online communities that have been helpful, etc.? 

A. I really think that it’s better to meet people in person first.  I would encourage mystery writers to attend conferences like Left Coast Crime or join Sisters in Crime.  Sisters has an online writing group, the Guppies, that some have found helpful.

Q: What was the best piece of advice about writing or becoming a writer that someone has ever given you?

A. I love Anne Lamott’s writing book, Bird by Bird. There she mentions that no one is really going to care about your book like you do. So don’t think that teacher, agent, editor and publisher will come down and whisk you away to success.  We have to continue to do the hard work with every single book.

Q: Can you give us a rough breakdown of the process of writing a novel from the point of conception to having the book published and sitting on bookshelves?

A. My first took me fifteen years!  The second, nine months.  I wrote the first in my new mystery series in four months, but it won’t be on bookshelves for another year.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like us to know about you that we haven’t covered yet?

A. Come to the Summer Writing Institute and find out in person!

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