Monday Q&A: Bestselling mystery writer with Tacoma roots talks about her craft before homecoming visit

Laurie R. King describes herself as a “geek before there were even geeks.” She used books as an escape from a childhood in which she moved frequently and had few friends.

In the Tacoma area, she was the “weird kid” with gold-rimmed glasses who spent her days feverishly reading novels.

Now, she’s a New York Times bestselling mystery author with 24 books under her belt and another coming out next year.

King, who never took a creative writing class, is most famous for the Mary Russell series. It begins with a 15-year-old girl who literally runs into Sherlock Holmes in 1915. She becomes his apprentice and, as the series evolves, his partner.

“Dreaming of Spies,” the 14th book in the series, will pick up with Russell and Holmes returning home to find a closed-case investigation might not be as closed as they thought.

King, 62, is revisiting her roots in the South Sound. She’s traveling from her California home for a book signing Saturday in Lakewood.

As a child, she spent four years in Dash Point, returned to California, then moved to Parkland, where she attended Franklin Pierce High School for three years and graduated.

In an interview with a News Tribune reporter, King gave insights into the inspiration behind the books and her writing career.

Where did the idea behind the Mary Russell series come from?

I wanted to write a sort of coming-of-age story about a young woman with that same extraordinary mind. That is, what would Sherlock Holmes look like if he were a female? Because it’s always more interesting to look at two similar things near each other, I thought I might place this character in that time and make her contemporary with Sherlock Holmes and make her an apprentice. So she meets him in “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.” She meets him in 1915 when she is a young woman, and the series has gotten up to 1925 now. It’s a story of their partnership.

Where’d your interest in Sherlock Holmes stem from?

I came to Holmes backward. I came to him because I was interested in writing this character Mary Russell. So I began looking at the (Sir Arthur) Conan Doyle stories and came to see how very, very interesting his character is. Some people think of him as a just a thinking machine, but in fact, he has a very complex personality. He’s passionate about justice and doing right with an unexpected sense of humor, a very dry British sense of humor that I appreciated a great deal since I wanted to make humor a main element in the book. So I came to the stories kind of backward and grew to appreciate him more than I anticipated.

Have your characters ever done anything that’s surprised you?

I count on my characters to surprise me. Because I don’t outline my books beforehand, I have a very general idea of what the books are going to be, but I mostly begin in one direction and know that there will be a number of twists and turns that I had not anticipated. So far they have continued to surprise me reliably.

What’s your favorite aspect of mystery novels?

What I like as a writer about the crime genre is the structure of it. It’s very pleasing to me to have a structure in my mind that I need to work around. It’s sort of like the skeleton that holds the body up and keeps it moving. Without it, things would collapse. Without it, more than any other genre I think, mysteries and crime require structure. When you’re writing a mainstream novel about a marriage that’s disintegrating for example, there really are no rules. You can begin it anywhere and you can end it anywhere, but with a mystery novel you have to tell the story from beginning to end.

Who in the Tacoma area had the most influence on you?

I had some teachers at Franklin Pierce that were very good. At Dash Point Elementary there was an excellent teacher named Mr. White who taught fourth and fifth grade. But we knew an artist in Dash Point. Her name was Martha Mardilla who painted oils. She was the first artistic type I’d ever met, and I was fascinated by her. She was an adult and I was a fifth-grader or something like that. But she was a friend of my parents and I was fascinated by her.

Have you borrowed any scenes or set any of your books in Tacoma?

I don’t think Tacoma specifically, but there are a couple of books that take place in the Puget Sound area and the San Juans. There are a few scenes in Seattle and somewhere down toward Olympia. But so far I haven’t written Tacoma. It’s something I’m saving for just the right book.