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Mystery is the family business

Mother-daughter writing team hits on winning formula

By Adam Dunn
Special to CNN

P.J. Lambrecht, Traci Lambrecht
P.J. Lambrecht and her daughter Traci recently published their third thriller, "Dead Run."

NEW YORK (CNN) -- The mother-daughter writing team of P.J. Tracy (mother P.J. Lambrecht and daughter Traci) hit on a formula a few years ago that sparked a vibrant series in the mystery/thriller realm.

The series, which blends elements of comedy and computer geek-speak, is in its third incarnation from Putnam. "Dead Run" leaves behind the whodunit nature of its predecessors, "Monkeewrench" (2003) and "Live Bait" (2004), in favor of a more straight-ahead thriller format.

"Sometimes you're in the mood for a book that explores a complex mystery; sometimes you feel like a little straightforward excitement that carries you along for the ride without too much effort," said P.J. from her home in Minnesota.

"I suppose we might have presented this subject matter in a straight mystery or police procedural, but, in retrospect, the stakes in 'Dead Run' seem to mandate a more continuing level of danger, and I'm glad we felt like reading [and writing] a thriller last year."

Daughter Traci added from her home in California: "I think P.J. and I write much better and more creatively when we allow ourselves to occasionally step outside the parameters a specific genre dictates. Above all, we want to keep things fresh, keep the surprises coming -- we owe it to our readers.

"And when you're writing a series with recurring characters, this becomes even more critical. After writing two mysteries with a lot of police procedure, we wanted to do something a little different this time around so the series didn't start to seem formulaic."

Playing with stories

"Dead Run," which follows the lives of the characters first introduced in "Monkeewrench," also veers away from the first two novels in its focus -- dropping the more traditional serial-killer motif in favor of domestic terrorism.

"We've actually been playing with this storyline for some time," said P.J. "It interested and also saddened us that the heroes and villains changed each time we picked it up again, depending on the events occurring in the world at that time."


"We did a lot of research for 'Dead Run,' " Traci said, "and what was truly shocking to us was that some of the most horrifying aspects of the book are actually plausible, especially with today's ready access to cheap technology and information. Don't get me wrong -- I love cheap technology and information -- but like anything powerful, if it ends up in the wrong hands, you've got a problem."

The tandem writing process can be a daunting one -- serial novels featuring big-name authors are more often bombs than bestsellers. The method of the ladies Lambrecht involves monthly Minnesota meetings, along with long phone calls and e-mails.

"We both have to be in the same room -- preferably with a bottle of wine -- to do the plotting, so I'll fly to Minneapolis and spend a couple weeks with P.J. while we hash out the particulars of the next novel," said Traci.

"After that, we can separate and work on individual chapters. Throughout the process, we'll spend hundreds of hours on the phone, and every month or so, I'll fly back to Minneapolis so we can pull things together. Occasionally, we'll even sit at the same desk with two computers and write line-by-line together."

"Plotting must be done together," P.J. agreed. "Traci always comes back to the farm in Minnesota for that bizarre stage -- filled with wild stories and raucous laughter -- but afterward we can do a lot of writing separately. Traci retreats to the California sunshine, and consequently creates a lot of the brighter moments, while I remain huddled inside during the Minnesota winter, thinking up black thoughts and tormented characters."

The pair has found a happy home at Putnam, which was quick to see the long-term potential of the duo. "We never had a series in mind while we were writing 'Monkeewrench,' but Putnam asked for a follow-up with the same characters, and we were more than happy to oblige," said Traci.

"By the time we'd finished 'Monkeewrench,' we had grown so attached to the characters, we were suffering major separation anxiety."

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