Guest: Leslie Karst

Edith here, delighted my buddy Leslie Karst has a new mystery coming out next month!Death al Fresco cover

Death Al Fresco is the next in Leslie’s Sally Solari Mysteries. I loved the first two and can’t wait to read this one, too. Her publisher, Crooked Lane, will give away a hardcover copy to one commenter here today.

It’s early autumn in Santa Cruz and restaurateur Sally Solari, inspired by the eye-popping canvases of Paul Gauguin, the artist for whom her restaurant is named, enrolls in a plein air painting class. But the beauty of the Monterey Bay coastline is shattered during one of their outings when Sally’s dog sniffs out a corpse entangled in a pile of kelp.

The body is identified as Gino, a local fisherman and a regular at Sally’s father’s restaurant, Solari’s, until he disappeared after dining there a few nights before. But after witnesses claim he left reeling drunk, fingers begin to point at Sally’s dad for negligently allowing the old man to walk home alone at night. From a long menu of suspects, including a cast of colorful characters who frequent the historic Santa Cruz fisherman’s wharf, Sally must serve up a tall order in order to clear her father’s name.

Here’s Leslie talking about how she channeled a recent brush with fear into creativity.

Channeling Your Fear

Every murder mystery requires at least one high-tension scene—a situation where the protagonist feels at risk, and where the reader experiences the fear along with that person. It could be a danger or threat to either the main character herself or to someone she cares for, but there has to be a point in the story where the hero’s heart starts to pound and her hands sweat (though hopefully not in those exact words), and where she feels utterly helpless and alone.

I’ve now written a fair share of these suspenseful scenes, and every time I do so I find myself growing anxious and tense along with my protagonist, Sally Solari. My pulse will quicken and sometimes my hands will even begin to shake as I type the words onto my laptop.

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Perhaps the fact that I write the series in the first person makes the telling more, well, personal than it would be if done in the third person. But I suspect most writers have a similar experience when crafting these scenes. And it seems to me that unless you can indeed put yourself in the mental state of your character, the tension you attempt to create will likely fall flat.

As I considered what to discuss in this blog post, I thought back to the times I’ve been frightened in my own life. Because it’s from such experiences that we writers can mine our past feelings and emotions and insert them into our characters.

There weren’t, however, many moments I could come up with. Being scared by lightening storms or tornado warnings during my early years in Columbus, Ohio. And that summer as a college student in Barcelona when I’d found myself running from the Guardia Civil, ducking into a small shop to avoid the rubber bullets being fired at the protest I’d unwittingly walked into. But nothing truly terrifying had ever happened to me.

Nothing, that is, until that “incoming ballistic missile” alert last month.

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I was on my Saturday morning bike ride in Hilo, Hawai‘i, sweating and pumping up a steep hill, when a car suddenly pulled over right in front of me and the two young people jumped out. “Stop!” they shouted.

I stopped as directed. What the heck were they in such a tizzy about?

“A missile alert was just sent out for the entire state!”

In response my dumbfounded stare, they stepped forward to show me their phones: BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.


In a Mister Toad’s Wild Ride kind of drive across town, they transported me and my bicycle back home so I could get my dog, and I gathered a few things as fast as I could and took her down to the grocery store a few blocks away—the nearest place that’s a concrete structure. I tried calling my wife, who was in Honolulu, but the call wouldn’t go through.

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Thirty-nine minutes after the original alert, we finally got another text saying there was in fact no bomb threat—that the message had been sent out in error. But during that time I was as frightened as I’ve ever been in my life.

Later, I tried to identify the emotions that had swept over me and remember exactly how I’d acted during those few minutes during which I’d believed, “This might be the end.” Heart pounding and body shaking, yes. But I was also surprisingly calm—at least on the outside. My mind had immediately gone into “Okay, what do I need to do” mode, and I proceeded accordingly.

Interesting, I thought as I jotted down notes about the event. Unsettled and jittery though I was still feeling, I recognized that what I’d gone through had provided me with invaluable information. So, although I would never wish such an experience on anyone, there was a silver lining to having lived through this horrific scare: I can use it in my writing!

Readers: What’s the scariest thing that’s ever happened to you? If you’re a writer, how have you channeled the emotions from fear into your work? Remember, you can win a copy of the new book!

The daughter of a law professor and a potter, Leslie Karst learned early, during family karst headshotdinner conversations, the value of both careful analysis and the arts—ideal ingredients for a mystery story. She now writes the Sally Solari Mysteries (Dying for a Taste, A Measure of Murder), a culinary series set in Santa Cruz, California. An ex-lawyer like her sleuth, Leslie also has degrees in English literature and the culinary arts. The next in the series, Death al Fresco, releases March 13th.

You can visit Leslie on Facebook , and you can go to her author website to sign up for her newsletter—full of recipes and fun Italian facts!—and to purchase all her books.

71 Thoughts

  1. Leslie, how terrifying! My heart was pounding as I read your account. Have I ever been terrified to that extent? Yes, several times. At five in Palisades Amusement Park stuck at the top of the Ferris wheel and every breeze rocked the gondola. Then the first time I rappelled down a cliff, my knees took on a life of their own when my rappelling guide suggested I look down 80 feet! Sitting in my house while a hurricane raged outside listening to big, unidentified, things hit the house. Finally, looking down the barrel of a gun aimed at me. I sometimes dig deep and use those experiences in my writing, but to be honest – the emotions still frighten me!

    1. It’s 7:15 a.m. here in Hawai’i and I’m finally awake! My goodness, Kait, but you have had some horrible scares! I doubt it I’d ever looked down the barrel of a gun I’d want to channel it for writing.

  2. Scariest thing probably sliding backward down Pa turnpike in skid on wet roafs. Seeing other drivets getting out of the way and their faces as we past them backwards. All the while feeling the cat in my lap scrstching my legs as she slid off my lap. I was passinger.Seemed forever just a few seconds in our lives.

    1. Being out of control in a car is awful. I remember once hydroplaning through a huge wash of water on a freeway when I was young, with my brother at the wheel. Whoa, that was scary!

  3. I have never been that scared! Just minor things not worth talking about. I was scared for you all when the news alert came on though.

  4. The scariest thing that ever happen to me was seeing my younger brother walking into the apartment cover in blood head to toe from a bicycle accident. I was 11 years old thankfully one of the boys he was riding with his father came over and rushed him to the ER he was fine just looked like a mummy when he was brought back.

    1. I remember my mom telling me that after seeing us kids come home with blood streaming down our faces on numerous occasions she finally learned that scalp wounds bleed like the dickens and to not freak out, lol.

  5. As a small child, I can remember the earthquakes and how the windows rattles and the furniture moved. This was when my Dad was stationed at Fort Ord, CA which is as you know right at Monterey Bay which popped out at me while I read about your upcoming book. I will always remember my first experience with an earthquake. My folks had given my brother and I permission to stay up late and watch the scary movie on a Friday night. Just as the monster was coming out of the sea the quake hit. We had no idea what it was and ran immediately to Mom and Dad’s bed to get away from the “monster”. 🙂

    As an adult, my most terrifying moment was when a tornado touched down ever so briefly in the pasture right across the highway from our home when we lived in the southwest part of Arkansas. It seemed like time froze and my whole life flashed before my eyes. It’s a sight and sound that I will never forget. Needless to say, we now have a storm shelter even though we moved to the north central part of the state.

    Thank you for the chance to win a copy of your amazing book “Death Al Fresco”. I’d very much love the chance to read it.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

    1. Like Edith, I don’t get too freaked out by earthquakes, having grown up in California (though the Loma Prieta quake of 1989 was pretty darn scary). But the idea of a tornado–now THAT’S scary! Maybe we all have the fear of twisters ingrained in us now because of The Wizard of Oz…

  6. Welcome to the blog Leslie! And congratulations on your latest!
    I have been that afraid. When Boston was under lockdown during the manhunt for the bombers, the FBI knocked on my door and told me I had to evacuate. It ends up I lived near the bombers, and they were worried about leftover materials. I will say this–I’ll never get over that feeling of not feeling safe. It is a lot to process.

  7. I think probably the worst scared feeling I had was the day I lost my son (then very small) in a JC Penney. I almost had the store on lock-down when we found him sitting in the furniture section happily watching “Shrek” on the big-screen TV.

    I’ve written a couple of sequences that got my heart rate up. The worst (best?) one will be in my second book out next year.

    1. I lost my son in a relatively small clothing store, too. I was in a complete panic until I heard him giggling from inside one of the circular clothing racks.

  8. Looking forward to reading your latest! Definitely the most scared I’ve ever been was in the desert outside of Tucson. My daughter and I pulled off to follow a sign for petroglyphs. It turned out to be quite a long detour to a very remote area. We finally got there and had to walk through a dry arroyo and beyond. Then the coyotes started to howl. Eerie enough in itself, it soon became clear that there was a pack of them coming our way. We tried to hurry back to the car through the loose sand thinking of flash floods in the arroyo, coyotes at our backs, and how terribly hot it was. The feeling of the safety of the car was short-lived when I realized we were just about out of gas. We made it to a gas station on fumes and a prayer. I’ve been in a lot of scary situations over the years, but that was definitely the most terrifying.

    1. I felt like I was watching a scene from a movie, reading your story, Ginny. Wow. I’ve seen solo coyotes on my bike rides in Santa Cruz, but a whole pack would be scary, indeed. Glad you had enough gas!

  9. I think the scariest thing that ever happened to me was when I was trying to drive over an icy bridge here in Portland, Oregon. The bridge had a slight “downward curve” to the left, I had to take an exit on the right, and I kept sliding into the left side of the bridge despite my best efforts to go right. And then there were all the drivers behind me, trying to stop on the ice. YIKES. I did manage to make it to my exit (I’m still not sure how). Even though that happened over thirty years ago, I don’t drive on icy roads to this day.

    1. Driving on icy roads when I was in Fairbanks, Alaska was a horrifying experience for this California girl. You hit the brakes and nothing happens! I finally learned to go about three miles an hour and to start braking as soon as you spotted the stop sign a block ahead.

  10. I think I am the most scared before something happens. I am a worry wart. When the phone rings at 3 in the morning or when they flash hurricane warnings on the screen. I immediately have a panic attack. I have not read any books in this series yet, but I am going to go check them out right now. Welcome Leslie!!

  11. I can absolutely imagine how terrifying that would be.

    One of the first times I was left home alone (I was in Jr. High), I thought I heard someone walking around in our recently completely upstairs addition. I hid in my parent’s room with a big window out to the street and a phone right next to the bed. Turned out to just be the house creaking and popping, but it sure scared me.

  12. I realize I didn’t answer the prompt question! I’ve had an overactive imagination my entire life, so I scare easily (I could easily have been in Mark’s shoes). I’ve had a half-dozen major surgeries and am always afraid I won’t wake up afterward.

    I lived through a major earthquake (Sylmar) in 1971 but I don’t remember being terrified of it. Maybe because I’m a 4th generation Californian – coping with the earth moving under our feet is bred into us. I’ve had a few car-sliding-on-ice experiences, too. But nothing like a missile alert or Julie’s evacuation order. My worst fears involve harm coming to my children, now adult men. I never stop worrying about getting the worst call of all.

  13. Scariest thing was the tripped out guy lying in the road pointing a rod that LOOKED like a rifle at us as we returned from a trip to the zoo. It was about 37 years ago and I THINK we were in the Asprin (or something like that); a vehicle with absolutely NOTHING to duck behind.

  14. Welcome back to the blog, Leslie. Death Al Fresco sounds right up my alley.

    I cannot imagine how terrifying that missile alert must have been. We have distant family in Hawaii and followed it closely.

    As I’ve been reading the blog and comments, I’ve been cataloging my terrifying events. Two trips in fog and one in snow when we couldn’t see anything at all. Scared to pull over for fear of being hit and scared to keep going for fear of hitting something. But I think the scariest was being responsible for twelve ten-year olds at a sleepover birthday party in a cabin as a thunderstorm raged on top of us. The cabin was hit, and in the morning the electric and phone wires were hanging low over the driveway. They expand when hit, apparently.

    1. Barb, I forgot about driving in a heavy snow on the freeway at night. I could see better with my lights off than on, but that was terrifying, too!

  15. My scariest moment was driving in a windstorm and going past a huge tree that was about to come down – I got past it and looked back and the road was blocked. I knew someone was watching over me then!

  16. I was driving down 80 in the slow lane when a truck decided he wanted that lane.too. I slammed on the brakes but he never saw me and kept coming the lane and I couldn’t pull over on the right due to a ditch and culvert. As he scrapped my car side he came to the end of his trailer but clipped my fender and sent me spinning across the freeway at noon on a Saturday.I knew I was done for but tried to control the car as I didn’t want to go to the other side.I was so lucky as I spun 3 times and there was never another car and I stopped the car along the oleanders. In a few minutes a CHP tapped on my widow and ask if I needed help with a flat tire. I started crying and told him what happened and when he saw the side of my car he said Lady you are lucky to be alive.I was very lucky. Every time I see that spot in the road I remember this clearly.

  17. Yes, it is a horrible surprise! I can’t think of anything specific, probably almost-car-accidents. Or an almost ex-husband calling to tell me he was a murder suspect…😊

  18. I was in a bad car accident many years ago. Luckily I was fine, my car not so much. A car ran a red light as I was turning left with a green arrow. The angle that the car hit me actually caused my car to turn 360 degrees. It happened so fast, that I really didn’t have time to be scared, but after wards I freaked out.

  19. That sounds terrifying, Leslie. The scariest thing I can think of was being in Seattle when the earthquake hit about 15 years ago. I’d never been in an earthquake before, and it lasted about 40 seconds, which doesn’t sound like much but when the floor is moving it feels like a long time. And your new book sounds great!

  20. Rats! Now you’ve got me thinking about all the scary things in my life. At 65, there have been quite a few. Being caught in a 1968 student riot with the police on one side and the hippies on the other; camping out when someone nearby decided to shoot off their guns; coming down the Malahat on Vancouver Islands when my breaks went out. But I don’t think anything compares with the cold unrelenting fear of our current political situation. It must have been terrible to be in Hawaii and to have received that message. Count the minutes.

    I’m looking forward to the book.

  21. In January my furnace made a horrible noise, and when I went down the cellar, it was putting out steam and some water at the bottom. It did it a couple more times before my friend who came to look at it told me to turn it off. I had to use a space heater until the furnace people fixed it the next morning. Something was blocked, and it was letting off steam but I wasn’t sure the house wasn’t going to blow up.

    Hoping to get your new book. Your character has a great name.

  22. The most frightened I’ve ever been was during the standoff with the Russians during the Cuban Missile Crisis—when I went to school and didn’t know whether I would ever be going home again.

    1. We were on a steamer from New Orleans to Buenos Aires in 1962 during the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and when we cruised past Cuba my mom said she totally freaked out, she was so scared. (I was six, so remember nothing.)

  23. Well I am sure I have been scared before, probably not as scary as that. I know from the time I was 16 until I was 18, every time I thought I was ready to get my drivers license something scary happened. If I hadnt slid down in the seat (at 16) I would have gone through the windshield and died in a car crash with my friend at the time driving. At 17 I was riding home with my brother on the interstate (late at night) when we saw a fireball up ahead. We went to check on it and a few cars had crashed. one was turned the opposite direction and the lady inside was being crushed by the front end of the car. Her death screams were something I never want to hear again. I had a few stalkers, was lost in the mountains in a little mg and a few other things.

  24. We evidently had a similar warning shortly after that in southern Florida. Fortunately, it was not widely spread and ended quickly.
    Not good for our blood pressure, is it?!

  25. One of the scariest things that happened to me was watching our house burn when I was in high school. My Mom and our dog were in the house, the dog woke my Mom up and she got out of the house and luckily the fire fighters got our dog out. My Dad and me and my Sister were going horseback riding and when we the stable, they told my Dad we had to go home. When we were getting close to home, I can remember my Dad saying that our house was on fire. Luckily it started in the garage and spread to the porch but didn’t do too much damage to the house. It was really hard sleeping in the house that night.

  26. Oh, Leslie,Just oh! Just reading your post was terrifying! How wonderful that you harnessed the experience for good! I think the mot frightening thing that ever happened to me was when my son woke the family in the dead of night screaming that the house was on fire. It wasn’t but none of us realized it until several moments later.

  27. I’ve been in some tornadoes that were pretty scary. As a former RN, I’m pretty good in emergencies, though. legallyblonde1961 at yahoo dot com

  28. Thanks for the post and the chance to win this!! lindaherold999(at)gmail(dot)com

  29. The most scared I’ve been was staring down a gun barrel of a kid high on drugs during a robbery.

  30. Wow that was seriously scary! Since I live in Ohio where you mentioned being scared of tornadoes, I can definitely say the time when I was a kid and a tornado warning sent us all to the basement. Our house and neighborhood were untouched but several streets over there were major trees taken out. I’ve never been in or around an actual tornado but still have nightmares occasionally about them.

  31. Many years ago we drove out to NJ to go to a convention for I believe Hercules/Xena con. It was during the winter and the more we drove, the worst the weather and the roads became. I’m glad I wasn’t the driver (hubby was) because I was white knuckling it the entire time. It took us instead of about 4/5 hours, it was about 9. By the time we got to the hotel, there was no restaurant open and the hotel room service was closed. We had to go to a convenience store to get food. That was the scariest drive I’d ever been on.

  32. I feel like a four year old waiting for Santa waiting for March 13th!!

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