The social media maven’s apprentice

This is an updated version of an interview I did several years ago with Laurie R. King, whose latest in the bestselling Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes series, The Murder of Mary Russell, is due in April 2016.

The author of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is buzzing over social media.

With a website, author and character blogs and a presence on Facebook, Goodreads and Twitter, Laurie R. King is a champion of social marketing. She posts in the voice of one of her characters, runs writing contests and invites fans to discuss the books among themselves. Her efforts go beyond promoting the work to promoting engagement with readers. That reveals an understanding of the collaborative nature of social media many corporations might envy.

“Mostly what I use the social networking sites for is to tie together my readers—I set up a site, or suggest an approach, and then more or less stand back while they play with it,” she said in an email exchange. But first, some background on the Californian who has become famous for portraying the life of perhaps the world’s most-famous detective, and the woman who has become, some would say, an equal or better.

LaurieRKingCreating a voice
Ms. King has written 22 novels, including several stand-alone novels and three series, one featuring San Francisco police detective Kate Martinelli and a second with Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. Her first book, A Grave Talent (1993), received the 1994 Edgar Award for Best First Novel and a 1995 John Creasey Memorial Award. She followed with the 1996 Nero Award for A Monstrous Regiment of Women and the 2002 Macavity Award for Best Novel for Folly.

Her books about Russell and Holmes have been applauded as “the most successful recreation of the famous inhabitant of 221B Baker Street ever attempted” (Houston Chronicle), “with the power to charm even the most grizzled Baker Street irregular” (New York Daily News). The first in the series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, appeared in 1994.

She measures the number of copies in print in the millions.

Creating a buzz
A few years ago, to highlight the 20 books she’s written, and the publication of her then-newest novel in the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series, Ms. King embarked on what she calls “Twenty weeks of buzz.” In addition to the traditional methods of promotion—book tours, radio and TV appearances—Ms. King took to the Internet with a passion usually reserved for her characters.

Her presence on the Internet is considerable. She created a website and a blog about her activities called Mutterings. She also created another blog, this one in Mary Russell’s voice, back when MySpace was the rage. Mary, in character, posts regularly on Twitter (@mary_russell)—a technique used effectively by Helen Klein Ross (@AdBroad) to promote the TV show Mad Men. Ms. King writes as a guest blogger on other sites and runs a Yahoo! Group. She has a page on Facebook. She even posts reader videos on YouTube.

King beekeeper coverTo share her tastes in literature, Ms. King created an account on Goodreads, where millions of members recommend, compare and discuss books.

She also bolstered reader engagement with the creation of twin writing contests. To celebrate the publication of The God of the Hive, she authorized the 2010 Mary Russell Fan Fiction Writing Contest. Contestants were asked to write about a character in one of the Russell novels as a teenager. A second contest, to celebrate National Library Week, invited readers to create their version of the ideal library, complete with drawings.

She even runs contests for artwork about Russell, Holmes, and their world where fans can submit and judge the works.

Her opinion on social-media efforts and their results are insightful for readers and writers alike. Edited highlights of the interview with Ms. King, who goes by LRK online, follow.

Creating a community
I have to say, it’s funny to be considered a “champion of social marketing” since I never feel I know much about what I’m doing! Mostly what I use the social networking sites for is to tie together my readers—I set up a site, or suggest an approach, and then more or less stand back while they play with it. I’m kept in the loop of course, and I’ll drop in regularly, but making use of enthusiastic volunteers means that I don’t have to do all of the day-to-day work, while at the same time letting a group of key readers—”fans” if you will—have the fun of working with a writer they enjoy and making her job just a little bit easier.

Murder of Mary Russell coverI think a number of writers do this in some form or another—Dana Stabenow’s “Danamaniacs” are a powerhouse of networking, for example—and so long as it is kept fairly clear which is the author speaking and which is one of the administrators, I find people are happy.

Mostly I write and post my blog “Mutterings” and stop in once a day on both the personal and fan Facebook pages. I visit regularly on the Virtual Book Club [now the Laurie R. King Virtual Book Club on Goodreads],  reading the discussion and dropping in on some of the other threads, but I don’t tend to post a lot there unless I have something in particular to contribute—the VBC is a place for the readers to freely discuss and get to know each other, and I don’t want to give the impression that I’m in charge of what they say. A great side-effect of the VBC is that whenever LRK readers meet at an event or a conference, they often already know each other remarkably well, even if they have never met in person.

As for Twitter and Goodreads, I work with volunteers on answering letters sent to me (or to Russell) through the sites, helping promote things like the recent Twitter Party. (I helped set this up beforehand but, being in a far distant time zone, I had very little to do with it at the time.)

All in all, I probably average an hour a day on this stuff, more when I’m working up to a book launch.

As for results, who can tell?

Rules of engagement: author Laurie King on marketing, Twitter and the power of social media

The author of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is buzzing over social media.

With a website, author and character blogs and a presence on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, Laurie R. King is a champion of social marketing. She posts in the voice of one of her characters, runs several writing contests for fans and invites readers to discuss the books among themselves. Her efforts go beyond promoting the work to promoting engagement with readers. That reveals an understanding of the collaborative nature of social media many corporations should envy.

“Mostly what I use the social networking sites for is to tie together my readers—I set up a site, or suggest an approach, and then more or less stand back while they play with it,” she told me in an email that previews the interview here. But first, some background on the Californian who has become famous for portraying the life of perhaps the world’s most-famous detective, and the woman who has become, some would say, an equal or better.

LaurieRKingCreating a voice
Over the past 20 year Ms. King has written 20 novels, including two series, one featuring San Francisco police detective Kate Martinelli and a second with Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. Her first book, A Grave Talent (1993), received the 1994 Edgar Award for Best First Novel and a 1995 John Creasey Memorial Award. She followed with the 1996 Nero Award for A Monstrous Regiment of Women and the 2002 Macavity Award for Best Novel for Folly.

Her books about Russell and Holmes have been applauded as “the most successful recreation of the famous inhabitant of 221B Baker Street ever attempted” (Houston Chronicle) “with the power to charm even the most grizzled Baker Street irregular” (New York Daily News). The first in the series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, appeared in 1994. The tenth, The God of the Hive, will be published on April 27.

She has more than 2 million copies of her novels in print.

Creating a buzz
To highlight the 20 books she’s written, and the publication of her newest novel Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes novel, Ms. King embarked this year on what she calls “Twenty weeks of buzz.” In addition to the traditional methods of promotion—book tours, radio and TV appearances—Ms. King has taken to the Internet with a passion usually reserved for her characters.

Her presence on the Internet is considerable. She created a website and a blog about her activities called Mutterings. She also created another blog, this one in Mary Russell’s voice, on MySpace. Mary, in character, posts regularly on Twitter (@mary_russell)—a technique used effectively by Helen Klein Ross (@AdBroad) to promote the TV show “Mad Men.” Ms. King writes as a guest blogger on other sites and runs a Yahoo! Group. She has a page on Facebook. She’s even posted author interviews and scenic footage of the British landscape where Mary Russell first met Sherlock Holmes on YouTube.

King beekeeper coverTo share her tastes in literature, Ms. King created an account on Goodreads, where some 3 million members recommend books, compare and discuss books.

She has also bolstered reader engagement with the creation of twin writing contests. To celebrate the publication of The God of the Hive, she authorized the 2010 Mary Russell Fan Fiction Writing Contest. The contest is also sponsored by the Letters of Mary Yahoo! group. Contestants are asked to write about a character in one of the Russell novels as a teenager. The second contest, to celebrate National Library Week, invites readers to create their version of the ideal library, complete with drawings.

She even runs contests for artwork about Russell, Holmes, and their world where fans submit and judge the works.

I interviewed Ms. King (who goes by LRK online) through a series of email exchanges on April 11 of this year. Here’s her reaction to the question about her social-media efforts, and their results.

Creating a community
“I have to say, it’s funny to be considered a ‘champion of social marketing’ since I never feel I know much about what I’m doing!” she wrote. “Mostly what I use the social networking sites for is to tie together my readers—I set up a site, or suggest an approach, and then more or less stand back while they play with it. I’m kept in the loop of course, and I’ll drop in regularly, but making use of enthusiastic volunteers means that I don’t have to do all of the day-to-day work, while at the same time letting a group of key readers—‘fans’ if you will—have the fun of working with a writer they enjoy and making her job just a little bit easier.

King God of the Hive cover“I think a number of writers do this in some form or another—Dana Stabenow’s ‘Danamaniacs’ are a powerhouse of networking, for example—and so long as it is kept fairly clear which is the author speaking and which is one of the administrators, I find people are happy.

“Mostly I write and post my blog ‘Mutterings’ and stop in once a day on both the personal and fan Facebook pages. I visit regularly on the Virtual Book Club [a community on her site], reading the discussion and dropping in on some of the other threads, but I don’t tend to post a lot there unless I have something in particular to contribute—the VBC is a place for the readers to freely discuss and get to know each other, and I don’t want to give the impression that I’m in charge of what they say. A great side-effect of the VBC is that whenever LRK readers meet at an event or a conference, they often already know each other remarkably well, even if they have never met in person.

“As for Twitter, Russell’s MySpace page and Goodreads, those I work with volunteers on, answering letters sent to me (or to Russell) through the sites, helping promote things like the recent Twitter Party (I helped set this up beforehand but, being in a far distant time zone, I had very little to do with it at the time.) That last, by the way, was an absolute gas—you can see the transcript of its silliness at What the Hashtag.

“All in all, I probably average an hour a day on this stuff, more when I’m producing something like ‘A Case in Correspondence’ or working up to a book launch. [“Case” is a series of communications between Mary Russell and other important people, a running mystery of sorts on Ms. King’s various sites, the significance of which won’t become clear until readers finish The God of the Hive.

“As for results, who can tell? Last year we put a lot of effort into online venues and I came onto the New York Times’ bestseller list at #9. This year, we shall see.”

The good word

Good writing can come from any place, not just fiction or poetry but ads, blogs and articles about business and science. It is muscular and inventive. It captures the heart and soul of characters, objects and readers. It nails that undefined emotion that’s been rattling around in our guts for years. And it’s largely invisible.

JohnPipkinGood writing lives in literature. Witness John Pipkin (Woodsburner) as he describes the fire that nearly consumed Concord: “Henry [David Thoreau] looks up . . . and sees a host of elfin flames leaping into the air, one upon the other, riding the wind. . . . The fire advances in a crooked line a dozen times the length of Henry’s arm. The pine needles, though quick to ignite, are easily spent, hardly fuel enough to sustain the flames for more than a few seconds at a time. And the fire knows this; it behaves in accordance with its own set of a priori truths. It must keep moving and consuming to survive.”

LaurieRKingIt lives in contemporary fiction. Watch Laurie R. King (The Beekeeper’s Apprentice) as young Mary Russell verbally jousts with the legendary Sherlock Holmes: “A series of emotions crossed his face, rich reward for my victory. Simple surprise was followed by a rueful admission of defeat, and then, as he reviewed the entire discussion, he surprised me. His face relaxed, his thin lips twitched, his grey eyes crinkled into unexpected lines, and at last he threw back his head and gave a great shout of delighted laughter.”

Good writing lives in blogs, as Joyce Maynard (Labor Day) shows in this edited version of her essay, “In the kitchen of discontent”: Seven years after I separated from my children’s father it was still hard going back to our old house. For the first time in ages, I stepped into my old kitchen. A bitter taste rose in my throat, like what happens when you think you’re going to throw up, but you don’t. I stepped into the hallway and glanced at the bed where all three of our babies were born. I went back in the kitchen, ran my hand over the wood of the kitchen counter, where I must have prepared a Joyce Maynardthousand meals, and looked out the window, to an eerie and beautiful streak of light from a full moon slashing across new fallen snow. I remembered another full moon night, when my husband and I had skated on black ice on the pond down the road, and another full moon night, when we’d fought so bitterly I paced the rooms of this house until dawn, lying down briefly next to first one of my sleeping children, and then another, unable to find sleep.”

It’s kindled by contemporary poets like Barbara Aline Blanchard (I Was a College Dropout), who writes in “Jealousy” about an ex: “She has knots in her eyes/trying to be civilized.”

Good writing thrives in mystery fiction, as in this excerpt from P.D. JamesThe Lighthouse: “This was the air of late October, still unseasonably mild with the first chill of autumn, the air faintly scented, as if the dying light had drawn up from the headland the concentrated sweetness of the day.”

You can find it in the complex and contradictory emotions of the characters that populate novels of suspense. Martha Grimes is famous for climbing inside heads to view life at the granular level, as she does with Inspector Richard Jury in The Old Silent: “Jury’s mood was as black as the biscuit Wiggins was now crumbling into a cup of water, and, irrationally irritated by his sergeant’s pursuit of some elusive and Platonic Idea of health just as he was reading of the kidnapping of one boy and the disappearance of the friend who had been with him.”

You can see it in the work of Ruth Rendell, as in these lines from Wolf to the Slaughter: “The shop squatted under a towering wall of brown brick. It seems to lurk there as if it had something to hide.” And this passage that fuses weather and emotion in a glowering tangle: “A high east wind blowing for a day and a night had dried the streets. The rain would come again soon but now the sky was a hard bitter blue.” With Rendell, even optimism carries a delicious menace.

BrettArendsFiction isn’t the only place good writers come to rest. Two lines from Wall Street Journal writer Brett Arends illustrate that point: “The economy seems to have staggered up from its death-bed (at least for now). And the mother of all fiscal adrenaline hits hasn’t even entered the bloodstream yet.” And Barron’s Alan Abelson is always the delightful iconoclast, as when he holds forth on wayward personalities: “Shakespeare was wrong. A rose by any other name wouldn’t smell as sweet. Suppose, by some nomenclatural misadventure, a rose was called a stinkweed? Does anyone really believe that his or her olfactory response wouldn’t be influenced by the mental abhorrence triggered by the very word ‘stinkweed’?” Overwrought? Yes. On target? Oh yes.

Beauty isn’t always truth and truth isn’t always beauty, at least not in the Judeo-Christian West. But good writing reveals the truth that lies at the bottom of the well. And when we read it, we experience a moment akin to a religious experience, or a good session with the therapist. All is revealed, and remembered, at least until the medication wears off. Which makes what these writers do all the more valuable.

Describing those invisible emotions with precision is an art. Nailing the zeitgeist is a calling, and few do it better than these authors, or business writers Allan Sloan and Stanley Bing. “My bank came up with a way to spare me the shame of overdrafts,” Bing writes in a cheeky essay in Fortune about the financial crisis of 2008-09. “What favor will they do for me next?” That’s the setup. Not wishing to keep us waiting, he delivers the punch line in the opening paragraph: “You know, we don’t thank our bankers nearly enough.”

Or our writers.