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Murder mystery writer J.A. Jance entertains readers with pages out of her real-life story

Author J.A. Jance answers questions from a crowd of over 100 at the Prescott Valley Library on Wednesday, March 21, 2018. (Les Stukenberg/Courier)

Author J.A. Jance answers questions from a crowd of over 100 at the Prescott Valley Library on Wednesday, March 21, 2018. (Les Stukenberg/Courier)

Don’t you dare make murder mystery thriller writer J.A. Jance angry. You might end up as a serial killer in one of her books.

Before an audience of more than 100 people at the Prescott Valley Library on March 21, J.A. Jance delighted fans with insights into how she composes her continuing series of characters with some secret insights into how she picks her villains — such as the creative writing professor-turned-homicidal maniac.

Rejected for a creative writing course at the University of Arizona because of her gender, J.A. Jance said it took her a few years but crafting a character inspired by the sexist professor proved the perfect revenge — without anybody getting hurt.

A tall and witty woman, J.A. Jance didn’t become a New York Times bestselling author overnight. She sold life insurance for a time to support her two children after a divorce from their alcoholic father. Before that she spent two years as a high school English teacher on a reservation in Tucson she describes as seven miles beyond “the end of the Earth.” She also spent five years as a school librarian.

The first series she wrote, beginning with the book “Until Proven Guilty,” revolves around the main character, detective J.P. Beaumont, who is an alcoholic. Unlike Jance’s former spouse who died of chronic alcoholism in his 40s, Beaumont eventually checks into a rehabilitation center in Arizona and gets sober.

Jance noted she has readers who tell her they preferred Beaumont when he was a drunk.

“I worry about those folks,” she said.

Applauded for her true-to-life characters, Jance admits she adheres to longstanding writing advice, “write what you know.”

In her mystery series featuring main character Cochise County Sheriff Joanna Brady, Jance revisits a place she once lived, Bisbee, and creates a spunky woman whose life experiences are not exactly parallel to her own, but close. In describing her sometimes off-tempo relationship with her own mother, Jance tells her audience if they read “Desert Heat” they have met the South Dakota farm girl with a gift for three-part harmonies and who cut down pine tree to make a coffin for an “old love.”

She confesses he was an “arrogant twit” when she first graduated college and penned a book of poems, one in which she summed up her wise and very capable mother as “just a housewife.”

“Then an interesting thing happened to me — I had kids,” she said to loud laughter.

Indeed, Jance said it was her mother who bribed her into becoming a college student. With two older sisters who ended up married with babies right out of high school, Jance said her mother wanted her to do something more. Her incentive — take full load of high school classes, do well, and forget dusting Venetian blinds on the weekends.

“I’m smart, but lazy,” said Jance who was the first person in her family to earn a college degree.

Her story about earning a University of Arizona scholarship, though, is bittersweet.

As a Bisbee High School senior, Jance petitioned to allow a pregnant classmate to march with her fellow graduates at commencement. Administrators asked her to stop. When she refused, her father got a call from the schools superintendent offering the scholarship. The caveat: she had to halt the petition. With no other means to pay for college, Jance complied. But with regret.

At a book signing years ago, Jance said, the brother of the classmate came up and said “thank you” for trying to right a wrong for his by-then deceased sister.

In an audience question-and-answer, one reader asked Jance to finish a story she started at a prior event about a strange man who ended up in her bedroom.

In a roundabout story that starts with a sick dog and ends up with the capture of a burglar in her Tucson backyard, Jance showed her audience why she is a bestselling writer. The tale starts in one place and ties up in another with plenty of laughter in-between. In this true-life story, her husband’s objections to rising vet bills cease as the canine thwarted a potential home invasion.

The event and book signing was tied to the release of her latest book, “Duel to the Death,” the 13th thriller in the Ali Reynolds series.

Ali’s character emerged from what Jance describes as a serious bout of writer’s block in the early 2000s. In her disgust over the loss of a favorite female news anchor deemed too old to be on air, Jance creates a new sleuth, one who delves into cybercrimes, Ponzi schemes and artificial intelligence.

Prescott Valley resident Joan Melquist is an avid reader who attended Jance’ lecture as a birthday treat.

Fellow reader Kathy Huston of Prescott said she Jance is a “delightful” speaker with characters that “exemplify her life.”

“There’s always a surprise,” said reader Nancy Camrod of Prescott.

Library assistant Carol Swenson said Jance is a repeat guest lecturer because of her strong fan base.

“She’s always entertaining,” Swenson said. “She has a really good rapport with her fans."