Writing the Real Key West

Today, we’re excited to host Lucy Burdette, author of the scrumptious and satisfying Key West Food Critic Mysteries. And if you’ve never been to Key West–aka “The Conch Republic,” and southernmost part of the continental U.S.–we guaranteed you’ll want to jump on a plane or drive your car there as soon as you get a taste of her fabulous series, especially the newest, A Deadly Feast!

Do you like to spot real places and people in the novels you read? Or might you think that reality in fiction falls into the category of “lazy imagination?”

My ninth Key West food critic mystery, A DEADLY FEAST, will be published on May 7. Since this series takes place in Key West, it’s very tempting to borrow characters and places from the island and put them in the story. If a writer can’t find interesting details in Key West, she surely must have her eyes closed and her ears stoppered.

In fact, for me writing without actually seeing the scene of the crime has gotten harder. An important part of my process is visiting the setting, either before or while developing the story. That way I see and hear what’s there—and smell it, and taste it—and the story ideas start to flood in.

Houseboat Row, the floating home community where food critic Hayley Snow and her roommate Miss Gloria live, is a real place. We pass it all the time on our way to the supermarket or the gym. It’s hard not to think we should pull into the little parking lot and stop in for a sample of whatever baked goods Hayley has in the oven and have a good chat with Miss Gloria.

Steve Torrence is a real police officer (and also a minister and marriage officiant.) He’s my go-to guy for questions about police procedure, and for this book he also answered questions about his experience with weddings. Hayley Snow has lots of doubts and fears about her upcoming nuptials, and channeling Steve helped me write those scenes accurately and with feeling.

Steve Torrence with Feast.jpeg

Officer Steve Torrence with a natty shirt and delicious read

Analise Smith is really the owner operator of the Key West food tours—it’s the perfect way to get a taste of lots of restaurants in Key West, in case you don’t have a lot of time on your visit. My husband, John, and I took both of her tours—she’s a Conch (born and raised in Key West) and so knows a ton of history—and she was very gracious about having a fictional death happen during one of her tours.

Analise Smith with Lucy Burdette.jpg

Analise Smith with author Lucy Burdette

And Martha Hubbard is a real chef. Her food is incredible and she was so helpful about what it’s like for a woman to work as a chef in a restaurant kitchen.


Martha Hubbard demonstrates her good taste in reading

There are a few problems with working this way. By now I’ve included so many real people in this series, that it’s hard to remember who is fictional and who isn’t. I want to write enough true details about the island and the town so that the conflicts ring true. But I don’t want to feel welded to the truth. Nor do I want to blaspheme real people or places. For that reason, I won’t include a restaurant for Hayley to visit that we have not enjoyed. I also think it would be wrong to set a murder, especially poisoning, at a real place.

So you see for me, reality and fiction are wound tightly together. But I’d love to hear your opinions: Do you like real people and places in the books you read—or write? Or do you prefer 100% fiction?

A Deadly Feast:

Feast.jpgBefore Key Zest food critic Hayley Snow’s family descends on the island for Thanksgiving and her wedding to heart throb Detective Nathan Bransford, she has one last assignment—a review of a seafood tasting tour conducted by her friend Analise Smith. But when one of the tourists collapses on the last stop, Analise begs her to investigate before the police destroy her business and shut down the local Key West eateries on her tour. Pressure mounts when Analise calls a second time to request that Hayley meet with Chef Martha Hubbard, who prepared key lime pies for the tasting tour and is terrified that someone poisoned her pies to ruin her reputation. Chefs all around town are preparing their versions of a Thanksgiving feast, but with a murderer on the loose, will Hayley and her friends have anything left to be thankful for?


About Lucy Burdette:

Lucy Burdette


Clinical psychologist Lucy Burdette (aka Roberta Isleib) has published 17 mysteries, including the latest in the Key West food critic series, A Deadly Feast (Crooked Lane Books, May 2019). Her books and stories have been short-listed for Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards. Read more at https://lucyburdette.com. You can also find Lucy on Facebook and Instagram and Bookbub.

20 thoughts on “Writing the Real Key West

  1. Congrats on your new release! I think it’s fun when I recognize real places in fiction. I would really only know it’s real if I’d been there though. I find it interesting you use real people. Obviously I recognize the big names (I think you included Obama and Diana Nyad in one of the books), but I didn’t know the others were real. I would think that would limit you in what you’re comfortable making them say and do. Or maybe they look forward to seeing what words you put in their mouths next?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for the comment Marla. If I’m going to look for a villain or a bad guy, I don’t use real people for exactly the reason you mention – it limits what I can say. For a character like Officer Steve, I ask him if I have a question about what I’m going to have him do, especially in terms of police procedure. With Martha the chef, I wove in some details that I’d read in a newspaper article. And also interviewed her several times. I think both of them enjoy being characters in the book! Something like President Obama or Diana Nyad, I can use them because they are in the public domain. As long as I don’t make them into too much of my character. I told you it’s confusing!

      Liked by 3 people

  2. I love your Key West setting and learning so much about it from your books. If I ever get to visit, there will be many familiar places, and I know I’ll feel right at home. I don’t think books need to be 100% fictional, it’s fun to see real people interacting with the fictional characters ~

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Having been to Key West (and loved the place!), I can tell you that the books recreate the scene–and quirky characters–to a T! I always want to book a flight to the island each time I read one of your books, Lucy. Thanks so much for visiting the Chicks today, and good luck with the new release!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Congrats on the new release — and thanks for hanging out with the Chicks today! I love the Key West Food Critic series (love your Advice Column Mysteries, too!) I think it’s cool the way you weave real people into your novels.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Thank you for including that picture of houseboat row. I was picturing boats that are much smaller.

    And yes, this series has definitely made me want to visit Key West.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. I was going to say the same thing Marla did, that it seems challenging to use real people in books because you’d have to honor their “realness” by not making them do or say something unsavory, yanno, like people do sometimes. (Actually, it never even occurred to me that authors did that!) I love reading about real places, though, and I always hope that the authors hang out there and get their facts straight. I’m too chicken to write about places I’ve never been, but I understand folks do that! Good luck with the new book. I’m sure it will be as wildly successful as the others!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Becky, great comment on striking a balance in this situation. I love how Lucy uses the real connection she has with people to enrich her books while always being respectful of the people and places. Have an open dialogue and write great books. It’s like having your key lime pie and eating it too! Great post Lucy.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Congrats on the new release, Lucy, and thanks so much for being here. I do love reading about real places and your series makes me want to visit Key West all the more! My mother-in-law grew up in the Keys, so I’ll be passing them along to her, as well!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I’d love to visit Key West some day. I think it’s fun when real people & places are included in stories. It’s fiction tho, so I don’t expect them to be exactly the same in real life.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Oh, this makes me want to hop on a plane right now! What a beautiful place. Thanks for a wonderful post–we’re so happy you are visiting us today.

    Love your books, Lucy. Congratulations!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I love these stories. Thank you for sharing, Lucy.
    I like reading about real places, either been to or yet to go to. I can check and see what was real, what was fictional, and what maybe has changed since the book cake out.
    Fictional settings are fun too. Although we all know some places are real, they just changed the name of it to protect the guilty. That’s the saying, right?
    Real people I’m just not sure about. That’s a serious poser.
    I can’t wait to get this one. I’m a couple behind, but I will get caught up.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. We have been going to the Keys and Key West since 1982. Out of the last 15 years, we have spent 13 of them in the Keys for as long as 2 months at a time. We stayed in Marathon, but got to Key West weekly. I love reading about real places and know of what you speak since we have seen them. You do have to watch who you base your characters on though. I love that you have set it on Houseboat Row and still worry that they will get rid of it and they have worked at that and making it smaller. Keep it up and keep Lucy out there. Thanks. All of the people that have never been there (as stated above) need to get down there before it is ruined like a lot of other places in the Keys. It is already different than it was in 1982. It is still quirky, but has gotten too touristy with all of the cruises ships coming in and the Northerners moving down and changing the feel of it. And they are changing the feel of being a quaint piece of the world. Many Mom and Pop businesses are gone and replaced with chains that we can go to in our hometowns. Sad…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Madeleine, I hate when chains take over from the mom and pops. It happened in my neighborhood on the Upper West Side in NY and now it’s happening in my Los Angeles neighborhood of Studio City.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Lucy, my apologies for the late response. LOVED this post and seeing all the real people. Your series is wonderful and your cover gorgeous. As to real places v. fictional, I like a combination. I tend to fictionalize real places, but in my current series, I include a chapter called a “lagniappe” that shares about the real places that inspired the fictional ones. I’m noodling with a series idea set in NOLA, though, and for that I might use real places. At least some.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We go to NOLA every year and I love books set there as I know the area. We started going there in 1976 doing Memorial Day with friends there for 5 years. We go to NOLA to meet with friends from Texas as it is 8 hours there about for each of us. And the food….


  13. Hi Lucy/Roberta, My apologies for being so late to the party. Just got back from a post-Malice trip–and tho I could read your great post on my phone, I somehow couldn’t comment (don’t ask, sigh). But as you know, your Key West Food Critic series is one of my all-time faves, and I’m always thrilled to read more of Hayley’s adventures. And yes, I most definitely use real-life characters (I mean, people) in my Ladies Smythe & Westin series!


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