"You're alone in the house at 3 in the morning. What is the scariest sound you hear?" asked bestselling mystery novelist Carol Higgins Clark.
The crowd of about 1,500 murmured, looking for an answer.
Clark solved the mystery herself: "A car screeching? No. The toilet flushing."
Ordinary stuff makes extraordinary suspense, said Clark during a 45-minute session Sunday at the 11th Annual St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading. Clark and her mother, bestselling mystery author Mary Higgins Clark, talked about the writer's life to hundreds of aspiring novelists and devoted fans.
It was all part of the Festival of Reading, an annual event at Eckerd College drawing thousands of book lovers to a one-stop book shop, where their favorite authors talk and sign books, children attended story hours, poets read their work aloud and readers or writers can attend hands-on workshops suited to their tastes.
Among the 24 prominent authors appearing this year were Jill Nelson, Rita Ciresi, Laura Lipson, Valerie Boyd, Eric Marcus and Thomas Sanchez.
Festivalgoers also learned how to start a book club and the ins and outs of publishing. They saw performers, listened to spoken word offerings, got books appraised or learn how to write a mystery story.
Both of the Clarks spent their time explaining where they get their plots, why they write and what sometimes happens to people who aren't courteous to them.
For example, the younger Clark said, in doing research for one book, she needed to attend a butler school in England. The school told her no, she said, in unkind words.
The author eventually solved the problem.
"That's when I took my mother's advice," she said. "If someone is mean to you, make them a victim in a book."
It's wonderful therapy, said her mother.
Mary Higgins Clark said she bases most of her books on real situations and that everything she sees or hears might end up in a story.
"Everything is grist for the mill," she added.
Mothers and daughters from around the Suncoast flocked to meet the Clarks.
Aditi Gupta, 23, came with her mother, Anubha.
The Palm Harbor residents have been reading both Clarks' books for years. The elder Clark has written 28, the younger, seven.
"I like the fact that all the main characters are women," said Aditi Gupta, a recent graduate of Tufts University. "I started reading her in the eighth grade."
Aditi's mother, 47, got hooked on the recommendation of a friend.
"I love the mystery," Gupta said, hugging her daughter. "We love to read. This is very special that Mary and Carol are here."
When the 11 a.m. discussion ended, fans lined up outside for autographs.
Sue Manipole, 45, of Clearwater, was first.
She came with eight books. Three for each author and two that the Clarks co-wrote.
"I've been here an hour and a half waiting," said Manipole.
Both authors write books that a mother won't be ashamed to give to her daughter, said Delneise Gipson, 37, of St. Petersburg.
Gipson brought her daughter, niece and a handful of Clark books to the speech.
"My daughter and niece have been reading her for years," Gipson said. "It's because you can read without worrying about the trashiness."
_ Adrienne Samuels can be reached at (727) 445-4157 or samuelssptimes.com.