Why I’m a Standalone Writer — Guest Lori Rader-Day

I am happy to welcome back Lori Rader-Day. We met at Left Coast Crime in 2014 when we were both debut authors. Our first books weren’t even out yet. Lori’s third book, The Day I Diedreleased on April 11th!

Lori:

[Movie trailer voice] IN A WORLD where the mystery genre is built upon series characters, Lori Rader-Day is a serial author of—standalones.

Hi, I’m Lori, and I write… standalones.

[Everyone chines in.] Hi, Lori.

[A voice from the back of the room] You’re safe here, Lori.

Am I? Am I really? I’m looking around and everyone else—wow, this is hard. Everyone else has a series. Some of them have two or three series. It’s easy to feel as though I’m not doing something right, you know? Like I am not a real mystery author, because I haven’t written a series yet.

Face it. Mystery readers love series. They are always going on about Miss Fisher and Vera and Dexter and Sookie and Longmire. I get it. There’s something great about knowing that the thing you like and have read or, since series books are sometimes turned into television, watched—there’s more! There’s more of this thing I really enjoyed! It’s all good news!

Publishers also love series titles. You know why? Because the marketing does its dang self when it comes to series books. Launch once, write into infinity, and your happy readers from the first book are likely to keep picking up later titles, as long as you let them know they are available. If new readers discover you later into the series, that’s also good news for your backlist sales. Again: all good news.

Wow, you guys are really turning me around on this—

[Voice from the back of the room] Stay strong, Lori.

[Deep breath] OK, right. There’s a reason I write standalones, even so. And the reason is—me. I like standalones. I like to read them. I like knowing that the book I’m picking up is the whole story, that I’m not missing three books prior to this one and hence a lot of backstory. I’m a little OCD on this. If I find a series book that I want to read, I can’t just pick up that new book. I have to go back into the backlist and find the first book. Why? Because I want the origin story. How did this character become an amateur sleuth? Why did they become a bounty hunter instead of a lingerie salesperson (Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum) or a private investigator instead of a lady of leisure (Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver)? I’m not going to skip THAT story of all stories they have to tell. That’s the best one!

So there’s my own reading practices to blame. I will take a good standalone over anything, any day of the week. A fully realized story and character, where everything is left on the page and nothing “saved” for a future book is my kind of book.

Though I do like series books. When I find a character who has the potential to carry an ongoing story of growth and change, of course I’ll read that—

[Voice from the second row] She’s wavering. Do something.

But the real reason that I write standalones has nothing to do with my reading habits and everything to do with my own attention span.

When I was writing my first two published novels, I was working a day job. A demanding one. To get my writing done, I had to use my lunch hour almost every day of the week. I was turning down lunch invitations with real friends to go spend time with these fake friends I was making up. I had to make myself want to be at the blank page, or I wouldn’t show up there. There were just so many other things to do. Life easily gets in the way.

So I had to keep things interesting in what I was writing—giving myself fun assignments like two first-person narrators or a really fun character with bad behavior—but I also had to keep myself engaged with the next thing. As in, when I finish THIS manuscript, I get to write something completely different. I get to write The Brand New Shiny Idea!

The Brand New Shiny Idea cannot be a second book with the same character, you see. That’s not Brand New or Shiny enough.

I guess you can say I use the next book, the next standalone by definition, as the carrot at the end of the stick of writing my current project.

[Mumble from somewhere in row four] Heavy-handed metaphor alert.

There are just so many story ideas out there to be written, and the ones that occur to me have me hopping from one character to another, from one setting to another. For now. Someday I hope one of the characters I write gives me another idea—and then another one—for what she wants to do. I will welcome that turn of events. But until then…

[Murmurs from among the group.]

[Voice from the back] You can do it!

I am a standalone writer. Thank you for your support.

Readers: Do you read standalones? Have you thought about writing one?

Lori Rader-Day, author of The Day I Died, The Black Hour, and Little Pretty Things, is the recipient of the 2016 Mary Higgins Clark Award and the 2015 Anthony Award for Best First Novel. Lori’s short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Time Out Chicago, Good Housekeeping, and others. She lives in Chicago, where she teaches mystery writing at StoryStudio Chicago and is the president of the Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter.

A Wicked Welcome to Cynthia Kuhn!

I’m thrilled to welcome Cynthia Kuhn back to the blog. The second book in the Lila Maclean Academic Mystery series, The Arts of Vanishing, came out this spring. I love academic mysteries–they speak to my years working at different colleges, and the folks I thought about. . . well, that’s another blog post. Welcome back Cynthia!

Books About Books

VanishingAlthough I love all kinds of books, those about books/reading/writing seem doubly satisfying. If you’re like me, always looking for more books about books, perhaps this will come in handy: a brief list of great reads that focus on texts in one way or another.

The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure
by William Goldman
The story about Princess Buttercup and Westley is purportedly the “good parts version” of a much longer history by “S. Morgenstern.” Goldman created a structure in which a fictionalized version of himself discusses what he’s “left out” of the other book in hilarious editorial asides throughout the text (which appear in red print in certain editions and in italics in others…I know this little factoid because my family loved the book so much that we bought various editions to give as gifts…before the film came out, even). It’s simply superb. The asides are just as fabulous as the rest.

Possession by A.S. Byatt
Possession is not focused on a single book—it’s more about a love of writing in many forms, mixed with a blossoming romance (multiple romances, to be precise). Things advance through the discovery of texts (letters, poems, etc.); the main characters are always reading and interpreting things they find, and the past and the present are woven together into one delicious tale.

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
This book features Thursday Next, a literary detective (what a dream career) who embarks on a case where characters are disappearing from texts. It is something like alternative history meets fantasy meets mystery meets humor and the plot is so creative as to be almost indescribable, but I promise that it’s a very fun read!

Book: A Novel by Robert Grudin
Book is as meta as it gets (metafiction is fiction about fiction: texts that draw attention to themselves as texts). From the title itself to the ongoing encyclopedia entries discussing the history of bookselling throughout to the footnotes that cheekily stage a revolution and so much more, the focus is squarely on bookishness. And it’s an academic mystery, with some delightful satire to boot!

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Don’t let the “classic” label throw you—although it’s been called the first (modern) novel, this is as readable and hilarious now as it must have been back in the early 1600s when it was written. It’s almost impossible to imagine how Cervantes conceived of writing such a brilliant text, with multiple levels of authorship and playfulness (very meta), without much in the way of predecessors. Not to mention that the unforgettable Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, and Dulcinea del Toboso have become cultural icons.

City of Glass by Paul Auster
This Edgar-nominated book is highly metafictional and complex. The protagonist Daniel Quinn (whose initials are not the only allusion to Don Quixote and that’s not the only name of the main character, either, but for the sake of this discussion, let’s leave it there) is a writer-slash-private-investigator caught up in a mysterious case that bends back upon itself in surprising and compelling ways. His efforts to solve the case raise all kinds of questions about identity, knowledge, and mystery. There’s a graphic novel version too, by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli, that offers a terrific noir-y adaptation.

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
This is not fiction but a memoir presenting a series of letters between a bookseller in London and a reader in New York City who become friends over time through their epistolary exchanges. They talk about books and think about books and send each other books/gifts and, well, you’ll have to read it to find out the rest. The film adaptation is incredibly charming and wonderful too (Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins star—case closed).

There are so many more…what are your favorite books about books?

———————

ck2x3Cynthia Kuhn writes the Lila Maclean Academic Mystery series, which includes The Semester of Our Discontent (nominated for an Agatha Award) and The Art of Vanishing. She teaches in Denver and serves as president of Sisters in Crime-Colorado. For more information, please visit cynthiakuhn.net.

Agatha Nominees for Best Contemporary Novel 2017

Hi Barb here. Since the nominations were announced, the Wickeds have hosted this year’s Agatha Award nominees for Best First Mystery, Best Short Story, and Best Historical. Today we’re bringing you the nominated authors for Best Contemporary Novel.

The Agatha Awards, given at Malice Domestic, honor the “traditional mystery,” and this year’s nominated novels span the length and breadth of the category–from cozy to edgy, amateur sleuth and professional, female protagonist and male, series mystery and standalone. I’m excited to be on this list with some of my favorite authors.

Agatha Award Nominees Best Contemporary Novel for 2016:

Body on the Bayou by Ellen Byron (Crooked Lane Books)
Quiet Neighbors by Catriona McPherson (Midnight Ink)
A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny (Minotaur Books)
Fogged Inn by Barbara Ross (Kensington)
Say No More by Hank Phillippi Ryan (Forge Books)

Here’s our question for the nominees: Did you know at the outset that your main character was strong enough to carry a book/series? How did this character change as you got to know him or her better?

Ellen Byron: I didn’t know for sure if my protagonist could carry a series, but I knew she had to. I was too in love with the fictional world of Pelican, Louisiana – and the real world of Cajun Country – to stop writing about it after one book. What I find exciting is how I’m always discovering new things about Maggie Crozat. A friend who was trying to wrap her head around the amateur sleuth angle of my series once asked me, “Does she see things other people miss because she’s an artist and very visual?” To which I replied, “She does now!”

I’m currently working on the fourth Cajun Country Mystery, and Maggie just shared she’s an only child, and was lonely growing up. This came as news to me because originally I gave her a brother, but then put him on the back burner because he didn’t contribute to the story. I always thought he’d come back someday, but Maggie has spoken. She’s declared herself sibling-free. I feel so close to her that sometimes I forget she’s not real. Those are the moments when I think, “Hmm, might be time to go back to therapy.”

Catriona McPherson: Oh, I wish this was a series! I miss them all now that the book’s done, even though it took me a while to get to know Jude – my heroine – well enough to write about her with confidence. I knew she was a librarian and she lived in London, but I wrote and wrote and couldn’t get the essence of her. She was flat, while all the other characters came to joyous life around her.

Then one day I was writing a scene in the dusty, disordered bookshop where the story takes place and the thought of all the dirt and mouse-droppings and dust-mites was making me feel itchy. Suddenly, I got that tingly feeling (different from the itching) and I knew that Jude was a cataloguer who’d given up working on the desk with the general public because she’s a germaphobe and the way people treat library books distresses her too much. I used to work in a public library and I know this from bitter experience. Worst bookmark I ever found in a returned book? Bacon rind. Anyway, germaphobe Jude came instantly alive and the book was plain sailing after that.

But it’s not the start of a series. The story of Jude, Lowell the bookshop owner and the irrepressible pregnant nineteen-year-old Eddy is done. Unless I think of another one . . .

Louise Penny: Initially my main characters were going to be the artist couple, Clara and Peter Morrow.  But as I thought about it more, I could see that while strong secondary characters, making them the center, the core of the series simply would not work, for all sorts of reasons, primary that I was afraid readers, and I, would tire if they had too much of them.

The other reason was that the head of homicide seemed so fully formed when he first appeared and I realized he was the one I needed.  Gamache could hold the series together, and that would allow the secondary characters to shine without the burden of carrying the series.  But he needed to be someone whose company I would enjoy, perhaps for years.  And so I made him a man I would marry, since this is, in effect, a marriage.  As it turns out, far from creating Armand Gamache, I actually transcribed him.  Gamache is inspired by my husband, Michael.

Barbara Ross: When I go back now and look at the original proposal for the Maine Clambake Mysteries, it’s amazing to me how much of Julia Snowden was there. Her family was there–her mother, sister, pain-in-the-neck brother-in-law, and niece were there, as was the still acutely felt absence of her late father. Her parents’ unusual marriage between a summer person who lived on a private island and the boy who delivered their groceries in his skiff was there, too.

This last was particularly important to me, because I am not and would never claim to be a native Mainer, so I needed to be able to write with the perspective of someone on the outside looking in. In her view, her parent’s marriage has left Julia forever on the outside, belonging to neither tribe in her resort town. (Her sister Livvie, on the other hand, doesn’t feel that way at all. Which is something that fascinates me, how people can be brought up by the same parents at more or less the same time, yet experience their circumstances utterly differently.)

But there was huge thing I didn’t know at the beginning–how Julia would act and react when put in a series of extraordinary situations. While I had a sense of her character, there was no way to know until those scenes were written. In that sense she continuously reveals herself to me.

Hank Phillippi Ryan: That is such a great question, because it made me examine my choices, and realize I hadn’t asked myself that question at all.

When I began the Jane Ryland books with The Other Woman, that started with a plot. And forgive me, here is a tiny bit of backstory: I had been reading about Governor Mark Sanford, who told his wife and constituents that he was “hiking the Appalachian Trail “when he was actually off with his mistress. And I started thinking about why anyone would be the other woman. It’s so destructive in every way. So someone was quoted as saying “You can choose your sin, but you cannot choose your consequences.”

And I thought: that’s my book.

So I needed a main character to tell that story. And it couldn’t be my first series character, Charlotte McNally, because the story was too big and textured for first person.
But I knew she would be a reporter, a tough, strong, curious, honorable, caring reporter.
And a reporter’s life is all about the search for the next big story. That is natural! So once I decided on “reporter,” it never crossed my mind that she wouldn’t be able to handle it.

But the fabulous part is how she came to life! Jane Ryland is 33-ish, when the book starts, so 64 year-old me, at the time, could not really draw on my experiences at that age, since that was a million years ago. That made me channel her through a different time…how that age would behave now. And I love how she showed up on the page! Confident, and not self-centered, and a little fearless when it comes to asking questions. Sometimes I am too worried about what other people think, and I was delighted to say she is somehow less timid than I am.

SAY NO MORE has her tackling a very difficult and sensitive subject. Not only testing her responsibilities as a journalist, but her emotional capabilities when dealing with victims and perpetrators of campus sexual assault. She turns out to be compassionate, and caring, and I love how she weighs her responsibility to the subject of her story with her responsibility as a journalist.

Yes, I know I wrote it, but you can’t MAKE a character do something they wouldn’t do. That’s when I know the plot is driving the story, not the character. Jane lets me know when I am doing that—it comes across awkward and “written.” And I think, oh, that’s Hank, not Jane. So when I am lucky, Jane reveals herself to me on the page, and I am so proud of her in SAY NO MORE. (Well, eventually.)

Readers: What do you look for in a character to carry you through a book–or series?

Ellen, Catriona, Hank and I will be at Malice at end of this month. If you’ll be there, we’d love to have you attend our panel, “Simply the Best: Agatha Best Contemporary Novel Nominees,” moderated by Shawn Reilly Simmons on Friday at 1:00 pm. (Or honestly, come talk to any one of us at any time.) Louise, we’ll all be thinking of you!

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Welcome Back Sara Rosett!

JHolden is the winner of Sara’s book! Thanks to all of you who entered!

I’m so happy to welcome back Sara Rosett! Mother’s Day, Muffins, and Murder is the TENTH book in her Ellie Avery Mystery series! I met Sara the same night I met Julie Hennrikus at the banquet at Malice Domestic in 2005. Sara had just sold her series to Kensington and we bonded over both being military wives.

Sara is giving away a copy of Mother’s Day, Muffins, and Murder! Leave a comment below by midnight Saturday EDT for a chance to win!

Dream vacation destination?

Anywhere in Europe. I’m not picky! I haven’t been to Prague and would loved to go there.

You’ve just won the lottery. What’s the first thing you do/buy?

This isn’t a physical thing, but I think I’d hire someone to clean my house. Having someone else clean for me would be true luxury.

Favorite mystery/thriller movie?

I love classic movies like North by Northwest and To Catch a Thief. A contemporary favorite is RED.

Favorite junk food? Chocolate. The darker, the better.

What’s one food you absolutely can’t stand? Cooked spinach. Raw spinach is great. Love it in salads, I just don’t like the soggy mess that it turns into when it’s cooked.

What’s one talent you wish you had?

I wish I could sing. I’m tone-deaf and clueless about most musical things.

M&Ms or Godiva?

Both please. I never set limits where chocolate is concerned.

Favorite time of Day?

I’m a night owl. I love curling up with a good book and reading past my bedtime.

Tell us a little about your book. Did an event or idea inspire the book?

Mother’s Day, Muffins, and Murder came about because I wanted to write a story set at an elementary school. I’d already explored many aspects of my main character’s life. Ellie is a military spouse, a professional organizer, and a mom. Other books in the series have focused on the military spouse and organizing angles, so I thought it would be fun to center the book on the school. When your kids are in elementary school, there is a high level of involvement—classroom parties, Field Day, and volunteering in the classroom. I wanted to write about those things and weave a mystery into the setting.

What’s your writing style? Outline or no outline?

Writing without an outline of sorts would be terrifying! I always have a plan with the major points the story will hit. Sometimes it stays the same; sometimes it changes a lot. When I’m writing a book, I write every weekday morning for a couple of hours. I start at the beginning and write through to the end before I go back and revise.

What do you wish you’d known about either the craft of writing or the business of publishing when you first started writing?

I wish I’d known how much publishing was going to change! If I’d had a crystal ball I would have been scribbling away, stock-piling stories for when the ebook revolution hit. I’ve learned a lot about being nimble and keeping an eye on the horizon in the last few years.

What’s up next for you? What are you working on now? 

I’m working on the draft of the seventh Murder on Location mystery, Death at an English Wedding, which is another series that I write. It’s set in England–(obviously!)– and I have the best time escaping to the misty green countryside in my mind when it’s blazing hot and humid where I live. It also gives me a reason to travel—research!

Sara Rosett is a bestselling mystery author. She writes the Ellie Avery series, the On The Run series, and the Murder on Location series. Publishers Weekly called Sara’s books “satisfying,” “well-executed,” and “sparkling.”

 Sara teaches what she knows through the How to Outline a Cozy Mystery course. She loves to get new stamps in her passport and considers dark chocolate a daily requirement. Find out more at SaraRosett.com and sign up to get a free ebook from Sara.

Readers: If you won the lottery what is the first thing you would do/buy?

 

 

Guest- Linda Reilly and a Giveaway!

FryingShame cover artJessie: I met Linda Reilly some years ago at the Malice Domestic conference. She was preparing for the release of her first mystery and was full of infectious enthusiasm for writing and for the sometimes surprising world of publishing. It is with great pleasure that I welcome her to visit with the Wickeds today!

A big thank you to Jessie Crockett and the fabulous Wickeds—Liz, Barb, Edith, Julie, and Sherry— for inviting me here today!

Funny thing is, I’m still not sure how I got here. Like most writers, I loved making up stories as a kid. If I wasn’t putting them down on paper, I was dreaming them up in my head. I was in sixth grade when my teacher gave us a list of vocabulary words and told the class to use all of them in a story. Back then, cowboy shows ruled prime time, so I used the words in a cowboy story and turned it in. The teacher waited until the end of the school year to read each story aloud to the class—talk about dragging out the suspense! I was elated when my name was announced as the winner.

It wasn’t long after that when a neighbor introduced me to Agatha Christie. Her name was Helen, and she lived a few doors away from ours. I don’t remember why I stopped in to visit her that hot summer day (probably to get out of the heat), but there was Helen sitting on her screened-in porch, reading from a paperback mystery. She told me how she loved Agatha Christie, and then lent me a few of her books. At the time, I was still devouring all the Nancy Drews I could get my hands on. But after that day something changed. Agatha Christie became my new heroine, and I couldn’t read her books fast enough. How did she write such intriguing mysteries? Where did she get her ideas? How did she know so much about poisons and other deadly devices?

I’ve since decided that the universe was already working its magic that day, setting things in place, preparing me to write mysteries. And yet, decades would elapse before I got serious about it. In 1994, I began writing short mysteries and submitting them to Woman’s World. Several were rejected. Then one day a different-looking envelope came in the mail. It wasn’t the self-addressed envelope I’d been sending with my submissions. It was an envelope (gulp!) from Woman’s World, with my first acceptance for publication.

So that’s how it started, and how I ended up here. In between, I toyed with writing psychological suspense. Then in 2008 I read an unforgettable cozy, triggering the memory of those charming Christie mysteries. I knew that’s what I wanted to write. I can’t help wondering if things might have been different if Helen had never introduced me to Agatha Christie on that lazy summer day. Would I have discovered her books on my own? Would I be a cozy writer today? Only the universe knows.

Writing the Deep Fried mysteries for Berkley Prime Crime has been an absolute blast. And I have to confess: A FRYING SHAME, which is being released today, is my favorite of the three. Once again, restaurateur Talia Marby is up to her eyeballs in sizzling hot oil—not to mention murder. And if she doesn’t figure out who killed the winner of the Steeltop Foods contest, the wrong chef is going to be sent off to prison, wearing that dreadful shade of orange.

I’m thrilled to reveal that I have a new series debuting late this year. In December, Kensington’s Lyrical Press will be releasing ESCAPE CLAWS, my first Cat Lady mystery, in e-format with a print-on-demand option.

Readers, I have to ask you: Have you ever experienced a moment in your life that you believe changed your path forever? I can’t wait to hear your thoughts! I’m pleased to give away a signed copy of A FRYING SHAME to one commenter.

Linda author photo 1Armed with a degree in Criminal Justice, Linda Reilly once contemplated a career in law enforcement. But life took a twist, and instead she found her niche in real estate closings and title examinations, where the dusty tomes in the Registry of Deeds enticed her into solving mysteries of a different sort. A dyed-in-the-wool New Englander, Linda lives in southern New Hampshire, where she loves solving mysteries of the cozy type. When she’s not pounding away at her keyboard, she can usually be found prowling the shelves of a local bookstore or library hunting for a new adventure. Visit Linda online at www.lindasreilly.com or at http://www.facebook.com/Lindasreillyauthor

 

 

Agatha Award for Best Historical Mystery 2017

Edith here. Last week we hosted the Agatha nominees for Best Short Story and Best First Novel. Today we’re lucky enough to have the nominees for Best Historical Mystery! Jessica Estevao (otherwise known as Jessie Crockett) and I, also nominees, are delighted to welcome D.E.Ireland (also known as Meg Mims and Sharon Pisacreta), Catriona McPherson, and Victoria Thompson to the Wicked Cozys. Here are (imagine me wearing my Oscar Ceremony gown here) the nominated books, in author-alphabetical order:

  • Jessica Estevao: Whispers Beyond the Veil
  • D.E. Ireland: Get Me to the Grave on Time
  • Edith Maxwell: Delivering the Truth
  • Catriona McPherson: The Reek of Red Herrings
  • Victoria Thompson: Murder in Morningside Heights

First, Jessica asks: In which time period do you set your books and how did you come to choose that era?

WhispersbeyondtheveilJessica:A few years ago my family purchased a vacation home in Old Orchard Beach Maine. By the end of our first summer there I knew I wanted to start a mystery series set in that town. The biggest question was when it should take place. After all, in a town as steeped in fascinating history as Old Orchard, a writer is spoilt for choice!  are So, I decided to begin at what was the beginning of the town’s real fame, 1898 when the original pier was built.  Between the cultural shifts, the technological developments and the architecture it proved to be a fertile time period to explore!

DE: Our Eliza Doolittle & Henry Higgins series features the main characters from Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, and begins mere weeks after the action of the play concludes. We couldn’t have chosen a better historical setting than 1913 London. Although the Edwardian era technically ended when King Edward VI died in 1910, the four years between his death and the outbreak of war is a fascinating mélange of old world traditions coming up against an upheaval in politics, culture and technology. In other words, a perfect time in history for an iconoclastic phonetics teacher to partner with a former Cockney flower girl turned lady. But a lady who demands to be regarded as an equal.

Of course, Eliza Doolittle may have learned to speak and act like a lady in the earlier Victorian era, but her prospects for respectable employment would have been limited. But 1913 is a perfect time for Eliza to become a teacher like Higgins, allowing her to help others to better themselves as she has done. While Shaw made Higgins something of a careless misogynist, we’ve let readers occasionally glimpse a warmer side to the arrogant professor – all thanks to a newly independent, modern Eliza. We are also far less inclined to rush Eliza into marriage with her ardent suitor Freddy, as Shaw intended. Instead, we decided our characters need to take full advantage of these tumultuous and exciting years before the war. It is a new, uncertain century, one suited for a pair as rebellious and resourceful as Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins.

Edith: My choice of era came about accidentally. I had moved to Amesbury , Massaschusetts in 2012, having bought a modest home built for the textile mill workers in 1880, but I had been in the area and a member of Amesbury Friends Meeting (Quaker) since 1989. In April of 2013 I read a local newspaper article about the Great Fire of 1888, which burned down many of the factories which made Amesbury’s world-famous carriages. A few days later I was walking to worship on Sunday morning, as Friends have over the centuries in Amesbury, and a story popped into my head about a 17-year-old Quaker mill girl who solved the mystery of the arson. (Historically it wasn’t arson, but hey, I write fiction.) After the short story was published in a juried anthology, the characters and setting refused to go away, so I invented the mill girl’s aunt Rose, an independent midwife.

As it turns out , 1888 is a really interesting time to write about! So much is in flux – electricity and telephones are starting to come in but aren’t widespread, midwives still predominate but physicians are starting to edge into the birthing world, and even women’s clothing is changing with the new emphasis on bicycling and physical fitness, leading to looser garments and fewer corsets.

Catriona: I don’t really set mine in a real historical era. Dandy Gilver lives in a corner of our culture that’s half the 1920s (eek – except I’m up to 1934 now!) and half the Golden Age of British detective fiction, where gently-born amateur sleuths solved murders. It’s never happened in real life, but in between the wars in the UK it seems normal.

MorningsideVictoria: The Gaslight Mysteries are set in turn-of-the-century New York City.  The series starts in 1896 and the most recent, MURDER IN MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS, is set in 1899. Oddly enough, the original concept was generated by Berkley.  They did that a lot in the early days at Berkley Prime Crime.  My agent called me one day to tell me she’d just had lunch with a Prime Crime editor who was looking for someone to write a series set in turn-of-the-century New York  City where the heroine was a midwife.  My agent thought of me, since I’d recently written a book set in that time period and I had been putting mystery subplots in my historical romances for a while.  They sent me their ideas for the series.  I liked some of them and threw out a few others.  Then I realized that my midwife, Sarah, would need a male cohort, preferably someone who would logically be solving murder mysteries, so I created Police Detective Frank Malloy. Berkley had suggested that Sarah be a poor relation of a rich family, but I made her the rebellious daughter of a rich family, which would give her entré into all levels of society.

My new series, The Counterfeit Lady Series which launches in November, starts in 1917.  I purposely chose this era because so much was happening in the world at that time.  Women were demonstrating for the right to vote, which finally came in 1920.  The US had just entered World War I.  The flu epidemic that killed millions is looming on the horizon.  Most importantly, for both my series, the issues people were concerned about then are the same issues we are concerned about today, which makes these books a lot of fun to write.

Great answers! Now, how about this one from me (Edith):

What’s the most fun thing you’ve ever done as research for your series? How about the hardest or most risky?

Jessica: This past summer I spent several days in Lily Dale, NY which is the world’s largest Spiritualist enclave. It dates to the Victorian era and was a delightful place to work and to conduct research. I atttended open air platform readings by a wide variety of mediums. I attended talks, visited the library and booked a private consultation with a medium. All in all it was a fascinating trip and it taught me a lot about what it would be like to live and work in the fictional world I have created for my characters to inhabit.

FinalGetMeToGraveFullCoverDE: Although learning about the Edwardian era is always fun, neither of us have done anything hard or risky regarding research for this particular series. However research was responsible for the plot of the first book in our series, Wouldn’t It Be Deadly, where a Hungarian linguist blackmails his students. In the process of researching Pygmalion, we discovered Shaw later wrote updated versions of the play, including screenplays and revisions to the 1912 text. One of the revised versions of Pygmalion contains a scene between Higgins and this Hungarian language expert, who boasts that he makes all his students pay, “and not just for lessons.” Voila! Researching Shaw’s revisions gave us our first murderer, with a motive already provided.

A similar serendipitous moment occurred in our second book, Move Your Blooming Corpse. Because the novel opens at Royal Ascot in 1913, we knew the real life Harold Hewitt would run onto the racetrack and be trampled by horses – in a copycat of Emily Davison at the Derby. While creating a colorful cast of suspects who would attend this deadly Ascot race, we learned Harold Hewitt survived being trampled and was sent to a mental hospital. Soon after, Hewitt escaped and was never captured. This true event allowed us to make Hewitt one of our murder suspects. We’ve never been happier to discover how correct Mark Twain was when he wrote, “truth is stranger than fiction.” All it took was a little research to prove it.

Edith: The most fun has to be riding in a real carriage (buggy, actually) drawn by a real horse on real outdoor trails. I wore my long linen skirt and hung on tight. The side of the carriage are low, there are no seat belts, and it’s bumpy! I fully understood what women as old as me and with knees as creaky as mine went through to relieve themselves in the middle of the night back then.

Called to JusticeIn one of my past lives as a childbirth educator and doula, I did attend a number of births, first as an observer and then as a support person (but not a midwife – I never wanted the responsibility a midwife carries). I know firsthand the risks of any birth, as well as the normal, healthy process that it is in the absence of risk factors. It wasn’t dangerous to me personally to be part of the miracle of these births, but I was present at more than one where things went seriously wrong due to no fault of the caregivers or the birthing mother. Those experiences have enriched my fictional descriptions of childbirth, both easy and otherwise.

 

Catriona: I’ve never put myself in danger. But fun, now? The way I do research it’s a 7b98a5ff-fdcb-478d-b41c-62517b4f7e22stretch to call it working. I go to castles, palaces, manor houses and various other stately piles in Scotland and I ask awkward questions until one of the docents demands to know why. Then I reveal that I’m writing a book (and produce an earlier one to prove it). And without fail, at that point they fetch an enormous bunch of keys and take me to my favourite place – “round the back”, aka the attics and dungeons where the public don’t get to go.  Bliss for a nosey parker!

 

Victoria: Funny you should ask. I did one thing, completely inadvertently, that really helped with my Gaslight research into what a midwife does.  I arrived at my daughter’s house for the birth of grandchild #3 to discover that, after two C-sections, she intended to have a natural home birth with a midwife and a doula. My duties included a trip to the hardware store for an adapter so we could fill the inflatable tub for a water birth (which didn’t happen) and keeping the two older boys, ages 6 and not-quite 2, occupied during her labor.

We were all present when Keira Jane made her dramatic entrance into the world and when she didn’t realize she was supposed to start breathing right away. A little oxygen and an unnecessary visit from the fire department paramedics set her on the right path, though, and I got way more information than I needed about how a midwife works.  I even got to see a placenta up close and personal (while the midwife explained its function to my oldest grandson and the younger paramedic) and watch as my oldest grandson cut the cord. Was it fun?  Oh, yes, when it was all over.  Was it hard?  Let’s just say explaining the situation to the 911 operator while my newborn granddaughter turned blue was pretty difficult.  Was it risky? Not for me, since I didn’t actually have heart failure and it all turned out fine. Keira is now 7 and just as feisty as you’d expect. I’ll never forget the 911 operator asking me if she was breathing, and when I looked over the midwife’s shoulder to see, Keira was staring up at me, all pink, as if to say, “What’s all the fuss about?”

Thanks, ladies. See you all in Bethesda at the end of April! Below, left to right: Catriona McPherson, Victoria Thompson, Sharon Pisacreta, Meg Mims. You can find Jessica and Edith in the Wicked Cozy banner.

Readers: What era do you like your fiction set in? What risks would you take – or not take – in the name of research?

Agatha Best Short Stories 2017

Edith here, super delighted to welcome my fellow nominees for this year’s Agatha Award for Best Short Story!

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Let’s have a Hip-Hip-Hooray for:

  • Gretchen Archer for “Jinx” (Double Jinx: A Bellissimo Casino Crime Caper Short Story)
  • Barb Goffman for “The Best-Laid Plans” (Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional)
  • Edith Maxwell (that’s me!) for “The Mayor and the Midwife” (Blood on the Bayou: Bouchercon Anthology 2016)
  • BK Stevens for “The Last Blue Glass” (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine)
  • Art Taylor for “Parallel Play” (Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning)

Because it’s also St. Patrick’s Day today, let’s dish on an Irish connection in your story.

Gretchen: In my Agatha nominated short story “Double Jinx,” the luck of the Irish is with July Jackson, Holiday Host at the Bellissimo Resort and Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi, as she tries to locate the missing body of a previously undead zombie, foils a thief trying to make off with three million of the casino’s dollars, and meets the man of her dreams.

“Double Jinx,” is a Halloween story, complete with Asylum, the Musical playing to a sold-out audience in the theater, a Spooky Rich slot tournament in full swing, and a Black and Orange Ball after a Biohazard Buffet. Chances are if we could visit with July today, she’d be hosting the casino’s Lucky Leprechaun poker extravaganza, where her players would be shamrocked from too many Four Leaf Clover martinis, and the pot of gold at the end of the tournament rainbow has gone missing.

What a great idea! I’m off to write it. Read “Double Jinx” here: https://www.instafreebie.com/free/uQrJO

BK Stevens: Around the end of the sixteenth century, Spanish conquistadores came home from South America with plundered Incan gold and also with a strange new vegetable—the potato. In Ireland, potatoes soon became the staple crop, star ingredients in dishes ranging from colcannon to stew. But when the 1840s brought the potato famine, over a million Irish people died, and a million and a half more had to leave their homes, mostly for the United States. Apparently, some Irish-Americans still observe the tradition of defying the weather to plant potatoes in their gardens on Saint Patrick’s Day. So, in good times and bad, potatoes have played a role in Irish history. They also play a role in my Agatha-nominated story, “The Last Blue Glass.” Until Edith challenged us to link our stories to Ireland, I didn’t really realize that —I’d never thought of my characters as having any particular ethnicity, and I’d definitely never thought of potatoes as symbols. But they do crop up (horrible pun) at crucial points in the story.

“The Last Blue Glass” is framed by two dinner parties. At the first, newlyweds Cathy and Frank entertain four guests. A novice cook, Cathy has to call her mother long-distance for advice on how to keep peeled potatoes from turning brown—and to endure her mother-in-law’s snide remarks when the potatoes are underdone. Cathy becomes a far more skilled cook after Frank suddenly decides to ditch his insurance job and buy a bar. She labors to create a bar snack called Spud Balls—scooped-out spheres of potato browned in butter and carefully spiced, designed to draw in customers and support Frank’s dream. It’s a labor-intensive dish, reflecting Cathy’s devotion to her charming, impulsive husband. But their marriage is undermined by Frank’s weaknesses and by the manipulations and betrayals of people he trusts. At the end of the story, the newly widowed Cathy invites the same four people to dinner again. As she cooks up a final batch of Spud Balls, she thinks about the revenge she’s planning to take on one of her guests, the one she sees as most responsible for Frank’s death. You can read “The Last Blue Glass” at http://www.bkstevensmysteries.com/book/the-last-blue-glass/ ; and if you’d like to try the recipe for Spud Balls, you can find it at http://www.bkstevensmysteries.com/recipes-from-the-stories/.

Barb: “May the luck of the Irish be with you.” That sounds nice, doesn’t it? But it’s debatable whether the sentiment truly is. Some say the phrase stems from the Irish people being lucky—having overcome so much adversity. But others think it’s a sarcastic saying—something you’d say to someone you don’t like. My main character in “The Best-Laid Plans,” Eloise Nickel, would run with the latter meaning when it came to her nemesis, Kimberly Siger.

Both Eloise and Kim are mystery authors, and both are about to be honored at this year’s Malice International convention, Eloise as the lifetime achievement honoree and Kim as guest of honor. They once were friends, but Kim long ago moved on to friendships with more useful authors. Now, with the convention looming, Kim has been rude to Eloise in a big magazine article. Eloise vows revenge—a series of mishaps to occur at the convention to poor down-on-her-luck Kim. But to her dismay, it seems the luck of the Irish might really be with Eloise.

We mystery authors like to make our characters suffer. It keeps things interesting, and boy does Eloise suffer during the convention. Yet she soldiers on despite multiple setbacks. As she does, the reader gets a good glimpse into her psyche and even, at times, her humanity. But is the luck of the Irish with her or not? You’ll have to read the story to find out. It’s available at http://www.barbgoffman.com/The_Best_Laid_Plans.html. Happy reading and happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Art: When my dad reached the question about ancestry in the 1980 U.S. Census, he read me the list of suggested answers, and when one or the other of us said, “Irish. Let’s be Irish,” he marked it down and made it official. The odds are good that we do indeed have Irish background; North Carolina is rich with Scotch-Irish heritage, and one of the earliest Scotch-Irish communities in the state was founded in the same small county where my parents were born some two hundred years later. Plus, given that my birthday is the day before St. Patrick’s Day (yesterday as you’re reading this!), I’ve always felt an additional kinship here—always on the lookout for any potential Irish ties, whether they’re really there or not.

Given the question on the blog today, I’ve found myself in a similar situation—since there’s nothing Irish in my story “Parallel Play,” which follows a young mother and her son through a perilous afternoon in Northern Virginia. It was pointed out to me that there’s lots of rain in my story, since folks often think of Ireland’s rainy weather, and in one scene, that young mother and the father of another child in the same play group share a pot of tea, which I could probably call Irish Breakfast (one of my own favorite flavors) except for the fact that I already called it Lapsang Souchong in a post on the story at Mystery Playground a few weeks back.

So I was basically at a loss here… until circling back to that image of my father and me tackling the census: the two of us teasing through, at some fundamental level, who we were, our family, our larger connections—not just by birth but literally, in our case, by choice. To a degree, that’s what “Parallel Play” is about: what it means to be a family, the choices you make for your family, and in my story at least, the consequences too. That’s a loose connection to something Irish, I know—but it’s the one for me that stands out most. “Parallel Play” is linked here: http://www.arttaylorwriter.com/books/6715-2/

Edith: First – happy birthday, Art! But I now realize what a silly idea this was, to ask my fellow nominees to link their stories to something – anything – Irish. I am hard-pressed to do so with my own story, “The Mayor and the Midwife.” No, I’ve got it! Amesbury Detective Kevin Donovan is definitely Irish. When the mayor of New Orleans comes to the northeast corner of Massachusetts in 1888 to visit his pregnant daughter, he meets Quaker midwife Rose. He tells her he had also arranged a meeting with the town’s bigwigs – but none of them would have a drink with him. Rose takes him to meet Irish Kevin, who she is quite sure would be happy to discuss crime-fighting with the mayor over a tankard of ale. But when the mayor’s son-in-law is murdered, he and Kevin – and Rose – end up working a lot more closely to solve the crime. You can read the story here: https://edithmaxwell.files.wordpress.com/2016/12/the-mayor-and-the-midwife.pdf

Who we are:

DOUBLEJINXfrontGretchen Archer is a Tennessee housewife who began writing when her daughters, seeking higher educations, ran off and left her. She’s the bestselling author of the Davis Way Crime Caper series by Henery Press. She lives on Lookout Mountain with her husband, her son, and a Yorkie named Bently.

Malice 11 front cover proof 2 - FINALBarb Goffman edits mysteries by day and writes them by night. She’s won the Agatha, Macavity, and Silver Falchion awards for her short stories, and she’s been a finalist for national crime-writing awards nineteen times. Her newest story, “Whose Wine Is It Anyway,” appears in the mystery anthology 50 Shades of Cabernet, which was published earlier this week. When not writing, Barb runs a freelance editing and proofreading service. She blogs every third Tuesday at www.SleuthSayers.org. In her spare time, she reads, reads, reads and plays with her dog.

cover-herren-blood-on-the-bayou-200x300pxNational best-selling author Edith Maxwell is a 2017 double Agatha Award nominee for her historical mystery Delivering the Truth and her short story, “The Mayor and the Midwife.” She writes the Quaker Midwife Mysteries and the Local Foods Mysteries; as Maddie Day she writes the Country Store Mysteries and the Cozy Capers Book Group Mysteries. Her award-winning short crime fiction has appeared in many juried anthologies, and she is honored to served as President of Sisters in Crime New England. Maxwell writes, cooks, gardens, and wastes time as a Facebook addict north of Boston where she lives with her beau and three cats. She blogs here at WickedCozyAuthors.com, at Killer Characters, and with the Midnight Ink authors.

last-blue-glass-hitchcock

B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens is the author of Interpretation of Murder (Black Opal Books), a traditional whodunit offering insights into deaf culture, and Fighting Chance (Poisoned Pen Press), a martial arts mystery for young adults. She’s also published over fifty short stories, most of them in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Eleven of her stories are collected in Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime (Wildside Press).

CC_StormWarning_FINALArt Taylor is the author of On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. He has also won two Agatha Awards, an Anthony Award, a Macavity Award, and three consecutive Derringer Awards for his short fiction, and his work has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories. He is an associate professor of English at George Mason University.

Readers: What’s your favorite short story of all time? Do you prefer reading short or long crime fiction?