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!







Thankful for Our Readers–First Week Winners

thankful-for-our-readers-giveaway-3That’s right, folks, it’d the end of our first week of giveaways for Thankful for Our Readers, the Wicked Cozies all November giveaway. We used for all our drawings.

Drum roll please.

November 1, winner of A Killer Kebab by Susannah Hardy is RoBeader! Please send your mailing information to Susannah Hardy at susannah dot hardy at yahoo dot com

November 2, winner of Murder Most Fowl by Edith Maxwell is Marihelen Ligon. Please send your mailing address to edith at edithmaxwell dot com.

November 3, winner of Dying for Strawberries by Sharon Farrow is Cynthia E. Blain! Please send your mailing address to barbaraross at maineclambakemysteries dot com.

November 4, winner of Body on the Bayou by Ellen Byron is Celia Fowler! Send your mailing address to Ellen at ellenbyronla at att dot net

Congratulations, winners!

If you didn’t win, please keep entering. We’ll be here all month.




thankful-for-our-readers-giveaway-3Our month of giveaways continues! Today, our guest Ellen Byron offers up a copy of her new book, Body on the Bayou the second  in the Cajun Country Mystery series and some swag!

To be entered to win, leave a comment on the post. Winners for the week will be announced in a special blog post on Sunday.


When Plantation Shudders, the first in my Cajun Country Mystery series, body-on-the-bayou-smaller-2was published, I figured promoting it meant some blog posts, a few Facebook updates, and the occasional tweet. Boy, was I wrong. There is so much more to do than that, and the last year has been one learning experience after another, tears followed by triumph… and then followed by tears again. But as I now hit the computer to promote Body on the Bayou, the second book in my series, I proudly share five of the skills I’ve managed to conquer.

  1. I always wondered what the odd button reading “Print Screen” on my keyboard was for. Who knew it actually meant, “Print Screen?” Apparently everybody but me, because when I put the question “How do I take a screenshot?” to the Sisters in Crime Guppy group, a half dozen people patiently wrote back, “Hit the print screen button and then Control-V.” Ta da! Here’s a screenshot from an early draft of this very post:


  1. Snipping tool. Ah, but how to turn a document or a PDF into a JPEG? That’s where a program called “Snipping Tool” comes in. (And the fact I even know what PDFs and JPEGs are is testament to what I’ve learned this year.) Some far more skilled person than yours truly guided me to the Windows menu where this computing miracle resides. I use it define an image and then save it as a JPEG. Which is exactly what I did with the example below.


  1. Canva. I howled to the winds when I first tried Canva. Frankly, I still barely get it. But I bumbled my way through the site enough to create this Facebook banner. So… yay, me!ellencanvacopy-of-copy-of-ava6
  2. Making folders. Oh, the heady pleasure of discovering I can create folders to store my trillions of docs, emails, and photos. This may seem like Computing 101 to a lot of you, but to me it was an eye-opener. I do this so often now that I’m not including a picture because I wouldn’t know which “Folder” option to choose from. Email? Documents? Photos? The options are endless and wonderful – at least for me. Less so for my husband who has to back up all my data.

These are just a few of the skills I’ve picked up in my publishing journey. I’ve also created newsletters and sponsored contests. With some assistance from my teenager – this is where those impossible creatures come in handy – I’ve made bookmarks, business cards, and brochures. (Vistaprint and GotPrint are my new BFFs.) But perhaps the important task I’ve conquered is number five…

  1. Learning how to use an electric wine opener.

ellenwineopenerTwo years ago, I won a basket at a school silent auction that included a fancy electric wine ellenwinebottle opener. I’m embarrassed to admit I was too intimidated to use it. But when I discovered I’d left my manual opener at my recent book launch party, I panicked. Then I decided that if I could master the above steps 1-4, I could figure out how to use an electric wine bottle opener. Success!

And thank goodness, because nothing says “Man, do I need a glass of wine” like a battle with any of those previously mentioned skills.

Readers, what computer skill – or skills – have you mastered?


ellen-byron-fnlBIO: Ellen’s debut novel, Plantation Shudders, made the USA Today Bestsellers list, and was nominated for Agatha, Lefty, and Daphne awards. The second book in her Cajun Country Mystery Series, Body on the Bayou, offers “everything a cozy reader could want,” according to Publishers Weekly, while the Library Journal says, “Diane Mott ­Davidson and Lou Jane Temple fans will line up for this series.” A TV veteran, Ellen has written for many hit sitcoms, including Wings and Just Shoot Me.