I’m a sucker for a good mystery. More specifically, along with most mystery lovers, I love a mystery series. And I particularly like a female detective as my chief protagonist. Maybe it’s something about the triumph of a woman who uses logic and deduction to sort out murder and mayhem that feels so good. Whatever the reason, I was delighted to meet Jane Cleland, author of the Josie Prescott “antique” mysteries, at the Westport Library recently. She was there to talk about her most recent book, Dolled Up for Murder, which revolves around the use of antique dolls for smuggling purposes, and she was kind enough to grant me an interview.
JKC: I’ve just finished the eighth Josie Prescott Antiques Mystery, Lethal Treasure. The pivotal antique is silent movie posters. It will be out in June 2013. As to how I got started… after the publication of my last business communications book, Business Writing for Results, my literary agent said, “You use so many examples and anecdotes in your writing… have you ever thought of trying your hand at fiction?” It opened up a door for me that I hadn’t realized I wanted to walk through.
GC: You’re following in a great tradition of women sleuths. Do you read many mysteries yourself, and if so, are there any you particularly like, or that have influenced/inspired you?
JKC: Thank you. I love mysteries… it’s why, when I decided to write a novel, I gravitated toward the mystery genre. My favorite author is Rex Stout. He wrote the Nero Wolfe mysteries.. I also love Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series. As to female sleuths, I like Sue Grafton’s books. I also enjoy Patricia Cornwell. My favorite female sleuth remains Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.
GC: For readers who don’t know, can you explain the genre “cozies”?
JKC: Cozies (the term comes from tea cozy, the doily cover that keeps a tea pot snug), refer to traditional mysteries that share certain qualities—it’s code to readers. First, I should clarify that a traditional mystery is itself already a sub-genre of crime fiction. Cozies are a sub-sub-genre. Second, here are the characteristics readers expect from a “cozy.” They usually:
- Revolve around characters who live in (or who are visiting) a small town.
- Feature an amateur detective, often a woman.
- Avoid on-stage violence, graphic sex, and cussin’.
- Provide an organic reason for the detective to do research… she might be the town gossip, work as a reporter, or run the post office, for instance.
- Include domestic motives—the killer and the victim are known to one another… you won’t find random serial killers in a cozy.
- Involve solutions that depend on the deductive ability of the sleuth. Forensics are less important in cozies than the detective using her “little grey cells.”
GC: Your heroine, Josie, lives in Rocky Point, a fictional seaside town in New Hampshire. Have you ever been tempted to have Josie travel elsewhere? (Think of the research you could do in Paris…)
JKC: I have considered this, but in cozies, the setting becomes a character. Readers want to spend time in the sweet and decent community I’ve created. Recurring characters also become important. Readers want to spend time with the people they’ve come to care about. One reader wrote that I’d created the kind of work world where everyone would want to work. Isn’t that lovely? To me, it means that readers want to know what’s up at Prescott’s, want to be there. Also, Josie depends on a cub reporter named Wes for intelligence, and since Wes works for a local paper, no way would they fund his trip to Paris. (Nor would he have the same depth and breadth of contacts in Paris that he has in Rocky Point.)
GC: You have a recurring cast of characters. How do you keep the characters fresh?
JKC: Several plots have developed around the recurring characters, which allows readers to learn more about them. For all of the recurring characters, whether they’re featured or not, I focus on having them do as they normally would. The characteristics are the same; it’s the situations that vary.
GC: Each of your novels highlight different types of antiques. How do you do the research? Specifically, do you work from your notes as you’re writing? Or do you learn as much as you can and then write from memory? I ask this because historical fiction writers sometimes work one way, sometimes another.
JKC: I do a boatload of research and keep copious notes. I remember a lot, but I often refer to my notes as I’m writing.
GC: Plotting is key in mystery novels. How much do you plot in advance?
JKC: I work from a synopsis. A synopsis is, in a sense, an aerial view of the story. I know how I’ll get through the woods from Maple Street to Elm Street, which is to say, from start to finish, but it isn’t until I’m actually on the path, tripping on unseen roots and stumbling into the brook that the details of the plot develop.
JKC: I have a tiny office in my Manhattan apartment where I work, but I find I write all the time. I write on planes and trains. I write as I do dishes. I’ve been known to write in my sleep, by which I mean I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night having thought of something and grab a piece of paper or dash to my computer to get it down.
9. Where can readers find you (online links)