Thanks to the intrepid crowd who braved wet weather – and the aftermath of a small, but efficient, tornado which tore through Connecticut leaving a trail of fallen trees and dark homes behind – to come into the warmth and bright lights of Barnes & Noble in Westport on Wednesday. We had lots to talk about – you can find the highlights below.
Up first, this Saturday morning, May 19, (but after the Royal Wedding…) Fairfield County Writers’ Studio is offering a master class by best-selling mystery author, publisher and all-around great guy Chris Knopf. Titled:The Secret Life of Successful Mysteries, it’s geared toward mystery writers, but all novelists will benefit from Chris’ expertise. From 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. or thereabouts Continue reading →
Clinical psychologist Lucy Burdette (aka Roberta Isleib) has published 14 mysteries, including the latest in the Key West food critic series, Fatal Reservations. As you’ll find out below, she’s written more than one mystery series, but she’s used her real name for some and Lucy Burdette for her latest. Like many crime writers, she’s a member of Mystery Writers of America and a past president of Sisters in Crime. Her next book, Killer Takeout will be released in April.
GC: First of all, why the pen name?
LB: As I was signing the contract with Signet/NAL, my new editor asked if I’d be willing to use a different name for this series. This would differentiate the Key West series from my previous advice column and golf lovers mysteries which were not as cozy. I was happy to do whatever would help sell books. And I was very happy to choose my grandmother’s name, Lucille aka Lucy Burdette. I get a kick out of carrying her name forward.
GC: Did you pick Key West as the location for the novels because you live there?
LB: About nine years ago, my husband and I drove down the string of islands and bridges that leads to Key West, agreeing that we’d never live in a place so fragile, so isolated, so exposed. But instead of listening to our practical voices, we fell in love and moved in.
The island is totally gorgeous, with its palm trees and turquoise water and eyebrow windows and gingerbread trim. And there’s a thriving artistic scene, and fabulous food, and an amazing literary history.
About this same time, I was planning to pitch a new cozy mystery series. Where should I set it but in Key West, with its delicately balanced development, and its conflicts between old-time Conchs and newcomers, between the richest of the rich, the homeless, and the millions of partying visitors. To find characters and plot ideas, all I have to do is step outside the door…
GC: You have a great website, with a lot of features like recipes (with photos) and blog updates. Do you have help with it, or do you do everything yourself? I’m asking because I know writers need a web site, and many are too frightened of it to even try.
LB: I had help setting this up on WordPress, which is fairly easy to learn. Now I can update things myself, which I’m woefully behind in doing. Look around for websites you admire, and then ask the writers who they used for design, etc. There are tons of resources out there, and many inexpensive designers who can make a website look professional.
GC: You previously wrote a mystery series based on a sleuth who was an advice columnist and another who was a golfer. Now there’s the restaurant critic. Are these all personal interests of yours or did you have to research these careers?
LB: Golf, psychology, and food are all great passions for me. If I love the subject, I find the book easier to write.
GC: Like most mystery readers, I love a series. Seeing the main character develop, and finding out about the people in their private life. Hayley Snow lives with an eccentric 80-something, Miss Gloria, and I love their relationship. Is it easier to write the crime-solving, or the personal life of your characters?
LB: I‘ve always been a huge reader. I tore through the Nancy Drew mysteries, then moved on to my brother’s Hardy boys adventures, gobbling lots of teenage romances in between. What stays with me even years after reading a book are the characters and their conflicts. So I shoot for that when writing my own series. I have lots of ideas of where the characters’ lives will go–and that is my favorite part of writing. But they can still surprise me, which makes it more fun!
Liz Mugavero is a writer determined to make a living with her writing. Right now, she works in marketing and writes at night (she’s been writing since high school). Based on the mystery series she’s writing, the Pawsitively Organic Mysteries, I’d guess that she’ll succeed. I read A Biscuit, A Casket, which has a Halloween setting in the otherwise charming Connecticut town of Frog Hollow (sadly imaginary, I think). It’s actually the second book in the series followed by The Icing on the Corpse, which came out earlier this year. The first, Kneading to Die, is an Agatha Award nominee, and shows how Stan got to Frog Ledge and turned into a pet chef. I had a few questions for her about how she came to write the series.
She will also be part of the New England Crime Bake, a crime-writing conference in Dedham, Mass, from November 6-8 for those of you who can make it.
GC: I enjoyed A Biscuit, A Casket – it’s a truly original concept for a cozy mystery. Did you pitch a publisher with the idea, or did they pitch you? (Or tell me how you got the idea and then got it published.)
LM: Thanks for having me here, Gabi! And so glad you enjoyed Biscuit. .Sisters in Crime New England is the reason this series was born. My agent, John Talbot, contacted then-president Sheila Connolly looking for writers to develop cozy proposals. She put the call out to the entire membership and I was one of the writers who responded. We talked about my interests and how we could turn that into an idea that would sell and came up with gourmet pet food. I wrote a proposal and it sold less than two months later, and that was where it all started! GC: Writing a series must be a little like writing a soap opera, in the sense that you have to have an underlying storyline that continues from book to book. How hard has it been to come up with a cliff-hanger at the end of a book?
LM: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Stan’s character arc – to me, it’s just as important as the mysteries. So as Stan makes the transition from corporate girl to taking ownership of her business and her life in ways she never really has, she’s growing and changing all the time. She’s looking very closely at relationships in her life, ending some, making new ones, revisiting family issues. The cliffhangers have come from those explorations, and to my delight they’ve manifested quite nicely in each book (so far!). GC: I know you have another career that must take up quite a bit of your time. How on earth do you find time to get the books written?
LM: That’s a great question! I’ll let you know when I figure out a good answer….
I am on a constant quest to improve my time management skills, and also to be more of a plotter than a pantser. (For those of you not familiar with the terms, plotters plan out the book in advance while pantsers write into the headlights!) I’ve gotten better at that, mainly because deadlines are a great time management boost, but also because I discovered a fabulous book about plotting that’s changed my life. Plot Perfect by Paula Munier – if you’re a writer, buy it! It gives you an easy-to-follow guide to creating your story that makes a ton of sense. I can’t recommend it enough. And even for a pantser like me, sketching out the big picture has made a big difference in focusing my time and attention.
GC: Who writes the recipes for the pet treats?
LM: For the first book, I muddled through the recipes. I didn’t love it, largely because I felt very time-crunched because of the reasons above. Then as I was getting into the second book, fate brought The Big Biscuit into my life. It’s a pet food bakery in Franklin, MA and the owner at the time agreed to become my consultant and provided me with recipes. When he sold the business to his baker, she agreed to keep up the tradition. The treats are lovely and I know they’re healthy, just like Stan wants!
GC: Your heroine is called Stan. How did you come up with that name? And, of course, what’s in store for our heroine Stan in the future?
LM: In a previous iteration of my day job, I was asked to do a colleague a favor during a business trip and get a video of someone in a field office. My colleague didn’t tell me anything about this person, just to “call Stan.” When I called Stan, I expected an older, balding man smoking a cigar on the other end of the line. Instead I got a young blond woman, and I thought, Wow! What a great nickname for a woman to catch people off guard. So I stole it!
In the future, I expect to see Stan evolving more as her own person and businesswoman. In Murder Most Finicky, coming out in December, she’s still navigating the idea of what working for herself looks like after a celebrity chef sets his sights on her as the next big thing. This book was a lot of fun to write. Stan’s stepped out of Frog Ledge in this one, and takes a trip to her home state of Rhode Island where her family is unexpectedly involved in the murder that unfolds.
Stan will also continue to figure out her personal relationships, both with her family and with Jake. I’m excited to see how that will evolve as she starts to take down the carefully-constructed walls she built over the years to focus on external success. She’s really come a long way. I’m proud of her!
Nina Mansfield is a prolific writer whose credits include numerous full length and short plays which have been produced around the world. Her short mystery fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Mysterical-E. She’s a member of the Mystery Writers of America, and I met her recently at the CrimeCONN conference, organized by the New York Chapter of the MWA, which includes Connecticut. Swimming Alone, her most recent work, marks a departure for her in that it’s a full length mystery novel for Young Adults.
GC: I know you’ve written many short plays, and had them produced. And you’ve written a play for young children. What made you want to write a YA novel, and a crime novel, at that?
NM: I have always loved mysteries. As I youngster, I loved reading Nancy Drew Books, Two-Minute mysteries, and books by Lois Duncan, Joan Lowery-Nixon and Agatha Christie. I fondly remember curling up on the couch with my mother to watch Murder, She Wrote, Columbo and those Perry Mason television movies that came out in the 80s. I have also spent nine-years teaching high school in both New York City and the suburbs. I began reading a lot of young adult novels when I was in graduate school for teaching. One of the things I discovered my first year teaching was that many young adults craved novels with suspense. I wanted to write a YA novel that would keep even the most reluctant reader on the edge of her or his seat.
GC: My readers are interested in YA books, because they are so popular right now. Could you explain the difference between YA and Middle school and new adult books for us?
NM: First of all, we have to remember that these are all relatively new labels that were invented for marketing purposes. However, what I think writers should bear in mind is that children of different ages have different concerns and interests. Think about who you were as person at age eleven. What did you like? What intrigued you? What were your fears? Now think about age sixteen. Your perspective probably shifted during those years. If a writer is choosing to write specifically for a particular age group, the concerns and interests of that target audience need to be kept in mind.
To give some very basic guidelines, young adult books generally have a protagonist who is high school age, and these books tend to have a major romantic component. With middle grade, the protagonists are younger, and the themes generally focus on things such as friendship, or navigating social norms. But those are very general guidelines. And honestly, new adult is a very new category for me, so I can’t really speak to that!
I think that Swimming Alone actually departs from the traditional idea of the young adult novel, as the mystery in the novel is far more important than any of the romantic elements.
GC: Your character, Cathy has a very distinctive voice, with a nice sense of humor. How did you manage to capture the voice of a 15-year-old so well?
NM: Well, thank you! I wrote Swimming Alone while I was teaching high school, so I was definitely influenced by my students. High school students talk a lot, and they often don’t care that an adult is in the room—so I certainly overheard more than my share of teen conversations. I also still have a snarky 15-year old hiding inside me, so I really worked on channeling her as I was writing the novel.
GC: Your setting, Beach Point, sounds like a fun place, apart from the serial killer on the loose, of course. Is it based on a place you know, and if so, what made you think of setting this kind of a crime there?
NM: The town of Beach Point is very loosely based on my childhood memories of Misquamicut, Rhode Island. When I was very young, my grandparents would rent a bungalow there. But in reality, I fused a few beachside towns into what would eventually become Beach Point. I have always been attracted to seaside settings—both personally, and for my writing. It’s funny, because I don’t ever remember making a conscious decision to set SWIMMING ALONE at the beach. The idea just came to me, and I started writing.
GC: Is Cathy likely to have any more adventures like this one? In other words, is she likely to become part of a series?
NM: I have thought of writing another Cathy Banks mystery. If I do, the next book will be set in New York City. But right now, I am working on a young adult paranormal thriller currently titled In Deep. I don’t want to say too much about this current project, but it is also set near the water—this time on Long Island Sound. This book is also much darker than SWIMMING ALONE. The characters are less naïve than Cathy. They’ve already experienced some trauma in their lives.
As a lover of historical fiction and of mystery novels, I was intrigued when Thoreau at Devil’s Perch came to my attention, because it hit two of my buttons at once. It begins as Dr. Adam Walker meets Thoreau one day just as the latter has discovered the body of a young black man in the woods. Using Thoreau’s encyclopedic knowledge and with the assistance of his cousin, Julia Bell, Adam seeks to prove that the young man’s death was not an accident and to find the person responsible. Great stuff!
The fact that the book was written by B.B. Oak, who turn out to be a husband and wife team, Ben and Beth Oak, made sense, since the story is told from Adam’s and then Julia’s point of view in alternating chapters.
I’m always interested in people who create collaboratively. There are many very successful novelists whose work is written “with” someone else (like James Patterson) and other cases where a child takes over from an ailing parent after collaborating on a couple of books (Dick and Felix Francis). And there’s Charles Todd, a mother and son collaboration. The results can be excellent, but I sometimes wonder how it actually works, day to day. So I decided to ask B.B. Oak (both of them…).
GC: I understand that you met at BU and discovered each other and a fascination with Henry David Thoreau. A fascination is one thing, a murder mystery with him as one of the main characters is something else. What put the idea in your head, and whose idea was it?
Ben – It hit us like a bolt of lightning.
Beth – Are you talking about the day we met? Or the day we came up with the idea of a Thoreau mystery series?
Ben – Both. But to answer Gabi’s question, the idea of having Thoreau as our crime-solver seemed to come out of the blue.
Beth – But of course nothing really does. It was more like all our past experiences and knowledge and interests meshed. We’d been talking about writing a mystery together for a while. But we weren’t interested in writing about modern forensics, so we decided it should be a historical mystery featuring a fictional character who was a master of observation and deduction à la Sherlock Holmes.
Ben – And then one fine spring day, as we gazed across Walden Pond, I remarked how Thoreau, with his acute analytical skills as a naturalist and professional surveyor, would have made a great detective.
Beth – It was in the fall, not the spring. And maybe I was the one who made that remark.
Ben – You will allow at least that we were at Walden Pond?
Beth – For sure. And I don’t actually recall who initially suggested the idea. it just seemed so obvious, once we started talking about it, that Thoreau had all the qualities needed to be a good sleuth. His friends would have
Ben –And he was a loner with his own code of honor, like so many great detectives in literature, from Holmes to Marlowe to Spenser to Reacher. After all, Thoreau was the one who coined the phrase ‘marching to your own drummer’.
GC: Can you tell us something about the way you work? Who does what?
Ben – The first thing we do when we start a book – and we’re writing our third book now – is plot it together. This is the fun part because we keep things free and easy, tossing out ideas, no matter how ridiculous, and letting them lead us wherever they may.
Beth – Of course sometimes they lead us down a dead end and we have to turn around and get back on the right track. But better for that to happen in the early planning stages than half-way through the book.
Ben – Once we start writing, we work from the same story outline so we’re both going in the same direction when we write separate scenes. But we keep the outline sketchy to leave room for creativity.
Beth – Which gives Ben the opportunity to head off in another direction entirely! Sometimes that works out great.
Ben – And when it doesn’t, Beth makes sure to let me know.
Ben – We both like doing the research for our books. In fact, we like every part of the process.
Beth – Even the disagreements
Have you ever had a serious disagreement about the novel as you were writing it?
Ben – Not often.
Beth – All the time!
Ben – Depends on how you define serious. We’ve never had a situation where one of us said, if the other doesn’t buy this idea, the books isn’t going forward.
Beth – That’s not to say we don’t have animated, and occasionally heated discussions. But that’s a good thing because our strong feelings give our books energy. And for the most part, it’s great to have a writing partner. Two heads really are better than one when devising an intricate murder mystery plot.
Ben – And we each have different strengths to add to the writing. Beth is better at dialogue and emotional scenes and I prefer writing action and descriptive scenes.
GC: Does Beth write Julia’s journal and Ben Adam’s?
Ben – Yes.
Beth – Well, that’s the simple answer anyway. But then I revise Adam’s journal and Ben revises Julia’s. The work goes back and forth during each draft.
GC: Does this experience encourage or discourage you from writing a sequel?
Ben – Our second book, Thoreau on Wolf Hill, is already written and will be released Nov. 2014.
Beth – And like our first, Thoreau at Devil’s Perch, it’s more than a murder mystery, with a love story and mystical overtones running through it.
Ben – In our second book we return to the fictional town of Plumford (right next door to Concord) in the middle of a consumption epidemic that has given rise to long-buried vampire superstitions. We based the story on incidents that actually took place in New England in the 1800s. Thoreau even mentioned one in his journal. In our fictional account, a vampire is thought to be responsible for several ghoulish deaths and Thoreau, Adam and Julia set out to quell the rising fear in town, which may lead to violence against innocent people.
Beth – Our third book, Thoreau in Phantom’s Bog, is still in the outline stage. It’s about the Underground Railroad, in which Thoreau and his family were very active participants. The research is fascinating!
One of my internet friends, Pauline Gaines of the Perils of Divorced Pauline, runs a regular series of posts called “Blogger Space” in which authors send in a photo of their workplace and write about it.
And I follow author Jessica Speart on Facebook and Goodreads. She writes a fun series of mystery novels (nine of them) about a former actress Rachel Porter, who now works for the New Orleans Fish & Wildlife Service, uncovering and solving crimes in the Louisiana bayous. Her latest book, Winged Obsession, is a non-fiction account of real butterfly smuggling, and it reads like a thriller. So when I saw a photo of her on Facebook, sitting at her laptop with what appeared to be a large furry cat on her lap, I needed to do some investigating myself. And she was gracious enough to answer my questions, even though I had mistaken her dog for a cat, and some of her answers were completely unpredictable…
P.S. A note on blogging etiquette: I checked in with Pauline, who kindly said that she didn’t mind if I adapted her idea and ran it as an interview format. Thanks, Pauline!
GC: I couldn’t help noticing from your photo that you had a dog on your lap. What can you tell us about that?
JS: Josie is a Lhasapoo.(I believe this is a Lhasa apso/poodle mix. GC) She’s a rescue dog that I brought back to Connecticut from Anchorage, Alaska. I was attending the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention a few years ago and was presented with the idea of taking Josie home with me just minutes before boarding the plane. The decision turned out to be easier than figuring out how to get a dog with “cage aggression” into a soft-sided carry-on bag. Yet, I somehow accomplished it. She wouldn’t calm down and I ended up hiding her under a blanket on my lap for the entire trip home. She’s become my constant shadow and writing companion. She wasn’t feeling very well that day and I wanted to make her comfortable. A pillow on my lap did the trick. It’s amazing what we’ll do to accommodate our pets.
GC: Where do you usually write?
JS: It varies. There are lots of windows and sunlight in the kitchen. I like to write there when my husband isn’t home. Otherwise, I lock myself in my bedroom and office during the day. It’s become a No Trespassing zone.
GC: What time of day feels most productive for your writing?
JS: I work best in the morning. Too many other things are on my mind by the time 3 pm rolls around.
GC: What’s your favorite snack to have around when you write?
JS: Now we’re getting into dangerous territory. As Mae West said, “When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad, I’m better.” On a good day, I’ll snack on almonds. On a bad day, it’s definitely dark chocolate.
GC: What’s the last book you finished in this spot, and what are you working on in the photo?
JS: The last book I finished was my narrative nonfiction Winged Obsession. Right now, I’m working on a thriller that has nothing to do with wildlife. At least, not that kind of wildlife.
So, with a dog, some almonds and some dark chocolate, you, too, can be a successful writer…In the meantime,you can find Jessica on her very attractive website, on her author Facebook page: and on Twitter.
Connecticut has a mysterious secret. It’s the fourth annual Mystery Festival hosted by the Easton Library. If you read or write mysteries you won’t want to miss this fun weekend where you can meet authors and find out how to hone your craft. Even if you write in a different genre, you might find the plot structuring techniques of mystery writers helpful.
This year’s festival is to be held on Saturday April 14th and Sunday April 15th at the Trumbull Marriott Hotel. The guest of honor will be best-selling author, Michael Palmer http://www.michaelpalmerbooks.com/ whose latest novel Oath of Office is to be published by St. Martin’s Press on February 14th.