By Connie Berry
Recently I was asked in an interview to give my best advice to new writers. Part of my answer went like this: “Attend conferences if you can afford it. Make connections with other writers, both published and unpublished. They will become your advocates and encouragers.” This is certainly true for Grace Topping, the USA Today best-selling and Agatha-nominated author of the Laura Bishop Home Staging Mysteries. We met through Carolyn Melvin, another Buckeye Crime Writer, at Malice Domestic in 2014. We were both unpublished at the time and almost instantly became great friends. Our first books came out around the same time. We regularly read and comment on each other’s work. Grace is someone I can count on for sound advice and encouragement. Her latest, Upstaged by Murder was released in April.
When professional home stager Laura Bishop enters a competition to become the next TV home staging star, she figures it will be murder — but she doesn’t expect it to include a body. As tensions rise and rivalries rage, a coded notebook flips the script and Laura’s on the case.
But she’s not alone. Her closest confidantes pitch in by sleuthing, eavesdropping, and even staging a sting to protect those near and dear. Yet she’s still corralling a runaway teen, sparring with a handsome detective, and handling the shock of her life with a blast from her past. All while creating a cozy cabin retreat fit for first place.
Amidst constant cameras and glaring lights, Laura tries to style the stage and pull back the curtain on a killer before her career — and her life — get cut.
Welcome to Buckeye Crime Writers, Grace! Since our journeys to publication have taken similar paths, I’m especially interested to ask you about your experiences.
CONNIE: First, I know you were a technical writer for years. How did you make the switch to writing fiction — and mysteries in particular?
GRACE: As a technical writer, I wrote all kinds of deathly boring things like policy, procedures, speeches, and instructions on how to operate complex computer systems. It didn’t get more exciting than that. I realized one day that although I had written about a wealth of things, most of it was now occupying a landfill somewhere. That was rather disheartening. I wanted something I had worked on to have a longer life than that. Then a friend invited me to go with her to Malice Domestic, a conference for fans and writers of traditional mysteries. I had long been a mystery reader, but I’d never heard of Malice. When I read the names of the authors who would be there, I couldn’t sign up fast enough. Hearing them speak, I discovered they were everyday people who set out to write something they hoped people would read. It made me wonder if I could do the same. I had always loved mysteries, so I decided to write one. The seeds to my becoming a mystery writer were planted at Malice.
CONNIE: It seems to me that technical writing and fiction writing must require different skills. What was the most difficult part of making that switch, and what is the one skill you really had to work at?
GRACE: I had been accustomed to writing very lean — to get to the heart of the matter and give people only the information they needed. Nothing else. So after taking a course at my local community college on writing mysteries, I wrote a complete mystery, with a sum total of 45,000 words. Less than half of what I would need to get it published. I quickly learned that I needed to include a lot more. Over the years, the plot and structure of that mystery stayed the same, but I learned to add description, emotion, and impressions — the things that flesh out a book. To make it less plot driven and more character driven.
CONNIE: Since you’ve now finished three books in the Laura Bishop home staging series, I’m interested to learn how you keep track of all the little details of character, setting, and plot? Do you have what some writers call a “bible” to check?
GRACE: I keep a list of details from each book, but it is so easy to start writing and not refer to it. You think you are going to remember all the details, but you don’t. In my first book, my main character sold her Volvo to help finance her new home staging business. In the second book I referred to the car as a Mercedes. Later, that didn’t sound right, and sure enough, when I checked my book “bible,” I saw it had been a Volvo. Fortunately, I caught it before publication.
Sometimes things get past me and even past my editor. In the first book, I called a local shop Antiques and Other Stuff. In the following book, I mistakenly called it Antiques and Other Things. Fortunately, I liked the new name better. It does make me wonder if any reader has noticed. So, rule number one: keep a book bible. Rule number two: refer to it. Don’t rely on your memory.
CONNIE: You have a busy life outside of writing with your husband, two daughters, a grandchild, a large circle of friends. What is your secret to a balanced life? Do you have a writing routine that you stick to?
GRACE: If someone has found the best way to balance writing and everything else, I wish they would tell me. It’s a hard balance. First, I take care of the things for my family and friends, which has absorbed a lot of my time over the past two years. For my most recent two books, that left me facing the crunch of meeting contract deadlines with little time to write them. So although I have a year between books, I’ve ended up writing them very quickly in four or five months. Having a contract deadline is a great motivator to write every day. So my routine during that time included sitting in front of my computer late into the evening instead of reading or watching television. With things somewhat more settled in my life now, I’m hoping to do better with my next book. We’ll see.
CONNIE: How would you advise writers today who are hoping to get published? What is the most important thing you did for your career as a prepublished writer?
GRACE: I took me ten years of writing off and on to finally get published, so there are many things I learned along the way I could advise writers about. Things like learning your craft, joining writers groups, don’t give up, etc. But the most important thing I learned was to take time to make sure my manuscript was really ready for submission — not to submit it to agents or publishers before it received feedback from other writers and was thoroughly edited. I learned this the hard way by submitting an early manuscript to my dream agents and receiving rejections pretty quickly. Most agents, once they have rejected your work, won’t look at it again, no matter how much more you’ve worked on it. Looking back, I’m so thankful none of them published it. After receiving those rejections, I realized I had a lot to learn. Each time I learned something new, I revised and renumbered my manuscript. I was up to 38 versions (minor and major) by the time my first book was published.
If I could add one more thing — find what works for you. I spent years writing in third person. It was only when I switched to first person that my writing came alive. I wish I had discovered that a lot sooner.
CONNIE: I know you’ve just launched your newest book, Upstaged by Murder. Is it too soon to ask you about your plans for the future?
GRACE: Upstaged by Murder came out in April, and it fulfilled a three-book contract with my publisher. Since the publisher’s future is somewhat in question, I don’t know if I will be writing any more books for them. So I have to decide whether to find a publisher who will take on my existing series, independently publish a new book in that series, or interest a publisher in a new series. Until I make a decision, I’m focusing on promoting my current books and may try my hand at writing short stories, which is harder than it sounds.
CONNIE: Best of luck with your writing, Grace. Thanks so much for stopping by Buckeye Crime Writers!
Grace Topping is an Agatha Award finalist and the USA Today bestselling author of the Laura Bishop home staging cozy mystery series. She’s a recovering technical writer and IT project manager accustomed to writing lean, boring documents. Let loose to write fiction, she’s now killing off characters who remind her of people she dealt with during her career. She is the former VP of the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime, the Membership Guppy of the SINC Guppy Chapter, and a member of Mystery Writers of America.