Buckeye Crime Writers member Ray Wenck has published an astounding 13 books in the past two years. In addition, he’s experimenting with new vehicles in publishing, such as Amazon Vella. Eileen Curley Hammond caught up with him recently to get an update on what’s been going on in his writing career. Ray will be presenting in August, so keep an eye out for more details. Ray’s books are available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Sony, and all your other favorite book sites.
ECH: That’s a lot of writing. Can you tell us some of your history? I believe at one point in time, you were traditionally published. What made you decide to go the independent route?
RW: I wasn’t given much choice. Just when my second novel, Random Survival, hit the top 20 on Amazon, the publisher announced it was going out of business. A second publisher saw the book’s potential and contracted the series. We rushed three more novels out before they too went out of business. Maybe it was my books. I was left with 13 titles that no one else would touch because they had already been published. To get them back on the market, I had to learn how to publish them myself.
ECH: You also write multiple genres: mystery, thrillers, post-apocalyptic, and humorous YA adventures. What was the appeal of these different categories?
RW: I never started out to write multiple genres, at least not as many as I have. I started writing mysteries with the Danny Roth series. After writing four books, I had an idea for a new series, and Random Survival was born. There are now eight titles in the Danny Roth series, and with the latest release in May, seven in the Random Survival series. The other stories come to me from out of nowhere. They rattle around in my head for a while demanding to be let out. I write them and worry about the genre later. So now I have two paranormal stories, an urban fantasy series, and three different portal fantasies. It may not be the right thing to do, but I write them and figure out where they go later.
ECH: I saw from your bio that you are also a chef. Does food feature in your work? And have you ever thought of writing a cozy mystery?
RW: Food does feature in the Danny Roth series. He finds himself the owner of a restaurant that other people try to take from him.
I have thought about doing a cozy, and maybe one day will, but if I go too far into a story without killing someone, my body begins to shake like I’m in withdrawal. I lose consciousness, and when I come out of it, bodies are everywhere. (On the pages, of course. Well, except for that one time, but that’s another story). I did write one story where no one dies. I didn’t realize it until one of my Betas pointed it out, but so far, that’s as cozy as I’ve gotten.
ECH: Ha, ha. No worries, people get killed in cozies too! Would you like to share something from your most recent release, “Random Survival – A Life Worth Dying For“?
RW: I’m not sure where this series goes from here. Book six ended with a true ‘WTF did he just do moment’ from the reader’s standpoint. Though I dealt with the situation in book seven, the thought has entered my mind to end it or possibly take a break. The spin-off series, Random Survival The Road has taken off. Down the line, the two may meet, but that’s a distance away yet.
ECH: What’s next for Ray Wenck?
RW: Onward and upward. As long as I’m having fun, and readers still like what I’m doing, I’ll keep going. The direction isn’t always up to me at a conscious level. Subconsciously, I have a plan. It’s sometimes not revealed to me until much later. (Yeah, I know … weird.)
Though still writing, I spend a lot more time now on the business side. The books mean nothing if no one reads them. I’m working hard at finding new audiences.
Though apocalyptic works are more what I’m known for, my focus has been on writing a lot more mysteries. I released two books in the Bridgett Conroy series, a character I really like and plan to do much more with, and am writing a new one currently titled Buzz Kill, which I hope to release sometime later this year.
Book three of my fantasy trilogy is scheduled for October. Buzz Kill, maybe September. Stealing Death, another mystery, is set for August. Slicer, Book five in The Road series is set for June. If I can’t get an agent or publisher to bite on When the Cheering Stops, another mystery, I’ll release that possibly in July.
I have promised my readers book three in the Bridgett Conroy series this year, so I’ll have to make time for that at some point.
Now that I see this written out, it’s kind of daunting. I think I need to schedule a vacation. Who am I kidding? The voices in my head will never stand for that.
Kandy Williams is known to us as a founding member and current vice president and board member of Buckeye Crime Writers and a friend. As her alter ego, Mercedes King, she’s the author of several books, two of which were published last year, Every Little Secret and Grave Secrets, and the first of a four-book series, a fictional account based on the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Jackie’s Paris, which was released this year. The second novel in that series, Jackie’s Camelot, will be released on November 22, 2021.
Kandy and her family are avid fans of the Chicago Cubs and traveling to research her favorite subjects. Kandy also had a short story in the popular anthology, Columbus Noir, and was a 2016 and 2017 finalist for the Killer Nashville/Claymore Award. Eileen Curley Hammond caught up with Kandy recently to discuss her mix of writing genres (thrillers/mysteries/historicals) and love of all things Jackie. Learn more about Kandy at www.mercedesking.com.
ECH: It seems that most of the stories you’ve written have some thread of reality to them. What draws you to this type of writing?
KW: I absolutely love to start with a true story, whittle it down to the bones, and rewrite it with a mix of truth and creative liberties. I think it speaks to so many things, but in particular, there are always secrets and insights and details about the most high-profile cases that aren’t released to the public…until they are, and BAM, it’s so unexpected. That’s my goal, to surprise readers even if they think they know the story.
ECH: In 2020, you released two thrillers. This year, your first “Jackie” book. Why the change in genre, and did you have difficulty making the leap?
KW: Switching up genres is a must for me because I prefer not to write in one category for long stretches. Writing historicals demands research — and it’s not always easy to find the answers you need quickly. Jumping over to more modern-day mysteries can feel like a vacation in comparison, until I run into questions about procedure or forensics. Writing in different genres keeps it fresh and challenging for me. I also hope it means my writing evolves and gets better.
ECH: What attracts you to people’s secrets?
KW: It’s hard to keep secrets these days, especially with devices like Alexa listening in. I’m drawn to the lengths people will go in order to hide the truth, especially if it’s something so big, eventually it will come out, like a monster outgrowing its cage. Everybody has secrets, and they aren’t all life-altering, but they have deep meaning to the bearer, and we’re oh-so-careful about the people we let near them.
ECH: Which do you like better? Writing short stories or novel length books?
KW: I have a lot to learn when it comes to writing short stories. It’s a classic art form and isn’t as easy as it may seem. When I wrote “An Agreeable Wife for a Suitable Husband,” I knew the tale I wanted to spin, and thought, “Easy.” Only, it wasn’t. Like all writing, it was work. The best short stories master the skills of being robust, sharp and concise. I hope to write more shorts, but for now, I’m in the novel-writing game.
ECH: How did you decided that there would be four books in your “Jackie” series?
KW: I wrote O! Jackie about ten years ago — along with five short stories to serve as prequels — and moved on in life. But oddly enough, I kept circling back and thinking there was so much more to her story. I began reading about the year she spent in Paris as a student and wondered if there was enough material that I could craft a book. Obviously, there was, and from there, I decided each book would focus on the seasons of her life. Cliché, perhaps, but it also made sense.
ECH: What attracted you to writing about Jackie?
KW: Her secrets! Not that she had any, come to find out. Jackie was adamant about protecting her privacy. She hated it if anyone from her staff talked about her to a news source — and she became known for shutting people out if she felt they betrayed a confidence. But she also read the tabloids about herself because she liked gossip. Crafting and controlling her image — Jack’s especially — were important to her, but as we all know, much of that unraveled when friends and associates began publishing books about their time with JFK, and eventually, information about his affairs became common knowledge. I hope these books give Jackie fans an inside peek into her life, loves, and struggles.
ECH: When can we expect the next installment? And are there any other stories you are working on?
KW: Jackie’s Camelot releases in November! For now, I’m only working on this series.
ECH: Would you be willing to share an excerpt from Jackie’s Paris?
Poised and postured like the debutante she was, Jacqueline Bouvier strolled into Schrafft’s for Sunday brunch on the arm of her father. The scent of freshly griddled waffles and bacon greeted them, along with curious stares from various female patrons. Such attention always befell her father, and it pleased Jackie. For there at his side, as his escort for the afternoon and with sunlight streaming in behind them, she was now the envy of every woman in the establishment.
They followed the hostess to their table. Jack Bouvier’s flirtatious glance waltzed through the restaurant, when he wasn’t focused on the hostess’s salacious saunter in her snug, crème-colored skirt. When Jack and his daughter took their seats, the hostess promised that a waitress would be with them shortly. She departed with a tilt of her head and a subtle wink meant only for Jack Bouvier.
Was it any wonder? Jackie mused. Crowned with jet-black hair and a thin moustache, he was often mistaken for Clark Gable. Dapper in every wool or tweed suit he wore, he never lacked for female companionship but showed no interest in settling down. His reputation as a womanizer, combined with his nutmeg skin tone, earned him the nickname Black Jack.
“Pity that Lee couldn’t join us.” He draped the linen napkin across his lap.
Jackie smirked at him, attuned to his sarcasm. Friction sparked between Lee and their father, more often than not, which Jackie blamed on their parents’ divorce. Lee’s outbursts and penchant for drama tested and drained Jack Bouvier’s patience. He never voiced his frustrations, but Jackie suspected he resented having to soothe and subdue Lee’s cantankerous moods.
“She sends her love and regards,” Jackie fibbed, having insisted on lunching alone with their father today — and receiving a slammed bedroom door in her face in response to her request.
“Does she now? How thoughtful.” Jack opened the menu, pretended to scan the selections he knew well by now. For a man who had a varied and insatiable appetite in women, he remained faithful to the corned beef sandwich on pumpernickel, topped off with a shot of sour scotch. “And how is the rest of that brood, dare I ask?”
Jackie’s smirk held. Brood was the best insult Black Jack could hurl about her blended family of nine. Quite comfortable in the lifestyle her stepfather’s fortune afforded, she could tolerate her father’s petty criticism and unveiled jealousy. For her stepfather was an heir to the Standard Oil fortune, practiced law, served in the government, and heralded a brokerage firm he’d established. In comparison, Jack Bouvier, a stockbroker himself, still hadn’t recovered from the crash of 1929. When he wasn’t gambling or bedding the mothers of Jackie’s classmates, his alcoholism got the best of him. Nevertheless, nothing could diminish Jackie’s adoration for her father.
“We manage.” Jackie gave a feeble grin, careful not to injure her father’s feelings.
With an itch to change the subject, Jackie reached into her handbag and removed a folded pamphlet. Smoothing her gloved hands over the paper’s crease, she did her best to flatten it before handing it to her father.
“What do we have here?”
“A fabulous opportunity!” She sipped her water while he read the announcement, but her patience failed. “Smith College is offering a year-long student exchange program at the University of Paris, which would include classes at the Sorbonne, one of the oldest colleges in the world.” Jackie pressed her lips together to stop her zeal from running away.
Jack skimmed the pamphlet, then shifted his gaze up toward Jackie.
“Paris?” he asked.
“Are you certain this is a good idea, my love? I know you’ve had a taste of Europe, and Paris can be intoxicating. But living there — for a year — well, I’m afraid it would be frightfully expensive.”
Jackie would be the first to admit that her seven-week holiday with family friends the previous summer had whetted her appetite for more of Europe. She dreamed of —ached for — living there and being more than a passerby. Only two things kept her from a life abroad — her parents and money.
“I realize that, Daddy, but I could board on campus instead of renting an apartment. That would save money, and I could find a job.” Her enthusiasm waned with the last suggestion, though she hoped her father didn’t notice.
Working held no appeal for her, not if it meant being shackled to a schedule and stuffed inside a dank building. She wanted to immerse herself in Paris, bask in its art and architecture, but mostly, she relished the thought of exercising total freedom over her life — and escaping the tangible strife between her parents. If a job was required to secure her fantasy, then so be it.
Jack glanced over the paper again and set it aside. “Shouldn’t you be enjoying everything Vassar has to offer a young woman of your age and standing?”
His real question wasn’t lost on Jackie. Shouldn’t you be finding a husband? Many women her age attended university as a glorified dating ritual; some abandoned their studies after accepting a proposal. Education and obtaining a degree were not secondary for Jackie. Though she was social, attending football games and weekend outings at Yale, her dating life had been fruitless. She often sensed her parents’ growing impatience, but Jackie couldn’t help that she found most men dull.
“I have, Daddy, and that’s the problem. Poughkeepsie is like a frumpy old spinster, who sips her gin and falls asleep in her housecoat.” Jackie paused while her father enjoyed a chuckle. “There’s nothing stimulating there, which is why I end up at your apartment.”
Jack grinned, no doubt appreciating that his oldest daughter preferred retreating to his Manhattan apartment on weekends rather than romping on her stepfather’s grand estate in Newport, Rhode Island.
“But now is your time, my dear,” he said. “Why, you were Debutant of the Year. I would think that troves of worthless beaux would be salivating at your feet.”
“All men are rats! Isn’t that what you’ve been telling me for ages now?”
“No argument there.” Jack withdrew his pack of Chesterfields from his pocket and lit into one.
“You see, this is the perfect time for me to go to Paris. I have no attachments, no one I’m particularly fond of, and just think, my French will become perfect while living there.”
Their waitress appeared, and Jackie sensed a sigh of relief from her father, indicating he wasn’t prepared to give his consent yet. He took advantage of the moment, exercised his charms with the young woman. In turn, she smiled and played coy.
As usual, Jackie mentally absorbed the exchange, the way her father exuded a power over women. She needed a dose of such magic since gentle persuasion was failing her.
Jackie knew it was because of the money. Her father wouldn’t relent easily, even if his funds were abundant. Controlling the purse strings, as it were, of Jackie and Lee’s life was the only power — or influence — he still held over them. Although it was only in his mind. Jackie and Lee were aware that no trust fund from their father would be forthcoming. He barely kept up with their monthly allowance of fifty dollars each — a sum that paid for their cosmetics and little else.
Jackie wouldn’t let that pinch of resentment derail her determination. She deserved this trip, having fed her father’s pride with her stellar academics and award-winning horsemanship. She gave her father no grief, and her love for him never waned when rumors of his gambling debts circled or when he required another drying out spell. Now, she reasoned, would be her father’s turn to show his love and loyalty.
“I know it’s a lot to ask, Daddy,” she said once they were alone again. Employing new tactics, Jackie rested her hands in her lap and tilted her head slightly, feigning resignation. “Perhaps I’ve acted too hastily. Maybe going away to study ideal, but I’m aiming to make changes regardless.”
Jack paused, then locked his gaze with his daughter’s. “Do tell.”
“Like you said, living in Paris would be expensive, but that’s true of life most anywhere. I was thinking of easing the burden on you and Mummy. I’m perfectly capable of reading and acquiring knowledge on my own, which is primarily what university life entails. I don’t need Vassar, or the Sorbonne, for that.”
“What are you getting at?” Jack squinted and tucked his cigarette into the corner of his mouth.
“Perhaps it’s time I started making my own money. I’ve been thinking about becoming a fashion model, here in New York. I could get my own apartment —”
“Now, now, I’ll not tolerate foolish conversation.” He waved a hand in the air, as if to shoo away the suggestion. “You’re a rare bird, my dear, and one of the things that makes you so extraordinary is your mind, that hunger you have for history, literature. You shouldn’t abandon university just so you can make money. I won’t hear of it.”
“Then you’ll let me go to Paris?” Hopefulness colored her cheeks. “It’s only for a year, Daddy.”
He reared back in his chair, wore a pensive expression.
“What does your mother say about this idea of yours?”
“I haven’t told her yet.” Jackie smiled. “I came to you first.”
Jack beamed. The way he always did whenever Jackie demonstrated her loyalty to him or gave him an advantage over Janet.
“Tell me, then, Jackie, when you do mention this to your mother, what do you think she’ll say?”
“I imagine she’ll want to talk me out of it.” Elation pulsed through her. Why hadn’t she thought of using her mother’s disapproval earlier?
Jack exhaled a puff of smoke slowly, and a Cheshire grin appeared from behind the cloud.
“In that case, my pet, we’d better make sure that all the arrangements are in place before you tell her.”
Buckeye Crime Writers is thrilled to welcome Lori Rader-Day, the Edgar Award- and Agatha Award-nominated and Anthony Award- and Mary Higgins Clark Award-winning author of The Lucky One and Under a Dark Sky. She lives in Chicago, where she co-chairs the Midwest Mystery Conference and teaches creative writing at Northwestern University. Her newest book, Death at Greenway, is based on a little-known moment in history, when a group of London children were evacuated from the Blitz during World War II to Agatha Christie’s holiday estate.
Recently I had a chance to ask Lori a few questions about her writing and journey to publication.
Connie: Your books have been called “dark stories — with heart.” Tell us more aboutthat. Where would you place your writing in terms of genre?
Lori: When I first tried to submit to agents, I called myself “suspense” after a lot of frustrating research. The truth is, there are no lines between subgenres or genres, and a good deal about what a book is called has to do with tone, which is hard for a beginning writer to figure out. My agent said, it’s a thriller! The editor who bought it called it a mystery. And then online retailers called it… suspense. Psychological suspense gets at what I’m interested in, at least, even if it puts my books on the thriller shelf where I’m not always sure they truly belong. So they’re dark stories, but I love a good ending. A happy ending sometimes, not always, but an ending that feels like resolution one way or the other, and characters who I hope feel real to readers. That’s what I like to read, so that’s what I write. Dark stories where readers can invest in the characters. My new book, Death at Greenway, is historical but even though that feels like a departure, I don’t think it is. I just had to figure out a story to tell that felt like a story I would tell.
Connie: You studied journalism at Ball State University, then creative writing at Roosevelt University in Chicago. Was the jump from journalism to fiction difficult?
Lori: It was a leap, for sure, but I did do a half measure. I studied journalism writing, editing, and design first, and then I studied long-form journalism known as creative nonfiction (also at Ball State, with the wonderful writer and human Mark Massé). Creative nonfiction or literary journalism is where real events are reported in scenes, using many of the tools of fiction. I didn’t think of studying this kind of writing as a half measure at the time. I was all in, imagining that I would write for magazines. I wrote fiction on the side my entire life, but there came a moment when I realized I didn’t have to apologize for writing fiction or wanting to be published as a novelist, and that it was a thing that I was allowed to try to do. The difficult part of giving in and studying and writing fiction was that part, the allowance. I’m from a small town in Indiana, and I hadn’t ever realized that writers could come from places like that. When my high school friend Christopher Coake published his first book (We’re In Trouble), that’s when I realized people like us were publishable, too.
Connie: Which came first for you—finding an agent or finishing a manuscript?
Lori: Finishing TWO manuscripts (and honestly, finishing a lot of short stories before that)! I got a chance to talk to a couple of agents before I was ready but — I wasn’t ready! I always knew the process would be an internal one. When I felt as though I had written the book I wanted to, then I would see what agents might say. If I sent it out too soon, how would I know if they were the right agent or if their comments were the right direction? I had to be pretty sure of my story before I could deal with rejection of it or with comments about it. Not confident — confidence is hard to come by. But I had to be able to judge other people’s opinions of it, and that was going to take time. Every step of this process takes more time than I wish it did, by the way. I’m impatient as heck, especially about myself.
Connie: How long did it take for your first book to be published? Were you everdiscouraged? If you were, how did you push forward?
Lori: How long did it take? is a question that has many answers. If you mean how long did it take from the first word I wrote of my first published novel to the last word written, then it’s two and half years. First word to sold is another number. First word to published is something like four years. But I had another novel that I’d worked on for years before putting aside, and I think we have to count those years as apprenticeship; from the first word written of that book to publication of The Black Hour was seven years. From the moment I decided to stop talking about writing and actually write to the moment my first novel was published? That was eight years. I got discouraged then and I still do now, but by different things. Writing is an enterprise that has a lot of discouragement built into it. I guess I got through it because I wanted to know how it turned out. In life, I’m a pantser, too. How does this story I’ve imagined turn out? How will readers like it? There’s always something to look forward to, and some days you have to write, even if you can’t quite look forward or see forward. And then some days you take a break until you can see your way forward.
Connie: Are you a plotter, a pantser, or somewhere in between?
Lori: Pantser, although for my fifth novel, The Lucky One, I had a little glimmer of a thing I was writing toward and that’s the closest I’ve ever been to plotting. So, yeah. Pantser. I get easily bored, so the writing process needs to be one of discovery for me, or I won’t do it. We are living in a time of great television, and I could be watching it.
Connie: What is your number one piece of advice for aspiring authors?
Lori: Read. Read a lot, inside and outside the genre you think you want to write. Re-read, read contemporary successes, read novels you like and those you don’t and learn to articulate why you felt the way you did. What leaves you cold, as a reader? What engages you? Then read closer and closer to find out how other authors create these effects within you.
My second piece of advice is to get involved. Our genre has writers’ and readers’ associations (like, yes, Sisters in Crime) but it’s easy to become a member of a group and then never take another step. The best way to engage in our community is to help out a little, meet new people, find new books to read and champion, find a role and some friends. The publishing game can be very long, but if you have people to connect with, commiserate with, building up your career over time can be fun, too.
Connie: Tell us a little about your latest novel, Death at Greenway.
Lori: Death at Greenway is based on a little-known fact from World War II: When Britain was evacuating London ahead of what would become known as the Blitz — three million people, mostly children — ten children were sent to Agatha Christie’s holiday home, Greenway. I discovered this in a nonfiction book about Agatha Christie, and just had to read that story. But no one had written it. I figured out why pretty quickly: The Greenway ’vacs were all under the age of five. They were chaperoned by a married couple called Arbuthnot and two hospital nurses, according to Agatha Christie’s autobiography, and lived in the house for a short time before the house was requisitioned by the military. To work a crime story in, I got those nurses into a lot of trouble.
Connie: Lori, thank you so much for sharing your story!
Death at Greenway is available wherever fine books are sold!
Bridget Kelly is a nurse in training who has made an error that cost a man’s life. To get back into her Matron’s good graces, she takes on an assignment to evacuate a group of children to the country. It’s really the last thing she wants to do, and Greenway is a place with a lot of rooms one can’t enter and lovely little breakable things the children can’t touch. And a library full of murder books. When a body washes ashore nearby and the other nurse, also Bridget Kelly but known as Gigi, is not what she says she is, Bridey has to keep Gigi’s secrets to keep her own.
Eileen Curley Hammond’s latest Merry March Mystery series launches on Sept. 2.
BCW: This is the sixth book in the Merry March series. Where do you get your ideas?
ECH: The short answer is anywhere and everywhere. I used to think that I didn’t listen very closely. Now I know that I do. And I use what I learn. Buckeye Crime Writers had planned a day-long session on opiates in Ohio, which unfortunately was canceled due to COVID. I was interested but didn’t think it would apply to my books because I write cozies. I was wrong. As I wrote Murder So Tempting, the idea of someone using drugs to kill other people gave me a new avenue to explore. Providentially, Buckeye Crime Writers scheduled Orman Hall (expert on the substance abuse crisis in the state of Ohio, and is a Glidden Foundation Visiting Professor at Ohio University. During his very informative session, I realized that the initial murder could not have happened the way it was written. I cursed a bit but was so thankful that I found out before the book was released.
BCW: How has writing been during the pandemic?
ECH: It’s an escape. But I had to guard against my book becoming too dark. When I sent the book out to beta readers, I asked them that specific question. They didn’t think it was, but I purposely dropped in a fun scene to try and interject a bit of lightness. It made me laugh, and I hope readers enjoy it as well.
BCW: How do you keep track of the places and people in your books?
ECH: As I mentioned in the panel discussion with Connie Berry and Andrew Welsh-Huggins, I have a master spreadsheet with all the characters, the books they appear in, and their relationship to the main character. In addition, all of the stores in town are listed in their own tab. It’s been quite helpful as I am not good at remembering names and refer to it quite a few times when writing.
BCW: How many more Merry March books will there be?
ECH: At least one. If I decide there’s more I want to explore with these characters, there may be an eighth!
BCW: Where can we find your books?
ECH: You can ask your favorite bookstore or library to order it for you, or you can purchase direct from Amazon. You can find links and the sign-up for my newsletter at my webpage, www.eileencurleyhammond.com.
BCW: Would you care to share an excerpt from your latest book?
ECH: Love to! This is from the first chapter of Murder So Tempting. Merry and her friends are returning from Phoenix, where Merry suffered a cracked rib, and have just arrived at their home airport.
“The woman let us off near baggage claim, and Patrick tipped her. I scanned the board. “We’re at number four.”
Patty pointed down the corridor. “Balloons. Maybe it’s somebody’s birthday.”
“How nice.” I paused. “You’d think they’d be blue or red. Strange that they’re silver and white. It’s near our carousel. Must be someone from our plane.” The painkillers had really kicked in, and I almost felt like I was floating. I giggled.
Patty studied me. “Feeling better?”
Jenny came up behind us. “Mom, are you okay?” She held out her arm. “You can lean on me.”
“I’m fine. Better than fine. Ooh. Look at that woman’s shirt. Lots of what’s that called? Swirlies? No, that’s not it, it’s paisley! My clothes are way too plain. I should ask her where she got it.”
I turned to follow the woman, and Patty hooked her arm through mine. “We’ll find out later. Let’s get our luggage first.” Patty nodded to Jenny. “Your mom had a pill. We better get her home.”
“Balloons! Someone’s going to be happy.” Cindy scooted ahead.
The crowd milled, waiting for the sweet sound of gears grinding that would signal the carousel beginning its serpentine journey. Patrick moved to the side, and it seemed like Rob magically appeared. He walked toward me with a smile on his face, flowers in one hand, balloons in the other.
Isn’t that sweet? Say what you will; that man has me pegged. I love getting flowers. Red roses, purple delphiniums, and green Irish bells. A beautiful bouquet. The balloons are odd. Why would he have brought balloons?
I tried to fight through the fog. He wasn’t going to—no—not here. Not now. Focus, Merry.
He handed the festive items to Patrick, knelt on one knee, and extended a small box. The glare from the fluorescent lights made everyone look sallow and otherworldly. The crowd hushed.
My breath caught, and my face flushed. I shook my head, trying to clear it. Not now. This can’t be happening now. I had waited so long and wanted to be able to savor this moment.
Rob reached for my hand. “I love you, Merry, and you would make me the happiest man on earth if you would marry me.”
I gasped. What if the paperwork for my annulment wasn’t really final? Could they rescind it if they found out I got engaged? My hands began to sweat, and I took two steps back, shaking my head. “No, I can’t. Not now.” I blurted. Rob’s face fell, and he jerked to his feet, placing the box back in his pocket.
Someone in the crowd asked, “What happened?”
A person replied, “She said no.”
And then a third opined, “What a shame.”
Patty and Patrick looked frozen, mouths agape, and Jenny’s eyes started to tear. The carousel clattered, and bags began to flow, mingling and shaking on their way to rejoin their owners.”
When a woman enters a competition to complete a famous author’s novel, she doesn’t expect to find herself hiding on a tropical island, fearing for her life.
—The Finalist by Joan Long will be published by Level Best books in March 2022.
I first met author Joan Long in Florida at the Sleuthfest Annual Conference for Writers and Fans of Mystery, Suspense, and Thriller Fiction. I knew immediately, not only that she was someone I wanted to know better, and after learning about her work also knew she was a writer to watch. Later we met up again at Malice Domestic and then Bouchercon in Dallas.
Joan earned her graduate degree in Journalism and Communications from The University of Florida and has been a finalist in several writing contests, including the Minotaur Books/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition. Her short story “The Extra Ingredient” is published in the Anthony Award-winning anthology Malice Domestic: Mystery Most Edible. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, its Guppy Chapter, Mystery Writers of America, the Authors Guild, and International Thriller Writers. You can find out more about Joan at https://joanlongbooks.com.
I recently asked Joan a few questions about her writing journey, and she graciously agreed to share her story with the Buckeye Crime Writers.
Welcome, Joan, and congratulations! Like many authors (me included) the path to publication has been long and twisty.Tell us a little about your writing journey.
I’ve always wanted to write a mystery and attended college with that in mind. I majored in English/Creative Writing, then earned a graduate degree in Journalism and Communications. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a single class named “How to Write a Mystery,” and I knew nothing about how to structure one. I needed to learn.
I studied every book on novel writing I could find. I read books in the genre, joined critique groups, attended conferences, and wrote. But my first completed mystery barely reached 40,000 words. And it was boring!
Rather than revise it, I wrote two more manuscripts. The first became a finalist in the novel-in-progress category of the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. The other — a cozy mystery — became a finalist for both the Minotaur Books/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel, and MWA-Florida’s Freddie Award for Writing Excellence. The key word here is finalist. I didn’t win. But I didn’t stop writing either.
People often say to write what you know. I sat down and wrote a new novel — a traditional mystery about (you guessed it!) a finalist.
This time I created deeper characters, an island setting I loved, and a plot that intrigued me. I joined Sisters in Crime and its online Guppy Chapter, Mystery Writers of America, and the Authors Guild. I developed a website and a social media presence. Still, my manuscript did not sell.
With my ego bruised, I buried the manuscript in a drawer and began another project. But I liked the story too much to give up on it. Eventually, I pulled it from its grave and rewrote it. Twice. Soon, I received offers of representation from two agents, plus an offer directly from a publisher. After careful consideration, I chose to publish with Level Best Books and hired a literary attorney to negotiate my contract.
What “magic” happened in that rewriting that made a difference?
I did a manuscript exchange with two good friends. Both are published authors. Grace Topping writes the Laura Bishop Mystery series, which are cozies about home staging, while Tammy Euliano is the author of the thriller Fatal Intent. They both gave me excellent feedback, and I made changes. They didn’t always agree, but I paid very close attention when their comments were similar. One important change I made was cutting unnecessary description in the first few chapters to make the crime occur sooner in the book.
It took almost exactly five years from the day I came up with the idea for my book until the day I signed the publishing contract. I’m so glad I pulled the manuscript out of the drawer. The Finalist is scheduled to launch on March 15, 2022.
Why did you choose traditional publishing? Did you ever consider self-publishing?
I chose traditional publishing mainly because The Finalist is my debut novel. I wanted to have the expertise of an established publisher behind me.
How would you describe what you write?
I’m a third-generation Floridian who writes mysteries and suspense, usually set in Florida or in tropical locations. I am always fascinated when ordinary people are placed in impossible situations. How will they react? Can they thwart an evil antagonist and survive? Will justice be served? I want to know!
What have you learned that you can pass along to other writers on the same journey?
My advice is to never give up. Your dream might come true today, next week, or next month. But it will never happen if you quit.
What’s next for you?
Oh! My next project is a suspense novel set on the beautiful Gulf Coast of Florida. I hope to tell you more about it soon.
Thanks for stopping by, Joan. Best of luck with The Finalist and your new book.
Someone once said, “The path to true love never does run smooth.” Neither does the path to publication. Overworked agents seem to be looking for reasons to push the reject button. Publishers are under mounting pressure to make a profit. Publicity is increasingly up to the author, who often feels unprepared to take on that task. And behind the scenes, the process of taking a book from concept to bookshelf takes time – lots and lots of time.
The good news is that out of this quagmire, excellent writers emerge to make their mark. One of them is Carl Vonderau, author of the multi-award-winning debut novel Murderabilia. I met Carl (briefly) at the ill-fated Left Coast Crime convention in March of 2020, which ended literally before it began. Murderabilia was up for Best Debut, which it eventually won. Carl has graciously agreed to answer my questions.
Welcome, Carl. Tell us about your writing life and journey to publication.
My writer’s life started a long time ago. I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, went to college in California, and started work as a banker in Chicago. At some point while I was there, I took a writing class and started writing fiction. My family and I subsequently moved to Montreal and San Diego, where I continued to work in banking. A few years ago, I decided to devote full time to writing and wrote the novel that turned out to be Murderabilia. But that was not without a good deal of suffering and pain.
During that time, I was lucky enough to work with Jacquelyn Mitchard. Her novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, won the first Oprah award. I learned a great deal from her, as well as from a San Diego writer’s group I joined. I thought my future was about to take off when I landed a well-known agent in New York who liked the draft of my book but wanted changes. He and his team went through it three or four times for almost a year and then decided not to represent me. That was devastating, but the book did get better.
I then had to start over finding an agent. I thought maybe my problem was that I hadn’t pitched the book well. So I went to an Algonquin writer’s conference on how to pitch a novel. Then to the San Francisco Writer’s Conference. At a cocktail event at the conference, I spoke to an agent who asked me to describe my book in one sentence. I had it! Michelle Richter became my agent.
Little did I know that I was just in the middle of getting published. When Michelle queried publishers, twelve were interested in the book. But only one made an offer — Midnight Ink. Then I learned something else about traditional publishing. Once someone has bought the book, it takes a year to get it into print. Time for another surprise. Three months after signing the contract, Midnight Ink’s owner, Llewellyn, decided to close the imprint. That was a jolt. But Llewellyn promised to promote the books they’d purchased so I continued with them.
Things looked up in 2020. Murderabilia was nominated for Best Debut Mystery at the Left Coast Crime conference. I was really excited. Until the conference was closed after one day because of Covid. But the news was still good. Voting for the award was online and Murderabilia won. It also won a San Diego Book award and a Kops-Fetherling award.
So I guess there’s one lesson here. Tenacity is more important than talent.
Fortunately, you have both tenacity and talent, Carl. You’ve described yourself in interviews as an analytical person. Does writing require a different mindset, and if so, how do you tap the creative side of your brain?
I think I use both types of thinking in my writing. Banking actually uses both, too. I always do my first drafts of scenes by hand. I will scribble as fast as I can to short-circuit my editing brain. This is the creative side that follows the voices and ideas that occur to me as I write. Often this first rendition is mostly dialogue with spaces to be filled in later. Parts of the writing don’t work at all, and new ideas may occur in the middle or at the end of the scene. When I’m confident that it kind of works, I’ll type a draft into my laptop. Throughout, as I do other things like exercise or dish washing or make the bed, ideas float into my mind. Even when I’m reading someone else’s work, ideas pop into my mind, and I write them down before I forget them. When I re-work scenes for my writer’s group, I usually get more ideas about what my characters are thinking or feeling.
Then the more analytical side kicks in. Do those characters’ actions and dialogue make sense? Have I repeated things? Often a description and the dialogue will convey the same thing so I can cut one or the other. Maybe I need more beats: reactions and thoughts and description between lines of dialogue. How are the characters changing? Is the description accurate? Do I need more evocative details? Do my scenes use all the senses? Have I lost a character’s voice?
How do you approach the writing process (plotter/pantser/other)? Would you call yourself a disciplined writer?
I don’t know what a disciplined writer is, other than writing every day — which I do. As for pantsing and outlining, I do both. I hate outlining but realize I need to do it to stop my mind from going off into directions that deaden the book.
Here’s my process — although it is changing all the time. First is the idea that I want to incorporate into the story. The premise. Then I like to outline or write the major few points of backstory that will inspire my protagonist. Much of this I will not use in the book, but some of it will be essential. What is my character’s secret or most enduring pain that he or she both fears and needs to overcome? This will inform the whole book. At the same time I’m trying to revise the outline of scenes and major twists. I usually have an idea for the ending that will last most of the way through the first draft before I think of something better. Then I start writing scene by scene. Throughout I will be reviewing scenes with my writing group, a process that both improves the writing and slows down finishing the book. That’s the upside and downside of writing groups. At least for me.
After the first draft of a book, I will outline character arcs, major plot points, twists, and reveals. I’ll look at the pace and rearrange scenes to make it better. Then it’s time to cut the fat. This is about a third of the book.
I relate to your process — and to your setting. Murderabilia is set in locations around the world. Is setting an important aspect of writing for you, and which comes first — plot, character, or setting?
I learned a lot writing Murderabilia with Jacquelyn Mitchard. The premise came first, then the characters, then the plot. Jackie told me I needed more backstory, and I decided to include some international locations where I had lived and worked. Those were Colombia and Algeria. The settings were like other characters that influenced my main character. In my present manuscript, I’ve limited the foreign setting to Tijuana.
I love setting. I published a short story in the Sisters in Crime anthology, Crossing Borders, based on my trip to Bogota in 1995. At that time, I wandered the streets and just wrote down what I saw. Ninety-five percent I didn’t use in the book I was writing (never published). Years later I used some of those vivid setting details in the short story.
Like many other crime writers, your career was impacted by the demise of your publisher, Midnight Ink. How have you handled that?
Midnight Ink’s closure was a real challenge. My agent offered to try to get the contract cancelled and find another publisher. But I didn’t want to go through more months of search and potentially not be published. At the time, Llewellyn promised to support the manuscripts they had purchased, but what business that is closing its doors can really do that? Still, I got excellent editorial advice from them. The publicity support was limited so I hired JKS. I probably didn’t get the promotional backing I would have from another publisher, and don’t think I would do it that way again. But how can I complain? The book made it to print and won some awards. Now I have the rights back. If we can sell the next book, my agent and I will try to sell Murderabilia to the new publisher as well.
What’s next for you?
The next book has taken longer than I expected. I had a premise and was well into the first draft and spoke to my agent about it. She persuaded me to broaden the book from one voice to more than one voice. It was a challenge. I was also in a new writing group with Matt Coyle and led by Carolyn Wheat, one of the mystery-writing gurus in San Diego. They and the other members of both my writing groups helped me immensely. The book ended up being in third person with three voices: a father, a mother, and their teenage son. It was hard making each of these voices different and sympathetic. But I think I did it, and my writing definitely improved.
So what’s it about? The one-sentence summary is: Two parents must launder money in order to save their delinquent teenage son.
My agent loved the book and feels that my writing had gotten stronger. I’ve made some revisions and we are just about ready to find a publisher. It is tentatively titled: Saving Evan. Wish me luck!
I do wish you the very best of luck, Carl. Thank you so much for spending time with Buckeye Crime Writers — and for your candid answers.
We can’t wait to read Saving Evan!
About Carl Vonderau
Carl Vonderau is the author of Murderabilia, which won The Left Coast Crime Award for Best Debut Mystery, the San Diego Book Award for Best Mystery/Suspense, and the Kops-Fetherling Gold Phoenix Award for Best New Voice: Fiction. Like the protagonist, he has been a private banker and was raised in a Christian Science family. On the other hand, his father was never a serial killer whose photos launched the “murderabilia” market. Carl has worked in the U.S., Canada, Latin America, and North Africa. He is now a full-time writer and revising another thriller that he and his agent are submitting for publication.
Carl is the president of Partners in Crime, San Diego, a chapter of Sisters in Crime. He is also a partner at San Diego Social Venture Partners, an organization that mentors other nonprofits to reach the next level. Carl lives with his wife in San Diego and they have two grown sons.
A short blurb from Murderabilia
A single phone call tears apart the anonymous family life William McNary has built. Everyone has heard of The Preying Hands and the photographs of his victims’ bodies. But no one knows that William is The Preying Hands’ son. Except the stranger on the phone. In an instant, the safe, banker’s life William has built for his young family is torn away. Then the killings begin.
“A story that will lay a cold finger of dread on the back of your neck. Vonderau is a terrific writer who has written a terrific book.”
Love short stories? Ever wanted to write one? You could do no better than to take advice from award-winning short-story artist Art Taylor. Art’s with us today to give us an inside look into his process and journey to publication. But first, a little background:
Art Taylor is the author of the story collection The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense and of the novel in stories On the Road with Del & Louise, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. He won the 2019 Edgar Award for Best Short Story for “English 398: Fiction Workshop,” originally published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and he has won three additional Agatha Awards, an Anthony Award, four Macavity Awards, and four Derringer Awards for his short fiction. His work has also appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, and he edited Murder Under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015, winner of the Anthony Award for Best Anthology or Collection, and California Schemin’: Bouchercon Anthology 2020. He is an associate professor of English at George Mason University
The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspensefeatures 16 stories that have collectively won an Edgar Award, an Anthony Awards, four Agatha Awards, three Macavity Awards, and three Derringer Awards. From his first story for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1995 to his latest for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine — the title story, 25 years in the making — this collection charts the development of Art Taylor’s career so far, and turns the page toward more stories still ahead.
Connie Berry, BCW: Art, welcome to Buckeye Crime Writers! You’ve won just about every award there is for your short crime fiction. Who are the writers who inspire you, and what first attracted you to this particular genre?
Art Taylor: I’ve been extremely fortunate for all the generosity the mystery community has shown my work — and I’ve felt fortunate too for all the many writers throughout that tradition who’ve guided my own work. Whatever I might know about plotting and pacing, about surprise and suspense, it probably stretches back along some indirect line to my own early favorites: Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, The Three Investigators. (And I’ve enjoyed re-discovering that last series again now, reading them to our 9-year-old son, Dash). My teenage years were fed by Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming, John D. MacDonald, and a lot of issues of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and more recently I find myself coming back again and again to Stanley Ellin and Patricia Highsmith and, just lately, some of Ruth Rendell’s short fiction. And there’s a whole batch of literary authors too who’ve inspired; my wife and I recently watched the Hemingway documentary on PBS, and I was reminded how influential he was on my idea of how short fiction could work.
These are all older writers, I know, and there are others today too who both wow me as a reader and urge me onward from a writer’s perspective as well — year after year new discoveries and delights! — but I hesitate to name any for fear of leaving out too many great writers and great friends.
CB: How would you describe the differences between short fiction and full-length novels? Some people assume writing short fiction is easier than writing longer works. In your experience, is this true?
AT: Ha! Given that I’ve never successfully written a traditionally structured novel myself, it seems like I’d have to say short fiction is easier! But the truth is, I’m not sure that’s the case.
Because of my own reading and love of short stories, my mind just seems to have geared itself somehow toward thinking in the short form, and I do like the idea of being able to keep in my head the various parts of a story I’m working on — something I simply can’t do with a longer narrative. But I’ve heard the opposite too from well-known, prolific novelists who’ve told me they struggle to write short stories — it just doesn’t come naturally to them, not enough space to do what they want to do.
The novel seems to me a work that relies on accumulation — whether more characters or more depth into some characters or more plot lines and more subplots and more… words, obviously.
The short story, by comparison, relies on subtraction, trimming and condensing and compressing — or at least that’s the way I work, usually writing longer drafts and then deciding what really needs to be there for the story.
I recently wrote the essay “The Short Mystery” for the new Mystery Writers of America handbook How to Write a Mystery, and as I emphasized there, short fiction requires a little more concentrated focus, as well as attention to economy and efficiency. Instead of a full portrait of a setting, what’s the detail or two that will bring it alive? Instead of a long conversation, what bits of dialogue are necessary to develop character, push the plot forward, or — ideally — do both at the same time? I personally like all that folding and compressing and distilling.
CB: Has your writing changed over the years? If so, how?
AT: I’ve actually had the chance recently to reflect on this very question. The hardcover of my new collection, The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense, comes with an extra perk: a separate pamphlet with the earliest draft of the title story; that earliest draft, titled “Burying the Bone,” dates back to the 1994 — more than twenty-five years before the final version, “The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74,” was published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. (You can read the AHMM story for free at my website right now.) Looking at the two stories side by side, the other one looks thinner to me, and not just because the final version is three times longer than the original. I hope I’ve become a better writer when it comes to crafting characters who are more complex and plots that have more layers to them and folding in some thematic weight to the whole thing too. Plus there’s the whole question of endings — the hardest thing for me to write, always, but I do hope I’m better now at getting them tuned right, not just easy wrap-ups but some image or action or statement that resonates a bit more, carries the reader forward beyond the last line, giving them something more to think about.
I started to say I think I’m in general better at the whole economy, efficiency, focus thing too, but “The Boy Detective” is nearly 12,000 words long, and the draft of a story I’m revising right now — “The Adventure of the Castle Thief” — is more than 18,000 words, so what the heck do I know? I’m still learning — always!
CB: You recently collaborated with your wife, Tara Laskowski, on a short story entitled “Both Sides Now” for The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell (Untreed, 2020). Is that the first time you’ve written together? How did that work?
AT: Tara and I were really pleased with the end result, a series of letters between husband and wife — “both sides” of their story, to echo the song — with the husband in prison trying to encode messages about where his wife can find a stash of stolen money and the wife having some plans of her own. There’s a playfulness to the story, I hope — both in the codes and in the twistiness of the relationship — but the writing process was a little more grueling, I have to admit. Tara is a much quicker writer, while I spend too long staring at the page, trying to figure out what this character should want or do or say next. Tara would send me her section and then wait and wait and wait and… and when I sent finally sent my section back, she’d whip up her next one and shoot it back my way and… her wait would begin again.
Despite the differences in our process, we did write another story together, one that we really love, actually, but it’s a kind of fan fiction, using some well-known, well-loved characters, and we have no idea if we’ll ever get permission to have it published.
CB: As a teacher in the English department of the George Mason University, you meet young people aspiring to be writers. What is the best advice you can give them?
AT: It seems simple, but: Keep writing!
I’m consistently amazed by the imagination and the dedication of students in my classes — and their productivity too. In any given creative writing course, I regularly require students to write two stories a semester — a pace I could hardly keep myself — and yet they step up to the challenge time and again, with drafts that often still need a lot of polish but that nearly always show great creativity and energy and potential, something on the page that wasn’t there before, something they can work with. One of the great joys of my work is following students in our BFA program in creative writing from their first semesters at Mason through their last — watching their writing evolve and improve so much in such a short span of time. And I always hope that they’ll carry that momentum forward, keep writing, keep growing.
That’s good advice for all of us, of course: keep getting words on the page, keep trying to make the next story better than the last, don’t put down the pen, even if it seems the easier thing to do.
And I’ll add “keep reading” too, because that’s another way I learn — by seeing how other writers have done it and trying to make some of those same moves myself.
CB: What’s coming next for you?
AT: Needless to say, the past year has been difficult for nearly everybody, and in 2020, I wrote very, very little — despite my own advice above to “Keep Writing!” More recently, though, I’ve been gaining traction again. I’m revising one big story now — “The Castle Thief,” as I mentioned — and have a couple more already out on submission. Fingers crossed that I’ll have good news before long.
And I’ve got a few novels ideas lurking around… just trying to figure out how to regear my brain in that direction too.
CB: Art, thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your story. I’m looking forward to “The Castle Thief!” Best of luck — and keep writing!
Andrew Welsh-Huggins releases the newest book in his Andy Hayes Private Investigator series, An Empty Grave, on June 30 at Gramercy Books in Bexley, in an event moderated by fellow Buckeye Crime Writer member Connie Berry. Eileen Curley Hammond interviewed him recently about his accomplishment.
ECH: Seven books in for this series. Do you delight in finding new Columbus places to feature in your books?
AWH: I always enjoy sneaking in references to Columbus, whether long-time landmarks like the Statehouse or real-life restaurants like Club 185 in German Village (though I’m careful not to put any bodies into actual establishments). The one downside of using real businesses is the risk they’ll close and no longer be current. Fingers crossed, all the restaurants that Andy visits in An Empty Grave are still operating — for the moment!
ECH: You have a full-time job as well as writing novels. How do you carve out time to write?
AWH: I’ve managed to settle into a system where I work for a couple of hours each morning before I start work as a reporter. I have a short commute in non-pandemic times, and for the moment no commute at all as I continue to work mostly from home, so I’m fortunate that way.
ECH: You edited (and contributed to) Columbus Noir. Was it more fun corralling other authors, or do you prefer the solitude of writing your own series?
AWH: I enjoy working on my own material, but I also really liked editing Columbus Noir because I got to work with such great writers. In that situation, it was also exciting to be creating something that showcased Columbus and its amazing crime writing community.
ECH: I love how you meld what’s happening in Andy’s personal life with the cases he is working on and how his journey to outlive his past continues. What can you share from the new book?
AWH: Andy’s younger son, Joe, undergoes a crisis involving life at home with his mom and stepdad, and Andy has to make some hard decisions about increasing his involvement in Joe’s life despite the erratic and sometimes dangerous life of a private eye (at least a fictional one). Andy also meets a woman who he thinks may finally be the one, but as usual, complications arise.
ECH: This book is number seven in this series. How many more Andy Hayes books will there be?
AWH: My standard response is, at least one more, although I have plenty of ideas that could propel the series for a while. I like hanging around Andy’s world so I’m hopeful to keep the series going.
ECH: Where can we find your book, and do you have any appearances scheduled?
AWH: My book will be available at local bookstores and at the Ohio University Press website (www.ohioswallow.com). If you order through June 18, you can enter promo code OHIOSUN on the website shopping cart to activate a 40% off discount.
ECH: Would you like to share an excerpt from An Empty Grave?
“WHAT ABOUT MURDER?”
Even in the crowded restaurant, conversation at high Saturday-night boil, the question turned heads at more than a few tables. I gestured for the stranger to sit, but he shook his head and repeated the query. Joe and Mike, despite how accustomed they were to such interruptions, stared in fascination at the ungainly man looming over us like that relative at Thanksgiving you’ll do anything to avoid but secretly can’t stop glancing at to see what happens next. I sighed, aware of the attention we were attracting and realizing there was no easy way around our predicament.
“Murder?” I said.
“You heard me. Do you investigate it?”
“I usually leave that to the police.”
“But what if they won’t?”
“What if the police won’t investigate a murder?”
“That’s not been my experience.”
“Then maybe you haven’t been paying attention to what’s really going on.”
“Listen, we’re running late, and I don’t have time to talk right at the moment.”
“So you’re just like all the rest? You won’t help me. Is that it?”
“I can’t help you because I don’t know what you’re talking about. I also can’t help the fact I’m running late. Now if you’ll excuse me—”
“Fine,” he said, squeezing himself into the booth beside Joe before I could object. “I’ll start from the beginning. My dad was a cop, and someone killed him. And I need help finding the bastard who did it.”
LET THE record show this whole sorry mess started because, as usual, I bit off more than I could chew.
I’d taken an early-afternoon surveillance gig to shore up my moribund bank account, even though I knew my schedule was tight. In my defense, the job should have been a cinch — trailing a furnace repairman who was claiming workers’ comp for a bad back through Home Depot while he loaded multiple four-by-four timbers onto a cart. Instead, as usual, things got complicated. It turned out he was also having an affair — the lumber was destined for the deck he was building for his girlfriend — which meant extra tracking time. As a result, I was late picking up my sons from the houses of my respective ex-wives, as usual, and my plans for dinner at home as part of my custody weekend went out the window.
Plan B was a couple of large pepperonis around the corner at Plank’s on South Parsons. We ate quickly because we had only thirty minutes before movie time — one of the Marvel films, the name of which I’d already forgotten. Something to do with avenging and justice. I was mapping out the fastest route to the theater in my head, Mike was complaining we were going to miss the previews, and Joe was fiddling with his phone when the man approached our table.
“You’re Woody Hayes.”
I looked up. Just what I needed. Another Ohio State football fan eager to berate me for ancient sins I’d spent half my life trying to atone for — not that I’m counting. He was heavy, balding, with thick black-framed glasses just short of factory-floor protective wear. Intensity glowing in his eyes. I thought about making a dash for it. But as often happens to me, there was no place to hide.
“Once upon a time. I go by Andy now. Was there something —”
“I’ve seen you on the news. You’re a private eye.”
“That’s right. An investigator, technically.”
I checked the time on my phone. Twenty-five minutes before showtime. At this point, maybe faster to forget surface streets and head straight for the highway. Cutting it close but still doable, especially if the previews started a minute or two late.
“What kinds of things do you investigate?”
Mike sighed loudly. Joe, despite the sullen mood he’d been in recently, looked on with interest.
“Missing persons, missing money, very rarely missing pets.” I dug for my wallet and retrieved a card. “Maybe you could give me a call?”
And that’s when he asked the question.
“What about murder?”
I GLANCED up the aisle and saw a woman at a far table staring at us. The man followed my gaze. “It’s just my sister. She’s not too thrilled I walked over here.”
That was an understatement. To judge by her expression she couldn’t have been more mortified had the man sauntered up to us in his birthday suit.
I nodded at her. “Your father. When did he die?”
A pause. “Last month.”
“Around here?” I hadn’t heard of any cops being killed recently.
“Yeah. But it took him forty years to die.”
That was just enough to pique my curiosity.
“Keep going,” I said, ignoring Mike’s groan. “But make it fast. We’re in a hurry, like I said.”
Without invitation, he picked up a piece of our pizza and started talking. He said his name was Preston Campbell. He lived nearby, in the house where he and his sister grew up. His father was Howard Campbell, but everyone called him Howie. A beat cop in the late seventies who worked a bunch of precincts but eventually settled for the University District north of Ohio State.
“Lot of guys didn’t like that rotation because of everything happening on campus in those days. The hippies and the music and the protests and everything. He didn’t mind it so much. Plus, back in those days the neighborhood was still intact. Lot of professors lived around there. But fall of ’79, cops started seeing a bunch of burglaries. Not random, either. Professional. They figured it was a team, knew what they were doing. Had a system for watching places, checking out people’s movements, striking when residents weren’t home. Some professors got cleaned out. University raised a stink and the city put on extra patrols. My dad was assigned a swing shift, 8 p.m. to 4 a.m., to keep an eye on things.”
“We don’t have much time here,” I said.
He continued as if he hadn’t heard me. “So, this one night, him and his partner were coming back from a dinner break. They’re making a pass, up by Indianola and Chittenden, when they see this van that hadn’t been there earlier. They drive by, going slow, my dad at the wheel. His partner notices a guy in the driver’s seat who slumps down real low when he sees the cruiser. They keep going, pull over half a block up, and get out. They start walking back toward the van when his partner — guy named Fitzy — spots someone in a yard with something in his arms. They both take off running after him. That’s when it happened.”
“Dad,” Mike said.
“My dad goes around back, to the left, OK? Fitzy cuts right. My dad’s checking out the rear door, which is partly open, when he hears Fitzy yelling. He runs around and sees Fitzy on the ground, unconscious, and some guy hightailing it. He starts chasing and the guy turns and shoots my dad, three times.” Jab, jab, jab, went the piece of pizza in his hand. “He goes down, but still manages to get two shots off.”
“He get the guy?”
“Oh yeah,” Campbell said. “Now they’re both down, both bleeding out. My dad calls out to Fitzy, he wakes up long enough to call it in, and that’s the beginning of the end.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean my dad survived, but his days as a cop were over.”
“What about Fitzy? And what about the guy who shot your dad?”
“Fitzy was fine — he was back at work the next day. The guy who shot my dad? That’s the problem. He disappeared.”
“Disappeared? Like, ran off? After being shot?”
Campbell shook his head. “After they arrested him. But before he could be prosecuted.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Dad. We’ve got like fifteen minutes.”
“Hang on,” I said.
“But this is the thing,” Campbell continued. “I just found out he’s still alive.”
“The guy who shot your dad?”
He said yes emphatically, pizza-flecked spittle flying from his mouth.
“After all these years?”
“You heard me.”
“That’s the problem. I don’t know.”
Our server appeared and inquired how everything was. I nodded blankly. Mike asked for the check.
I said, “You know he’s alive but you don’t know where?”
“That’s right. Which is why I need you to find him.” He retrieved a lumpy wallet and pulled out what looked like several twenties. “I’m not a charity case. I can pay.”
“Dad!” Mike said.
“Just hang on,” I said, eyeing the money. “We’ve got time.”
Except that we really didn’t. And sure enough, we missed the previews. As usual.
Connie Berry’s third book in the successful Kate Hamilton mystery series, The Art of Betrayal, launched on June 8, 2021. Eileen Curley Hammond caught up with her recently, while Connie was busy at work on book four.
ECH: It’s been an unsettling time for everyone over the past year, and things are finally beginning to open. I know you’ve spent a lot of time in Wisconsin; was that of benefit to your writing?
CB: Our cottage in Wisconsin has always been my favorite and most profitable place to write, mainly because there are fewer distractions and responsibilities. Maybe fewer ways to procrastinate? That was where my first book, A Dream of Death, was mainly written. And then there’s my desk — surrounded by windows looking out at the lake and the woods — a great way to focus and dream. One big benefit during the pandemic was the fact that where we are — Vilas County — the cases were always very low because the population is low. In the Northwoods, social distancing is a way of life!
ECH: In The Art of Betrayal, Kate Hamilton is an antiques dealer and has traveled to England to help run her friend Ivor Tweedy’s shop as he recovers from a hip operation and has the opportunity to attend the May Fair pageant. What attracted you to write about this particular fete?
CB: May Fairs are an ancient tradition in England, celebrating the arrival of spring since Roman times. When Oliver Cromwell ruled, dancing and festivities were prohibited. But in 1660 they were restored by King Charles II, including May poles and Morris dancing. Village May Fairs today include rides, games, contests, and of course lots to eat and drink.
Since one of the subplots in The Art of Betrayal involves a legendary “green maiden,” discovered under a hedge by a sheep farmer in the eleventh century, I thought it would be fun to have that pageant played out at the Long Barston May Fair. And what if a very modern body turned up in the middle of the eleventh century?
ECH: The book centers on a murder and the theft of a Chinese pottery jar. How do you choose the antiques in your books?
CB: Choosing the objects Kate will deal with is one of the pleasures of writing the series for me. I grew up in the high-end antiques trade, so very old and fine antiques and antiquities were part of my normal world as a child and teenager. In our house, objects would come and go — a life-size bust of Marie Antionette spent almost a year in our living room, for example. Later we had a two-foot-high carved ivory tankard from eighteenth-century Germany in a glass humidifier. I considered all this perfectly normal, of course. Later I found out my friends (and my future husband) thought we were a little odd.
Húnpíng jars are very interesting and extremely rare. We know they were connected with funerals, but archaeologists aren’t quite sure how. None found ever held human remains. Some are quite plain; others are incredibly detailed. Scholars believe they were personally commissioned as no two alike have ever been found. They were popular during the Han dynasty, which ruled China for four hundred years, from approximately 200 BC to 200 AD. After that, funeral customs changed and they went out of fashion.
ECH: Kate’s an American and the books take place (so far) in England and Scotland. Are there any plans to bring her home with Tom for a portion/all of a book?
CB: I had considered that — and if the series continues, Kate and Tom may visit Ohio sometime. But Kate loves the little corner of Suffolk I’ve created, and the people who inhabit the village of Long Barston have become very dear to her. These characters — Lady Barbara Finchley-fforde, Vivian Bunn, Ivor Tweedy, and others — are my main cast of characters, along with the pub owners and shop keepers on the High Street.
Since all four of my grandparents immigrated from Europe, Kate is returning the favor.
On a practical note, my publisher asked that the series be set in the UK. My books will attract readers who love that setting. The fourth book in the series, The Shadow of Memory, is set in Long Barston as well (to be released June 2022). The fifth, as yet unwritten, will take Kate to the lovely and mysterious county of Devon where Tom has business and where his Uncle Nigel occupies a country house known as Fouroaks.
ECH: Where can we find you as you promote your new book, and where can we buy it?
CB: You can find out more about me and my books at my website: www.connieberry.com. There you can sign up for my monthly newsletter, The Plot Thickens, where I share the latest news, my coming events, occasional short fiction, and sometimes recipes.
The Art of Betrayal is sold everywhere — the big booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, of course. But I always encourage readers to buy books from their local bookstore. In Columbus, we are blessed with The Book Loft in German Village; Gramercy Books in Bexley; Prologue in the Short North; and Cover To Cover in Upper Arlington.
ECH: Would you be willing to share an excerpt with us?
CB: I’d love to. Since you asked about the May Fair, here’s part of scene that take place on Long Barston’s village green. Kate and Tom are watching the pageant:
Some families had brought lawn chairs. Others spread blankets on the green, where sweaty, exhausted children could sleep off their sugar highs. Tom and I reclaimed our park bench and settled in. As the twilight deepened, a hand-bell choir from St. Æthelric’s entertained us with tunes from Camelot.
The Green Maiden pageant began at nine sharp. Several portable light stands illuminated the stage.
Tom put his arm around my shoulder. I leaned back against his chest.
“Look,” I said as the first actors took the stage. “There’s Vivian and Lady Barbara.”
They were dressed in rough, earth-colored woolen tunics. With her round face and stout figure, Vivian looked the part. Lady Barbara, even with a tattered shawl tied around her thin shoulders, couldn’t have looked less like a peasant if she’d been wearing a tiara. Vivian gave me a surreptitious wave as they milled with the other peasants in front of a painted canvas backdrop depicting a line of timbered houses and a stone bridge. A banner read Year of Our Lord1044. Three musicians in medieval clothing were playing Greensleeves.
In the first act, a young man wearing knee britches and a leather jerkin dashed onto the stage, waving his arms and looking generally gobsmacked. As the peasants gathered around to see what all the fuss was about, a second man in similar clothes appeared, leading a girl wearing a faux-leather shift by the arm. Her skin was the color of moss. Seeing the green maiden, the peasants fell to their knees and crossed themselves.
I leaned over. “Where’s the dialogue?”
“It’s pantomime,” Tom whispered.
A bit of flirting between the green maiden and a peasant youth ended in a wedding when the singularly miscast clergyman—Stephen Peacock from the Finchley Arms—made the sign of the cross over them.
In the next scene, a thatched canopy was carried onstage—a cottage, I supposed. The green maiden, dressed now in a long tunic and wimple, sat with her husband at a rough wooden table. His hand grasped an oversized tankard, but he appeared to have passed out. The green maiden, producing a vial from within her tunic, cackled at the audience and poured a measure of red liquid into the tankard. Waking up, her husband swilled his ale and belched. The crowd roared with laughter. The husband stood, clutched his stomach, and staggered off stage. Immediately, a mob of angry villagers carrying clubs and ropes surrounded the cottage. Inside, the green maiden cowered. Oh, dear. Four men unfurled a length of blue cloth and waved it gradually above their heads. Rising water? When the sheet dropped, the green maiden lay dead. Four men carried her offstage.
“Is that it?” I asked. “Is it over?”
“Not quite,” Tom said. “First we get a nice speech by the lord of the manor, then the curtain call.”
The medieval lord—Mr. Cox, the local butcher—swaggered on stage in green velvet doublet and breeches, far from historically accurate, but oh, well. He gave a nice speech about accepting those who are different from ourselves. Finally, the entire cast filed out.
The crowd applauded wildly. The cast members were taking their final bows when a disturbance arose, stage left. Someone appeared out of the shadows.
The audience screamed and sprang to their feet, partially blocking our view.
A woman staggered toward the players, clutching her belly. Parents grabbed their children and their blankets and ran for their cars.
“What it is, Tom? I can’t see.”
He took my arm, and we pushed our way toward the stage. People were shouting.
She’s been hurt. Somebody call for help.
Look at the blood.
Several cast members tried to help the injured woman, but she pushed them away. She appeared to be focused on the actress playing the green maiden. Reaching out with both hands, she took hold of the actress’s tunic, nearly pulling the young woman to the ground.
The crowd parted. The front of the woman’s white blouse was soaked with blood.
Eileen, thank you for asking about The Art of Betrayal. I loved talking with you!
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.