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.
The latest in the Carter Archives (book three) just released, and I was interested to catch up with Dan Stout on his latest success.
ECH: Congratulations on your recent launch! “Cinnamon” in the first book, “Candies” in the second; what new concept are you introducing us to in your third book? No real spoilers, please; I just started reading it.
DS: In Titan Song we finally get an up-close look at the Barekusu, one of the eight intelligent species in the world of Titanshade. These bison-sized creatures are partially inspired by my experience with Scottish Highland cattle at the Columbus Scottish Fest. The Barekusu are alien and mysterious, and their arrival in town may have serious consequences for our protagonists, Carter and Ajax.
ECH: It’s been a tough year for us all. You launched book two a year ago when pretty much everything in Ohio was shut down. What were the things that worked well for you from a virtual standpoint with that launch? And with vaccines becoming available, are there additional avenues opening to promote your new book?
DS: The pandemic definitely threw the launch plans for book 2 into chaos! We canceled all kinds of in-person events, and while we did come up with replacements, it just wasn’t the same.
For book 3, we came in with a “virtual first” attitude. Partly this was a way to hedge against uncertainty, but it also allows me to take part in multiple events in a short window of time. It’s pretty amazing to talk to one group in Ohio and another in Arizona on the same day.
As the vaccine rolls out, I’m looking forward to getting back into stores and talking to readers one on one!
ECH: I love some of your character’s quirks. For instance, Carter can’t stand disco, while his partner is an aficionado, which creates tension. I know you are a plotter; do you decide nuances in advance, or is that something that happens organically?
DS: They happen organically. I’m a plotter largely because I enjoy giving myself boundaries to play inside. Having the plot worked out in advance lets me give my full attention to working on character details and dialogue.
Finding those nuances can take a lot of searching, and having an outline lets me limit the scope of the search. It’s like when I can’t find my car keys, but I know they’re definitely in the living room – it may take me a while and involving a lot of swearing, but sooner or later I’ll find them.
ECH: Your story bible must be getting larger. Any helpful hints you’d like to share on how you kept up with your characters as you wrote the third book in a series?
DS: I use a Scrivener document as a dedicated world bible. I update it as I go to make sure I’m staying on top of physical details, speech patterns, and motivations. I don’t consider anything canon unless it’s in print, so I can still change things on the fly.
One useful thing I fall back on a lot is a tip that Shirley Jackson used to give: to give secondary characters unique and interesting traits, associate them with an animal. I’ll note that in the Scrivener file on the character so that when I get back to them a year later, I’ll see that they’re a rhino or blue jay. Then I immediately know that they’ll be harrumphing and stomping their feet, or squawking and tilting their head suspiciously.
ECH: What’s next for you? Is there another Carter Archive in the works?
DS: I definitely have more stories to tell in this world! There’s more Carter coming, but I don’t have details I can share yet.
Right now, I’m working on something that’s tonally very different. As much as I love the Carter Archives, writing in only one voice can be a little like performing the same exercise over and over. So I’m stretching my creative muscles and having a lot of fun thinking through this new project.
ECH: Would you like to share an excerpt from the book with us?
DS: Absolutely! I think the best part to excerpt might be from the very beginning of Chapter 1, where we’re establishing the blend of fantasy and mystery elements, as well as the tone and voice you can expect in the rest of the book.
[excerpt at end]
ECH: Thanks for your time, Dan. How can we buy your book? And where can we find you?
DS: Thank you for having me — I’m always happy to talk about books and writing with my fellow BCW members.
My books are available at most online and physical stores. The Book Loft here in Columbus has signed copies, and links to online retailers and indie stores can be found on my site. https://www.danstout.com/buy-titan-song
Speaking of my website, the best way to find me is to head over to DanStout.com and see what I’m up to. It’s got info on all my stories, links to social media, and a form to join the Campfire, a regular email discussion about books, writing, and most of my other favorite things. Stop by and say hello!
Titan Song (Chapter 1 Excerpt)
Look, it’s not that I hate disco.
There are plenty of things that I do hate. Predators who lurk in shadows, targeting the weak and the weary; villains who find joy in snuffing out the tiny lights of individual kindness and stealing the warmth that makes life worth living. Those are the people I’ve dedicated my life to finding and dragging into the light of justice. Compared to them, why would I be bothered by a garish, repetitive squeal of synthesized sludge pawned off onto vapid club-dwellers too tweaked out to recognize a decent melody if it walked up and bit them in the ass?
So no, I don’t hate disco. But I sure as Hells don’t like it, either.
Despite that fact, I’d been listening to the radio blare overproduced bilge for the better part of an hour as I drove across the ice plains. The reason for that was the cop who shared my ride; he loved the stuff. Jax drummed his hands on the dashboard of the snow-runner, roughly matching what passed for a beat as I gripped the steering wheel tighter and hoped that the radio signal would hurry up and die. My partner’s biting jaws were slightly open, reverberating a hum past jagged tusks the size of my fingers, self-harmonizing with the whistle from his speaking mouth, a hole set low in his throat, just above his necktie. It would have been impressive, if he hadn’t been off-beat and out of tune.
“Can you not do that?” I raised my voice above the rumble of treads on densely packed snow. We were due north of the city, the profile of the Mount retreating in our sideview mirrors, and with it the warmth of the geo-vents that made Titanshade an oasis on the snow-swept ice plains. The vents’ continuous output of sulfur-scented heat was the only thing that allowed the city to exist and cloak itself in something akin to civilization.
“Do what?” Jax’s eyes were concealed behind wraparound shades, making it impossible to see if they were crinkled with amusement, and nothing so expressive as a smile would ever grace the rigid bones of his biting jaws. Southerners were often intimidated by Mollenkampi faces and the frozen mask of perpetual aggression they conveyed to human eyes. Some people thought they looked dangerous, but I held no such uncertainty—the fact that my left hand was two fingers short of the usual allotment proved that a Mollenkampi’s bite was far worse than their appearance.
I peered at the ice plains through my own sunglasses. Shades were obligatory on the ice plains in daylight. While the sun was out the vast, unbroken white expanse was as blinding as it was deadly.
The fuzzy radio signal brought us a track from Dinah McIntire, the pop queen whose heavily processed voice had dominated the city’s radio playlists since she’d announced she was bringing a music festival to our town. Big-name artists rarely toured in Titanshade. It was too far to travel, the climate too inhospitable. The rest of the world had always been content to forget about us, as long as we supplied them with oil. That was one more thing that had changed in recent months.
“It’s not my fault you can’t feel the music in your heart,” Jax said.
In fact, I felt it too deeply. The blend of static and song echoed the buzzing sounds and the overwhelming, aching hunger that came when I crossed the invisible spiderwebs of sorcery. Sensations that I needed to keep secret.
I snapped back to reality when Jax stretched a hand in front of me, pointing at a speck on the horizon I’d been eyeing for the last little while.
“Is that it?” he asked.
“Yeah, kid. That’s it.”
The Shelter in the Bend rig site grew larger with each second, and soon we were able to make out the outline of the temporary tents nestled in its shadow like the city’s buildings nestled against the Mount. The entire structure had been thrown up in the last two weeks, amidst much speculation and excitement. As much as I thought they were crazy, I had to admire the organizers’ audacity. If we rarely had big-names concerts in Titanshade, the thought of a dozen playing for more than a week outside the city was unheard of.
The Titanshade city leadership was thrilled about it. A festival located hours from the city would cause no traffic jams and require no police coordination. It was even far enough from the manna strike that the military encampment wasn’t concerned about accidental tourists. The festival made headlines for hiring furloughed rig workers for the structural work and security. The short-term salve for the unemployed made it an easy sell. It was a win for everyone.
It was a shame they needed a pair of Homicide detectives.
When I want to impress a fellow mystery writer, I tell them Edith Maxwell and I are cousins. It’s perfectly true, although in the interest of full disclosure, the connection on my side runs through my husband’s brother’s wife’s family and on Edith’s side, through some distant Maxwell relatives. I’m not sure we could map it out on paper if we tried.
Nevertheless, I’ve loved getting to know this talented and prolific writer. Edith is the author of five series (I’m impressed!). In 2020, Charity’s Burden, fourth in her Quaker Midwife series, won the Agatha Award for Best Historical Novel. She’s a lifetime member of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America.
Recently I had an opportunity to ask Edith a few questions about her journey to publication and her writing process.
CONNIE: Welcome to Buckeye Crime Writers, Edith. Thanks for taking the time to chat. The first thing I’d like to know is how long you’ve been writing. When was your first book published, and has your writing changed over the years?
EDITH: First, thank you, Connie, for inviting me to be the Buckeye Crime Writers’ guest today!
The long answer is that I’ve been writing since I was a child churning out short stories. I even won a two-dollar prize for “The Viking Girl” from the Pasadena Star News when I was nine. I kept writing as an adult, but not fiction. I didn’t start writing mysteries until 1994 when my younger son went off to kindergarten and for the first time in a long time I had every morning to myself.
My first mystery was published in 2012, two months before my sixtieth birthday. Since then I hope (and believe) my writing has improved. I have a better sense of pacing, of writing more eloquently, of being more sensitive to my characters’ secrets and paths. My novels tend to be fairly upbeat, but I like to go darker in short stories with stories of murderous revenge and villainous narrators.
I’m a bit stunned that I just sent in my twenty-eighth mystery (Batter Off Dead, written as Maddie Day) and that my twenty-fourth, the historical A Changing Light, releases this month. What a wonderful ride I’m on.
CONNIE: Twenty-eight books is quite an achievement. I’m interested in your process. Do you plot out your books in advance? If you do, is there a particular method you use?
EDITH: By nature I write into the headlights, but my Kensington editor wants a synopsis before I start the next book. I never send him as much as he wants, but it can be helpful if I ever lose my way as I’m writing. That’s rare, but it does happen. I write in Scrivener, and the most plotting I do is setting up the next two or three scenes.
CONNIE: Have you ever self-published a book? Do you have advice for writers who would like to go in that direction?
EDITH: I self-reissued a few short stories that had been published in juried anthologies and to which I had the rights back. Then my first four Quaker Midwife mysteries were orphaned by Midnight Ink, with the rights reverting to me in September. I realized this winter the ebooks had also gone poof. I found a good but affordable cover artist and self-published them. I haven’t yet done the print editions and am not sure I will.
Self-publishing involves mechanics, distribution, and getting the news out. I went through Smashwords, but authors can go directly to KDP or elsewhere. It’s important to have a cleanly formatted manuscript.
For my books, I already had an audience. At this point in my career, I wouldn’t consider self-publishing a new series. My first and third books came out from a micro-press, and it was very hard to get those books in front of readers’ eyes. Bigger publishers help with publicity, their pre-press catalogs are widely seen, and they ship the books to every bookstore in the country on or before release day. This can make or break a book.
CONNIE: How did you get the idea for your Quaker Midwife series? I know you and your protagonist, Rose Carroll, both live in Amesbury, Massachusetts (although 130+ years apart). How much of you is in Rose?
EDITH: I love my town’s rich history, and I have a background in teaching independent childbirth classes and doing labor support. It made sense to put all that together. Rose gets her Quaker practice and beliefs from me. Otherwise, she’s taller, younger, and way calmer than I am. And I was a never a midwife, by choice.
CONNIE: What is the one thing you wish you’d known starting out?
EDITH: I wish someone had told me not to settle. If you’re having trouble finding an agent or a publisher for a book, the book probably isn’t ready. It might be time to start writing a new book rather than trying to sell (or self-publish) one that no one wants.
CONNIE: What advice would you give to emerging writers?
EDITH: Just write. You can’t fix what you haven’t written. Write your best book and make it better. To do that, find your tribe – like Sisters in Crime. Learn from them (especially the Guppies), take classes, revise, polish, and revise some more. And never stop writing, fitting it into your life where and when you can.
CONNIE: Excellent advice, Edith. I agree. Learning craft is key. Today, especially in the Age of Zoom, we have so many free or near-free opportunities to learn and grow as a writer. Best of luck with the April launch of A Changing Light. I hope we can catch up some day in person—maybe at New England Crime Bake or Malice Domestic. Thanks so much for visiting Buckeye Crime Writers.
ABOUT EDITH MAXWELL: Agatha Award-winning author Edith Maxwell writes the Quaker Midwife Mysteries, the Local Foods Mysteries, and short crime fiction. As Maddie Day she pens the Country Store Mysteries and the Cozy Capers Book Group Mysteries. Maxwell is a member of Mystery Writers of America and a lifetime member of Sisters in Crime. She lives with her beau and energizer kitten north of Boston, where she writes, gardens, cooks, and wastes time on Facebook, and hopes you’ll find her at Edith M. Maxwell and Maddie Day. Please find me (and Maddie) at EdithMaxwell.com, wickedauthors.com, Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen, and on social media.
Will we ever attend writers’ and fans’ conferences again? I sure hope so. Conferences and workshops are a wonderful way to meet fellow writers, make friends, and learn about the craft of writing and the mysterious world of publishing.
I met Ellen Byron in the spring of 2016 when we shared a car from Reagan International Airport to our hotel in Bethesda, MD, for Malice Domestic, the annual conference of mystery writers and fans. I was an unpublished author at the time. Ellen’s first novel in the Cajun Country series, Plantation Shudders, was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Novel. To say I was impressed would be like saying Elizabeth Bennet didn’t hate Pemberley. Since then, Ellen has given me great advice, and I’ve loved watching her success. She’s funny, smart, kind, energetic, talented, and completely genuine. My favorite memory is sitting at her table at the Malice banquet when the third book in her series, Marti Gras Murder, won the Agatha for Best Contemporary Mystery. She was ecstatic — and completely shocked.
Since Ellen has been something of a mentor to me, I thought others might like hearing her story.
CONNIE: Ellen, thank so much for agreeing to let us in on the secret of your success. TALENT, of course. But you come from a successful career as a TV writer. Can you tell us a little about that and why you decided to transition to novel-writing?
ELLEN: It wasn’t a conscious choice. I had a big lull between TV projects. A friend started a writers’ group for four of us, and I decided to challenge myself to write what I loved to read — mysteries. I wrote my first book during that lull (otherwise known as unemployment!), and it won a William F. Deeck Malice Domestic Grant for unpublished writers. It never sold, but it landed me a book agent. After a nine-month search, and while it was on submission, I wrote Plantation Shudders, which became the first book in my Cajun Country Mystery series. Which leads to a piece of advice: if you’re lucky enough to have a book out on sub to publishers, spend the time you’re waiting to hear from them writing another book.
CONNIE: Great advice, Ellen, because when you’re under contract, the book and the necessary marketing/publicity become a black hole of time. I was a non-fiction writer first and found the transition to fiction challenging. How did your background in television help you or hinder you in writing cozy mysteries?
ELLEN: I think it helped me. I’m a plotter. I need to know where I’m going and how I’m going to get there. I think this is a holdover from TV, where you cannot move to script until layers of execs and showrunners sign off on your outline. In commercial IV, you have to end a scene before a commercial break with a beat that will guarantee viewers don’t change the channel. Because I’m trained to do this, it’s instinctual for me to do it with my chapter breaks. Also, I learned all about ways to add humor to a manuscript.
CONNIE: You’ve been an advocate for the “cozy mystery.” Could you give us a brief description and tell us why you choose that sub-genre? Have you ever thought about writing suspense or another genre?
ELLEN: I actually have a mystery/suspense I’m in the final stages of writing. As for cozies, the most common description is: mysteries with an amateur sleuth where there’s little bad language, sex, and no graphic violence. And justice is served. In addition to the usual Agatha Christie diet, I read a lot of historical and traditional mysteries. I didn’t know what a cozy was until after I’d written one! I think I gravitate in general to the “justice is served” angle. Reading is an escape for me. I don’t want to be haunted and upset by what I read. It’s comfort food. I made the mistake of reading a suspense book/thriller where teen girls were brutally tortured and murdered. I was trying to broaden my mystery reading to other genres. Big mistake. I still can’t get those images out of my head. Life can be dark and stressful enough. I don’t need that in my reading material.
CONNIE: I agree. I remember reading a series one summer about a female medical examiner/forensic pathologist until I got to one (forgot the title) that was so horrific it literally freaked me out. My husband was out of town at the time, so I locked all the doors and windows, even my bedroom door, and lay awake for hours in the stifling heat. Nope — not going to put myself through that again. Let’s turn to a happier topic! You’ve won multiple awards for your humor. Can humor be learned, or do you have to be naturally funny to pull it off?
ELLEN: I’ve learned watching actors without comic timing kill my scripts, so I’d say people either have a comic instinct or they don’t. BUT people started asking me if I could do a workshop where I teach comedy techniques. My first thought was you can’t teach people how to be funny. Then I started thinking about it in more depth, and I realized you can teach people simple ways to find and mine humor — quick hack; end a sentence on a funny word (don’t bury it in the middle) — and look for opportunities to add humor to their work.
CONNIE: Based on your own journey to publication, what advice would you give to pre-published crime writers?
ELLEN: Become part of the mystery community, which everyone here is already doing by joining your local SinC chapter. Find a couple of people you respect and trust them to be your beta readers. Learn how to apply feedback in the best way for your work, which may mean not taking a direct note but addressing the heart of it. Be patient. Keep learning. Keep writing.
CONNIE: Thanks again, Ellen, for sharing your experiences. Best of luck in the future!
BIO: Ellen’s Cajun Country Mysteries have won the Agatha award for Best Contemporary Novel and multiple Lefty awards for Best Humorous Mystery. She writes the Catering Hall Mystery series, which are inspired by her real life, under the name Maria DiRico. Ellen is an award-winning playwright, and non-award-winning TV writer of comedies like Wings, Just Shoot Me, and Fairly Odd Parents. She has written over two hundred articles for national magazines but considers her most impressive credit working as a cater-waiter for Martha Stewart.