Buckeye Crime Writers interview with Grace Topping

By Connie Berry

Recently I was asked in an interview to give my best advice to new writers. Part of my answer went like this: “Attend conferences if you can afford it. Make connections with other writers, both published and unpublished. They will become your advocates and encouragers.” This is certainly true for Grace Topping, the USA Today best-selling and Agatha-nominated author of the Laura Bishop Home Staging Mysteries. We met through Carolyn Melvin, another Buckeye Crime Writer, at Malice Domestic in 2014. We were both unpublished at the time and almost instantly became great friends. Our first books came out around the same time. We regularly read and comment on each other’s work. Grace is someone I can count on for sound advice and encouragement. Her latest, Upstaged by Murder was released in April.

Upstaged by Murder/Grace Topping

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

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.

Coming in May: Author Steve Goble

Steve Goble

For our May 15 meeting, be sure to join us as we chat with Ohio author Steve Goble!

Update: To view the session, click this link and use the passcode 4S9Y%kMq. Please note, this will only be available for about a week.

Steve Goble is a mystery writer based in Ashland, Ohio. His first series, the Spider John mystery series, focuses on a reluctant pirate trying to solve murders in the cutthroat world of piracy. The first three novels, “The Bloody Black Flag,” “The Devil’s Wind” and “A Bottle of Rum,” are all still available, and the latest, “Pieces of Eight,” released in March.

Steve’s second series is a very different one, focusing on small-town detective Ed Runyon. This modern-day, hardboiled series features a detective in rural Ohio. The first novel, “City Problems,” releases in July. Best-selling author William Kent Krueger called it “an authentic, compelling story of a rural cop with a haunted past,” adding “the stunning, profane prose should be savored.”

City Problems/Steve Goble

Steve doesn’t confine his writing to mysteries, however. Other topics he writes about include beer, Godzilla, politics, James Bond, comic books, movies, music, zen, science, pop culture and just plain weird stuff.

He is a former journalist who now works for a digital investigations and cybersecurity firm.

For more information, follow Steve on Twitter @Steve_Goble or visit his website at https://stevegoblefiction.wordpress.com/.

Our meeting will be held via Zoom from 11 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. May 15.

Pieces of Eight/Steve Goble

BCW Member Dan Stout’s New Book Release, Titan Song

Interview by Eileen Curley Hammond

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.

Dan Stout

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/Dan Stout

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.

BCW interview with Edith Maxwell

April 2021/By Connie Berry

Edith Maxwell

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?

A Changing Light/Edith Maxwell

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.

April meeting: Book Brush demo

Ever heard of Book Brush?

Book Brush is the easiest way to create professional ads and social media images for your books. 

EDIT: The recording of this meeting can be found here.

Join Kathleen Sweeney from Book Brush on Saturday, April 17 for a fun live walk-through of the Book Brush tools. Get ready to embrace the marketing side of writing and see why authors say Book Brush saves them both time and money! Learn how easy it is to use Book Brush to create your own eye-catching marketing images, design book covers and all things social media. Plus explore video effects, box set images, animation and more! Kathleen will share handy tips & tricks along the way and have time for Q & A, too.

Here’s a sample of what Book Brush (and you) can do: 

Many Easy to Use Options

Everything you need takes just a few clicks.

Kathleen is the manager of marketing and customer service at Book Brush. She has over 19 years of client service and business assurance experience. She thoroughly enjoys working with authors and helping them create eye-catching images. She lives in central Illinois with her husband and three busy boys. Her hobbies include reading and turning socks right side out.

Member book release: Alicia Anthony’s Fractals

Interview by Kandy Williams

Alicia, Congratulations on the release of FRACTALS. It’s your fourth book but is a stand-alone. Can you tell us a bit about the story?

Of course, and thanks to Buckeye Crime Writers for having me. You’re an amazing group and I’m so happy to be a part of it. So, what can I say about Fractals? On the surface, this is the story of a teenager destroyed by life’s circumstances and sold to pay off her father’s debts, and her teacher, scarred by life in his own way, who tries to save her. But on a deeper level it’s a tale of good versus evil – a reflection on trauma, poverty, addiction, and abuse as experienced by these two main characters.

Readers may find that FRACTALS is a bit different from your Blood Secrets Saga. Since I snagged an ARC (thank you, btw!), I thought it was darker than your series and dealt with a timely yet difficult subject matter. How might you prepare readers for this deep-dive into the harrowing, complicated life of Carly Dalton?

Fractals centers around human trafficking, so readers should definitely expect to be uncomfortable. Although I never really shied away from the darker parts of life in my Blood Secrets series, Fractals is far grittier and more disturbing. I’d tell readers to be ready for raw and real characters so impacted by trauma that they don’t always make the “right” decisions.

The goal, for me, was to peel that scab back and shine a light on some dark subjects that most of us tend to ignore.

Both your main characters, Carly and Asher, have physical and emotional traumas to overcome. Do you think readers, who might identify with some of their situations, can find hope in your story? Was that a motivation for you while writing this book?

I definitely think there’s hope in Fractals. Carly and Asher are incredibly strong characters. They are put through a lot, but they are survivors and I think that comes through in the novel. As for motivation, it was certainly my goal to shine a light into the darkness that surrounds human trafficking and the failure of the system as a whole. The statistics are truly staggering, and I think many of us feel like trafficking is a problem that resides on the outskirts of our communities. But unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. I was motivated by the idea that the story of this young girl and her teacher could bring the horror of that trauma to life in a way that readers could empathize with, and I hope I’ve been able to accomplish that in Fractals.

FRACTALS explores perhaps a lesser-recognized form of sex trafficking. Do you think there are real solutions for ending this abuse?

I think the first step is acknowledgement. I don’t think the general public is aware of the industry that exists within our own communities. There are so many different forms of trafficking and Carly’s story is just a tiny slice of that activity. Strangers aren’t the only danger, and I wanted to shed some light on that fact and help people think about their own communities and ways they might be able to make situations better for those who are most at risk. Of course, there are organizations out there that do some great work in this area. The Polaris Project (http://www.polarisproject.org) is one I mention in the author’s note. I don’t know what the solution is to the problem of human trafficking. Frankly, as long as there’s a need, criminals will find a way to profit from it, but I think examining our own preconceived notions and supporting the organizations that help the victims of this abuse is a great way to start.

As a teacher, you’ve worked with students from various backgrounds. Do you often feel that you’re helping to equip them to make good life choices, and in general, do you feel that responsibility has grown over the years?

By day I’m an elementary school reading specialist, so my main duty is helping kids learn strategies to make them better readers, but that’s not really what it’s all about for me. I want my students feel seen and heard. And although I’m their teacher, I’d also like them to think of me as a friend, someone to bounce ideas off of and who would have their back if the going got tough. I teach reading, but more than that, I want them to know just how valuable they are, to take pride in themselves and understand that they are more than test scores and reading levels. I think if I can play some small part in that, then I’ve done my job. Better reading is just a byproduct of greater self-worth. And I absolutely think that responsibility has grown since I started teaching eighteen years ago. Our society is so much different today, but deep down the kids are the same. They still need love, understanding, and someone to cheer them on and point them in the right direction when things are rough. They still need to know we care.

Care to share about your writing process? Tell us how this story came to life for you and the journey to getting it published. 

Fractals was an interesting journey. I read an article years ago about an artist who explored the nature of tears in some of her work. She found that different types of tears have different qualities dependent on the origin of the emotion. I know, crazy, right? Anyway, her work was published in a book called the Topography of Tears and that idea really stayed with me. I think somewhere deep in my psyche I was looking for a character that could help me explore that idea on my own, and I found her while watching a student sketch an eye one day after school. She did an amazing job and something about that sketch brought that abstract idea of different types of tears full circle, and Carly Dalton was born. Of course, the novel went through various stages. I submitted it to several agents and publishing houses early on, and it was recognized as a Claymore Award Finalist along the way. But in the end, I think I knew it was too dark to be picked up traditionally. Besides, after dipping my toes into the lake of indie publishing with my Blood Secrets series, I was more than game to do the same with Fractals.

What’s next for you?  

The million dollar question! Fractals took a lot out of me, creatively and emotionally, so right now I’m taking a much-needed pause. I am prepping to teach a spring session for my alma mater, Spalding University’s Low-Residency MFA program, and I’m looking forward to that experience. Of course, my daughter graduates from high school this year, so that is eating up some …well, let’s face it, almost all of my mental and emotional energy. But once summer hits, I’ll be jumping back into the writing trenches with my next project, another twisty, but not nearly so dark, psychological thriller. In the meantime, I’m enjoying time spent with my daughter and all her senior year “lasts.”

Interview with Ellen Byron

by Connie Berry (March 2021)

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.

Ellen Byron

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.

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Coming event: Attorney Larae Schraeder

Larae Schraeder

UPDATE: Did you miss this meeting, or just really want to hear Larae’s advice again? Click here to watch the full meeting!

Hot girl meets rich boy, boy proposes to girl, and there is a HEA. Wait a minute; we’re not romance writers. Our ending’s more likely to be: girl makes sure boy meets with unfortunate demise, girl inherits, and lives HEA.

In crime writing, there’s usually a motive for killing someone. And all too often, that motive is money. Ever wonder how the laws of inheritance work? How about someone who kills a rich, elderly aunt to inherit her fortune. What if the inheritor is caught? Do they automatically lose the money? Do laws vary by state?

Join Buckeye Crime Writers for an interactive Zoom session with Larae Schraeder, Schraeder Law, LLC, on Saturday, March 20,, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. EST as she touches on what happened in a few high-profile cases, talks through some of the gradations of guilty and the impact that has on inheritance, helps you with your questions, and explains some things that we as writers should be thinking about in our own plans.

Who is Larae Schraeder? Larae earned her Juris Doctor summa cum laude from Capital Law School while working full time at a Fortune 100 company. Larae served as Editor in Chief of the Capital University Law Review, as an extern for two federal judges, and as a law clerk at legal clinics for low-income clients. Larae earned the American Legal Institute Scholarship and Leadership Award and became the inaugural recipient of the Excellence in Pro Bono Service Award for helping others.

Larae is a member of the American Bar Association, the Columbus Bar, and the Ohio State Bar Association’s Estate Planning and Elder Law groups.

Before becoming licensed to practice law in Ohio, Larae graduated from Kenyon College magna cum laude and was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. For over 20 years, Larae has proudly served in various capacities as a Kenyon volunteer, including roles as president of the Alumni Council and the Board of Trustees. Larae is a ninth-generation Ohioan, an avid genealogist, and a (self-proclaimed) mediocre cyclist. Larae lives in Columbus with her husband and two shelter pets. Larae’s website is https://www.schraederlawllc.com/.

BCW interview with Bruce Robert Coffin

Feb. 2021

By Connie Berry

Bruce Robert Coffin

I met Bruce Coffin for the first time at Malice Domestic in 2016 after his first Detective John Byron crime novel, Among the Shadows, was released. To tell the truth, I was a bit awe-struck, especially with his background as a detective sergeant focusing on homicide and violent crime. He was (and still is) the real deal. Since then he’s gone on to publish three more books in the series to critical acclaim. The latest, Within Plain Sight, has been called “witty,” “exceptional,” with “flawless prose” and a plot that “will keep you guessing until the final bullet-riddled revelation.” Bruce was kind enough to answer a few questions about his journey from police officer to award-winning crime novelist.

Bruce, how did that happen, and how did you learn your craft?

Thank you so much, Connie! The truth is I was a novelist in waiting who spent nearly three decades as a police officer. Long story short, following a less than inspirational experience in a college writing class, I made the decision to follow in my uncle’s law enforcement footsteps. As the years passed, I honestly believed I would never return to writing. In 2012 my passion for writing returned in part because my wife gifted me with an iPad. I was like a kid with a new toy. The iPad was like a portable typewriter. Better still, I could type without need of correction tape or Whiteout. After that it didn’t take long before I was creating and spending time with my imaginary friends again.

How long did it take you to write that first novel? And since we share an agent, Paula Munier of Talcott Notch, how long did it take to sell the series?

Bestselling spy novelist Gayle Lynds once said to me, “One day they’ll call you an overnight success, but you and I will know how many years that really takes.” I spent two and a half years writing a drawer novel titled DEATH WATCH. Honestly, it was terrible. But I learned so much from writing that bad novel. And I used that knowledge to write another, THE REAPING. On the strength of that second novel, Paula Munier offered to represent me. I signed an agreement with Talcott Notch in November of 2015. By December we had interest from two major houses, and in February 2016 we agreed on a three-book deal with HarperCollins. THE REAPING became AMONG THE SHADOWS and was released in September 2016 as the first in the Detective Byron mystery series. In truth, my overnight success took more than four and a half years, two novel-length manuscripts, more rewrites than I can count, great advice from fellow authors, and a fabulous literary agent, to achieve.

I can identify! Except I refused to let that first terrible novel go and finally wrestled it into something I could sell. I’m interested in your police background. Most crime writers don’t have your experience.  How much of you and your experiences end up on the pages of your novels?

There is no question that my experiences greatly inform my writing. As a crime fiction author I couldn’t have picked a better prior career. And not just the procedural aspect. I draw heavily on all of my experiences. From human interactions, stressful situations, life, death, and everything in between. During my career I felt as though I had given up writing to do something else. I now realize that what I was actually doing was research. Some folks take the road less traveled. I opted for the long way home, and it has made all the difference.

What advice do you have for aspiring crime writers in today’s publishing world?

Publishing is a tough business. The landscape is forever changing. Nobody really knows what will be in demand next year, or even ten years from now. If your only reason for writing is publication, you’re in the wrong business. Publication can certainly be a goal, but it shouldn’t be the reason. I write is because I love doing it. Telling stories and playing make-believe inside my own head is such a cool concept. My stories provide me with an escape from real world troubles. Hopefully — if I’ve done my job well — they’ll provide that same escape for all who read them. Never give up or lose sight of your goal, but remember to enjoy the act of writing, and enjoy the journey.

That’s wonderful advice. Thank you so much, Bruce, and best of luck in all your future writing.

Bruce Robert Coffin is the award-winning author of the Detective Byron mysteries. A former detective sergeant, he supervised all homicide and violent crime investigations for Maine’s largest city. Following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, Bruce spent four years investigating counter-terrorism cases for the FBI, earning the Director’s Award, the highest award a non-agent can receive. His short fiction appears in a number of anthologies, including Best American Mystery Stories 2016. You can find him at www.brucerobertcoffin.com.

Within Plain Sight – Bruce Robert Coffin

Keep your characters safe

In case you weren’t able to join us, or want to hear it again, the February meeting will be available for a limited time right here!

February. Valentine’s month. The time of year for love and demonstrable affection, traditionally in the form of candy and flowers (or with our group, poisons and red herrings). And because we both love our members and want to demonstrate our affection, we thought this would be the perfect time for an active shooter class with the Columbus Police Department!

Unfortunately, active shooter classes are a thing now. Many workplaces have them so employees will know what to do if someone shows up with both a weapon and intent. And for authors of mysteries, thrillers, police procedurals, cozies, etc., this is doubly important. We want this information not just for our own safety and understanding, but also for our writing. Detail is key, and we need to know what’s realistic and what isn’t. If your protagonist is being hunted by someone, suddenly empowering them with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu skills and SEAL tactical knowledge isn’t really realistic and may turn off a reader. What are typical motives for active shooters? Is there a preferred weapon type? Do they wear body armor? And how does a potential victim without years of training stay one step ahead? Do they hide? What’s the best way to fight back?

To find out, join us Saturday, 2/20/21, from 11 a.m. – 12:30 p.m., for a Zoom presentation with Columbus Police officer Rick Hannah, who will provide a PowerPoint presentation on active shooter information, then lead a discussion on what the entertainment industry often gets right and wrong in movies, television shows and the rest. Attendees are encouraged to bring questions; please contact us at buckeyecrimewriters@gmail.com for a Zoom link. And please note: this will be a member-only event for BCW and chapters with the national Sisters In Crime organization. If you wish to be a member, please contact us via gmail . . . we’d love to have you! And as always, keep writing.

Patrick Stuart, BCW President