Interview: Shelley Costa

Please welcome Shelley Costa, author of Practical Sins For Cold Climates and other works.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
The very basics: a solid few hours of respectable writing. Wonderful additions to that Basic Perfect Day include things like lunch with a good friend, exercising (always a trial, but I feel great afterwards), a delicious sushi dinner out with my husband and daughters, seeing little children, watching our cats do anything, viewing something of extraordinary beauty – either in a museum or in nature.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase/expression, or meal?
A few of those, although I’m not sure they’re exactly “signature,” but . . . wooden hoop earrings PRACTICAL SINS book cover(truly they go with everything I ever wear) . . . “Warm Vanilla Sugar” cologne from Bath And Body Works . . . A signature meal I make – friends, speak up if you’re sick to death of it – is wasabi salmon, roasted mini-potatoes with kalamata olives, and roasted asparagus with Parmesan. My go-to for entertaining.

Which books/authors inspired or influenced you the most?
P.D. James. Throughout my formal education (which ended when I got my PhD in English when I was 33), I became very drawn to writers who paid special attention to complex characters and motivations. Toward the end of my studies, my deep pleasure reading had turned exclusively to mysteries, and I made my way through the Golden Age. These were really good mystery writers: they wrote well and they constructed good mystery plots. And then I found P.D. James, who felt to me like a combination of everything I had come to love in literature – James, for me, did more than write good murder mysteries. She was a fine novelist, first. She wrote what I came to call “novels with murder.” For me, she raised the bar: I want to write novels with murder.

Do you listen to music when you write?
No . . . although it might be an interesting experiment.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
A dark chocolate bar with espresso chips. How does it resemble Practical Sins For Cold Climates? Dark chocolate with espresso chips is complex, no single flavor or quick chew. It’s not particularly sweet, and the absence of milk takes you (and my heroine Val) right out of your comfort zone. As you read (or taste) along, you discover the unexpected, not at the center, like a chocolate-covered espresso bean, but scattered throughout. These surprises are an interesting taste counterpoint to the not-so-sweet but nonetheless divine chocolate – a kick leading to increased alertness about the mystery. Chocolate and coffee are intense and delicious.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
A few things came together at once. I had spent enough time in the Canadian Northwoods that I felt I could do (limited) justice to it as a writer, and saw all sorts of possibilities for threat and murder. Scary wilderness, unfamiliar people. Taking it a step further, I needed to write a Canoe Trip from Hell story, a mash-up of all my most difficult camping experiences, and I simply love fish-out-of-water stories, wherever I find them. Sometimes I feel like I’m a fish-out-of-water everywhere, but for sure Up North, Down South, Out West . . . did I leave anything out? There’s plenty I like about these regions; they’re just not my natural habitat. Finally, I wanted to write a total city girl with a job I was familiar with (my first job out of college was in NYC book publishing). And so these separate things came together in what became Practical Sins.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
Ah, great question. Well, as I mention on my website, what interests me most is what I call the theme of Good Person Struggling. That theme – that basis for stories of all kinds – is timeless and universal. It occurs in our daily lives. It’s what makes us worth writing about. Off any battlefield, away from disasters where we can step up, quiet struggle is what makes us heroic. I’m very interested in motivations for behavior, and I like writing and reading mysteries where the murder – when all the layers are peeled back – is deeply personal. I have no interest in serial killer stories, where psychopathology Explains All. For me, that’s easy and oddly dull.

Tell us about your main character.
A native New Yorker, editor Val Cameron gets sent to the Northwoods on an important errand for her boss: sign up a reclusive bestselling thriller writer. So Val is an ordinarily competent woman who is thrust completely out of her element . . . a great set-up for some interesting storylines. How can she confront her fears in order to succeed? Does she? What unexpected challenges occur that really put her to the test? (Murder, anyone?) Can she function, grow, change . . . solve a murder? Can she make herself more vulnerable in a place where she already feels too vulnerable? When she’s under the gun, can she see true character more accurately?

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
Val Cameron is a mash-up of any one of Sandra Bullock’s smart, repressive characters whose cool, ivory-tower-ness masks their vulnerability; Kathleen Kelly from You’ve Got Mail, a city girl with an idealistic belief in the importance of what she’s providing in her work life; and the classy, courageous Harriet Vane from the Lord Peter Wimsey series.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
P.D. James, S.J. Rozan, J.K. Rowling, Harley Jane Kozak, Robert Crais, Harlan Coben. I’m hoping they like wasabi salmon, roasted potatoes with kalamata olives, and roasted asparagus with Parmesan. . .

What’s next for you?
A Killer’s Guide to Good Works, Book Two in the Val Cameron series, comes out this September. Very excited about this book! The story finds Val back at her desk in NYC, and devastated when her best friend Adrian Bale, a museum curator, is murdered for a holy relic. The book has a second setting at a monastery in Norfolk, England, serious villains, an ancient fragment, and a second murder. I’m indulging my love for tales set in NYC and anywhere in England, plus art and artifacts thefts figuring into the murder. Pretty soon I’ll begin work on Book Three.

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts about my work!


A 2004 Edgar nominee for Best Short Story, Shelley Costa is the author of You Cannoli Die Once (Agatha Award nominee for Best First Novel) and Basil Instinct. Practical Sins For Cold Climates is the first book in her exciting new mystery series from Henery Press. Shelley’s mystery stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Blood on Their Hands, The World’s Finest Mystery and Crime Stories, and Crimewave (UK). She teaches fiction writing at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

Look for Shelley in these places:

Shelley’s website: (where you can sign up for her monthly newsletter, The Evidence Locker, on the News page – articles of interest to mystery readers and writers, announcements, giveaways) @ShelleyCosta


Interview: Stan Jones

Please welcome Stan Jones, author of the Nathan Active mysteries.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
When the coffee tastes right, when the words flow easy, and when the light is right for photography when I hit the street for a walk. Also, when Lucky, my hyperactive Jack Russell, gives me enough peace to get some work done.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase/expression, or meal?
Actually, I have two, as shown in the accompanying photograph.

The first is any one of a number of Alaska Native-made bracelets I’ve collected during my rambles around the state. Depending on the bracelet, there maybe be ivory from a walrus tusk or baleen from a bowhead whale (both caught by 2016-01-26 21.28.32Native subsistence hunters) or jade from an Alaska mine, or all three. I always wear one of these bracelets.

The other, which I wear on those occasions when I am feeling both retro-Alaskan and ironic, is something called a milliken. It requires some ‘splainin’.

Quite a bit of ‘splainin’ actually.

The first thing that needs to be ‘splained is, my milliken is the slider for a bolo tie. A bolo is one of those string ties with a slider that holds it in place around your neck. Bolos used to be a big thing in Alaska men’s wear, but nobody these days wears them, except retro-ironically, as far as I know.

The second thing to be ‘splained is, the milliken is descended from the billiken, which has been a traditional Alaska knickknack since way before I was born. The billiken is a little buddha-like figure with an enigmatic expression that manages to be at once mischievous, lascivious, and sardonic. No naughty bits are displayed, bu the billiken is unmistakably a Billy.

Which takes us to the Milliken, which is new on the knickknack scene. The Milliken is unmistakably a Millie, with female chest adornments on abundant display.

I’m not sure where the Milliken originated, but I’m told it may be the work of a female artist from Haines, Alaska. If so, I commend both her sense of humor, and her feminist determination to strike a blow for equal representation of the XX chromosome cohort in the Alaska trinket market!

Which books/authors inspired or influenced you the most?
Whoa, as Keanu Reeves would mumble! There are so many!

Writers? Shakespeare, of course. Elmore Leonard. Theodore Dreiser. Jane Austen. Patricia Highsmith. Charles Darwin. Joseph Heller. Hunter S. Thompson. Philip K. Dick. Shelby Foote. Winston Churchill. John McPhee. Edmund Wilson. James Thurber. Mark Twain. Herman Melville. William Faulkner. Thomas Hardy…I give up. Ask me tomorrow and I’ll have a completely different list!

As to books not written by any of the above? The Shining Mountains. The Bible. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. The Secret Lives of Dogs. Again–ask me tomorrow!

Do you listen to music when you write?
Yes! And my tastes are psychotically eclectic. Meghan Trainor. Joan Jett. Darlene Love. George Thorogood. Hans Zimmer. Carl Orff. The Beach Boys. Brian Wilson as a solo act. Run DMC. Howlin’ Wolf. Bo Diddley. The immortal Jerry Lee (who in my opinion should be declared a National Monument). Brian Setzer. Roy Acuff. The Beatles. Ringo Starr as a solo act. The Kinks. The Who. The Rolling Stones. Bob Dylan. The Eagles (I intend to move into the Hotel California when I retire!) Tone Loc. Chuck Berry (who should also be a National Monument). The Gilbert Family, an Athabascan fiddle band from Alaska’s interior. But, yet again, ask me tomorrow!

Tundra Kill front coverIf your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
Hmm. Warm melted dark chocolate, I guess, being drizzled onto a lover’s bare skin. Why? Because this book–TUNDRA KILL–has more sex than its predecessors.

What made you interested in writing this particular story? 
It’s about a political celebrity who happens to be Alaska’s gorgeous female governor. Who wouldn’t be interested in that subject, right? But, in all seriousness–it’s deep and profound meditation on the personal cost of living constantly in the pitiless glare of fame’s harsh spotlight. Of course it is!

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
The books are about what I call friction at the interface–the tectonic impact zone where Western culture crashes into the traditional Eskimo (or Inupiat, in their language) culture of Alaska’s Arctic. It has all the stuff that human drama’s made of–triumph and tragedy, life and death, the struggle to adapt without abandoning one’s heritage, the challenge of extracting meaning from the churning chaos of a world in rapid constant transition.

Tell us about your main character.
He’s Nathan Active, the Inupiat cop in my stories. Talk about friction at the interface–Nathan was born in the Arctic village of Chukchi to an unwed teenage mother who gave him up to a white couple for adoption. They moved to Anchorage and raised him there, and he grew up hating both his birth mother and his hometown.

Then he became an Alaska State Trooper and the Troopers, with the mindless and legendary perversity of bureaucracies everywhere from time immemorial, posted him straight to Chukchi for his first assignment.

Nathan’s inner conflict about his own origins basically drives the arching over-story of the series. As he solves crimes in Chukchi, he gets to know the people and the country, and eventually he falls in love with all of it. He comes to accept the place he was born and even to reconcile with his birth mother. Each book stands on its own as a crime story, of course, but at the same time it shows us another glimpse of Nathan’s struggle with his identity crisis.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
Well, let’s see. Nathan is serious and rational, so, Mr. Spock? He’s all about the doubt, so, Decartes? And he has a dry, wry, ironic, fatalistic sense of humor, so, Dilbert?

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
If they all had to be mystery writers: Edgar Allan Poe. Arthur Conan Doyle. Patricia Highsmith (even though she mostly wrote capers. for lack of a better term. rather than mysteries). Elmore Leonard. Walter Mosley. John D. McDonald. (But ask me tomorrow!)

If they didn’t have to be mystery writers: Shakespeare. Hunter Thompson. Jane Austen. Woody Allen. Patricia Highsmith. Mark Twain. (But ask me tomorrow!)

What’s next for you?
The next Nathan Active mystery is in the works, featuring a murder committed by sabotaging a Bush plane in the Arctic wilderness and making it look like an accident. Nathan faces the usual challenges: Prove it wasn’t an accident. Figure out who the killer was after. And how he did it, if it was a he. And why. And, finally, who?

Otherwise, I’m working on a sci-fi novel called Heaven on Earth, and skulling over an LA story called The Valhalla.


Stan Jones is a native of Alaska. He has been a Bush pilot and has worked as an award-winning journalist. He is the author of TUNDRA KILL and four other mysteries in the acclaimed Nathan Active series, and is co-author of an oral history of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

His website is, his Facebook page is, and his email address is

Passion: Hot, Hot, Hot!

I was absent from the blog last week because I was indulging in one of my passions:  cruising the Caribbean (in winter).

The key here is winter.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I love playing in the snow in my home state of Colorado, but I also love to occasionally trade in the cold for hot, hot, hot.  Maybe this comes from my youth, having lived in Brazil.  I’ve never quite gotten the tropics out of my blood.  Cruises let me sample some of the reasons why the Caribbean is one of my passions:


Blue water

I spent hours staring at the water, trying to capture its shades of blue with my paints.  I couldn’t, although a mixture of Winsor blue (green shade) and viridian came pretty close.  This may have looked like laziness to the outside observer, but it was actually a restful form of meditation. Writers need that.


Tourists and snow bunnies aren’t the only ones passing through the Caribbean.  This time of year humpback whales travel from Greenland to breed in the bay of Samaná, in the Dominican Republic.  They were feeling playful around us as they spouted, breached, and dove under our small, guided boat.  Writers need to be playful, too.


I learned that in Bonaire there are more flamingos than people.  Who knew?  I learned in Aruba that monarch butterflies don’t migrate—they’re happy enough where they are.  Writers need to find surprises.

Cheerful color

Caribbean colors speak to me.  Their buildings are painted in pastels of pink, blue, green, and yellow.  I love color, and my paint teachers are always telling me to tone it down.  Sometimes writers have to be wild and daring.


A festive air

Carnival parades and steel drums make everyone want to dance.  Happy, happy, happy!  Writers need some of that, too.

All of these examples—meditation, play, surprises, cheer—help to recharge my energy.  Is there a special place like this for you, too?


more photos on FB:

From Page to Screen

Whenever I am truly passionate about a book, I hope it will be adapted for the screen. I want to see the story unfold visually and the characters interact.

Then when it does come out, I can’t wait to see what choices have been made. There’s so much to evaluate.

  • How successfully have they cast the characters we’ve come to know and love?
  • Have they captured the essential tone/feel of the created world?
  • Which aspects of the narrative have they emphasized or discarded?
  • Have they maintained the Core Thing, whatever it is, that we love most?

And so on.

Sometimes, the changes made to the story are smart, and we go home happy enough. Sometimes, they’re downright unfathomable, and we go home sputtering about, say, the unnecessarily added character or incredibly absurd ending.

No matter what, I enjoy pondering the relationship between the original and the adaptation. Sometimes, they seem like different things altogether. Case in point: Charlaine Harris’s wonderful Sookie Stackhouse/Southern Vampire Mysteries. Anyone who has read the series then watched True Blood is aware of the epic variations between the two, particularly in storyline and tone. And yet, they are both very satisfying in completely different ways (I liked the books better, of course, because #books4ever).

All of this raises the questions: what are the books or series you love that you’d like to see adapted? And whom would you cast as the leading characters?

Discovering my passion in my 30s

When I was in the third grade, I decided I wanted to become Murphy Brown. Candace Bergen’s character was the epitome of cool — smart, funny, and a kick-ass journalist who could take down politicians with her pointed questions. She traveled to foreign lands and reported on important issues. I wanted to do that. Except, journalism is hard and I didn’t have a hard edge for reporting, which I learned, when I became the news editor at my college paper.

So, I changed my major from journalism to history. I discovered I had a real appreciation for Latin American history, so during my senior year of college, I applied for doctoral program in Latin American studies. Except, I could never get my GRE scores high enough to properly apply. So I did a Master’s degree program in English As A Second Language and taught for five years. I was good at my job and I loved my students, but I got burnt out quick. So I went to library school and became a young adult librarian for two years until I had my son and decided to stay home with him.

At 36 years old, I’ve earned three degrees and have had two major careers. But it wasn’t until I was pregnant with my second son that I decided to buckle down and write my first book. I love YA literature and I had a story idea to write a novel set in the mid-1990s. It was a ghost romance and mystery and was the epitome of a crappy first draft. But, every night while my son slept, I systematically revised the manuscript until it resembled an actual book someone could read and enjoy. Long story short, it was published by a small press and saw the light of day and readers for the first time in 2014.

After that, I told my husband — I have finally found what I want to do with the rest of my life. I want to be an author. I want to write books. I want to publish. I don’t want to go back to a 9-5 job. As much as I loved teaching and being a librarian, I don’t see myself being as passionate about those careers as I am about writing.

Somehow, I’m going to make a living doing this. I’m self-publishing and I have a few years to build up my work and, hopefully, sales before my youngest starts school. And if my writing doesn’t pay the bills, then yes, I will have to find employment again. But, I’m not longing to be anything else other than a writer. It just took 30-someodd years to figure that out.


Guest Post: Michele Drier

Recycling news?

I’m a news junkie.

There, I’ve said it.

It’s an addiction I developed over the 25 years (or so) that I spent working for daily newspapers in California. I began as a reporter for the San Jose Mercury-News, served as the City Editor and SNAPExecutive Editor for smaller papers in the Central Valley and ended as an Assistant Metro Editor with the Modesto Bee, a McClatchy newspaper.

This part of my career taught me to write fast, tersely and to self-edit my work…let alone editing other’s stories. But I cherish the work I did developing, assigning and framing stories. I called it the “What If” syndrome. It’s the curiosity that leads you to ask questions.

After I left the “biz” in 2000, I stayed addicted to newspapers until about three years ago. I subscribed to the Sacramento Bee, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly. I have some guilt that the Amazonian rainforest gave up too many trees to feed my appetite for the printed word.

Now I’ve cut back and get most of my news from broadcast media. PBS, BBC, Al Jazeera, local and national broadcast channels, MSNBC, CNN. It doesn’t take the place of the Sunday Times, but I try to keep up with what’s happening in the world.

This addiction comes in handy in my fiction writing. Over and above the “What If” syndrome, I mine the news for plots, red herrings, characters.

In the Amy Hobbes Newspaper Mysteries, Amy and her police reporter, Clarice, find themselves immersed in not only a murder or two, but events that are shaping their world. “Labeled for Death” looks as the financial impact the winegrape growing industry has on the Central Valley and California. The plot is based loosely on an actual case of a winery knowingly substituting a lower grade winegrape for the higher priced Zinfandel grapes.

“Delta for Death,” published in May, is built around the severe drought in California, the jockeying for scarce water and the very controversial Delta Tunnels proposal that Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed.

I don’t ignore current world events in my totally fictional world of the Kandesky vampires, either.

They may be 500 years old. They may be headquartered in a Hungarian castle. But they also own Kandesky Enterprises, a family-held conglomerate that has munitions factories in the Czech Republic, cattle ranches in Argentina, textile design and manufacturing plants in several Central European countries and their flagship property, SNAP.

SNAP is a daily TV show (think Entertainment Tonight) and a weekly magazine (US, People, e.g.) that covers the world’s gossip from the world’s celebrities. They produce TV editions for all the European and South American markets—as well as North America—and are headquartered in LA…gossip central for the rich, super-rich, notable and aristocracy.

Book Nine of the Kandesky Vampire Chronicles, SNAP: I, Vampire launched this week. In it, the Kandeskys take on a shadowy arms dealer who brokers arms sales from their munitions factories to Middle East terrorists.

I’m not sure I’d recommend being a news junkie. Like all addictions, it’s hard to break, but I’ve convinced myself that it’s “research” when I spend all that time with the TV on. At least now, I feed the cat, cook dinner, fold laundry, do dishes while the news is on.

Not quite the luxury of spending a quiet hours or so reading newspapers (and doing the crossword puzzles) over coffee during the morning.

This appetite has left me with a brain stuffed with trivia that I’ll probably never use…and may not even be able to recall as needed. Aaaah, maybe I’ll find a way to buy more memory! There’s a thought.


Michele Drier was born in Santa Cruz and is a fifth generation Californian. She’s lived and worked all over the state, calling both Southern and Northern California home. During her career in journalism—as a reporter and editor at daily newspapers—she won awards for producing investigative series.

Her Amy Hobbes Newspaper Mysteries are Edited for Death, (called “Riveting and much recommended” by the Midwest Book Review), Labeled for Death and Delta for Death.

Her paranormal romance series, SNAP: The Kandesky Vampire Chronicles, has received “must read” reviews from the Paranormal Romance Guild and was the best paranormal vampire series of 2014. The series is SNAP: The World Unfolds, SNAP: New Talent, Plague: A Love Story, Danube: A Tale of Murder , SNAP: Love for Blood, SNAP: Happily Ever After?, SNAP: White Nights, SNAP: All That Jazz, SNAP: I, Vampire .

Visit her webpage, facebook page, or her Amazon author page,





How much passion is too much?

Ah February. Valentine’s Day. Love is in the air. My daughter said to me the other day, “Huh, I have a boyfriend now. Guess I should think of something to do for Valentine’s Day.”

You know one of us had to go there. Love. Might as well be me.

I am constantly amazed at how often this question comes up: How much romance do you like it your mysteries?

It’s been asked–and answered–any number of times on any number of blogs. You’d think the question would die down. But it doesn’t. It’s always there. How much passion can you tolerate between characters in a mystery?

And the answers run the gamut. A few anti-love folks say “none at all.” Cozy aficionados are usually okay with some romance, but please; close the door. Some are okay with a little bit sexier scenes, but don’t want the blow-by-blow (no “tab A in slot B” as a friend of mine once said). And others, bring it on, baby.

I don’t think it’s possible to write a story while ignoring human emotions. And one of those emotions–perhaps one of the most powerful (if not the most powerful)–is love. Love between families, friends, and yes, lovers.

Fortunately for readers, the amount of love is all over the map. If you’re a “close the door” type, there are books for you. If you like your love a little steamier, there are books like that, too. And not just erotica.

Then there’s the corollary question for writers: How comfortable are you writing about love? Sex in particular? Again, the answers are all over the place. For some, not at all. Others are okay with skirting the edges. And some can go all out.

As a police-procedural writer, I’ve got a bit more leeway in the “heat level” of my love scenes than, say, someone who writes about a mystery-solving quilting club. But writing it always got me queasy. What if my prose sounded like the script to some cheap B- movie? So in an online scene-writing class, I challenged myself. I was going to write an honest-to-God sex scene. So I did.

I wasn’t half bad. Actually, the teacher was surprised I’d never written a sex scene before. And I wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable writing it as I thought I was. And that made me happy. Because it means that if I have to, I’ll be able to write that scene.

And there, for me, is the key phrase. If I have to. Because although the procedural sub-genre gives me license to be a bit steamier, the story might not give me the same. And throwing a sex scene out there because I can is a yuckier idea than the scene itself. Every scene must advance the story. At least for a mystery. So that’s my key question: can this story proceed without the sex?

And hey, if you just want the steam I guess that’s what erotica is for.

So readers, tell me: how do you feel about romance in mystery and how much is “too much” when it comes to passion on the page?

Mary Sutton | @mary_sutton73