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



23 thoughts on “Interview: Shelley Costa”

  1. Hi Shelley! Who wouldn’t like wasabi salmon. And I join you in a love for the Warm Vanilla Sugar scent. It’s my go-to-. Practical Sins sounds like a great book. I’ll have to add it to the pile.


  2. Your character sounds fascinating. I love your answer about the motivation for murder being personal, and I look forward to checking out your books. Yumm, salmon!


  3. Morning, Keenan! Glad to hear you like the title. Someone on Amazon or Goodreads liked the book but then went on to say, “Worst. Title. Ever.” Cracked me up. Such an individual thing, eh? This, by the way, is a beautiful blog.


  4. Hi, Cynthia. Thanks for the invite. Loved the experience here at Mysteristas. Yes, Good Peson Struggling. By me, that underlies everything worth writing, mystery or otherwise. In some ways, it is THE story in human history.


  5. Pardon me while a wipe away the drool. Wasabi salmon? Kalamata olives? Asparagus with Parmesan? Espresso chocolate? And topped off with a story about a Good Person Struggling?

    I can’t decide if I want to wrangle a dinner invitation or be left alone to read.


  6. Okay, Peg, here’s an idea. An elegant dinner party where we all get to read at the table. I will pass out pins that say I AM IN SILENCE, so that the only “talking” is the soft turning of pages. Why should we ever have to choose from among that particular garden of earthly delights?


  7. I love the premise of your second novel — I’m a sucker for holy relics and mystery. The Good Person Struggling is a great theme — one I try to use often.


  8. Welcome, Shelley! Wonderful interview! Like Peg, I’m drooling after reading about your signature dish and espresso-chip-chocolate bar! I’m also super intrigued by your main character and the setting. Definitely adding to my TBR list… 🙂


  9. Welcome Shelly. I’m a reader not a writer, so I look at “things” from a different point of view. I do enjoy reading books set in New York, but as for cold climates — no thank you. I’ll keep parked here on the “left coast” where yesterday it was a wonderful 85 degrees. Drop in for a visit to Disneyland sometime!


  10. On titles — Shelley, you said that some readers like your title and some say it is the worst title ever. Do you get to pick the title? The cover? If so, what do you “look for” in a title and a cover? If you don’t pick, who picks? What do you hope your title and your cover say about your book? After all, unless readers have met you or read previous books, the title and the cover are the first things we see when browsing through books on line or in a bookstore.

    (Oh, and you need to select some cute little picture avatar to go with your posts! Mine is Katie my “intern;” this month she is sitting in her chair of books.)


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