Hello, gentle readers!
The other Mysteristas and I always rave about our experience at Malice Domestic, a wonderful convention dedicated to fans of traditional mysteries, and this time I wanted to spotlight not only a great writer, but a fantastic opportunity for mystery writers who are just starting out.
It’s my pleasure to introduce you to this year’s winner, Bess Carnan, an up-and-coming mystery writer who shares my love of cozies and geek-tastic hobbies.
- Congratulations on your win! For our readers who are unfamiliar with the grant, can you explain what it is and what made you decide to apply for the grant?
Thank you so much! The William F. Deeck – Malice Domestic Grant for Unpublished Writers is an award given out by Malice Domestic, a convention for traditional and cozy mystery writers. Unpublished writers submit three consecutive chapters of their work in progress and a plot synopsis, a committee reads through every single one, and one incredibly lucky aspiring author is awarded a comprehensive registration for the upcoming Malice—including a hotel room—and $2,500 you can use to attend another conference or workshop.
And I’m really glad you asked why, because it’s actually because of you! After we met at Bouchercon 2018, I really admired you and was inspired to be more proactive about my writing career. In addition to getting more active in the Sisters In Crime online chapter the Guppies, I applied to a few awards and contests. I didn’t expect to win, but the William F. Deeck – Malice Domestic Grant for Unpublished Writers creates such a huge boost for a writer—at least one of the Agatha Award winners this year was a past recipient—that I felt like I ought to at least try. Every time you make an effort it makes the next step easier, right?
- Tell us about your winning entry.
Hawaiian Homicide is the first—hopefully—in a series about a travel blogger, Jax Alston. It’s set in the town where I lived on the Big Island of Hawaii, Kailua-Kona, with a few excursions to some of my favorite places on the island. Jax and her photographer friend Michael are on the Big Island for a work trip when Michael is accused of murdering another guest at the bed-and-breakfast where they are staying. Since his husband is joining him in two weeks for their fifth anniversary cruise, Michael really needs to get the police off his back. Jax just really doesn’t want his husband blaming her for getting Michael into trouble, so she jumps in to try to clear his name. It’s basically a love letter to the Big Island wrapped in a cozy murder mystery.
- When did you find out you won and what was your reaction?
Holy cheesenips! The head of the committee, Harriette Sackler, called me in February. We talked about our shared love of animal rescue, she congratulated me, and then she said I couldn’t tell anyone except my spouse and my agent until they made the big announcement at Malice Domestic’s Agatha Award Banquet in May. I’m the world’s worst secret keeper, so after we hung up I immediately told my husband Kevin, my agent, our foster kittens, and my therapist. Then I had to stew for about three months. Harriette called about an hour before Kevin and I were leaving for a trip to Disney World, so Kevin had the front desk at our hotel make me an “I’m celebrating!” button that said I was celebrating a “Top Secret Award!” At least one person asked if I was a Nobel Prize winner.
All that to say I did a lot of bouncing. Writing is a very solitary activity and the validation of this Very Important Award committee thinking that I was the best of the best was like a shot of adrenaline. I couldn’t make myself accept it all at once; it was kind of like building a Lego castle. Every couple minutes it would hit me again and I could add another brick of understanding and acceptance until, a few days later, it finally all added up and settled into my core that I really had won, they really did think I was good, and maybe I actually was pretty okay at this writing thing.
- How did you feel accepting the award during the Agatha Awards Banquet?
No, it actually doesn’t rank as quite terrifying, thanks in large
part to my anti-anxiety medication and my seatmate, Cynthia Tolbert, who helped
distract me in the run up. I’m not the best at people-ing, and I’d literally
never given a speech with a microphone and an audience all waiting to hear what
I had to say. That kind of platform and attention was super scary. Luckily,
Malice Domestic is filled with the most supportive, wonderful people, so even
though I was shaking and more nervous than I’ve been in years, I was pretty
sure everyone would be nice, no matter how badly I flubbed it. And sure enough,
my friends all cheered and the whole room applauded and no one threw a tomato.
(As an aside to anyone who gets nominated for an Agatha Award: prep your speech just in case, but also practice posing. There were three professional photographers in two places after I got off-stage, all of whom needed to get pictures. I was not ready for that and, embarrassingly, it shows in the photos. Oh well.)
- From what I understand, you write mainly cozies. What drew you to this genre?
You know, I wish I had a good answer to that. I can’t say what started my journey with cozies, but I think I know why I stick with it.
Ages ago I saw a quote that said something like “cozies start with the premise that the world is fundamentally good and if it ever gets out of balance, someone will always be there to step up and right it again.” The real world is pretty stressful, especially if you read the news. I like that cozies soften the edges and make sure to tie everything up with a happy ending.
Cozies are also almost always themed, which I really enjoy. Some series give you recipes (Leslie Karst) or organizational tips (Mary Feliz), or you get a series-long peek into a different life, like that of a wedding planner (Laura Durham) or L.A. insider (Kellye Garrett). It’s like playing pretend, but not having to make up any of the information yourself.
- How long have you been writing and what has your journey been like?
I dictated my first-ever book to a babysitter at three or four. She wrote it up and bound it with tape. “The Secret of the Unicorn” never took off, but I never stopped writing, mostly in the edges of my school notebooks. I did try to grow up and went to grad school with the intent of becoming a psychologist and having a Responsible, Bill-Paying-type career, but grad school kicked my butt. I quit and, as I regrouped, Kevin suggested that I dedicate some time to focusing on what I actually enjoy. We got married, moved to Hawaii, and I completed a full manuscript. It was garbage, but the next one was pretty okay and I hope I’ve only gotten better from there. It took half a decade, but now I have an agent who likes my stories and the encouraging weight of Malice Domestic behind me in addition to a supportive spouse.
Thank you so much for sharing your experience with the Mysteristas, Bess! And best of luck with your series, it sounds fantastic.
Bess had to be pushed out the door to go away to college, but immediately developed wanderlust. These days she and her spouse live in Orlando, Florida with their rescued garbage cat, Squeaker, and an endless stream of foster kittens. In between feedings, flea baths, and snuggles she writes cozy mysteries that are really love letters to all the places she’s lived. She can be found all over the internet as @BessCarnanBooks, and her home base is BessCarnanBooks.com