Downton Abbey meets Agatha Christie in Kelly Oliver’s new historical mystery

To celebrate the Bookbub deal on my new Fiona Figg Mysteryonly $1.99 June 1st-3rd—I’m reprinting part of an interview I did with The California Herald about the book.

CH: Can you tell us how you got the idea for the plot you have developed for Betrayal at Ravenswick A Fiona Figg Mystery

KO: This is my first historical novel and I had such a great time doing the historical research. The turning point in my plot was the discovery of a real life spy named Fritz Duquesne who used the alias Fredrick Fredricks (among others). He is quite a character in his own right. Betrayal at Ravenswickwas originally conceived as a closed mansion mystery ala Agatha Christie until I decided the antagonist would be Fredrick Fredricks. At that point, the book became a closed door mystery embedded in a larger mystery involving espionage in WW1. This turn gave the novel a lot more novels and some interesting historical anchors.

CH: There are so many genres today that authors write in, how did you come about writing in the Thriller and Mystery genres and why? 

KO: Five years ago, the very weekend I decided I wanted to write a novel, I discovered the Killer Nashville Mystery Writers Convention was happening in my hometown, Nashville. I went to Killer Nashville and then the next week started writing my first novel, WOLF A Jessica James Mystery.

I joke that if it had been a romance convention, I would be writing romance. If it had been a sci-fi convention, I would be writing sci-fi.

But, growing up, I wanted to be either a teacher or a detective. I wandered around at recess talking into my spy-shoe (ala Get Smart). Okay, I was a weirdo. I ended up getting my PhD in philosophy and becoming a philosophy professor, which is a lot like being a detective…instead of looking for clues to a crime, as philosophers, we look for clues as to the meaning of life.

Life is a mystery. And all good fiction involves some sort of mystery, even if not technically in the mystery genre. There is something that makes readers curious and want to turn the page. There are questions driving the fiction, just like there are questions driving our lives. Everyone loves a good mystery. And luckily, life is full of them.

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Diana Orgain’s Maternal Instincts and other Killer Cravings

Our guest today is Diana Orgain, USA Today Bestselling author of five mysteries seres, including the Maternal Instincts Mysteries, the Roundup Crew Mysteries (including my favorite, Yappy Hour), and the Love or Money Mysteries.diana Diana Orgain was born in San Francisco, CA.As a child she loved Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries and dreamed of being a writer one day. She went on to earn her B.A and M.F.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University with a minor in acting. Diana is also the co-author of GILT TRIP in the NY Times Bestselling Scrapbooking Mystery Series by Laura Childs. Diana’s latest series FOR LOVE OR MONEY is available now. Diana is fluent in Spanish and loves to travel. Along with Traci Andrighetti, she hosts the lemonlit writing retreats.

KO: Welcome Diana.
DO: Thanks for having me on the blog.
KO: You started your Bundle of Trouble series after the birth of your first child. How did childbirth inspire you to write murder mysteries? Is your protagonist, Kate Connolly (who’s also a young mother) autobiographical?

DO: My first series is the Maternal Instincts Mystery Series. I had the idea for the series when my first child was six months old. I’d always wanted to be a novelist. I studied playwriting in school and have an MFA in Playwriting, but part of the process with theater is being present at the theater and, of course, in front of the audience. With a new baby, I wanted to be at home with her, not to mention I was sleep deprived, pajama bound, and in no shape to face an audience!

bundle of trouble11

So I decided to write a novel. I was inspired to write a protagonist that felt the same as me, wanting to work but still be home with her new baby. And as far as the mystery piece, well that was just was just elementary. I’ve always been a Nancy Drew, Hardy Boy, Agatha Christie fan! I wanted to create something that would be enjoyable to all the mystery fans out there. Your readers can grab a free copy here.

Another series, that I enjoy writing is my Love or Money Series. It spoofs reality TV (like the Bachelor) but in the book, some men are on the show looking for love, and others are there for the money. It’s up to my sleuth, Georgia, to figure out the intentions of contestants, but things turn deadly or and it’s more than the cash prize that’s on the line. I think the subgenre labeling help readers to understand the type of a-first-date-with-death-BBbook/story/adventure they are about to embark on. I always want the experience to be worthwhile for the reader.

KO: Your mysteries cross sub-genres. I’ve seen them described as cozies and as thrillers. How do you balance doing something original with the genre and giving readers what they expect from their favorite subgenre? Where do you see your mysteries falling on the cozy to thriller spectrum? How do you feel about curse words?

DO: Reader expectation is very important to me. My aim is to deliver a satisfying mystery that is suspenseful. So far, the mysteries I’ve published have comedic elements which tends to get them classified as “cozies”. b42d7e31-series-of-6-a-maternal-instincts-mystery44_09q0em09k0em00200001o

When I got my MFA, my professor would say, “No tears for the playwright, no tears for audience. No laughter for the playwright, no laughter for the audience.” The book I write is my journey, but when the reader picks it up it becomes theirs. We are like traveling companions and like traveling, it’s nice to know the general direction and type of travel, but still be open to some pleasant surprises.




KO: In addition to a bestselling mystery writer, you’re also a “book doctor” and editor. What are some of the recurring problems you see in the books you “doctor”? Based on your experience as an editor, what advise do you have for writers?

DO: Some recurring problems are pretty general, like plotting and pacing. Some are more subtle, like delivering on genre and reader expectations, but the one I see that is hardest to overcoming is character development and/or emotion. Some writers, especially the introverts, have difficulty showing emotion on the page and without that the reader will lose interest in the character and/or story.

A-second-chance-at-murder-BMy favorite quote is Hemingway, “There’s no friend as loyal as a book.” I always want my readers to feel that. To feel my friendship and my love for them through my writing.

There’s another famous saying that goes, “Writing is easy, just open up a vein and bleed on the page.” That’s it. That’s the part that most writer’s have trouble with, having the courage to put themselves on the page. That’s what I was trained to do in the MFA program that I attended and that’s what I help author do in my Writing Retreats and in my Creative Courage Program(click here for more info).


KO: What’s next on your plate?third-time-is-a-crimeAA

DO: Right now, I’m working on a psychological thriller that will be quite a bit darker than the other mysteries I’ve published. One of my all time favorite authors is Patricia Highsmith. I love her work, especially the way she gets the reader to root for the villain (like the Talented Mr. Ripley). The narrative of my thriller is more complex than what I’ve completed before in my mysteries as there are two different points of view and flashbacks intertwined in the story.

Can’t wait! Thanks so much Diana!

How do y’all go about “bleeding on the page” in your stories?

Visit Diana’s website or follow her on Facebook at to stay informed on her latest releases and writing retreat schedules.

Writing Knock-Out Short-Stories

Today on Mysteristas, I’m interviewing the brilliant mystery short-story writer, Barb Goffman.

Barb  has won the Agatha, Macavity, and Silver Falchion awards for her short stories, and she’s been a finalist for national crime-writing awards twenty-seven times, including a dozen Agatha Award nominations (a category record). Her work has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery MagazineAlfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and Black Cat Mystery Magazine, among others. Her book, Don’t Get Mad, Get Even, won the Silver Falchion for the best short-story collection of 2013.



Barb runs a freelance editing service, focusing on crime fiction. She lives with her dog, Jingle, in Winchester, Virginia

.The perfect pose

KO: You’ve won so many awards for your wonderful short stories. Why do you love the short story format? How do you get your inspiration?

BG: Thank you, Kelly, for your kind words. I love writing short stories because they’re short. That might seem obvious or simplistic, but I love getting a good idea and writing the story from start to finish in relatively short order. I enjoy reading short stories for the same reason. While there is a lot to be said for diving into a novel and getting lost in it for days, I do love being able to read an entire tale in a sitting or two, getting not only a good story and solid characters but also a payoff that comes quickly.

As to inspiration, it can come from anywhere. I was driving a couple of years ago and saw a clothesline, which sparked a memory of something that happened to my mom when she was young, and before I knew it, I had an outline of a plot in my head. I was chatting with a friend a few weeks ago and she said something that stuck with me. Now it’s the title for a story I’ve begun. A friend’s holiday newsletter this year had some information in it that I knew I could make something from, and bless her, she told me I could use it. Some of my stories are based on things that have happened to me. I’ll take an incident and weave a new tale from it. This is the case with my story “Punching Bag” that came out in January 2019, as well as my with my newest story, “Alex’s Choice,” which came out in December. With “Alex’s Choice,” I was grieving my dog Scout when I wrote it. My desire to bring him back played a role in the plot.Close Up

KO: What are the essential elements of a good short story?

BG: A good short story is similar to a good novel. You want complex characters, a good plot, clear, gripping writing, and an ending that satisfies and sticks with the reader. If only it were as easy to do as it is to say.

KO: My mother-in-law, Rosario Ferré (a well-known Puerto Rican novelist and short story writer) said, “With novels, you win by decision, but with short stories, you win by knock-out.” Do you agree? What are some differences between writing short stories and novels?

BG: I can see applying the win-by-knockout idea to short stories, especially ones that end with a twist. I’d expect it’s much more likely with shorts than novels to find a final page or final paragraph or even a final sentence that’s so surprising or that carries such a punch (no pun intended) that it leaves the reader’s mouth hanging open. But you don’t need to finish with a bang to win by knockout. A heartfelt story that ends on the perfect note can also feel like a win by knockout to me.

That said, I’ve certainly read wonderful short stories (and novels) that don’t feel like knockouts when I finish them, but they grow on me with time. I might finish such a story and think it was good or maybe just okay, but then I’ll find myself thinking about it repeatedly and eventually re-read it, realizing all the reasons it stayed with me, and why it was better than I first recognized. Those situations feel more like wins by decision because they came after reflection.

Novels may not end with the same surprise twist at the very end—at least not mystery novels because you often have to tie up loose ends in them in a way you don’t with short stories—but I think every reader knows if they’re reading a novel that’s a knockout. It’s when a book is so well written you can’t put it down because you love it so much that you’re racing to the end, yet you don’t want it to end. If that’s not a knockout, I don’t know what is. And as with short stories, there can be novels that grow in a reader’s estimation after taking the time to digest them and let them sit with you. So perhaps the answer to your original question is that some short stories and novels are knockouts, while others win by decision. It depends on the tale.

As to differences between novels and short stories, one important one is how complicated your plot is going to be. You simply don’t have room in a short story for a plot that’s extremely complicated. You don’t have room for subplots. You can have character development, you can have a detailed setting, you can have everything you love in a novel in a short story, but you can’t have all of it in any single short story, simply based on the limits imposed by word count. Probably you’ll have a little bit of each.

KO: You’re also an editor. Given all of the drafts of novels and stories you’ve read, what advice do you have for mystery writers? What mistakes do you see over and over again?

BG: Often novels and stories don’t have enough reaction, which I think is a symptom of what I call riding the plot train. Authors know the story they want to tell, and they are so eager to get from one town to the next that they forget to make some stops. To avoid this, I always recommend writers put themselves in the shoes of their point of view character. Imagine you are that character while writing. If something shocking happens, what would you do at that moment? You’d probably say or think an exclamation. You might react physically. But you would definitely react, including thinking something. I write this all the time in my edits: “What is your character thinking here? Based on what just happened, she’d definitely be thinking something.” Bringing things back to the train analogy, you need to give your riders—i.e., your characters—time to react to and reflect on important things that happen in the story. That’s where the beauty of a book often lies, in the reactions and subsequent growth of complex characters. They’re what brings the characters and the book to life.

KO: What did you have published in 2019?

BG: As I mentioned above, I had a story called “Alex’s Choice” come out in the anthology Crime Travel that was published in early December. It’s an anthology of fifteen short stories all involving crime and time travel. I edited the book, and I happen to think it’s pretty darn good. Thankfully, the reviewers have all agreed. The story is on my website for now. You can read it by clicking here.perf6.000x9.000.indd

My other stories published in 2019 were a flash piece called “Punching Bag,” which came out in the Winter 2019 issue of the ezine Flash Bang Mysteries, and “The Power Behind the Throne,”which appeared in the anthology Deadly Southern Charm. You can read “Punching Bag” by clicking here, and you can read “The Power Behind the Throne” by clicking here.

Flash Bang Mysteries Jan 2019 cover

KO: What’s next on your plate?

BG: I only have one story definitely scheduled for publication in 2020: “Second Chance” will be in Mickey Finn: 21stCentury Noir. The anthology edited by Michael Bracken is coming out in the fall from Down & Out Books. I also have a story, “Man to Man,” that will be in an anthology called The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell. It’s edited by Josh Pachter, and I hope it will be released in 2020. Finally I have two stories accepted by Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and two by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. I hope at least one of those will run in 2020 too.

As to editing, I’m booked at this point until mid-March with developmental editing of two cozies, two crime short stories, and one traditional mystery, as well as copyediting a historical mystery by someone you might know …

Thanks so much, Kelly and all the Mysteristas, for inviting me here today.  It’s always nice to talk about writing with good friends. Anyone interested in learning more about my writing or editing can go to my website.

KO: Thanks, Barb!

Feminist Noir, Exploring Social Issues in Fiction

I’ve been writing nonfiction books for twenty years, often on difficult subjects such as sexual violence, assisted reproductive technologies, oppression, capital punishment, genetic engineering, and war.

When I started writing mysteries, I made a conscious choice to let my nonfiction research on women’s issues inform my fiction.

The fact that I’d already done the research was, of course, an advantage for writing the novels. I had extensive knowledge of some of the issues from my previous research efforts. But, I quickly discovered that writing fiction enriched my nonfiction writing, too. Writing novels gave me new ways of approaching tough issues I’d been thinking about throughout my career as a philosophy professor.

I wrote my first novel after researching a nonfiction book on the connection between images of strong girls giving as good as they got in films such as The Hunger Games and Divergent at the same time as weekly reports of unconscious girls being sexually assaulted on campus.

I was so shaken by this research project that my turn to fiction was a kind of self-defense against the harsh reality of sexual violence. In my invented world, the girls would fight back, and together defeat the rapists. I knew that a novel set on a college campus featuring young women had to deal with the issue of campus rape. But, in my imagined world, young women would have each other’s backs to prevent sexual violence. And anyone who messed with these tough, but vulnerable young women, would get their ass kicked.

Call it a sort of feminist revenge fantasy to counter-balance all of the horrible stuff I’ve uncovered in my nonfiction research.

Writing fiction became a personal compensation for me, a way to imagine a better world, and a different future for young women through feminist noir.

I decided to make my novels center around contemporary women’s issues, many of which I’d researched in my nonfiction work. It was important to me to try to raise awareness of issues that often remain in the shadows because they are too difficult to confront head-on. I thought if I could tell a compelling story with rich characters in settings readers could relate to, move the plot along with page-turning action, and sprinkle in a large dose of humor, then I could shine a light on hard issues in a way that wasn’t threatening or preachy.

 It’s one thing to describe different viewpoints or opinions in nonfiction books, it’s quite another to inhabit them and make them come alive in a novel.

In order to make characters with differing perspectives on the same issue, an author needs to find a way to understand, if not sympathize with, viewpoints other than their own. This is one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of writing fiction, getting into other people’s heads. You have to understand and respect even your bad guys.

Writing fiction gives us a chance to explore the world through other people’s eyes, to imagine lives other than our own, and characters that have radically different ways of seeing the world. Fiction is an adventure in perspective, a way of traveling the world in the imagination.

Where does your fiction take you? Are there any issues close to your heart you’re called on to write about?

Why Writing Mysteries is Like Grooming a Persian Cat…

In the past five years, I’ve learned that writing fiction is a lot like combing a matted Persian cat.  It takes a lot of patience and determination. And sometimes the cat bites back.

Let me explain.

Mayhem Long hairFor the last twenty years, I’ve written philosophy and nonfiction, and until lately it was very satisfying. But, a few years ago, writing philosophy started feeling a little routine—you know, thinking hard thoughts and writing them down.  Anyway, I’d always wanted to write fiction. The trouble was, for decades I’d been trained to get right to the point and hit readers over the head with my thesis. With mystery, you have to do the opposite and hide the point, meander along, and create suspense. Like sneaking up on a weary long-haired cat, to write mysteries you have to have a few tricks in your grooming kit.

I got the courage to switch from writing nonfiction to fiction after attending a Killer Nashville Mystery Writers’ Conference. The 2014 convention gave me just enough ammunition to make me dangerous. The four-hour session on writing your opening line sponsored by Sisters in Crime had me on the edge of my seat. I loved mystery writing already and I hadn’t even written my first word.

Immediately after the convention, I wrote the first draft of Wolf in two months and spent the next two years editing it. During that same time, I also wrote Coyote, and alternated between editing one and then the other. For decades, I’ve relied on nonfiction writing to keep me sane. Now, writing novels, I find even more pleasure in inventing characters and whole worlds. But, like everything fun that’s worth doing, it’s also hard work! And when you’re determined to finish that next novel, you can get saddle sores… not to mention cramps in your fingers. Giving that matty cat a good brushing can be exhausting!

For me, the best way to write is to get something down on the page. Then comes the hard part, revising and editing. After writing quick first drafts, I go back and revise and revise and revise, concentrating on several key aspects of writing, including: consistent point of view, strong action verbs that show rather than tell, and interspersing enough backstory to enrich characters without sacrificing action.

Each chapter or section needs to stay within its main character’s point of view both in terms of what she says, how she says it, and descriptions of place and action. How she describes the situation tells us a lot about her. But it has to be consistent. In a first draft, it’s easy to drop out of your character’s point of view, and that’s why you need to revise. For example, a character probably wouldn’t describe herself using these adjectives “her delicate beautiful hands” or “her exquisite lips and soft silky hair,” unless she was a narcissist. And of course, she can’t describe something she doesn’t see or can’t possibly know. On repeated careful readings, these spots start to stand out like “hot spots” (a polite euphemism for ring worm) on your beautiful Persian kitten’s coat.

IMG_1579It’s challenging and fun to go back through your manuscript to replace common verbs like looked, pulled, pushed, or walked, with more exciting stronger verbs such as glanced or stared, hauled or yanked, shoved or thrust, strode or sauntered, etc., again with an eye to consistency in point of view. So “she looked at him, pulled his hair, pushed him down, then walked away,” becomes “she glared at him, yanked his hair, shoved him down, then strode away.” Speaking of pulling and yanking, you have to keep at it, teasing out those pesky mats that mar the flow of your story.

Finally, balancing backstory and action can be tricky. You have to cut out big matted chunks of backstory to keep the action moving. Then go back and add a subtle dusting of backstory—one-liners are best—throughout the novel. Once you hook your readers on the action in the first few chapters, you can always add more backstory later, still keeping your readers on a “need to know” basis when it comes to the past.

You have to keep brushing, combing, and teasing out the mats in your novel. Like the coat of that Persian cat, with every stroke, it will get smoother and finer until it flows beautifully. But, then there are the days when you just have to say to hell with it and get out the clippers!

Hurri shaved



A Crazy Cat Lady

Kelly & YukiKO & Teddy

Anyone else struggling to brush the mats out of their story??


PS. Okay, I admit it—this post is just an excuse to show pictures of my cute cats! Mischief, Mayhem, and Flan!

Jessica’s Favorite Foods

My main character in the Jessica James Mysteries loves banana-nut pancakes from the Blind Faith Cafe.

When I was in graduate school at Northwestern, I was a regular at the Blind Faith. It opened was opened my first year there by a philosophy school drop-out named Ivan Newell and fellow dog-lover, Fran Welch. Thirty-five years later, the vegetarian café is still going strong.

Jessica loves to eat, and so do her friends. Here are recipes for some of their favorite foods.


Jessica loves gluten free pancakes and of course anything with wild huckleberries, a Montana delicacy. Coyote beings with her eating a big hunk of huckleberry coffee cake.

In Wolf, the Pope devours Syrniki, Russian Cheese Pancakes, and Vanya snacks on Vatrushka, Russian Cream Cheese Buns.

RUssian cheese buns

In Coyote, Madge brings Kimi Nathan’s Fry Bread Tacos to the jail.

Fry Bread Tacos

Nathan’s Burger Station is a must visit if you’re ever in Browning, Montana. Be sure to try the Fry Bread Tacos and a “crushie,” a slushie with soft serve ice cream.

As part of a BookBub deal, the Jessica James Mysteries, Ebook boxed set trilogy is on sale for only $1.99 through October 5th.

Boxset 1-3

The Jessica James Mysteries are edgy, thrilling and simply captivating in a gripping fashion that will never let go.—Chicago Tribune  

What do your characters like to eat?

What I learned at Killer Nashville

I was on three panels at Killer Nashville Mystery Writer’s Convention (August 22-25), where JACKAL: A Jessica James Mystery was a finalist for a Silver Falchion Award for best suspense.

Of course, it was great to hear the legendary Joyce Carol Oates talk about the writer’s life and some of her books. And David Morrell’s presentation on writing Rambo and writing comics was fun. Alexandra Ivy talked about how to write sex scenes—good to know. And, Lori Rader-Day was entertaining, as always. Thanks to Clay Stafford for putting on such a great convention!


[David Morell & Clay Stafford, Joyce Carol Oates & Clay, Alexandra Ivy, Lori Rader-Day]

Being a a professional student (ie. a college professor), I did my homework. Before talking about Women’s Fiction, Subplots, and Writing Dialogue, I did research and spent time thinking about each topic. I learned a lot from my fellow panelists and from the other panels I attended throughout the weekend.

I don’t know about you, but I find these conventions pretty intense—it feels like an alternative lifetime is crammed into four days…Like when Captain Jean-Luc Picard lives out forty-years as the flute-playing scientist, Kamin, before returning to the Enterprise to realize only minutes have passed for the rest of the crew.

So what did I learn from my life at Killer Nashville? From attending past KN cons, I knew it was easy to make new friends at Killer Nashville.

Although I’d met him before, I learned Roger Johns has a wicked sense of humor and knows how to play an audience. He moderated our session on writing dialogue.

On the dialogue panel, I learned that Alexandra Ivy writes her novels first as screenplays and then goes back and fills in the rest, Mike Faricy knows a lot of Irish swear words, Dana Carpenter imagines her scenes as movies first, Lynn Willis loves y’all and all y’all, and Jim Nesbitt isn’t as intimidating as he looks with that big hat.

We agreed that dialogue should be realistic but not real because if you just record the way people talk, it would be deadly boring. I think of Alfred Hitchcock trying real blood in Psycho, but deciding it didn’t look real, so he used chocolate sauce instead. You have to make it look real, a condensed or crystallized version of reality—the chocolate sauce version.

writing dialogue panel

[Mike Faricy, Alexandra Ivy, Dana Carpenter, Roger Johns, Lynn Willis, ME, Jim Nesbitt]

For my part, I talked about using dialogue to create conflict. Not just the obvious argument kind of conflict, but internal conflict. I love to use to dialogue to show how what a character thinks or desires is in tension with what she says. I think of the funny scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall when they are having a serious conversation about art and we see subtitles telling us what they’re really thinking: “I wonder what she looks like naked?” “I hope he’s not a schumk like all the rest.”

It also fun to use dialogue to create misunderstandings. Ian McEwan is the master of misunderstandings in dialogue… think of Atonement or On Chesil Beach.

You can use dialogue to add humor and picturesque language or sayings.

We talked about making each character’s voice unique by giving them unique speech patterns or associating certain words with a particular character. I go back and do this when editing. I reserve some turns of phrase, and even some verbs, for particular characters.

The women’s writing panel was kind of weird because none of us really write women’s fiction as it is traditionally defined—although it was fun to talk about possible intersections of crime writing and women’s fiction. I think of my Jessica James Mysteries as more feminist noir than women’s fiction.

One of my recent favorites that might fit the bill as both crime and women’s fiction is the fabulous The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey. I love that novel!


[ME, Saralyn Richard, Amy Rivers on the women’s fiction panel]

The subplot panel was a lively discussion of how to use subplots and the relation between subplots and main plots. It was fun to hear how others use subplots to advance their stories. I like to use subplots to modulate both the tone and the pace of my novels. You can use subplots to develop characters, build suspense, and add humor to an otherwise serious subject (like campus rape, or human trafficking) to lighten the mood.

But the hardest lesson I learned is one I’ve learned countless times before, but tend to forget—maybe like the so-called amnesia after childbirth that allows you to consider having another baby—What goes up, must come down.

After spending an intense weekend surrounded by people, coming home alone to my quiet house is depressing. It’s weird. While I’m at the convention, I’m full of excitement and joy. It’s scary, but fun. Then, when I get home, I’m a complete basket-case and can barely function. Thank God for my cats, Mischief and Mayhem.

wimsey and mayhem

What about you? How do you cope with the postpartum depression of conventions? Asking for a friend…



Interview with Clay Stafford, founder of Killer Nashville


Our guest today is Clay Stafford, founder of Killer Nashville and Clay Stafford Books.

Hi Clay. Welcome to Mysteristas. You’ve done so much from acting, producing, play and screen writing, writing and producing music, writing bestselling children’s books, to being the CEO of American Blackguard Entertainment and founder of Killer Nashville and now Clay Stafford Books. I would love to ask you about your days at Universal Studios, or what it was like to work with Steven Spielberg or Woody Allen, but since we’re a mystery writer’s blog, I focus on your mystery writing and your tireless promotion of other mystery writers. 

KO: How did you make the move from Hollywood to Nashville? And what led you to found Killer Nashville International Writers’ Conference? 

CS: First of all, Kelly, thanks for talking with me. I’d like to think that my life has been brilliantly planned out, but instead it has been more of a circuitous, flowing experience. I call it “bumbling.” I was living in Beverly Hills, California writing, ghost writing, and developing, supporting, and promoting television shows and literature at the time of the Northridge Earthquake in 1994. Having lived through the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in Miami, Florida just two years before, I really had no interest in hanging around Los Angeles during the rebuilding after the Northridge earthquake damage. A production executive at Hollywood Pictures, knowing that I was originally from Tennessee, advised I might want to go back to my home state and see what kind of locations and production support might be available for future projects. I loaded my dog in the car, drove back to Tennessee, was amazed at what I found, and stayed. My agents, management, and attorneys were still back in Los Angeles and I found I could work long-distance just fine. I met a Tennessee lady I fell for in the process and after a year-and-a-half of traveling, that was that. To misquote Jed Clampett, I decided Tennessee was the place I ought to be. And workwise, I didn’t miss a beat.


Guests of Honor accepting personalized guitars at Killer Nashville 2018. J.A. Konrath, Clay Stafford, Otto Penzler, and Ellery Adams.

As far as starting the conference itself, that was a bit circuitous, as well. I had always been interested in teaching and went back to graduate school (while working 60-80 hours per week for PBS) to get my MFA so I could teach at the college level. I taught at several universities and loved the teaching part, but didn’t care much for the administrative aspect. I also couldn’t give up what I considered my day job (writing, directing, and producing) and that interfered with my teaching schedule. So I ended up teaching adjunct at several universities for a while until even that became too much. Back to writing and developing projects full time again, I was asked by Miami Dade College to create their new film program. That gave me a taste for curriculum design. After moving to Franklin, Tennessee, I co-created a local writers’ conference, but I wanted something with a larger impact where writers could mingle with other writers on an international level rather than just local. I strongly feel we learn from getting to know people outside our own community. By this time, the Internet had grown and I really wanted to connect with writers, readers, and movie/TV viewers in other countries. I also wanted something with a stronger genre feel. I had grown up reading genre literature, worked in Los Angeles on such productions as “Murder, She Wrote,” “Magnum, P.I.,” “Simon & Simon,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents…”, “Amazing Stories,” “Legal Eagles,” “Psycho III,” “Jurassic Park,” “Back to the Future,” “Weird Science”, and other projects so the feel I really wanted was something that had to do with mystery, thriller, and suspense. So in 2006, I produced the first Killer Nashville. Within two years we had an attendee from Canada. Within three years, we had attendees begin to visit us from other continents (Spain, Australia, and Japan, I think). The Internet worked. Frankly, it has grown beyond what I imagined it would become. And much more than just a writers’ conference, we’ve actually been able to turn it into a philanthropic effort, as well. We’ve helped build a library in Africa and in the past have given away nearly $85,000 worth of books every year to local needy American libraries. So we’re not just focused on worldwide writers, we’re supportive of worldwide readers, as well. It’s a major charity for me.

unnamed-32018 Killer Nashville Awards Banquet.

KO: Why did you decide to make Killer Nashville a writer’s conference instead of a reader’s convention—not that writers aren’t also readers? 

CS: I’ve always loved teaching. Elementary school, high school, college. I love every age. I continue to visit schools and universities every year, all at my own expense. Schools are so strapped for funds and students are so hungry for knowledge and inspiration that it has become my charity. If you knew my personal history, my roots, you would know it is a miracle that I’ve gotten to do the things that I’ve loved to do and work with the people I have long admired. I got those opportunities, though, because others believed in me and helped me. It became my turn to do the same thing. My heart is with the developing storyteller. It’s so important for new voices and perspectives to be heard, and to be given an opportunity to be acknowledged. When you set out as a writer, you don’t know what to do, what path to follow. I wanted an organization where we could take writers by the hand and help them along. I haven’t forgotten readers, though. Readers are always welcome at Killer Nashville. Readers are why writers write and every year we have readers with no ambitions to write sign up for Killer Nashville just to hear the writers talk. Barnes & Noble runs the bookstore at Killer Nashville. And the book signing events at Killer Nashville are open and free to the public. But it is the author (published or unpublished) who really has my attention because they are so vital, their voice is so important, to the diverse world in which we are living today.

KO: In my experience of writer’s conventions, Killer Nashville is unique in that you foster a genuinely supportive environment and it’s clear you want to help writers succeed. For you, what makes Killer Nashville unique?

CS: For me, it is the mentorship, the education, and the honesty. I’ve spent my entire life working behind-the-scenes to support creative individuals and develop and package projects. We/I actually do care about each person who comes to Killer Nashville. After the conference, and sometimes a year or two after, when we know that someone has something going on, we will follow up to see how they are doing. We really do care. When I first began Killer Nashville, I made it clear from the start that Killer Nashville was a way for more experienced authors to give back to the “next generation” (that’s not referencing the age of the writer, but instead the moment that the writer puts her foot into the pool). That sense of mentorship still continues and permeates all we do. And writers need honesty. We all do. I’ve been to conferences, gone to seminars, seen ads on Facebook, where we are told how to become the next New York Times bestseller. If it was as easy as going to a seminar, then everyone would be the next New York Times bestseller. Those are snake-oil conventions designed to profit off authors’ dreams. Not all writers can become bestsellers and it has nothing to do with the quality of their book. There are so many factors involved, so many of them uncontrollable to the author. Have we had those kinds of success stories with Killer Nashville? Yes. We’ve had numerous and many writers go on to a publishing career as a result of contacts they have made at (or because of) Killer Nashville or its influence. Writers have found agents and publishers. One even landed an incredible movie deal. I love it and feel a sense of satisfaction when writers get to experience those peaks. But you’ve got to be honest and realistic. That’s the only way to succeed: with real information. And we give real supportive information, which is why organizations such as Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, the Authors Guild, and the National Writers’ Union, among others, have supported us over the years. So if it appears that we are unique in that we foster a genuinely supportive environment and we really want writers to succeed, I think that comes from the collective and mutual intent of all the attendees and sponsors who share in that mission. It’s a family business. It makes me feel good because I feel we may have accomplished what I originally dreamed that we could do. Giving back. Encouraging others. Fostering that next generation. That’s the basis for Killer Nashville.

unnamed-1Ellery Adams leading a workshop at Killer Nashville 2018, “How to Make a Career of Writing.”

KO: It’s so exciting that you’re in the publishing business. Tell us about your move to publishing and Clay Stafford books? 

CS: Founding a publishing company has been a wonderful learning experience, which has shaped even more relevantly how this year’s conference schedule was put together. It’s a traditional small press. I started it to again help authors find an audience. I began working as a publisher, editor, and acquisitions exec back in the 1980s when I acquired and published companion books for PBS projects. We used the TV shows to basically sell books. As a writer myself, I got spoiled in my early career having my books sold through Big Box outlets such as Sam’s, Walmart, Target, Costco, etc. I thought it was normal to sell-through thousands of hardcover books in a month. But the industry has drastically changed. Even though there are more readers (and there are), there are also more writers. Way more. We’ve edited and published some really good books through Clay Stafford Books, books I’m intensely proud of, books that can be purchased worldwide, but each book published is literally one in a million books available that can be purchased by a single reader. That staggering reality, that change in the industry, has given me incredible insight, an MFA unto itself, into the realities of the publishing business today from a publisher’s perspective, including how some of these obstacles might be overcome. I hope to use those experiences to help other writers who are coming to Killer Nashville.

KO: What’s next on your plate?

CS: Let’s look at today: I am currently doing a polish for my agent on an original standalone novel that I’ll be publishing under my own name. I just finished the first draft of a novel I hope will be a series with a writing partner (who has a long and high-profile career in law enforcement). I’m working on getting distribution rights for a TV project I developed years ago. I’m putting the polish on this year’s Killer Nashville. We’ve got a wonderful lineup including David Morrell (of “Rambo” fame), Joyce Carol Oates (major bestseller and award-winner), and Alexandra Ivy (one of my favorite romantic suspense authors), as well as agents and editors, literary and “commercial” writers. It’s going to be a wonderful year. And like everybody in this nontraditional business, I get up in the morning and see what unexpected opportunities present themselves and then align my day based upon what I discover and what inspires me. There’s the “bumbling” again.

KO: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

CS: Write because you love it. Nothing more. Persevere. That is the endgame. Money, fame, publishing deals, movie deals…these are all icing on the cake and none of the pieces are given out fairly. But if you love what you are doing, then that sustains and nourishes you no matter your career highs or lows. I’ve worked with some people who were huge “names” in the past. I’ve watched them rise and disappear. I mention their names to my kids; my kids have no clue. These “celebrities” (even “legends”) had their moment and now they’re gone. When the focus is on the “success” of the project, then it is a guarantee of pain. Instead, focus on the love: writing, telling a good story, being the best you can be, working conscientiously and humbly at your craft, truthfully cheering your co-writers when success comes to them, though this time misses you. This is what endures. I can remember as a young man in my twenties living in Hollywood in an “efficiency” apartment with only dreams and a typewriter (a real typewriter, one that didn’t even require electricity). At the end of many of those months when I would be terrified I would find myself homeless in my car, I consoled myself because I knew as long as I had enough money to buy paper (and carbon paper – that’s really dating me), then I could be happy. I stayed with it and a world I never expected opened itself to me. I wasn’t after the fame. I was buzzed by the creativity, the energy. It has given me a wonderful life. Persevere. Align with others through events like Killer Nashville where you develop a network of like-minds who can be there for you and help you find your way. But keep your eyes on the real prize: the story you are working on right now, the expression of something that only you can create. If you can find bliss and contentment in the act of creation itself, then nothing life gives you can either enhance or diminish it. You have found your center and your joy.

KO: Thanks, Clay.  See you at Killer Nashville!

CS: Thank you, Kelly!


CLAY STAFFORD is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and filmmaker. He has sold over 1.5 million hardcover copies of his children’s adaptations and has seen his film work distributed internationally in over 14 languages. Four of his five staged murder mysteries have had Los Angeles premieres. Publishers Weekly has named Stafford one of the top 10 Nashville literary leaders playing “an essential role in defining which books become bestsellers” not only in middle-Tennessee, but also extending “beyond the city limits and into the nation’s book culture.” (PW 6/10/13). He is the founder of Clay Stafford Books and Killer Nashville, and founder/CEO of American Blackguard Entertainment. More can be learned about Clay, here. 

Learn more about Killer Nashville.


What I learned writing historical mystery…

How many of you write historical mysteries? I love reading them—Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody, Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs, Rhys Bowen’s Georgiana Rannoch. Recently, I decided to try writing one. I’m pleased to say, I’ve just finished the second (of what I’m sure will be many!) draft. What have I learned by writing historical fiction?


Historical Details Shape Plot and Setting

First, I love the fact that the details of history can help shape not only my plot but also the everyday lives of my protagonists. It’s like having a cheat-sheet. The challenge, of course, is getting it right. And, not just being accurate, but finding the right balance between historical details and story. History can play so many roles in the novel, from those spicy tidbits sprinkled throughout the text, to the rich tapestry of everyday life that forms the background or setting for your story.

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Historical Research is Fun

Second, as a nerdy academic, I love doing the research! It’s so fun to look through old newspaper advertisements, or to use William Brohaugh’s English Through the Ages, Etymonline, or an old Baudeker’s guidebook. Of course, the Internet is a vast source of information about everything from the food and clothes of an era to the political events that shaped it. It’s amazing where you can find helpful information, especially stuff to help you paint a vivid picture of the details. First hand accounts in documentaries, autobiographies, and nonfiction, are great resources too.

Anachronisms are Tricky

Third, even the dreaded anachronism can be fascinating. What words and gadgets existed and when? Anachronisms are things or words used in the wrong time period, either because they didn’t exist yet, or because they were already out of use. There’s also the issue of region or place. Words used here might not be used there, even in the same time period. For example, in the US we say “cafeteria” and in England they say “canteen.” And on top of that, some words or things might feel out of place, even if they aren’t. Even though it would be fair game to use a phrase like “hang out” in a 19thCentury novel, it might make your reader stop and question its accuracy. So, you need to use words that not only are right, but also sound like they’re right. And, worse, sometimes words sound right, but aren’t. Here’s where a good editor comes in.

Facts versus Truth

It might sound like writing historical fiction is full of landmines and pitfalls, but those same challenges and obstacles can become a great help in fashioning a believable and engaging story. And, while emotions and reactions are also period and place dependent, a good historical novel adds the fleshy truth of experience to the bare bones of historical fact. A great historical novel makes people, places, and the past come alive.

How about you? What are you favorite historical novels? What do you look for in an historical mystery? Do you have any tips for writing one?



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Cate Holahan’s One Little Secret…

Today on Mysteristas, it is a pleasure to interview USA Today Bestselling author, Catherine HolahanIn a former life, she was an award-winning journalist that wrote for The Record, The Boston Globe, and BusinessWeek. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, two daughters, and food-obsessed dog, and, by her own admission, spends a disturbing amount of time highly-caffeinated, mining her own anxieties for material. 

KO: Welcome Catherine. I’m excited to talk to you about your new novel, One Little SecretBut first, the opening of The Widower’s Wife is one of my very favorite crime fiction beginnings. What’s your secret to writing those first sentences?
CH: Rewriting! I wish I could say that those lines come to me as a fully formed melody, but I get an idea and a few notes only. I have to tune it for awhile before I get it the way I want.
    Often, it’s not until I finish the first draft and have the characters voices clearly in my head that I write a first line that makes it through to publication.


KO: With your last two novels, Lies She Told and One Little Secret, you start with a prologue. Your latest pulled me in like a “riptide,” as one of your characters might say. Your use of prologues has a very noir feel and reminds me of some of my favorite classic films. How did you decide to use prologues to set the stage and then work backwards from there? 


CH:  I think of psychological thrillers and domestic thrillers as slower burn kind of stories. You have to get to know the characters, see past the veneer, before you start to realize the bad stuff that they are capable off. I do want to tip the reader off to the drama coming so that they have that sense of anticipation as the layers of the characters fall away.

KO: Reading your new novel One Little Secret, I was struck by some of your metaphors. A writing teacher once told me to use metaphors like weapons 😉 How do you decide where and when to use metaphors? And is there a trick to creating such memorable ones?
CH: Thanks! I think metaphor is a main way to show without telling the reader. I spend a lot of time thinking about the way people do things and the associations that I have with those actions, and then try to create a metaphor that doesn’t sound trite and fits with the tone of the novel.


KO: I love the cover! In the acknowledgments of One Little Secret, you say characters either come to you full blown or elude you. You describe it as your controlling them or them controlling you. Which was it with your stunning cast of characters in One Little Secret? I especially love the detective, Gabby Watkins. How did she come to you?

CH: Gabby Watkins was inspired, in part, by a female detective whom I interviewed for the book. The detective I dedicate the book to was kind enough to show me around a police station and speak with me for a couple hours about her job and the way she has reacted to some facts that may have differed from her male colleagues. I wanted a female detective to unravel some of the issues of sexual consent and domestic violence in the book because I wanted my law enforcement character to see things through the eyes of a mother, wife, and woman, as well as those of a police officer. I thought that would create a nice contrast with the other female POV characters in the book.

KO: Describe your writing process. Do you outline or wing it? After writing four novels, including USA Today bestseller The Widower’s Wife, and One Little Secret, which is bound to be a big hit, what have you learned that you might share with other writers?

CH: About the big hit part—from your lips to God’s ears, as my mom would say. 🙂 I am an obsessive plotter. I create elaborate Excel spread sheets with my plot points and character arcs and graphs of how plot points intersect. But then one of my characters evolves in a way that doesn’t jive with my carefully laid plan, and I tear it up, re-plot and rewrite.

KO: One Little Secret is an interesting cross between a closed-door mystery ala Agatha Christie and a psychological thriller ala Paula Hawkins. Have you ever considered writing something other than domestic thrillers?
CH: I am most drawn to domestic thrillers because I think the biggest secrets many people keep are secrets from those closest to them. However, I am working on a women’s fiction novel where the mystery is secondary to the emotional development of my female character. I am really proud of the writing in it.


KO: There’s a lot of water in your novels. One Little Secret is set on a beach in the Hamptons. How do you decide on your settings? How do your settings affect your plots and characters?
CH: I think water is such a key part of human existence and, as a result, imbued with a lot of symbolism. It’s clear but it covers. It gives life but it’s deadly. Also, I just love looking at the water and swimming and the sea. My mom is Jamaican and some of my earliest memories are being at the beach with my mom on the island. So, perhaps there is some psychological tie there.


KO: What are you working on now? Is there another novel in the qeue? 
CH: Yes! My agent is selling two more novels. One involves technology, privacy,  and paranoia. The other is a story about a young woman coming to terms with an old family betrayal and involves surfing. Got to work in water, I guess.
beach foam landscape nature
KO: Again, I loved your new novel. THANKS, Cate!
CH: Thanks so much for the interview and for taking the time to include One Little Secret. I am happy that you enjoyed it and hopeful that readers will like it too!


Photo by Pixabay on