What we’re reading: Spring edition

Depending on where you are, spring is either springing, sprung, or dragging its feet. But regardless, a new season calls for new books. Tell us, Mysteristas, what are you reading?


Book Release: AS DIRECTED

Happy book birthday to our own Kathleen Valenti. The third book in her Maggie O’Malley series, As Directed, is now available!

About the book:

In the shadow of a past fraught with danger and tainted by loss, former pharmaceutical researcher Maggie O’Malley is rebuilding her life, trading test tubes for pill bottles as she embarks on a new career at the corner drugstore. But as she spreads her wings, things begin to go terribly wrong. A customer falls ill in the store. Followed by another. And then more. The specter of poisoning arises, conjuring old grudges, past sins, buried secrets and new suspicions from which no one is immune. As Maggie and her best friend Constantine begin to investigate, they discover that some of the deadliest doses come from the most unexpected places.

Pop the champage and throw the confetti. Congratulations!

Interview: Victoria Hamilton

Welcome Victoria Hamilton, author of A Gentlewoman’s Guide to Murder.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?

I love the humdrum hum of daily life… that makes my perfect profession writing. I’m at the computer about 7 – 7:30 am… email and social media first thing in the morning, then writing/editing/promo until 2 – 3 pm. Housework is usually fit in while I’m pondering a thorny story problem, or to stretch out my shoulders. Then at the end of the writing day, tea and a book – or if I’m feeling virtuous, exercise, then tea and a book – then dinner and some TV. I find TV relaxes my brain (no jokes!); I enjoy sitcoms, dramas and reality shows (Survivor, Big Brother, etc.).

There is some variation in the summer for yardwork and sitting on the patio with tea and a book. I find the garden peaceful, even though I live in the middle of a city.

I think I am so extraordinarily fortunate to get to do what I love that… what more could I want? My perfect day is very ordinary.

What made you interested in writing this particular story? 

Having written so many Regency romances in the past (as Donna Simpson) I had a reasonably deep understanding of the period. Deep enough that I knew I could never live then, no matter how lovely the clothes and houses and art were. There were so many strictures on a woman’s freedom… she couldn’t live on her own or even go for a walk alone. She couldn’t have or control her own money, or make her own decisions. She had to earn that right by marrying, bearing children and becoming widowed

Only then was she free to love who she wanted, live as she wanted. I began to research women of the time, and discovered there were some who rebelled. They paid a price, sometimes a heavy one; they forfeited their freedom, often, (some ended up institutionalized as insane) and even their lives. Would I be strong enough to defy convention openly?

Maybe not. So I set out to create a sly and cunning woman who found a way to rebel in secret, and help other girls and women at the same time to escape the kind of abuse women have historically had little choice but to take. It felt… timely.  

Tell us about your main character.

Miss Emmeline St. Germaine; she’s a firecracker. She’s angry. She’s no nonsense. She has lost so many people she loves – her sister, sister-in-law, mother – and a few she hates… like her father. She’s angry that as a woman she has no role in her society unless she marries. So she buries herself in helping others and along the way discovers a few troubling family secrets. One question I still have about Emmeline is… will her unwillingness to compromise get in the way of her own happiness? There is a family friend, Dr. Giles Woodforde, who is clearly smitten with her. He’s intelligent, moral, kind and willing to accept her just as she is… for the most part. I worry that Emmeline, fiercely determined not to undermine her independence, will refuse a chance at happiness, cut off her nose to spite her face, to use an old cliché. The best protagonists keep even their writer worrying and working.

Tell us a bit about your new book. What inspired you to write it?

I’ll tell you one thing that happened, something that made a substantial difference in how I wrote the rest of the book. I had started writing the book. I’ve been published for many years – 20 this year – so I can sell a book and series on proposal, which means that I have to write at least 50 pages and a synopsis for editors to read. I spoke on the phone to an editor I respect who had just finished reading the 50 pages of the proposal. What she said crystallized the book for me. She said, I love that Emmeline is kind of like a super hero. It hit me then and there… the cloak, the mask… everything. Miss Emmeline St. Germaine is a kick-ass Regency-era cloaked superheroine, foiling the baddies and then going to the opera to flirt and listen to gossip. I was transfixed by the notion, and it informed the writing of the rest of the book.

Emmeline had to be daring and bold and determined. She had to be a superheroine.

I don’t want to give away too much; let me just say there are surprises in store, in the sense of the murder mystery, of course, but also about Miss Emmeline St. Germaine. Frustrated by her inability to work, or have a career, relegated to the feminine role of spinster doing ‘good works’, she finds a way to live life on her own terms in more than one way. It isn’t easy, and there is danger, but she refuses to be defeated.

What do you think makes a good story? How do you incorporate that into your books?

I want to read about complex heroes and heroines, men and women who are flawed, but are trying the best they can. I want bad guys (and gals) who are human, who are not super-villains, but who expose the true banality of evil. Villains aren’t charismatic anti-heroes; they are selfish and warped individuals, determined to get what they want no matter who they hurt. I work that into my books by staying in touch with the world around me. I watch a lot of true crime shows on TV, and I know that villains often get away with a lot of evil-doing before they get caught. But they’re human and they slip up, so they usually do get caught.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started out?

Aspiring writers often ask How do I know people will be interested in my book? The truth is, you don’t know. You’ll never know. You can only write what interests you. You can only write the best damn book you have in you, and then do your best to find a publisher. And then write another book, the best damn book you have in you. And then you write another book, the best damn… you get the idea. That’s what I wish I’d known; that if I’m interested in what I want to write, there are readers are out there interested too. You just have to find an editor/publisher who recognizes it. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t always going to happen, but soldier on and write the damn best book you have in you.


Victoria Hamilton, also known as Donna Lea Simpson, is the nationally bestselling author of the Vintage Kitchen Mysteries, the Merry Muffin Mysteries, and the Lady Ann historical mysteries.

She began her writing career as a Regency romance author who gradually moved toward paranormal romance and then onto historical mystery writing. She enjoyed writing romance and believed it was the perfect training ground to force her to focus on creating character. Now with twenty regency romance novels under her belt, she has also created a name for herself within the cozy mystery world. Victoria currently lives in London, Ontario.

Guest Post: Lisa Preston

Welcome Lisa Preston, here to talk about an interesting sub-genre of mystery–Cozy plus.

Cozy Plus

“Do you think this is a cozy?” an editor asked regarding The Clincher, which debuted a mystery series featuring a young woman working as a horseshoer in small town Oregon.

Cozy series tend to feature an amateur sleuth, and that person often lives in a small community of colorful characters. Cozies tend to have little to no sex and violence, and those naughty bits frequently occur off screen. Swearing is minimal, if it occurs at all.

If possible, the heroine (more often than not, the protagonist is a female) solves the mystery through her special skill set. The veterinarian knows that intramuscular penicillin would likely be lethal if given intravenously. The gardener knows that decomposition takes longer in cold weather. The dog trainer recognizes the victim’s dog is indicating an important clue. The photographer sees a red herring in a Photoshopped image, and then is ready with a long lens camera to capture a crucially needed license plate.

We all love learning about places, people, professions, and pastimes. Want to experience the Maine seacoast, the Alaskan bush, or a southwestern Indian reservation?  Cozies have us covered, letting us inhabit interesting worlds we might otherwise never experience. They draw us in with their characters’ jobs and hobbies, their fun friends, and whacky families.

But sometimes, in some series, the interesting worlds push the cozy question, thus, the Cozy Plus. Like most classifications of subgenres, the division between cozies and other mysteries can be a gray line, a spectrum rather than a sharp distinction. The Cozy+ is found somewhere past cozy, perhaps on the way to traditional, perhaps something more contemporary, and that’s where I write. It turns out, a lot of us write there.

In an extreme situation—maybe once per novel—the F-bomb might get dropped in a Cozy Plus. Having seen an extraordinary amount of violence and its immediate aftermath (I was a cop and a paramedic), I eschew violence, but in the final showdown, the bad guy may be actively trying to kill a good guy. Other writers might show a bit more than is usually found in a true cozy. Still, there’s one satisfaction cozy and cozy plus readers won’t be denied: the good gals and guys always win in the end.


Lisa Preston began writing after careers as a fire department paramedic and a city police officer. She was first published in nonfiction, with titles on animal care, such as The Ultimate Guide to Horse Feed, Supplements and Nutrition.

Her debut novel,Orchids and Stone, (Thomas & Mercer, 2016), has been described as a book club thriller, or domestic noir. Her psychological suspense novel, The Measure of the Moon, (Thomas & Mercer, 2017) was also a book club pick. The Clincher (Skyhorse Publishing, 2018) debuted her mystery series featuring a young woman horseshoer. She lives with her husband in western Washington.

Interview: Kay Kendall

Let’s get to know Kay Kendall, author of the Austin Starr mysteries.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase/expression, or meal?

My favorite color since forever is blue. Actually, since at least kindergarten, which is when I was assigned to the bluebird table—not to the red bird or yellow bird table. I think my preference started way back then—or else it was cemented then.

My favorite phrase is: Dauntless, she pressed on.

Which books/authors inspired or influenced you the most?

I have no siblings and stayed inside lots due to asthma, so I read constantly. An icon of my early years was Nancy Drew. Nosy as could be, she was always jumping into her roadster and whirling off to uncover clues. When I was eight, I’d no idea that the original series was set in the 1930s. If I’d realized that, I might have understood why nobody in my Kansas hometown ever drove “roadsters.” Considering that Nancy’s first adventures took place even before World War Two, then you realize how daring she was for her times.

Many boomers like me grew up on Nancy Drew mysteries. As years passed, her ethos stayed with me. When I transitioned into my second career of mystery author—I call myself a reformed PR executive—it seemed only natural to write about a female amateur sleuth. You may not recognize my protagonists Austin Starr and her grandmother Wallie as being related to Nancy Drew, but within them the spirit of Nancy carries on.

Do you listen to music when you write?

I ordinarily write without music playing. I can manage to have it play if it’s classical, but anything with words or too strong a beat is distracting.

What made you interested in writing this particular story? 

My Texas grandmother was named Walter, after her father. From childhood on, I imagined how that male name must’ve encouraged her pursuits of shooting, fishing, and riding. Yet she grew up to be a church-going matron who wore picture hats and lacey dresses. My dad was her big strapping son, and two daughters were dainty and nothing like her. But I was. To use a current term loosely, my grandmother was my spirit animal, and the path she followed has influenced not just my life but my fiction writing too.

Tell us about your main character.

In my new book After You’ve Gone—An Austin Starr Mystery Prequel, Wallie MacGregor (named Walter after her father) is 23 years old in 1923, the time of Prohibition and the Jazz Age. Even in the town of Gunmetal, Texas, she knows the world around her is changing. She reads magazines about the moving pictures and loves the actress Lilian Gish. A Sherlock Holmes fan, she longs to solve her own cases and have adventures. Her father, a widower, indulges her, and Wallie is a tomboy who dresses like a man in pants and riding boots. However, her Aunt Ida pushes her to choose between two likely suitors so she can settle down and raise a family and keep house.

Tell us a bit about your new book.

In After You’ve Gone, Wallie’s desire for adventure gets fulfilled when her father’s rum-running brother Rory lands on the MacGregors’ doorstep, fleeing from enraged bootleggers. In quiet Gunmetal, Texas, during Prohibition, Rory’s tales of adventure charm Wallie, but appall her father, a respected judge.

When a freak accident horrifies the town, Wallie believes she sees a crime scene that shows evidence of foul play. In short, it’s murder. Annoyed that no one agrees with her—including the sheriff and her dad—she sets out to prove her theory. Soon she’s knee-deep in flappers and floozies, Chicago thugs sent south by Al Capone, and a crime lord in the sinful port city of Galveston. Her prim aunt wants her to pay more attention to her eligible suitors. The reader will question if Wallie can stay alive long enough to figure out which one is her true love.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing? 

An underlying theme runs through my three published mysteries. Each shows a woman constrained by sexism. The theme doesn’t hit you over the head, but it lurks. I didn’t set out to do this—it just happened. Looking back I can see signs, but I didn’t recognize these for what they were. My first two books center on Austin Starr, a young Texas bride in the late 1960s, forced to the frontlines of societal change by her draft-resisting husband. Austin copes by turning amateur sleuth.  Desolation Row shows murder in the anti-war community, and Rainy Day Women is set among women’s liberation groups where leaders get killed.

What’s next for you?

My work in progress brings Austin Starr and her grandmother Wallie together in 1970 to solve a family member’s murder in Vienna, Austria. Wallie will be age 70 then, with lots of get-up-and-go and spunk left. She’s determined to prove her granddaughter shouldn’t be the prime murder suspect in a case that may or may not involve Russian spies. In all my fiction, I show how patterns of human nature repeat down the decades, no matter what historical age one reads about.

What is your favorite/least favorite thing about the writing process?

I love everything about writing books except one—doing the first draft. It’s difficult for me, slow and painful. After that, I love revising and editing, then working with my editor to make even more changes. Many of my author friends hate the revision part, but I love it. First drafts are sheer torture.

About the marketing thing—love it, hate it?

Because I worked in public relations for many years (25+), it’s easy and fun for me to market my books. I like talking about them in my book signing events and love reaching out to potential readers on social media—especially Facebook. I enjoy speaking on panels at conferences for writers and readers. All this is so much more fun than sitting down at the computer again to start the dreaded first draft!

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I live in Texas with my Canadian husband, three house rabbits, and spaniel Wills. I’m terribly allergic to the bunnies but love them anyway! My book titles show I’m a Bob Dylan buff too.

Before I began to write fiction, I did international public relations—in the US, Canada, the Soviet Union, and Europe. I worked in Moscow during the Cold War, earlier having turned down a job with the CIA in order to attend grad school and study more Russian history. Because of my degrees in history, I take pains to get historical settings and details right—no anachronisms allowed. Russians show up in my first two books.

I am a member of the national board of Mystery Writers of America and president of its southwest chapter. I blog with the Stiletto Gang and am a contributing editor to The Big Thrill, the online monthly magazine of International Thriller Writers. Visit me on my website, Facebook, and Twitter. http://www.AustinStarr.com  /www.facebook.com/KayKendallAuthor / @kaylee_Kendall  / http://thestilettogang.blogspot.com/


Kay Kendall is an award-winning author of three historical mysteries. Her second book, Rainy Day Women (2015), won for best mystery and best book at Killer Nashville in August 2016. It is the second in her Austin Starr mystery series. The first was Desolation Row (2013), published by Stairway Press. After You’ve Gone, an Austin Starr prequel, was released February 12, 2019.

 In her previous career, Kay was an award-winning international PR executive, working in the US, Canada, Russia, and Europe. She has graduate degrees in Russian history and was a Woodrow Wilson Scholar at Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. 

Kay and her Canadian husband live in Houston, Texas. They’ve rescued abandoned pet bunnies for twenty years and currently have three rabbits and a bemused spaniel, Wills.

Website URL: http://AustinStarr.com

Blog URL: http://thestilettogang.blogspot.com/2016/09/let-good-times-roll.html < http://thestilettogang.blogspot.com/> I blog every third Wednesday of each month.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/KayKendallAuthor/  & https://www.facebook.com/kendall.kl

Twitter: @kaylee_kendall LinkedIn:  https://www.linkedin.com/in/kaykendallmysteries

Buy After You’ve Gone: Amazon and Barnes & Noble

Buy Rainy Day Women: Amazon and Barnes & Noble

Guest Post: Nancy West

Welcome back Nancy West, who asks what screenwriting can teach novelists.

Telling Stories: Screenwriters’ Secrets

I don’t have the foggiest notion how to write a screenplay. But I noticed that many screenwriters become successful novelists.

What can writers of movie scripts possibly teach us? They have two hours of screen time which gives them barely enough minutes to devise a meaningful plot, much less tantalizing characters and lyrical prose. Exactly. Every screen shot has to have purpose, meaning and move the story forward. And novelists write stories.

When Christopher Vogler heard Joseph Campbell speak about his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, he realized Campbell was articulating life principles embedded in all memorable stories and myths.

The Writer’s Journey became the design tool for all storytellers: playwrights, screenwriters and novelists. Vogler consults on hundreds of screenplays while they’re in the developmental stage. His book has been called “the screenwriters’ Bible.”

Alexandra Sokoloff wrote Stealing Hollywood, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors. She worked as a screenwriter for ten years, sold original scripts and wrote novel adaptations for major Hollywood studios before writing novels. Her stories have won Thriller and Bram Stoker awards and an Anthony nomination. In Stealing Hollywood, she builds on her experience and the knowledge of other scriptwriting gurus, including Christopher Vogler. She uses a three-act, eight-sequence structure geared for novelists and refers to familiar films to illustrate her points. Her index card method helps writers devise a visual chart of their storyline as they create the novel. She teaches writing workshops and college courses to film students on story structure. High school and college teachers use her book as a writing text and a textbook for film and story analysis.

Jill Chamberlain, screenwriting instructor and screenplay consultant, points to the central unifying system at work behind great screenplays in The Nutshell Technique: Crack the Secret of Successful Screenwriting. She says getting from a good idea to a story that works requires using eight elements and, most importantly, understanding the interdependence between these elements. Like the other authors, she refers to Aristotle’s basic three-act structure and uses familiar movies to illustrate her points. Writers can use the Nutshell Technique to “get straight to the guts of their story and make sure it works before they even start a screenplay or treatment [or novel.]”

With these short descriptions, it’s impossible to do justice to how valuable these books are for novelists. Each book builds on the others, but a writer who reads and absorbs any of them will be rewarded with new understanding of how to tell a story. It’s nice to know what we’re trying to do before we begin.

          Have you used these or other screenwriting books to help you write stories? What did you learn?


Nancy G. West was a business major who discovered that writing mysteries is more fun than accounting. She wrote the biography of an artist,  a poem featured on NPR, and a suspense novel. Her Aggie Mundeen Mysteries have each won or been nominated for an award.

Aggie faces her most recent and greatest challenge in The Plunge, a short novel of suspense. She and  SAPD Detective Sam go to a lakeside cottage for a  relaxing weekend, only to be caught up in crime and an epic flood that washes away clues and threatens their survival. The Plunge, the first Aggie Mundeen Lake Mystery, is a spin-off from the first series and propels Aggie in a new direction.  

The Plunge is at Wildside Press http://bit.ly/2CCyl3Z
Amazon https://amzn.to/2E5oDb6
Walmart http://bit.ly/2DmQKzH

Visit Nancy on her website www.nancygwest.com

Facebook https://www.facebook.com/authorNancyG.West/, and her

Amazon author page: https://amzn.to/2JMGYKb

To Tweet her, use @NancyGWest_

You can sign up to sample her newsletter at any of these places except Twitter.

To learn what Aggie Mundeen thinks about Nancy’s steps and missteps, read Aggie Blogs: http://nancygwest.com/aggies-blog/       

Guest Post: Vicki Batman

Welcome Vicki Batman, talking about a part of the writing some of us love and some of us dread: the editing. Welcome Vicki!

The Party’s Over

I loved readying my home and life for Christmas. I decorated multiple rooms, especially with vintage things I’d collected over many years. I hosted a few gatherings. And then, the big day arrived! Lots of fun with family, followed by a huge breakfast. We worked a puzzle and watched a movie. One by one the kiddoes slipped away to their own lives.

Handsome and I looked at each other and started watching “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” series. LOL.

Eventually, the days crept into New Year’s Eve. We ate quietly at home, in bed by the big ten.

I woke the next day thinking “time to take down Christmas.” Slowly, I walked through the house and gathered my decorations on the dining room table and on another near the Christmas tree. I took a container from the closet, filled it. And bit by bit, moved to the third and fourth boxes until all had been stored. To me, the house looked naked afterwards!

The end of the holidays signaled time to get back to the writing (and everyday life, like another visit by the plumber and critter control-eek). I sat in front of my laptop and caught up on all kinds of work-related things. Finally, I opened my Temporarily Out of Luck, the third romantic comedy mystery, and began editing.

I’d been using the Read Speak feature to listen to the book. I discovered plenty of duplicate words, poor phrasing,  moved sentences, paid attention to the timeline, etc. I  slashed contrived dialogue and made my hero say even fewer words (if he’s anything like my men, they utter very little).

Finishing my book was taking a long time, but I felt pleased with what was on the page. I was glad to be editing via the audio process because the passages read fresher, something writers strive for. I also believed taking off time to enjoy my family and the holidays was the number one priority, and in doing so, I came back with better eyes.

Several Dallas Area Romance authors have other “tricks” they use while editing:

Wordcounter.com – upload passages through Wordcounter, create a list, and find duplicate words to edit. It is also important to note over usage of unusual words to be edited. However, you might feel like your work would be compromised on sites like this. I’ve never had a problem. Some authors have created their own lists of words (just, very, really, etc.) and do “search and replace” feature.

Read from the end to the beginning – Okay, I have never done this and probably won’t start. Maybe do a passage. Sometimes, I find sentences in a paragraph aren’t in the correct order (probably because my head isn’t in order).

Read aloud or Read/Speak – which I used to do myself before I bought my new computer and have the latest and greatest Office software with the Read Speak feature. It does work. I can pick the voice and speed. I must say after one pass, this worked very well.

Check for punctuation and good grammar. I like commas and who knew I could be a bad typist?A grammar check is a must.

Ask other writers to read your work. Not necessarily to critique, which is always helpful, too. Someone to say, “I like this.” “Maybe address this.”

Hire a good proofreader. I’ll extend this thinking to include editor. Again, this is someone who brings fresh eyes to your project and finds those problem children.

Make a timeline. This is what I’ll be doing after finishing the audio editing. I knew I had a problem with my WIP and found it. But I want to make sure. I have a calendar ready to go.

Take your time. This tidbit is often overlooked. We authors often feel rushed to finish and ship off to the editors, prospective editor, or agents. “The faster, the sooner on the shelves” thinking. I don’t want to sub sloppy work, and I’m positive no one would want to read it.

For authors – What are editing tips you use?

For readers – What drives you crazy when you read?

About Vicki Batman: Vicki Batman has sold many romantic comedy works to magazines, several publishers, and most recently, two humorous romantic mysteries. Along the way, she has picked up some awards and bestsellers. She is a member of Romance Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and several writing groups. Avid Jazzerciser. Handbag lover. Mahjong player. Yoga practitioner. Movie fan. Book devourer. Chocaholic. Best Mom ever. And adores Handsome Hubby. Most days begin with her hands set to the keyboard and thinking “What if??”

<insert picture Temporarily Employed>

New Job. New Love. And Murder. Hattie Cook’s dream job is down the toilet and her new SUV violated. Desperate for cash to cover the basic necessities of rent and food, she takes a temporary job where she uncovers an embezzling scam tied to the death of a former employee–the very one she replaced.

When the police determine there’s more to the death of a former Buy Rite employee, Detective Allan Charles Wellborn steps in to lead the investigation. Overly dedicated, always perfect, he puts his job first, even if doing so ultimately hurts the one he loves.

Can the killer be found before Hattie’s time is up?

Find Vicki Batman at: http://www.vickibatman.blogspot.com

Find her romantic comedy mysteries and short stories at: https://www.amazon.com/author/vickibatman/