Guest Post: Kathy Valenti

Please give a huge Mysteristas welcome to Kathy Valenti, author of the fabulous Maggie O’Malley mysteries. Today she’s talking about her newest, 39 Winks.

39Winks coverDid I tell you about the time John Grisham complimented my writing?

That’s a phrase I like to sneak into conversations.

And not just because it sounds kind of awesome. I talk about it because it answers a question I often get about subject matter expertise.

Whenever I go to a conference, visit a book group or speak at an event, I’m asked how my background in pharmaceuticals prepared me to write the Maggie O’Malley Mystery Series.

The short answer: It didn’t.

The longer answer: It didn’t have to.

I don’t have a background in pharmaceuticals or medicine. In fact, I think that whole “Write what you know” thing can often be too narrow. In my mind, the slightly different “Write what you can understand” is a more accurate axiom.

We all know that mystery authors don’t always share the backgrounds of their characters. Just because a protagonist is a handwriting analyst who knows jujitsu and pilots a Citation on weekends doesn’t mean that the author who created  him or her fits that description,. Likewise, simply because an author writes from the point of view of a psychopathic killer doesn’t (necessarily) mean that he or she is also a crazed murderer.

The same holds true for writing about topics that may be new to us. As authors, we delve deep into our subjects. We research. We interview. We question. Then we exercise empathy as we put ourselves in shoes we’ve never tried on, let alone worn for many miles.

Writing about things I previously knew nothing about comes with the territory as an advertising copywriter. I write about sports I don’t do, engine components I couldn’t begin to install, and places I’ve never been.

The latter is where the Grisham praise comes in.

Two years ago, I wrote a print campaign for a resort in the Lowcountry. Grisham felt that the work had so accurately portrayed the feeling of the place—a place I’d never been, mind you—that he wrote the resort and said so.

After I climbed down from cloud nine, I realized what an apt reflection it was of what I do as an author. Writing can be a lot like reading: we don’t have experience something firsthand in order to feel as though we have.

That’s not to say that I don’t research. I do. Extensively. Thoroughly. Painstakingly. (Emphasis on pain.) But I also celebrate what we feel as well as what we know.

On the eve of the publication of my second book, 39 Winks, I’m grateful for those who’ve helped me research, and for the heady mélange of understanding and knowledge. So while I can’t say “Did you hear what John Grisham said about my book?” I can say “Thanks for coming with me into Maggie’s world. I can’t wait to see where we go next.”


About 39 Winks

Former pharmaceutical researcher Maggie O’Malley is losing sleep. Constantine’s aunt is a multitasking sleepwalker who, in addition to wandering her stately home, prepares meals, folds laundry and, one winter night, stumbles across her husband with his throat slit.

It’s a rude and gruesome awakening that’s upsetting to Aunt Polly. And interesting to the police.

Maggie and Constantine work to uncover who killed the cosmetic surgery mogul and why. As they dig into the lives of those who knew him best, they discover that the truth is only skin deep and doctoring perception is a treatment with deadly side effects.

A gripping page-turner with more twists than a surgeon’s suture, 39 Winks is a tale of lies, betrayals and greed that will keep you up at night. And looking over your shoulder.


ValentiKathleen Valenti is the author of the Maggie O’Malley mystery series. The series’ first book, Agatha- and Lefty-nominated Protocol, introduces us to Maggie, a pharmaceutical researcher with a new job, a used phone and a deadly problem. The series’ second book, 39 Winks, releases May 22nd. When Kathleen isn’t writing page-turning mysteries that combine humor and suspense, she works as a nationally award-winning advertising copywriter. She lives in Oregon with her family where she pretends to enjoy running. Learn more at


Mysterista Monday: What are we writing?

A couple weeks ago, we shared what we are reading. This time, let’s talk about what we’re writing!

(All the Mysteristas are writing, right?)

Let us know in the comments!


(Could this maybe look kinda-sorta like someone’s desk?)

Photo courtesy of jopotts on Flickr; used under Creative Commons license


Guest Post: Joanne Guidoccio

Please welcome guest Joanne Guidoccio, asking the eternal question: plotter or pantser?

Plotter, Pantser or …?

ADifferentKindofReunion_w12053_750 (2)Hundreds of books and articles have been written about the writing process. While it’s worthwhile to read some of this literature, it’s important not to become overwhelmed by all the information and advice.

When I first started my writing practice, I assumed I would be a plotter. After all, I was a left-brainer who had spent thirty-one years teaching mathematics and business education courses to adolescents. I focused on the articles devoted to plotting and attended workshops that featured authors who extolled that particular method.

The most memorable workshop was conducted by best-selling Canadian author Terry Fallis (The Best Laid Plans). An outliner (what he likes to call himself), Terry spends two to three months preparing a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline. On a PowerPoint screen, he shared a 64-page outline consisting of three pages of bullet points for each chapter. As soon as the outline is complete, he then devotes three months to writing the novel.

Glancing around the room, I could feel the awe and intimidation. The woman sitting next to me whispered, “It would take me years—maybe even decades—to write the outline and by then I would have lost interest in the project.” I could easily imagine that particular scenario.

I decided to examine the other end of the continuum: the pantsers (people who write organically or by the seat of their pants). Once they have a premise, they start writing and figure out the storyline along the way. They also let their characters misbehave whenever they want. 

Sylvester Stallone is an example of a pantser. When he arrived in Hollywood, he struggled to find acting jobs. At one point, he had only $106 in the bank, his wife was pregnant, and he couldn’t pay the rent. Frustrated, he sat down and wrote the screenplay for Rocky in 3½ days. It is important to note that only 10% of that first draft remained in the final version of the film that would go on to win the Best Picture Oscar.

After much experimentation, I found a process that works for me: linear pantser. Once I have a premise, I start imaging the characters and write brief sketches. Then, I plan the first three chapters and the last chapter. Once this is in place, I begin writing. Partway through the manuscript, I often hit the murky middle and need to reboot the process. At that point, I will briefly outline the remaining chapters.

Any plotter or pantser experiences to share?


Blurb – A Different Kind of Reunion

While not usually a big deal, one overlooked email would haunt teacher Gilda Greco. Had she read it, former student Sarah McHenry might still be alive.

Suspecting foul play, Constable Leo Mulligan plays on Gilda’s guilt and persuades her to participate in a séance facilitated by one of Canada’s best-known psychics. Six former students also agree to participate. At first cooperative and willing, their camaraderie is short-lived as old grudges and rivalries emerge. The séance is a bust.

Determined to solve Sarah’s murder, Gilda launches her own investigation and uncovers shocking revelations that could put several lives—including her own—in danger. Can Gilda and the psychic solve this case before the killer strikes again?


guidoccio-001A member of Crime Writers of Canada, Sisters in Crime, and Romance Writers of America, Joanne Guidoccio writes cozy mysteries, paranormal romance, and inspirational literature from her home base of Guelph, Ontario.

Website: https://joanneguidoccio


Buy Links

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Interview: Jill Orr

Please give a rousing Mysteristas welcome to Jill Orr, author of the Riley Ellison Mysteries!

Bad Break cover.jpg.FINAL_frontWhat themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing? 

For reasons that will probably buy some therapist a beach house one day, I seem to continually revisit that time of life just after college, when we’ve got one foot in adulthood and one foot in late adolescence. There is something beautiful, heartbreaking, and ultimately hopeful to me about that in-between time. It’s when we try figure out who we are going to be, what we want from life, and what we’re willing to do to get it. So much richness for character development there!
Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
I’d describe Riley as is one-part Hermione Granger, one-part Elizabeth Bennet, and one-part Tina Fey.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
Agatha Christine, JK Rowling, Janet Evanovich, Alan Bradley, Liane Moriarity, and Maria Semple.
Tell us a bit about your new book.
The Bad Break is the second in the Riley Ellison mysteries, though it stands alone as a self-contained mystery. The book opens when a local cardiologist is found dead and Riley is tasked with writing his obituary for the local newspaper. When it is revealed that the good doctor was murdered (and may not have been so good after all) Riley ends up covering the murder investigation as well. Feeling a bit in over her head, Riley reluctantly enrolls in a 30 day free trial of, “a life coaching service by millennials, for millennials.” Will her new life coach’s pop culture-fortune cookie-song lyric wisdom help her solve the case? No. No, it won’t. But it will hopefully make you laugh and luckily, Riley is smart and determined and has a few tricks up her sleeve to get the job done on her own.

What do you think makes a good story?
For me, the best stories center around character. I figure if I’m going to spend 300 pages with someone, I want to feel invested. I don’t always have to like them or be rooting for them to get what they’re after, but I do have to care about what happens to them. Everything else is secondary to that – genre, plot, setting. If I am genuinely interested in the characters in a story, I could read about them doing almost anything. And not-so-surprisingly, that’s also how I write. When I begin a new project, it always starts with character!
Color bio photo2017Jill Orr is the author of the Riley Ellison mystery series. She lives in Columbia, Missouri with her husband and two children. The Bad Break is her second novel.

Guest Post: Susan Bickford

Please welcome today’s guest Susan Bickford–talking about a very important word.

The D Word

a short time to die - cover smallerDiversity is one of the Holy Grails in genre fiction. It can also be a contentious topic. Not only is the ultimate goal elusive and very personal, the landscape is constantly changing.

This winter, I basked in joy when A Short Time to Die was a Lefty (Left Coast Crime) nominee for Best Debut Novel. Quite a thrill.

All of the nominated books were terrific, so I set my expectations accordingly. Although I had a twinge of regret when I didn’t win, I was thrilled to see that African American author Kellye Garrett won with Hollywood Homicide. The voters at the conference—overwhelmingly white and somewhat older—enthusiastically embraced a story about a character by a writer who was not either of those.  Kellye went on to win an Agatha as well.

Last year, Joe Ide, a Japanese American writer, won a number of debut novel awards with IQ (which I loved), a book with an all African American cast of characters.

At the same time, there have been well-publicized controversies over how racial, ethnic, and gender issues have been portrayed in fiction. Apparently sensitivity readers are now a fixture in some aspects of the publishing world.

Meanwhile, I had a potential thorny problem: how to tackle diversity in my second book, Dread of Winter. I was in the midst of edits for my publisher and needed to address this head on.

Of course writers hate to be told they can’t create a voice in their work for characters not like them. Putting ourselves into the heads of people not like us is exactly what we do. I am never likely to commit a murder. How am I going to create a believable murder mystery or thriller without delving into the psyches of other people? Add to that, the world around us is increasingly diverse. Am I supposed to keep my book world filled with people just like me? Yuck.

On the other hand, it’s hard to deny that people of color, different ethnicities, and cultural allegiances don’t sometimes have a point. Looking back, we can find a number of cringe-worthy pieces in literature that we’d rather not acknowledge.

In my first book, A Short Time to Die, the world of Marly Shaw in Central New York was comprised almost exclusively of white people, much as the way that I remembered it from long ago. However, when the action shifted to California’s Santa Clara County, home to Silicon Valley, the challenge was more interesting. I definitely wanted to reflect the world around me in California.

I chose a second narrator, Vanessa Alba, a first generation Colombian American. Vanessa is a detective with the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department. She is assigned the task of figuring out why human bones found in the Santa Cruz Mountains can be traced back to two individuals from Central New York. She teams up with Jack (Jackson) Wong, a detective from Santa Cruz County, and heads off to Central New York in the middle of January, where the temperature is dropping to forty below at night—not exactly the tourist season.

Although I speak Spanish, I made a point of interviewing several Latinx acquaintances to gain a better insight into Vanessa’s world. One of my neighbors, a blonde, blue-eyed university professor with a common Hispanic / Spanish last name, told me she could not find temporary housing for her family during their remodel, unless she used her husband’s last name when calling landlords. The things I never thought to notice.

I was comfortable with taking on Vanessa in part because she was a secondary character. I didn’t try to insert myself into her head the way I did with Marly, whom I consider to be the primary protagonist of the book.

My second book, Dread of Winter, will be out in 2019. This is another standalone story. Or rather, the setting of Central New York is the main character that returns to the stage and twists my characters into submission.

As I began this work, I revisited my old haunts and realized that the area “from Albany to Buffalo” (to quote “The Erie Canal” song I sang every week for at least thirteen years) is a lot more varied and diverse than I remembered it, and growing more so every day.

For example, the tiny burg of Peterboro, part of my school system at Cazenovia Central School, was a stop on the Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War, and is home to the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum. There are African American families living in that area today that can trace their roots there. Suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a cousin of Gerrit Smith, an abolitionist and temperance leader living in Peterboro. Elizabeth met her future husband in Peterboro.

I also had a number classmates and friends who were members of the various nations comprising Iroquois Confederacy—the Haudenosaunee (People of the Long House). The guiding principles of the Iroquois Confederacy influenced the thinking of colonial leaders like Benjamin Franklin when it came to designing our own Constitution. Although reduced in size, the Iroquois had a significant impact on the creation of our country, my personal upbringing, and continue to enrich our lives today in New York State and beyond.

I couldn’t back away from these challenges. I was determined to bring these flavors and more into my second book. Stay tuned for Dread of Winter in 2019.

What are your feelings about diversity in books as readers and / or as writers?


Susan Alice Bickford low res - ColorSusan Alice Bickford was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and grew up in Central New York.

After she discovered computer graphics and animation her passion for technology pulled her to Silicon Valley, where she became an executive at a leading technology company.

She now works as an independent consultant, and continues to be fascinated by all things high tech. She splits her time between Silicon Valley and Vermont.




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Guest Post: Jim Jackson

Readers often ask how authors come up with character names. Jim Jackson, author of the Seamus McCree mysteries, shares his process today.

How Seamus and His Family Got Their Names

Empty Promises 450x675When I considered the series characters that stood out in my mind, they had names I remembered. I wasn’t sure whether I remembered the name just because I enjoyed reading about the character or whether the name itself was part of the attraction.

Michael Connolly created Hieronymus “Harry” Bosh. Who would name their child Hieronymus, and what would tagging a kid with that moniker do to him growing up?

How about Sara Paretsky’s Victoria Iphigenia “Vic or VI” Warshawski? You can see why she might want to be called Vic, especially when she’s a former cop and current private detective.

I knew that when creating a series character, you are creating something of an alter ego. The Irish equivalent to James is Seamus, a name with a certain ring to it, although I quickly discovered many in the US don’t realize it’s pronounced “Shay-mus.” That connection might have been enough on its own, but I loved the idea that my amateur-sleuth protagonist would have a name that is the homonym “shamus,” meaning a private detective. Perfect.

I wanted Seamus to have a good Irish surname, but in a time of Google, I wanted my creation to pop up high in searches. I checked uncommon Irish surnames and settled on McCree. That idea worked well. Now he needed a middle name. Many parents, including mine, use the mother’s maiden name for their child’s given middle name. I figured I’d follow that practice for Seamus, and finally settled on Anselm—a “well-known” Benedictine monk and scholar who was the archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109.

I am the seventh James Jackson in a row, but most of us have different middle names. And since there can be three James Jacksons living at a time, alternate generations go by their middle name. I applied that same naming mechanism to the McCrees. Seamus’s father (Seamus Gaidren McCree) and his son (Seamus Patrick “Paddy” McCree) both go by their middle names.

I don’t recall how I came up with Gaidren. I chose Paddy because it or “Mick” is the name others derogatively give to the Irish. I hoped that by attaching it to a strong character it might chip away one small bit of prejudice. It also proved useful because Seamus is the only one who calls his son Paddy; to everyone else he is Patrick. In the next book in the series, False Bottom, I have a subplot that revolves around this idiosyncrasy.

Governments tend to ignore parental conventions when it comes to naming their children and force individuals to be known by their first name for official identifications. My father (James Edward “Ted” Jackson) was known in the Army, at the VA, for Social Security, etc. as James. My son Brad must remember to answer to James whenever he is flying and going through Homeland security checks or immigration.

This name confusion has come in handy for my plot lines. Gaidren died because of it. Seamus and Paddy have used it to assume each other’s identities.

Now you know the skinny on the McCree family naming background. I’m curious, does your family have any interesting stories or traditions about naming children?


james-m-jacksonJames M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series consisting of five novels and one novella. Jim splits his time between the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Georgia’s Lowcountry. He claims the moves between locations are weather-related, but others suggest they may have more to do with not overstaying his welcome. He is the past president of the 700+ member Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime. You can find information about Jim and his books at You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and/or Amazon.

You can order paperback versions of his books from your favorite physical or online bookstore (or from his website if you’d like them autographed). You can find his Kindle books here.