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.

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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.

Tracy Whiting, International Woman of Mystery

Today, it’s a pleasure to welcome Tracy Whiting to Mysteristas. Tracy is the author of the Havilah Gaie mysteries, international action adventures with a cozy flair. And she’s also one of my colleagues at Vanderbilt University, where she is a distinguished professor of French.

Tracy has been a commentator on NPR, FOX News, and MSNBC and her work has been reviewed in the Washington Post, the Nashville Scene, and Ms. Magazine. Her first foray into mystery, Miss Baker Regrets, was published as Book II in Bricktop’s Paris: African American Women in Paris Between the Two World Wars (2015).

Tracy’s second mystery–a cozy with an action thriller twist, The 13th Fellow: A Mystery in Provence, is set between Paris and a seaside Provençal town called Cassis (not pronounced like the liqueur) in the South of France; its heroine is the amateur detective and American professor, Havilah Gaie, who, like the author, is inquisitive, a foodie, globetrotter, and an avid reader. Tracy’s favorite places to write are Paris, France and Newport, Rhode Island. Otherwise, she resides in Nashville, Tennessee with her daughter and husband.

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KO: You’re well known for your nonfiction, especially your work on Black women in France, Hip Hop, and more recently on the speeches of Barak Obama. How did you move from writing nonfiction to writing fiction, and mysteries in particular?

TW: I always wanted to write fiction and I particularly fancied mysteries—from Christie to Mosley. I’ve always loved academic murder mysteries with their send-up of our antics—like Publish and Perish. I think I really became moved to jump into the fray, so to speak, after reading and teaching Stephen Carter’s doorstop-of-a-book, The Emperor of Ocean Park. He’s a Professor of Law at Yale. In many respects, he became my model for an academic who wrote mysteries though non-academic Pamela Thomas-Graham’s Ivy League series was also a forerunner to Carter. There are of course other women academics who delved into the genre. But Carters’s world was much more diverse, inclusive, and provided insight into the Martha’s Vineyard black elite along with academic intrigue.

My first mystery is actually contained within Bricktop’s Paris. The book is in two parts—nonfiction, covering American women in Paris in the Jazz Age, while the second part recreates that world in fiction. That mystery is more noir (here I was channeling Mosley’s amateur detective, Easy Rawlins, and of course “place”—Paris—was essential to creating the atmospherics). Bricktop is the detective. Josephine Baker is her catalyst. F. Scott Fitzgerald plays a singular fascinating role as do Gertrude Stein and Natalie Barney—the famous American salon hostesses.

KO: What is the inspiration for your elegant polyglot amateur sleuth, Havilah Gaie, who describes herself as an academic version of Pam Grier’s characters?

TW: Of course, Pam Grier was an inspiration—minus the sexist tripe of that film genre! I think it was important at times to remind the reader of Havilah’s blackness. Grier allowed me to signal that. I also wanted readers to continue to get a glimpse of cosmopolitan blackness in the mystery genre. Havilah is a mixture of women academics I know as well as strong, Southern women family members. She’s feisty and well-accomplished in a profession still dominated by men who sometimes don’t take her seriously despite these accomplishments. She’s also insanely hilarious and just plain befuddled romantically when it comes to men. There is a lot of food in this series. And Havilah likes to eat and feels no guilt about it. She’s a foodie and she’s fit.  All these characteristics make her relatable, I think.

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KO: The international settings are part of the adventure in your mysteries. How does place and setting inform your writing? How do you choose your locale?

TW: As a professor of French literature, history and culture, travel is extremely important in my academic life. So, I needed my detective to embody that part of my life. I wanted to allow the readers’ imaginations to travel with Havilah. To taste the foods, experience the places and cultures with her. These are travel narratives as much as mysteries that aim to give the reader a glimpse into cultural differences and sometimes hysterical miscues and encounters. I choose locales based on places I’ve been and thoroughly explored, quite honestly. I’ve spent time in many different countries, small towns, and cities because of my research and my love of travel.  I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica, and about 55 countries. The French were everywhere due to their involvement historically with slavery, colonialism, as well as their status as arbiters of culture globally from the 17thcentury onwards and their important place in the Eurozone today. So, this small country, in comparison to the US, keeps me moving globally—through Europe to South America to Africa to the Caribbean to Tahiti. France is central to my work. I love the French; I think they are sometimes misunderstood. And there is such a diversity in the country itself, from North to South, East to West. We won’t run out of places. Hopefully, my readers will be intrigued enough to visit those places.

KO: I love the chemistry between Havilah and French police agent, Thierry Gasquet. What’s the trick to maintaining that romantic tension throughout the series?

TW: I do love their banter! Havilah can only go so far, I think, without her feeling she’s losing herself. She’s been disappointed in love before. It’s that fear of vulnerability that keeps them both circling each other. That I think produces a lot of the tension.

KO: After Paris-A-Go-Go, where is Havilah Gaie going next?

TW: Aix-en-Provence. One of my favorite cities in Provence.

KO: Thanks, Tracy. I can’t wait!

If you haven’t read Tracy’s clever mysteries. Check them out!

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Author Tracy Whiting on train platform in Paris about to board Orient Express/Carlson Wagon Lit (doing research for Paris-a-Go-Go!).

Haviland

Tracy’s daughter, Haviland, from whose name our amateur detective, Havilah, is derived, with the cabin steward.

A Writer Was Born

When my three kids were little I stayed home with them, often with other daycare kids in the house. I always had the videocamera — the huge behemoth that rested on your shoulder — locked and loaded.

I also had index cards and pens placed strategically around the house. On them, I wrote the funny things the kids said and did. At the end of the day, the index cards would get shoved into the appropriate diaper bags of my daycare charges or thrown into my kids’ “Memory Boxes.”

Some mothers lovingly craft scrapbooks for their children. I lovingly crafted piles of index cards.

*index cards

(We still talk about “brave and smooth and good” apples at my house.)

I eventually typed them all up. Surely there’s a book just waiting to be written. Here are just two samples that won’t embarrass my daughter.

12-5-90 — Jessie [age 3] made the astute observation that you can’t hum with your mouth open.

12-12-90 — Jessie said something was “a propersation.”  When Wes asked her what that was, she said, “It’s Batman or grass or tea or soup.”

That was my first inkling I was raising a writer.

When did you know what kind of kid you were raising?

Paging CSI: The Devil is in the Details

Every cop wishes cases were solved within the hour or half hour allotted to police dramas on television. Every writer wishes the information gleaned from the shows was sufficient to inform their writing. Fact is, neither is true. Cases take hard work for law enforcement to clear and the writer who accepts the gospel according to CSI as truth is in for some nasty e-mails and reviews when the book releases. Those loud thwacks the author hears? That’s the sound of the book hitting the wall as better educated readers let it fly.

The cure is education. One of my blog mates at Writers Who Kill, Annette Dashofy, was accepted into the FBI Citizens Academy. Her blog on Sunday about her post acceptance pre attendance vetting sent me running to my idea file. Not because I’m applying to the Academy, although I’d love to, but because it gave me a great idea for a red herring.

When I had my fingerprints taken electronically it was frustrating. My hands simply do not produce enough oil. Those whirls, arches, and loops do not stand out. Even when my prints were taken with ink the officer taking them went through three cards before she was satisfied they were all good enough for identification. And that was with someone applying external pressure as the finger was rolled to obtain optimal results.

Fast forward to my non-existent life of crime except on the page. What marks would dry fingers leave behind at a crime scene? Would the involuntary responses of the sympathetic nervous system result in sweaty palms, moister skin and better prints? This is definitely a question to store in the clues closet for a later date, and a bit more education. Could someone with dry skin leave no prints at the scene allowing the criminal initially to be eliminated?

Readers and writers, have you encountered this question on cop shows? How did it resolve? A no print crime because of…dry skin.

Early spring you say?

A month ago, a certain rodent up in Punxsutawney predicted an early spring. Many people rejoiced.

Then, it seemed like said rodent might have been right. The sun was shining. The birds were singing. I’ve even seen people post pictures of flowers growing.

And then, this morning, this happened.

From the front porch
Out the back door

I’m not sure about the rest of you, but this doesn’t look like an “early spring” to me. This looks like an April Fool’s joke a month early.

I’m going back to bed.

What about you, readers? What does this so-called “early spring” look like in your part of the world?

An Unexpected Journey: From Inspiration to Nomination

original_516676762Recently, my first book, Deadly Solution, was nominated for two awards, the Left Coast Crime Best Debut (Lefty) and the Malice Domestic Best First Novel (Agatha). This is a really big deal for me.

Now, I’ve been to a few awards ceremonies and I’ve seen a few awards shows on TV, and when I heard the winner say, “It is just such an honor to be nominated along with these talented people,” I thought “yeah, right.”

But you know what? It’s true! I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t care if I won. I want to win, sure, but it is an amazing honor to be nominated.

In 2009, there were a dozen homeless deaths in Anchorage, Alaska, where I live – most of them in the summer. Letters to the editor declaimed a serial killer was on the loose. The authorities’ response was that the medical examiner had ruled all the deaths as naturally caused. Really? Thing is, if a homeless person survived an Alaskan winter living outdoors, why would a dozen of them suddenly drop dead in the summer?

And as quick as these summertime deaths started, they stopped.

Several years later, I was in a seminar when the presenters talked about a little known law: that the Medical Examiner had the authority to declare a death as naturally caused without doing an autopsy. I slapped the table and yelled, “that’s how he did it!” startling the lady who was knitting beside me.

That was the beginning of Deadly Solution. I took writing workshops. I bought every book available and read them. I wrote every day, usually from 4:30 AM to 7:30 AM before work and then six hours each on Saturday and Sunday. Frankly, I didn’t expect it to be published. My plan was to learn how to write during the course of the Maeve Malloy series, then write another book (still being worked on) and focus on getting that published. However, part of the process is rejections. So I racked up rejections like a crazy woman! And every once in a while, an agent or a publisher would take the time to give me advise.

Then one day, Level Best Books offered me a three-book deal which is now the Maeve Malloy series.

Along the way, I have encountered many generous authors who were only too happy to extend a hand to a new writer. Were it not for these people, I would not have won the 2015 William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic grant, been nominated for the PNWA Literary Contest in 2014 and 2015, the 2017 Al Blanchard Short Crime Fiction Contest, the Lefty, and the Agatha.

The day after the Agatha was announced, I found myself floating through the house, dancing and singing, “I am an Agatha nominee” when my grandson asked me what was for dinner. And I said, “do Agatha nominees cook?” As it turns out, they are capable of baking a frozen pizza.

So, as I re-enter the orbit of real life, working, laundry, baking frozen pizzas, training the puppy not to jump on me, and writing in my spare time, I can honestly say to you: it is a real honor to be nominated.