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8 Questions with Award-Winning Mystery Author Micki Browning

Award-winning author Micki Browning worked in municipal law enforcement for more than two decades and is an FBI National Academy graduate. She retired as a division commander – wonderful fodder for her current career as a full-time writer.

Micki BrowningHer mystery, Adrift, set in the Florida Keys, won the 2015 Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence and the Royal Palm Literary Award for best unpublished mystery and unpublished book of the year. It was published in January 2017 by Alibi- Random House.

Micki also writes short stories and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in dive magazines, anthologies, mystery magazines and textbooks.

Micki resides in Southern Florida with her partner in crime and a vast array of scuba equipment. At the time of this interview, she was working on Beached, the second in the Mer Cavallo Mysteries. Learn more at www.MickiBrowning.com

MB: Thank you Laurie, I’m so pleased to be your guest today!

LS: I loved the opening to this mystery. I don’t want to give anything away, but let’s just say it’s not your average dead-body-on-page-five first chapter.

MB: Thank you! I actually struggled a bit with this beginning because I knew I was bucking genre norms, but Adrift could not have started any other way.

LS: Are you a plotter or a pantser? How long did it take you to write Adrift, and what is your process?

Adrift by Micki BrowningMB: Adrift took about a year and a half to complete. I started out as a pantser—but mysteries require a bit of planning. That said, I hate outlining. I have yet to envision a story from start to finish before I’ve written half the book. I recently finished Beached, the second in the Mer Cavallo Mysteries. I knew what I needed in the end, but it wasn’t until I was writing the final confrontation that the details finally coalesced. Now I like to think of myself as a hybrid pantser/plotter. The milestones I need to visit along the way are clear, but the path I travel is often serendipitous.

LS: Florida is a fertile setting for mysteries and crime writing in general—Miami and Key West, in particular, offer lots of crazy for writers to work with. Key Largo, on the other hand, has a quiet, laid-back vibe. What challenges or advantages does this present as a mystery setting?

MB: I lived the life I wrote about in Adrift. After I retired from a twenty-two year career in law enforcement, my better half and I decided to leave Colorado and decompress in the Keys. The closest thing to snow in the Keys is a shaved ice and living there allowed us to dive almost any day we wanted. In the process, I became a professional divemaster and worked in one of the local dive shops. So as a setting, it was perfect. I know Key Largo. I know the dive industry. I’ve seen the crazy. The only drawback is that it’s a small community. That said, a LOT of people pass through. No telling what secrets they have.

LS: Your background is in law enforcement, yet you chose to make your main character a scientist. What inspired this choice?

MB: Most mystery writers would love to have my background, so it strikes them as odd that I chose to write about an amateur sleuth. But the fact is I had just retired, and I wanted a bit of distance from the profession. It seemed natural to write about someone who loved the ocean, loved her job, and was smart. I also wanted her to be a bit of a fish out of water. Adjusting to the laid-back life in the Keys was a difficult transition for Mer. As a newcomer to the area, I was able to capitalize on some of my own experiences learning about a new place.

LS: I love the subtle humor and snarky social commentary, such as when everyone on the boat is posting to YouTube, or my personal favorite, “It’s octopuses! Why can’t people get that?” It reminds me of Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, if Warshawski worked on a dive boat. Do you plan to bring up issues in each of your books, or do these things just pop out as you write?

MB: Oh, good question! It’s fun to write through the eyes of characters because nothing is off limits. But it has to come from the characters not the author. If it is true to the character, it’ll pop out!

LS: What have been the biggest lessons you’ve learned in the process of writing and marketing your first published novel?

MB: Celebrate the little things! Writing isn’t easy (at least it isn’t for me), and nothing in the publishing industry moves fast. Once a book is released, marketing never really stops. It also helps to have friends who write. They understand that wine and chocolate are both celebratory and consolatory indulgences.

LS: What’s the most fun thing about being a published author? Least fun thing?

MB: I’ve wanted to write a book ever since I was a little girl, so Adrift is truly the realization of a dream. I still pinch myself. Querying, on the other hand, was not a fun process. The feedback was fabulous, but rejection is hard. Hence the wine and chocolate…

LS: Sooner or later, I always have to ask about food. Mer is unable to resist when her neighbor grills a juicy tri-tip. Do you have a favorite recipe for Santa Maria-style steaks or any tips?

MB: For the uninitiated, Santa Maria Valley is located along the Central Coast of California. The regional staple is Santa Maria-style barbecue—a beef tri-tip seasoned with salt, black pepper a bit of garlic and then grilled. And not just any grill, either. All around the valley—outside grocery stores, next to produce stands, behind restaurants—you’ll encounter behemoth iron grills that have wheel cranks to raise and lower massive grates over oak-wood fires. Stands will sell plates of sliced tri-tip along with beans, fresh salsa, tossed green salad and slabs of grilled French bread. It’s standard fare for weddings, retirement parties, and impromptu lunches. It’s fabulous. To this day, I can’t eat a steak without salsa. When I first landed in the Keys, no one carried tri-tip. Now that cut of beef is easily found in all the markets. Maybe Mer got the word out! As far as a recipe, it’s beyond simple: Grill tri-tip to medium rare. Add salsa (I recommend fresh and spicy). That’s it. Bon Appetit!

 


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Q&A with Malice Guest of Honor Victoria Thompson

Winner of the Career Achievement Award for Mystery from RT Book Reviews, Victoria Thompson is the bestselling author of the Edgar ® and Agatha Award Nominated Gaslight Mystery Series and will be the Guest of Honor at the 2016 Malice Domestic conference. Her latest Victoria Thompson photois  Murder on St. Nicholas Avenue. She has published 18 mysteries and 20 historical romances and contributed to the award-winning textbook Many Genres, One Craft. She currently teaches in the Master’s Degree program for writing popular fiction at Seton Hill University. Victoria is a founding member and past president of Novelists, Inc., and a co-founder and past-president of both PENNWRITERS and  New Jersey Romance Writers. She lives in Indiana with her husband and a very spoiled little dog.

Contact her at: victoriathompson.com or Facebook: Victoria Thompson.Author or Twitter:  @gaslightvt.

What/who inspired you to write your first novel?

My first published works were historical romances set in Texas.  My inspiration came from a collection of Louis L’Amour short stories that I picked up by chance.  Captivated with the Old West, I went on to read all of L’Amour’s books, and then devoured all the classics by Max Brand and Zane Gray and many others.  I was so immersed in the Old West, that I started dreaming about it, and one of those dreams became the seed for my first novel, Texas Treasure.

What did you find to be the most challenging part of getting your first book published?

Overcoming my own ignorance!  I thought I’d written a Western, so I sent it to 5 publishers of Westerns. They all rejected me, of course, because what I’d really written was an historical romance set in the Old West.  When I finally figured that out and sent it to the right publisher, it sold immediately.

After 20 romances, you began writing mysteries. What inspired you to switch to mysteries, and what was the most challenging aspect of the genre change?

What inspired me to change genres was when my romance publisher told me they were dumping me.  This was the mid-1990s, and publishers had flooded the historical romance field.  Sales of individual titles dropped, and many authors did not have their contracts renewed. I was one of them. Unable to sell any more historical romances, I was trying to write a contemporary thriller when my agent told me Berkley Prime Crime was looking for authors to write mystery series.  She knew I could write mystery because I’d been putting mystery subplots into my romances, so she encouraged me to write a proposal for a series.  The result was the Gaslight Mystery Series.

The most challenging aspect of the genre change was having created my two protagonists, Sarah Brandt and Frank Malloy, and knowing they were perfect for each other but having to keep them apart. In a romance, they would have gotten together by the end of the first book, but I managed to keep them apart for 15 books.  Frank finally proposes in #15 and they marry in #17.

What lessons from writing romance did you apply to writing mysteries?

My agent and my editor both warned me that mystery readers don’t like romance in their mysteries, but I did put in a hint of it in the first book. Readers were hooked and they sent me fanmail for 15 years begging me to get them together. So lesson #1 I brought with me:  People love a good romance.  The other lesson I brought was to create characters readers will love or will love to hate.  I managed to make even a corrupt and jaded police detective loveable, and his harridan mother is the one everyone loved to hate.

You wrote romance novels set in pioneer-era Texas, and your current series is set in turn-of-the-century New York. Is it an era or a setting that inspires you most?

I have to really love the setting, and that includes the time period.  I grew up watching Westerns on TV and in the movies, and the Cowboy is America’s mythic hero, so I was pre-programmed to love the Old West.  I’d visited New York many times and loved the energy and variety of the city. When I started the series, my daughter had just started at New York University, so we spent a lot of time visiting her and getting to know the city the way a native does. I am also very fond of the turn-of-the-century time period, when the modern era had just begun and life was changing every day.  What I love most about that time period and that place is that the social issues people were dealing with then are the same ones we’re still dealing with. The technology is different, but people are still very much the same, so I can show Frank and Sarah considering an issue that people understand completely because they’re thinking about it, too.

We talk about food a lot here. Amid all the births and murders and poverty and corruption, Sarah and Frank have to eat, and you can’t just have them hit a drive-thru. Old photos and news articles can give you an idea of the setting, but how do you go about finding the right foods?

Years ago, I moved from New Jersey to Pennsylvania and I had to leave my critique group who had helped me tremendously through my early books.  As a going away gift, they gave me a book called Savory Suppers and Fashionable Feasts by Susan Williams.  It has menus and recipes and descriptions of how people ate in the Nineteenth Century, and I refer to it often, especially when Sarah’s nosy neighbor, Mrs. Ellsworth, is baking something. I’ve added more books about everyday life to my library since then, but this is my primary reference. I also own a lot of books that are collections of period photographs. Some of them show holiday celebrations, which shows what the table would have looked like and what people wore.  Nothing can replace a good recipe, though!

Back to births, murders, poverty and corruption, I’m seeing a lot of buzz among mystery writers lately about cozy classifications, particularly cozy noir and edgy cozies. As a historical, you’re safely outside the fray, but as a teacher in the genre I’m curious about your take on this. How far do you think a cozy can go before it’s not a cozy?

I’m happy to report that the term “cozy” is slowly being replaced by the word “traditional.”  This is because “cozy” just doesn’t cover all the variations of mystery found in that subgenre.  StNicholasAs a teacher, I will tell you that there are 3 main subgenres of mystery:  PI/Noir, (Police) Procedural, and Cozy.  The PI/Noir category used to be just jaded PI’s like Sam Spade, but now we have lots of mysteries with that same Noir feel who may not have a PI protagonist, so we have to expand that definition a bit.  Police Procedural originally just featured real cops doing what they do, but then we started seeing other professionals featured in mysteries who weren’t cops but who were still professionals whose job it was to solve crimes, like medical examiners, so now I just call them Procedurals and they feature a professional doing his/her job and show readers inside that secret world. Since my books aren’t PI/Noir or Procedural, they have to be Cozy.  They do fit the definition in that they don’t have sex or gratuitous violence, and they do feature one amateur sleuth, but I always got a lot of pushback when I told an educated audience of other writers or avid readers that they were cozies. I’d explain that Cozy is a Big Tent with room for lots of variations, but I am glad to see someone actually came up with a better descriptor, Traditional, that really says what all these books are.  So to answer your question, I think a cozy can go pretty far so long as it doesn’t gross out the reader or turn the lights on in the bedroom, but there is also plenty of room in the Noir subgenre for books that cross those lines.

You recently “retired” from your full-time day job as a fundraiser. I say “retired” because you’re still an author, which involves a lot of travel and work outside of the writing part, and adjunct professor and mentor in Seton Hill’s Writing Popular Fiction program, which also involves travel and a lot of work. How on earth have you managed to turn out 38 novels? Any time management tips?

People would often ask me how I found time to write when I was still working a day job, and they actually still ask me that! The answer is that we always make time for the things we like to do best.  I didn’t watch a lot of TV or even read nearly as much as I would have liked in order to have the 2-3 hours every day I needed to write a novel. I also gave up a lot of weekends and holidays and spent them in front of a computer, even when I was on vacation.  I was willing to make those sacrifices because they didn’t feel like sacrifices at all.  I was doing what I loved, and that’s really what I preferred to do.

In Murder on St. Nicholas Avenue, your two main characters, Sarah and Frank, are on their honeymoon and it’s up to other characters to solve the murder. What inspired you to let the other characters take over in this story?

My publisher inspired me when they asked me to write a Christmas book featuring secondary characters from the series.  The timing was perfect because Frank and Sarah were getting married in the previous book, and with them in Europe, it was perfectly logical for the others to take center stage. I had a ball writing that book, because I really had an opportunity to get to know these people myself.

Any writing projects in the works aside from the next in the Gaslight series?

I’m currently finishing up the first novel in what I hope will be a new series. Now that I’m retired, I have time to write a second series, and this is an idea I’ve been nursing for about 5 years.  The heroine is a con artist and the hero is an honest attorney.  Berkley is considering it at the moment, so I hope to hear soon if they’ll publish it. If not, we’ll seek other outlets for it.

 

Q&A with Author Lucy Burdette/Roberta Isleib

LucyBurdette

Lucy Burdette, aka Roberta Isleib, is the author of the bestselling Key West Food Critic mystery series. The latest in the series, Killer Takeout, is due out in April. Catch her weekly blogs with other food-loving mystery writers at MysteryLoversKitchen.com and another group of crime fiction writers at JungleRedWriters.com.

What/who inspired you to write your first mystery?

I call this my mid-life crisis! I was playing lots of bad golf and trying to figure out how to “use” the wasted hours. Somehow that worked out to be writing a mystery about a neurotic golfer. It helped that I’d always read and loved mysteries, and that I love watching characters grow and change (like the psychologist I am.)

What did you find to be the most challenging part of getting your first book published?

I truly had no idea what I was doing when I began to write. I did have some strengths: I’d always read mysteries and I was a clinical psychologist—very handy when it comes to creating characters. But I don’t think I realized how difficult the getting-published path would be. Luckily, I enjoy research—and so I read books about writing and publishing, and took whatever classes I could find, and joined a writers’ group, and gradually began to make some connections in my field. Doggedness counts, so does a willingness to take constructive feedback. You didn’t ask for advice, but I’ll offer some, just in case. These are all things I learned through trial and error:

  • Read a lot, making sure you include books in the genre in which you’re writing. Fans of each genre have expectations and are disappointed if you don’t meet them. For amateur sleuth mysteries like the ones I write, some of the necessary conventions include playing fair with clues, avoiding the trap of the female in jeopardy, not withholding necessary information from the reader, and not allowing a gimmick (in this case, food) to take the place of a good story.
  • Writing and publishing are both difficult, not for the faint-hearted. You’ll need friends who don’t roll their eyes when you talk about your characters as if they were your kids. And friends who can buck you up when you get a rough critique or bad news. And friends who might cook for you or lend you a quiet room when you’re on a crushing deadline. And friends to be happy for your success and come to your book signing.
  • And finally, never rush to send your work out. With agents and editors and contests only a mouse click away, it’s easy to hit send before the work is the best it can be. Rewriting is a writer’s best friend–whether you are a newbie or an old hand. Put the precious words in a drawer, cyber or real, and let them simmer. Get feedback from trusted sources, rewrite again.

What/who inspired you to write about a food critic?

The short answer is that my editor at NAL was looking for a proposal about a series starring a food critic. When I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey and Detroit in the fifties and sixties, haute cuisine consisted of adding a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup to the dish in question. Oh, we had ethnic dining options too: Heat up a can of slimy lo mein noodles and flaccid vegetables and sprinkle with crunchy faux-noodle topping.

Killer Takeout-1With that background, you might wonder about my qualifications to write about a food critic character. Basically, I love to eat. And I love to eat good food–not fussy, just delicious. My husband teases that “Isleib” (my family name) means “is stomach” in German. His other fictionalized translation for my name is “large lunch followed by a restful nap.”

We love flawed main characters. Your food critic, Hayley Snow, is romantically challenged. She’s got some self-sabotoging habits and has some family issues. Do you find inspiration in your background as a psychologist for creating your characters?

From the very beginning, I wanted to use my training in clinical psychology by including reasonable psychologists in my novels. The challenge was to dream up characters who could use the principles of psychology to help solve mysteries without imploding with self-importance, stumbling over personal issues, or crossing ethical boundaries. I wanted to do it right. But I also wanted to encourage my characters to get into therapy!

Hayley Snow, the star of the food critic mysteries, struggles against psychoanalyzing her life, just as Cassie, my neurotic golfer, did. But both her psychologist friend Eric and her tarot-card-reading friend Lorenzo help her puzzle out people’s motivations, including her own. Thinking about the life arcs of my characters is the most fun part of the book for me.

How do you choose the quotes at the beginning of your chapters?

Thanks for asking—I really enjoy including these! In the beginning, I searched the Internet for quotes about food and begged friends to tell me their favorites. Now the more I read foodie memoirs and novels, the easier it is to find them. I keep a running list of great quotes as I come across them—as a result they’ve gotten more unusual and less familiar. Sometimes I fit them into the chapters as I go along, but always I choose a quote for each chapter before I sent the draft to my editor.

How do you choose the recipes that you include in the books?

Both Hayley and her mother are amazing cooks. So many of the recipes come from imagining what they’d whip up at home. Others are based on delicious food we’ve had in Key West restaurants. I blog every Thursday with a new recipe at Mystery Lovers Kitchen, so I always have options!

When you’re eating out in Key West, who gets to pick where and what you eat — you or Hayley? (That’s an interesting situation: you, Roberta, as Lucy, eating for Hayley. You’re eating for three!)

That makes my head spin! We have to try new places because Hayley can’t always write about the same restaurants. But of course, once we find something consistently, we go back over and over. (My mouth is watering as I think about the yellow snapper in Thai curry sauce at Seven Fish restaurant.)

In the An Appetite for Murder, Hayley writes a column about Key Lime pie. Where is the best Key Lime pie?

Hayley Snow would say the best pie comes out of the home kitchen. But it won’t hurt a visitor to do some research herself!

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