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set in the Florida Keys, won the 2015 Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence and the Royal Palm Literary Award for best unpublished mystery and unpublished book of the year.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. She’s currently 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 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!

I Am So Over Gardening

Here’s a photo from about a year ago showing my backyard vegetable garden:

garden.501

Here’s a photo of that garden now:

scarygarden3

The only things growing there now are one insane Italian parsley plant and a rogue tomato vine that is only thriving because I was was completely unaware of it until I went outside to dump something into the compost pile a couple of weeks ago. (There’s another trend I’m getting over; more on that later.)

I’ve lost count of how many times I have tried and failed to grow tomatoes. My mother, who effortlessly grew lush, eight-foot-tall tomato plants in boxes on her deck, tried to help me out by sending me the boxes she used, which were supposed to make the gardening process practically automatic. They were self-watering, and all I had to do was refill them occasionally and watch out for pests. Right. Fail, fail, fail.

I tried buying big, healthy plants. I tried starting my own seedlings. I tried inside, outside, upside down. There was apparently no way on earth a tomato would come to fruition in my care. Then, outside, in the middle of winter, there suddenly appears a healthy, fully grown tomato plant, as if to say, “Ha ha, Laurie, look at us! We are better off without you!” The plant is not staked, is surrounded by weeds, has not been watered or fertilized, and yet there it is, strong, healthy and rebelliously producing fruit. This is just the final proof that plants don’t like me.

My delusional adventures in gardening began about two years ago. I believe this can be partially attributed to identity crisis following my earlier-than-planned departure from the newspaper industry. This coincided with the major economic downturn that had many people looking toward getting back to basics, and so I jumped onto a national bandwagon of growing organic food at home, and planned to also hop on the home-canning trend, too. We would be stocked up with healthy, flavorful organic vegetables year-round!

Despite a lifelong history of having plants generally ignore my friend requests, I planted squash, cucumbers, corn, tomatoes and peppers, with marigolds in between that were supposed to repel insects. The squash, as you can see in the top photo above, sprouted up beautifully. Then, just as quickly, it developed an incurable disease and rotted. The cucumbers spread wildly but never grew much past cocktail gherkin size. Two rows of corn provided a nice snack for the squirrels, and you know how it went with the tomatoes. The only success I had was with peppers, but this brings me to a major problem I learned about gardening, which is, if you do grow anything, you end up with too much of that thing, so you end up eating salsa with everything for weeks and still have to go to the store to get onions and all the other things you don’t grow.

I know a lot of successful gardeners, and they’re probably shaking their heads right now, wondering what’s wrong with me. Maybe some will side with the plants and unfriend me. However, I don’t think I’m the only one that feels this way. Last spring I interviewed a local landscaper for a story on upcoming home and garden trends, and he told me that he was getting fewer requests to put in vegetable garden beds. In fact, the major upcoming trend seemed to lean toward paving over the backyard altogether and maybe putting in some artifical turf. (This is in Florida. If you’ve ever cared for a yard here in the summer, you will understand this.)

The other thing I may abandon is composting. I never did that right, anyway. You’re supposed to invest in, or build, a nice compost bin and use official composting techniques such as layering with leaves or newspapers and flipping it all around occasionally. I never did any of that. I just piled some bricks in a corner and dumped my kitchen scraps out there. Sometimes I put leaves on it. It worked fine for a while, though it pretty much disappeared under weeds before I actually got to apply it to the garden. Now I suspect that it’s behind our recent fruit fly invasion. It has also occurred to me that I am taking away valuable organic material from the landfill. Wouldn’t it help the landfill to put good things in it, too?

I’m still dumping things in the yard as I ponder this, and in my defense I will say that I do recycle everything. Oh, and I haven’t killed the herbs, so I plan to keep them going. The tomatoes and I will remain civil but will probably never really be friends.

Are you a great gardener? Or are you ready to give up?

How to Make Eggless Homemade Ravioli

Recently I’ve had a couple of people ask me how to make homemade ravioli. Okay, it wasn’t all that recently. It was before the holidays, when I typically make a lot of ravioli. However, during the holidays I generally don’t have time to do anything more than make the ravioli and post a show-offy picture on Facebook, then collapse from exhaustion. Now that I’ve recovered, I thought I’d share my totally non-expert thoughts on making ravioli.

Though I’ve been known to make occasional random batches of ravioli here and there year-round, we have a tradition of having it on Christmas Eve at our house as part of our Feast of the Two Fishes. (This is based on the Italian tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes, but as we are a small family and only two of us are part Italian, we’re down to two fishes. Actually, they are usually crustaceans and bivalves, if you want to be exact, but hey, at least we have a tradition.)

I’m not sure when this got started, but clearly it was sometime after I learned to make ravioli, and then found a really good butternut squash ravioli recipe, courtesy of Emeril Lagasse. I usually pair it with broiled shrimp and scallops with just a touch of Cajun seasoning on them.

As I said, I’m no expert in pasta making. From what I’ve been able to determine so far, my ancestors hailed from every western European country except Italy, so I’m not sure where I got my affinity for Italian food. If you want to learn about ravioli from an expert, check out this video from Laura Schenone, author of The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family (Norton, 2008). I also highly recommend the book.

To paraphrase the book jacket, Schenone has clearly mastered “… the mysteries of pasta, rolled on a pin into a perfect circle of gossamer dough.” That’s not how I do it, and to be honest, I’ve never had anyone fall out of his chair raving about how gossamery my pasta is. However, they do gobble it up and ask for more, and my way is a bit faster and easier, so I’ll share it. Note: My son is allergic to eggs, so I use Mario Batali‘s recipe for Eggless Pasta.

Things You’ll Need

  • Food processor, pasta machine, ravioli mold, rolling pin, small cookie scoop
  • 1 recipe ravioli (see above link)
  • Filling (see above link and recipe below)

Before we get started, I’d just like to say a thing or two about ravioli molds. I have a ravioli mold that makes a dozen medium-sized ravioli at a time. It’s easier than cutting them out individually and pressing them together, but the drawback is that it sometimes allows for air pockets. These are considered uncool among the ravioli crowd, I believe because they can cause the ravioli to break open. A friend tried a ravioli stamp and wasn’t crazy about it. My dream tool would be a ravioli pin like the one Schenone uses in her video. But then we’re getting into rolling-out-circles-of-gossamer territory, so it may be a while.

Instructions

First, make your filling. If you make the full recipe for Batali’s pasta, you will have enough for a batch of butternut squash pasta and a batch of another. I make cheese (recipe below). You can also halve the recipe for lesser occasions.

Next, make the pasta. The traditional method calls for piling your flour in the center of a cutting board, making a well in the center and adding your water (or eggs, if using) a little at a time, stirring with your hands, and then kneading. My method calls for piling the flour in a large food processor and adding water a little at a time with the processor running on a low speed. As soon as it comes together, take it out and divide into two balls. Cover one and set aside. Knead the dough by running it through the pasta machine on the widest setting 8-10 times. Cover and set aside. Repeat with remaining pasta. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest for 10 minutes at room temperature.ravioli2 (2)

To fill the pasta, roll it through the pasta machine at increasing settings until it is thin but not so much that it won’t hold filling. I usually stop at level 4 or 5. Lightly flour the pasta mold and lay the dough across it. Use the plastic thingy that comes with the mold to make indentions for your filling. Using a small (teaspoon-sized) cookie dough scoop, fill each section. Cover the ravioli with another section of dough. Seal the ravioli by rolling with a rolling pin, starting in the center of the mold and working outward. Flip the mold over and gently remove the ravioli. Place the ravioli in a large dish sprinkled with cornmeal (I also use wax paper between layers). Repeat with remaining dough and filling. Chill in refrigerator until ready to cook.

To cook, simply drop in boiling water until ravioli floats to the top. Many people recommend salting the water for various reasons. I’m going to leave that up to you.

Cheese Ravioli Filling

Makes enough filling for 1/2 of Mario Batali’s Eggless Pasta recipe.

8 ounces ricotta

4 ounces shredded mozzarella

1/4 cup grated parmesan

1/2 tablespoon chopped parsley

Pinch nutmeg

Mix ingredients in food processor or by hand.

Laurie’s Holiday Bourbon Balls

I think I have bourbon ball elbow. It’s a condition that mimics the symptoms of tennis elbow but is caused by standing over a double boiler for hours dipping balls of filling into melted chocolate. I may be getting too old for this holiday game.

You'll get approximately ten dozen bourbon balls from this recipe, plenty to allow you to pick out only the pretty ones to give as gifts.

You’ll get approximately ten dozen bourbon balls from this recipe, plenty to allow you to pick out only the pretty ones to give as gifts.

In the past, I took my role as a Christmas tradition-holder seriously, churning out dozens of baked treats from my great-grandmother’s recipes and introducing a few new recipes into the mix. In recent years, with the back-to-basics mentality brought on by the economy, it became trendy among my friends to make homemade gifts, so for me, baking was a perfect fit, and the bourbon ball list grew.

Now my friends and I are starting to figure out that you can make yourself crazy and take all the joy out of your own holidays by trying to make everything yourself. And you don’t save money – I just spent $35 on pecans, for example. Sure, homemade gifts are charming and meaningful, but if the end of it I’m exhausted and definitely not charming, it may be worth rethinking. This week I had my annual “Ack!” moment when I look at the Advent calendar and realize my son has not, in fact, been cheating and opening the doors ahead. So I’ll be standing in line at the UPS store once again and saying, “Yours will be late” a lot.

I’ve already threatened to send everybody a Yankee candle and be done with it next year, but I’m sure by then my holiday spirit will be recharged and I’ll start the madness all over again.

If you’re a crazy person holiday baker and are up for a new challenge festive treat recipe, here’s the recipe that gave me the bourbon ball elbow. These are pretty boozy, which makes dealing the filling a bit of a challenge because it has to stay very cold. You can make your life easier by reducing the bourbon or leaving it out altogether, but where’s the fun in that?

Laurie’s Bourbon Balls

Makes about 10-12 dozen, depending on size.

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened

32 ounces plus 2 cups confectioner’s sugar

1 can sweetened condensed milk

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons bourbon

3 cups chopped walnuts

1 cup flaked coconut

24 ounces chocolate chips*

1 bar paraffin

Cream butter in a large bowl. Add confectioner’s sugar, sweetened condensed milk, and bourbon, mix well. Stir in nuts and coconut. Cover and chill at least two hours or overnight.

Roll filling into teaspoon-sized balls and place on a parchment-covered cookie sheet. Insert toothpick into each. Place cookie sheet back into refrigerator to chill before dipping. Repeat with as many cookie sheets as you have room for in the refrigerator.

Melt paraffin and chocolate chips in a double boiler. Dip each ball into chocolate and place on wax paper or parchment to set. Repeat with rest of balls.**

After the balls are cooled and set, remove the toothpicks with a twisting motion. Drizzle chocolate over each to cover the toothpick hole.

Drizzle a little chocolate over the top to cover the toothpick holes.

Drizzle a little chocolate over the top to cover the toothpick holes.

* Depending on how small you make your balls of filling, you may need more chocolate. I often end up throwing in an extra cup of chocolate chips and about a tablespoon-sized chunk of paraffin.

** If the filling becomes soft while you’re dipping, return it to the refrigerator or freezer to chill completely before resuming. Otherwise, they will fall into the chocolate and melt. Disaster. Put the lid on the double boiler and turn the heat off, and go wrap presents for half an hour to an hour, then turn the heat back on the chocolate and resume dipping.

Do you have a favorite holiday recipe or homemade gift idea? Or have you abandoned this insanity altogether?