I’m as big a believer as anyone in seat-of-the-pants writing. The few times I’ve outlined, my story has disregarded my outline and flown off in an entirely different direction. But when I set my mind to writing a mystery, I found there were a few conscious decisions I had to make before I jumped into the manuscript with both feet and no road plan.
For years, I wrote about women of the American West and read mysteries for pleasure, always envying the authors who created the series that I loved. But sometimes I read mysteries, even from major publishers, that made a little voice inside me say, “You could do at least this well. If so many others can write mysteries, you can too.” So I set my goal, told myself I’d be a happy camper if I had one published mystery in my list of titles.
What genre? I’m a cozy fan, so that wasn’t much of a choice. I couldn’t do horror, paranormal, erotic because I never read in those genres. How could I write something if I didn’t know the conventions of the genre? I enjoy a good thriller but somehow I can’t see myself writing something that sharp and tension-filled. Catherine Coulter, I’m not. Definitely a cozy.
Stand-alone or series? An old friend in publishing said to me, “Think in terms of three books in a series. That’s what sells these days.” Yikes! Three books, when I wasn’t even sure I could do one? I decided on a series. It changes the way you look at your characters and their story to have to think ahead for more than one book.
For one thing, are the characters going to age, is time going to move along, or is it always going to be a certain time and place? My characters age and change, their relationships grow, they themselves, I hope, grow in complexity.
Main character? Traditionally the main character in a cozy is a female amateur sleuth. a But who was she? Most cozy heroines have a profession or avocation that identifies or brands them—Goldy Schulz in the Diane Mott Davidson books, Annie Darling of Carolyn Hart’s Death on Demand Series, Olivia Paras of July Hyzy’s White House chef books, or Grace Wheaton of Hyzy’s Manor House Mysteries. Whatever my heroine did should be something that interested me enough that I could get passionate about it. I love to cook—check out my food blog, “Potluck with Judy,” (http://potluckwithjudy.blogspot.com) but the culinary cozy field is already crowded; there are quite a few cozy sleuths in bookstores, too. The one mystery I’d tried before about a college professor didn’t go anywhere, even with sort of an agent, and I heard academic mysteries are not popular (except perhaps Amanda Cross’ Kate Fansler Mysteries). Searching my memory and Amazon I didn’t recall many mysteries about real estate agents. I live in a house built in 1922 and my neighborhood is adjacent to one that features many Craftsman homes—I had my heroine’s calling, and she soon morphed from real estate agent to renovator.
But who else was she? Again, I drew on my own life. I raised four children as a single parent, so Kelly O’Connell is the divorced mother of two young girls. In fact, my oldest daughter told someone, “It’s a highly autobiographical novel,” and probably she’s right. It’s not a bad way to start. That old advice: write what you know.
Outliner vs. Pantser? Although I’m a pantser, I like to have some idea of what’s going to happen. So I have about a one-page narrative outline. The story does not generally follow that, and I am always surprised at the way characters take the new story in different directions that work better than what I had in mind. I find it works for me to work scene by scene instead of trying to follow the plot, and I like Anne Lamott’s advice in Bird by Bird to worry about characters, not the plot. In a recent book, I was about three-fourths of the way through the first draft and still had no idea who did it. When I found out, I had to go back, of course, and lay some background.
The story for my first mystery, Skeleton in a Dead Space, was inspired by two things: there is a dead space in my kitchen. One cabinet is about two feet deep; next to it is a cabinet no more than four inches deep, just enough to hold spices. On the other side, is the oven, which of course is deep. What was behind the spice cabinet?
Then one day I drove through Fairmount, the historical neighborhood that forms a setting for my mysteries, and I saw a charming house undergoing renovation. I don’t know yet what prompted me but I thought, “There’s a skeleton in a dead space in that house.” I had my mystery.
Agents and publishers? I sailed into this part of the process more than a bit cocky. Hadn’t I published over sixty books, some with Bantam/Doubleday/Dell? Finding a new agent would be no problem. Hah! I discovered the world of mystery-writing is far more complex and competitive. Mystery writers aren’t inherently competitive; in fact, they’re a supportive group. But the field is crowded: agents get more proposals than they can seriously consider; publishers are overwhelmed with manuscripts. A newbie has a hard time getting noticed, no matter all those first-novel success stories.
I was sure the first agent, a friend, would jump at my manuscript. Instead, after the passing of weeks, he said, “I liked it but I didn’t love it.” I blathered on about how he must like thrillers and suspense, not cozies, and he muttered, “I guess so.” Only later did I learn that what he said was agent-speak for “No.”
I sent the manuscript to the publishing friend who told me to think in terms of a series, along with a proposal for a second book. He wanted the second book to be first, but I was reluctant to give up the back story in the first. It worked the way it was, and I listened to my instinct.
I queried about twenty agents, many fewer than most newbies, before I found a man, new to being an agent but with a long career in publishing, who knew my work from the Bantam days and waxed enthusiastic, offering a contract overnight. I signed for a year—big mistake. His enthusiasm waned, and when I asked for updates he was slow to reply, if he did at all. The rapport I’d felt at first vanished. In the end, just short of a year, he “released” me from my contract. The book had been shopped, with what vigor I don’t know, to the six or seven major publishers and was essentially dead for any other agent.
I chose to go the small press route and have been delighted. Turquoise Morning Press, the first that I queried, asked for three months, offered a contract within two. That was in February, and Skeleton in a Dead Space came out as both e-book and trade paperback in August, followed by No Neighborhood for Old Women in April and the new, just-available Trouble in a Big Box. A fourth Kelly O’Connell Mystery, untitled as yet, will appear in April 2013, and in between, in January, we’ll debut a new series, Blue Plate Café Mysteries, with Murder at the Blue Plate Café. I get to do my culinary mystery after all!
Settle for one published mystery? Heck, no! I’m on a roll. I retired from one job, as director of a small academic press, to a whole new career and couldn’t be happier.
Kelly O’Connell has her hands full: her husband Mike Shandy is badly injured in an automobile accident that kills a young girl, developer Tom Lattimore wants to build a big-box grocery store called Wild Things in Kelly’s beloved Fairmount neighborhood, and someone is stalking Kelly.
Tom Lattimore pressures her to support the big box, and his pressure turns to threats. Kelly activates a neighborhood coalition to fight the project and tries to find out who is stalking her and why. Mike is both powerless to stop her and physically unable to protect her and his family from Lattimore’s threats or the stalker. After their house is smoke-bombed and Kelly survives an amateur attack on her life, she comes close to an unwanted trip to Mexico from which she might never return.
An award-winning novelist, Judy Alter has written fiction for adults and young adults, primarily about women in the nineteenth-century American West. Now she has turned her attention to contemporary cozy mysteries. Trouble in a Big Box, the third Kelly O’Connell mystery, follows Skeleton in a Dead Space and No Neighborhood for Old Women, which received good reviews and popular enthusiasm. Follow Judy at http://www.judyalter.com or her two blogs at http://www.judys-stew.blogspot.com or http://potluckwithjudy.blogspot.com.
Judy’s western fiction has been recognized with awards from the Western Writers of America, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame. She has been honored with the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement by WWA and inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame at the Fort Worth Public Library.