Saturday, April 7, 2018

Interview with Mystery Author Valerie Burns

     I know this is a political blog and that whoever comes here generally does looking for political commentary. Yet, considering the negative news we've been incessantly hearing since a certain evolutionary dropout descended an escalator like a bored mall husband and into history, a change of pace is always welcome. So I decided to reach out to one of my more interesting Facebook friends, my current Author of the Month Valerie Burns, and asked if she wished to give an interview and she readily agreed. Val is a Camel/Kensington "cozy" mystery novelist who's currently juggling a fulltime job, three mystery series and a houseful of poodles as well as a blog of her own.

1.    About a year ago, I was chatting on Facebook with another African American mystery authoress and the subject of racial representation came up. She was of the opinion that more people of color don’t write or read mysteries because they feel underrepresented or misrepresented. What are your thoughts on the subject?

     Many people read books because they like the characters or feel they can relate to them. I think it’s important for readers to see themselves in the books, so I tend to agree that people of color may not read books if they don’t see themselves or people similar to them in the stories. Cozy mysteries include a lot of variety in an attempt to appeal to a broad spectrum of people. There are cozy mysteries with themes for practically every hobby or career. Check out any cozy mystery section in a bookstore and readers will see cozies about food, tea, wine, stamp collecting, antiques, knitting, quilting and a host of other topics. The range of topics is amazing and I love the variety. In the same sense, readers want to see themselves to a certain extent. I don’t believe readers necessarily want to take on the risk of an amateur sleuth and put their lives in danger to track down criminals. However, I do believe that it’s important for a reader to be able to relate to the characters. So, if more books with diverse characters are published, then I believe the readership will increase. Ultimately, mystery readers are interested in a good whodunit.

2.    Being an indie author takes guts, even if they are published by Kensington. What made you decide to dive into the perilous waters of indie books and write a series of cozies?

     As a passionate mystery lover, my happy place involves reading and watching cozy mysteries. After decades of reading cozies, writing them seemed to be a logical next step. I had a lot of ideas for books I wanted to read rolling around in my head. Eventually, I decided to take a chance at writing. The journey was long and grueling. Having an idea for a mystery series and actually writing a book with a beginning, middle and end (not to mention clues, and red herrings) isn’t easy. Once I wrote my first book, the next task was how to get that book published. I invested a lot of time, effort, energy and money into pursuing my dream of becoming a writer. However, the next phase of the process was like a maze. There were so many things that I didn’t know. Writing a book is only one part of a long process which involves editing, copy editing, cover art, distribution, sales, marketing and a host of other things that I’m still learning. I know a number of authors who have self-published and I have a lot of respect for them. As a new writer, I didn’t have the courage to self-publish. I needed the validation of having a publisher helping to guide me through the maze. I feel grateful to have Kensington behind me. I appreciate having an editor, copy editors, production editors, publicist and an army of people who can give me the benefit of their years of experience and knowledge. Both of my publishers, Camel and Kensington have been great and I am fortunate to have them.

3.    For those who are unfamiliar with your work, please describe the Dog Club mystery series and its four-legged and bipedaled protagonists.

     The Dog Club Mystery Series features a female protagonist, Lilly Echosby who is in the process of getting divorced. When her soon-to-be ex-husband, Albert, is murdered the police believe her to be their prime suspect. Lilly reconnects with an old college friend, Dixie who is heavily involved in showing and training dogs. Between Dixie and Lillie’s two children, Stephanie and David, they set out to find the real murderer and keep Lillie from paying for a crime she didn’t commit.

4.    When you were growing up, what authors influenced and/or inspired you?

     I am a HUGE Agatha Christie fan. I think I’ve read every book and short story she ever wrote. I even have duplicates of books because some of the titles were different in the U.K. than in the U.S. (And Then There Were None and Ten Little Indians is one example) I still remember when I read my first Agatha Christie, THE MURDER OF ROGER AKROYD. When I got to the end, I was hooked. I never saw the ending coming and was fascinated at how her mind worked to come up with such a creative concept. I also loved Rex Stout, Heron Carvic’s Miss Seton Mysteries, Martha Grimes, and Jill Churchill. I’m a big fan of historic cozies. I love tying to put the pieces together to figure out whodunit. I also prefer books with humor.

5.    Authors who write cozies much more often than not use cats, many of them their own, as characters in their books. You’re different in that respect. Aside from your love of the breed, why poodles?

     When I was a kid, I wanted a dog. Unfortunately, my mother wasn’t a big fan of dog hair. So, we could only have a dog that didn’t shed. After a bit of research, my sister and I discovered that poodles don’t shed. They also have a hyper-allergenic coat so people with allergies can often tolerate the breed. They are exceptionally smart and easy to train. Our first dog was a white toy poodle named Candy. She was amazing and super smart. As an adult, when I decided to get a dog, I chose the breed I knew and loved. I got chocolate poodles Coco and Cash. In my Mystery Bookshop Mystery series, the protagonist has two chocolate toy poodles (Snickers and Oreo) who are based on Coco and Cash. My Dog Club Mystery Series features a black toy poodle named Aggie (after Agatha Christie) who bares more than a striking resemblance to the newest addition to my pack, Kensington (named after my publisher), although I call her “Kenzie.” I’ve heard a lot of people mock the breed. They tend to think that the show cut poodles are shown on television indicates the breed is foo-foo and not very bright. However, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, poodles are one of the smartest breeds which is why they were often used in circuses because they were so easy to train. So, I include poodles in all of my books.

6.    Technological innovations aside, how have cozies changed since your favorite author Agatha Christie’s time or have they fundamentally changed?

     I think cozies have changed a lot since Agatha Christie’s time. The basics of the cozy are the same. There’s a crime, an amateur sleuth investigates and then the Big Reveal at the end. However, a lot of the story and style have changed since Agatha Christie’s day. One reason for the change is that there is a lot more information available on television and on the internet. Twenty-first century cozy readers are not as tolerant of errors and have expectations that books, while still fiction, must adhere to basic rules of believability. Writers can’t invent poisons or take creative license with dates/times or historic details. Readers have Google and will post to social media when they find inconsistencies, regardless of how engaging or well-written a book is. Twenty-first century readers also expect cozies to be more quickly-paced than in Agatha Christie’s time. Long pages of flowery prose aren’t as accepted today as in the past. I often reread my favorite authors (especially Agatha Christie) and find myself glazing over at pages of descriptions about bogs, fields or other scenery. However, it isn’t long before she draws me back into the story and I marvel at the creativity and genius to devise such cunning plots.

7.    Who are some of your other favorite mystery authors, past or present?

     I have a lot of favorites. I still love Agatha Christie and Rex Stout. However, I’ve added Victoria Thompson, Emily Brightwell, Martha Grimes, Jill Churchill, Laurien Berenson, Dorothy Gilman, Kay Charles and Susan Elia Macneal to my list of favorites.

8.    You’re the author of two other mystery series: The Mystery Bookshop Mystery series and the RJ Franklin series (Which, last I heard, will debut on July 1, 2018). The different protagonists and locales aside, how are they different from the Dog Club series?

     The Mystery bookshop mystery series features a story-within-a-story. The protagonist, Samantha Washington owns a mystery bookstore and is also writing a British historic cozy. So, the reader will have two mysteries to solve in every book. There is the mystery the protagonist is working through and the historic British mystery she is writing about. The RJ Franklin Mystery series features an African American male protagonist. All of the titles in this series are based on Negro Spirituals and includes soul food recipes. This series immerses the reader into the culture of the African American community. The Dog Club Mystery Series focuses more on my love of dogs. There will be a different breed of dog in each book and will introduce readers to various dog sports. This series includes information about dog breeds, training, and competitions.

9.    A British editor once passed on a novel I’d submitted entitled GODS OF OUR FATHERS because, while assuming I was white, she charged me with writing the protagonist’s narrative “in black dialect.” I did not. He sounds like any other well-educated man in mid-19th century Boston and was biracial, to boot. What are your thoughts on authors writing in dialect?

     I believe authors should write their characters in the voice appropriate for that character. If the setting/story calls for a particular dialect, then the author should use it. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is hard to read (at least for me), but the dialect was necessary for the story/time period. However, I don’t believe it’s necessary to stereotype characters by giving a “black dialect” to every black character. I think it’s possible to give a character a unique voice in other ways. Not all African Americans speak in ebonics. In fact, I think it is often more interesting to take a character who someone would expect to act a certain way and turn it upside down. In the example you listed, I think it would be more interesting to have that character speak with a British or Scandinavian accent. It would be unexpected and something that could be used as an educational tool as well as a story device as the other characters comment about how unexpected his accent was. Ultimately, I think the important thing is that the author is true to their own beliefs. So, hats off to you for maintaining your integrity and vision for your character.

10. Old school mystery novelists such as Earl Stanley Gardner and Dashiell Hammett didn’t spare a lot of ink and paper on character delineation. How, if at all, do you think getting involved in multiple murder investigations changes the protagonists’ characters or should they evolve?  

     I think characters should evolve over time, although I don’t know that the timing for character arcs that is common in many other genres is as short in mysteries, especially when writing a series. In science fiction and urban fantasy, the protagonist typically undergoes a change from the beginning of the book to the end. Mystery detectives in a series may not go through a full cycle of the Hero’s Journey in each and every book of the series. However, I do believe that characters in a series should change/evolve from one book to the next, even though the transformation can be slower. In the first book of a cozy, the amateur sleuth may not know much about investigating a murder. Readers would expect him/her to make mistakes and stumble along the way. Usually, they are flying by the seat of their pants. However, after a few more murders, the expectations would be that the protagonist is more skilled at finding clues and investigating. Hopefully, the sleuth has learned a few things. So, the character arc in a sleuth in a mystery series will span the series rather than one or two books.

11. Plotter or pantser?

     I’m a pantser who wants to be a plotter. Friend and mystery author, Kay Charles (Ghost in Glass Houses) once said, “Outlining (plotting) a mystery is like reading a book when you already know the ending.” I have to say, I agree. I’ve tried many times to turn myself into a plotter, but it hasn’t worked. I spend a lot of time developing my characters and once I know who they are, then I allow them to take me where they want to go. I think my editor would prefer if I were a plotter, but unfortunately, I haven’t been able to make that change. I write a rough sketch of the plot and fill in the details as the story evolves.

12. You’ve based all your novels in fictionalized places you’ve lived because as you’d written on your blog, location, location, location is essential. Why is it important to you to have your characters seamlessly integrate with their environment as opposed to a fish out of water story?

     I believe the location or setting is critical to the character development, the character dialogue and personality come from their location. The Dog Club Mystery series starts in Indiana but will move to the south. As the character moves, then she will be a bit of a fish out of water, but it is a lot easier to write about places you know. Plus, it makes the dialogue more authentic. I believe the author’s familiarity with a location will ring true to the readers. In THE PLOT IS MURDER, the fictional town of North Harbor, Michigan is based on Benton Harbor, Michigan. I’ve received several emails asking if North Harbor is in southwestern Michigan because readers recognized different landmarks based on my descriptions or the character’s dialogue. That makes me happy. It means, I’ve done my job and the reader identifies with the area.

13. They say there are two kinds of stories- A stranger arriving in a strange town or a person going on a journey. Which is it for you?

     A person going on a journey is a great concept. I absolutely love the idea of taking the reader on a mysterious journey to a fictional world where bad things happen, but there are good people who are willing to get involved to find the truth. Sometimes there is so much negative on the news and on social media that I enjoy getting lost in a cozy world with kind, concerned citizens who care about justice. Cozies provide an escape and a puzzle to challenge the mind. That’s how I feel when I read my favorite authors. I get immersed in the world the author creates. I think that’s why when I read British cozies I find myself drinking much more tea and looking for recipes for scones and clotted cream.

14. You’ve said on your blog that you try to set a goal of 1000-1500 words a day. Reconstruct your daily writing routine. Do you write exclusively on a laptop or do you draft in a notebook or is it a combination of both?

     I have a full-time job, so I don’t get to write much during the weekday. So, my routine involves going to work from 8-5 and then coming home, grabbing something to eat and sitting down at my laptop to write, usually 6-9 on week nights. My goal is to write between 7,500 – 10,000 words per week which translates into 1,000 – 1,500 per night. Looking at my writing goal as a weekly goal rather than a nightly goal prevents me from stressing out if I miss a night of writing or fail to hit the 1,000 word target. I can usually make up the word count on the weekend when I have more time. I don’t edit or make adjustments during this phase. My goal is to get the words on the page; it can always be edited or revised later. However, you can’t edit a blank page. Most of my writing is done on a laptop, but I often travel with a journal or notebook and will write longhand whenever I find myself waiting for long periods of time (beauty shop, auto repair, doctor’s office). I’ve even been known to write when I’m stuck in traffic. If I don’t have my notebook or journal, I scribble notes on the back of envelopes, napkins, or gas receipts, pretty much whatever I find in the bottom of my purse or on the floor of my car.

15. What changes would you like to see in mystery fiction in general? What would you like to keep?

     I think the biggest change I’d like to see would be to include more diverse voices which I think will help the genre to grow and expand as it attracts more readers. I understand publishing is a business and publishers need to make money to stay in business. To achieve this it’s really tempting to buy more of the tried and true and not take chances on new writers. I wish more publishers were willing to take chances on new writers. One of the things I like about my publishers is that both Camel Press and Kensington accept unsolicited manuscripts. This gives unagented writers an opportunity to submit their manuscripts so they have a fighting chance of at least getting read. If more publishers were willing to do this, I think it will be a boost and expand their odds of finding the diamond in the rough. As far as what I would like to keep, I honestly feel the mystery community is extremely friendly and embraces authors and mystery fans. That is something you don’t see in some other genres. Before I started writing mysteries, I tried my hand at screenwriting. It is extremely hard to break into screenwriting. Well, so is publishing in general. However, I felt that the screenwriting community was much more negative. Each workshop or book I read emphasized how hard it was to break into screenwriting. The mystery fiction community was much more positive. Yes, it’s not easy to find an agent or publisher. However, there are tons of people around who will answer questions, tell you about books or blogs, allow you to blog hop or are willing to interview you for their website (thanks Robert). I hope the Mystery Fiction genre stays as open and welcoming so that other writers have the same experience I’ve had.

Valerie Burns' books can be found here on her author page at Amazon.


At April 8, 2018 at 9:08 PM, Blogger Beth said...

I loved learning more about Valerie Burns' writing journey. Why? Because I am reading "The Plot is Murder" right now. Congratulations on your Agatha nomination, Valerie! I love the unique structure of your novel and the characters which make me laugh. You have a great group of "the girls," who help your sleuth solve the murder. Great interview questions and answers.

At April 8, 2018 at 9:37 PM, Blogger jurassicpork said...


Valerie can't see this comment unless she chooses to come back to see it. But I'll pass your thoughts on to her on Facebook.

At April 9, 2018 at 11:04 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks so much, Beth. I truly appreciate your kind words. This warmed my heart. I am glad you are enjoying the book and thanks for reaching out to let me know. V.M. Burns


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