Tag: cozy mysteries

“You never know when your pizza cat mystery will come along.”

I do not recommend trying to become a writer.

In fact, I’m not even sure I know what “becoming a writer” is. When I published the first Lindsay Harding novel, did that make me a writer? Or was it the brief and shining moment when the first book climbed to the top of Amazon’s cozy mystery rankings for a couple of days? Or when I got my first royalty check? Maybe it was when I won my first writing contest. Does the fact of having published three novels and half a dozen short stories mean that I’ve permanently achieved writerdom? Or if I cease to publish but still write, do I remain a writer?

These questions plagued me toward the end of 2018. (Remember 2018, when existential angst could involve mundane things like career aspirations?) I’d decided that 2019 was going to be a decisive year for my writing. I vowed to “become a writer” by age 40. Despite my progress toward that goal, by October 2019 my 41st birthday loomed, and I still felt like an impostor. After a few decent earnings years, my royalty income had dwindled to pocket change. I’d finished a manuscript for my middle-grade adventure novel, MINERVA MURGATROYD AND THE VERY OLD BOY, but after several near misses, I was unable to find representation for it. I blew out the candles on my 41st birthday with a heavy heart. Forty had come and gone with no real progress toward my writing goal. My day job had ramped up and I felt pressure to follow the steady paycheck and turn my back on my writing hobby.

And then, two days after my 41st birthday, I got a message from Lyndee Walker, a bestselling mystery novelist I’d met at a few conferences over the years. Lyndee had heard from her agent that St. Martin’s press was looking to develop a new mystery series. She didn’t have time to pitch for it herself, but she remembered me and thought I might be a good fit for the project. All she knew was that it was on the very cozy end of the mystery spectrum–it needed to be set in a pizza restaurant and to prominently feature a cat. The marketing folks had already road tested the concept and found that “Pizza Cat Mystery” was a niche that needed to be filled. Now, they just needed to find a writer who could pull the project off.

When I told my sister about this unexpected opportunity, she reminded me how only weeks earlier, I’d decided to throw in the towel on my writing dreams. “You never know when your pizza cat mystery will come along,” has since become our family’s version of “Persistence pays off.”

Fast forward to March of this year. After a couple of setbacks, including the departure of a key editor at the press, I was offered a three-book deal for a new series set in a deep-dish pizza restaurant. The first book, tentatively titled SIX FEET DEEP DISH, is set to come out in Spring 2022.

The advance still doesn’t justify giving up my day job and becoming a full-time writer, but it’s a respectable supplement to our family’s income that might allow us to redo our tacky master bathroom next year.

So am I a writer now? <<shrugs>> Ask me when I’m 50.

Two thumbs up for cozy mysteries

To a kid growing up in Chicago in the 1980s, the Chicago Sun Times film critic Roger Ebert was the fount of all wisdom. His weekly Siskel and Ebert: At the Movies PBS show, with its famous Thumbs Up-Thumbs Down scoring system, was in regular rotation on lazy Saturday mornings, when my sister and I would flop in front of the TV with bowls of cereal. Because it was the 80s, our mother let us add spoonsful of white sugar to our Cheerios and eat them along with big glasses of milk sweetened with Hershey’s syrup. Apparently, in the 80s, everyone had magical pancreases.

But back to Ebert. This bespectacled, almost cartoonishly jowly Midwesterner somehow embodied the personality traits of a sharp-witted pundit, a polymath genius, and a four-year-old at a birthday party. His arguments with his co-host were literate, civilized precursors to the hair-clawing, manicure-ruining brawls that populate today’s reality TV. Their arguments were every bit as viscous and sometimes even personal, but their disagreements also expanded minds and showed that it was possible for even well-intentioned experts to disagree.

I recently rediscovered that Saturday morning slice of my childhood when I saw Life Itself, a documentary that chronicles Ebert’s diagnosis with jaw cancer, and the aftermath of the disfiguring surgery that spared his life but destroyed both his face and his ability to speak. The documentary is wonderful, even for those who lack the childhood attachment I have. The film is chock-full of touching, profound, hilarious revelations, but it was one quote, as Ebert discussed his scathing review of Blue Velvet, that has stuck with me for weeks:

“Drama holds a mirror up to life, but needn’t reproduce it.”

For Ebert, Blue Velvet’s sadomasochistic depiction of Isabella Rossalini’s character, and by extension the actress herself, crossed a line between art/drama and exploitation. This brought me back to the struggles I had in choosing a comfortable genre in which to write. After my first agent unsuccessfully shopped the Mount Moriah cozy mystery series, she advised that I switch gears and write Romantic Suspense, which she assured me would sell more easily. That genre, also known as “woman in peril” usually features dangerous, even psychopathic, criminals and gritty scenes of life-threatening action. Following my agent’s advice, I started a novel about a female psychiatrist who treated patients suffering from severe phobias using 3D virtual reality immersion. Similar to the villain in the movie Se7en, my baddie was killing my heroine’s patients one-by-one by reproducing the circumstances of their virtual immersions in real life. Terrified of spiders? Well, you’d find yourself trapped in a room full of tarantulas. And so on. Pretty good plot, eh?

Here’s the thing, though. When I worked on that book, I felt gross. It was hard to edit, because I didn’t like going back reading what I’d written. Yes, those horrible things—mental illness, murder, torture, cruelty, happen. But I didn’t want to be the one to give voice to those things. So, I chucked that idea, dropped the agent, and published the Mount Moriah books myself with Nicole Loughan’s Little Spot imprint. There are murders in my books, and baddies. And things like domestic abuse and prejudice are not glossed over. But I try not to hold my reader’s gaze on them for too long, and I never want to inflict unnecessary suffering on my characters. Mostly, my books try to radiate positive energy. Sometimes, when I read a passage I haven’t read in a long time, it will still make me chuckle. That’s the vibe I’m most comfortable putting out in the world.

I’ll leave it to others to meticulously reproduce mass starvation, individual privation, war atrocities, and child abuse. Turns out when I hold up a mirror to life, I want to hold a fun house mirror.

Cindy Blackburn is gonna get your book club wasted on champagne.

Perky, peppy, and prolific, cozy mystery author Cindy Blackburn is living the dream! She spends her days sitting around in her pajamas, thinking up unlikely plot twists and ironing out the quirks and kinks of lovable characters. When she’s not typing on her laptop or feeding her fat cat Betty, Cindy enjoys taking long walks with her cute hubby John. A native Vermonter who hates snow, Cindy divides her time between the South Carolina and Vermont. In this #TeamFluff interview, Cindy shares her love of atrocious poetry, her advice for using social media wisely, and her strategy for getting your book club trashed on champagne.

Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): In addition to writing the Cue Ball Mystery series, you publish a regular series of what you describe as terrible poetry on your

Tabby cat in the corner pocket

blog. How did your love affair with silly poems begin? I’m assuming a silly poet bought you a drink, and then one thing led to another…

Cindy Blackburn (CB): Ha! Nope, can’t say that I know any other silly poets. And I imagine silly poets can’t afford to buy drinks for others? I started writing poetry when I decided to blog once a week. Seemed to me, plenty of authors were blogging about “the writing process” and other really serious stuff. So I decided to do something light, funny, and sometimes (okay, often) awful. Nearly three years later and I’m still composing groan-inducing ditties for an update every Sunday. I’m also still waiting for someone to buy me a drink while I recite. Hmm…

MFM: One of your characters is a frenetic, hilariously hyperactive literary agent. Has your own publishing journey been populated with any eccentric nutballs?

CB: Absolutely! I just love, love, love writers. We’re an eccentric and quirky bunch. I met most of my favorite author-friends through Sisters in Crime and the Romance Writers of America—both terrific organizations. I don’t have an agent, but if I did, I’d look for one as fun as Geez Louise Urko. BTW, Louise thinks your questions are fantastical!

MFM: You’ve got a huge Twitter presence. In fact, you and I “met” through Twitter. I have to admit that I secretly hate it. If you appreciate a well-constructed sentence, and, you know, basic grammar, it can make you want to sit in a dimly-lit corner and weep. What are your tips for other authors trying to use Twitter to connect with fans and other writers? I’m specifically wondering how you keep from coming across like an illiterate 14-year-old.

CB: One of my mottos in writing and in life: Leave them wanting more, not less. I love Twitter, since it forces us to get to the gist of it—whatever “it” is. To me, that means good writing, not bad. I also love connecting with thousands of people from all over the world and every walk of life. My tips for other writers? Tweet several times a day, follow new people every day, use the notifications button to see who’s paying attention to you and pay attention to them, re-tweet often and generously. Have fun with it—here I am, doing this terrific interview because we connected on Twitter. Nice! Come follow me @cbmysteries.

MFM: By the way, R.P. Dahlke shared some other tips in an earlier #TeamFluff interview.

MFM: I wholeheartedly approve of the excessive amounts of champagne your characters consume. Has anyone ever made a drinking game out of reading your books? For every glass of champagne drunk in the book, one has to be drunk in real life.

CB: Not that I know of, but I think I’ll steal this idea and use it as an ice-breaker the next time I speak at a book club. And, of course, I’ll try this out when I finally come across that silly poet who’s looking to buy me a drink.

MFM: Your books are available as audiobooks. What was it like to transform your written words into spoken words? Any surprises?

CB: I am SO glad I didn’t have to narrate my books. Caroline Miller (a true professional with a terrific voice) did a great job as “the voice of Jessie.” The surprise was when she put the emphasis on different words and phrases than what I had heard in my head, and when HER interpretation sounded better than what I had thought I meant! Caroline kept track, and there were over 70 different characters (one being a parrot) that she narrated for the 4 Cue Ball Mysteries. Impressive!

Zany, quirky and full of goats.

For readers who enjoy light, funny, cozy reads, the Cue Ball Mysteries are: Playing With Poison, Double Shot, Three Odd Balls, and Four Play. Jessie and Wilson wanted a vacation after Four Play, so I gave them a break and have just released the first book in a brand new series. Unbelievable is the first Cassie Baxter Mystery. And, never fear, Jessie’s vacation didn’t last long. Right now I’m starting her and Wilson on their fifth adventure, Five Spot. They should have that murder solved sometime in mid 2015.

Thanks tons for hosting me on your blog today, Mindy. I enjoyed the visit.

MFM: Thanks, Cindy! Y’all head over to Cindy’s website to learn more: www.cbmysteries.com 

Solving a bunch of murders would probably ruin my life.

I’m a pretty normal gal. I have a part-time job running the clinical research center at the Virginia Tech vet school. I’m a mom who shops at Kroger, walks the dog, and makes pasta salad. I do yoga, volunteer, and have Friday-night drinks with the neighbors. One thing I don’t do is solve murders.

Readers of the traditional or “cozy” mystery genres will know that one of the criterion often used for defining these books is that the protagonist should be an amateur sleuth. (There are notable exceptions to this, but it generally holds true). In other words, the person who solves the mystery is just a regular Joe or Josephine. Hence, my Reverend Lindsay Harding Mysteries fit the bill. Lindsay is a hospital chaplain. She’s not a police officer, a member of the armed forces, or even a private investigator. She’s a normal person, thrown into murder investigations by chance (actually by me, but don’t tell her that!).

I’ve been working on the third book in the series, and I find myself wondering — what would it mean for Lindsay, as a normal person, to be confronted frequently by the horror that accompanies the sudden, violent taking of a life? How might it change her as a person? Some mystery writers have addressed these questions with considerable skill. My religious-based mystery-writing hero, Julia Spencer-Fleming, is one of these. As personal tragedies pile on top of repeated exposures to the darker shades of human nature, Spencer-Fleming’s Reverend Clare Fergusson character grows, changes, and becomes more complex. And, crucially, Rev. Clare buys a new car. You read that right. She begins the series owning an impractical sports car, but at some point she realizes that she needs something that handles better in the snow. So she gets a Suburu. I know this may seem an odd thing to fixate on, but this exemplifies what’s right about Spencer-Fleming and wrong with so many other mystery series.

Way too many books, especially in the cozy genre, fail to recognize the deep wounds that would accumulate if a person were constantly confronting life-threatening (and life-ending) situations. Experiences, especially traumatic ones, change people. But some authors seem to take their characters and plots in the opposite direction — as their series progresses, they write about murders with all the the gravity and emotional depth of a game of Uno. Their characters’ quirks become like the pun-heavy jokes your weird old uncle trots out every Christmas — they may have been amusing the first few times, but now they make you want to stab yourself in the neck with a shrimp fork. By way of example, I’ll pick on two of the most successful series is the genre (the writers of which are both conveniently deceased, and therefore unable to argue with me): Lilian Jackson-Braun’s “The Cat Who…” series and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series. In these books, bodies stack up, but the equilibrium of the main character is totally undisturbed. Miss Marple might give a little frown or an exclamation of surprise as she steps over yet another corpse, but then she calmly returns to sipping her Earl Grey. In the last few installments of “The Cat Who…” murders roll in and out of the pages like buses out of a Greyhound station. They might occasion a quick-witted quip, but they don’t “stick” to the characters.

What’s a writer to do? Part of the charm of traditional mysteries, and cozies in particular, is that they provide an easy, often funny, read, free of the kind of gruesome violence that so many of us find overly disturbing. I love the humorous elements of these books, as they remind us that there is light to be found in even the darkest of places. But I personally can’t stand to read a character who remains static while the world around her repeatedly throws dead bodies at her feet.

Don’t worry. This doesn’t mean that the Lindsay Harding series is suddenly going to change from being fun beach reads to being a meditation on the hopelessness of existence. But it does mean that, if I achieve what I set out to do, that Lindsay will evolve.