I'm pleased today to welcome my friend Kate Fellowes as a guest blogger. Kate is the author of six mysteries, most recently A Menacing Brew. Her short stories and essays have appeared in several anthologies, as well as Victoria, Woman's World, Brides, Romantic Homes, and other periodicals. She recently won the San Diego Public Library's Matchbook Short Story contest, meeting the challenge to craft a story only 50 words long. (I mentioned this in my column Super-Short Stories a couple of months ago.) A member of the national organization Sisters in Crime, Kate is a founding member of the Wisconsin Chapter. Her working life has revolved around words--editor of the student newspaper, reporter for the local press, cataloger in her hometown library. A graduate of Alverno College in Milwaukee, she blogs about work and life here and shares her home with a variety of companion animals. Kate, it's great to have you here at SleuthSayers!
— John M. Floyd
Let's Get Cozy
by Kate Fellowes
Working in a public library is the best day job for a writer, if you ask me. Every hour of every day, I'm surrounded by inspiration, in the form of successful authors, past and present. Each writer offers me a lesson on craft, character, and structure, and I'm an eager student.
When our book deliveries arrive and I slit the tape on each box, I wonder what new treasures I'll find to add to my to-be-read list. What have our patrons requested? What's on the bestseller list? Or the Book Club's?
Only one thing is guaranteed.
Every fiction order will contain a host of cozy mysteries.
Time was these were usually paperbacks but more and more authors are being published in hardcover now, a permanent commitment to life on the public library shelves. And almost always the books are part of a series. Indeed, publisher and distributor catalogs sometimes have multiple pages filled with nothing but listings for the newest installments in cozy series. I've dried up more than one yellow highlighter circling selections, especially wanting to try the entries that say "first in a series."
What was it, I wonder, about the manuscript that made an agent take on the author? What made a publisher extend a contract? What brought the book to the marketplace?
And will it be a hit with readers?
From my years at the Reference Desk, I know mystery readers are a loyal bunch when they find a favorite author. Thanks to authors' newsletters, patrons frequently know the next title and release date before I do. Their requests help us determine what to purchase, and their desire to read series books in chronological order helps point out holes in our collection.
A year ago, my library won the Sisters in Crime "We Love Libraries" contest and received $1,000 to put toward the purchase of books. We bought cozy mysteries and plenty of them, including many new-to-us authors and firsts in series. They made a dazzling display with their colorful spines and intriguing covers. It was an interesting exercise to see which authors took off and which languished on the shelf. Some authors who might write multiple series had one series prove popular while another did not. This phenomenon especially interested me.
Cozies have specific hooks related to the story's geographical location, main character's occupation or hobby, presence of cats and/or dogs. Which of these most influence readers? I will always reach for the book with a cat or dog. If it's set on an island or seashore, even better. Add a bookstore or a library to the mix and that title goes to the top of my stack. Every reader has a similar list of requirements, I'm sure.
I can only hope I manage to tick off a few of their boxes when my own first cozy mystery joins the new bookshelf in May. There's a library, but no bookstore, a river but no island, and the cat won't show up until Book #2.
A Menacing Brew (Fire Star Press, May 2020) introduces Barbara York and her daughter Amy, the most amateur of sleuths. If Barbara hadn't found her old friend from college dead when she and Amy arrive at his house upstate for a visit, these two women as different as chalk-and-cheese would never have relied on or trusted one another. But knowing the police think the death is murder and that Barbara, the heir to the estate, is in the picture as prime suspect, they set aside their differences and work together to solve the mystery.
During their investigation, they meet many residents of the small town, Kirkwood. (Small towns are a cozy staple, of course.) Some of the citizens are happy to talk, while others remain tight-lipped.
Does the mysterious death of a student decades ago factor in to this latest crime? Does another death a century ago also play a part? And will Amy's parents, divorced for years, reunite in their grief over their lost friend?
Eventually, all these questions have answers, and finding my way to those answers was a joy.
I have sometimes read irritating articles about authors who have had plots spring to them complete, in a dream. Why does this never happen to me? I always think.
It still hasn't, but with A Menacing Brew, I can honestly say both Barbara and Amy showed up fully formed. They are so different from each other and so different from me that every writing session was an entertaining revelation. Having finally overcome my pantser instincts, I had actually made an outline. Even so, we were soon off track, and I was reduced to watching the action unfold while I took dictation.
Does writing get any better than that? Those magical, aha moments when some incidental little something added on a whim is revealed thousands of words later as a linchpin. The twists in a plot I swear my conscious mind never produced. The spark of life created by characters interacting in genuine ways, like real people I know. This is why I write, and why I always will.
I'm looking forward to seeing more of Barbara and Amy as I give them a second puzzle to solve. It will be fun to see who joins them, there on the shores of Pulaski Lake, and how their lives unfold in their new hometown.
When I began my job at the library, newly graduated from college with a degree in English and several failed novels in a box under my bed, I dreamt of the day the library shelves would hold my own work.
A Menacing Brew is my sixth novel, following five romantic suspense titles, so my books have actually been in our stacks for a while now. But to me, every book feels like the first one. In a way, this one really is. My first cozy will be there beside those of my own favorite authors on the new book display!
Then, before we know it, the publishers' catalogs will arrive, full of fall releases, ready for librarians to order and patrons to read. I'll wear out another highlighter circling titles of cozy adventures, wishing I had time to read them all. Could there ever be such a thing?