Agatha “Best First” nominees share their favorite research tidbits


Ellen: Last year, I was lucky enough to be nominated for an Agatha Best First Novel Award, along with the wonderful Julie Hennrikus, Cindy Brown, Tessa Arlen, and Art Taylor, who took home the prize for On the Road with Del and Louise: a Novel in Stories. This year, I jumped at the opportunity to host the nominees — Alexia Gordon, Nadine Nettman, Renee Patrick, and two of our very own Chicks, Cynthia Kuhn and Marla Cooper — on the second stop of their “Best First” blog tour. Welcome, talented debut authors. What’s the most interesting story or fact you found while researching your book?

Marla Cooper — Terror in Taffeta (Minotaur Books)

terror in taffeta

Two words: Tequila Donkey. I was at a party telling a friend how I was writing a book about a destination wedding set in San Miguel de Allende, and she told me she’d actually been to a destination wedding in San Miguel de Allende. Of course, I wouldn’t let her go refill her drink until she’d told me everything. I ended up setting the wedding in Terror in Taffeta at the same former convent, and I even used the detail of filling the old stone fountain in the center of the courtyard with flowers. But the part of her story that really got my attention was the Tequila Donkey. It’s a tradition in San Miguel for wedding parties to parade through town in a processional led by a tequila-laden burro. The donkeys are often festooned with flowers, and sometimes they wear hats, but their main purpose is to provide tequila for the celebrants. The moment she told me that, I knew it had to go into the book.

Alexia Gordon — Murder in G Major (Henery Press)

g-minorI learned a lot of Irish slang while researching Murder in G Major, a lot more than I could include in the book and still have it be intelligible to American readers. Some of the words crept into my speech. Bollix, gobshite, and feckin’ gowl are three of my favorites. True confession: I’m a fan of colorful insults. Irish slang has a certain ring to my American ears that U.S. slang lacks, probably because it’s unusual over here. Use Irish slang in America and no one knows exactly how much you’ve insulted them.

Cynthia Kuhn — The Semester of Our Discontent (Henery Press)

semester-of-our-discontentFor The Semester of Our Discontent, I researched collegiate secret societies. It was genuinely fascinating to learn about the elaborate rituals, relics, and symbols in the different kinds of secret societies that exist. Some of the more famous ones include Skulls and Bones (upon which the thriller The Skulls is focused) and Cambridge Apostles, but there are many other such societies out there. Of course, I can’t say anything about what I discovered because, you know, they’re secret.*

Ultimately, I turned the volume down on the secret society in Semester to better match the overall tone of the book. But I will confess that I still miss the earliest draft’s red capes, which were very satisfying from a visual (and fairy-tale-nod) perspective!

*This article shares some very interesting details, however.

Nadine Nettmann — Decanting a Murder (Midnight Ink)

51yyvhbgvvlAlthough the winery in Decanting a Murder is fictitious, I mention it was one of the few wineries in California to survive Prohibition. Prior to Prohibition, there were more than 2,000 wineries in the state but after the repeal in 1933, less than 100 remained. Most of the ones that made it survived by producing sacramental wines for religious purposes. A surprising fact to me was that while many wineries closed, home wine production increased as it was legal during Prohibition—and still is today—to produce 200 gallons of wine a year for personal use. I don’t currently make wine, but it’s nice to know it’s an option!

Renee Patrick (Rosemarie and Vince Keenan)— Design for Dying (Forge)

91-skfzi-wl-__bg0000_fmpng_ac_ul320_sr212320_When you’re building a novel around a real-life person, as we did with Design for Dying and the legendary Hollywood costume designer Edith Head, you constantly encounter interesting, unexpected facts from that individual’s life. We went into our research with an impression of Edith based on the image she created and carefully cultivated. We saw her as a rather severe, no-nonsense woman, her dark hair pulled back in a signature chignon, dressed in a carefully tailored monochrome suit and, of course, her ever-present glasses. It was all too easy to picture this former teacher in schoolmarm mode, wagging a finger at an untucked blouse or crooked stocking seam. But as we investigated her life, we found tantalizing hints of the real woman behind the persona. Photographs of Edith at home show her with her hair in long braids, wearing the bright, colorful Mexican patterns she loved. While reading her personal papers at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library, we discovered a cache of correspondence Edith had saved from her husband, the Academy Award-winning production designer Wiard “Bill” Ihnen. They’re sweet letters, full of shared nicknames, stories about what the couple’s cats are up to in Edith’s absence, and most striking of all, pressed flowers. Our image of Edith as an all-business, even stern professional woman softened. She understood the benefits of a well-crafted public image. Having glimpsed past that image to the woman beneath, we strove to make our Edith Head as complex and as real.

Congratulations to all the nominees!

16 thoughts on “Agatha “Best First” nominees share their favorite research tidbits

  1. Thanks so much for sharing these great stories with us! Nadine, I heard on NPR that one reason there was a lot of home winemaking is this… Grape growers cleverly labeled their product with a warning: don’t do the following steps or you’ll end up making an alcoholic product. So don’t ferment the grapes and press them and… well, you get the idea. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I had someone ask me if the tequila donkey was a real thing. I don’t think I could have made something like that up! (Well, okay, I could have, but I would have thought that no one would believe me!) 🙂


  2. Ellen, thanks very much for hosting us.

    Firsts, wow, interesting stuff! I wish we could put them all together into one place: like a Prohibition-themed wine party with Edith Head-designed wardrobes attended by Irish-slang-spouting secret-society members and, of course, Tequila Donkey. That could be a thing, right?

    Liked by 2 people

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