I first met Valerie (aka V.M. Burns) when I invited her to join ’17 Scribes, a group of authors with their debut novels coming out in 2017. With both of us being black and writing amateur detective novels, we became fast friends.
So I was thrilled when she let me read an advanced copy of her debut, The Plot is Murder! (Full disclosure: I may have begged just a tad.) It came out yesterday and it’s amazing. Library Journal described the characters as “refreshingly witty and robust, with formidable connections and investigative skills.” Since I loved the book so much, I couldn’t wait to interview her for Chicks.
Kellye: Hi Valerie. Thank you so much for agreeing to talk with us. Let’s get started. How did you get the initial idea for The Plot is Murder?
Valerie: Thank you so much for this opportunity. Similar to my protagonist, Samantha Washington, I dream of owning my own mystery bookstore. In fact, several years ago I actually attempted to purchase a building in Michigan. I ran into a realtor who caused me a great deal of anguish. Eventually, I gave up. It was therapeutic for me to write the book and have the realtor who thwarted my dreams murdered. So, the moral of this story is, people who are mean to me may recognize themselves as a murder victim in one of my books.
Kellye: I actually just purchased something for my office that reads “If you were in my novel, you’d be dead by now.” so I definitely relate. And that explains one of my favorite moments in the book, which is when Samantha—who is an aspiring mystery writer—she points out that she’d “unconsciously taken bits and pieces of people I knew and turned them into characters in my fiction.” Besides that awful realtor, did you use any other real life people as inspiration? I’m especially curious about Samantha’s grandma Nana Jo and her crew of partying and investigating seniors.
Valerie: I tend to “Frankenstein” my characters. I take one person’s laugh, another’s manner of speaking and someone else’s sense of humor and meld them together to create a fictionalized character. As for Nana Jo and the girls, they were inspired by people I met at my first real job. I worked for the Region IV Area Agency on Aging, in Michigan. My job involved going to organizations the Area Agency funded to determine their compliance with federal, state and local regulations. During the course of my site visits, I met a lot of vibrant, energetic, sassy senior citizens who liked to party and have a good time. They were a wonderful group of people with great stories to tell and a network of family and friends. They’d lived long enough that they were completely uninhibited and had a real zest for life. I wanted to capture that spirit with my sleuthing sidekicks.
Kellye: It sounds like my grandmother would have totally fit in with them! Another thing that I loved was that you get a two-for-one deal where we not only have the present day mystery but we also get to read Samantha’s work in progress that takes place in England between the two world wars. I’ve probably read hundreds of mysteries and this is the first time I’ve seen that. How did that idea come about?
Valerie: I knew I wanted to write about a woman who wrote British cozy mysteries. Initially, the only mystery would be the one my protagonist was writing, hence the title (The Plot is Murder). I felt that would solve the problem I sometimes have reading cozy mysteries where the protagonist encounters a lot of dead bodies. It would be natural for the bodies to exist only in the plot of a book. However, I wondered if that would be enough intrigue and thought it would add more interest if the protagonist also had a mystery to solve—two mysteries in every book, one contemporary and one British historical.
Kellye: As you already know, I’m a bit jealous because you might be the most prolific writer I know. You have three series coming out in the next year, including one with Camel Press and another with Lyrical/Kensington. How do you find the time to write so much and what advice do you have for aspiring mystery writers?
Valerie: I’m going to tackle the last part of that question first. My advice to aspiring mystery writers is to WRITE. Don’t wait for the planets to perfectly align, for your dream publisher to come knocking on your door, or for the day you hit the lottery and can afford to quit your day job and stay home and write full time. If you want to be a writer, you need to write. Don’t worry about getting the grammar or the formatting perfect, just get the words on the page. You can always edit later, but you can’t edit a blank page. That’s my secret.
Being a writer is my dream, and I decided to treat it like a full time job. I set a weekly writing word count goal of 7,500-10,000 words per week—that’s roughly 1,000-1,500 words per night. When I get home from work, I write. When I got rejections, I just kept writing. It took a lot of time and persistence, but eventually, I was able to find publishers for the three series, which will release in 2018.
Kellye: Nice. I was actually just speaking with a good friend who sent me a saying that if you write five pages a day for five days a week, you’ll have a finished novel in three months. We made a pact to try that with our next books. You’re clearly a cozy mystery fan so who are some of your favorite series and why?
Valerie: I love cozy mysteries. My favorite authors are Agatha Christie, Victoria Thompson, Patricia Wentworth, Rex Stout, Emily Brightwell, Dorothy Gilman, Laurien Berenson, and Jill Churchill. I like clever books that have humor. I love whodunits where I can pit my wits against the protagonist’s and try to discover whodunit before the sleuth.
Kellye: Jill Churchill was one of the first authors I read once I discovered cozy mysteries as a teen. Final question, where can people meet you online or in person so they can learn more about the Mystery Bookshop series?
Valerie: I am doing a Facebook event for the 12 Slays of Christmas Thursday, November 30th from 7-8 EST. You can find more information here: https://www.facebook.com/events/122185258461170/.
On December 28, I will be participating in Beyond the Bookmarks, Cozies, Crime, Community & Christmas Facebook event. Info is here: https://www.facebook.com/events/154046095340794/
The best place to find information about other books in the Mystery Bookshop Mystery series or any of my other mystery series is on my website. Book descriptions and release dates are available at: www.vmburns.com.
Kellye: Great! Thanks so much for stopping by, Valerie!
About The Plot is Murder:
The small town of North Harbor on the shores of Lake Michigan is about to have a new mystery bookstore. But before the first customer can browse its shelves, the store’s owner is suspected of her own murder plot . . .
Samantha Washington has dreamed of owning her own mystery bookstore for as long as she can remember. And as she prepares for the store’s grand opening, she’s also realizing another dream—penning a cozy mystery set in England between the wars. While Samantha hires employees and fills the shelves with the latest mysteries, quick-witted Lady Penelope Marsh, long-overshadowed by her beautiful sister Daphne, refuses to lose the besotted Victor Carlston to her sibling’s charms. When one of Daphne’s suitors is murdered in a maze, Penelope steps in to solve the labyrinthine puzzle and win Victor.
But as Samantha indulges her imagination, the unimaginable happens in real life. A shady realtor turns up dead in her backyard, and the police suspect her—after all, the owner of a mystery bookstore might know a thing or two about murder. Aided by her feisty grandmother and an enthusiastic ensemble of colorful retirees, Samantha is determined to close the case before she opens her store. But will she live to conclude her own story when the killer has a revised ending in mind for her?
Valerie Burns was born and raised in South Bend, Indiana.
She graduated from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Political Science and Urban Studies. Valerie later went on to get a Master of Science in Administration from the University of Notre Dame and a Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University.
Valerie currently lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee with her two poodles. She is represented by Dawn Dowdle at Blue Ridge Literary Agency. You can find her online at: