Ellen here! I recently happened upon V.M. Burns Mystery Bookshop Mysteries, and was hooked. V.M. does something that I’m awed by. She writes a mystery within the mystery. Her protagonist Samantha Washington aspires to be a mystery novelist. As she’s solving mysteries in the present, she’s writing her own mysteries, set in 1938 England.
I was so intrigued by this feat that I asked V.M. if I interview her for a Chicks post about how she manages to write two great, very different, mysteries at once…
You write a total series within a series. What a f—king brilliant idea!! How did you come up with it? And explain to readers how it works. LOL – Thanks Ellen. I love cozy mysteries, but sometimes even a hard-core cozy lover like me can become frustrated by the implausibility of an amateur sleuth becoming entangled in so many murder mysteries. My original idea for the Mystery Bookshop series was the entire murder would be in the book my protagonist was writing. That’s where the title, THE PLOT IS MURDER came from. In my mind, it seemed much more believable if my protagonist was simply writing about a mystery. However, I worried that cozy mystery lovers would be disappointed if the murder mystery was only in the book my protagonist was writing. That’s when it hit me. What if, there were two mysteries? What if there was a mystery the protagonist was solving, AND a mystery she was writing?
Samantha Washington and her husband, Leon, always dreamed of one day owning a mystery bookshop. When Leon dies, Sam realizes life is short. So, she quits her job as a high school English teacher, sells her house, buys a building and opens a mystery bookshop. However, owning a bookshop was only one of Sam’s dreams. She also dreamed of one day writing a British historic cozy mystery. So, each book in the series includes both the contemporary mystery that Sam is dealing with in her real life along with the British historic cozy mystery she is writing.
One series is historical and set in another country: England, 1938. The other is contemporary and set in Michigan in the present. What inspired each premise? Just like Samantha, my dream is to one day own a mystery bookshop and write British historic cozy mysteries. When I first started writing this series, I was living in Southwestern Michigan in a town located on the shores of Lake Michigan. The area is beautiful, especially in the summer months. So, I chose that location for Samantha’s base. I love British historic cozy mysteries. I’ve always been fascinated by the time period in between World War I and II, especially from the standpoint of Great Britain. History tells us that the allied nations were weary after the devastation of WWI and none were anxious to get involved in another war with Germany. There was a big movement toward “appeasement” in an effort to prevent another war. Despite the opposition (and there was a lot of it), there were people like Winston Churchill who foresaw what was coming and had the courage to speak out. There are so many examples of average men and women who demonstrated tremendous feats of bravery as members of the French and Polish resistance, S.O.E (special Operations Executive), and code breaking at Bletchley Park, as well as those who participated in fostering children and helping families escape. I was so inspired by those stories that I wanted to honor them in some small way.
How do you write both series simultaneously? Do you approach each the same way? Do you pants one and plot the other? What’s your process? As much as I wish I were a plotter, I’m not. I write by the seat of my pants for both stories. I start each book with a general idea of what will happen. I know the characters and I have a victim, but often don’t know the killer until the end. I want there to be some type of connection between what’s happening in Sam’s real life and the story she’s writing. So, I usually start writing the contemporary mystery. When Sam (or I) gets stuck, she’ll usually start writing the British historic cozy. Writing her British historic cozy helps her sort through the clues and almost always helps her to solve the contemporary mystery.
Do readers ever share with you that they prefer one over the other? Actually, yes. Readers have shared that they prefer either the contemporary or the British historical mystery better. Recently, I attended the Virginia Festival of the Book and a woman told me that her husband skipped the British historic cozy entirely and only read the contemporary mystery. Fortunately, my editor came up with the idea to change the font for the British historic cozy, so that makes it easier for readers who want to skip around. I’ve also had readers suggest that I write an entire book featuring just the British historic cozy mystery.
The mystery within the mystery of READ HERRING HUNT revolves around the Duchess of Windsor. It felt like it was inspired by a real situation. Was it? I read and watch a lot of documentaries. When I was writing READ HERRING HUNT, I had recently seen a documentary about Wallis Simpson and Edward the 8th and found their story fascinating. I knew the basics, that Edward the 8th fell in love with a twice divorced American, Wallis Simpson and abdicated the throne when he was not permitted to marry her by the British Parliament. However, I had no idea that Edward the 8th’s abdication was probably the best thing that could have happened for England and for the world. During my research, I learned a lot about Wallis Simpson and her personality. I tried to bring that into my story.
Full disclosure: with READ HERRING HUNT, I got so into the 1938 mystery that I read it first! Then I went back and read the chapters following the present-day mystery. Do other readers admit they do this? I have heard from a few readers that they will read one or other of the mysteries first. Or, skip one completely. Fortunately, with a historic cozy and a contemporary, there should be something for everyone.
BOOKMARKED FOR MURDER, the 5th Mystery Book Mystery, releases November 26th.
Amateur sleuth Samantha Washington’s shopping trip to Chicago takes a deadly detour when a man is murdered on her bus . . .
After some post-Christmas retail therapy in the Windy City, mystery bookshop owner and historical whodunit novelist Sam Washington is returning home to North Harbor, Michigan, on a chartered bus. With Nana Jo and her gal pals Irma, Dorothy, and Ruby Mae from Shady Acres Retirement Village along for the ride, it’s a lively trip. But one passenger is not so lively—a gentleman Irma befriended is found dead in his seat after an unscheduled stop. The ladies immediately shift gears to find out who punched his ticket, while Sam slips into the driver’s seat to make sure Nana Jo and her crew steer clear of fatal conclusions . . .
BIO: V.M. (Valerie) Burns was born in South Bend, Indiana and spent many years in Southwestern Michigan on the Lake Michigan shoreline. She is a lover of dogs, British historic cozies, and scones with clotted cream. After many years in the Midwest she went in search of milder winters. She currently lives in Eastern Tennessee with her two poodles. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Dog Writers Association of America, Thriller Writers International and a lifetime member of Sisters in Crime. She is the secretary of her local chapter of Sisters in Crime (The East Tennessee Smoking Guns) and the Education Grants Coordinator for the national Sisters in Crime. In addition to the Agatha nominated Mystery Bookshop Mystery Series, she also writes the DOG CLUB MYSTERY SERIES, and the RJ FRANKLIN MYSTERY SERIES.
Readers, How about you? Are you a fan of contemporary or historical mysteries, or do you enjoy both? Let us know in the comments.