Chicks Book Club: The Study of Secrets

Welcome to Chicks Book Club!  Please feel free to ask any questions you have about the book, the series, the characters, the writing process, the research, or anything you’re curious about. 


The Study of Secrets (Lila Maclean Academic Mystery #5) 

There could be nowhere more fitting for English professor Lila Maclean to spend her sabbatical than in a proper Victorian mansion. The whimsical Callahan House seems to have materialized from the pages of the mystery novels she is researching, with its enchanting towers, cozy nooks, and charming library. Unfortunately, it also features a body in the study.

Residents of Larkston have long believed that the Callahan family is cursed—the murder on the estate sets the town buzzing. Wild rumors are fueled by a gossipy blogger who delights in speculation, and further crimes only intensify the whispers and suspicions. A newly discovered manuscript, however, appears to expose startling facts beneath the fictions. When Lila steps in to sort the truth from the lies, it may cost her everything, as someone wants to make dead certain that their secrets stay hidden.

“Kuhn earns top marks with The Study of Secrets, her best academic mystery yet. Heroine Lila Maclean uncovers secrets both old and new, the most exciting revealed to her at the very end. Outstanding!” — Margaret Mizushima, author of the award-winning Timber Creek K-9 Mysteries

Available from Henery Press in bookstores and online:
Amazon  Barnes & Noble  Bookshop  IndieBound  iTunes  Kobo

Visit this page to learn more about the series!


Thanks for joining us–please drop your question in the comments below. 🙂

58 thoughts on “Chicks Book Club: The Study of Secrets

  1. Congratulations, Cynthia. I love the Lily Maclean series!
    As I mentioned before, I got a taste of university academic life while working at the University of Toronto for 4 years, so I have a soft spot for academic-related mysteries.

    I will start with a couple of (hopefully) easy questions, Cynthia.

    1) Is Callahan House based on a real place?
    2) Do you believe in haunted/cursed houses? and;
    3) What is your most interesting sabbatical story?

    Looking forward to seeing the other questions and discussions to follow!

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Hi Grace: Thank you so much–and am thrilled that you have enjoyed the series!

      1. Callahan House is not based on a real place. I would like to go there, though, if I could.

      2. Yes. (More the haunted than the cursed part.)

      3. This one is difficult–much of my 2014 sabbatical was sitting at a desk and writing, which is probably not that interesting. However, I did attend my first Bouchercon that semester, which was so exciting I wrote a blog post about it here. > https://mysteristas.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/i-was-a-bouchercon-newbie/

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Thanks, Cynthia for your answers and for sharing your 2014 Bouchercon post.
        I was also at the Long Beach Bouchercon. Sorry you ended up with blistered feet! Yes, comfortable shoes are a necessity at these events, and for exploring the host city. I wish I had met you there!

        Liked by 3 people

      2. Cynthia, that it is tough to pick a favourite part of the LB Bouchercon. You remember it well since it was your first one but it’s all a blur to me, having gone to over 20 Bouchercons by then. Soooo, I had to look up the LB program. That year was unique since the Bouchercon & LOC committees incorporated the separate Men of Mystery event that normally takes place annually in Irvine, CA in the fall as a session at Bouchercon, So picture over 65+ male mystery authors at the same session. I was in heaven!

        Liked by 3 people

      3. Oh, I forgot about that! I went to the Women of Mystery event scheduled at the same time, which was glorious. And you’ve been to over 20 Bouchercons? WOW. Very impressive.

        Liked by 2 people

    2. Yes, my first Bouchercon was in Toronto in 1992, and have only missed 2 (or 3?) Bouchercons since then. I wish I had attended the Women in Mystery session but that’s one of the problems with Bouchercon that you highlighted in your blog post. Too many interesting sessions happening at the same time!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Congratulations Cynthia and thank you for taking the time to book club!

    Unlike many sleuths, Lila grows and changes. How do you pace longitudinal storylines like love life or promotion/tenure throughout the series? Do you write what feels natural for a particular book allowing for organic growth… or do you steadily plot allowing for a perfect build? Or something else!?!

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Hi Etta: Thank you–and thank you for coming to chat today!

      It’s more on the natural side, as the books are taking shape–although when I’m writing one book, I’m jotting down ideas for the next book, so it seems both somehow organic and anticipatory at the same time. By the time I get to the next one, it’s been marinating. 🙂

      However, I will confess that I completely rewrote the ending to The Study of Secrets after the first time I submitted it to the publisher! No spoilers but let’s just say that I realized the situation needed to be changed to reflect how she’d changed.

      Liked by 4 people

    1. Hi Marla: The ones with whom I have discussed it have been wonderfully supportive! (And I am still so grateful to the ones who showed up at the first launch party, which I was convinced no one in the universe would attend, at a local bookstore.) Thank you. 🙂

      Liked by 5 people

      1. Supportive coworkers ARE the best!!

        How about your coworkers?

        Ooh, now I’m interested in hearing from everyone who has a “daytime situation,” to quote Dru Ann. Do they acknowledge/not acknowledge your writing?

        Liked by 3 people

      2. I never published anything until after I quit the day job, but some of my former coworkers turned out to be very supportive. One of them told everyone about my books. Another emailed me my first year of publishing to tell me how much she enjoyed my books. Her message blew me away, mostly because we weren’t particularly close when we worked together and I never really expected to hear from her again after we stopped working together.

        Liked by 3 people

  3. Great questions already! I’m wondering if Isabella Dare is based on a real person. Is she someone you’ve come across in your academic research (or your reading for entertainment) that you want to study in your real life?

    Liked by 6 people

      1. Interesting! It’s so much fun when you drop some seemingly unimportant acorn that grows into some gigantic oak tree! Not that Isabella was unimportant, but her importance was different than you thought. Very cool!

        Liked by 3 people

  4. Loved the book. Without giving away too much, what prompted you to take the romantic direction you took? Was it the plan all along or did the direction evolve as you wrote the series?

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thank you, El! When I read mysteries, I am more interested in the mystery than in romance, so I initially thought I’d write a series without any romance whatsoever. The characters, however, had different ideas, as there were some sparks between them that emerged I was writing. (So much about the actual creative process seems inexplicable.) And then there were more sparks and before long, there were two candidates. This may sound ridiculous, but I didn’t realize that there may in fact be a love triangle until I was well into the books. Then how that was going to be resolved was something I struggled with perhaps more than anything else in the series. Some of you kindly listened to me go in circles about it, thank you. 🙂

      More on that here > https://wickedauthors.com/2019/07/29/a-wicked-welcome-to-cynthia-kuhn-2/

      By the way, I hope it’s okay to add links in my answers–I keep remembering the blog posts and thought they might be helpful if anyone wanted fuller answers!

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I love the links, Cynthia! They are all working together, like a fun puzzle (not that you are a puzzle, or anything, but it’s fun getting all the extra little insights into both the stories and your personal writing process.

        Liked by 4 people

  5. Oh my GOODNESS! I love this book!!

    In addition to a fabulous plot and premise, the relationships and characters are so layered and authentic. How do you develop realistic, relatable characters? How do make their interactions feel genuine while at the same time advancing the plot?

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Oh, thank you, K! What very kind descriptions!

      While I do understand the purpose and motivations of the characters upfront, the rest mostly develops through the writing process itself. Drafting is what gives me a stronger sense of how they think/move/speak/behave, especially in relation to the other characters, then deep revision allows for sharpening, adjusting, and expanding.

      Though no matter how well we know a character, they can surprise us, right? A few times with the later books, I would be writing a scene with one of the regulars and something would emerge that made me say: Oh, I did not know that!

      Liked by 4 people

  6. I can’t wait to read this one. I’m okay if there’s a spoiler slip. I read so much I’ll forget.
    But I do have a question about your writing.
    How do you decide on the clues? And the red herrings? And how to plant them so they are accessible to the characters, but no ‘in your face’ for us readers. That seems like such a hard thing to do. Planting clues and red herrings.
    And do any of these things ever have to change because you ended up changing the direction of the book?

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Everyone’s questions are so great, wow. (And thank you and I hope you enjoy, Hestia, when you give it a read)!

      It’s difficult! I know some people have specific methods for ensuring that the clues and red herrings turn up in the right number and place, and I very much admire that. For me, though, they tend to develop organically during the draft and are refined during the revision phase. I add more of everything during those many passes…and yes, if the direction of the book changes, they have to change too.

      Pulling on one major thread of the book typically means a total review and rework, at least for me. It’s painful. Probably other people are better at it!!

      By the way, endings are something we talk a lot about in the mystery course I teach…here is one tiny musing! > https://chicksonthecase.com/2017/04/12/endings-and-undoings/

      Liked by 3 people

  7. As you know, I so love this book—and your entire series, Cynthia! Yay!

    Here’s my question: You’re an English professor who’s a mystery writer, writing a story of an English professor who’s writing a book about an English professor who’s a mystery writer. How much of your own life is woven into the story, and did it get confusing disentangling the real world from that of your book?

    And for a related question, is Isabella Dare inspired by or modeled at all on Amanda Cross?

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thank you, Leslie! And HA, it’s all pretty meta, isn’t it?

      Although aspects of academia are depicted or satirized in a way that is true to life, and although Lila teaches what I teach, not much (if any?) of my own life is woven in. From the beginning, I wanted a purely fictional campus and characters and events.

      And no, Isabella Dare isn’t modeled on anyone, BUT Amanda Cross is an inspiration in a personal sense: in the 90s, during grad school, I frequented a used bookstore, where I came across a battered copy of Death in a Tenured Position. Read it, fell instantly in love with academic mysteries and began to read as many as I could find (starting of course with the rest of her fabulous Kate Fansler series). It was beyond exciting to learn too that Amanda was a pseudonym for Carolyn G. Heilbrun, a ground-breaking professor of English whose writing we had studied in class!

      More on the real-life issue here, including a realization that happened *during* my actual promotion interview is here (when the book still had its original title): https://typem4murder.blogspot.com/2015/07/cynthia-kuhn-nothing-like-here.html

      Liked by 5 people

  8. I loved this book! I admire that you created a new setting for this one, a departure from Lila’s home campus. And yet you incorporated many of the usual cast of characters, which gave us a vivid picture of Leah’s growth over the series. Kudos! Please tell us more about your process when creating the new setting. What did you have in mind to start and how did it develop?

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you so much, CT!! Super happy that you enjoyed it!

      The setting was a progression: I started simply with the idea of her being in a different town on sabbatical, which I had decided to do at the beginning of the series, then the guesthouse location emerged while I was writing book four. When I began to imagine what Bibi’s backstory was more fully while writing book five, Callahan House became more real in my mind’s eye! 🙂

      Btw, will there be a new Penningtons soon? LOVE that series!

      Liked by 3 people

  9. Dear Cynthia, Congratulations on your latest publication! May it be as big a success as your previous ones :). My question is: How much of a series arc do you visualize before or as you develop the original character? For example, do you envision/hope for a five book series and jot down a general five book arc of overarching character development for the sake of consistency and story line management? Thanks and best of luck! Ruth

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Hi Ruth: Thanks so much! At the beginning, I was focused on writing the just first book. Then about two years into the writing (it took me four years to finish it!), I went to a workshop and had a critique session with a publisher who asked me if it was a series. That night, I went home and made a chart, trying to imagine how a series might work and I actually did put five on there, which seemed like an impossible number to imagine writing at that point. (I didn’t know, either, that series contracts might come in twos or threes. Five was as many ideas as I had so I put down five.) For each book, I came up with one topic related to academia that I wanted to explore. Then I thought about concurrent issues or milestones that might happen in Lila’s life. Just one phrase for each book in each category. That very abbreviated map has stayed in the back of my mind, though her life has gone in different directions than I’d imagined upfront. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  10. Cynthia, I think this is my favorite book in the series! I’m curious, did you always plan to bring to “real” life a character who had been alluded to throughout the series, or was that an idea that developed as the series evolved? Either way — brilliant!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Hi Vickie! Thank you so much. And no, I did not plan to bring her to life…in the beginning, my plan was to say that Lila studies someone named Isabella Dare and leave it at that! Then as the series went on, it became more complicated the closer that Lila got to publishing her study of Isabella’s work because there are permissions to be sorted out before she could publish her scholarship with extensive quotations (as well as any new edition, which she dreamed of doing).

      This blog post explains more about Isabella’s growth as a character: https://donnellannbell.com/1602-2/

      Liked by 3 people

  11. Like everyone else, I loved this book!

    Here are my questions:
    1. Callahan House is so vividly imagined. Did you draw up a floor plan to visualize the layout?

    2. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that the long-time residents of Larkston have intertwined histories. Were those characters or histories inspired by real life in any way?

    3. Lila’s mom pops in a for a little bit, and I love her eccentric character. Is she based on someone you know?

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thank you, Jen!

      Yes, I drew a floor plan! In fact, I have mapped all of the major locations in the series, including the whole Stonedale Campus. Though while I’m visual, I’m not an artist, so they more are like cartoon doodles than anything else.

      1. Okay, now I realized that I should have said in response to Leslie’s question is that the one thing drawn from my real life is the layout of Lila’s tiny bungalow. Forgot about that until just now! I couldn’t remember if she was supposed to turn right or left or what when I was writing the first book, so I just gave her that space. And now it’s sort of nice to revisit via the books. 🙂

      2. No. I always feel like I’m letting people down when I say that they weren’t inspired by anything…it would be far more interesting to have a cool story!!

      3. Violet is not based on anyone I know but I love writing her. She just gets more and more over the top in every book!

      Liked by 5 people

      1. I agree with Jennifer about Callahan House. That is why I asked whether it was based on a real house…creating the floor plan is a great visual tool.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. I’ve loved every one of the Lila books–and especially this one! Cynthia, you’re probably the most modest author I know, but the language in your books is just beautiful. I especially enjoy the perfectly balanced details throughout, and often wish I could be a fly on the wall in one of your English classes! So I’m wondering, what do your students think of having an award-winning mystery author as their professor? Do they ask you about your writing or books, or do you keep that side a little bit “secret”? Have you been interviewed for your campus literary mag, or alumni magazine, or appeared for signings at your campus bookstore? If so, what kind of questions do they ask you? Do any students want you to read their short stories or novels or unassigned writing?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you very much, Lisa! *wipes tear*

      Some students know, some don’t. But I’ve had numerous long discussions, especially at the request of students who have their eyes set on publishing their own work. And yes, I was interviewed by the school and literary magazine–much to my surprise! The questions were focused on the series as well as general writing activities. No, there hasn’t been any signing event there, though some people have brought their copy of a particular book to school and asked me to sign it, which I was honored to do! And yes, I have often been asked to read unassigned writing since I started teaching. In the past, I was able to do it a great deal, but now I am juggling so many deadlines (among teaching, parenting, and writing), it’s almost impossible to add anything else.

      Liked by 4 people

  13. Cynthia, I love the Lila books and so much enjoyed your panel at Left Coast Crime! There are so many things to admire in your writing, like the subtle use of 1st person POV so that Lila isn’t I-ing herself all over the place. Plus the matter-0f-fact diversity represented in the ensemble characters fosters genuine inclusivity. Was that intentional or just a testament to your world view coming to life on the page? And I wonder how you are going to move ahead with the series, assuming that there are more Lilas to come, in our constantly evolving “new normal” world? Will campus have to deal with social distancing and on-line learning, or will you proceed in the world as we all knew it pre-Covid? Do you have plans for another series or a stand alone?

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Hi Pam: Thank you so much–appreciate the kind words, am so happy that you’ve enjoyed them, and I loved meeting you at Left Coast Crime!

      It’s both intentional and world view, if I’m understanding the question correctly! 🙂

      And I’m not sure about the social distancing etc. I’ve listened to writers on different discussion lists ponder that very issue and I still don’t know which way to go. I did find myself removing handshakes from my current WIP, though. How are you handling it?

      Re: another series and standalones, yes! How many books will there be in your series, btw? I have gotten about a quarter of the way into yours–I’m reading four books simultaneously, which I never do, so I’m making the slowest progress ever–but already wow, what a great voice you have.

      Liked by 2 people

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