What goes on behind closed doors doesn’t always stay there…
Calamity—Callie—Barnstable isn’t surprised to learn she’s the sole beneficiary of her late father’s estate, although she is shocked to discover she has inherited a house in the town of Marketville, a house she didn’t know existed. But there are conditions attached to Callie’s inheritance: she must move to Marketville, live in the house, and solve her mother’s murder.
Callie’s not keen on dredging up a 30-year-old mystery, but if she doesn’t do it, there’s a scheming psychic named Misty Rivers who is more than happy to expose the Barnstable family secrets. Determined to thwart Misty and fulfil her father’s wishes, Callie accepts the challenge. But is she ready to face the skeletons hidden in the attic?
Author Judy Penz Sheluk is on Moving Target today to tell us what lurks behind Skeletons in the Attic, her second mystery. It was released by Imajin Books on Sunday.
Judy, what is it about the cozy sub-genre that appeals to you?
I wouldn’t call my first mystery The Hanged Man’s Noose (2015, Barking Rain Press) or Skeletons in the Attic traditional cozies. Yes, both have amateur sleuths as protagonists and both are set in small towns, but my idea of a true cozy includes cats, crafts and cookie recipes, or variations thereof. I refer to my mysteries as “amateur sleuth with an edge.”
Hanged Man’s Noose and Skeletons in the Attic are set in small towns. What do you like about small-town settings?
The insular nature of small towns allows the setting to become a character. Add to that the common perception that everyone in a small town knows everyone else’s business—when, in fact, we all have secrets—it is the perfect storm for murder and mayhem!
You give a lot of setting details in Skeletons. How important is setting to a mystery novel?
Hugely important. As a reader, we have to suspend our disbelief—how many murders could there possibly be in Cabot Cove, and yet we still watched Murder She Wrote week after week. If the setting isn’t believable, that disbelief gets stretched beyond reasonable boundaries.
What inspired Skeletons?
I was sitting in my lawyer’s office with my husband, Mike, waiting to draw up new wills. Our lawyer was delayed in court, which gave me plenty of time to think: what if I wasn’t here drawing up a will? What if I was here for the reading of a will? The story developed from there. But the opening scene in Skeletons is directly culled from the experience of waiting in my lawyer’s office.
Are any of its characters based on real people?
No, although most of my characters are composites of people I’ve met or known.
I’ve had readers tell me they were certain that I based my Pat Tierney protagonist on them. Have readers ever told you they know the real-life counterparts of one of your characters?
Someone once said that Emily Garland (the protagonist in The Hanged Man’s Noose) must have been based on me, because she is a journalist, and I’ve been a freelance writer for magazines and newspapers since 2003. But actually, her sidekick, Arabella Carpenter, the antique shop owner, is more like me in terms of personality (her motto is Authenticity Matters, and that’s also my belief). I also share her passion for shortbread cookies.
You’ve given a lot of thought to your character’s names—Calamity Barnstable, Misty Rivers and Leith Hampton in Skeletons. And Arabella Carpenter and Levon Larroquette in Hanged Man’s Noose. What do you look for in a character’s name?
They honestly just come to me. I jot them down in a notebook, then I Google the name to make sure they aren’t names of someone famous. For Calamity, I wanted a main character named Callie, but her mom was an old movie buff. I found a clip on YouTube of Doris Day playing a much-fictionalized version of Calamity Jane and singing Secret Love, and thought, “That would work. She was originally going to be Callie Barnes but there were a few Callie Barnes when I Googled that name, so I expanded the last name. A character’s name also has to suit his or her occupation and personality. [Here’s a link to the YouTube video, which is quite funny, and yes, the movie does play a part in the book: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fU8tQpCZEzg%5D
When Hanged Man’s Noose was released last year you said that you are a pantster when it comes to plotting. Did anything change in the way you put your second novel together? How did you go about it?
Still a pantster. I try to write a chapter a day, with one day off every week for good behaviour. I try to end each chapter with a hook so I’ll want to get back to working on the book the next day. And, of course, I hope that the hook will keep readers reading.
That hook will take me into the next chapter and possibly spark ideas for future chapters, but it’s all very fluid for me. I can honestly say that I usually don’t know whodunit until I’m near the end of the novel. At that point, I have to backtrack a bit to add some clues, but I’m still doing that in the first-draft stage. It’s probably not the most efficient way of writing, but it’s the only one that seems to work for me. I’ve tried working to a word count, I’ve tried NaNoWriMo. That made me feel as if I was back at my 9-5 job as a credit and collections manager (a depressing job if there ever was one). So the chapter-a-day strategy works for me. Sometimes that’s 600 words and sometimes it’s 2,000.
After the first draft, I “select all” and change my font colour from black to blue, changing back to black as I finish the editing. I find changing the colour helps me find things I might otherwise miss. Once I’ve finished the second draft, I have the manuscript printed at Staples. I read the manuscript and mark it up with notes/corrections because I see things differently in print. My husband also reads it, and he can spot a plot hole from 100 yards! But overall, the manuscript is usually pretty clean. There are revisions to make, but they aren’t major.
What was the best reader feedback you’ve received about Hanged Man’s Noose in the year that it’s been out?
There’s a review posted on Barnes & Noble by Lit Amri for Reader’s Favorite. I don’t know the reviewer and seldom check B&N, so when I stumbled upon it, it made my day. My favourite line in the review was, “I can easily imagine it as an enjoyable mystery TV drama.” Hello, Hollywood, are you listening?
Is Skeletons the first book in a series?
That’s the plan, although at this point I’m still noodling ideas around in my head.
With two mystery series in the works, how will you find the time to develop both lines?
Great question, given that I’m also senior editor of New England Antiques Journal and the Editor of Home BUILDER Magazine. I sometimes feel like there aren’t enough hours in a day or days in a week. But then I get writing and I get lost in the story. The chapter-a-day routine works well, too. I can almost always find time to write a chapter, especially since I tend to write short chapters of 700 to 1,000 words.
You’ve seen the release of two mysteries in the past 13 months. Is it necessary for an author to put out a book a year to build a readership?
I honestly don’t know. Probably. I know that if I like an author’s book, I’ll look for other books by that writer. I’m interested to see if sales from Skeletons will result in additional sales for Noose.
What have you learned about book marketing over the past year?
That it’s hard work. That it takes a lot of time; much more time than I expected. That the best efforts don’t always get results, but doing nothing isn’t an option. That attending writing conferences (I attended Bouchercon Raleigh in October 2015 and Malice Domestic in April 2016) is expensive and exhausting, but the connections you can make are priceless. That I can read out loud and/or answer questions from an audience without fainting or throwing up!
I’ve also learned that my favourite part of marketing is building of relationships with other authors, and trying to promote their work, whether by hosting them on my blog or sharing their news on Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest. It’s a win-win. Most authors will return the favour in some form, as you’ve done today. Thank you for hosting me.
Judy, all the very best for the success of Skeletons in the Attic!
Judy’s short crime fiction has appeared in World Enough and Crime (Carrick Publishing) and The Whole She-Bang 2 (Toronto Sisters in Crime). Judy is also a freelance journalist, specializing in antiques and the residential housing industry. She lives in a small town north of Toronto.
Follow Judy on One Writer’s Journey, where she blogs about her writing and interviews other authors.
You can purchase Skeletons in the Attic on Amazon.