Episode 56: V.M. Burns

I peeked over the stairs and saw my sister Jenna’s reflection in the glass. I considered ignoring it and sneaking back into my office until my cell phone started vibrating in my pocket. My family and the Borg from Star Trek had a lot in common. Both demanded complete assimilation and resistance was definitely futile. 

— V.M. Burns, The Plot is Murder

I am so excited to interview debut author V.M. Burns. Her new cozy series begins with The Plot is Murder, as her protagonist, Samantha, starts a new chapter in her own life and opens a mystery bookstore.

Valerie herself is starting a new chapter as a published author with this book, and she’s taking the publishing world by storm. Four books in this series are slated for publication over the next two years. In addition to that, she’s launching a second series about murders in the dog club arena through Kensington’s e-book imprint. In the Dog House, the first in the series, comes out in August of 2018. And if you, like me, did not know what Conformation is, the American Kennel Club is happy to tell you.

Not content with two series, Valerie has a third one coming from Camel Press in July of 2018. Travellin’ Shoes is the first in a series of cozy mysteries where all the titles are from Negro Spirituals. Each book includes unique and original soul food recipes that provide a taste of the African American culture depicted in each book. Oh, be still my heart — and tummy!

You don’t have to wait to find recipes from Valerie: her website already features several recipes, and more are to come. The Plot is Murder also has an eccentric community and Valerie talks about developing the characters, especially Nana Jo, a vibrant woman of a certain age with a circle of equally-intrepid older women friends. Finally, Valerie gives a shout out (in both The Plot is Murder and in the interview) to her favorite writers: Rex Stout, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy Gilman. There’s just so much to love here.

We also both give a big squee of love to Kellye Garrett’s debut, Hollywood Homicide. You can check out my interview with Kellye here. As I write this, Hollywood Homicide has just been named one of BOLO Books Top Reads of 2017. Woot!

As always, if you’d rather read than listen, the transcript is below.

Enjoy!

— Laura

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Transcript of interview with V.M. Burns

Laura Brennan: My guest today is author V.M. Burns, whose debut cozy, The Plot is Murder, launches a wonderful new series about starting over, chasing dreams, and — of course — murder.

Valerie, thank you for joining me.

V.M. Burns: Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.

LB: How did you get started writing?

VMB: I think it just came naturally from my love of cozy mysteries. I think for anybody who reads cozy mysteries as much as I do, you probably start thinking, boy, it would be really great if there was a series about — blah, blah, blah. Or, boy, I wish that series had ended differently and it had gone in this other direction. And then you just start going there. And eventually, you just sit down and say, well, you know what? Maybe I could write that. And then you do.

LB: So, The Plot is Murder is the first in your Mystery Bookshop Series.

VMB: Yes.

LB: For someone who hasn’t yet had the pleasure of picking it up, what would we need to know about it in order to follow our conversation?

VMB: This first book,The Plot is Murder, introduces the reader to the protagonist, Samantha Washington. Samantha is in her mid-30s and she has been a hard-working individual her whole life, her and her husband, Leon. He was a cook and she was a high school English teacher. But they always had this dream of opening a mystery bookstore. One day, Leon dies. He’s diagnosed with a terminal illness and he dies. And they realize that life is short, and it’s too short not to follow your dreams. So he convinces Samantha to take the insurance money and sell their house and to follow her dream.

So she does, and she opens a mystery bookstore in their small town in Michigan. Opening a mystery bookstore was the dream that they both shared, but she also had a dream, and her dream was to also write British historic cozy mysteries. So in addition to starting the mystery bookstore, she also in her spare time starts writing.

In this series, the reader will have two mysteries to solve. They’ll have the story within the story, which is that British historic cozy that she’s writing. And then there’s also a mystery that she will need to solve in her own life.

LB: I love that you talk about her chasing dreams because chasing dreams really is a theme that runs through it for a lot of the characters. It is a cozy and, as many cozies do, it has a wonderful community of characters. And one of my favorites is Dawson.

VMB: Yeah, I think that dreams are, I think because it’s important to me, following your dreams, and so I think I must be channeling that into my writing. So Dawson has a dream of playing professional football, but then he also discovers something else he enjoys, which is baking. And so he gets to explore his dream along with Samantha exploring her dream. And she and her husband never had children so having him in her life also fulfills something that was missing for her.

LB: So, let me pick up on that. Chasing dreams is important to you. So was writing this book a real dream for you?

VMB: Oh, my God yes. I have dreamed about writing cozy mysteries probably for — it feels like forever, but it’s probably been for at least 15 or 20 years. And The Plot is Murder is my first book that being published, but it’s not the first book that I wrote. So I got lots of rejections and I just kept writing. So seeing this book get this far and finally get to be a real thing is actually a dream come true for me.

LB: The other thing that I think runs through this is the idea that people are more than you expect them to be. I mean, I think it’s true of Dawson. I love how you play with the stereotype of the dumb jock, and he turns into this multilayered, interesting character who loves football but he’s a damn good baker. And I love that. And you also do that with many of your older characters. So let’s talk a little bit about Nana Jo, because I’m in love with Nana Jo.

VMB: I love Nana Jo, too. I think that those characters probably came from a period in my life when I first graduated from college. I worked at an area agency on aging. So I’m about 22, 23 years old and I’m working for an organization that supports senior citizens. My secretary was 85 and my data clerk was in her 60s, and so I’m surrounded by all these seniors who are not what you would traditionally think of as senior citizens. These were people who were vibrant and energetic and feisty. And so I think, when I started writing, I wanted to portray that and to expose people to some very interesting people. So I think I pulled characteristics and traits from a lot of different people that I came into contact with to create, hopefully, an interesting cast of characters.

LB: Well, I love it. I love her family and how, even if they don’t necessarily understand her choices, nonetheless rally around her.

VMB: And I think that that is, again, probably true of my own life and of a lot of people that I know, is that it’s basically what families kind of do. You stand by each other and you support them. You may not understand every choice that they make and you may not necessarily agree with them, but you’re there for them and you’re there in case they fall. I have been fortunate enough to have a supportive family and some friends who are like family to help me especially through this dream. I’m sure it seemed very crazy to my family that, oh, I’m going to go back to school and get another Master’s degree and learn how to write mysteries.

LB: Where did the mystery within a mystery idea come from?

VMB: That comes from — I love cozy mysteries. I love reading cozies, and I love the fact that with an amateur sleuth your hands aren’t tied. As a writer, I’m not tied down to what a police officer or someone who, a lawyer, can do and can’t do. So with an amateur sleuth, the sky’s the limit. They can go where they want to go, breaking the houses, break all the rules. So I love that about cozy mysteries.

What bothers me as a reader sometimes is when I need the practicality. I need to have my protagonist have some practical reason why they’re going and doing these things. And so when I originally started the idea of writing this book, my intention was the only murder was going to be in the book that she was writing. So that’s why I had The Plot is Murder as the title, because this is going to be all about, she’s writing about murder. So it wouldn’t take me out of the story so much and think, boy, there sure are a whole lot of dead people in the small town. Everywhere she goes there’s going to be somebody who’s going to get killed. Because it’s all fiction. It’s all what she’s writing.

And at some point I thought, that’s not going to be very entertaining for readers to just read about somebody whose writing about cozy. I thought, wow, wouldn’t it be cool if I had two murders in every book. And that way the reader has two murders to solve. And it just sort of went on from there.

It seemed like a good idea at the beginning, but then now that I’m a few books in as far as writing, not necessarily getting them out published yet, but it’s like, boy, now I’ve got two murders I’ve got to solve in every book. So that’s the challenge.

LB: And you have a whole other lovely cast of characters that we’ve fallen in love with to juggle.

VMB: Yes, I do because the British cozy mystery that she’s writing, I wanted it to be the traditional, British cozy manor house mystery. So we’ve got Lord William and Lady Elizabeth Marsh and their nieces Daphne and Penelope Marsh, and their neighbor Victor Carlston and his friend James. And then the servants come into play as well.

It allowed me to include a lot of the things that I really love about cozy mysteries and hopefully the readers won’t take them to seriously and they’ll realize it’s supposed to be humorous. Some of it does seem very traditional or maybe cliché, but I think I was kind of going for that because I really love the historic British traditional manor house mysteries.

LB: I think you and Samantha, your protagonist, both. She’s a devotée of the Golden Age mysteries. You’ve got homage to Rex Stout and Agatha Christie and Mrs. Pollifax.

VMB: Those are all my favorite writers. All of them.

LB: You mentioned you had written other books. One of the series I noticed that you have up on your website, although is not yet available for sale, is about dogs.

VMB: Yes. So, when I wrote this series for Kensington, they asked if I would be willing to do another series for their e-book press, and that was Lyrical Underground. So I submitted a proposal for a dog club mystery and they accepted it. So I just sent my first draft — my first draft is due to my editor in, I think, a few weeks. It’s not available yet, but one of the things that, when I lived in Southwest Michigan, which is where The Plot is Murder is set, I belong to a dog club. And I use to compete in agility and obedience competitions with my dogs and so I met a lot of really interesting people at the dog club and competing a dog shows. I was never good enough to travel and be on television but I met some really, really cool people. And learned a lot about dogs and dog shows and all the different competitions that there are.

So that’s what that series is going to be about is a lady who, she’s getting divorced from her husband and she has a friend who is really into dogs and shows dogs in conformation. And she gets into that world, she gets her first dog. So you’re going to find a lot about different dogs and different dog competitions in that book.

LB: That is a whole new world for me. I did not know the term “dog club” existed.

VMB: There are a lot of dog clubs and I actually started because I got this toy poodle who had so much energy, she was driving me crazy. And I needed to find a way to burn off some of that energy. A friend told me about agility, which, if you’ve ever seen the obstacle course, dogs going through the obstacle course on television, that’s what dog agility is. And so we started doing that and it allowed us both to learn a lot and get rid of some energy and meet nice people.

LB: Yes. Some of whom you’ll be killing off in In The Dog House.

VMB: [Laughter] Yes. Unfortunately, yes.

LB: That’s great. I’m looking forward to that. And then you have another — you are so prolific! You have yet another series coming out next year. The first one in that, the working title is Travellin’ Shoes. Do you want to tell me a little bit about that series?

VMB: Yes, that’s actually the first book that I wrote. And when I decided to go back to school to get a Master’s in Writing Fine Arts to learn how to write mysteries, that was my thesis project. I call my Mama B series, but it’s actually the, RJ Franklin is the protagonist. Again, it gets to my need to have some practical aspects to a mystery so I thought, similar to the Patricia Wentworth series where you have a detective, but also working with an amateur sleuth. So his godmother is sort of the church gossip and he is the detective. When there’s a murder that takes place in the church, then they are not going to talk to him as a police officer. Nobody really wants to get involved. But they’ll go to Mama B and they’ll sit on the front porch and they’ll sip tea and they’ll tell her all the gossip. So he knows if he wants to really know what’s going on, he just needs to go and hang out on Mama B’s front porch.

All of the titles in that series come from Negro spirituals, and the cool thing is, one thing that’s kind of common with cozies is having recipes in the book. And so there are soul food recipes included in that series, in the books.

LB: It also has a male protagonist, which, while that was very common with Golden Age mysteries, it has become very, very uncommon with modern cozies.

VMB: It has, and actually I’ve had people question whether it actually could be considered a cozy because, A) I have a male protagonist and, B) because he is a police officer. And so, you know, I think it has a cozy tone to it and definitely a lot of characteristics of a cozy. It will have a distinct cast of characters that will be recurring characters throughout. Pretty much everyone you meet in the first book is going to be included in one way or another, similar to a community theater — they’re going to be featured in future books. So you kind of get the introduction to them in the first book, Travellin’ Shoes, but then in future books you will see more of their story.

LB: So, a couple of things that this apart. Your protagonist is a detective and he’s a man, but there also aren’t lot of cozies featuring African-Americans.

VMB: There aren’t. You know, it’s hard to know when you’re just starting out if the reason that your book is rejected is because, A) you’re not a good writer, or B) that they don’t want to male protagonist, or C) that you’re dealing with people of color. And they may not feel that they can sell diverse books. And so it’s really hard, I think, to — when you think about the typical audience for cozy mysteries, it tends to be the exact opposite of African-American males.

LB: Right.

VMB: So that can make it a little challenging to find a home. But I was very fortunate to find a publisher that was willing to take a chance on it, so I’m hoping that the series does well and that maybe moving forward we will see more people of color and more diversity in cozy mysteries. Just as there are in life. You know, you want to see your next-door neighbor or the people who live across all from you. And so, hopefully — I just finished Kellye Garrett’s Hollywood Homicide and it was hilarious. So hopefully people will take a chance on the book and find that they love it, and then you’ll see more of them.

LB: I just had the pleasure of interviewing Kellye about Hollywood Homicide. And so I will link to her book in your show notes as well.

VMB: Awesome. It’s a fantastic book.

LB: Oh, my god, I love that series. I noticed that in, certainly in the Mystery Bookshop series and also in the Dog Club mysteries, one of your themes seems to be starting over.

VMB: Yeah, I think that starting over is something that is important and it kind of falls along the same lines as following your dream. I spent a lot of time in a job or doing things that, you know, you just, you don’t love. And sometimes you get into a rut. You think, oh, I’ve got to keep doing this even though I’m not happy. With my writing, I think it’s an opportunity to start over and to pursue your dreams, and helping people to recognize you don’t have to continue the path simply because it seems logical or because you’ve invested time in that already. That it’s okay to start over.

LB: I also want to mention, you have yet another series, your fairytale cozies. Once Upon a Murder, is that the only one in it so far?

VMB: So far it is, and I have not placed that yet. You know, when I was going through trying to get any of my books published and find a home for them, I decided, you know what, this is a lot of pressure. I just want to write something fun. And so I thought, well, what would be fun is if you had a fairytale cozy. And so Red Riding Hood and her brother Robin have to solve the mystery of who killed Little Bo Peep. I just wanted something that was fun and entertaining and yet cozy. And this one I guess would fall into that category because it has a female protagonists and a lot of the characters that you read about in classic fairy tales make an appearance.

LB: I love that. It sounds so charming. Would you consider self-publishing it?

VMB: I might at some point if I can’t find anybody that is interested in publishing it. It could be something that I would consider self-publishing.

LB: For your others, you have the Kensington book, The Plot is Murder, and then you have a second book in that series coming out just a few months.

VMB: April, yeah. I write pretty quickly. I decided that writing is what I want to do so I need to make time for that, so I try to treat writing like a job, a full-time job, and be disciplined and just sit down and do it. I set goals, writing goals, and I try and write. So fortunately for me I’ve been able to write relatively quickly, which has enabled me to get a lot of books done.

LB: So you have Read Herring Hunt, which is Samantha second adventure coming out in April.

VMB: In April.

LB: And then you have the debut Travellin’ Shoes coming out —

VMB: July.

LB: Coming out in July. Then you also have your Dog Club mysteries coming out in e-book form next year.

VMB: In August, yes.

LB: Oh, my gosh! Next year is just going to be the banner year for you!

VMB: I know! I’m so excited.

LB: 2018! 2018, The Year of Valerie Burns. I’m totally going with that.

VMB: That works for me. I just hope people enjoy the books so I get a reason to keep writing them and keep spending time with these characters.

LB: They can enjoy the books and they can also enjoy your recipes. So you’re going to have soul food recipes in Travellin’ Shoes and that entire series. But you also have recipes on your website.

VMB: I do. I thought it would be really cool to have some recipes that don’t show up in the book, that maybe I talk about. And then hopefully I will have readers who will send me some of their recipes. One thing I noticed when I was reading the copy edits for The Plot is Murder and Read Herring Hunt was that I include a lot of food in my books. And I think part of it may be because I was actually on a diet when I was writing and so is probably obsessing about food a little bit more than normal!

I think that at some point I might include some of the recipes that Dawson makes on the website.

LB: Please do. I would love his scone recipe. Please do. That would be fantastic. So, what is next for you?

VMB: Next for me, I am still writing. I’m working right now on book for in the Bookshop Mystery series. I think it’s going to be writing, writing and more writing. And that just makes me so excited because that’s what I love. I love writing, I love mysteries, so that’s it. Writing.

LB: Fantastic. Valerie, thank you so much for joining me.

VMB: Thank you. I appreciate you spending time with me.

 

 

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