Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for January include: (1/5) Jennifer J. Chow, (1/12) Amy Pershing, (1/19) Heather Weidner, (1/26) Marilyn Levinson.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

An Interview with the 2018 Agatha Nominees for Best First Novel by Paula Gail Benson

Malice Domestic’s 2018 Agatha Nominations for Best First Novel:
Adrift: A Mer Cavallo Mystery by Micki Browning (Alibi-Random House)
The Plot is Murder: Mystery Bookshop by V.M. Burns (Kensington)
Hollywood Homicide: A Detective by Day Mystery by Kellye Garrett (Midnight Ink)
Daughters of Bad Men by Laura Oles (Red Adept Publishing)
Protocol: A Maggie O’Malley Mystery by Kathleen Valenti (Henery Press)

Micki Browning, V.M. Burns (Valerie), Kellye Garrett, Laura Oles, and Kathleen Valenti are enjoying having their debut novels celebrated this year at Malice Domestic. We are so pleased to welcome them to WRITERS WHO KILL to answer a few questions about their work. Thanks so much to Micki, Valerie, Kellye, Laura, and Kathleen, and best wishes!Paula Gail Benson

For many debut novelists, their first published novel may not be the first one they have written. What was your path to your debut published novel?

MICKI: Like many writers I wrote a couple of practice novels. I learned structure by constructing a story that didn’t hold together. I joined Sisters In Crime and took classes through their Guppy chapter. My second novel was better, but still not quite there, and I returned to the classroom. Dialogue classes taught me how to flesh out characters. During a plotting course, I had a structural epiphany that I used while I wrote Adrift. The effort paid off. Adrift garnered both Daphne du Maurier and Royal Palm Literary Awards. I met my agent through the Daphne contest and signed with her shortly after winning.

VALERIE: I had two ideas for mystery series when I started my MFA at Seton Hill University. I chose the other idea for my thesis, but finished early and started writing the second one. After graduation, I queried my thesis project and then completed THE PLOT IS MURDER. 

KELLYE: Hollywood Homicide is actually the first novel I wrote. Before you hate me forever, I’ve been a professional writer for over 15 years and have a ton of screenplays in a drawer somewhere. I swear! I got the idea for the book around 2011 when I drove past a Los Angeles Police Department billboard offering a $15,000 for information on a murder. I was dead broke at the time so my first thought was, “I should solve that!” Not the smartest idea—at least in real life. It did turn out to be a pretty cool idea for a book though. I wrote it on and off for a few years before finally finishing a decent draft in 2014. That same year I was lucky enough to be selected for an amazing contest called Pitch Wars, where I found my agent Michelle Richter of Fuse Literary. We sold the book to Midnight Ink in early 2016.

LAURA: I was fortunate in that my day job involved writing for digital photography magazines and publications, so the writing practice and working with editors had been part of my regular routine.  That said, for me, learning to write fiction was very different.  Fiction proved to be a vast universe, so full of options and opportunities.

DAUGHTERS OF BAD MEN is my debut novel but it is my fourth book. I wrote the first three novels as practice, working on character development and structure, plotting and pacing, practicing to become a stronger storyteller. My earlier attempts were done mostly for my own enjoyment, to better understand how a mystery novel works and how I should approach my own vision of it.

KATHLEEN: My path to publication for Protocol started at mile marker forty-something: a mini-midlife crisis in which I woke up one morning and decided that I’d put off my dreams of writing a novel long enough. Armed with books on craft and informed by writing seminars, I dove right in, expecting a smooth journey from concept to manuscript to publication. How hard could it be? I reasoned. I wrote for a living and was an avid reader and former English major. I had this whole novel-writing/book-publishing thing down, right?

Umm…not so much.

Although I had a clear idea of the story I wanted to tell, it took me nearly four years to tell it. After a host of revisions and murdering enough of my darlings to be classified as a linguistic serial killer, I finally had a book I loved and began to shop it around to agents. That’s where the real education began. I had oodles of requests to read, but they all ended in close-but-not-there responses. So I narrowed the gap to “there” and edited again (and again). Finally, success. Jordan at Literary Counsel loved the book as much as I did, took me on as a client and put Protocol out on submission. I got bites right away and said yes to Henery Press, a publisher I not only admired and respected, but that had a team that I knew would be the perfect fit.

Two years—and two-and-a-half books—later and I feel like I’ve arrived at my dream destination. It’s been an amazing journey and I’m so fortunate to have made some great friends along the way, including my fellow nominees for the Agatha Best First. I can’t wait to see where the road leads next.

Do you consider your writing plot-driven, character-driven, neither, or a combination?

MICKI: My writing breakthrough occurred when I learned to plot from the point of view of the antagonist, but write from the perspective of my sleuth. I realize this sounds like I’m a plot-driven writer, the truth is that I find it impossible to suss out the story until I know who my characters are and what motivates them. I’m really a combination writer, because plot springs from the characters and characters drive the plot.

VALERIE: My writing is definitely character-driven. I spend a great deal of time working out my character’s personalities, faults, likes and dislikes and the story and plot flows from that.

KELLYE: Probably a combo. I come from a TV writing background so I live and die by the plot twist. At the same time, the story is driven by the personality of my main character Dayna and her unwavering desire to do anything to save her family’s house from foreclosure. As an amateur detective, she doesn’t make the same investigative decisions that a Kinsey Millhone or Elvis Cole would make—and that was one of my favorite things about writing it. Book Riot featured Hollywood Homicide in their Read or Dead podcast earlier this month and one of the things they said was that if you or I was trying to solve a crime, we’d be bumbling through it like Dayna—which was my goal.

LAURA: I would say it’s a combination, but I lean heavily towards character-driven mysteries. I’m attracted to dialogue and setting, and creating the world where my characters reside has been one of the most enjoyable parts of writing this book.  I’m particularly interested in exploring the dynamics between two characters and how they respond when one is under pressure.  How does that impact their relationship, their ability to work together?  The plot is also incredibly important.  I just believe that understanding the characters well helps me explore the storyline more deeply and make the stakes more personal. Jamie Rush and Cookie Hinojosa lived in my head for a long time before I understood which case they would choose--and why.

KATHLEEN: I’d consider Protocol a plot-driven, character-motivated story. Outside influences start a cascade of events for my protagonist, Maggie O’Malley, but it’s her responses and inner motivators that keep the action—and the energy—going. It’s a system of action and reaction in which the story’s events and Maggie’s responses propel the story (and hopefully the reader) forward. Ultimately, however, it’s Maggie’s story. If the crises had happened to anyone else, Protocol would be a very different book.

What would your protag’s Olympic sport be?

MICKI: Scuba diving isn’t yet an Olympic sport, so that’s out, plus it’s winter. I’m going to guess freestyle skiing. Mer’s never skied before, so anything before she crashed would definitely be freestyle!

VALERIE: If Samantha Washington was in the Olympics, she’d strap her grandmother, Nana Jo to her back and compete in the biathlon. That way Sam could do the cross country skiing and Nana Jo could shoot.

KELLYE: When chasing a suspect, Dayna says, “I always said I could run in four-inch heels. It was good to know I was right on that front.” So her Olympic sport would be the 100 meter dash…in stilettos. She’d get gold for sure.

LAURA: If Texas hold ‘em were an Olympic sport, Jamie Rush might medal.  She’d have a shot at the gold simply for her ability to bluff.

KATHLEEN: Maggie’s Olympic sport would be freestyle skiing. She’s athletic, all about doing her own thing, and ready to leap into action when the occasion calls for it.

Thanks to you all for joining us at WRITERS WHO KILL. Here’s some additional information about these talented writers:

Micki Browning
A retired police captain, Micki Browning writes the Mer Cavallo Mystery series set in the Florida Keys. In addition to the Agatha nomination for Best First Novel, Adrift, has won both the Daphne du Maurier and the Royal Palm Literary Awards. Beached, her second novel, launched January 2018. Micki’s work has appeared in dive magazines, anthologies, mystery magazines, and textbooks. She lives in South Florida with her partner in crime and a vast array of scuba equipment she uses for "research." Learn more about Micki at

Summary of Adrift
Marine biologist-turned-divemaster Meredith Cavallo thought adjusting to a laid-back life in the Florida Keys would be a breeze. But when the host of a ghost-hunting documentary crew hires her as a safety diver and then vanishes during the midnight dive, Mer’s caught in a storm of supernatural intrigue.

Determined to find a rational explanation, Mer approaches the man’s disappearance as any scientist would—by asking questions, gathering data, and deducing the truth. But the victim’s life is as shrouded in mystery as his disappearance. Still, something happened under the water and before long, she’s in over her head. When someone tries to kill her, she knows the truth is about to surface. Maybe dead men do tell tales.

V.M. (Valerie) Burns
V.M. (Valerie) Burns was born in Northwestern 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 and currently lives in Eastern Tennessee with her poodles. Receiving the Agatha nomination for Best First Novel has been a dream come true. Valerie is a member of Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and a lifetime member of Sisters in Crime. Readers can learn more by visiting her website at

Summary of The Plot is Murder
Samantha Washington has dreamed of owning a 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?

Kellye Garrett
Kellye Garrett writes the Detective by Day mysteries about a semi-famous, mega-broke black actress who takes on the deadliest role of her life: Homicide Detective. The first, Hollywood Homicide, was recently nominated for Agatha, Lefty, and Barry awards. The second, Hollywood Ending, will be released on August 8, 2018 from Midnight Ink. Prior to writing novels, Kellye spent eight years working in Hollywood, including a stint writing for the TV drama Cold Case. The New Jersey native now works for a leading media company in New York City and serves on the national Board of Directors for Sisters in Crime. You can learn more about her at and

Summary of Hollywood Homicide
Actress Dayna Anderson’s Deadly New Role: Homicide Detective

Dayna Anderson doesn’t set out to solve a murder. All the semifamous, mega-broke actress wants is to help her parents keep their house. So after witnessing a deadly hit-and-run, she pursues the fifteen grand reward. But Dayna soon finds herself doing a full-on investigation, wanting more than just money—she wants justice for the victim. She chases down leads at paparazzi hot spots, celeb homes, and movie premieres, loving every second of it—until someone tries to kill her. And there are no second takes in real life.

Laura Oles
Laura Oles is a photo industry journalist who spent twenty years covering tech and trends before turning to crime fiction. She served as a columnist for numerous photography magazines and publications. Laura’s short stories have appeared in several anthologies, including MURDER ON WHEELS, which won the Silver Falchion Award in 2016. Her debut mystery, DAUGHTERS OF BAD MEN, is a Claymore Award Finalist and an Agatha nominee for Best First Novel. She is also a Writers’ League of Texas Award Finalist. Laura is a member of Austin Mystery Writers, Sisters in Crime and Writers’ League of Texas. Laura lives on the edge of the Texas Hill Country with her husband, daughter, and twin sons. Visit her online at

Summary of Daughters of Bad Men
Jamie Rush understands what it takes to disappear because her parents taught her that long ago. Leveraging her knowledge of why and how people run from their own lives, Jamie has built a business based on bringing those in hiding back to answer for their actions. She takes pride in using her skills to work both inside and outside the law.

When her estranged brother, Brian, calls and says his daughter is missing, Jamie initially turns down the case. Kristen has always been a bit wild, frequently dropping off the grid then showing up a few days later. But Brian swears this time is different, and even though Jamie vowed years ago to keep her conniving sibling at arm’s length, she can’t walk away if Kristen could be in real trouble.

As Jamie begins digging into Kristen’s life, she uncovers her niece’s most guarded secrets. Uncovering the truth will put a target on Jamie’s back and endanger the lives of those she loves.

Kathy Valenti
Kathleen Valenti is the author of the Maggie O’Malley mystery series. The series’ first book, Agatha- and Lefty-nominated Protocol, introduces us to Maggie, a pharmaceutical researcher with a new job, a used phone and a deadly problem. The series’ second book, 39 Winks, releases May 22. When Kathleen isn’t writing page-turning mysteries that combine humor and suspense, she works as a nationally award-winning advertising copywriter. She lives in Oregon with her family where she pretends to enjoy running. Learn more at

Summary of Protocol
Freshly minted college graduate Maggie O’Malley embarks on a career fueled by professional ambition and a desire to escape the past. As a pharmaceutical researcher, she’s determined to save lives from the shelter of her lab. But on her very first day she’s pulled into a world of uncertainty. Reminders appear on her phone for meetings she’s never scheduled with people she’s never met. People who end up dead.

With help from her best friend, Maggie discovers the victims on her phone are connected to each other and her new employer. She soon unearths a treacherous plot that threatens her mission—and her life. Maggie must unlock deadly secrets to stop horrific abuses of power before death comes calling for her.


Art Taylor said...

Such a fun and insightful set of interviews here! I particularly enjoyed the question about Olympic sports and some of the images there--especially Sam strapping Nana Jo on her back for a biathalon and the idea of 100-meter dash in stilettos!

Congrats to you all on being named finalists here and best wishes too!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so very much for hosting us on Writers Who Kill! It's been a pleasure getting to know my fellow nominees. Malice Domestic seems so far away, but I know it will be here in a flash, and it is truly an honor to be nominated for an Agatha Award in the Best First Novel category. I'm still pinching myself!

Shari Randall said...

Thank you all for this fun interview. I look forward to this every year, Paula!
Best wishes to all the nominees - my TBR pile just got a LOT taller.

Warren Bull said...

Fantastic interviews with these great writers.

Kathy Valenti said...

Thank you so much for having us, and for the warm welcome and best wishes. It's been wonderful getting to know my fellow nominees not just as writers, but as the amazing human beings that they are. I'm so lucky to know them!

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

congrats and best wishes to all!

Gloria Alden said...

Congratulations on your nominations. I can't wait to meet all of you at Malice and to buy your books there, too.

Bliss said...

Thank you guys again for hosting us and to everyone for the congrats! I loved everyone's answers!

Paula Gail Benson said...

I am so excited to meet and interview these folks each year. Thank you all for sharing such great information!

KM Rockwood said...

Thank you! I truly enjoy hearing about the nominees and their work!