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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

An Interview With V. M. (Valerie) Burns

by Grace Topping

Imagine after years of working to create a book and then years trying to get it published the thrill it would be for an author to have that book nominated for a prestigious award—the Malice Domestic Agatha Award for Best First Novel. That’s exactly what happened to V.M. (Valerie) Burns for her book, The Plot is Murder. It was a pleasure seeing Valerie interviewed and appearing on panels at the Malice Domestic Conference and to hear her talk about her journey to publication. Valerie’s book did not win the Agatha, but for anyone who knows Valerie or read her books, she’s a real winner. 

The Plot Is Murder

After Samantha Washington’s husband dies, she decides to quit her job as an English teacher and follow through with their dream of opening a Mystery Bookstore. However, when the realtor who listed the building for sale, and tried to stop Samantha from purchasing, is found dead in the back courtyard, the police think Samantha is a good suspect. With the help of her grandmother and her friends from the retirement home, Samantha sets out to find the murderer.

Opening a mystery bookstore is only one half of Samantha’s dream. The other half of the dream includes writing a historic British cozy.  This unique mystery series will include two mysteries – the one in the book, and the one being played out in real life.

Read Herring Hunt (second book in the Mystery Bookstore series)

MISU is undefeated thanks to Samantha Washington’s tenant, baker and local football hero, Dawson Alexander. When his ex-girlfriend, Melody Hardwick is murdered, Dawson is arrested. Samantha’s sister, and lawyer, Jenna Rutherford, agrees to represent Dawson. But it’s up to Sam, her grandmother, Nana Jo, and the girls from the retirement village to use their connections to find the real murderer. At jeopardy is more than just a winning season, a football scholarship, and Dawson’s freedom. Failure to catch the real killer could cost another life.

Welcome, Valerie, to Writers Who Kill.

The first book in your series, The Plot is Murder, was nominated for an Agatha. What was that experience like for you? Did it put pressure on you when writing the second book in your series?

V. M. (Valerie) Burns
Writing is a very solitary endeavor. I spent years writing but told very few people about my dream to get published. It was so personal and close to my heart that similar to my protagonist, Samantha Washington, I seldom shared that deeply personal thing with others. So, going to my first Malice Domestic event and hearing people say they read my book was terrifyingly splendid. Hearing them say they liked it was even more amazing. I am a long time fan of Agatha Christie and the nomination for the Agatha Award for Best First Novel was beyond special. When I told my sister, I cried like a baby. Thankfully, book two released a few days prior to the Agatha Awards, so I didn’t feel the nomination added any pressure.

In your Mystery Bookshop Mystery series, each book has a mystery within a mystery. It’s like having two books in one. What’s the story behind this?

Initially when I imagined this series, my intent was that the only mystery would be the one my protagonist was writing about (hence the title, The Plot is Murder). I thought it would eliminate the issues where one amateur sleuth continues to encounter dead bodies in a small town. There’s a reason Jessica Fletcher moved outside of Cabot Cove. However, I wondered if that would be enough for cozy readers. Cozy mystery readers may want more, so I thought, what if…what if there were two mysteries. 

The mystery within a mystery is set in England between the wars. Why England and why this time period?

I LOVE reading British historic cozies and manor house mysteries. I’ve also always been fascinated with that time period between the two wars. I admire how even though the British people were weary after WWI and few people wanted to engage in another war, there were people like Winston Churchill who saw the dangers of allowing the Nazis to go unchecked across Europe. I admire the vision and the resolve it took to fight alone for so long. There were so many stories of bravery and sacrifice that I wanted to include in my stories.

Your main character, Samantha “Sam” Washington, is a former teacher, bookstore owner, and aspiring mystery writer.  What made her leave teaching to run a bookstore?

Sam and her husband, like most of us, were hard working people. They lived paycheck to paycheck to make ends meet. They hoped one day to be able to get ahead and pursue their dream. Before that happened, Leon died, and Sam realized life is short, too short to waste the precious time we have. So, she quits her job as a high school English teacher and pursues her dream.

Sam always dreamed of owning a bookstore. Do you have the same dream?

Yes. My dream is to own a mystery bookstore and to write cozy mysteries.  So far I’ve gotten to pursue half of my dreams. 

Nana Jo, Sam’s grandmother, is a feisty character. Does she resemble any people in your own family?

Nana Jo isn’t based on anyone in my family. However, she is a mixture of a lot of people. My first real job after college was working as a planner for an Area Agency on Aging. I got an opportunity to meet a lot of interesting, vibrant senior citizens. My secretary was 85 and she was definitely feisty. The office manager was a bit of a flirt who liked to drink, dance and gamble. So, Nana Jo is a mixture of a lot of different people.

Nana Jo and members of the Sleuthing Senior Book Club come to Sam’s aid in identifying a killer. These senior citizens are up to the challenge. What do you say to editors who keep pushing for younger characters? 

The population is aging. Just because someone gets older doesn’t mean they can’t still be interesting and active. 

You have a BA in Political Science and Urban Studies, MS in Administration from Notre Dame, and an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill. Yet you turned to murdering characters. What prompted you to write mysteries? 

I’ve read and enjoyed mysteries for more years than I care to remember. Throughout that time, I’ve often wished for mysteries about... Eventually, I gave up hoping someone else would write those books and decided maybe I could write them.  

Tell us about your journey to publication? Was the road smooth or full of hurdles?

My journey to publication was long. The Plot is Murder was my debut novel, but it wasn’t the first book I wrote. My first mystery, Travellin’ Shoes was written in 2009. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I just put the story down on the page. I sent out query letters and got a ton of rejections. One day I was reading the biography of one of my favorite writers, Victoria Thompson. I’d read her biography before, but this time something was different. She mentioned she was an adjunct professor at Seton Hill University. I had never heard of Seton Hill and had to look it up. What I discovered was that Seton Hill offered an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. It was a low residency program, so I applied. It was probably the best decision I ever made. I learned how to write and rewrote Travellin’ Shoes. Still, I got rejections. While I was waiting, I decided to write about this other idea I had about a woman who owned a mystery bookshop and wrote British historic cozies, The Plot is Murder. I still received a lot of rejections, but I kept writing and sending out queries. Eventually, I got an agent and not long afterward, I got my first publishing contract. 

In addition to the Mystery Bookshop Mystery series, you also write the Dog Club Mystery series, featuring Lillian Echosby. Tell us about that series. 

Many people know that I love dogs, especially poodles. One thing people may not know about me is that I competed in performance events (obedience and agility) with my dogs for many years. The Dog Club Mystery series will be an eBook only series that draws on my experiences competing. This series features a woman who is experiencing a lot of life changing events. When her husband of 25 years leaves her for a younger woman, Lillie decides it’s time to find her “happy place.” She reconnects with Dixie, her best friend from college, a dog enthusiast and Southern Belle, and decides to move to Eastern Tennessee to start her life over. When her husband is murdered, the police believe Lillie is the most likely suspect. She has to find the real killer if she’s ever going to move forward. 

As if two series weren’t enough, the first book in a third series, Travellin’ Shoes, came out July 1, 2018. Please tell us about RJ Franklin. This series will have a male protagonist. How was it writing from a male perspective?

I chose to write Travellin’ Shoes from a male perspective to challenge myself. It really has been a challenge. Feedback from my first drafts indicated my detective was a little too sensitive.  I’ve had to work on finding a balance and looking at situations from a different perspective.

You credit the power of books in helping you get your groove back. Please tell us about that.

With three series, I have a lot of deadlines. Plus, the last few months were extremely busy. In addition to a new job, I bought a house and moved. Writing through all of that was difficult. At times it felt like I was scraping the words out of my head with a dull spoon. I pushed through, but it was a challenge. I was surrounded by boxes, which I deemed a lower priority than writing. One day when the words were elusive, I decided to take a break and tackle unpacking a few boxes. I was amazed how getting my books unpacked energized me and helped me find my creativity again. 
How is it balancing the writing and promoting of more than one series?

I like to plan my time, so I think staying organized helps me find time to write and promote. I set a goal of writing 7,500-10,000 words per week, which equates to 1,000 – 1,500 words per day.  I set aside time (mostly on weekends) for blogs and other promotional activities. I don’t know that I’ve mastered promotion or writing. However, I’ve found a system that works for me.

In Travellin’ Shoes you include soul food recipes. How would you describe soul food? Do you do a lot of cooking yourself?

Soul Food, as I describe it, originated from the slave tradition in the southern United States. It characterizes meals prepared from ingredients that were inexpensive or derived from items that would have otherwise been discarded. One example is turnip greens. The turnips were grown and prepared for the slave owners. The leaves from the turnips were considered scraps that would have been discarded. Instead, the slaves figured out a way to cook them so they were a tasty and nutritious meal. I don’t really cook a lot. I have to be in the mood to cook. When the planets are perfectly aligned and I have all of my tools, then I will cook up a storm. I enjoy baking, but I spend much of my life on a diet, so I don’t do it often.

What’s next for Samantha Washington, RJ Franklin, and Lillian Echosby?

Good question. Samantha is coming out of mourning and is finally opening herself up to a new life, new adventures, and maybe a new relationship. RJ is recovering from an accident that caused a crisis of faith. He is rethinking his career as a cop and looking to see a different side of life. Lillie and her furry companion, Aggie, are ready to start over and go in search of their “happy place.” 

Thank you, Valerie. It sounds like you’ve found your “happy place.” Congratulations.

Visit Valerie’s web site to read more about her and her books:
Also, look for her books at your favorite local book store or on Amazon.

Travellin’ Shoes

When the choir director at a local church is bludgeoned, shot, and set afire in the mayor’s neighborhood, Detective R.J. Franklin is pulled in to investigate. But nothing is as it seems on this case. Not even the victim is who he claimed to be. With very little information to go on, R.J. sets out to catch a killer.  With a lot of help from his colorful godmother, Mama B, his partner and a new love interest, R.J. has to follow the trail and solve the murder before the murderer kills again.


Abir said...


Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Congratulations on your Agatha nomination! Looking forward to reading your books, snuggled up with my two standard poodles.

Annette said...

Welcome to Writers Who Kill, Valerie. And congratulations on the Agatha nomination. It is a surreal experience, isn't it? I'm in awe of your ability to juggle three series. It's all I can do right now to keep up with one!

Grace Topping said...

Thanks, Valerie, for the terrific interview. It was a pleasure getting to meet you at Malice.

Deb Romano said...

Valerie, congratulations on your nomination! I read and loved The Plot is Murder. It's one of those books that left me wanting to see more of the characters. You have a follower in me, and I want to read your other series, too.

Warren Bull said...

Three series? Wow. You are one organized lady.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Valerie, it's so lovely to see you here at WWK! Congratulations on the Agatha nomination. I'm sure it's just the first of many such. And super congratulations on your three series. To sell that many is an accomplishment, but even more so is the successful writing of them. You're a bit of a superwoman, I suspect.

carla said...

10,000 words per week is IMPRESSIVE! You sound quite disciplined.

Shari Randall said...

Hi Valerie! So much fun to see you here. I think you are superwoman! Congratulations on your series and your nomination!

Gloria Alden said...

Congratulations, Valerie on your Agatha. Your books are ones I want to read.

V.M. Burns said...

Thank you, Alamgir Hossainm, Margaret Turkevich, Annette, Grace Topping, Deborah Romano, Warren Bull, Linda Rodriguez, Carla Damron, Shari Randall, and Gloria Alden. I appreciate the comments, well wishes, words of encouragement and general support. Writing can be a lonely endeavor and it is so uplifting and motivating to get such positive responses. Special thanks to Writers Who Kill for the invitation to hang out. I appreciate it.

KM Rockwood said...

Thanks for sharing so much information with us!

Marilyn Levinson said...

Valerie and Grace,

Enjoyed your interview. Valerie, I still can't understand how you can work and write THREE series. Interesting to know you handled dogs in dog shows. Great setting for a fourth series.