Wednesday, April 21, 2021

An Interview with Agatha Nominee Grace Topping by E. B. Davis


When professional home stager Laura Bishop enters a competition to become the next TV home staging star, she figures it will be murder—but she doesn’t expect it to include a body. As tensions rise and rivalries rage, a coded notebook flips the script and Laura’s on the case.

But she’s not alone. Her closest confidantes pitch in by sleuthing, eavesdropping, and even staging a sting to protect those near and dear. Yet she’s still corralling a runaway teen, sparring with a handsome detective, and handling the shock of her life with a blast from her past. All while creating a cozy cabin retreat fit for first place.

Amidst constant cameras and glaring lights, Laura tries to style the stage and pull back the curtain on a killer before her career—and her life—get cut.


Grace Topping's first book in the Laura Bishop mystery series, Staging is Murder, garnered her an Agatha nomination. I hope Upstaged by Murder does as well because it was a well-plotted fun read. Although the above cover copy says Laura entered the competition, what it doesn't state is that her best friend Nita actually entered her into the competition without Laura's approval—a stressful situation. Readers have great sympathy for Laura from the first page. But that feeling only increases as the chapters fly by.


In the midst of competition and murder, Laura is side swiped by family history—more accurately—false family history. She has more reason to find the killer after learning the truth than she ever could have ever imagined. Somehow, Laura juggles the competition, a murder investigation, and emotional trauma simultaneously—of course, this is fiction. But what fun!


Please welcome my interviewing partner Grace Topping.                      E. B. Davis

Although Nita is well meaning, she puts Laura in a horrible position. What makes Laura decide to allow the entry to stand?


Nita and Laura have been friends since the second grade when Nita’s family took Laura under its wing. They are like siblings. So when Nita enters Laura in the competition, Laura knows Nita was looking out for her best interests. While Laura has no desire to become a TV celebrity, she realizes the publicity from being part of the semi-finals would be good for her fledgling business. Also, since Laura can take an assistant with her, she knows it would be good exposure for Tyrone Webster, one of her employees. While Laura wants her entry to win, she really doesn’t want to go on to the final competition—a real conundrum.



Aunt Kit doesn’t help. She says, “Remember, sometimes it’s the things in life we don’t do we regret.” But that doesn’t remind me of Laura, who had a successful IT career and gambled on making home staging her career, and she married, even though her parent’s marriage ended in divorce. Hers did, too, but she took the chance. Does Aunt Kit really know Laura?


Aunt Kit has lived away from Louiston for a number of years, so she hasn’t been around Laura much. Neither Kit nor her sister, Laura’s mother, had a sense of adventure. They were both always a bit fearful of change and had grim outlooks on life. Fortunately, Laura turned out more positive because of the influence of Nita’s family. It’s only now that Kit is spending more time with Laura that she is beginning to think more broadly and positively. So when she cautions Laura about regretting things you don’t do, she is speaking from her own experience of passing up opportunities.


When Laura meets Simon Tate, the show’s producer, and his field producer, Olivia Yeager, they seem passive aggressive at the very least. What are their problems?


They are in show business—a business that can be cutthroat at times. Competition abounds, and you are only viewed by the success of your most recent project. Simon is overheard talking about the need for the competition to do well because of his production’s poor ratings last season. They both know a lot is on the line with this competition, so the pressure is on.


Beth Crawford, the assistant producer, seems like one of the few normal people on the set, aside from the crew. She warns Laura to be careful without being specific. Later Chris Channing, a cameraman, also warns Laura to be careful—but about being cognizant of transmitting conversations while wearing a mike. Are there other hazards that Laura becomes aware of?


One of the worst hazards would be getting too caught up in the competition and with the desire to win. Some of the competitors are very secretive about their designs, afraid someone will steal their ideas or methods of dealing with the design challenges. Others have sabotaged their competitors. As one character says, “This isn’t always a nice business.”


I thought everyone in show business or at least acting had to be in the union. Is it because they aren’t actors? Because it’s an independent film company?


There are union productions and non-union ones. From what I’ve read, it mostly comes down to money. A production that wants to hire well-known actors, directors, film editors, etc., will hire union members. They usually have the most experience. If a production is on a tight budget and they aren’t looking for big names, they may go for non-union personnel—knowing that they sometimes will be getting what they pay for. It isn’t always easy for actors and others to get into a union. They must have specific experience to qualify.


How did you research the entertainment field, learning all the lingo, like knowing what a Lav was?


When you are faced with doing research for a book, you first look around at people you know who have worked in different fields. They are a terrific source of information and love sharing the knowledge they’ve gained working in that field. In my case, I was lucky to have a long-time friend who was a cameraman for one of the top Washington, DC, television networks. He gave me good information about filming, lighting, and sound recording. Another friend put me in touch with a member of the Sisters in Crime Guppy chapter who worked on an HGTV production. We had a long chat about what she had done and what I had in mind for my book, and I took lots of notes. Connecting with people is one of the most valuable aspects of belonging to writers’ groups such as SinC and Mystery Writers of America. The members are extremely generous with their help.


Laura doesn’t really want to win the competition, but at the same time she wants to prove her ability. What strategy does she take?


When a competitor has to drop out at the last minute, the production company is in a bind. They need someone to fill in immediately. Laura agrees to step in only to gain some publicity for her business, and to please Nita, who thinks it’s a wonderful opportunity for her. She also wants to help out the production company, which needs to start filming in two days. But at the same time, she knows if she wins the semi-final competition, she is obligated to go onto the finals. That would be time away from her business. And if she wins the finals, it could turn her whole life upside down, something she doesn’t want. She recognizes that fame and fortune come at a price—one she doesn’t want to pay. At the same time, her fighting spirit comes out and she decides to give it her all—letting fate take a hand in it.


Detective Spangler is investigating the theft ring and the murder. He’s also a widower with a young teenage daughter. When his daughter tries to run away, Tyrone and his girlfriend bring her to Laura’s house. Why? What position does it put her in with Detective Spangler?


Laura has played a big role in Tyrone’s life, and she’s always been someone he could turn to for help and guidance. He works part time for her home staging business. He could have taken the teenager, who refuses to return home, to his grandmother, but it was late, and he knew she would already be in bed. Turns out the teenager is the daughter of Detective Spangler, someone Laura has butted heads with in the past when she’s gotten tangled up in murder investigations he’s been in charge of. He continually warns Laura about getting involved with his cases. So, Laura knows getting involved with his personal life, even if reluctantly, could be disastrous.


Why do people in Louiston always gather in the kitchen?


The people of Louiston are very hospitable. It would be a rare occasion when family and friends who stop by aren’t offered refreshments. Since most of the homes in that area of Pennsylvania have big kitchens with kitchen tables, that’s where everyone gathers. So gathering at the table is a natural place to sit and enjoy the food and drink offered.


Are home colors different in popularity depending on where you live?


Often they are. Homes out west are frequently beige and terracotta, colors that work well with the terrain. In Key West and other parts of Florida, you would find houses painted in a variety of bright pastel colors. A vibrant lime green would look perfect there. Painting your house that color somewhere else in the country might not make you popular with your neighbors.

Josh Sheridan owns a warehouse for his antiques business. But he rents a floor to the TV company to film the competition. He learns that he bought stolen goods, which the police discover. Although he isn’t in trouble except for the money wasted, he almost is killed in the warehouse parking lot. Laura, Nita, and Tyrone’s grandmother Mrs. Webster think the attack on Josh is related to the theft ring. Why do they go to the extreme of setting up a sting to catch the thieves? Why is Mrs. Webster key to the sting?


Louiston is a small town with an equally small police force. Laura and her friends are concerned that while the police are focusing on a murder investigation, they don’t have time to thoroughly investigate the attack on Josh, which they view as an attempted mugging. Mrs. Webster becomes enraged that thieves are preying on the elderly for their antiques. She and Nita come up with a sting operation they hope will expose who is victimizing the elderly of the community. As a retired nurse, she has good sources of information. Mrs. Webster and Nita also feel the theft ring is responsible for the attack on Josh, who can identify the man who sold him the stolen goods.


What’s a coco bomb?


A coco bomb was something new to me, but it sounded good when my sister told me about them. They are chocolate orbs filled with the makings for a hot chocolate drink. You can buy them or make them. Painting a mold with chocolate to form two halves of the orb forms the round outside shell of a coco bomb. You fill the sides with hot chocolate mix, marshmallows, and other flavorings such as crushed peppermint. You then put the two sides together to close up the orb. The outside is often decorated with icing and sprinkles. To use them in a drink, you put one in a large mug and pour hot milk over it. The outside melts and the marshmallows shoot to the top. It makes a really chocolaty drink.


My grandparents from Philadelphia used to serve scrapple, but we ate it with apple butter on top. Do they still make it? Habbersett’s was the brand they used. Did they really use the “scraps” and that’s how it got its name? We used to joke it had pigs’ tails in it.


In my area of Pennsylvania, Meadows brand of scrapple was the most popular. Here in Virginia, I usually only find RAPA scrapple. Scrapple is basically cooked cornmeal mixed with ground pork (or pork by-products) and seasoning like sage, etc. You can now also get it with bacon, beef, and turkey. It is molded in blocks and vacuumed sealed. I made my own scrapple once, but it’s easier to buy it prepared and it tastes better than what I made. To prepare scrapple, you slice it in one-half inch slices and fry until crispy. We always eat it with maple syrup. Serving it with apple butter would be a true Pennsylvania Dutch way of eating it.


Although the victim is young, she leaves a notebook that’s written in code. Aunt Kit is the only one to realize that it is a type of shorthand. Were there different types of shorthand? Does anyone use shorthand anymore? Maybe Court Recorders?


To my knowledge, there’s Gregg Shorthand and Pittman. I learned Gregg, and I still use it occasionally, especially to take quick notes. With Gregg, the symbols represent letters of the alphabet and word sounds. Some of the symbols represent complete words, called brief forms. You string them together similar to writing in cursive. Sometimes in church, I’ll use my index finger to write out the sermon in shorthand. It keeps me fluid using it. With people using laptops to take notes or write their own correspondence, I don’t think there is a big call for shorthand these days.


In one day, Laura eats curried chicken salad, macarons, and then tops it off with hot chocolate. Will she have a weight problem soon?


LOL. I thought of that as I was writing that chapter. However, doing home staging is physically taxing, moving furnishings, rugs, lamps, accessories, etc. So if she has a day full of goodies, it doesn’t take her long to work it off.


Why does Olivia protect Simon about his womanizing?


To protect her job. Ageism is rampant in that business. She knows that if Simon goes, she would soon be replaced.


You’ve finished the third book and ended it in a way that allows you to continue or not. With Henery Press’s future in question, will you take your series to a different publisher? Go Indie? Start a new series? What’s next, Grace?


Upstaged by Murder fulfills my contract for three books. Like many writers, I found writing a book with everything that was going on this past year exhausting. So, I’m thankful I don’t have another deadline facing me. Once I’ve spent time promoting my series and catching up with everything I’ve neglected this year, I’ll look at what I want to do next.



Annette said...

Congratulations, Grace, on the new book in an awesome series!

Jim Jackson said...

HJey Grace -- best of luck to you and your latest baby released to the world.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Congratulations! Looking forward to reading the third in your series.

KM Rockwood said...

Loved the first two; looking forward to reading this one.

J.C. Kenney said...

Big time congrats on the new release, Grace! The world needs more Laura Bishop stories in it. Cheers!

Kait said...

Love the new book - congratulations!

Grace Topping said...

Thank you, Elaine, for the terrific and challenging interview questions. And thank you to my fellow WWK bloggers for your good wishes and continuing support.

Shari Randall said...

Happy book birthday, Grace! Looking forward to reading Laura's new adventure!

Marilyn Levinson said...

Your new book sounds exciting. Wishing you many, many sales!

Molly MacRae said...

So much fun, Grace! It sounds like you can look forward to lots of new readers. Best of luck!

Barbara Monajem said...

Congratulations, Grace. It sounds like a tremendously exciting story!

E. B. Davis said...

I hope this one is nominated, Grace. It was a wonderful read. Thanks for the interview!