A few years ago I was at Malice Domestic, sitting through Malice-Go-Round. Malice-Go-Round is a Friday morning session where pairs of authors go around from table to table and pitch their books in two minutes. It is tough to do, and even tougher to stand out. But Molly MacRae made me laugh, and I went right to the bookroom to buy her first book in her Haunted Yarn Shop series, Last Wool and Testament. Two years ago I moderated a panel a Malice, and Molly was one of the panelists. She was funny and gracious. I’m so thrilled to welcome Molly to the Wicked Cozy Authors today, so she can tell us about the debut of her new Highland Bookshop Mystery series. Plaid and Plagiarism debuted this past Tuesday.
Mysteries are all about questions and answers. Everyone involved in a mystery story is either asking questions and looking for answers, or they’re busy hiding answers—often with wicked intent. And by “everyone,” I mean to include the writers as well as the characters. In fact, especially the writers. The characters almost have it easy. They deal with the classic who, what, where, how, and when of a mystery. But the writer has to ask the bigger question—what is the theme of this story, in other words, what is this story about? Part of my process in planning a story is figuring out the answer to that question.
For instance, a theme running through my Margaret and Bitsy short stories is familial interactions. More specifically, it’s watching the dance grown siblings do in their interactions with each other. In those stories, Margaret Welch is a laidback bookseller. Her sister, Bitsy, is . . . not so laidback. A theme frequently found in small town cozy mysteries is the character as a fish out of water. It’s one of my favorite themes. Kath, my protagonist in the Haunted Yarn Shop Mysteries, is a fish out of water when she goes to live in Blue Plum, Tennessee. Geneva, the ghost in that series, is a fish totally out of the water. She should be dead and buried but finds herself living in a yarn shop. The fish out of water theme is a great way to create immediate tension in a story.
In my new series, the Highland Bookshop Mysteries, there are four main characters—four women who pool their money and buy a bookshop in a town on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands It’s a retirement/change of career scheme for them, and as three of them are Americans and the fourth is a Scotswoman who’s been living in the Illinois for the past few decades, they are all fish out of water. But there’s another theme running through the first book, Plaid and Plagiarism, and the series. It’s a theme you’ll also find in a song by the late Steve Goodman: “The I Don’t Know Where I’m Going, But I’m Going Nowhere in a Hurry Blues.”
Each of the women, Janet Marsh and Tallie Marsh, Christine Robertson, and Summer Jacobs, came to a point in her life where she no longer knew where she was going and wanted to change that. Janet’s husband left her for one of his students. Christine’s husband died. Tallie is a burned out law professor. Summer is a newspaperwoman in an age when print newspapers are disappearing. But they all love Scotland. They all love books. They all have a sense of adventure. The bookshop they buy is thriving and located in a tourist town. The women have a new direction, new leases on life.
My four new characters might not know exactly what’s in store for them with their new venture, but that doesn’t bother them. They’re in Scotland. The Highlands! That they don’t know what’s in store doesn’t bother me, either. That’s because it gives me, the one of the best questions of all to play around with. What can possibly go wrong?
Oh, let me count the ways.
Where do you look for themes for your stories?
The Boston Globe says Molly MacRae writes “murder with a dose of drollery.” In addition to writing the Highland Bookshop Mysteries, Molly is the author of the award-winning Haunted Yarn Shop Mysteries from NAL/Penguin and the stand-alone mystery novels Lawn Order and Wilder Rumors. Molly’s short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine since 1990 and she’s a winner of the Sherwood Anderson Award for Short Fiction. Molly and her family live in Champaign, Illinois, where she connects children and books at the public library.