Guest V.M. Burns on Write What You Know

Edith here, writing from Cape Cod, and delighted to welcome Agatha nominee V.M. Burns back to the blog! She’ll give away a copy of her newest mystery, The Read Herring Hunt, to one lucky commenter here today, too. Here’s the book blurb:Read Herring Hunt

To the town of North Harbor, Michigan, MISU quarterback Dawson Alexander is a local hero. To Samantha Washington, owner of the Market Street Mysteries Bookstore, Dawson is more than a tenant—he’s like an adopted son. But to the police, he is their prime suspect after his ex-girlfriend is found murdered. It’s more than enough real-life drama for Sam to tackle, but her role as a mystery writer also calls. While Sam’s lawyer sister Jenna rushes in to build Dawson’s defense, Sam and her lively grandmother, Nana Jo, huddle up to solve the mystery and blow the whistle on the real killer. With the tenacious members of the Sleuthing Senior Book Club eager to come off the sidelines, Sam and her team just might stop a killer from completing another deadly play . 

Writing What You Know

Most writers have heard the old adage, “write what you know.” It’s a good principle. If you’re writing about something you know the story will sound authentic and hopefully the passion and sincerity will ring through to the reader. That probably explains why many mystery writers are former police officers or lawyers. Thankfully, few are actual murderers. So, is it possible to write about murder without actually committing one or joining the police force?

When I was working on my MFA at Seton Hill University, the Director of the Writing Popular Fiction program asked the question, what does it mean to Write What You Know? I pondered that question a lot. I wanted to write cozy mysteries, but the only thing I knew about murder I learned from reading books by Agatha Christie, Victoria Thompson, Rex Stout and Sue Grafton and watching Murder, She Wrote and Colombo on television.

downtownDuring that residency, I took stock of myself. What did I know? My first job was working for an organization where I met a lot of vibrant, active, and entertaining seniors. I lived with my two toy poodles, Coco and Cash in a small town on the Lake Michigan shoreline. The town had a quaint downtown area with cobblestone streets and brownstone buildings turned into shops. I often walked those streets and dreamed of owning one which I would turn into a mystery bookshop, a place where I could feed my cozy mystery addiction. I wanted a bookstore that would not just have one or two bookshelves dedicated to the latest mystery, but a place that would specialize in nothing but mysteries where I could find older series along with newer ones. That’s what I knew, but how to connect that to writing murder mysteries?

Every murder mystery has a victim, a sleuth and a villain, but what makes the mystery interesting are the details the author weaves around the characters which brings the story to life. Whenever I read Death on the Nile, Murder on the Orient Express or Murder in Mesopotamia, the details ring true because Agatha Christie visited the Middle East and described the country in wonderful detail. She was married to an archeologist (Max Mallowan) whom she met on the Orient Express.

Even without direct knowledge about a topic, the Internet makes it possible to becomeboats knowledgeable about practically any subject. I have always been interested in England and World War II. Thanks to The History Channel, Google, and tons of books, I was able to incorporate a great deal of the knowledge I’ve obtained into my Mystery Bookshop Mystery series. Just like me, my protagonist, Samantha Washington, owns two chocolate toy poodles. She dreamed of owning a mystery bookstore and write British historic cozies set at the start of World War II. Her sidekick and sleuthing partners are her grandmother, Nana Jo and a group of fun-loving seniors.

Writing what you know has created a broad range of cozy mysteries which include everything from culinary cozies, knitting cozies, to winemaking cozies. The use of an amateur sleuth allows the writer to get around needing extensive knowledge of police procedures. An amateur sleuth is bound by no rules and can pretty much do whatever he or she wants (within the realm of believability). It also enables writers to combine their love of murder mysteries with their other passions without having to become a policeman or commit murder. All in all, I’d say it’s a good marriage.

Readers: What’s your favorite themed cozy (eg dogs, knitting, recipes)? What theme/concept would you love to see included in a cozy series? Remember, VM is giving away a copy of the new book to one of you! 

Author PhotoV.M. 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. Her debut novel, The Plot is Murder was nominated for a 2017 Agatha Award for Best First Novel. 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 vmburns.com.

83 Thoughts

  1. My main mystery is how to deal with the 13,617 emails and 45 past-due ARCs while tolerating the whiny cat. I KNOW how I got into this fix: signing up for free books on those Win-a-Kindle sweeps (there is only so much data storage on a laptop), but I can only actually be reading one book at a time despite the currently 27 I have started. I don’t have a favorite; love all cozies. Cozies never have too much graphic sex or violence. Back to the grindstone…

  2. Looks Like you made it work for you, VM. A couple of years ago I wrote a cozy series proposal with a female protagonist on the coast of California who repairs vintage cars in a small town. My editor didn’t think it was a cozy! Grr. I still want to write that series!

    1. Edith, That is a fabulous idea for a cozy. Find an editor who likes the movie My Cousin Vinny. My husband would read that series.

  3. A favorite theme for a cozy? That’s hard! I love cosies with animals in them, crafts, recipes. I think ones that have books as one of the main things, as in libraries, book mobiles, book clubs, etc. also catch my interest.
    I love amateur sleuths, although you must be careful as to how they come across their knowledge. In reality, a typical police detective does not reveal everything he/she knows about an investigation. I do find that sometimes this happens in some of the cosies.
    Edith, I think that series with the female who repairs cars would be a blast to read! I do hope you write it!
    Thanks for the giveaway!

    1. I’m also a fan of cozies with pets, recipes and (of course) books.The balance between what the police know and are willing to reveal and the amateur sleuth’s knowledge is always a challenge.

  4. Pl ease write it Edith! Think of all the stuff she could overhear from under a car! V.M.’s explanation of writing what you know is right on. Research, so much easier now then it used to be, means we can know all kinds of things when we write our cozies–that we didn’t know before!

    1. Thanks, Carol. I am so thankful for the multitude of information we can draw on to write without having to travel thousands of miles to get authentic details.

  5. I enjoy craft, cat and book-related cozies. I appreciate all the effort an author puts into her or his research–where it’s the location, police/legal procedure, manner of death, etc. I loved The Plot is Murder so thank you for the chance to win The Red Herring Hunt.

    1. Thank you so much! I’m glad you enjoyed The Plot is Murder. I am always glad to meet people who love book-related cozies and find out what other things cozy mystery lovers enjoy. Thanks again.

  6. I don’t think I have a favorite “theme” for a book. And since I’m not a lawyer or a cop, thankfully I’ve been able to find generous people who will tell me what I don’t know. But I do know my setting and I visit frequently, so…I guess I’m sorta-kinda writing what I know!

    1. People are an invaluable resource and I’ve been fortunate to find some experts who are willing to share their knowledge too. Always great when you can visit a location. I’d definitely call that writing what you know.

  7. I love reading cozies, so it’s hard to choose my favorite topics. If I have to choose, it would be Book-related cozies. I love bookshops, libraries, and cozies about authors.

    1. You’re a woman after my own heart. I LOVE books and so mysteries that feature bookshops and libraries will draw me in every time.

  8. Good morning VM,
    Loved reading about you. I always love learning
    about the authors and how their writing
    came about. Would love to win the “Read Herring Hunt”! 😊

  9. Wonderful blog! Thank you for the insight on writing what you know – I think we sometimes pigeonhole ourselves when we don’t think broadly enough about what we know. Book sounds great and I’ll add it to my reading list.

    1. Thank you, Vida. I think most of us know a great deal more than we give ourselves credit for. We take for granted the day-to-day things that come easy. It never hurts to stop and take stock of ourselves. I hope you enjoy the book.

  10. I enjoy all sorts of cozies, but if it has a dog in it, I can’t go wrong. I’d love to find cozies set in areas people don’t normally write about…an island in the Caribbean, Mexico, places like that. And if the author needs a friend to travel with, I’ll volunteer! 🙂 But I do love reading about cozies set in places I’m familiar with, and therefore love your books, referencing the places in South Bend and Michigan City.

    1. Thanks Kristin – I am a dog lover and so books with dogs always grab my attention too. I would love to travel to an island or to an exotic location for research. Glad to know there are people willing to volunteer. 🙂 Thanks

    1. Thank you, Sherry. I always enjoy hanging out with the Wicked Cozy Authors and your wonderful readers. I’m always glad to hear people enjoy the book within a book too. I know it’s not for everyone and it was a bit of a risk. So, thank you.

  11. I can honestly say I love all cozies. I haven’t read a theme yet that I didn’t love. However, saying that and going back to the statement of writing or doing what you know, I’d have to say those dealing with a kitchen or food (baking, cooking, having a restaurant or food shop, being professional or amateur cook, etc.) entice me the most. Nothing makes me happier than to be in the kitchen fixing up some goodies with hubby, who loves it as much as I do, by my side. So it’s a matter of the fact that I can relate to these stories that would make it my first choice. I also love animals having had pets of all kinds from lizards to birds with adorable pooches in between, I’m also drawn to stories that have animals of any kind in them. I would love to see stories where a person achieves their goal through great adversity but through shear determination and hard work makes their dreams come true. Learning who your true friends are along the way and who will stick by you through thick and thin. Of course there has to be mysteries and a murder or two to solve along the way and a dash of romance would add a nice touch as well. 🙂

    Thank you for the wonderful chance to win a copy of your newest mystery “The Read Herring Hunt”! I can’t wait for the opportunity to read it.

    Have a wonderful Friday and an amazing weekend!
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

    1. I’m really fond of culinary cozies too (and pets). I don’t particularly enjoy cooking, but I like trying interesting recipes. Thanks for commenting and good luck!

  12. I love many different themes in cozies…baking, cooking, knitting/crochet. I also always appreciate a good pet sidekick, be it cat or dog (though I am partial to cats, since I live with three). My absolute favorite theme is theater, since I’ve been involved in theater for about 25 years. I enjoy seeing how much of the rehearsal/performance world gets included in the story and how the author explains theater things to readers who might not be familiar. Thanks for the giveaway and hearty congratulations on your new book!

    1. Thank you! I’m not very familiar with theatre but I love learning new things. So, a theatre themed cozy would be appealing on a lot of different levels. Good luck in the drawing.

  13. Hi, Valerie! I go for any cozy that’s British, tea, antiques, or book related. I loved reading about how you got started with your book, especially the concept of “taking stock” – we don’t give ourselves enough credit sometimes. I love research (former librarian) and love the idea of writing “what you want to know” – such a pleasure to dig up new info about a topic that fascinates.

    1. Thank you, Shari. I’m pretty fond of British cozies and especially tea. and books. I like antiques too but find myself purchasing and refinishing furniture when I read them, so I have to limit my addictions to smaller items like books. 🙂

  14. I always love including a dog or cat in the book. One of my favorite cozy mysteries included seafood and the recipes for seafood dishes. I would say pets, food, and interesting characters are vital parts of a cozy mystery.

    1. Seafood recipes? That sounds amazing. I agree with your list of vitals; pets, food and interesting characters. What more could you ask? 🙂 Thanks for commenting.

  15. Excellent blog Valarie. My favorite cozies are those that revolve around books. I am a retired school librarian so it makes sense that I would enjoy reading about bookkshops, authors and of coarse libraries. Also, if there is a cute dog on the cover, I’m sold. Setting I also important to me. I love cookies set in Maine, California, near the ocean or a lake and anywhere in the British Isles. Also, I have to like or feel something for the main character. If I don’t care for the main character, ametur sleuth, then I won’t care what happens with the plot. The supporting characters are very important as well. They can add so much to the plot and the development of the main character. Your Nana Jo is an excellent example. We get to know Sam so much better through her interactions with her grandmother. Plus, Nana Jo is a hoot and not knowing what she will do next keeps the reader engaged. Sorry to carry on so, but I just adored both The Plot is Murder and Read Herring Hunt.

    1. Thank you so much Annette. I agree that the characters are really important. In fact for me, the characters are the most important thing. I have read books simply to find out what happens to the characters.Nana Jo is a fun character to write and one day I hope I can grow up to be just like her. I’m so glad you enjoyed both The Plot is Murder and Read Herring Hunt.

  16. I have really enjoyed the Carolyn Hart Death on Demand series with Annie & Max Darling, where Annie owns the Death on Demand Mystery Bookstore, has a collection of author coffee mugs for patrons, a cat, and a monthly contest where local artists re-create scenes from mystery books as a contest for the patrons, where they try to guess the mysteries depicted and win a prize. Of course there is always a mystery for Annie and Max to solve, and they make a good team.

    1. Awesome. I love the idea of author coffee mugs and of course mystery bookstores. Carolyn Hart is such a prolific writer, I am in awe of her many series and the longevity. Such a great inspiration. Thanks for sharing.

  17. I did enjoy Read Herring Hunt and I have to ask is Sam African American? I’m always looking for diverse mysteries and it’s hard to find African American protagonists in the cozy genre. I love the mystery book store owner premise and love her closeness with her grandmother but I would love to see her interact with a girlfriend her own age as well.

    1. Interesting question. I made a conscious decision not to state Sam’s race in this series. I wanted readers to imagine her however they wanted and didn’t want the series to be pigeon holed or restricted in anyway. I can say that Sam and I share a lot of the same hopes, dreams and character flaws. However, I’m sure readers of other races may imagine her differently, and that’s fine with me. I think its great you’re looking for cozies with diverse characters. You might enjoy the Agatha Award winning Detective by Day series by Kellye Garrett and the Gethsemane Brown series by Alexia Gordon. I also have another series which will release on July 1st. My RJ Franklin Mystery Series will feature an African American protagonist and includes soul food recipes. I’m glad you enjoyed Read Herring Hunt. I think giving Sam a girlfriend her own age is a good idea. Perhaps in a future book….

  18. My book club just read The Plot is Murder and loved it. I’m so looking forward to Read Herring Hunt. I love all cozies but ones about books – bookstore, library, whatever, and with cats are the ones that draw me the most. A little supernatural thrown in can make them even better. It always clear to me when an author is writing about he/she knows. The details are so much clearer and authentic. Thanks for a chance to win your new book!

    1. I forgot to add that having a group of eccentric old folks makes it even more fun. Maybe because I’m an eccentric old folk myself!

    2. That is so awesome. I am really glad to hear your book club read The Plot is Murder. I haven’t considered adding a supernatural component, but it might spice things up a bit. Thanks for commenting and good luck in the drawing.

    1. I agree. For me, the only thing better than books would be books about books. I might be a bit single minded, but it works. Thanks for commenting.

  19. What am insightful blog post. Its so nice to learn how writers work. I love all kinds of cozies but especially those including pets, food, and nook themes. Thank you for the chance to win.

    1. Thanks, Daniele. Cozies with pets and food are my favs too. Honestly, I haven’t met too many cozies that I don’t love. Best of luck in the drawing.

  20. What a great post – and working with seniors is such a rich source of wisdom and fun. Would love to start reading your series. I am from Michigan, enjoy pups and love seniors (not just because I’m almost there!) Thank you for the chance to win!

    1. I learned so much from working with seniors. I was amazed and inspired by their knowledge and network of contacts. It’s always nice to meet a fellow Michigander and petlover Thank you for commenting and good luck in the drawing.

  21. I am a huge fan of all types of cozies but my favorite type would have to be culinary cozies – closely followed by those that include dogs. You really can’t go wrong with any type of cozy though 🙂

    1. Agreed. I love all types of cozies, but its nice when you can feel like you’re getting a bonus, whether its a tasty recipe, knitting pattern or tip for removing tough stains. As a petlover, I’m partial to dogs too. But, you’re right. You really can’t go wrong with cozies.

  22. If you want to write about it, learn about it. Then you can write what you know. 🙂

    Seriously, however, there are things you know that should be into every book, like people. And if you are writing about something that doesn’t interest you, then you shouldn’t be writing about it period because you won’t care to do the research to get it right.

    I do find myself most drawn to culinary cozies, but I have been reading more pet related cozies recently and enjoying them. I love historicals set in the US. And what reader doesn’t love book themed cozies?

    1. Thanks, Mark. I’m a big fan of historical cozies too. I tend to favor British cozies, but there are quite a few US historical cozies that I love too. Pretty much if its cozy, there’s a good chance that I’ll like it.

  23. Welcome back to the Wickeds, Valerie. I think cozies are on some level fantasies, and if you write what you fantasize about (like owning a mystery bookstore on a charming street in a lakefront town, and maybe having a cadre of mystery-solving friends) and it’s the kind of fantasy others can buy into, you are well on your way.

    1. Thanks for allowing me hangout with the Wickeds. I always enjoy being here. I agree with you. Cozies are similiar to fantasies in a lot of ways and all good fantasies should have an element of mystery.

  24. Thanks for your enjoyable blog. Writing what you know does make your writing authentic. Although I do occasionally wander from cozy mysteries to more traditional ones, cozies are currently my genre of choice. I enjoy cozies that focus on books, knitting, pets, and feature mature characters in prominent roles. I read the first book in your new series and it connected with many of my favorite themes! I’m eagerly looking forward to the next one! Thanks for writing what you know!

    1. Thank you so much. I’m glad you enjoyed the blog and The Plot is Murder. I enjoy reading a variety of genres too, but my heart belongs to cozies. Thanks for commenting and good luck in the drawing.

    1. I’m so glad you like the cover. I was thrilled when my publisher decided to use my dogs as the cover models. The dog laying at the top of the stairs is Coco (Snickers in the book) and the dog sitting on the stairs is Cash (Oreo). Thanks for commenting and good luck in the drawing.

  25. I love books with pets of any kind. They usually add a lot to the story and also give a little comic relief depending on who owns the dog.

    NoraAdrienne (at) gmail (dot) com

    1. Thanks so much for commenting. I love dogs and have to agree that my two are usually the comic relief. Readers with dogs can often recognize the things that ring true.

  26. If I was forced to chose, I would pick food-related cozies but I like ones with pets, books, and crafts. I also like historical cozy mysteries. I haven’t decided whether I prefer settings that I have visited or ones that I haven’t. I can picture the ones that I’ve been to better and have fond memories but I will never see other places except through books, TV, and movies.

    1. Thanks, Sally. I love to eat, so food themed cozies are also a favorite of mine (in addition to books, pets, historical, etc.). I don’t know if I would have ever travelled to England were it not for my love of British cozies. However, its nice to live vicariously through my favorite mysteries too (saves on travel expenses too).

  27. I love cozies, especially those featuring dogs or cats and are set in quaint locations. One of my favorite series is Nancy Coco’s Fudge Shop series. I like the Mackinac Island setting, I can picture the Island and Fudge Shops and the Straits of Mackinac. Would love to read “Red Herring Hunt”, great cover!

  28. Hi VM, I don’t have a specific cozy style that I like. I do like mysteries with a strong female protagonist and a sense of place. There’s a lot of this country and the world that I’ve never seen so maybe that’s why. I’d love to read about Samantha Washington and her dogs! Wishing you continued success and a happy summer!

    1. Thanks, Barbara. I love the fact that there are cozies set in quaint villages in the U.K. as well as cozies set in small towns in the United States. I think its wonderful that we can see the world through books from the safety of our homes. Thanks for taking the time to comment and good luck in the drawing.

  29. Hi, I have read some of your books and very I was unable to open my copy of latest book. I did want to read it. I recognized most of the author in your picture and read their books and review them on my the day they are released.and Goodreads.

    1. Agreed. I find it wonderful to think that there are so many different themes. Surely, there is a cozy for everyone. Thanks for commenting.

  30. I like cozies with humor that makes me burst out laughing occasionally. I do find I love a Cozy to have at least one cat or dog involved in the sleuths life. I like a good mixture of characters from varied backgrounds. It’s a good way to learn about people. Sleuths with imperfections are generally more interesting to me.

    Thank you for giving one of us a chance to win a copy of your book.

  31. Thanks, Cheryl. I prefer humor in my cozies also. I find it incredible when words touch my emotions. I’m really glad when an author can make me laugh out loud. That’s so powerful.

  32. I like humorous cozies with cats as side kicks! I would love to win one of her books! I am a fan of hers!

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