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Mystery author Julie Hyzy and RT Assistant Web Editor Whitney Kate Sullivan discuss the author's new series starter and the role that bookstores, blogs and characters' quirks play in writing mysteries!
Whitney Sullivan: Grace Under Pressure kicks off your new Manor House Mystery series. What was the biggest difference between setting your murders at The White House and Marshfield Manor?
Julie Hyzy: Marshfield Manor and the White House are both enormous mansions where wealthy and powerful people live, work, and congregate. In that way they’re similar, but where stories set in the White House can be researched by studying floor plans and reading history books, Marshfield exists only in my mind. I love writing the White House Chef novels because I learn so much doing so. There are books, DVDs, websites, and artifacts that help me achieve authenticity in my stories. Not only that, but news blasts us each and every day with tidbits I can nab for scenes. Those gate crashers? Wow, what a neat idea. And although I’m disappointed that our real Secret Service suffered such a lapse, I believe it makes some of the scenarios I create seem that much more plausible.
Marshfield is a completely different sort of project. Everything about it is invented … from the floor plans to the past inhabitants, to the china patterns, to the security protocols. In some ways it’s more difficult because I had to start from scratch. But in another way it’s easier because I can’t get things wrong. There is no book, nor online site, nor source to contradict me. The Manor House books are more personal … they’re more me.
What I like best about all this is that I get to do both. The two series are very different and that makes writing them fun.
WS: Did you learn anything about amateur sleuthing from your previous heroines that contributed to the way that you characterized your fourth amateur sleuth heroine Grace?
JH: Absolutely. I learned that readers prefer a sleuth who doesn’t plunge foolishly into danger. They want their sleuth to solve the mystery and not simply stumble over the answer. And as much as they appreciate pluck and verve, they won’t abide arrogance. So far, I believe I’ve managed to avoid that negative attribute with all my amateur sleuths. I hope readers agree. I’ve also learned a lot by reading other authors as well. There are a lot of wonderful amateur sleuths out there … a visit to KillerCharacters.com will introduce you to many of them.
WS: Have you ever loved any place the way your heroine, Grace, loves Marshfield Manor?
JH: On my senior high school trip to California, we visited Hearst Castle in San Simeon. I was only sixteen at the time, but I will never forget how breathless I felt wandering through the estate, taking in the beauty, the opulence, the grandeur. Years later, I took my family back there. They weren’t thrilled about the idea of touring a “house” as part of our vacation. That is, until they got there. We’d signed on for a single tour, but after we finished everyone wanted to take a second, third, or fourth tour. Unfortunately we couldn’t get into any of them, but we’re all determined to go back at some point. I can’t say that I love Hearst Castle as much as Grace loves Marshfield, because Grace has personal ties with the manor that I don’t have with Hearst. But I can tell you that my visit there had a profound impact on me and inspired me in many ways.
WS: Marshfield Manor is a giant estate, how do you keep all of the different rooms and areas straight?
JH: I’ve come up with a floor plan I work from. I have a basic structure and some key rooms placed, but there’s still a good deal I haven’t worked out yet. For instance, we know Bennett lives on the fourth floor, and we know that Grace’s office is just below his private suite, but exactly what is on the second floor? Or in the east wing? Bedrooms, suites, sitting rooms, of course. But what they look like and how they’re arranged … haven’t done all the detail in all the rooms yet. But that’s the fun part and I’m really looking forward to exploring the mansion as Grace learns more about it. I think the basement will be a blast.
WS: The cast of characters in Grace Under Pressure is very large. Did you take out any characters during the editing process?
JH: I wasn’t asked to take out any characters by my editor, but I did cull a few as I was writing. Marshfield is a large place and has an enormous staff. Although Ollie (White House Chef) also works in a mansion with a huge number of employees, she’s only in charge of the kitchen and her team is much smaller. Grace has the run of the estate and is in charge of everyone, from the groundskeepers to the laundry to the hotel managers. I suspect all the books in the series will have large casts, unless I take her offsite. As far as the first book, Grace Under Pressure goes, however, I originally had another assistant sharing the office with Grace and Frances. She had to go, poor thing. There were far more laundry ladies with speaking roles in my first draft, and Bennett’s family was larger. I also intended to spend a bit more time on getting to know some of the suspects, but as the story progressed, I knew I had to cut back.
WS: Your heroines have been artists, reporters, chefs, and curators, occupations wildly different from those you have held. Which of these took the most research to integrate into the heroine? And If you had to choose one of these jobs for yourself – which would it be?
JH: I’d have to say that Ollie – my White House Chef – has taken the most research thus far. There’s so much to learn about the White House, about Washington D.C., and about security and it’s too easy to get things wrong. I’ve made a couple of errors so far, but sharp-eyed readers have brought these mistakes to my attention. No matter how much research I do, there’s always that gap of “what I don’t know I don’t know” – a gap I try to minimize by constant and vigilant research.
If I had to choose to be one of my amateur sleuths, I think I’d opt to be Grace. Mind you, I wouldn’t want her love life at the moment, but I think she has a fascinating job, one that’s going to take her deeper into the history of Marshfield, and into her own family history as well. She’s got an entire mansion to run. That’s a lot of work, but so rewarding. And to be surrounded by all that beauty every day? Wonderful!
WS: You’ve taken on religious scandals, unexpected pregnancies, handicapped characters, the first family, and now a botched Ponzi scheme and a cranky millionaire with dark family secrets – how do you keep your heroines can-do in the face of all this adversity?
JH: While their personalities, family situations, and love lives vary greatly, my heroines all share the same world-view. They are optimistic and have a core goodness. They are problem-solvers and people who step in to help when necessary and sometimes even when it isn’t. I think the reason they all have a can-do attitude is because that makes them appealing. If they were people who left things to others, or those who preferred to project an obstacle mentality (much the way Frances does in Grace Under Pressure), then I think they’d be far less interesting human beings and readers would give up on them very quickly. These ladies are the sort of person I’d like to be. I try, of course. But they’re a whole lot braver and smarter than I’ll ever be.
WS: You are a big supporter of independent bookstores, why do you throw your weight behind them?
JH: Wow. Such a great question. I’ve had only wonderful experiences with independent bookstores. The owners actually care if you do well. They promote, they hand sell, they support authors in a way the big stores can’t. I’ve been up to Once Upon A Crime in Minneapolis a few times. Gary and Pat have become friends and I wish I could visit more often. But we keep in touch. The same was true with Jim Huang when he still had The Mystery Company bookstore. And with Robin Agnew at Aunt Agatha’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with Mystery Lovers Bookshop, with my local bookseller, Augie Aleksy at Centuries & Sleuths, and so many more I’m starting to worry that I better stop before I run the risk of leaving people out. I’ve recently gotten to know folks at Quail Ridge Books, McIntyre’s and Flyleaf Books in North Carolina, too. Oh gosh, I know when I read this later I’m going to smack my head and say “How could I have left off XXX?”
These are more than just stores … these are my friends. They help me every single day and I owe them a lot.
WS: On your blog you talk about being a grammar fiend, what is something you would never have your characters say?
JH: Because characters pop up and are such individual creatures, they may choose to say something I think is absolutely wrong. Characters can’t always be corralled. That said, I would hate to hear any of my characters say “Illinoiz” rather than “Illinois” (silent s). Drives me nuts.
I’ve begun to realize I’m less of a grammar fiend (just ask my copyeditor about my tendency to over-comma!) than I am a spelling fiend. Fortunately as the author, I have a bit more control over how things are spelled when my characters talk.
WS: You blog on Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen with several other mystery authors what is something that you’ve learned from that experience?
JH: The most important thing I’ve learned from blogging at Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen is that Krista Davis, Daryl Wood Gerber, Cleo Coyle, Elizabeth Spann Craig, and Jenn McKinlay are incredible, generous, warm, and talented individuals. I also learned that I don’t have to be a professional chef in order to share recipes and stories, and that I enjoy cooking more than I thought I did. I’m rediscovering the joys of experimentation.
WS: Is there anything else you would like to tell us about the Manor House series and Grace and co.?
JH: Grace and the Manor House crowd don’t have the built-in glamour that the White House does. That doesn’t mean their adventures are less interesting or less entertaining. But I hope readers trust me as I build the world they inhabit. Ollie and her gang are out there on the world stage every day. Grace is in Emberstowne, a small, fictional hamlet with one giant mansion and a whole lot of secrets. I hope that if people enjoy reading about Ollie, they’ll take a chance on getting to know Grace, too.
WS: What can we expect from you next?
JH: Right now I’m working on the second Manor House Mystery, tentatively titled Murder Most Civil. Love-interest Jack features more prominently in this book as Grace tries to solve the murder of a Civil War reenactor killed on Marshfield property.
January 4th will see the release of the newest White House Chef Mystery — Buffalo West Wing — where Ollie starts working for a new president and his family. Lastly, I’m gathering ideas for another book, a standalone. But that one’s just in the planning stages and is probably at least two years off.