Cozy writer Connie Archer may today live in Los Angeles, but she was born and raised in New England doing prototypical northeastern things: ice skating, clam digging, and skiing. Her "Soup Lover's Mystery Series," set in Vermont, combines two of many readers' favorite pastimes: sleuthing and food. In fact, when she's not writing a new "Soup Lover's" book, it seems she's contributing recipes to cookbooks. Both The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook and The Cozy Cookbook contain her culinary creations.
Archer's amateur sleuth is Lucky Jamieson, owner of By the Spoonful, a soup shop in the fictional town of Snowflake. She has a personal relationship with most of the village's residents - and therefore a natural "in" when it comes to investigating suspicious deaths.
Ladle to the Grave, the fourth in the series, was released March 2015. Archer's fifth, A Clue in the Stew, will be released in April 2016, but is already available for pre-order.
Prose 'n Cons publisher Stephanie Hoover had the pleasure of recently interviewing Connie, and her responses - including a surprise announcement about a whole new series - follow:
PnC: Cozy writers and cozy food just seem to go together. Why such a symbiotic relationship between the two?
CA: Both are comfort food -- one for the stomach and one for the brain. Cozy mysteries are lovely. They offer adventure, sleuthing and puzzles without keeping readers up all night, jumping out of their skin when there are thumps and creaks in the wee hours. Food and comfort stories just seem to go together naturally.
PnC: You truly do enjoy cooking. Do you use recipes, or are you the intrepid type of chef who "wings it" with whatever ingredients you might have on hand?
CA: Oh, I guess I tend to wing it. Just can't resist. If I'm trying something brand new and complicated, something I haven't done before, I keep the recipe at hand, but I rarely get all the way through without changing amounts or substituting ingredients. I've really had a lot of fun experimenting with ingredients for different soups for the Soup Lover's Mystery series. Some have "sort of" worked, but some have turned out to be really great inventions. This practice doesn't work so well with baking though. If the ingredients aren't just right, the cake or dough won't turn out. I should mention I'm a terrible baker. I once attempted bread. When I pulled the hot loaf out of the oven and dropped it on a plate, the plate broke. So I stay far away from baking now.
PnC: What's the first question fans meeting you for the first time ask?
CA: Several people have asked which book in the series is my favorite. I'm always stumped. How can I possibly answer that? That's like asking which child do you love more. I always say I love them all for different reasons.
Another common question is "How do you come up with your ideas?" Most of mine come from the "what if" category. That, and surfing the web for odd stories. Life truly is stranger than fiction. For example, in A Broth of Betrayal, I wondered what would happen if a crime had been committed years before, but was never recognized as such. Would that crime fester and come back to life many years later? When I was working out a plot for A Roux of Revenge, I stumbled across a web story about the Canada Border Patrol capturing a large group of Romanian gypsies trying to cross into the U.S. That certainly piqued my curiosity. I realized there was no reason the plots in Snowflake had to stop at the borders of Vermont. Once at a conference I was asked how I chose my murder weapons. At the time, only the first book, A Spoonful of Murder, had been released and I was stuck. I couldn't talk about that murder weapon. It would have been a dead giveaway because the weapon was hiding in plain sight and was clearly associated with one character. I was able to say that I was looking into the possibility of farm equipment, which got a big laugh. But it was true (A Roux of Revenge). I'm not a farm girl by any stretch, but I watched a lot of videos about corn threshers and knew I wanted to find a way to use that deadly machinery in one of the books.
PnC: You were born and raised in New England, eventually settled on the West Coast - and now write about Vermont. Why not a series based in California, or is that something you may be considering for the future?
CA: How did you know? I have a new series which will debut next summer (2016) from Midnight Ink. The Zodiac Mysteries will feature San Francisco astrologer Julia Bonatti. I'm very excited about this and really looking forward to its release. In the first book, Julia becomes the target of a power hungry preacher and his radical followers who believe that anyone who speaks against him is an "abomination unto the Lord."
PnC: How do you divide your time? In other words, how much of a typical year is spent thinking of a new idea, writing the book, promoting your current books, etc.? Do you work year-round, or just certain times of the year?
CA: I wish I could say I take a break and don't think about any of it at all for a month or so, but that's not really the case. My current series releases a book a year, but my contract has given me eight months to submit a completed manuscript. With those tight time frames I've been busy writing, for example #4, while going over my editor's comments and copy edits on #3, writing posts, planning blog tours and author appearances. There never seems to be enough time. And of course, I have some other partially written projects that I would like to find time for. They have to be put to the side when there's a deadline.
PnC: Do you enjoy giving talks about your books? Do people still ask questions that surprise you?
CA: The first author event I ever attended was the Cleveland Bouchercon in 2012. I was in awe when I saw a ballroom full of hundreds of mystery lovers. I've always been a mystery and thriller devotee, but I had never seen so many like-minded, kindred souls in one place. I was afraid it would be intimidating, but it wasn't. It was a great deal of fun! At another conference, I remember one person who was very concerned, and really wanted to know how I could talk about soups in the book that was set during a summer heat wave. I had to assure her A Broth of Betrayal offered some really great (chilled) hot weather soups. And then writers and aspiring writers ask some interesting questions, although they tend to be more craft-related rather than fictional.
PnC: You've had the "random assortment" of jobs that many writers accumulate: cocktail waitress, medical secretary, lab tech, dinner theater actress. If you hadn't succeeded at writing, what would your second-choice dream career have been?
CA: I did spend many years working as an actress, mostly television, and like lots of actors, I always kept my day job. To be really honest, if anyone had ever told me I would be a published mystery writer, I would have fainted! I'm actually working in my second choice dream career right now, and it's a whole lot more fun than the first one. Similar skills are needed in both professions, but an actor can only play a part in a production. A writer can create a world.
PnC: I've noticed that you refer to your books as "village mysteries." Do you view this as a specific sub-genre of "cozies"?
CA: No, not really, I just love the phrase "village mystery." It implies a select group of characters/suspects/victims, as in the traditional English country house mystery. The collection of characters is close at hand, if not actually isolated together. There's a minimum of technology and very little forensic or police procedure involved, because of course the amateur sleuth must be the one to solve the crime. I think of cozy mysteries as traditional mysteries with an amateur sleuth, although I'm wondering if, in many readers' minds, "cozy" has come to be regarded as light-hearted or humorous. The Soup Lover's series offers traditional cozy elements - a small village, a likeable heroine, a darling eccentric grandfather, but in each one, I've tried to explore the psychology and motivations behind the crimes, the energies that drive a murderer and the vulnerabilities of the victims. To me, that's the fun of writing any sort of crime fiction. My publisher (Berkley Prime Crime) has been absolutely wonderful. I've been able to write the stories I've wanted to write. I've written about kidnappings, a dead child (in the past), an immolation, a murder on stage and even a secondary character discovering murder within her own family. The books do have some light-hearted moments, but I wouldn't call them humorous by any stretch. So perhaps it is better to refer to these books as village mysteries rather than "cozies."
PnC: Do you feel you compete with other food-centric cozy writers, or do you believe more authors/books only means a bigger fan base for everyone?
CA: I've never felt any sense of competition in that regard. We all contribute to the genre and I admire my fellow cozy writers (and all writers of various genres) a great deal, especially when they're turning out fresh, wonderful stories after fifteen or more books. I stand in awe. The only really important thing is to tell the best story you can and entertain your readers.
PnC: You seem to average about one book per year. Is this your personal choice, or does your publisher encourage this schedule?
CA: I'd like to think I'm so disciplined I would produce one book a year! At least I'm trying. In my case, my contract required that I submit each book every eight months. Needless to say, I spent every spare minute writing! But having taken on that discipline, I do want to keep it up and always be working on something, either the next book in a series or a new project.
PnC: Speaking of publishing, what do you think of the current trend toward "self-publishing"? Something you'd ever consider?
CA: I was very blessed that Penguin Random House (Berkley Prime Crime) wanted to publish my books. It was an absolutely invaluable experience and a very rewarding one as well. But I think if I had a manuscript that I felt deserved the light of day and hadn't found a home I would certainly consider self-publishing. Going that route does involve a bigger investment of time and money, but the stigma is quickly evaporating. I have friends who have self-published, won awards and even currently have projects in production for films. So, short answer: yes!
PnC: Do you enjoy reading non-cozy mysteries, suspense/thrillers or true crime? If so, who are some of your favorite authors?
CA: Absolutely! I am totally in love with Scandinavian noir and thrillers. I think I'm enjoying writers from across the pond the most right now. I'm tempted to take an axe to my keyboard when I read Tana French or Ann Cleeves or Henning Mankell or Mo Hayder or Ian Rankin -- and so many others. One of my favorite things to do is to browse through bookstores and look for writers I've never heard of. I've discovered some of my favorite books that way.
PnC: Do you have any plans to break out of the cozy genre for a future project - or is this your "home"?
CA: I've had an absolutely wonderful time writing the Soup Lover's Mystery series, and I will always feel proud of those books, but I don't see myself staying exclusively in that genre. There are subjects I'd like to tackle that would be no-nos for that type of book - child abductions, for example, or human trafficking which is a tremendous problem worldwide and in the U.S. as well. The upcoming Zodiac Mysteries have a modern, urban setting, so perhaps some might not consider them strictly cozy but I am looking forward to readers' comments. I hope they'll take Julia into their hearts, as they have Lucky Jamieson of Snowflake, Vermont.
PnC: What do you consider your greatest literary honor to date? What award/recognition would you most love to earn?
CA: Being published. Seriously! That alone is huge!!! And to be really honest, as wonderful as it must be to win an award - an Edgar, an Agatha, a Thriller Award - or even to be nominated, and receive that acknowledgement from your peers, I deliberately choose not to think about it. When a writer (or any creative person) begins to focus on awards or results, it can become antithetical to the creative process. I just want to write the books I love, and hope readers love them too.
PnC: A Clue in the Stew is set for April 2016 release. Is it written and off to the publisher, or are you still writing it?
CA: A Clue in the Stew was actually finished several months ago, the copy edits are completed and it's in the works. I even have the cover. And I was thrilled to see that it's already up on Amazon. Thank you Berkley Prime Crime! And I'm so looking forward to its release next spring. In Clue, a famous mystery writer who has a dark history with one of the villagers, comes to town. Soon the murders mimic the crimes in her popular book. Is this a case of a copycat killer? Or is someone targeting the popular author?
PnC: What specific author(s) sparked your interest in writing cozies - or was this something that bloomed organically, from within yourself?
CA: I've always devoured mysteries and thrillers of all sorts. Years ago, I spent a very long snowbound winter in Boston, and a thoughtful aunt gave me a huge box of Agatha Christies. It saved my sanity through all the blizzards. I lived with Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot for months. I'd be remiss not to mention the fabulous Dorothy Sayers, of course, and I think Sue Grafton inspired me quite a bit. Kinsey is a PI, not an amateur sleuth, but I always felt I was embarking on an exciting journey with an old friend every time I opened one of her books. I had the pleasure of actually meeting her at the California Crime Writers Conference a couple of years ago. She's a delightful and charming woman and I was a total gushing fan!
PnC: Why are you so well-suited to this genre?
CA: Am I? I'm not sure. I guess I am. I've managed to write several books and people seem to like them. But I think a story is a story and each one has its very own organic life and form. The story dictates the tone and the genre. I prefer to think of it that way, rather than try to fit an idea into a preconceived box.
PnC: Do you enjoy hearing from fans? Do you have time to respond to any of their letters and emails?
CA: I love hearing from readers! And I always respond. It's one of my favorite things about being an author. I've always been very shy about writing to my favorite authors, so I'm thrilled when someone takes the time to tell me they really enjoyed one of my books. After all, that's really why we do this! Perhaps that's the best reward there is.
PnC: Do you always know what your next book will be, and if so, how many books are currently banging around in your brain, wanting to be written?
CA: There's one I've made a serious dent in, but have had to set it to the side, to work on the astrology series that's coming out next year. At least for the time being. I started with the idea of two women, in the same profession, who dislike each other intensely but are forced by circumstances to come together. It began as a somewhat humorous idea, but it's now turning into something else. A homicide detective has inserted himself into the story and he has become the most interesting character to me. This is a unique experience because I can usually visualize or "feel" the final book, but it's morphing into something totally different than I had at first anticipated, with three separate points of view. I have two other projects I also want to find time to work on. These ideas both involve female protagonists, one is somewhat historical and the other has two very unique protagonists in a modern setting. If only there were more hours in the day!
PnC: Is there anything else you'd like Prose 'n Cons readers to know about you?
CA: I really do love to hear from readers and/or writers, so feel free to contact me any time at firstname.lastname@example.org or Facebook.com/ConnieArcherMysteries or Twitter @SnowflakeVT. And you can catch me on the 15th of every month at Killer Characters too. PnC