Elizabeth Craig has the cozy mystery market almost cornered, with three different series and more books to come.
On this podcast episode we talk about her Myrtle Clover cozy mysteries, her Southern Quilting cozy mysteries, and her Memphis Barbeque cozy mysteries. We even touch briefly on her post-apocolyptic zombie novel. ;-)
Elizabeth is a prolific writer who has produced over 20 books in the last 7 years or so. I’m sure you’ll find several great new books to read after you hear her talk about her writing inspiration and research, which included a trip to Memphis. Lucky her!
In the introduction I mention that previous It’s a Mystery Podcast guest, Matty Dalrymple, is celebrating the release of the audiobook for her mystery/suspense novel Rock Paper Scissors. (If you haven’t already done so, you can hear Matty and I talk about this book on Episode 36.) Matty is sponsoring a giveaway for promo codes for the new audiobook.
If you’d like an opportunity to win a promo code for a copy of the audiobook, send an email to info (at) alexandraamor (dot) com with the word ‘Audiobook’ in the subject line. I’ll be making the draw on Thursday, January 11, 2018. Send your email in by midnight, January 10, Pacific time, and you’ll be in the draw. I’ll make an announcement on the show on Monday, January 15 about the winners.
“With winter darkness and cold setting in, will schoolteacher Julia Thom, and her good friends, Constable Merrick and Walt Sheehan, be able to find a missing toddler before it’s too late?”
Readers who subscribe to my newsletter received this brand new mystery for free on Christmas Eve, and they’ll receive a new Town Called Horse short mystery each month in 2018. If you’re not on the newsletter list, what are you waiting for? Sign up here.
Links and resources mentioned in this episode
- Click on any of the book covers to go to Elizabeth’s books on Amazon
- Interview with Elizabeth from 2011 on The Creative Penn podcast
- Elizabeth’s article on Outlining a Cozy Mystery
You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.
Transcription of Interview with Elizabeth Craig
Alexandra: Hi, mystery readers. I’m Alexandra Amor. This is “It’s a Mystery” podcast, and I’m here today with Elizabeth Spann Craig. Hi, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth: Hi, how are you?
Alexandra: Very well. How are you?
Elizabeth: Great. Thank you.
Alexandra: Good. Well, let me give our listeners a little introduction to you.
Elizabeth Spann Craig is the best selling Cozy Mystery Author of the “Southern Quilting” mysteries, the “Memphis Barbeque” mysteries and the Myrtle “Clover Cozy” mysteries. Her blog has been recognized for several years by Writer’s Digest as one of their 101 Best websites for writers. Elizabeth lives in North Carolina with her family, two cats and an energetic corgi puppy. And I wanna come back to the corgi puppy in a second.
Elizabeth: He’s a mess.
Alexandra: Before we started recording, we talked about how what I’d like to do is sort of do an overview of all three of your series. So let’s do that first. And let’s start with Myrtle Clover. So she’s in her 80s, she’s a retired school teacher and I read in one of the descriptions that you described as having a venomous tongue.
Alexandra: Tell us a little bit more about Myrtle.
Elizabeth: Myrtle I mean, she is…I love to write Myrtle. It’s so much fun. It’s a little tricky because I feel like she has some unlikable qualities and she is a flawed protagonist. And I think that’s what makes her fun to write and, hopefully, to read.
But I have to really kind of be careful that she doesn’t cross that line into being completely unlikable and then the readers are like, “We don’t really wanna hang out with Myrtle anymore.” So that’s really the challenge with her.
She can be a little grouchy sometimes, but she’s super bright and she has this knack for solving mysteries and tripping over bodies. You know, there are just more bodies in the small southern town than you can ever imagine, a sort of Cabot Cove syndrome at this point.
But I was like as long as we can just kinda suspend our disbelief that these many people would be dead in this talk town without the FBI coming in to check out what’s going on there. But it’s just a fun series and she’s really one of my favorite characters even though I can’t say she’s the most favorite because we’re not allowed to do that. I think that’s like naming our favorite child or something.
Alexandra: That’s right.
Elizabeth: She’s definitely at the top of my list. That’s for sure.
Alexandra: You live in North Carolina and she does as well, is the town where she lives fictional?
Elizabeth: It is. Sort of, it’s a lot based on a town I grew up in, which is Anderson, South Carolina. I think it is helpful to write that way, if you have a fictional town, because you can map it in your head without messing things up. I know where everything is in relation to where I grew up and then I can put another name on the town, change things up a little bit and it helps me to keep things straight without making mistakes.
But it doesn’t mean that people in Anderson are like, “But no, you know, the duck pond isn’t there. It’s down…” You know, or whatever. So it kinda keeps me from getting into trouble, but it helps me to keep my town straight, too.
Alexandra: Yes. I can relate to that. The town that I have created is fictional in the Town Called Horse Mysteries. And at the beginning I sort of had a vague map in my head and now I’m realizing I’m going to have to actually draw one because I’m going to start to name things the opposite of where they were in a previous book; it’s hard to keep track.
I did that for the “Southern Quilting” series, too, and, of course, Memphis. I had Memphis so I had to actually go to Memphis and make sure I had Memphis straight, really, really straight making sure that I didn’t mess up there because that’s an actual town and I actually named it so that was sort of quasie fictional.
Alexandra:Yes. Exactly, then you’d have to be really super accurate.
Elizabeth: Right. Yeah. Exactly.
Alexandra: And then one more question about Myrtle. She has a sidekick, tell us about him.
Elizabeth: Miles is her sidekick. And he’s a little prickly, too. Well, maybe it’s just Myrtle. Myrtle brings it out in him. I don’t think he’s this prickly with everybody else.
They make a really good team because he kinda keeps Myrtle in her place. She tends to get a little out there and he kinda reels her back in, he’s really good for her, he’s very patient, he makes sure she doesn’t cook too much because she’s a really abysmal cook and he tries to make sure her ego doesn’t say, “Oh, I’m a wonderful cook,” and goes around poisoning everybody in the neighborhood with her cooking. So he’s a very helpful sidekick to have.
Alexandra: Oh, that’s great. I love it that Myrtle is a little bit sort of difficult to get along with or, yeah, and has that prickly side of her.
Where did that come from? She was a school teacher? Was she used to bossing kids around or what?
Elizabeth: I think she’s a bossy person. She is bossy. I think she’s a little bit…I’d say she’s not resentful about being older. I think she embraces being older, but at the same time she’s very cognizant when somebody expects her not be as sharp as she is, or expects her not to do all the things that she does. And so maybe a little bit of a chip on her shoulder as far as her age is concerned.
And for that reason, she strikes out and does all of these things on her own. She’s very independent and maybe that’s just…she’s just so determined to make sure everybody sees her as somebody very, very capable that I think she maybe takes things a little bit too far sometimes.
Alexandra: Okay. Got it.
The second series is the “Southern Quilting” series, also set in North Carolina and Beatrice Coleman is the protagonist there. Tell us a little bit about her and how is she different from Myrtle?
Elizabeth: She is quite a bit different from Myrtle I would say. She is quieter than Myrtle. Myrtle is kind of more of an ambivert, she can exist with other people fine, but she can be quite by herself, too. And Beatrice is pretty much a determined introvert.
She’s in her 60s, she is a retired Arts Museum Curator and she does like to spend a lot of her time alone or at least she thinks she does. And people keep pulling her out of her house and getting her to do things. And she would rather probably be inside reading a book she thinks, but she finds that she’s also very restless and it’s very hard for her to sit still.
And she thinks the retirement is gonna be this lovely lying in a hammock kind of thing reading a book, and then she finds maybe she’s a little too restless to be able to actually enjoy doing that. And she goes out investigates crimes because there’s a lot of crimes that happen in Dappled Hills, too. It’s just amazing these small towns just people just slaughter each other. It’s something else.
Alexandra: Yes. Exactly. And at the beginning she joins a quilting group, is that correct?
Elizabeth: That’s correct. Yes.
Alexandra: I noticed that there are some quilting tips in that book as well, do you quilt? You must quilt.
Elizabeth: Oh boy, no. I have done so many hours of research. I could theoretically make a quilt, but I have not. I would not actually try that I’m very uncoordinated person and I have a feeling that disaster would ensue.
Although, you can machine quilt. That’s a lot easier than some of the hand piecing and all, but it’s such an incredible art. I have a lot of respect for the people who do it. So I have spent a good deal time trying to make sure that everything is very accurate for that.
That was a book that Penguin asked me to write, Penguin Books, and so I said, “Okay.” And they said, “Can you do this?” And I said, “I definitely can,” you know, with lots of confidence. And I sat out and just watched YouTube and read books and magazines and top the cultures and went to shows and all that. So it was a good deal of research to do but it was fun. It was very rewarding and I found a lot of information about quilting.
Alexandra: And still you don’t have the bug to do it yourself?
Elizabeth: I’m not a crafty person. It’s like I go into crafts stores and I start breaking out in hives a little bit and I have to immediately ask for help from somebody working there and I’m always panicked that I can’t find whatever it is my daughter needs in a craft wise or whatever. I have a feeling it would end in disaster. It might be an expensive disaster so that kind of prevents me from…Quilting is expensive.
Alexandra: It really is. Yeah. Exactly. And so we mentioned corgis at the beginning.
There’s a corgi on the front of each of these books, so have you been a long time corgi fan?
Elizabeth: Yes, I have. We had a corgi, let us see, I guess we…she…my daughter is…Okay , so that would have been 10 years ago we had our first corgi. About 10 or 12 years ago actually I guess, and they’re just a fantastic breed.
They’re just so smart and fun and they’re just great companions and they will do anything for you. And so I have actually…we have a second corgi now because our first corgi that the books were based around unfortunately passed away a couple of years ago. But so we’ve got this corgi puppy now and he looks quite a bit different from our first one but it’s okay. He’s being represented on the covers in spirit.
Alexandra: Did you ask the publisher to that for you, to put the corgi on the front?
Elizabeth: No. I think they thought that would be fun.
Because Penguin, the way that they like to do their Cozy covers is they want to have it be this very kind of again, a very cozy, comforting kind of an environment on the cover with a hint of some trouble. So they’ll have like, you know, you’ll have the glass of wine that’s spilled over, something will be a muck on the cover.
And if they have an animal in the books, I can’t even imagine a series where they wouldn’t do this. They want the animal right up there on the cover to indicate there are so many animal lovers who are Cozy fans and I think they really want to kind of pull that element in there too.
Alexandra: You wrote the corgi based on your dog and then they made the choice to include him on the cover, her on the cover?
Elizabeth: Exactly. Yes. Yeah.
Alexandra: And then the third series which you use a pen name, Riley Adams, is the “Memphis Barbeque” series. Lulu Taylor is the protagonist there. Tell us a bit about Lulu and her aunt Pat’s restaurant.
It’s one of those places in Memphis where everybody goes and they have like cool memorabilia on the walls and it’s sort of like a meeting place, hang out, very much maybe in some…Well, not exactly like, I was gonna say like the Randevu restaurant but, Randevu is down at a basement. Though very different from aunt Pat’s, but similar choice of food and kind of that family feeling and very similar with the memorabilia on the walls.
And Lulu, again, has this sort of penchant for running into dead bodies which is, you know, the common theme with these three protagonists. And she’s very protective over her family and she is definitely the extrovert of the group. So we’ve got an extrovert, we’ve got an ambivert and we’ve got an introvert. And so I’ve got the whole spectrum covered there.
Elizabeth: So, I think her being an extrovert she goes out into the public more often and so she actually…I don’t know, maybe it’s a little bit more likely that she be running into bodies the way she is behaving.
Alexandra: And so the first two series that we talked about set in North Carolina, what made you choose Memphis and Tennessee is right next door to North Carolina? Which I had to look on a map by the way. But, yeah, why that…
Elizabeth: I do understand that.
Alexandra: Why Memphis?
Elizabeth: You’re forgiven.
Alexandra: Thank you.
Elizabeth: You’re Canadian.
Alexandra: Yeah, exactly.
Elizabeth; I would have no idea. So you’re good.
Alexandra: What was it about Memphis?
Elizabeth: Well, actually the publisher again this is another one of those situations where Penguin came to me and asked if I could write a series based in Memphis. And they wanted it to be centered around a barbeque restaurant and they wanted it set…I know it’s just kinda extraordinary. They wanted it set in Memphis and they wanted certain things that would happen there.
I was allowed to take that and run with it, but at the time the Neelys on Food Network was quite a popular show and they were trying to kind of build on that. So they had a specific idea that they wanted me to work on. With the “Southern Quilting Mysteries” they did come to me and they asked it. They said, “We want Quilting and we it set in the south and you just run with it whatever you wanna do is fine.”
With Memphis I was not well known at the time, not that I am well known now, but I’m well known now than I was then. So, I think, they just gave me some more guidelines to work with and I was happy to do that and run with it. And that did mean that I did actually go to Memphis and spend a long time there with my family walking it and making notes and just going to lots of different Memphis landmarks which was a lot of fun. I had not ever.
Alexandra: Oh, that’s amazing.
And you didn’t feel restricted at all by those guidelines that they had given you?
Elizabeth: I mean, I do, but in a way, it’s more of a creative challenge because you have these parameters that you need to work in. In a way, it’s not more fun obviously, coming up with something completely from scratch is probably more fun.
But in a lot of ways, it was such a creative challenge it really got my brain going thinking about new ways spinning stuff, because they were very specific about what they wanted so, in a way it was kinda like writing an assignment but it was a cool assignment and it was one that I thought was you know, was fun to take on, so I enjoyed it.
Alexandra: Oh, that’s good. Good. And are you currently still writing all three series?
Elizabeth: No. I’m only writing the two, “Southern Quilting Mysteries” and the “Myrtle Clover” series. And both of those are independent now. I write them myself, self publishing them. I got my character rights back from Penguin after “Tying the Knot” which was book five.
Alexandra: Great. And because they both have ones coming up in 2018. So there’s a new “Myrtle Clover” in early 2018 and then a new “Quilting Mystery” in summer of 2018.
Elizabeth: That’s exactly right. Yup. Running on schedule.
Alexandra: Do you alternate when you write them then?
Elizabeth: I do. What I do is I write one book and then I write a quick outline for the following book in that same series. And because that way, it’s very fresh in my mind and the characters, the town, everything is just right there it makes it so much easier to write a nice long outline and just run with it.
And then I pick up the outline that I wrote months before for the other series and start writing on that and working on that. And that seems to be the way that works best. I’ve tried quite a few different ways and this one seems like it works a little bit better for me.
Alexandra: Oh, that’s great. And I mentioned before we restarted recording that I had found an interview with you on The Creative Penn, Joanna Penn’s website. And a couple of things I noticed was one was that in 2011 you had three mysteries out. And now you have 24, I think I counted correctly.
Alexandra: Yeah. I didn’t count the zombie one so that would be 25. So that’s six years and 21, 22 books. So you obviously write really quickly.
What’s you writing routine like? Do you write every day?
Elizabeth: I do. I mean, I’m not like you know, obviously if I…I hurt my back one day last week, or a few days, you know, at some point last week, or 10 days ago and I was a big baby about that. First, it wasn’t even that really. I was writing but I was like, “This is bad.” You know, when I’m writing, it’s just bad.
I had a muscle relaxer and I was like, “This is not good,” so I was like, “Fine. I don’t have to write every day.” But in general, I do write at least three pages a day. These are double spaces, it’s not a lot. It’s like 750 words you know, something like that. But it adds up obviously if you’re just really consistent with it.
And I think the difference between me and probably some other writers is I write pretty clean, so I don’t really do a lot of revision, it’s pretty much exactly going to print that way. Obviously, I’m changing…I have continuity errors, I have typos and things like that my editors helps me to straighten out.
But there’s not a lot of big changes usually going on after I write it, and, I think, that saves me a lot of time. I know it saves me a lot of time. So I’m fast, I mean, I could be faster. I could write more than I do. I mean, it’s three pages. There are people who would be like, “Okay, you know, I could double that, triple that, quadruple that. I’m sure I could.”
And, you know, during NaNo I was like, “Oh, I’ll write a little bit more,” because it’s kinda fun because everybody is doing a challenge. And so I…but I wouldn’t write that much more I mean, I might write like 1,100 words or something like that but, yeah. That’s it.
Alexandra: Well, and don’t they say too that consistency over time is the whole thing. So, you know, somebody might write 5,000 words a day and then not write for three weeks, but if you’re writing 750 words every weekday, you know, it adds up after a while.
Elizabeth: It’s like the rabbit and the…you know, the tortoise and the hare, right?
Elizabeth: So I’m just plodding along, I’m sort of the puppy. He is catching up with the cat in Bugs Bunny cartoons. You now, I’m just sort of just plodding along and I get there though.
Alexandra; Exactly. And one of the things I mentioned that interview on The Creative Penn, one of the things you guys talked about was clues and red herrings. And it got me thinking about that razor sharp line between giving readers enough information and not too much to be insulting and not withholding stuff and making it unfair to them.
Could you talk about that a little bit and how you find that balance?
Elizabeth: Yeah. And you’re right. It’s tricky because the books that I have really disliked that I have read that are mysteries are ones where you think it’s about money. And that’s the motive. And it’s carried all the way through to the end of the book and then suddenly at the end of the book and it’s like a twist it’s not about that at all. It’s about somebody’s revenge on somebody. And that’s fine. I mean, in sort of a twist but it’s not really fair, you know, when you think it’s the same I don’t know it’s just kinda taking it a little bit too far.
And so I think there’s the point where you don’t want readers to get frustrated with it and so for me what I do is I have every suspect tells the truth and they tell a lie. And that keeps my sleuth guessing.
And also she’s able to eliminate certain things. She can go to the next interview with a suspect and maybe they can say something that’s completely different from the other suspect. And I don’t know it just sort of makes it so it doesn’t go on too far and it makes it fair and interesting, I think.
The clues are a little tricky because you have to be really upfront with the readers so usually what I’ll do is sort of a slight of hand thing where you show the clue and then something distracting happens that it seems much more important and so you distract from it. It’s almost like a musician. It really is.
Alexandra: And do you have a way that you track the lies and the truth that each of your suspects have told or do you keep all that information in your head?
Elizabeth: Well, no. I don’t keep it all in my head. My head would explode and I would start making all kinds of terrible mistakes in the book. No doubt. I have an outline, and my outline is…I mean, it’s a real base actually you can see my outline online. I post it up there just kinda give everybody a general idea of how I do things but it’s an interview and I do lie, truth, alibi, where the interview took place and I have that for each suspect as I go through and there is…I have two bodies for each book. So I’ve got like one set of interviews with that information and then a second set of interviews with the same information.
So, I mean, I would say it’s not a pattern for sure. I hate to say it’s a formula, but you can see it I mean, especially maybe after you see the outline you can definitely, definitely see that.
Alexandra: Yes. Oh, that’s amazing. I will put a link in the show notes a itsamysterypodcast.com, yeah, to that post and people can see and see how you do it.
Elizabeth: Cool. That sounds great.
Alexandra: Yeah a little bit of a peek behind the screen at the magician there. So we talked about the upcoming books. So then one last question just before we go, what are your plans going forward?
Are you just going to continue working those two series or do you have plans for anything new?
Elizabeth: I think for a little while I’m gonna work on the two series. I can’t even imagine the end for Myrtle. I’ve got to say right now I don’t think there’s going to be an end for Myrtle. It’s just gonna continue until people say, “Stop writing Myrtle.” And then I’ll probably still write Myrtle I just won’t release them. I’ll just have like secret little Myrtle books, you know, in my house because I just love her and she’s fun.
But “Southern Quilting” we’ll see. I’m kinda getting to a point where things are gonna change because Beatrice just got married to Wyatt so that’s changing a little bit so we’ll see how far I can go with the story line there. And then, yes, I definitely wanna write a new series. So, I have no ideas for that right now, so I’m working on it though.
Alexandra: Okay. You anticipated my question. And it’ll be nice to just see in terms of an inspiration what shows up for you.
Elizabeth: It’ll be fun. That’s something different. I haven’t done that for a while.
Alexandra: Yes. Exactly. Something different. Yeah. Well, this has been amazing, Elizabeth. Thank you so much. So why don’t you let our listeners know where they can find out more about you and your books.
Elizabeth: So you can pretty much get everywhere on my website which is elizabethspanncraig.com. I’m on Twitter elizabethscraig and I think you can…yeah between those two sites I’m on Facebook Elizabeth Craig Author, too. And I answer my emails. If you send me an email you can find that on contact me. Love to hear from people.
Alexandra: Cool. And we mentioned that the very outset that you have a blog for writers and they can link to that from elizabethspanncraig.com?
Elizabeth: It is. It’s under Blog on my website. And it’s pretty much all for writers. Readers, you’re welcome to go there and see. It might not be very interesting, but hopefully writers will enjoy it.
Alexandra: Yes. Good. Okay, great. Well, thank you again so much. It’s been great having you on the show.
Elizabeth: Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.
Alexandra: Oh, my pleasure. Bye-bye.