Elise M. Stone is an author who deeply considers her readers when she’s writing.
She recognized early on that most cozy mystery readers are older women. Wisely, she is writing a series for exactly those readers. Her amateur sleuth in the African Violet Mysteries, Lilliana Wentworth, is an older widow living in a retirement community, somewhat against her will. ;-)
Elise also has a trilogy of faith based mysteries, which was the first series she wrote. As you’ll hear, these books stray a little bit outside the Christian mystery genre conventions, which makes them unique. My author brain loved this part of my conversation with Elise because it’s such an interesting subject – a little bit of inside baseball for mystery authors.
As readers, we often want stories that are unique, but we also want them to meet our expectations. For an author, it’s sometimes difficult to balance those two things, especially if we are writing from our heart and/or writing to explore issues dear to us.
This episode of It’s a Mystery Podcast is sponsored by the first full-length Town Called Horse novel, Horse With No Name. A historical mystery that readers have said has exquisite character development, intrigue, and complexity.
Would you risk your life simply to be yourself?
Julia Thom is new to the small town of Horse, but she’s not new to trouble. When reclusive watchmaker James Hunter is beaten, but has no memory of the event, Julia vows to find the culprits. Even if Hunter hadn’t saved Julia herself from being assaulted, she would still be on the case; meddling helps keep her focus off her own complicated life. Julia is fast becoming a thorn in Police Constable Jack Merrick’s side and he flounders as he tries to figure out how to deal with such a headstrong woman.
Click here to download your copy for free.
Click on any of the book covers to go to Elise’s books on Amazon.
You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.
Transcription of Interview with Elise Stone
Alexandra: Hi, mystery readers, this “It’s a Mystery” podcast. I’m Alexandra Amor, and I’m here today with, Elise M. Stone. Hi, Elise.
Alexandra: How are you doing today?
Elise: I’m doing good.
Alexandra: How are things in Arizona?
Elise: Warm. It’s supposed to be that 76 degrees today. I was actually going to wear something a little festive, but a long-sleeved black shirt with a felt vest wasn’t going to work today. So wearing short sleeves, which is typical for Arizona.
Alexandra: Yes, even in December. Well, that’s awesome. Let me introduce you to our listeners.
She released her first book, “Faith, Hope, and Murder: An Inspirational Mystery,” in 2013. There are now three books in this “Community of Faith” mystery series, which we’re going to talk about today.
She also has four books in a second cozy mystery series that could be classified as geezer lit…I like that you use that phrase…but what she prefers to think of as fiction with mature characters.
“The African Violet Club Mysteries” feature retired librarian, Lilliana Wentworth who in addition to raising African violets, seems to have a knack for stumbling over dead bodies.
Retired now, Elise spends her days doing her two favorite things, writing and reading. Agatha and Spenser, her two cats, keep her company while watching birds and lizards outside her office window in Tucson.
First of all, I love that you have a cat named Spenser, I think that’s awesome, Spenser with an S, of course.
Elise: Yes, and Agatha is after Agatha Christie.
Alexandra: Of course, yes. Very appropriate for a mystery writer. I’m going to do things kind of in reverse.
Let’s start by talking your second series, “The African Violet Mysteries.”
Tell us a little bit about Liliana. She’s a retired librarian and she lives in a retirement village, The Rainbow Village, is that right?
Elise: Rainbow Ranch is the name of the town, and she lives at Rainbow Ranch Retirement Community. And she actually feels a little young for it, but the reason she moved there was that a few years back, her husband had a stroke so they had to find some other living arrangements, and she’s stuck there ever since.
Alexandra: You say stuck, so it’s not ideal for her?
Elise: I guess I meant stayed more than stuck. When the first book starts, she hasn’t come totally out of her grief, so she’s been sticking to herself. And as the book progresses, she gets more involved with the people and finds out that it really is where she wants to be.
Alexandra: One of the things I noticed was that in the reviews for the books, people said that they really appreciated that this was an older protagonist. Somebody in one of the reviews pointed out that a lot of the readers of cozy mysteries are older as well.
Was that a deliberate choice on your part, to make Liliana a little older?
Elise: It was. I had read a number of cozy mysteries with protagonists at various stages, but usually they’re in their late 20s, early 30s, and the ones that were about older sleuths tended to be more of the Grandma Mazur [Ed note: from the Janet Evanovich Stephanie Plum mysteries] type of character, the quirky, funky, kind of stumbling over solutions to mysteries.
My observation, because I’m older myself, was that most women of our age are a lot more active and sharp than are portrayed. So I actually wanted to go down the path of Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher. Competent older women, and that’s how I wanted to take Liliana.
Alexandra: Did you design that series specifically with her in mind, or what came first, “The African Violets” or Lilliana?
When I was writing the first series, I was looking around for other mysteries and whatnot, but I also have always enjoyed African violets myself, although I’m not always successful at raising them. But when you get them working, they’re so cheery, and they have flowers practically year round, and they’re really nice.
I had just ordered a few new plants, because I had killed off the last ones again, and I was looking through the catalogue for the Violet Barn, which is where I had ordered them from.
And looking just because the pictures are gorgeous and I was trying to think, “But what else could I buy?” And I stopped, and I saw this variety named Mas Crime Scene and its description was, “So red it’s criminal.”
I said, “Oh, this has got to be a mystery series.” And then I thought, “Well, somebody must have done this,” because lots of people raise African violets. So I did a search, and no there wasn’t.
Well, it took a few years till I finally got around to writing that series of books, and lo and behold, I did another search, and still, nobody had done African violets.
And I said, “Okay, I’m gonna do this.” And then I thought, “Well, who am I gonna have raise these African violets?” because it doesn’t really strike me as something that your late 20s, early 30s sleuth would do. So I said, “Well, what about an older woman?” because that kind of that goes the theme, and that’s when I started thinking about Lilliana and trying to decide what kind of a person she would be.
Alexandra: Does she have a background in computer science as well? Because I know you do.
Elise: No, she does not. That was kind of done on purpose because, like most writers when they start out, their first characters are a lot like themselves and I decided that I was going to try to create a character who was not me. And on purpose, I take the fact that Liliana is overly thin and she’s also very athletic, which is different than me.
Alexandra: One of the things I noticed is that she…or that’s mentioned in one of the book descriptions is that there’s a very young chief of police in Rainbow Ranch.
Alexandra: Tell us a little bit about him and how he gets involved with Lilliana in the mysteries?
Elise: Well, he had to be somewhat inexperienced in order to make it believable that an amateur could solve mysteries where he couldn’t. So while he is always involved, he hasn’t had a whole lot of experience.
He actually got the job as chief of police because his uncle is the mayor of the town, and as most small towns are, it was a little incestuous.
One of the things that I had to look into was that in Arizona there usually aren’t small town police departments. Usually, it’s handled by the county sheriffs, whatever law enforcement there was.
So I had to look into that a little bit, and I found this one mining town, whose name escapes me at the moment, where they did actually have their own police department. And I thought about that as “Well, how can I make it realistic that there’s a police department?”
Thinking about the background of it, I decided that one of the issues for the small town would be having this retirement community built there, then changing the population.
So one of the things the owner of the retirement community did was volunteer to fund the police department for at least the first year so that they would have that benefit. And of course, as I said, with the small town politics, the owner and the mayor decided they would hire the nephew who actually, in the past had worked for the Tuscan police department, but he hadn’t spent many years there. So they hired him to be the chief of police figuring that nothing ever happens in Rainbow Ranch so it didn’t matter.
Alexandra: Right. Much to his surprise.
There are four books in this series now, correct?
Alexandra: And the most recent one is…?
Alexandra: “Double Pink Murder.” And is it out…we’re recording this in December 2017. Is it out right now?
Elise: Oh yes, it has been out for several months. I’m actually working on the fifth book now, which is “Ghost White Murder.”
Alexandra: I’m hoping you have lots of African violet names to chose from, for the titles of the books.
Elise: I am working on that. When I started writing the series…as you mentioned, this is my second series…and when I decided that I was going to write mysteries, I set aside an amount of money and put it in a business bank account, and said, “This way I don’t have a hobby that’s going to continually cost me, I have a limit here.”
Well, it turned out the first series used up most of that bank account between covers and editor and my splurging on writing courses, which I’m an addict of, and I said, “How am I going to publish this second series?”
The only way I can do that is if I do most of the work myself, and I was fairly confident about the editing because I’m pretty good with grammar and spelling and whatnot. But I did invest in AutoCrit to help me go over the manuscript and pick up difficulties.
But covers, now, I’m not a graphic person. I don’t think visually or anything, but I did a lot of research and I said, “Maybe I can do this,” and I looked at some other series that had relatively simple covers where one thing changed from book to book.
So I taught myself GIMP, which is the free version of a similar program to Photoshop, but doesn’t cost any money. And knowing absolutely nothing about how graphic programs work, I spent a lot of time trying to figure that out. And I came up with some of these and said, “Okay, what can I change on this cover that’s not gonna be totally beyond my skills?” And I changed the color.
If I come up with a basic cover and I only have to change the color, I can manage it. So that’s how I started out with the color names for each of the books.
You’ll be glad to know I have since made enough money from selling the books to hire an actual cover designer, but I was kind of pushed into that where I got to “Double Pink” and I could not get the shade of pink to match. And I said, “It’s not looking right,” so time to go for it. But since I started out with the colors, I continued with colors.
And it’s a little bit of a challenge because, primarily African violets, as you might guess, are mostly purple. There are red ones, there are yellow ones, there are sort of white ones, they usually have a lot of green in the flowers. But even “True Blue,” the first book in the series, the blue is really a deep purple in the African violet world. It’s not really blue.
So far I’ve got, as I said, “Ghost White” is coming, and I think I’ve got two more colors that are safe, and then we’ll have to see what happens.
Alexandra: I noticed the two different styles of colors on your website. So if people are interested, they can go to your website and to the books page and they’ll see the original version, and then also in the sidebar the new versions. So I thought it was interesting to compare.
You did a great job with the original versions, by the way. They look great. And the new ones look great, too.
Let’s switch gears a little bit then and talk about your first series. So it’s the “Community of Faith Mysteries,” and one of the things you said, just a few minutes ago, was about choosing to write mysteries. So let’s talk about that first.
Was the genre something you consciously chose, and why the mystery genre then?
Elise: When I came to this, which was after a lot of years of not writing…it’s kind of a longer story…all the advice said, “To write what you read.” And what I read was mysteries, and I said, “Okay, this makes a whole lot of sense, let me write mystery novels.”
That was actually how I decided to write mysteries. How I decided to write a Christian mystery was because that was kind of about me as much as anything because, as I said, I didn’t write for a lot of years.
And even though when I was very young, I wrote a lot of stories. It was always one of my favorite things was making up stories. Anyway, then along came 9/11 and, like most people…I mean, I was raised in the New York City area and I was living in Boston at the time that 9/11 occurred.
It hit me very hard because there were so many people who got on a train to go to work that day or got on a plane to go either on a business trip or a vacation, having no idea that was gonna be their last day on Earth. And it started me thinking that if this is gonna be my last day on earth, what will I regret not having done? And there were two things.
Alexandra: Wow, yeah.
Elise: And one of which was I had also not bothered with God very much over the past decades and I said, “Okay, that’s one of the things I’ve always figured that there’s plenty of time to figure that out later. Maybe I ought to look at that.”
And the other was I want to write a novel. It’s something I always wanted to do, so let me try this now. So that’s why I came to the “Community of Faith” series as the first set of books that I wrote. Of course, I had a whole lot to learn.
Alexandra: Of course, yes.
Elise: Not only about writing in general, but I was not much of a reader of Christian fiction, so I had no idea that there were conventions that should be followed there. And I hadn’t followed them, and once I started getting involved with some Christian fiction groups, I got a lot of criticism because my characters and my plotline didn’t fit the standard.
I looked around, and there really wasn’t a whole lot out there written the same way that my books were. But it was it was the book I was going to write, and that’s also how I came to decide to indie publish because I could either re-write the book to fit what Christian publishers are looking for, or I could publish it myself and tell the story. Well, since I waited 40 years to write this book, I wasn’t gonna change it.
Alexandra: No, exactly. Tell us a little bit then about Faith Anderson, the main character in these books. And I saw that she was described as a skeptical Christian, and I thought that was interesting.
You mentioned earlier that perhaps she was a version of yourself, so tell us a little bit about her.
Elise: Let me see if I can remember it. The Church I go to now has an opening welcome, which says, “Welcome to believers, welcome to questioners, and welcome to questioning believers.” And that really hit home with me, again, like I said, because I had gone away from the church.
I have lots and lots of questions about religion and beliefs and what is truth and all of that. So in writing about Faith, I was bringing out those kinds of questions and those kinds of doubts and how they could be resolved, and that’s basically where I started with her.
Alexandra: Exploring the questions that you had through these characters in the book.
Alexandra: In the books one of her close friends is Pastor John Meade, and in one of the descriptions you describe them as having sort of opposing points of view. And I imagine that kind of tension around faith or beliefs really lends itself to creating quite an interesting relationship between the two.
Elise: And it’s John Menard.
Alexandra: Oh sorry, Menard. What did I say, Meade?
Elise: You said Meade.
Alexandra: I don’t have my glasses on, so I apologize.
Elise: That’s okay. I was kind of thinking, “Who is that?”
Alexandra: Who’s that guy? Yeah. Okay, Pastor John Menard.
Tell us a little bit about him and his relationship with Faith.
Elise: His relationship with Faith, he and Faith don’t get along all that well to begin with because she actually meets him as a result of her friend, Hope, who belongs to his church, and Hope finds out that the church needs a new website.
Faith happens to be a web designer by profession, so she goes to the church to talk about designing this new website. But she’s not really a believer, and she’s not sure she wants to do this. And John has issues of his own and, of course, being a minister, his faith is really strong, so right away they’re coming at opposite poles into this relationship. But they find that they have more in common than they think they do.
Alexandra: In the first book “Faith, Hope, and Murder,” which I love the title because it has both, you know, Faith and her best friend’s names in it. That’s awesome.
You deal with issues related to the Mexico-Arizona border, which is pretty timely now as well in 2017, and the book was written a few years ago.
I imagine that’s an ongoing issue in that part of the world?
Elise: It is. As I said previously, I was from the Northeast and only recently moved to Arizona. And in the Northeast, there is no border problem. Nobody talks about it.
And then I moved to Tucson, and on a daily basis there are smugglers of both drugs and humans being apprehended both at the checkpoints and just out in the desert, and it is a mammoth issue in Arizona. And it really affected me that, how could this exist? Particularly in the summertime.
A few years back…because these people come over, the Coyotes, who are the smugglers, they get the people who are desperate to pay them, to smuggle them across the border and lead them to safety, they lie to these people. They tell them, “It’s a one-day walk from the border to Phoenix,” and it is not nearly that.
It’s 90 miles from Tucson to Phoenix and another 30 or 40 miles down to the border. You’re not covering that in one day. They tell them that there’s plenty of water and there’s food, so they come over unprepared. And they lead them into the desert, and so many die of exposure and thirst.
And contrary to popular opinion, the border patrols spends almost as much time rescuing these people as they do arresting them to put them into jail because they’re not heartless. This isn’t like that.
People have a lot of sympathy for these people, but they just come over and they have no idea what they’re in for. And the Coyotes don’t care, they’re abandoning them and say, “Yeah, there is the road, go,” you know?
Alexandra: They’ve got their money, so…
Elise: Yes, yes. And there was one year, not too long ago, there were so many bodies that the Pima County medical examiner had to rent a refrigerated truck to store them.
And as I said, this is something nobody hears about if you don’t live in the area. And it struck me then, it was like, “This is really a bigger issue than anybody knows about.”
Alexandra: Were able to shine a light on that in the first book, “Faith, Hope, and Murder.” And there are three books in the series, and the last one was written in 2015. You mentioned that you’re working on the next “African Violet” mystery.
Do you think you’ll go back to the “Community of Faith” books, or are you done with them?
Elise: I do intend to because they don’t fit the niche of Christian fiction very well. They’re a hard sell and they’re hard to promote. And as I said, I always try to read what I’m writing to get an idea.
After my first blunder into I don’t know what I’m doing here, I did manage to find one other series that was similar to mine in tone and that it was a mystery series. And that’s one that was written by Stephanie Jaye Evans, and she was traditionally published, but not by a Christian publisher, but by a secular publisher.
I loved her books except there were only two of them. Obviously, she couldn’t sell it either and did not get a contract for more than the initial two books, which is sad.
So it’s hard to get motivated to write when you know it’s not really going to sell, but I do want to go back and write two more books in that series. I know what’s going to happen in the next book, and when I finish “Ghost White Murder,” I plan on going back to the “Community of Faith” series and writing that next book.
Alexandra: Excellent. Good to hear. Well, this has been amazing, Elise. Thank you so much for chatting with me today.
Why don’t you let our listeners know where they can find out more about you and your books.
Elise: Well, of course, at my website, elisemstone.com. I am also on Facebook way more than I should be, and Twitter, and I…let’s see, the books, important. I have been exclusive to Amazon with the “African Violet” series all along, and mostly with the “Community of Faith” series.
But recently, I decided that I wanted to take them wide, to publish elsewhere. So, at this point, the first three books in the “African Violet” club series are now available everywhere, Nook, iBooks, Google Play, Kobo, because I wanted to do that. The fourth book, it should be available next week. I ran into a little stumble with “The Community of Faith” books, so they’re going to have to wait until January, but they will be there.
Alexandra: Great. Okay, well thank you for mentioning that. And this show will probably go out in January, so that’s perfect timing. Fantastic. Well, amazing, thank you so much again, Elise. It’s been really great chatting with you.
Elise: Thank you. It’s been fun. Time flew.
Alexandra: Good, I’m glad to hear it. Take care. Bye-bye.