A Green Thumb for Flowers - and Fiction
© 2017 - Stephanie Hoover, All Rights Reserved
When Kate Collins first developed the concept for her cozy "Flower Shop Mystery" series, her heroine Abby Knight was going to be a lawyer. Collins' editor quashed the idea, so Abby - following her creator's passion for gardening - instead became the owner of Bloomers flower shop in the fictional town of New Chapel, Indiana.
Collins first entry in the series, Mum's the Word was released in November 2004. Since then, there have been sixteen more mysteries including Yews with Caution, released May 2017.
Collins jokes that she picked her nom de plume because it places her, on bookstore shelves, next to Detective Harry Bosch creator Michael Connelly. The truth is, however, that Collins is a favorite among cozy lovers and a New York Times best-selling writer. So...perhaps Connelly is glad he is filed next to her!
Kate Collins graciously agreed to an exclusive interview with CIM publisher Stephanie Hoover. Read the conversation below.
CIM: Which of your books was your first NYT best-seller? How did you find out? What did you do to celebrate?
KC: Dirty Rotten Tendrils was my first NYT best-seller. I found out when my editor called to tell me. It was a bittersweet moment, coming just two weeks after my husband's sudden death. My son was staying with me, so he and I went out to dinner to celebrate that evening. To this day, I am certain my husband was involved somehow!
CIM: Your real name is Linda. You took a pen name that you've said is both an homage to your Irish/English heritage - and jokingly say it places you next to Michael Connelly on bookstore shelves. But how do you view yourself: as Linda or Kate? What do your best friends call you?
KC: I feel a little like Clark Kent, or Bruce Wayne, with dual identities. Truthfully, I've been Kate Collins for so many years - 13 now, that it feels as much my real identity as Linda does. When I'm at a writing-related function I don't even think to respond to Linda. When I write a check at the grocery store, I have to pause to remember which person I am. A few of my friends call me Linda-Kate.
CIM: You worked as an elementary school teacher, but if I'm correct, you didn't start writing for children until after you'd left that profession. Why do you think that is?
KC: All through my childhood I wanted only to be a teacher. I became one, and then after six years and the birth of my first child, I wanted to do something new that I could do from home. For a few years I explored all sorts of crafts, even rug hooking. But it wasn't until I took a correspondence course on writing stories for children that I found my true calling. And seeing my name in print was all the encouragement I needed to continue.
CIM: Prior to the flower shop mysteries, you wrote a number of historical romance novels. Are you a fan of all things historical? How important is a knowledge of history to a writer (of any genre)?
KC: I wasn't a history buff in school but I always loved the romantic look of the 1800s. So when I moved from children's short stories into novel writing, I had all these wonderful romances in my head and decided to set them in that time period. That's when I discovered that the research was almost as much fun as the writing. Each decade had something new happening, such as a different style of dress. Lighting changed dramatically over that century, as did transportation. Every detail in a historical becomes important to a writer, especially because readers are extremely knowledgeable and will call the writer out on mistakes. That happened to me only once and I was mortified. I'd missed it, my editor missed it, and so did the copy editor.
CIM: What do you say to critics who feel that cozies are "formulaic" and somewhat predictable?
KC: Every genre is formulaic. Every. Single. One. Romances - boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back. Mystery - clues are planted, red herrings deter, mystery gets solved. I can do that with every type of fiction. If there wasn't a formula, how would any plot get resolved? People like books where the story gets wrapped up neatly and satisfyingly. That takes a formula.
CIM: You purposely set out to create a heroine that every woman can relate to. Why is that important? How does she differ from those female TV investigators who show up at murder scenes in high-heels and low-cut blouses?
KC: Can you imagine a real life detective wearing a low-cut blouse, short, tight skirt, and spike heels interviewing child molesters, killers, muggers, and the like?
I write my characters as real people, and we know everyone has flaws. That's what makes us interesting, unique, and relatable. Abby Knight is short, busty, freckled, and red-headed, with a fiery temper. She starts off the series by flunking out of law school and getting dumped by her fiance. So right away, she's the underdog. I had to make her that way so I could relate to her emotional struggles. And apparently a lot of others relate to her, too. I've had short, tall, thin, heavy, young, middle-aged and older women say to me, "I am so Abby!" And I always think, "Not quite." But I know what they mean. They relate to her problems and how she deals with them, which is not always well.
Over the course of 18 books and counting, readers have seen Abby go through the awkward stages of starting a new business, being attracted to a new guy, a romance, courtship, and marriage, not to mention near death experiences.
Now readers are watching her struggle with this new identity as wife, with all the changes that requires - and it isn't a smooth ride. I make the bumps funny but also real. Marco is Abby's hero, but he's still a real man with his own quirks, and some of them drive her up the wall. It's funny and relatable.
CIM: Do you always have a "next book" in mind, or do you ever struggle to come up with your next mystery?
KC: Sometimes I get the idea for the next book about midway through my work-in-progress, and sometimes it isn't until I finish. But I've never had to struggle long for a new idea. All I have to do is read the local newspaper. Ideas abound. I just tweak them to make them fit Abby's situation.
CIM: You write a blog with other female cozy writers. Are you all good friends? Do you consult one another on your books, or other aspects of the writing life? Is there ever any competition between you?
KC: The Cozy Chicks are my very dear friends. I've been in the group since about 2005 and have seen it evolve into something truly beautiful. We put out a cookbook together and are working on a new one, something totally different from our last one. Over the years we've lost a few members and gained new ones, but we've always supported each other. We've gone through difficult times together, too They really gathered behind me after I lost my husband and took over promoting for me because I was a mess. And in turn, I've done the same for others in the group. It's wonderful to have such good friends, and I'm including writers outside the Chicks' group, who face the same struggles, especially with all the changes in the publishing industry. We've got each others' backs. Cozy mystery writers in general are an amazing group of strong, generous, supportive women.
CIM: I've read that you divide your time between Indiana and Florida. Do these different locales and climates affect the way you write? Or, is one place "work" and the other strictly "relaxation"?
KC: I am fortunate to have a career where I can work anywhere, and I do. When I'm in Florida, I keep the same work schedule as when I'm in Indiana. When you're working under a deadline, that's a must. With that said, I do manage to find "playtime" wherever I am. I think that's vital for a healthy mind/body/spirit.
CIM: Do any of your children write? What do they think of your accomplishments as an author?
KC: Yay! I get to brag a bit! Both of my children are working in creative fields. My daughter graduated in theater as a set designer/property manager and is working in Chicago in her own business of creating paper props (any type of newspaper, magazine, poster, etc a play would need. She even does props for PBS documentaries.) My son graduated in writing and is now my author assistant, handling my website development/maintenance, vlogs, and on-line promotions. He's brilliant at videos. He recently opened his own virtual author assistance business (www.authorswriteinc.com) and is working with some of my Cozy Chick buddies. Both of my children are exceptionally supportive of me and I'm pretty sure they're proud, too.
CIM: I found mention in your local newspaper of your appearance on stage in a charity performance of "Love Letters." Is being on-stage another of your passions? Does your acting experience impact the way you write dialogue for your characters?
KC: I'm not an actress by any means (although my mother used to call me Betty Davis because I was pretty dramatic.) As a favor to a friend I agreed to do this stage play for charity, and luckily I didn't have to memorize a thing. (Also I enjoyed the applause.) I think every writer is a secret actor because we have to be able to act out dialogue - at least in our heads - as we write. That's how we get the emotions and gestures correct.
CIM: What do you think about the current state of publishing? How do you like e-books? What do you think of the deluge of self-published works?
KC: Tricky topics. The publishing world is in a state of upheaval because of the digital age and the huge move toward self-publishing, which Amazon has made so easy. I admire writers who are ambitious enough to not only publish themselves, but then get out and sell their books. But that's where publishing houses have the advantage. They have an in with brick-and-mortar booksellers that self-pubs do not. I like knowing my books will get onto bookshelves and in libraries without me doing it.
With that said, many established writers are now self-publishing quite successfully because they have a reader base and an author reputation. For them and the readers it's a win-win situation.
For a new author, published or self-published, getting her/his name out there is a tough job. With self-publishing, often there isn't a knowledgeable editor to point out plot problems, grammatical errors, and the like unless one is hired. That's where a virtual author assistant becomes so important. I've been burned a few times buying an e-book by a new, self-pub'd author, so I'm cautious when ordering. I read a sample first. If it's full of errors, I take that as a sign.
Will all books be self-published e-books one day? I don't believe so. I think the publishing industry will evolve and hopefully become more writer-friendly, and I think there will always be a place for a real book.
CIM: Who are some of your favorite mystery writers? TV shows?
KC: Besides all my mystery writing friends, and they are too numerous to list, I would have to include Rex Stout with his Nero Wolf mysteries, Georges Simenon, Peter Lovesey, Liane Moriarty, and Paula Hawkins.
I don't watch too much TV, but I love Sherlock on PBS, and shows like 48 Hours and 20/20 for their mysteries. My escapist pleasures are HGTV shows like House Hunters International or reruns of Friends. The writing on that particular series was sharp and funny, and that's why I like Modern Family so much.
CIM: Do you enjoy true crime books and shows - or is this too gritty for your tastes?
KC: I've tried to like true crime novels, and I had to read quite a few when I was a judge for the Edgar Awards, but I'm just not a fan of gore. I read before bed, and the last thing I want to be thinking about when I fall asleep is a young woman being brutalized. They say what you think about before you sleep is what your brain works on during the night, so I'd rather be thinking happy thoughts when I fall asleep.
CIM: Describe your typical writing day.
KC: First thing in the morning I check both email accounts, personal and professional, then start on my internet duties. I spend about two hours total. Then I exercise, run errands, have lunch, and get down to writing. I usually take short breaks to stretch or make a cup of tea, and then it's right back to the book. I stop around 6 p.m. Sometimes I forget to check the time and will be amazed to see it's 7 p.m. and I'm starving! When I'm in the zone, I lose track of time.
CIM: How long does it take you to write a book, from idea to manuscript delivery?
KC: I ask to have no less than seven months. Nine months is ideal and what my contracts usually specify. However, if given more time, that's how long it takes me. My brain seems to know how to space it out.
CIM: Do you see yourself taking on a project outside of the flower shop mysteries series?
KC: I hope to continue the Flower Shop series to 20 and beyond, but I've also got something else in mind to do on the side. Stay tuned!
CIM: What's the best piece of writing advice you've ever received?
KC: Show, don't tell. That means I need to let readers witness what's happening in a scene as though they were watching the characters on a TV screen, through facial expressions, gestures, and body language instead of just through two-dimensional words. Showing speaks louder than just telling. ☁