Tuesday, July 08, 2014

A Conversation with Mystery Author M. K. Graff

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with M. K. Graff
with M. K. Graff

We are delighted to welcome mystery author M. K. Graff to Omnimystery News today.

Marni's third mystery to feature writer Nora Tierney is The Scarlet Wench (Bridle Path Press; May 2014 trade paperback and ebook formats) and we recently had the opportunity to chat with her about her character and series.

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Omnimystery News: What is it about series mysteries that appeals to you as a writer?

M. K. Graff
Photo provided courtesy of
M. K. Graff

M. K. Graff: I enjoy reading series and watching the growth of the main character, so I knew I would write a series when I left nursing to write full time. Mine is an American children's book author, Nora Tierney, who lives in England. She has a knack for compartmentalizing problems to get ahead and keep her ghosts at bay. She can also lie at the drop of a hat, very charmingly, a talent she developed in her prior years in journalism. Book Three in the series, The Scarlet Wench, was just published, and readers from the earlier books, will see how she's becoming aware of these issues and how they affect her relationships. I also made her pregnant in Book One, and in Book Three her son is six months old, so readers see her adjusting to her role as a single parent.

OMN: How do you categorize your books?

MKG: The mysteries are contemporary but traditional English mysteries: the puzzle is at the heart and there is not gratuitous violence. I'd call them a mix of amateur sleuth (Nora) and police procedural, as the detective on the case she's involved with is the other main point of view. There are chapter epigrams that relate in some way to the action and a cast of character listings. The action takes place in a smaller, closed area where the characters interact, whether it be a town such as Oxford in The Blue Virgin, or Ramsey Lodge in The Green Remains, and the cast of a traveling theatre troupe in The Scarlet Wench.

OMN: Tell us something about The Scarlet Wench that isn't mentioned in the synopsis.

MKG: Nora Tierney gets to have sex for the first time in a very long time — although in keeping to the conventions of a British mystery, I don't go into great detail. But I do address the idea of a young mother rediscovering her sensuous side and how that wars with her responsibilities now that she's a parent. And in every book, there is a woman walking a tartan-wearing black Scottie dog, no matter the setting.

OMN: Describe your writing environment for us.

MKG: My desk at our home on the river is one half of a vintage oak partners desk I share with my husband. Our computers sit back to back and against his monitors I have a piece of cardboard with sketches of the room layouts where the action occurs in each book. These drawings have been cleaned up and made their way into The Green Remains and The Scarlet Wench by my book designer. I find they help me describe the character's movements and keep confusion to a minimum. Behind me are library shelves with the research books I use for all things British, and tomes ranging from poisons to forensics. The wall opposite my desk runs up to a 15' ceiling and holds two antique stained glass windows we restored and built into the wall. In the late afternoon, sunlight streams in those windows and casts their jeweled colors over my laptop and hands.

OMN: You mention your library shelves of reference books for "all things British". Are these your primary sources of information?

MKG: Setting a series in a different country has its challenges. Personally, I wouldn't try to set a book in an area I'd never visited, but I've visited England often and have a good selection of photographs and documents from each trip, as well as notebooks filled with my impressions of each area: sounds, smells, colors, that kind of visual texture. Last year I spent two weeks traveling through southern England by train doing setting research, visiting Cornwall for the first time, as well as Devon and Brighton. I made the pilgrimage to Agatha Christie's Devon home, Greenway, too. I came home with a filled notebook and over 1.200 photos.

I also have great friends there who are willing to answer email questions that crop up during the writing and read drafts to correct my Britspeak, as Nora's American voice is quite different from the other characters. And I usually try to find a policeman in each area to serve as a consultant via email to get the procedure and details of their area down right. You'd be amazed how helpful people are to answer email questions for getting their name in the Acknowledgments Page of your book!

That being said, I also use a copyeditor after the many revisions to get the details down right and pick up anything I might have missed before the books go to print. My characters and their homes are fictional, but my settings and the places they visit are quite real and you can be certain a reader who lives in Bowness-on-Windermere in Cumbria knows that the shops along the quay are white with green trim.

OMN: How important is the setting to your stories?

MKG: It's my feeling that the setting is very important for it's the stage you move your characters around. I try to keep it as close to reality as possible and always explain what is fictional to readers at the end of the books. It would be really disappointing to visit Oxford and not see the glorious ancient Covered Market I've described, for instance, so I stick to reality and just create the homes of my characters from scratch. Additionally, since Nora is an American, she has had to learn different things about her adopted home that go beyond what to her is driving on the wrong side of the car on the wrong side of the road. There are slang terms and expressions that differ and cultural differences, like that famous British reserve, that impact Nora.

OMN: What is the best advice — and harshest criticism — you've received as an author?

MKG: The best advice I've received came from P. D. James, who I was fortunate to meet and interview in 2000 and who has remained a mentor and friend. We were talking about the lengthy process of writing novels and she said: "The real writing gets done in the revision." I've never forgotten that and tell my creative writing students that all the time: your first draft is to get the story out, a lump of clay you will shape and mold and add texture to in your many revisions. When I go into schools and talk to students they are amazed when I say the books may be revised four to six times before they're in print. They can't conceive of doing that. Yet you must learn to switch from your writers hat to your editor's hat as you go along so that you can see what needs to be fixed or altered.

The criticism I receive most often from my own writing group is that I'm becoming a travelogue. I tend to over-include bits about the settings in the earlier drafts as I'm so keen to share the beauty of and my enthusiasm for England.

OMN: Complete this sentence for us: "I am a mystery author and thus I am also …".

MKG: … a wonderful liar and an armchair psychologist. Think of a fiction writer's job: you get to play the "what if?" game all day when you are creating a new storyline. What if I took an American writer from Connecticut and moved her to England? What if she has an affinity for nosing our murderers and getting to the bottom of the reason people commit that horrendous act? I'm not writing about socio- or psychopaths as murderers: I write about average, everyday people who somehow have convinced themselves it's reasonable to cross that fine line and take another person's life. The reasons for that behavior fascinate me.

OMN: Tell us a little more about how your books came to be titled. And were you involved with the cover designs?

MKG: All of my books have a color in their titles that is reflected in the color wash the designer uses. I'm also fond of photography and so they are all photos. The cover of The Green Remains is actually a photo I took during a boat ride in Lake Windermere. When I saw the stone dock, I could picture the climax of the book taking place there. Yet the titles are also all metaphors for the victims. The Scarlet Wench is a local Bowness pub that Nora and the theatre troupe visit. It's named for the fictional legend of a headless woman, shown on its sign. The frontispiece includes a fictional saying that is on a plague in the pub and on their matchbooks: Here is a woman who's lost her head; She's quiet now because she's dead. But the title is a metaphor for the actress who is the victim, the director's mistress who has a harsh, mocking manner, and who is ultimately silenced.

OMN: What kinds of books did you read when you were a child?

MKG: I could read before I went to school and thank my mother for that; The Scarlet Wench is dedicated to her. My early books were the Childcraft series, tales of life in different lands, stories of real people and fanciful fairy tales. When I started to choose my books, stories with a puzzle always intrigued me, from Nancy Drew to Agatha Christie, with a huge dose of saga-like classics like Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo. I decided to write mysteries because they were the genre I kept returning to in my own reading.

OMN: Have any specific authors or titles influenced how and what you write today?

MKG: The Golden Age writers, such as Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey were a huge influence, as were Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle. One of my favorite authors was Daphne Du Maurier and in more modern times, P. D. James, Colin Dexter and Reginald Hill.

OMN: And what do you read now for pleasure?

MKG: I write a weekly crime review blog so my reading is largely review copies of new crime novels. I'm fond of police procedurals and read a large percentage of UK writers, both to keep the cadence of their speech patterns in my ear for my own work, but also because I enjoy the settings and their work. I look for books that have a view into their characters psychology and how that affects their actions.

OMN: Do you have any favorite series characters?

MKG: P. D. James's Adam Dalgliesh and Ian Rankin's John Rebus; Val McDermid's Tony Hill and Carol Jordan are wonderful, too. And I'm an enormous fan of Louise Penny's Inspector Gamache. I could marry that man if we both weren't married already!

OMN: What kinds of movies do you enjoy watching?

MKG: I'm a classics gal — give me a Hitchcock, or a black-and-white with Gary Grant in anything, Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. My three favorite movies are The Philadelphia Story with Hepburn, Grant and Jimmy Stewart; It Takes a Thief with Grant and the divine Grace Kelly; and Rear Window with Stewart and Kelly. In modern movies, I loved Nora Ephron's comedies and her wise ways with the human condition, and as for actors, I'm a huge admirer of Colin Firth and Emma Thompson's movies, and will look for Judi Dench, Tom Hanks and Helen Mirren.

OMN: Create a Top 5 list for us on any subject.

MKG: Top 5 Books You Haven't Read but Should:

Elizabeth Haynes: Into the Darkest Corner;
Harry Bingham: Talking to the Dead;
Nicola Upson: The Death of Lucy Kyte;
Stuart MacBride: Shatter the Bones; and
Susan Hill: The Pure in Heart.

OMN: What's next for you?

MKG: Next up for 2015 is the fourth Nora Tierney mystery, The Golden Hour, set in Bath, UK; and the first of a new series featuring nurse Trudy Genova, who serves as a medical consultant for shows and movies filmed in Manhattan. That series is based on my favorite nursing position when we lived in NY; the first is titled Death Unscripted. And I hope to return to St. Hilda's Mystery and Crime Conference in Oxford.

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M. K. Graff is the co-author of Writing in a Changing World, a primer on writing groups and critique techniques. She writes crime book reviews at AuntieMWrites.com and is Managing Editor of Bridle Path Press. A member of Sisters in Crime, Graff runs the NC Writers Read program in Belhaven. She has also published poetry, last seen in Amelia Earhart: A Tribute; her creative nonfiction has most recently appeared in Southern Writers Magazine.

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The Scarlet Wench by M. K. Graff

The Scarlet Wench
M. K. Graff
A Nora Tierney Mystery

American writer Nora awaits the arrival of a traveling theatre troupe who will stage Noel Coward's play "Blithe Spirit" at Ramsey Lodge in the Lake District. With her son six months old, Nora must juggle parenting with helping her illustrator and friend Simon Ramsey run the lodge. She's also hoping to further her relationship with the only lodge guest not in the cast: Detective Inspector Declan Barnes, ostensibly there for a hiking trip.

When a series of pranks and accidents escalate to murder during a flood that traps everyone, Nora realizes her child is in jeopardy and determines to help Declan unmask a killer.

Amazon.com Print/Kindle Format(s)


  1. MK Graff is a kind and talented lady, author, friend and mentor, she has helped so many in her writers groups to achieve their goals. I can hardly wait to read the new series as she has read excerpts to the Belhaven Writers Read and it sounds like fun.

  2. Love her work--great interview! I like her description of her workspace.



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