Interview With Author V. M. Burns

Please introduce yourself and your book(s)!

Hello, I’m V. M. (Valerie) Burns. I was born and raised in the Midwestern United States in Northwest Indiana. Although, I now live in Eastern Tennessee where it’s much warmer. By day, I work as an Operations Manager for a call center, but at night, I write murder mysteries. I have three mystery series. My mystery Bookshop Mystery Series is set on the shores of Lake Michigan in the fictional town of North Harbor, Michigan. Samantha Washington and her husband dreamed of opening a mystery bookshop. When her husband dies, Sam quits her job as a high school English teacher and opens the mystery bookshop. However, Sam also dreamed of writing British historic cozy mysteries. Each book in this series includes the murder Sam is solving in her real life and the mystery she is writing.

I also write a Dog Club Mystery Series. When Lilly Ann Echosby’s husband leaves her for a younger woman, she reconnects with an old friend who introduces her to the dog eat dog world of competitive dog world. This series starts in the fictional town of Lighthouse Dunes, Indiana but later moves to Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The RJ Franklin Series is a multicultural mystery series which is set in St. Joseph, Indiana. RJ Franklin is a police detective who solves murders with a little help from his witty godmother, Mama B. The titles of the books in this series are all taken from Negro Spirituals. This culinary mystery series includes tasty soul food recipes.

What is/are the real-life story(ies) behind your book(s)?

Each one of my books includes a little bit of my personality, hopes and dreams. Born and raised in the church in Indiana, the RJ Franklin Mystery Series, includes a lot of my personal experiences from singing in the church choir to eating soul food. RJ’s godmother, Mama B, is based on my own godmother, Mrs. Ella Bethany who loved to cook, sit on her front porch and who knew everything that was going on in the church and in the community. Like RJ, if you wanted the inside scoop, you needed to talk to Mama B.

In my Mystery Bookshop Mystery Series, Samantha Washington dreams of quitting her job and opening a mystery bookshop because that’s my dream. I also dream of writing British historic cozy mysteries. The Mystery Bookshop Mystery Series allows me to live those dreams, vicariously, through Samantha.

One of the things readers will notice about my books is that there are dogs, in particular, poodles. That’s because I love dogs, especially poodles. Like Samantha Washington in the Mystery Bookshop series, I have two toy poodles. Similar to Lilly Echosby in the Dog Club Mystery Series, I used to compete with my poodles in canine performance events and was a member of a dog club for many years. Also, like Lilly Echosby, I went in search of my happy place which led to my move from the brutally cold winters in Northwest Indiana to the sunshine and warmth of Eastern Tennessee.

What inspires/inspired your creativity?

I think my love of cozy mysteries is my greatest inspiration. I love reading cozies and after decades of devouring as many cozy mysteries as I could and keeping a list of, I wish there was a cozy about… I decided to bite the bullet and try my hand at writing. The great authors like Agatha Christie, Victoria Thompson and Emily Brightwell, make it look easy. It’s not easy, but it is very satisfying.

How do you deal with creative block?

Generally, when I feel blocked, I try to “Sharpen the Saw.” That’s the 7th habit from Stephen Covey’s, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. For me, sharpening the saw involves reminding myself why I love cozy mysteries so much. I read my favorite cozies or watch hours of cozy movies. After a day or so, I usually feel inspired and I want to write. I don’t allow myself to read for pleasure while I’m writing and with three series, I have a lot of deadlines which can throw a wrench in my reading. When I’ve been writing a lot, I feel like a car running on fumes. That’s when I have to fill my tank, which involves a lot of Agatha Christie. It’s like reconnecting with old friends.

What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?

Good question. I think the biggest mistakes I worry about involve making sure that I “play fair” with the reader. I want solving the mystery to be challenging, but I need to make sure there are sufficient clues that will enable the reader to solve the crime along with my sleuth. Because I’m a “pantser” and not a plotter, I don’t have a detailed outline at the start of a book. I have a general idea of the victim, the suspects and then I write by the seat of my pants (hence the term, pantser). Sometimes the characters can take on a life of their own and I find myself in unchartered territory. When that happens, I have to go back and make sure that I’ve included enough clues that will lead the reader to the same conclusion as the sleuth by the end of the book.

Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?

I wish. Titles and book covers are my weakest areas. My books are traditionally published. Self-published authors have much more control over titles and covers than a traditionally published author. The publisher controls the title and the covers and the author’s input can vary depending on the publisher. One of my publishers will ask for my ideas, but then the art department does pretty much whatever they want. Fortunately, I’ve liked the covers they’ve created. When it comes to titles, my track record is worse than with covers. For two of my series, my publisher has hated almost every title that I’ve come up with, and has changed them, including my current WIP (Work In-Progress).

How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?

I’m learning to develop a thicker skin for negative reviews and feedback, but I’ll admit it’s still a challenge. Writing is my baby, so negative comments can be very hurtful. I’m learning not to take things personally, but I’ll admit, it is difficult. I try to remind myself that my books don’t appeal to everyone. I also remind myself that even the great writers like, Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, got negative feedback.

How has your creation process improved over time?

I’m not sure that my process has improved, but it has changed. When I first started writing, I wrote quickly without editing. Once, I finished the first draft, then I would go back and edit. Lately, I’ve noticed that I edit more as I go along. It takes a lot longer that way, but I hope the writing is better.

What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your book(s)?

Writing is hard. Good authors can make it look easy. If you’ve ever read a book and thought, I can do that, then I would challenge you to give it a try. Starting a book is easy, but finishing is the challenge. The worst thing I’ve noticed about writing is despite multiple edits (by multiple people), typos and grammatical errors still manage to slip through and make their way to the final product. After 2-3 rounds of edits by me, my agent, my editor, the copy editor and a production editor, diligent readers still find errors. That is frustrating.

The best thing about the entire process is hearing from readers who enjoy my books and the characters. It always fills me with joy when I learn that someone enjoys my books. It helps me want to keep writing.

The most surprising thing about the writing process has to be the amount of time and the army of people it takes beyond finishing the book that it takes to get the book from the seed of an idea to finished product. It truly takes a village to publish a book and get it on the shelves of a library or bookstore.

Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?

One of the major parts of writing is making sure that the book meets the reader’s expectations. I write cozy mysteries and there are rules for cozies. Basically, cozy mysteries feature an amateur sleuth, and can’t have graphic sex, no violence or gore and no bad language. I sometimes see comments about how unrealistic cozy mysteries are and how authors want to “push the envelope.” I’m fine with pushing the envelope as long as the book doesn’t change the basics of what makes a cozy….well, cozy. Despite my personal feelings, a cozy reader should be able to pick up a cozy mystery and not be surprised by a flurry of bad words. So, in that sense, I’d say I strive to satisfy readers.

What role do emotions play in creativity?

As a pantser, I think emotions play a big role in my personal creativity. Because I don’t start with a detailed outline, I rely on emotions and the characters personalities to drive the story forward. Allowing my characters to act in a manner that fits the situation often leads me to unique situations. These situations can often provide the twists that can take the story to another level.

Do you have any creativity tricks?

I don’t know that I’d say I have creativity tricks, however one thing that boosts my creativity is having multiple series. People often ask why I write three series. Writing a book takes a long time and I spend months in my characters’ heads. By the time I finish a manuscript, I need a break. However, when I take a month or more away from writing, I find it hard to get back into the routine. So, for me writing multiple books provides a break from one set of characters without taking me out of the routine of writing every day.

What are your plans for future books?

I love all of my series and hope that my publishers will want to continue them for many years to come. However, I also have ideas for other books that I’d like to write. When I get a spare minute, I jot down ideas.

Tell us some quirky facts about yourself

I have two toy poodles. Cash is 17 and Kensington, aka “Kenzie,” who is 4. I used to compete in obedience and agility with Cash and Coco who are the basis for Snickers and Oreo in my Mystery Bookshop Series and are also the dogs featured on the covers.

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