The Boston Globe says Molly MacRae writes “murder with a dose of drollery.” Scones and Scoundrels, book two in Molly’s Highland Bookshop Mystery series, is just out. She’s also the author of the award-winning Haunted Yarn Shop Mysteries from NAL/Penguin (and being continued by Pegasus Crime). Her short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine since 1990 and she is a winner of the Sherwood Anderson Award for Short Fiction. Molly lives in Champaign, Illinois. You can visit her at www.mollymacrae.com and www.killercharacters.com.
You have degrees in anthropology and museum education and now work full time in a library. How did you go from there to writing mysteries, and how has your background influenced your writing?
They’re all part of the same thing—I’m interested in people, their stories, and what makes them tick. Anthropology is all about people asking questions about other people. Museums offer visual answers to some of the questions. Libraries offer access to facts, figures, and flights of human fancy. All three open up world after world after world for anyone who wants to explore. I love that, and that’s what I love about amateur sleuths. They’re curious and they ask questions. They’re looking for answers because their own small part of the world has wobbled off its axis and they want to fix that.
More specifically, a suspicious number of characters in my stories have jobs and careers that mirror mine. I’ve worked in museums, at a living history site, in cafes and delicatessens, bookstores, and libraries. I’ve never worked in a yarn shop, but I’ve spent a lot of time drooling in them.
You told me that you do not like creative writing classes because they are brutal. So how did you learn to write so well?
Thank you for saying that I write well. You’re very kind. Actually, I don’t know if creative writing classes are brutal. I imagine they must be, but I never took one, so I don’t really know. When I had the opportunity to take creative writing, I didn’t, because the idea of writing a story and turning it in for a grade scared me. I didn’t want someone telling me the fiction in my head wasn’t worth an A. It would have crushed me and I wasn’t brave enough to risk that.
So how did I learn to write? Partly from reading a lot and reading widely (including how-to books on writing). Partly from trying to figure out what makes the books and stories I like work. From enjoying words, being curious, and wondering what, if, and why. But also, I was very lucky. Even though I never took a creative writing class, I did have terrific high school English teachers who taught us how to write essays. Even better, they taught us how to revise the essays after we’d written them. That’s the lesson that’s stuck with me—the real writing is in the revising.
Since getting published, do you know what I haven’t shied away from? Workshops and master classes. I’ve been lucky enough to take a few of those from writers like Nancy Pickard and Hallie Ephron, and one from literary agent Donald Maass. I’ve also attended sessions at conferences where writers discuss structure, theme, setting, dialog, plot, humor, pacing — you name it. They’ve been invaluable. I also still read how-to books when I have time.
Plaid and Plagiarism (I just love the title!) and Scones and Scoundrels are exciting books set in the Scottish Highlands. Are there plans for sequels in the works?
Thank you! I love coming up with titles. Are there plans for sequels? I always have plans (and I have titles for more books), but there’s no word on that yet. Right now I’m writing two more books in the Haunted Yarn Shop mystery series and waiting, hoping, (trying to type with my fingers crossed) that I’ll get the chance to do more Bookshop books, too.
Plaid and Plagiarism and Scones and Scoundrels are set in Scotland, where three Americans and one long-time expatriate purchase a bookstore and with an adjoining tearoom and B&B. And your last name is clearly Scottish. So have you spent much time in Scotland?
Not nearly enough! But I did spend a fabulous year as a student at Edinburgh University, and I’ve been back to visit. The books are my way of spending more time in a place I love, even though it’s vicarious. My husband has never been to Scotland, so I hope to get him over there. Maybe for an extended stay . . . wouldn’t that be nice?
Your Highland Bookshop series uses a lot of Scottish terms and culture. One fun example is when one American woman thinks that the police are meeting someone at a brothel instead of a bothy, which is a traditional croft house. Where did you learn all these details?
Soaking it up while I was there and reading a ton over the years. There are online resources, too. I love details and words and learning different vocabularies. I also have Scottish friends who’ve helped keep me on track. Of course, I cheat a bit, too. The stories are told from the perspective of an American. She spent many summers in Scotland, but that doesn’t make her an expert on vocabulary, customs, or anything, and mistakes will be made.
Your Haunted Yarn Shop series deals with a fiber and fabric shop. Do you have experience with textiles and creating things from fabric? What style of work? What kind of research did you have to do to get all these details accurate?
My standard line is that I’ve been taught to knit . . . many times. I learn how, then so many years go by between projects that I have to learn all over again for a new project. I knitted a scarf with ruffled edges, about six years ago, and felt very accomplished. I did a lot of cross stitch years ago, and an awful lot of sewing. I’ve sewn a Renaissance-style bridesmaid dress, clothes for the children, Halloween costumes (including a pterodactyl), sleeping bags in the shape of stegosauruses, fake fur bearskin rugs, lots of pajamas, and a teepee. I’ve done a bit of weaving, spinning, and dyeing. Needle felting. Crewel work. Crochet. Macramé. Have I left anything out? Probably. But except cross stitching and sewing, I’m a dabbler.
The real needlewomen are my female relatives. My grandmother was a professional knitter and owned a yarn shop, called The Little Wool Shop, from the mid-30s until the early 50s. My sisters remember it, but she’d retired by the time I came along. My mother was an accomplished knitter, weaver, spinner, and dyer. One of my sisters taught weaving. Both my sisters knit beautifully and can design their own patterns. They’re happy to answer questions.
There’s also a wonderful fiber arts group in town that I’ve joined. They do every kind of needle craft you can imagine, including growing flax and raising silk worms. They’re incredibly generous about answering questions and offering information and insight.
How do you manage to balance writing books with a full-time job and (presumably) a life?
Arrrrrrgh. Oh, sorry. That’s what my brain says when I get up at 5:00 a.m. to write before going to work. I try to pack as much writing time into a day as possible (before work, on my lunch hour, evenings until my brain yells again). It helps to not care much about dust and weeds. I’m blessed with an understanding family, too, and a husband who does all the shopping, most of the laundry, and makes the world’s best grilled cheese sandwiches and knows how to put a frozen pizza in the oven. But I’m always looking for another way to work smarter, get more done, and still have time to do other things or nothing at all.
Your Haunted Yarn Shop series has a ghost. What made you blend mystery and a ghost together? Have you ever seen a ghost yourself?
Penguin was looking for light paranormal mysteries, and an editor asked if I could write something with a ghost in it. That hadn’t occurred to me, but I said sure. Then, just like that, Geneva popped into my head and she’s been there ever since. It turns out she’s a character like any other character, just maybe a little more complicated. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know her and her problems and emotions. She has an interesting perspective on the modern world for various reasons that come out in the stories.
Have I ever seen a ghost? Hmm. Like Kath, the protagonist in the Haunted Yarn Shop books, I don’t believe in them. But, when I was a kid I was sure I saw one, and I can tell a convincing story about hearing them. There wasn’t anything hazy or spooky about the one I saw. It was a very clear shadow of a man in a fedora (I know, I know, what a cliché for a future mystery writer, but that’s what men wore in the late 50s). Without looking at me or saying anything, the man walked across the room and into the closet — without opening the closed door. There was no one in the room with me, no light was on to cast the shadow, and my room was on the second floor so no one could have been standing outside a window. At the time, I was sure I’d seen a ghost. But you should also know that a few years later I was sure monsters were outside the windows. That’s why I always wanted the shades rolled up before I fell asleep; as long as I could see out, the monsters couldn’t get in. Taking that belief into consideration, maybe the jury should still be out about the ghost.
The jury should probably still be out on hearing ghosts, too. It was an interesting experience, though, that lasted hours and involved several modes of transportation. I was on my way to New York to attend a memorial service for my favorite uncle, Vin. He was my mother’s brother, and he used to call me darling girl. So there I was, driving along on the way to the airport, and I overheard Mom and Dad talking in the backseat. They were excited about going to New York, and happy they’d be seeing Vin again. At that point, though, Mom had been gone twelve years and Dad a few months. I didn’t see them in the backseat, and they didn’t seem to be aware of me. Still, there they were, having fun talking and laughing. I got to the airport and boarded the plane. So did Mom and Dad. They sat in the row behind me. By then they were practically giddy with excitement and I almost turned around to say, “Guys, shhh.” I didn’t, though. They were so happy. We caught a cab after we landed and they loved the drive into Manhattan — all the tall buildings. Somewhere in midtown they left. They knew where they were going by then, I guess, or met up with Uncle Vin. I haven’t heard from them since, but it’s a happy memory.
We were all excited to learn that you recently signed a contract for two more Haunted Yarn Shop books. So what is in store for Kath and Geneva?
Thank you! I’m excited, too. I’ve missed the characters in Blue Plum, especially Geneva. The next book is Crewel and Unusual, and I’m working on it now. The story starts with a rivalry between Minerva “Nervie” Bales and Belinda Moyers. Nervie sells embroidery patterns and Belinda sells antique linens. But, as these things happen, Belinda ends up dead and Nervie ends up looking guilty. Geneva, the ghost, sees the killer. There’s no proof, though, and because only Kath and Ardis know Geneva exists, she’s the ultimate unreliable witness. Yarned and Dangerous will be next, after that, and it’s still in the plotting and planning stage.
What authors have inspired your writing, and which authors do you like to read in your spare time, should you have any free time?
The list could go on and on, but to give a few — Dorothy Cannell, M.C. Beaton, Louise Penny, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Donna Andrews, Nancy Pickard, Virginia Rich, Penny Warner, Kathleen Ernst, Lawrence Block, Jasper Fforde, P.G. Wodehouse — but really, it goes on and on.
You can purchase Molly’s latest book, Scones and Scoundrels, at the following sites:
Read my review of Plaid and Plagiarism.
Read my review of Scones and Scoundrels.
Read my review of Last Wool and Testament.
Read my review of Dying Wishes.
Read my review of Spinning in Her Grave.
Read my review of Plagued by Quilt.
Read my review of Knot The Usual Suspects.