V. M. (Valerie) Burns was born and raised in northwestern Indiana. She is the author of the RJ Franklin Mystery Series, the Dog Club Mystery ebook Series, and the Mystery Bookshop Mystery Series. She currently lives in Eastern Tennessee with her two poodles.
How did you get started writing fiction?
I’ve wanted to write for so long it’s hard for me to remember when I didn’t want to write fiction. I’ve always been an avid reader and through the years, I created a long list of “I wish there was a mystery about. . .” books. Eventually, I decided to try my hand at writing.
What draws you to cozy fiction?
For me, it’s the puzzle that draws me to cozy mysteries. I love reading a good story and pitting my wits against that of the author to separate the clues from the red herrings (false clues) and determine what’s important. The reader is in a race to find the clues and figure out whodunit.
In The Plot Is Murder, the main character works on her own book, so we get to read the main book and the book within the book. The two are cleverly different yet parallel. What made you decide to use this method in your book?
I love reading cozy mysteries. However, I also like the mysteries to be “practical.” The idea of an amateur sleuth solving a murder is pretty farfetched. So, there needs to be a plausible reason why someone is asking questions, investigating murders and trying to solve them. My initial idea with this series was that the actual murder would only take place in the books the protagonist was writing. That’s where the idea for the title came from, because the plot for her books was where the murders happened. However, I wondered if reading about a woman who was writing about a murder would be enough of a challenge for a cozy mystery lover. Or, would readers need to know that the protagonist was actually solving a murder. So, that made me wonder, what if there were two mysteries? What if, readers got to solve the mystery the protagonist was writing AND the mystery she was facing in real life? Readers would get two mysteries for the price of one.
Your Mystery Bookshop Mysteries feature Nana Jo and her crazy senior citizen friends. It’s a refreshing change to see seniors depicted as so capable and fun. What inspired this team?
My first real job was working as a planner for the Region IV Area Agency on Aging in Southwestern Michigan. Area agencies are nonprofit organizations that fund services for senior citizens, like Meals on Wheels. Working there gave me exposure to a lot of interesting older people. My secretary, Rebecca, was 85 and she walked to work every day. I was blessed to meet a lot of amazing, feisty, wonderful people who taught me to knit as well as how to play the numbers. They were vibrant and had amazing stories about World War II, surviving the depression, and the civil rights marches of the 60s. I found their stories to be fascinating and knew these were people who had truly lived and had amazing stories as well as an extensive network of contacts they could draw upon to help solve crime.
Your RJ Franklin Mystery Series is based upon a unique premise. What is that, and where did you get the idea to do this?
All of the titles in my RJ Franklin Mystery Series come from Negro Spirituals and each book includes soul food recipes. The protagonist is an African American policeman who solves murders with the help of his godmother, Mama B. The idea for this series is a modern spin on classic mysteries with “gentlemen” detectives like the Miss Silver Mysteries by Patricia Wentworth. RJ has the authority to ask questions and investigate murder, and his godmother, Mama B, has what my dad used to call, “mother wit.” People talk to Mama B and they’ll tell her things they’d never tell a policeman. Interestingly, the character of Mama B is one of the only characters who is based on a real person. My godmother, Mrs. Ella Bethany, was very much like Mama B. She lived on an alley down the street from the church and some of my best memories were sitting on her front porch in the summer watching basketball games at the recreation center parking lot. She was a wonderful woman and I wanted to honor her.
You have a unique mystery book in Once upon a Murder. What is the premise behind this book, and where did its idea come from?
Once Upon a Murder is what I call a fairy tale cozy. For quite a long time, I struggled to find homes for either my RJ Franklin Mystery series or my Mystery Bookshop Mystery series. While I was sending out queries (and receiving a ton of rejections), I started a third series, Once Upon a Murder. I wanted to write a book that was purely for fun. In the first book in the series, Robin Hood is accused of murdering his girlfriend, Bo Peep. Robin’s sister, Red (as in Red Riding Hood) has to find the real killer to save her brother. I enjoyed watching the ABC series, Once Upon A Time, and I suspect that’s where the seed came from for this series. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a home for this series. My agent thinks it might be “too far out.”
Besides cozy mysteries, you also write children’s books and screenplays. Tell us about those.
The first book I ever wrote was a Children’s books. When my nephew was small, one of his classmates told him all bad things were black. Needless to say, this left my nephew feeling inferior. So, my sister went on a hunt to provide positive images of African Americans. She’d recently read an article about a woman who created an African American superhero, “Sun Man,” to provide a positive role model for her son and other African American boys. Today there are a host more diverse books, but a few decades ago, pickin’s were slim. So, I wrote, Christopher goes to Washington, DC. This was going to be the first book in what I hoped would be a series of books about a little boy who travels to various spots like Frederick Douglass Museum and showcase African American heritage in a positive light. I also had a poodle, Coco, and I wanted to write books that would help educate people on how to train and care for their pets, but was also fun. I wrote Coco Goes to the Vet and Coco Gets a Playmate. Unfortunately, none of my children’s books were ever published and are buried on a 5 ¼ inch floppy disk somewhere (that should give an indication of how long ago I wrote them). As an undergrad, I attended Northwestern University, which is well known for its theatre school. In college, I met a good friend who was studying to be a screenwriter. After making one suggestion too many about possible screenplays she should write, my friend gave me a book on writing screenplays and encouraged me to write. For several years I wrote screenplays, but wasn’t able to sell those either. The screenplays are stored on 3 ½ inch disks.
You are a big Agatha Christie fan. Which are your favorite books by her?
I LOVE Agatha Christie. I love pretty much all of her mysteries including the short stories. I think if I had to pick my favorite, it would be the Miss Marple books. I love how the elderly spinster from the small village of St. Mary Meade is able to solve some of the toughest murders based on her knowledge of people from her village. However, the books that got me hooked on cozies are The Murder of Roger Akroyd and And Then There Were None. I remember reading those books as a child and thinking these stories were brilliant. I still read them over regularly and I still think they’re brilliant. Whenever I meet someone who is unfamiliar with cozies, I always suggest those two to help introduce newbies to the genre.
I have read hundreds of cozy mysteries and interviewed many cozy authors the last year and a half, yet I’m not sure I can think of another African American cozy mystery author. Why do you think that this genre is so dominated by whites?
Interestingly, when I met fellow African American cozy mystery author, Kellye Garrett, she told me Alexia Gordon called African American cozy mystery writers unicorns because we were so rare. Last year, Alexia Gordon’s Gethsame Brown Mysteries won the Left Coast Crime, Lefty Award and this year, Kellye Garrett’s Detective by Day series won the Lefty and the Agatha Awards. So, hopefully, more African Americans and writers of color will be inspired to write cozies and help bring more diversity to the shelves.
I have asked myself many times why there seem to be so few cozy writers of color. I suspect the answer may be multifaceted. The demographic for cozy mystery readers tends to be older white women. I suspect publishers are catering to that demographic and providing books they think that clientele will read; books with characters that look, act and sound just like them. However, I believe cozy mystery readers want a good mystery above anything else and if given a chance, readers will embrace cozies regardless of the race of the sleuth.
What authors have inspired your own writing career?
I love British historic mysteries. I’m a HUGE Agatha Christie fan. I also love Rex Stout, Patricia Wentworth, Emily Brightwell, and Dorothy Gilman. However, one writer who has inspired me the most is Victoria Thompson. I love her Gaslight Mystery series; it is Victoria Thompson whom I credit with helping my writing career and helping me to get my books published. For years, I struggled to find an agent and a publisher. One day, I was reading Victoria Thompson’s biography in the back of one of her books and saw she was an adjunct professor at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. I wasn’t familiar with Seton Hill and looked up the program hoping I could audit a class. I wasn’t really interested in getting a second master’s degree (I already had one from the University of Notre Dame). However, in researching Seton Hill, I learned about their low residency Master of Fine Arts program in Writing Popular Fiction. It was a great opportunity to study writing by one of my favorite writers. So, I applied and was accepted into the program. It was thanks to the education and support I received at Seton Hill that I was able to complete my thesis novel, Travellin’ Shoes, and start my writing career.
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