A Conversation with Mystery Writer Marni Graff

 

MISS DEMEANORS ARE BACK!

And we’re excited to welcome author and my fellow Anglophile Marni Graff for a conversation about her life and writing. Marni is the award-winning author of two mystery series, The Nora Tierney English Mysteries and The Trudy Genova Manhattan Mysteries. She is the Managing Editor of Bridle Path Press and a member of Sisters in Crime, Triangle Sisters in Crime, The Mavens of Mayhem, the NC Writer’s Network, and the International Association of Crime Writers. All her books are available in paperback, Kindle, and Audible at Amazon and Bridal path Press. Her latest mystery is The Evening’s Amethyst, Book 5 in the Nora Tierney series.

THE EVENING’S AMETHYST by Marni Graff

Who is Verity? That becomes the central question for American writer Nora Tierney, who has moved to her new Oxford home with her fiancé, DI Declan Barnes, and her young son. Declan’s new case at Exeter College coincides with a frantic call from Nora’s stepsister, Claire Scott: a fellow graduate student has died in a fall, and Claire begs Nora to help her prove her friend didn’t commit suicide. As the two sisters conduct their own sleuthing, Declan and his team juggle this death with a cold case that proves to be more surprising than anyone could ever imagine.

I love a mystery set in the UK, and this one ticks all the boxes. Beautifully written with engaging characters (I might be a little in love with Declan myself) and an intricate, well-crafted plot, The Evening’s Amethyst has become one of my favorite reads this year.

A CONVERSATION WITH MARNI GRAFF

Connie:  Welcome to Miss Demeanors, Marni! The Evening’s Amethyst is Book 5 in the Nora Tierney English Mystery series. Did you know from the beginning that this would be a series?

Marni: I planned an original series arc of six books, with only the details of how Nora’s life would grow and change, not the mystery plots or settings. Making those decisions has been the fun part! But I am a true Anglophile, from 80% of my reading by UK authors, to Masterpiece Mystery, to trips over for setting research whenever feasible. So setting a series there felt natural to me, an idea that became cemented when I was fortunate to study Gothic Lit one summer at Oxford, which became Nora’s hometown. 

The sixth book will be a natural place where the series could conceivably end. I’ll see how I feel once that one’s written, which will be a while down the road, as I also write a series set in Manhattan, The Trudy Genova Manhattan Mysteries, and I alternate those books. There is also a historical standalone in the pipes set in 1926, and I’m not sure where I’ll slot that in.

Connie:  How has Nora changed/developed over the course of the books? Anything that took you by surprise?

Marni: In my desire to create a ‘different’ sleuth, I made Nora four months pregnant in the first book, The Blue Virgin, although the baby’s father has died–or has he? She has the baby at the end of the second, The Green Remains, so was heavily pregnant throughout that book, which cramped her sleuthing style and proved to be difficult at times to write around and remain realistic, so I wrote Nora’s frustration into the book. The reality of an almost nine-months pregnant woman is not the same as one who is four months pregnant, past morning sickness, and feeling fine. 

Then too, her little boy, Sean, is now a part of her life, and he must be accounted for in each book, which presents its own challenges as I write the subsequent books. How does Nora juggle motherhood with her writing children’s books and running a household with solving a crime, and not come off as a negligent mom? I suspect my years of being a single parent myself at one point and being a master juggler come into play here. If I had to do it over again, I may not have made her pregnant to start with, but I’ve coped with it. In the fifth book, The Evening’s Amethyst, Nora’s neighbor has a little boy just a bit older than her son, and the two play together and attend the same creche, so she and the other family do some helpful sharing of playdates and pickups.

Connie:  You’re so right about having to live with the plot points we’ve incorporated in previous books. This brings up the question of method: how would you describe your process of writing? Has that changed at all in the years you’ve been writing?

Marni: I’ve always started with the end: who is the original victim, and why? Then I work toward that ending goal, placing suspects and sometimes other victims in Nora’s path. I liken it to a clothesline that I never lose sight of to help me get there. There is also her internal struggle to contend with: being a single parent, dealing with her son’s father’s family, deciding whether to start a new relationship or not. I try to weave those personal things into the story so that while the mystery takes prime place, Nora and the recurring characters readers meet also have their own challenges that must be met. I hope it’s a tapestry that feels real to readers and has some heartwarming scenes near the endings. My goal is for the reader to have all of their questions answered and to feel there’s been resolution.

 I would say over the years my process has changed in that I do even more research before starting, so that my stopping in-progress is less frequent. Since I write two series, I have a folder going for the next book even while I’m writing the other series, so as things occur to me or I see an article or come across something I can use for that next book, I toss it in that folder. I probably also have a bit more framework now when I start writing the opening chapters than I did in the beginning. That still leaves what I call “the muddle middle” to allow for changes or happenstance. Only one time have I gotten to the end of a first draft and changed who I’d originally determined to be the murderer as I realized one of my ‘red herring’ suspects had a better motive!

Connie:  We both have American protagonists in the UK. I’m interested to know how and why you made that choice.

Marni: The first time I visited the UK was in my early 20s; when I stepped off the plane with my then-husband on a rugby tour, I felt as if I were coming home. I’d always been drawn to the UK, and having Nora be American allows her to learn and exhibit the differences in culture and slang, as well as a mild fish-out-of-water experience. On some level, there’s probably a desire for me to live there, too, which is satisfied through Nora and gives me the perfect excuse for trips over for setting research. I take copious notes and photos and grab postcards of any setting way before I’m writing a book. I also am fortunate to have several good UK friends, writers and non-writers, who are happy to answer my questions, correct my “Britspeak,” and are usually part of my beta readers. 

Connie:  I couldn’t write without my sources in the UK either—one in the Suffolk Constabulary. Since Nora is an amateur sleuth, how do you handle her relationship with law enforcement without using the old, tired trope of the incompetent police detective?

Marni: I have tremendous respect for the police and their difficult work, and so I pictured her relationship with the real detectives as more in the form of her insisting she can be of help to them and then having to prove that. When she first meets Declan Barnes, she frustrates him with this attitude, but by the time we are at book five, he has come to value her knack for nosing out situations and figuring out human nature, so they work more in a symbiotic relationship when she is involved in one of his cases. While he is concerned for her safety at times, he nevertheless respects her intuition.

Connie:  You’ve received praise for your complex plots and pacing. Do you have a secret?

Marni: I try to write as if I were the reader. I like to end chapters in a way that makes the reader want to flip the page to the next one, and I vary the points of view between Nora and Declan so that readers can see the policing portion of an investigation and how that differs from her amateur sleuthing. That means that while Nora may be weaseling her way into an interview in Woodstock, Declan is talking to a suspect at Exeter College. I think that helps keep the story from getting bogged down and affects the pacing in a positive way. It also allows the tendrils of a complicated plot to be spaced out so that readers can follow it.

Connie:  What next for Nora and Declan? 

Marni: Book Six, no title yet, will take place in Cornwall and open with Nora and Declan’s wedding, but center around their honeymoon in a borrowed cottage. The real cottage, Strawtop, is owned by good friends, Nicola Upson (The Josephine Tey series) and Mandy Morton (The No. 2 Feline Detective Agency). When they took me to visit an old stone church which will be the site of Nora’s wedding, and also the place where her small wedding party will stay, I thought their thatched cottage in Porthleven would be the perfect spot for a honeymoon that’s not too far from where Nora’s son is being looked after by both sets of his grandparents. The cottage itself was an old seaman’s cottage, and folklore had it that the owner was buried in the thick wall, looking out to the sea. 

In Nora’s time, of course, the body in the wall may be more contemporary…

Connie: What’s next for you? 

Marni: I’m doing research for a standalone set in 1926, working title Eleven Days, set in Yorkshire at the Harrogate spa to which Agatha Christie disappeared in December of that year. That will be tangential to the main plot, which is the story of a young girl working at the spa who has run away from her uncle’s home and is in hiding, carrying a huge secret. Christie will cross her path, but my young woman is the main character. That’s all you’ll get for now! 

Marni: Thanks for having me on Miss Demeanors, Connie. It was great fun!

Connie: Thank you, Marni, for being the very first guest on our new website. As you know, your books are right up my alley.

STAY TUNED FOR EXCITING NEWS ABOUT MARNI COMING SOON!

12 comments

    1. Keenan, I always have a folder for the next in the opposite series, so when that happens, I write it down and throw it in the folder. When I turn my attention to the next book, its folder already has these little nuggets of goodness waiting for me!

  1. So glad to have you here, Marni. Your standalone sounds fascinating. Such an intriguing eleven days. I’m leaving for England in a week, so I share your Anglophile feelings.

    1. Susan, have a grand time! I’m envious! I’m reading everything written right now about those eleven days and it’s interesting to see how varied the ideas are on what Christie was doing. Laura Thompson’s biography seems the most likely to me, but Lucy Worsley has a new book out with a slightly different take that’s thought-provoking.

  2. Hi Marni,
    Welcome. Your process sounds interesting and so organized. Love it. I confess I haven’t read your series but I’m a fan of books set in England so I’m going to check it out.

    1. Thanks, Catherine. I have tons of recommendations for other UK-set books if you’re interested (besides, Connie’s, of course!) I just finished Anthony Horowitz’s The Twist of a Knife, his new Hawthorne series, and if you haven’t read that series, I’ll bet you’d love it~

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