I was thrilled to sit down (remotely!) with M. K. Graff and get an inside look at the fifth installment in the Nora Tierney books. Here’s what she had to say.
Tracee: Marni, Let me start by saying how much I enjoyed Evening’s Amethyst. There is such atmosphere and the character’s lives are so compelling.
As a writer, I know that a series can be challenging, particularly when adding a variation in the story line in addition to the crime. This time you’ve chosen a cold case, which leads to a wonderful past and present timeline. What led you to go this route?
Marni: I’m always aware that I don’t want readers to feel they are reading the same book over and over again, so I try to vary the kind of story I’m telling. I knew the main plot line for The Evening’s Amethyst would revolve around Nora’s stepsister, Claire Scott, who is doing a graduate degree at Exeter College in Oxford, and how she urges Nora to help her prove her friend Bea Jones would never commit suicide when the young woman is found dead at the foot of a stairwell in that ancient building.
But I wanted a subplot I could weave into the story that would be tangentially connected. The idea of a cold case was one I’d never tackled before and I enjoyed writing it. It meant going back to research that time period, 1992, which doesn’t seem so long ago but is in fact very different in terms of what we had on offer then, from cell phones to social media. I sprinkled the chapters containing this secondary storyline throughout the book, and gradually brought the outcome up to the present day. This also allowed me to use the main themes of the book, kindness and obsession, and echo them in the cold case as it unfolded. It was challenging in a good way. I think anything that helps stretch you as a writer can only be a good thing.
Tracee: I’ve heard so many readers say how reading your book feels like coming home (which is an incredible compliment). How do you keep that strong sense of place, including language, given that you’re an American writing from the US?
Marni: It IS difficult to write a series set in another country, albeit one I’m very familiar with. Pre-Covid, my husband and I traveled to the UK every other year, sometimes in conjunction with a trip to other places like France or Belgium, but always to see friends we have there and to further my research. Once I had a more firm storyline set, those trips would be more specific. While I know Oxford well, I’d never been to Cambridge and we traveled there for a week, and then down to Cornwall, which will appear as the setting in book six. Being on the spot, so to speak, allows me to gather in the feel of a place: the sights and sounds, the smells, the traffic and congestion, the lovely countryside. I take notes plus copious photos to refer to when back home, too. And except for Nora’s home or the abodes of a few characters, all of the other places Nora and her sister visit in this book can be visited in reality, like the wonderful Covered Market in the heart of Oxford, and of course, Exeter College.
Tracee: I suspect there are a few transatlantic phone calls involved as well.
Marni: I call on my UK friends when I have a first draft completed who go over the manuscript and tell me where I’ve gotten things wrong. They are very good at correcting what I call my “Britspeak” because I learned early on that some of my usage was gleaned from too many Masterpiece Mystery episodes! They will email me and say things like, “Oh, we don’t say that any longer; try this…” and off we go. I am also very fortunate to count Joyce McLennan as a friend who always reads the Nora books for me. She was PD James’ personal assistant who typed every manuscript of Phyllis’s. We all became friends for the last 15 years of James’s life, a mentor and friend I was so lucky to have, and Joyce and I have stayed in close contact. The last time we visited she came to meet us at Chiswick House and we toured the gardens and had tea. She says she delights in reading the manuscripts at an early stage, making suggestions, and then reading the polished version again, just as she did years on end for James. She is a dear friend and I’m lucky to have her in my toolbox, so to speak. Other UK friends in Portsmouth, Cambridge, and Cornwall are also available to me, and during the writing if I hit a sticking point I can always shoot one of them an email for advice.
Tracee: This is an amazing connection. What a joy, and a reminder that even P.D. James needed an outside reader providing suggestions. Her book on writing (Talking About Detective Fiction) is a wonderful insight into the process and contributions of the best known crime fiction writers of the early twentieth century.
P.D. James said that she started with setting for most of her ideas. Where do you start? Are you a plotter, or are you more organic in your story structure?
Marni: I start at the end. I know up front who is the bad guy/girl and why, and then work toward that end point. By the time I have my research done and have created several main characters, I have an overarching outline in terms of story when I start writing.
But the rest of it unfolds as the story does, branching off here and there, sometimes to places I hadn’t expected. I do like a sense of that framework to get me started, but I also allow for happenstance. I guess I’d say I’m a hybrid! I like the security of having a sort-of outline but allow it to be fluid. One area I never pre-plot is the relationships between Nora and her fiance, DI Declan Barnes, and her close friends who are recurring characters. Those have to feel organic to me and rise out of the action, but also of my desire to be certain Nora shows growth as the series advances.
Tracee: I enjoy the connections of family and friendship between your characters. Do you have a master chart of the continuing characters and their connections? Is there a master plan for their lives over the series or is that a mystery as you begin each book?
Marnie: Nora is juggling so many things: a new home, a young son and a puppy, her own work as a children’s book author, and then whatever case she’s become involved in. She is a bundle of energy for sure! But so many women juggle all of these things and more, and I think readers understand Nora. Here is a strong woman who still has her own insecurities, but there’s also an element of inner growth as the series progresses.
I do have a master chart for the continuing characters, a spreadsheet if you will, so I can keep track of things that have already been decided in earlier books, from actions to habits to appearances—Nora’s eye color (green), or is Declan’s mom alive (no). I have a very general arc of six books planned for the series but not the gritty details. This is book 5; all I know so far in Book 6 is that it starts with Nora’s wedding to Declan but the story then takes place while they are on their Cornwall honeymoon, staying in a thatched cottage. That same cottage is a real place, owned by good friends of mine, so that’s an easy one setting-wise!. After those six books, which could be a natural place for the series to end, I’ll take stock and see if there is more to Nora and Declan after that.
Tracee: You created an American character and placed her in England. Were there special problems or opportunities with that?
Marni: American Nora is from the quintessential New England Connecticut town of Ridgefield. When I placed her into her English setting, I knew her mother and stepfather would appear only sporadically. She would need to gather her own UK “family” and she’s done that with her best friend, Val Rogan, who readers have seen through being a murder suspect to finally having a firm relationship, to her neighbors, Mike and Sally Welch. Sally is the vicar of St. Giles, next door to Nora’s house, and the Welch’s young son, Sam, a year older than Nora’s son, Sean, is a playmate. The families share babysitting at times, and glasses of wine at others. (Yes, there really is a St. Giles Church where I place it, but no, there is no vicarage where I have the Welch’s living.) Searching for family has brought Nora to firm up a relationship with her son’s father’s parents, too. These people she surrounds herself with may have their own focus or storyline at some point down the road but that’s to be determined. In the meantime, I’m figuring out who would be invited to Nora and Declan’s small country wedding, and the list keep growing!
Tracee: They each feel so real to the reader, which makes us want more of their stories. This leads me to the final question: What are you working on now?
Marni: I alternate the books in the two series now, which keeps me fresh. While I was putting The Evening’s Amethyst into production, I’d already started the outline and research and character development for the next Trudy Genova, Death in the Orchard. Trudy’s father died under suspicious circumstances when she was sixteen, and she’s never been convinced his death was accidental. She’s begged her boyfriend, NYC Ned O’Malley, to come home to Schoharie, NY, when she returns for a week fora family function. He has agreed to look at the case file from twelve years ago and gather his own information. It’s also a chance for Trudy’s brothers and their spouses to meet Ned. Trudy’s mom has met him previously and approves of their relationship, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy going, sleeping in her family home, keeping their private investigation from the rest of the family. It’s early days, but I’ve started the first draft and plan to have that done next spring. We’ll see how it goes!
Tracee: Evening’s Amethyst was wonderful and Death in the Orchard sounds fabulous as well. I’ll have to mark my calendar for the release date. Thanks for joining us at Miss Demeanors.
Marni: Thank you for hosting me!
Learn more about Marni at www.auntiemwrites.com
Follow her on Twitter @GraffMarni and find her books at Amazon and at Bridle Path Press.
I was impressed before with your writing, Marni, and how adept you are at setting, plot, and character. But I was blown away hearing you are friends with and consult PD James’s personal assistant. Very impressive. Would love to take a class from you about research. Looking forward to your latest!
Thanks, Michele. Research is one if my favorite parts of setting up a new book.