Blog Archive

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Writing Mysteries Steeped in History: Author Interview with Alyssa Maxwell

What drew you to the idea of writing historical fiction with a mystery theme?
I'm a puzzle person. I love Sudoku, word search, jigsaw puzzles, mazes, and I even have a couple of mystery themed games that I've played on my daughter's Nintendo DS. I love the challenge of solving a puzzle, and I also find them very relaxing because they engage my mind and take me out of the real world for a while. So a mystery is really like assembling a giant puzzle, one where I have to first decide what all the pieces will be before I can put them together.

As far as writing historicals go, I've always been attracted to anything in the past. As a child, when other girls wanted to play house, I wanted to play "olden times." I loved going to places like Colonial Williamsburg, or staying at a friend's cabin in the Adirondacks, where I could pretend to be a pioneer. I'm not sure why.

Do you have a favorite mystery author?
Some of my favorite historical mystery authors now are Rhys Bowen, Teresa Grant, Carol K. Carr, and C.S. Harris, but I also grew up reading the very atmospheric and mysterious (if not strictly "mystery") works of the Brontes, Daphne Du Maurier and Mary Stewart.

How long did it take for you to write the first book?
It took about eight months to write Murder at The Breakers. I find that writing the synopsis is the hardest and most time consuming, relatively speaking considering they're only about 12 pages, but that's where I'm shaping and putting together all those pieces. Once that's done, it serves as my guide map for the book, making the actual writing a joy.

How did you go about finding a publisher for your books? Did you attend writing conferences?
This is not actually my first published book. I started out in historical romance (under different names, but I'm going to be mysterious about that for now), and Kensington was my first publisher. I'd entered my proposal in a contest, and the wonderful, late Kate Duffy read it in the final round. She liked the book so much she bought that one and two others.

Since then I acquired an agent, and he made this sale to Kensington, bringing me back there after several years away. We actually met at a cocktail party at the Kensington offices in New York. But yes, along the way I've attended writing conferences and countless workshops, making friends and learning the craft. Although I was an English major in college and worked as an assistant editor and ghost writer later on, I didn't truly learn how to write genre fiction until I began working with other authors. This is a very giving community!

Tell me about your writing background.
After college, I worked as an assistant editor for a reference book publisher. Later I wrote biographies for a memoir publisher.

Are you active in any writing critique groups?
I am definitely active in several writing groups and heartily recommend them because, as I like to say, it takes a village to write a book. I've critiqued with the same amazing group of writers for almost twenty years now. We're all currently published, but we've supported each other through the ups and downs of our careers. Could not have done this without them!

I'm a member of the Romance Writers of America/Florida Romance Writers, Mystery Writers of America-Florida Chapter, Sister-in-Crime, and Novelists Inc. The support, networking, and sharing of information and ideas has been invaluable. I always try to give back, too, whether it be serving on the board of directors, judging chapter contests, helping organize events, mentoring new members, etc.

What type of research do you do for your books? Tell me about the process.
I want to say hurray for the public library and the inter-library loan system, which allows me to find books from the comfort of my home, and have them sent from any library in the county to my local branch. I always start with a stack of books – biography, architecture, history, etc., to get an overall feel for the period, the people who lived in it, and what was happening at the time. This always helps shape my plot. In fact, when I first started the research for Murder at The Breakers, I didn't know that Gertrude Vanderbilt's coming-out party was held in the summer of 1895 in the newly rebuilt Breakers, but that seemed the perfect launching point for the book and the series.

I also use the internet, but that's more for smaller, specific information. I love to look at pictures of period clothing, carriages, homes, etc. I can easily spend hours doing just that, if I let myself.
Finally, for this series, I've had my husband for help. He grew up in Newport, and his family has been there for several generations. He grew up on The Point – on the same street where my sleuth, Emma, grew up. He attended the same church as Emma, walked the same streets. And his grandmother, "Nan," is Emma's "Nanny," or at least served as the inspiration for the character. Although I loved Newport before I met my husband, being part of his family has deepened the connection and my enthusiasm, both for the place and this series.

How much “artistic license” do you use in creating locations for your stories?
I try to be as accurate as I can, and respectful to the real-life Newport. There are some fictional places in the stories, such as Emma's childhood home, which is on a real street but the house itself is made up. There are also other homes, shops and taverns that exist only in my imagination, though they are in keeping with what would have found in Newport at the time. One funny thing about Newport is they liked to move houses. For example, the house my husband grew up in, although an old colonial, would not have been at its Point location in 1895. It was moved there decades later.

What has surprised you the most about getting published other than the joy of seeing your book in print?
The joy of hearing from readers so soon after the book's release. This has both surprised and humbled me. The appeal of Newport is even stronger and more universal than I had thought, and in only the past week I've heard from people with personal ties, fond memories, and one who might have gone to school with relatives of my husband. So this has been more than a career milestone, it's been a very personal and fulfilling journey so far.

How much time daily do you have for writing?
That can vary. I still do some editing part time, so I actually wrote Murder at The Breakers primarily on weekends. That's changing, so I'm spending more time writing and less time on other projects. But even writing full time, I don't think I could spend more than 5 hours a day. After that my brain turns to mush and I really can't produce anything worthwhile.

How much does social media play in your promotion of your books? What suggestions do you have for enhancing a writer’s social media platform? What type of publicity do you do to promote your book?
Social media is my main form of promotion. It's the only way to reach a wide range of readers without having to spend a fortune on print or other advertising. I'm active on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, but rather than simply saying, "buy my book," I try to engage people in what they might find interesting about my books and share interests we might have in common. Another good idea is to show interest in other people's posts and carry on a real dialogue with your "friends." Sharing is also important. If I see another author promoting a new project, I'll share it on my wall. Or any item of interest. Social media is about networking and establishing relationships. People say, "Oh, those aren't really your friends." But you'd be surprised at the friendships that begin on social media and continue at conferences and other writing events. But for spreading the word about a book, nothing is as important as word of mouth, readers telling their friends about a book they like.

Was it harder or easier to write your second book?
There are challenges with every book, and times when the book seems to write itself. So it wasn't easier or harder, just different, kind of like the way one's children might be similar, yet completely different individuals. Each one has been interesting and fun to write!

What is the best advice you’ve been given or learned on writing?
That it's ok for the first draft to be terrible, because you can revise bad writing, but you can't revise a blank screen. Worrying too much about perfection in the first draft can cause a writer to freeze up, and then possibly give up. Also, find a process that works for you, and don't worry about adhering to the "rules" of being a writer. Write every day if that works for you, or only write on weekends. Write straight through without editing, or edit as you go. Writing a synopsis first works for me, but it might not work for you. Find your best routine, and stick with it no matter what other people advise you to do. It's your book, and your career!

Thank you for your insight on writing! If you would like to learn more about Alyssa and her writing here's a good start


  1. It's so true about making friends on social media. I just went to Malice Domestic, and it was heartwarming to meet so many people in person whose names I only knew from Facebook. Very nice interview, especially the part about your critique group!

  2. Nancy...I had to look up Malice Domestic before I approved this post as it sounded odd. Was I surprised that it is an annual fan convention which salutes the traditional mystery. Thanks for teaching me something new!
    For those interested, it is held each spring near Washington, D.C.

  3. Nancy, I was so sorry to miss Malice this year. I'm hoping to be there next year!

  4. Great interview, Alyssa. You found the perfect setting for your series.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Mona! I have to say, I've really enjoyed setting this series in Newport. My husband's family is having a lot of fun with it, too!

    2. Nice interview.
      Richard Brawer