When she’s not writing mystery novels, Kelly is a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, and the author of fifteen non-fiction books. Read on as we discuss her fiction writing.
There were a lot factors that came to play. As one of the only women in the PhD program in philosophy at Northwestern, I had more than my share of strange experiences, situations better suited to fiction than non. My first novel was loosely based on some of my own experiences in graduate school—except I didn’t kill my thesis advisor😀
As a philosophy professor, I wrote about many different topics from animal ethics, to film, to women’s issues, and beyond. When writing about social problems, I often wished I could reach a wider audience than academic philosophy. A few of my nonfiction books are also trade books.
With fiction, I can reach a much wider audience and also deal with serious social issues in ways that might—hopefully—change the way people think about those issues, or perhaps make them think about them for the first time, all in the context of page-turning entertainment.
I guess it was about six years ago now, one August, that I decided to try to write a novel. I’d never written a word of fiction. Luckily, that very weekend there was a mystery writers convention in Nashville called Killer Nashville.
I wrote the first draft in about two months. Then I revised it for at least a year. I lost count on the rewrites.
Have you been active with any writing critique groups?
I’ve been active with several mystery writers’ groups and mystery writers’ conventions. I also work with several editors.
How did you go about finding an agent / publisher?
I sent out a lot of queries to agents. I had an agent for a while, but she didn’t sell anything. I went to conferences, did pitches, the whole deal. With my Fiona Figg Mysteries, I hit the jackpot when Level Best Books accepted the first manuscript. There are small publishers out there that don’t require agents.
I start with the protagonist/character and the main event or concept and then fill out the plot and subplots and secondary characters. So, to answer your second question, neither one. I pick the detective character first and then the victim and sometimes it takes me a while to figure out the perpetrator.
What do you think makes for a perfect murder mystery?
I think all good books are in some sense mysteries. There is something that makes the reader want to keep turning the pages, something the reader is hoping to find out. A mystery that can maintain the sense of curiosity and wonder throughout is a great story.
What is the hardest part of writing for you?
Starting is definitely hard. I always mop around doing anything but writing for weeks before I can face that blank page. Dialogue is easiest for me. I used to fight it and try to write complete finished scenes. Now I write dialogue and go back and fill in the rest. I write in layers, starting with dialogue.
What does your editor remind you to do most often?
Show the characters’ emotions and inner thoughts—their reactions. Those bits in italics that get inside their heads. I also have trouble keeping track of the timeline and usually have to go back through a few times and fix things.
What’s the best encouragement you’ve had in your writing?
I rely heavily on my editors, not only for help and corrections, but also for encouragement. All of my books have won independent publishing awards and that is encouraging. But in general fiction writing is a pretty demanding and difficult world.
We have all experienced rejection. How have you learned to write past it?
In thirty years publishing scholarly articles and books, I’ve experienced a lot of rejection. It comes with the territory. Diving into the fiction world took rejection to new levels. It can be very discouraging. But, you just have to get back on the horse. I’m nothing if not determined!
What has surprised you the most in writing/publishing?
I’m surprised by the process of writing itself and the way that one word, phrase, or sentence can change a whole world. Sometimes my editor will tell me to change some big thing and it turns out that I can do it by just changing one sentence. It’s a miracle. Writing is miraculous.
There are many frustrations that come with publishing, from bad reviews on Amazon (pro-tip: don’t read them), to sneaky typos that make it past many pairs of discerning eyes, to distributors who don’t get the books out in time. Lots of little things.
What do you know now about writing you wished you had known sooner?
You have to trust your gut and not be pulled in different directions by readers. Otherwise, you could revise forever trying to please this one and then that. You can’t please everyone. Write for yourself and you will find your readers…. Or they will find you (pro-tip: they’ll only find you if you market and advertise!).
Also, I’ve learned that for me at least writing is a process of layering. It doesn’t have to be perfect or finished the first time around.
What is the best writing advice you’ve received or could give?
Find a good editor. Good editors are golden.
Can you give me a short synopsis of your newest book?
I’m so excited about my second Fiona Figg Mystery, High Treason at the Grand Hotel, which launched earlier this month. Fiona is the most fun character for me to write. And I love writing historical fiction. I learn so many interesting tidbits about history, some of which make it into the novels.
Within hours of her arrival in Paris, Fiona is up to her fake eyebrows in missing maids, jewel thieves, double agents, and high treason. When Fiona is found dressed as a bellboy holding a bloody paperknife over the body of a dead countess, it's not just her career that's on the block.
It’s fast-paced and funny. Hopefully readers will enjoy it, especially in these trying times when we could all use a good diversion.
That does sound like a fun read. If you’d like to learn more about Kelly’s books, here are some like to get you started.
Link to High Treason at the Grand Hotel: https://kellyoliverbooks.com/fiona-figg-2-landing/
For a FREE copy of WOLF, A Jessica James Mystery, sign up for Kelly’s newsletter: https://hello.kaospress.com/welcome/
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