After spending her early years in England and France, Elizabeth Penney moved to Maine, where she grew up roaming the woods and frequenting magical old libraries. Now a resident of northern New Hampshire, her work includes numerous mystery, romantic suspense, and women’s fiction novels, including the Mary Higgins Clark-nominated CHAPTER AND CURSE published by St. Martin’s.
Could you tell us briefly what A Fatal Folio is about?
Elizabeth Penney: On Guy Fawkes Night, main character Molly Kimball, her boyfriend, Kieran, and her friends set out to enjoy the costumes, fireworks, and fun—at least until a stray firework starts a panic, and the group stumbles upon a prone body, their face covered by a mask. It’s a troublesome student, and he’s been stabbed to death.
When Kieran’s cousin Oliver, the dead student’s professor, becomes the prime suspect, Molly finds herself investigating yet another murder.
Does one of your characters hold a special place in your heart? If so, why?
EP: Quite honestly, I love all my characters. That is one of the aspects of cozy mysteries I most enjoy—the friendly, tight-knit circles that share daily life and go on adventures. I think in real life, it can be difficult to find this type of idyllic community. Everyone is so busy and caught up in their own lives.
A note: Handyman and Brontë devotee George Flowers is inspired by a man I knew as a child. The real George Flowers was a beloved family friend who lived in Norfolk, England.
What kind of research did you do while writing this novel?
EP: Every book in the Cambridge Bookshop series has a literary theme, and in A Fatal Folio, it’s gothic novels. Naturally, I had to read a few—The Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and Frankenstein, as well as view early gothic films like Nosteratu. Inspired by their lurid prose and situations, I decided to include excerpts from an original gothic called The Fatal Folio, featuring a book that literally is fatal. I laughed a lot while writing those excerpts!
What characteristics make your protagonist a strong heroine?
EP: Molly is a librarian, a background that is perfect for investigating. She knows how to do research and isn’t shy about asking questions. She is outgoing, friendly, and brave. When I was developing the series, I decided to make her American despite the Cambridge, UK, setting. I personally like the “fish out of water” trope and, since most of my readers are American, they would enjoy discovering England along with Molly. Another twist I added was that Molly doesn’t know her English family. Her mother, Nina, was estranged from her parents and brother for decades. In each book, Molly learns a little more about her family history.
When it comes to plotting your novels, do you have the whole book outlined before you write? Do you use any specific strategies or techniques?
EP: I do outline, although I’m actually more of a pantser. My initial inspiration is usually quite vague—a setting or situation or image. For mysteries, however, it’s crucial to plan out the crime and the clues. I figure out who gets murdered then develop a roster of suspects and motives. I also decide what subplots I’m going to include: relationship development, seasonal activities, perhaps a secondary mystery. Then I list events, incidents, turning points and climax for each thread, as appropriate.
Then I’m ready to outline, weaving the threads together as I go and making sure to have rising action, confusion, and mystery along with startling developments and setbacks at intervals. An outline doesn’t mean I don’t change things or add incidents. I often do. It really helps me create a pretty clean first draft with only a few loose ends. Which my editors find, thank goodness.
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About Vanessa Westermann
Vanessa is a Canadian crime writer. She is the author of Cover Art and other books. At the heart of all of her stories are strong female protagonists.