Winner of the Career Achievement Award for Mystery from RT Book Reviews, Victoria Thompson is the bestselling author of the Edgar ® and Agatha Award Nominated Gaslight Mystery Series and will be the Guest of Honor at the 2016 Malice Domestic conference. Her latest is Murder on St. Nicholas Avenue. She has published 18 mysteries and 20 historical romances and contributed to the award-winning textbook Many Genres, One Craft. She currently teaches in the Master’s Degree program for writing popular fiction at Seton Hill University. Victoria is a founding member and past president of Novelists, Inc., and a co-founder and past-president of both PENNWRITERS and New Jersey Romance Writers. She lives in Indiana with her husband and a very spoiled little dog.
What/who inspired you to write your first novel?
My first published works were historical romances set in Texas. My inspiration came from a collection of Louis L’Amour short stories that I picked up by chance. Captivated with the Old West, I went on to read all of L’Amour’s books, and then devoured all the classics by Max Brand and Zane Gray and many others. I was so immersed in the Old West, that I started dreaming about it, and one of those dreams became the seed for my first novel, Texas Treasure.
What did you find to be the most challenging part of getting your first book published?
Overcoming my own ignorance! I thought I’d written a Western, so I sent it to 5 publishers of Westerns. They all rejected me, of course, because what I’d really written was an historical romance set in the Old West. When I finally figured that out and sent it to the right publisher, it sold immediately.
After 20 romances, you began writing mysteries. What inspired you to switch to mysteries, and what was the most challenging aspect of the genre change?
What inspired me to change genres was when my romance publisher told me they were dumping me. This was the mid-1990s, and publishers had flooded the historical romance field. Sales of individual titles dropped, and many authors did not have their contracts renewed. I was one of them. Unable to sell any more historical romances, I was trying to write a contemporary thriller when my agent told me Berkley Prime Crime was looking for authors to write mystery series. She knew I could write mystery because I’d been putting mystery subplots into my romances, so she encouraged me to write a proposal for a series. The result was the Gaslight Mystery Series.
The most challenging aspect of the genre change was having created my two protagonists, Sarah Brandt and Frank Malloy, and knowing they were perfect for each other but having to keep them apart. In a romance, they would have gotten together by the end of the first book, but I managed to keep them apart for 15 books. Frank finally proposes in #15 and they marry in #17.
What lessons from writing romance did you apply to writing mysteries?
My agent and my editor both warned me that mystery readers don’t like romance in their mysteries, but I did put in a hint of it in the first book. Readers were hooked and they sent me fanmail for 15 years begging me to get them together. So lesson #1 I brought with me: People love a good romance. The other lesson I brought was to create characters readers will love or will love to hate. I managed to make even a corrupt and jaded police detective loveable, and his harridan mother is the one everyone loved to hate.
You wrote romance novels set in pioneer-era Texas, and your current series is set in turn-of-the-century New York. Is it an era or a setting that inspires you most?
I have to really love the setting, and that includes the time period. I grew up watching Westerns on TV and in the movies, and the Cowboy is America’s mythic hero, so I was pre-programmed to love the Old West. I’d visited New York many times and loved the energy and variety of the city. When I started the series, my daughter had just started at New York University, so we spent a lot of time visiting her and getting to know the city the way a native does. I am also very fond of the turn-of-the-century time period, when the modern era had just begun and life was changing every day. What I love most about that time period and that place is that the social issues people were dealing with then are the same ones we’re still dealing with. The technology is different, but people are still very much the same, so I can show Frank and Sarah considering an issue that people understand completely because they’re thinking about it, too.
We talk about food a lot here. Amid all the births and murders and poverty and corruption, Sarah and Frank have to eat, and you can’t just have them hit a drive-thru. Old photos and news articles can give you an idea of the setting, but how do you go about finding the right foods?
Years ago, I moved from New Jersey to Pennsylvania and I had to leave my critique group who had helped me tremendously through my early books. As a going away gift, they gave me a book called Savory Suppers and Fashionable Feasts by Susan Williams. It has menus and recipes and descriptions of how people ate in the Nineteenth Century, and I refer to it often, especially when Sarah’s nosy neighbor, Mrs. Ellsworth, is baking something. I’ve added more books about everyday life to my library since then, but this is my primary reference. I also own a lot of books that are collections of period photographs. Some of them show holiday celebrations, which shows what the table would have looked like and what people wore. Nothing can replace a good recipe, though!
Back to births, murders, poverty and corruption, I’m seeing a lot of buzz among mystery writers lately about cozy classifications, particularly cozy noir and edgy cozies. As a historical, you’re safely outside the fray, but as a teacher in the genre I’m curious about your take on this. How far do you think a cozy can go before it’s not a cozy?
I’m happy to report that the term “cozy” is slowly being replaced by the word “traditional.” This is because “cozy” just doesn’t cover all the variations of mystery found in that subgenre. As a teacher, I will tell you that there are 3 main subgenres of mystery: PI/Noir, (Police) Procedural, and Cozy. The PI/Noir category used to be just jaded PI’s like Sam Spade, but now we have lots of mysteries with that same Noir feel who may not have a PI protagonist, so we have to expand that definition a bit. Police Procedural originally just featured real cops doing what they do, but then we started seeing other professionals featured in mysteries who weren’t cops but who were still professionals whose job it was to solve crimes, like medical examiners, so now I just call them Procedurals and they feature a professional doing his/her job and show readers inside that secret world. Since my books aren’t PI/Noir or Procedural, they have to be Cozy. They do fit the definition in that they don’t have sex or gratuitous violence, and they do feature one amateur sleuth, but I always got a lot of pushback when I told an educated audience of other writers or avid readers that they were cozies. I’d explain that Cozy is a Big Tent with room for lots of variations, but I am glad to see someone actually came up with a better descriptor, Traditional, that really says what all these books are. So to answer your question, I think a cozy can go pretty far so long as it doesn’t gross out the reader or turn the lights on in the bedroom, but there is also plenty of room in the Noir subgenre for books that cross those lines.
You recently “retired” from your full-time day job as a fundraiser. I say “retired” because you’re still an author, which involves a lot of travel and work outside of the writing part, and adjunct professor and mentor in Seton Hill’s Writing Popular Fiction program, which also involves travel and a lot of work. How on earth have you managed to turn out 38 novels? Any time management tips?
People would often ask me how I found time to write when I was still working a day job, and they actually still ask me that! The answer is that we always make time for the things we like to do best. I didn’t watch a lot of TV or even read nearly as much as I would have liked in order to have the 2-3 hours every day I needed to write a novel. I also gave up a lot of weekends and holidays and spent them in front of a computer, even when I was on vacation. I was willing to make those sacrifices because they didn’t feel like sacrifices at all. I was doing what I loved, and that’s really what I preferred to do.
In Murder on St. Nicholas Avenue, your two main characters, Sarah and Frank, are on their honeymoon and it’s up to other characters to solve the murder. What inspired you to let the other characters take over in this story?
My publisher inspired me when they asked me to write a Christmas book featuring secondary characters from the series. The timing was perfect because Frank and Sarah were getting married in the previous book, and with them in Europe, it was perfectly logical for the others to take center stage. I had a ball writing that book, because I really had an opportunity to get to know these people myself.
Any writing projects in the works aside from the next in the Gaslight series?
I’m currently finishing up the first novel in what I hope will be a new series. Now that I’m retired, I have time to write a second series, and this is an idea I’ve been nursing for about 5 years. The heroine is a con artist and the hero is an honest attorney. Berkley is considering it at the moment, so I hope to hear soon if they’ll publish it. If not, we’ll seek other outlets for it.