by Cynthia Chow
This week we have a review and giveaway of Staging is Murder by Grace Topping, and an interesting interview with Grace. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of Staging is Murder, a link to purchase it from Amazon, and from an indie bookstore where a portion goes to help support KRL.
Staging is Murder: A Laura Bishop Mystery by Grace Topping
Review by Cynthia Chow
After giving up her boring but high-paying IT job to take care of her mother back home in Louiston, Pennsylvania, Laura Bishop is throwing everything she has into her new Staging for You home staging business. It’s why she’s taken on Victoria Denton as a client, despite the ominous warnings by both a horoscope and Laura’s best friend Nita Martino. The historic mansion is in dire need of being prepped for sale, but the viperous and critical Victoria isn’t making Laura’s job easy. Even though no one seems to get along with the demanding woman, it was Laura’s assistant who was last seen arguing with Victoria before she was fatally pushed down a laundry chute. Victoria had threatened to kibosh Tyrone Webster’s chance of winning a much-needed design school scholarship, but Laura knows that her assistant could never commit a murder. It takes pleading by Tyrone’s protective grandmother to propel Laura into the investigation, despite the warnings of Detective Alex Spangler, anonymous threats, and vandalism of the staged mansion.
Along with extremely helpful hints on staging homes for sale – they should be impersonal but furnished so as to allow buyers to see their full potential – the author delivers an extremely fun and well-developed start of a new series. Laura’s negative history with attractive men is gradually revealed throughout the novel, and it explains her distasteful reactions to both Detective Spangler and real estate agent Doug Hamilton. Nita provides Victoria with emotional support and good-natured laughs, as Nita’s gift as a psychic to sweep out the bad mojo yields surprisingly helpful results. That isn’t to say that Nita isn’t something of an enabler when it comes to venturing into inadvisable territory, but it was with the best of intentions as Tyrone’s future is very realistically at risk.
The enjoyable character development of not just Laura, but her friends and unexpected allies, promises a strong follow-up as Laura builds her new career and client base. Enough red herrings interspersed throughout to keep readers guessing up until the end, and the conclusion is as unexpected as it is logical. Nothing feels forced or clichéd in this even-paced new mystery, with professional home staging hints at the top of each chapter being just enough to leave readers wanting more. Skillfully written dialogue ensures Laura’s prevalence as a very witty and likable character, and while driven to investigate by guilt, her wits and a bit of wisdom from a mystery-loving nun allows Laura to prove her worth as an amateur detective leading a series.
Interview with Grace Topping:
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Grace: Sometimes it feels like all my life. Before turning to writing fiction, I spent a career as a writer-editor, and then doing technical writing in support of computer systems regulating banks. Pretty boring stuff. But it gave me a good foundation for writing mysteries—lots of inspiration for motives and possible victims.
KRL: When did your first novel come out? What was it called? Can you tell us a little about it?
Grace: My first novel, Staging Is Murder, came out recently, April 30, 2019—ten years from when I started it. It’s a cozy mystery (a traditional mystery without violence, sex, or bad language), and features a main character who is starting a new career midlife as a home stager. When a body falls from a laundry chute and lands at her feet, removing flowered wallpaper becomes the least of her home staging duties.
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense? If not what else have you written?
Grace: Other than the technical documents, procedural guidelines, speeches, etc. that I wrote for work, I wrote a children’s book and a play for middle school children. Based on their lack of success, I decided to turn back to writing about murder.
KRL: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series?
Grace: Most cozy mysteries have a small town setting where the characters pretty much know most of the town’s people. Since I’m originally from Pennsylvania, I based my setting loosely on the city I grew up in, which really is bigger than my fictional town, but I always had it in mind when imagining my town. As to my characters—hard to say where they came from. They just spring to mind, all except the villain who is loosely based on someone I once came into contact with. Fictional revenge is sweet.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
Grace: Oh, definitely to entertain. If there is any deep message or theme in my book, I’m not aware of it. Because it is a mystery, perhaps the message is that justice prevails and the villain gets his or her just dues. A cozy mystery can sometimes address more serious social issues, and maybe I’ll address some of those the more experienced I become writing fiction. A cozy mystery is much lighter than other types of fiction. I like to refer to it as dessert on the buffet table of literature—but there’s always room for dessert.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
Grace: I probably would make much better progress if I did have a schedule. In promoting my book, I have become a social media addict and find myself spending far too much time in it. But with deadlines for Book 2 in my series looming, I’m becoming much more disciplined about finding time to write. I envy those writers who are so disciplined that they get up before light and have already written for two hours before going off to work.
KRL: Do you outline? If not, do you have some other interesting way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
Grace: With a background in technical writing, I need to know where I’m going with my story and have an outline to follow. As a result, I am definitely a plotter versus a pantser (those who write by the seat of their pants). I start out with a “what if” question. I based my first book on a single idea: what if a fax went to the wrong number. What could have been in that fax that would cause someone to commit murder? Then I took an online course on mystery writing, which gave me the structure, or checkpoints, of a mystery. I fleshed out the book, writing a detailed description based on what I later learned was a detailed synopsis. That way when I sat down to actually write the book, I knew what was going to happen in each chapter. Since it wasn’t long enough, I got to be more creative adding chapters and making them fit in the story. Without a background in writing mysteries, or any type of adult fiction, I ended up doing a lot of rewriting as I learned more. Each time I learned something new about writing fiction, I made changes and created a new version. I stopped counting at version 38. Ten years and 38 versions—I’m pretty much the poster child for never giving up.
KRL: If you had your ideal, what time of day would you prefer to write?
Grace: I definitely prefer evenings. It’s the time of day I don’t feel the call to do errands or household things. I write when other people would be watching television. But with impending deadlines, I’m writing whenever I can—it just won’t be before dawn.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Grace: With a book that took ten years to get written and published—yes. A lot of that was my fault since I didn’t have a sense of urgency, so long periods of time would elapse between writing, editing, finding beta readers, finding an agent, etc. Once I found an agent, I made the mistake of staying with her for over five years, thinking it was better to have her than no agent. Big mistake. Better to have no agent than one who ignores you. When I finally found the courage to sever our contract politely, I found a new agent, Dawn Dowdle, and she sold my book in two months!
KRL: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
Grace: When I first had a completed manuscript, a published friend gave me the name of her agent and recommended that I contact her. In my query letter, I told the agent her client had recommended her—and I received an immediate request for a full manuscript—on my first query. I began to think it would be embarrassing to sit among writer friends when they talked about their long journey to publication when my journey was going to be so short. The agent’s rejection letter quickly brought me back to reality. I now have my long journey to publication story to tell. But I’m glad that first version didn’t get published. My much revised book is so much better.
KRL: Most interesting book signing story in a bookstore or other venue?
Grace: My most interesting story happened not at a signing but at Malice Domestic, a conference for fans and writers of traditional mysteries. A woman asked me what I wrote and showed great interest in my work in progress. She asked me if I had a cat in it. When I said no, she turned and walked away. You can believe that night I went home and added a cat to my story.
KRL: Future writing goals?
Grace: I have a three-book contract with Henery Press for my series. So my immediate goal is to get the second one delivered on time and the third one a year later. Depending on how they do, I’ll either write more in the series or be forced to return to technical writing. Horrors.
KRL: Writing heroes?
Grace: I absolutely love books by Jacqueline Winspear. I should be lucky enough to have the wisdom her main character Maisie Dobbs has. In fact, urged by fans, she came out with a book, What Would Maisie Dobbs Do?
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Grace: I research points in my book that I think might cause a reader to pause and wonder whether I got it right. For example, I have a character who retires from the Navy for a number of reasons, but mainly because he was having vision problems and could no longer fly off aircraft carriers. I contacted a retired Navy captain to ask him if someone with 20 years of service would still be flying off aircraft carriers. The answer was yes. It’s important to get your facts right and not lose credibility.
KRL: What do you read?
Grace: Mostly mysteries. I write and enjoy cozy mysteries, but I particularly like historical mysteries. I am a big, big fan of audiobooks and have several downloaded at all times on my iPhone.
KRL: Favorite TV or movies?
Grace: The idea for my main character came from my watching far too many HGTV home staging and decorating programs. They are my escape from what’s going on in the world. When I’m not facing a deadline and writing in the evenings, I enjoy British mysteries like Midsomer Murders, Pie in the Sky, etc.–the less violent ones. My favorite movies: for romantic comedy, You’ve Got Mail. For a good hearty laugh: Galaxy Quest.
KRL: Any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Grace: Read extensively the type of book you want to write and educate yourself in the skills needed. The best thing I did for myself was taking that online course on mystery writing. I found it so beneficial that when I was published, I wrote to Steve Alcorn, who taught the class, and told him I owed him so much. The other thing, don’t go it alone. Work with other writers and join professional groups. If I hadn’t joined and received the support I got from Sisters in Crime (SINC) and the SINC Guppies (the online chapter for the great unpublished), I don’t think I would be published today.
KRL: Anything you would like to add?
Grace: Thank you, Lorie, for having me here today. And a big thank you to all the bloggers, reviewers, and readers of my book. I can’t thank you enough.
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Grace: I’m a Navy veteran and spent seven years in the WAVES, as the women in the Navy were called then.
KRL: Website? Twitter? Facebook?
Check out other Henery Press mysteries on their website.
To enter to win a copy of Staging is Murder simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “staging,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen June 29, 2019. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address (so if you win we can get the book sent right out to you), and if via comment please include your email address. You can read our privacy statement here if you like.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section. And join our mystery Facebook group to keep up with everything mystery we post, and have a chance at some extra giveaways. Be sure to check out our new mystery podcast too with mystery short stories, and first chapters read by local actors. A new episode goes up next week. We will be featuring the first chapter of Grace’s book early next year.
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