by Cynthia Chow
This week we have a review of the first in a new series, Puzzling Ink: A Crossword Puzzle Mystery By Becky Clark, along with an interview with Becky. Details at the end of the post on how to enter to win an ebook copy of Puzzling Ink and a link to order it from Amazon and an indie bookstore.
Puzzling Ink: A Crossword Puzzle Mystery By Becky Clark
Review by Cynthia Chow
Quinn Carr loves crossword puzzles. There are clear rules, only one correct answer, and you even have more than one chance to fix a mistake. It’s too bad life isn’t like that, which is why Quinn failed her chance at a Denver Police Department interview and landed back home in Chestnut Station, Colorado. An OCD panic attack may have forced her to flee her DPD interview, but her gift for organizing and making logical connections led her to becoming the Chestnut Station Chronicle’s crossword puzzle creator. It also allowed Quinn to help her friend Officer Rico Lopez catch a local bicycle thief. It’s a skill that will again be in demand when Emmet Dubois is poisoned to death at a Denver fundraiser. Quinn’s boss at the diner is quickly arrested for serving up poisoned mushrooms to the victim, and rather than hiring an attorney Jake Szabo looks to his waitress to prove his innocence.
Placing the fate of his future in Quinn’s hands is pressure she’s not sure she can handle, but that doesn’t compare to also being forced to take over the diner during Jake’s incarceration. The lack of staffing is matched only by the dearth of supplies, which is why Quinn is soon serving up all-you-can eat pancakes and serve-yourself beverages. Dubious assistance comes in the form of Jake’s attention-attracting ex-wife Lola, who provides background on suspects if not actual help in the kitchen. That comes in the surprising form of Quinn’s enthusiastic parents, whose enthusiasm is matched only by Quinn’s mother’s creativity with ingredients. Quinn’s symptoms and need to organize escalate the more it looks like Jake may stay in jail as the diner goes bust, so the timer is on for her to put together the puzzle pieces to save both herself and her employer. Blackmail, Russian brides, and thieving employees are all puzzles that Quinn must fit into her grid if she is ever to find the mushroom killer.
I was absolutely charmed by this first in the series, which provides a fresh and unique glimpse into the life of someone with OCD. Depression, anxiety, and unrelenting obsessive thoughts can spring up and completely consume her if not confronted. That Quinn’s compulsions are a coping mechanism for her obsessive thoughts is something rarely discussed, and seeing her continually learn how to adapt to her illness is fascinating. Chapters viewed from Rico’s perspective reveal how others may sympathize with and be affected by those with OCD. Rico’s and Quinn’s status as friends-who-could-be-more is brilliantly and refreshingly handled, quickly dealt with in a realistic manner that doesn’t serve as a mere plot point. A crossword puzzle and Quinn’s mother’s recipes for rather unique specialties are included at the end, and they should delight fans of both (although I’m not sure how many will be fans of mashed potatoes-chocolate pudding Redneck Ravioli). Quinn is a likable character whose OCD condition is sympathetically showcased, making this a promising and welcome debut series. I can’t wait to read more about Quinn, diner dialogue, crossword puzzles, and how she learns to adjust to the condition that has both abled and hindered her life.
Interview with Becky Clark:
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Becky: My first book was published in 2001. At that time, I was writing for kids. It was historical fiction for middle readers set during the Civil War. Before that I’d been writing, and sometimes selling, first person essays.
KRL: When did your first novel come out, what was it called, and would you tell us a little about it?
Becky: After I transitioned to the world of mysteries for adults, I published Banana Bamboozle and its sequel Marshmallow Mayhem which I call the Dunne Diehl mysteries. These were written with a friend of mine from college and the protagonists – Cassidy Dunne and Dan Diehl – in the books are remarkably similar to us, also long-time friends in their 50s.
In the first one, Cassidy thinks she sees her teenage niece at a party, but Dan reminds her that the niece in question died in a house fire as an infant. But Cassidy knows what she saw and is determined to find out. In the second book, they take a winter road trip in an RV, traveling from California to Colorado. The caretaker at their campground is murdered and they are prime suspects.
Next came the Mystery Writer’s Mysteries with Charlemagne (Charlee) Russo who is a mystery writer who finds herself in the middle of real-life mysteries. In Fiction Can Be Murder her agent is murdered. In FOUL PLAY ON WORDS a friend’s daughter is kidnapped; and in Metaphor For Murder, there’s all kinds of chaos – murders, disappearances, and a dognapping!
Newest is the Crossword Mysteries with diner waitress, Quinn Carr, who also constructs crossword puzzles for the local paper and can slip in subliminal clues, to get the chief of police to steer the investigation in the way she thinks it should go. In Puzzling Ink, a diner patron is found murdered face down in his biscuits and gravy and both she and her boss are suspects. In Punning With Scissors (May 2021) Hugh, the town tailor, is arrested for the stabbing death of his husband, but Quinn can’t believe he did it. Her investigation is challenged both by her Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and the sudden adoption of Hugh’s dog.
KRL: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series?
Becky: Most of my books are set in Colorado where I’ve lived most of my life. I’d love to be able to take long research trips to exotic locales so I can write about them, but since that’s not really in the cards right now, I feel like I need to stick to places I know I’ll get right.
As for the characters, I love exploring the concept of reluctant heroes, which mine usually are. I remember reading a thriller with a really “kickass” heroine and thinking, “I would never do that!” As I began trying to figure out what I would do in a similar situation, it occurred to me that’s what every cozy mystery amateur sleuth has to go through, using their particular skill set (or lack thereof) to solve the mystery that dropped from the sky and landed on their head.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
Becky: Mostly I write to entertain – my books are fun and fast – but in the Crossword Mysteries, like I said, Quinn has been diagnosed with OCD. It’s not that I particularly wanted to shine a bright light on mental illness, but when I was thinking about who would be the perfect “crossword-puzzle-constructor” it made sense that someone with organizational OCD would really love that job. I did a bunch of research and interviewed people with OCD and tried to do it justice.
I also didn’t want to make a big deal out of it, either, although she did hit rock bottom and the diagnosis really threw her for a loop, but what I was trying to do was show that everyone has some sort of baggage we drag through life, some albatross around our neck. Some big, some small, but everyone has something they must deal with. Quinn’s happens to be OCD, but it’s no different than if she had diabetes, or didn’t know how to read, or came from an abusive home… it’s just part of her package.
In that regard, the light I’m shining is that it doesn’t matter if someone’s baggage is mental health, physical health, or economic health. It all needs to be dealt with and there’s no reason anyone should be stigmatized by whatever it is that afflicts them. That said, I’ve been very gratified that readers of PUZZLING INK have really loved the OCD aspect treated respectfully but matter-of-factly, and even with humor. Just like what happens in real life!
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
Becky: I’m a full-time writer, which is kind of a misnomer. For me, it means I’m at my desk every day by 9 a.m. I write until noon or so, and the afternoons are spent on all the other marketing, promotional, and business tasks that are involved in the publishing biz.
KRL: Do you outline and 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?
Becky: I’m a big fan of planning out a mystery before I sit down to write. In fact, I wrote a book about it, Eight Weeks to a Complete Novel-Write Faster, Write Better, Be More Organized. Unfortunately, it was released in March, just in time for the pandemic lock-down so when things settle down a tad, I’ll have to figure out how to re-launch it because there’s a ton of really helpful advice in there because I really do write books – from outline to polish – in two months.
KRL: Most interesting book signing story-in a bookstore or other venue?
Becky: With my first book, which I self-published back when it was hard, I was invited to a huge multi-author festival where we were all at tables at Mile High Stadium, where the Broncos play football. We were alphabetical so I was next to a Very Famous Author. I had a whole table display with swag and candy. I stood whenever there were people around, because I’m very approachable and friendly. Of course, nobody had ever heard of me, so I really had to sell myself and my book. But I did.
When Very Famous Author got there, he had nothing except some postcards his publisher gave him. He was bored and sat there playing with the postcards, literally building a wall between him and the book browsers. Finally, after seeing me stuff yet another ten-dollar bill in my pocket, he asked what was going on. We made a bet as to who would sell the most books that day. I beat him in a landslide, plus he wouldn’t see any money until his quarterly royalty payments. Of course, over the long run, he has perhaps sold more books than I have, which only makes it worse that he welched on our bet. Pfft.
KRL: Future writing goals?
Becky: I have a ton of projects I’m raring to get started on … some standalones and some new series ideas, along with the series I’m already writing. Luckily, I write fast!
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Becky: I learned my lesson about research writing my historical fiction for kids. It was fascinating but bogged me down. Subsequently I’ve learned to only do enough to make sure my premise is viable, then I write my outline, and only then do I do the specific research … but only what’s absolutely necessary for the plot. If it’s a topic I know nothing about, I’ll start with books in the children’s section of my library. That usually gives me what I need, but if it’s not, or something they don’t write children’s books about – like murder – I’ll go to some trusted sources, or throw out a question on Facebook … “Do you know someone who works as a [whatever], or lives [wherever]?” That usually garners me several people I can ask specific questions of.
Much of my research, however, is just my everyday life. I’ll see or hear something and think, “That would be a great clue!” and then look into it more before it goes in my Clue File for later.
For the Crossword Mysteries I had to learn how to construct puzzles, which is harder than I thought it would be. I get a little better with each one and if I do anything stupid, I can just explain it away in the text of the book. Readers seem to enjoy doing them, but the puzzles don’t need to be solved in order to solve the mystery or enjoy the book. Plus, all the puzzles are on my website!
KRL: What do you read?
Becky: I love the crime fiction umbrella, everything from thrillers to cozies to true crime. My neighborhood book club keeps me reading the literary-type novels, and I really love memoirs of all kinds.
KRL: Favorite TV or movies?
Becky: So many! I binge on all the series you’ve ever heard of and many you haven’t. The movies in our Netflix queue tend to be quirky indies, usually subtitled. I count my blessings that my husband and I have the same taste in TV and movies.
KRL: Any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Becky: Write every day. Join your professional organizations like Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America. Go to writers and fan conferences whenever you’re able. Gather trusted writers as companions and mentors. Ask for help. Offer help. Submit your work to other writers for their feedback. Develop a thick skin so you can honestly assess criticism … and if more than one person tells you something, listen! Oh, and buy my book Eight Weeks to a Complete Novel to learn how to write faster.
The wheels of publishing move s. l. o. w. l. y. so you need to keep a constant churn of work moving through the pipeline. Allow yourself moments of despair because they’ll make those moments of triumph even sweeter. Decide what “success” means to you and don’t try to follow someone else’s path. There are many ways up the mountain … find the one that makes sense for you.
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Becky: I can’t believe there’s anything I haven’t publicly talked about. I’m a pretty open book, much to the chagrin of my family!
KRL: Website? Twitter? Facebook?
Becky: My favorite playground these days is my private reader group on Facebook … Becky’s Book Buddies, as well as a private group I’m in with a bunch of other authors called Cozy Mystery Crew. Don’t forget to answer the questions to open the secret door and then come play in my playground!
But the place where you’ll hear about new releases, giveaways, and find out how to be on my Review Crew (to read books before they’re published), is to join my email list from BeckyClarkBooks.com.
To enter to win an ebook copy of Puzzling Ink, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “puzzling,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen December 26, 2020. U.S. residents only and you must be 18 or older to enter. 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 Christmas episode went up this week.
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