Archive for June 24th, 2021

Connie Berry is the author of the Kate Hamilton Mysteries, set in the UK and featuring an American antiques dealer with a gift for solving crimes. Like her protagonist, Connie was raised by antiques dealers who instilled in her a passion for history, fine art, and travel. During college she studied at the University of Freiburg in Germany and St. Clare’s College, Oxford, where she fell under the spell of the British Isles. In 2019 Connie won the IPPY Gold Medal for Mystery and was a finalist for the Agatha Award’s Best Debut. She’s a member of Mystery Writers of America and is on the board of the Guppies and her local Sisters in Crime chapter. Besides reading and writing mysteries, Connie loves history, foreign travel, cute animals, and all things British. She lives in Ohio with her husband and adorable Shih Tzu, Emmie. You can learn more about Connie and her writing at her website www.connieberry.com.

Find out more: The Art of Betrayal: A Kate Hamilton Mystery: Berry, Connie: 9781643855943: Amazon.com: Books


Q: Congratulations on the release of  your latest book, The Art of Betrayal. To begin with, can you give us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?

A: The Art of Betrayal is a traditional amateur sleuth set in the UK. American antiques dealer Kate Hamilton is spending the month of May in the Suffolk village of Long Barston, tending her friend Ivor Tweedy’s antiquities shop while he recovers from hip surgery. Kate is thrilled when a reclusive widow consigns an ancient Chinese jar—until the Chinese jar is stolen and a body turns up in the middle of the May Fair. With no insurance covering the loss, Tweedy may be ruined. As DI Tom Mallory searches for the victim’s missing daughter, Kate notices puzzling connections with a well-known local legend. This complex case pits Kate against spring floods, the murky depths of Anglo-Saxon history, and a clever killer with an old secret. It’s up to Kate to unravel a Celtic knot of lies and betrayal.

The Art of Betrayal continues the story begun in the first two books, although it can be read as a stand-alone. In each installment, Kate’s knowledge of the antiques trade prepares her to solve crimes involving antiques and the past. In The Art of Betrayal, Kate is hired as a consultant by the local police when a reclusive widow with a large collection of valuable art and antiques is murdered. Like Kate, I grew up in the world of fine antiques, so my personal experience forms a backdrop for the series, along with my passion for history. What compelled me to write the book (besides my contract) was my interest in Kate—her fears and flaws, her deepening connections in the small Suffolk village of Long Barston, and how those connections alter the trajectory of her life. In the end, good books are about character.

Q: What do you think makes a good traditional mystery? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?

A: The traditional mystery is a broad category, running the gamut from what one agent called “warm tea, comfy chairs, [and] cuddly pets” to longer, darker stories with faster pacing, more complicated plots, and often a deeper exploration of character. My books fall toward the latter end of the spectrum while observing the rules first set by the Golden Agers: no gratuitous blood and gore, no explicit sex or (many) four-letter words, and a conclusion that restores justice and wraps up the loose ends.

The three most important elements of any story are plot, character, and setting. In many traditional mysteries, the sleuth (usually an amateur rather than a police professional) unravels clues and deals with plot twists in a setting that by its nature limits the number of suspects—a village, for example, rather than a large city. Increasingly today some writers of traditional mysteries are pushing the old boundaries, honing a sharper edge and setting a darker tone.

Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?

A: Writers are typically either “plotters” (meaning they work from a well-developed outline) or “pantsers” (meaning they fly by the seat of their pants, letting the characters dictate the plot as they go). I’m what’s called a “plotser,” meaning I begin with a general idea of where I’m going but not specifically how I’ll get there. I know the major plot points, including the ending, although that has been known to change as I write. Making room in the plot for the characters to say and do unexpected things is important to me. In the middle of a dialogue scene, for example, a character might say something I hadn’t planned in advance. Usually I find it’s exactly the right thing, and I have to go back and adjust the plot to make it work. The more I write, the more comfortable I am with these unanticipated insights.

Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed her. Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?

A: Kate is an American antiques dealer and young widow. Her husband, a transplanted Scot, died three years before the series began, leaving her with two teenagers to raise. Her son, Eric, is now a graduate student in nuclear physics at The Ohio State University, and her daughter, Christine, reads history at Magdalen College, Oxford, England. Her mother, Linnea, is her best friend and confidant. Kate’s personal connection to the UK began in the first book, A Dream of Death, when she met English Detective Inspector Tom Mallory on an island in the Scottish Hebrides. One of the threads running through Kate’s life is unexpected loss. Her brother, Matt, her hero, was a Down Syndrome child who died of congenital heart disease when she was only five. At the age of seventeen, she lost her beloved father to an automobile accident on Christmas Eve. Her husband died while sailing off the fictional Isle of Glenroth when Kate was forty-three. These losses make it difficult for Kate to trust and to move forward in life. To insulate herself against painful emotions, she guards her heart and focuses on her brain—mostly.

Before writing the first book, I did extensive character sketches for all my main characters, including Enneagram Personality tests. For those familiar with Enneagrams, Kate is an “Investigator,” alert, insightful, and curious. She needs to understand why things are the way they are, so she asks questions and tests assumptions. She’s reluctant to rely on the opinions and ideas of others. At her best, she sees details and patterns others miss. At her worst, she can become scattered and fearful. I must admit that Kate and I share some traits, which helps me get inside her head.

Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?

A: Without giving away any spoilers, I created my villain/villainess by cobbling together characteristics of people I’ve known or observed. The key for me is pinning down exactly what the antagonist wants, what he/she is willing to do to get it, and what he/she fears most. Truthfully, I love creating villains, and I love developing both their true face and the face they want to project to the outside world. It’s the difference between those two faces that makes a villain interesting. To do that means giving that character a full range of emotions, desires, skills, fears, weaknesses, and even a redeeming quality or two. People aren’t cardboard cutouts. Our villains should be true to life, so the reader can say, “I knew someone like that once.”

Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?

A: I hope I’ve kept the narrative exciting throughout the novel. That was certainly my goal. How I did that boils down to three words: conflict, challenges, and change.

Conflict is the fuel that keeps the narrative engine moving. Conflicts creates story. I love Donald Maass’s illustration: “The cat sat on the mat isn’t a story. The cat sat on the dog’s mat is a story.” Conflict drives the plot and keeps the reader turning pages.

Challenges the characters must face and overcome are what create conflict. These challenges can be internal or external. Great stories don’t involve nice people living happy lives. When you’re writing a series, be sure to give your central character an array of personal issues you can explore over multiple books. The old adage is this: when in doubt, make things harder, ramp up the stakes.

Change refers not only to how the characters themselves change over the course of the book—and they should. Change means also the twists and turns the plot takes. Unexpected challenges arise along with unexpected insights that send the protagonist on a whole new trajectory. Just when the reader thinks she’s figured it out, I like to flip things on their head. That’s what I love to read and also what I love to write.

Q: Setting is also quite important, and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?

A: I agree that setting is important, and one of the best compliments I receive is from readers who say the settings in my books are so real they feel they’re actually there. My goal is to transport my reader into the world of the novel.

Since my books are set in the UK, it’s essential for me to have experienced that culture personally. I spent time in England during my college years, and I like to travel there at least once a year. Until Covid, that is. Two trips to England were scrapped this past year, which is unfortunate because I develop my setting by being there at the time of year I’m writing about. Fortunately, I’ve been in the UK in all seasons, so I have some knowledge to draw upon.

Writing setting requires providing sensory details and images—not just what the POV character sees but what she hears, smells, tastes, and feels. And, most importantly, how she interprets and processes those sensory details. Because Kate is an antiques dealer, she often interprets what she sees through that lens: “The sea took on the color of pewter,” or “She gave me a look that could have stripped silver from a good old Sheffield teapot.” How a character interprets sensory details reveals who they are and what is important to them at any given time.

One caveat: A writing teacher (now deceased) taught me to describe scenes with brush strokes rather than painting every single detail. That leaves room for the reader’s imagination. For example, rather than describing a room exhaustively, you might say as I did, “What caught my eye were the paintings, mostly nineteenth-century landscapes in cool colors of blue and green. Not masterpieces but well executed.” Since Kate is an antiques dealer, she would notice the paintings rather than the color of the kitchen cupboards. This detail also gives the reader information about the room’s occupant. The room’s occupant loves art but doesn’t have the resources to purchase really important works. The cool colors also tell you something about her personality.

Q: Did you know the themes(s) of your novel from the start, or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Are these themes recurrent in your other work?

A:  A major theme in my writing is the effect of the past on the present. No one lives entirely on life’s top layer. Beneath us lie all the layers that have come before—the people and the history that have shaped the world we live in as well as our own lives. As an antiques dealer, Kate is used to living with the objects of the past. Her father once called her a divvy, an antiques whisperer. Sometimes she senses the emotional atmosphere in which an object existed, as if it had seeped into the cracks and crevices along with the dust and grime. That’s how the past clings to the present, too. They can’t be separated.

On the level of theme, Kate has been damaged by her past losses and must learn to face them and adapt. England is a perfect place for her to do that work because in England, the past is only an inch deep. Strike the ground with a spade anywhere, and you’re bound to dig up history. In my current WIP, Kate reflects upon the foundations of a ruined tenth-century priory, recently discovered beneath a Waitrose parking lot. Other themes I write about include love, courage, the nature of good and evil, deception, and friendship.

What a book is really about becomes clear to me after I’ve finished the first draft.

Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?

A: For me, art begins in the revision process. I love the quote (wrongly attributed to Dorothy Parker): “I hate writing. I love having written.” Putting words on a blank page is tortuous. Revising those words (however crappy they are) is pure joy. Revision is where the magic happens. The editing process is where the book emerges. Now, if someone else edits your book, it could be a problem if that editor tries to change your voice. Don’t let that happen. Fortunately, I have a great editor at Crooked Lane.

Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful writer?

A: A successful writer isn’t the same thing as a great writer. But if we’re talking success, meaning you produce books that are published, and you sell enough of them to get another contract, the three top qualities would be:

 1) Something Elizabeth George calls “butt glue”—the ability to remain seated at your laptop until the book is finished. Many aspiring writers tell me they’ve started several books but haven’t finished any. If you’re going to be a writer, not even to say a successful writer, you have to eventually produce a book.

2) Realistic expectations of the work writers must do to promote their work. Gone are the days when publishers funded launch parties and arranged book-signing tours. Today authors are expected to do more than write the book—a lot more. Promotion may not be your strength or favorite thing to do (it isn’t mine), but unless you’re a celebrity, you will be expected to do a lot of the publicity and marketing yourself. You may have written the most wonderful book of the decade, but unless readers know about you and your work, your book won’t sell.

3)  Connecting with other writers and the writing community at large. The community I know best, the mystery-writing community, is a welcoming place where new authors are embraced and encouraged. Join organizations like Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Romance Writers of America, Christian Fiction Writers of America, Authors Guild. Attend as many conferences as you can afford. When you’re there, go out of your way to meet other authors. They will become your advocates. Connecting with other writers is one thing Covid has made easier through Zoom and its equivalents. One day soon (please) things will settle back to normal, and we’ll have to work harder to make this happen. One more thing in this line—read and review the work of other writers, encourage them, publicize their work along with your own. It’s the kind thing to do, and it will reap rewards.

Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. Thoughts?

A: I respectfully disagree! Homework is something assigned to you by others. Research is what you undertake yourself because you choose to know. I adore research, which is part of writing books. No one person can know everything. I grew up in the antiques trade—that gives me an advantage—but I don’t have a perfect memory. Some details I’ve forgotten. Others I never knew in the first place. Research is my second favorite part of writing a book. I love it so much I have to be careful not to fall down rabbit holes.

Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops, or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?

A: Since there are way too many to name, I’ll give you my top five:

1) Don’t Sabotage Your Submission by Chris Roerden. This was the very first craft book I ever read, and I still recommend it to others. Chris lays out the common mistakes new writers make and tells you what to do instead.

2) Fiction University by Janice Hardy, a site dedicated to helping writers and authors improve their writing craft and their publishing careers. This valuable resource lands in your inbox absolutely free.

3) Guppies, an online chapter of Sisters in Crime focusing on helping emerging writers emerge. Join and take advantage of the wonderful and affordable craft classes offered throughout the year.

4) Writers’ Conferences like SleuthFest in Florida, Crime Bake near Washington, D.C., Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City and online. New writers will also find valuable conferences and workshops in their own part of the world.

5) Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behavior by social anthropologist Kate Fox. This one is specialized. If you’re writing books set in the British Isles as I am, Fox’s book does a deep dive into British foibles and eccentricities, addressing issues such as conversation codes (what British people say and what they really mean), and behavior codes—the hidden rules that govern behavior at home, at work, in the pub. Invaluable—and fun to read.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?

A: Just know that it is a craft, which means it can be learned. Don’t neglect this. Give yourself time to develop your craft. It will pay off in the end.

Thanks so much for hosting me! I hope your readers will enjoy my books.

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