Friday, March 20, 2020

Swamps, Cows, and the Nature of Cozies


HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Does anyone remember Laughter is the Best Medicine? Was it—Reader’s Digest? My grandmother had Reader’s Digest, and I learned to type by copying those jokes and stories so I could have something to type. 
Now, so many years later, I was in an airport ten days ago, and at one point, I realized—no one was laughing. It was profound.
One thing that happened, from all this, is that so many authors with new books had the career rug pulled out from under them. And I am so attached to the dear Guppy chapter of Sisters in Crime, and all the wonderful and talented authors who have been so determined and so persistent—only to be hit by reality. So we will highlight some of them over the next few weeks! Yay, Guppies! (And contact me if you want to know more.)
So meet my dear sister Guppy Lesley Diehl. She calls her books “cozy mysteries featuring snoopy country gals with attitude.” Which is exactly—exactly—what we need today.


Writing from the Swamps
When I moved my winter home from the Florida Keys to rural Florida, I didn’t expect to fall in love with the place, and I certainly never intended to set a cozy mystery here on the edge of the swamps, but the cows won me over. 
These weren’t the cows I grew up with on the farm in Illinois. 
The cows here are bred from Brahmans and sport the biggest, droopiest ears in the bovine world. The accompanying wattle on their necks is distinctive to the breed. Purebreds are usually gray in color, sometimes light enough that they can look almost white. We used to see a few them walking across the field in the late afternoon, and because of the early evening shadows behind them, we referred to them as “ghost cattle.” There is nothing so majestic as a full-grown gray Brahman bull, powerful and beautiful. 
Drive one of the highways out of town and you may be lucky to see cowboys on horses herding cattle through the sabal pines, live oaks and palmetto dotted prairies, or stop into one of the local bars and run into them in their boots and spurs stopping for a beer after a long day of tending cattle. 
This is the place for wildlife, not just alligators, but also birds, turtles, raccoons, ducks and coyotes. This is old Florida where people trace their families back four generations. Native Americans like the Seminole and the Miccosukee have built casinos, but most continue ranching as did their ancestors before the Seminole Wars in the 1830s.
Once I settled into the area, I found a small-town atmosphere prevailed. Upon arrival, I talked to the head librarian about a writer’s group. She hooked me up with another writer, Jan Day, and she and I founded OWL, the Okeechobee Writer’s League. Jan introduced me to the Women’s Business Group and to the talented people who put together the Top of the Lake Art Festival and the Speckled Perch Art Festival. 
There are several rodeos here each year and a cattle drive as well as a community theater group. Surprisingly, the local movie theater remains independent and open when other communities’ small theaters have closed their doors. Like me, folks from the North come in the winter for the sunshine, warm temperatures and to fish the Big Lake. Around here we are not called “snowbirds”, but rather “winter visitors.” The center of town sports small businesses that struggle to compete with the chain stores, but they manage by virtue of their friendly and efficient service.
So, I thought to myself, why not set a cozy mystery here? I wanted a place that actually existed, where I could experience the community myself and write authentically about it. 
Like the unusual setting for a cozy, so too is Eve an odd protagonist. I created a bold, sassy gal, a woman who was outspoken, a fashionista from the North. Eve would find the fit in this cow town uncomfortable at first. 
I paired her with her best friend from grade school, a woman who could have grown up in the South, ladylike in every way. What Eve lacked in social skills, her friend, Madeleine, made up for. The two friends started a consignment shop together, and on opening day discovered the body of a woman stabbed to death on their dressing room floor. Murder was just the beginning. Humor dictates the tone of the series.  
I sometimes wonder if I have gone too far afield in the cozy mystery subgenre: is the humor too over the edge, is Eve too brash, is a cozy set on the edge of the Florida swamps too much of a reach for my readers? And Eve is still evolving. She’s apprenticing to be a private detective.
Do you like bold protagonists, a little humor and unusual settings with your murder?

HANK: What a great question for today. Reds and Readers--and Guppies!--How far can a “cozy” go?

Tired of sitting surveillance on insurance fraud, apprentice PI Eve Apple Egret gets her first big case, one where the outcome is important and personal. Eve’s best friend Madeleine has few relatives, so her Uncle Shamus is special, but someone is determined to kill him and has tried several times. Eve is certain she can identify who is after him, but this time she may have taken on more than even our self-confident Eve can handle. Coping with a growing toddler and a teenager, devoting time to the consignment shop and finding someone who can go undercover in a sexual harassment case all vie for Eve’s attention. Eve knows she cannot fail Madeleine. This is more than her favorite uncle’s life. His death would mean devastating loss for Madeleine and call into question Eve’s commitment as a friend and her ability as a PI. 



Cows, Lesley learned as a child growing up on a farm, have a twisted sense of humor. They chased her when she went to the field to herd them in for milking, and one ate the lovely red mitten her grandmother knitted for her. Determining that agriculture wasn’t her career path, she took a job as a stripper, book cover stripper for a publishing company, that is. Now after many years as a college professor and university administrator, she has returned to the world of books and uses her country roots and her training to concoct stories designed to make people laugh in the face of murder. “A good chuckle,” says Lesley,” keeps us emotionally well-oiled long into our old age.”

72 comments:

  1. Your book sounds charming, Lesley . . . I do believe I’d like Eve.
    I think bold protagonists can add so much to a story. Unusual settings definitely bring something unique to a story and humor is always good [especially now] . . . .

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    1. Humor is especially important in these times. Try Eve. You'll find her an entertaining companion.

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  2. These days, humor in my reading is a welcome addition. I especially like witty conversations driven by the protagonist, who when bold is able to pull this off with great skill. Protagonists who are bold always make for more interesting situations and adventures. And, I do have a fondness for an unusual setting, to take me out of my comfort zone. Your edge of the Florida swamp setting sounds like it would be an excellent new setting for me to explore, Lesley. Nearly Departed sounds like a great read, and Eve sounds like a character who would be most interesting to get to know.

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    1. Yes exactly--I live books where. the main character is in control, takes charge. Or at least thinks she is, or tries to be, and rises to the occasion.

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    2. Thanks, Kathy. I'm sure Eve would welcome you to her team of odd, but interesting companions. And, Hank, Eve always thinks she's in control even when she's not!

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  3. I think humor is mandatory in cozies, and really welcome in any mystery, including the hard boiled ones. If you hang out with emergency responders for any time at all, you'll discover that humor is one way they deal with the stress of their jobs. Not to include at least a smile here and there makes for bad characterization and grim reading. Trust your instincts, trust your voice, and go for it.

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    1. Reporters, too. xoo And that's great advice!

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    2. That's why reporters get along so well with emergency responders, right, Hank?

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    3. My voice clearly includes humor. I find I cannot write without it.

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  4. Humor is always good, but in today's climate, it should be mandatory. Julie and I spent from November to March dealing with the dying and death of a dear friend -- all day all night 24/7. We got very tired, and if it hadn't been for QI on Britbox plus a few other hysterical shows, we would have run out of tears.

    And now this. For the first time in years I'm reading a Flavia de Luce. I wouldn't call it a cozy exactly, not really sure what a cozy is even. But it is funny as hell. In addition I'm reading the third of the Wolf Hall Trilogy, and even there I'm finding amusing lines. Along with a few beheadings, hangings, and assorted ill winds.

    Welcome, Leslie. Eve Appel sounds like exactly what we need today. Sit down, let me make you a latte, and let's talk about cows. I grew up in a flyover state, and one of my first memories is falling in a cow patty and being dunked in the horse trough to clean me up. Poor horses.

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    1. Cow memories... now that is a good question! I am not sure I have any cow memories :-)

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    2. I once responded to my dog's hysterical barking to find five black angus peacefully grazing in my front yard. Close up, they're really large.

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    3. I spent most of my childhood out in the barn with my dad. Mom wasn't pleased that I always smelled like a cow!

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  5. Welcome fellow Guppy Leslie! You clearly haven't gone too far if you're up to book seven. I'd love to see that part of Florida - not something anyone ever thinks of in the same breath as the name of the state.

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    1. Agreed. We think about other swaps :-)

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    2. Bring your fishing gear if you come here. Bass, crappies and catfish are big here. People sink a lot of money into bass boats.

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  6. "Florida is flat. Flat is boring." An assumption similar to the one made by people driving across northwest Ohio on the turnpike. I love it when a writer can turn those assumptions inside out based on a deep love of and understanding of place; add in unexpected characters, and humor--and I'm yours! Can't wait to meet up with Eve and company!

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    1. That is such a wonderful observation! I did a whole year long on the road series, back in 1980 in Georgia, just doing stories about things we drove around and saw That is such a wonderful observation! I did a whole year long on the road series, back in 1980 in Georgia, just doing stories about interesting things we drove around and saw.

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    2. I spend my summer in Upstate New York. Many seem to think all of NY is NYC, never realizing how diverse the state is. We live on a trout stream. The place is pure heaven, but only in teh summers!

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  7. I LOVE unusual settings, and I do like humor in my cozies. As long as things don't get so silly that it's no longer believable. Also it's tricky when you're dealing with death, a serious subject even in a light novel, and cracking jokes. Takes a light touch. And often I don't see it in my own writing... so I'm wondering how you check to be sure your humor is working?

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    1. Such a good question! I always think if you are trying to be funny, that’s when it doesn’t work. But so agree, it is hard to pinpoint!

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    2. That is a great question. Since humor varies so from person to person, I'm certain many people don't find my work funny. I make certain I and my characters always respect a death, never try to make that funny, but everything else is up for grabs. MY humor is similar to Evanovich's, so I know I grab a number of her fans. Reviews of my work seems to like the humor. And, I'm stuck with the humor I write because I find it difficult to not to be funny. Writing funny is as therapeutic for me as it is for my readers.

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  8. Humor is great, exotic settings even better. Look forward to reading your series.

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  9. Wow! There is a part of Florida I never knew about and I think I would really like it; not touristy. Setting is very important for me and I have been thinking about this lately. For me, sometimes the setting is the most important part, a place I can go when I need a vacation in my mind. And who doesn't love humor? I prefer sly and subtle humor not the Lucy and Ethel kind although there is a place for that, too.

    So, sounds like you have some winners here, Lesley!

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    1. Yes, the great the Three Stooges battle . I cannot even see why that is funny. And watching I love Lucy always made me cringe. I felt so bad for her.

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    2. I agree that setting is important. Whatever series I'm working on whether one set in rural Florida or in Upstate New York, I weave setting into the plot and into my characters's lives.

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  10. I like all of it - humor, bold characters, and unusual settings. I think cozy can go as far as writers want to take it as long as it keeps to the "no gore, no sex, no foul language" side of the road.

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    1. I think I've pushed the cozy subgenre in a direction I feel comfortable with while behaving myself in the no gore, no sex, no foul language areas.

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  11. Welcome Lesley, and welcome Eve's Florida adventures! I totally agree with Hank that we need humor now more than ever. Reading cozies is a new thing for me and I'm surprised at how much I am loving them. So, your books are going on my TBR list and I'll be looking to put them into my new Kindle, which I am also loving! Who knew!?
    Some people have a gift for humor and they can always turn a phrase and say it just the right way. Then real magic happens when they put it into a story and share it with the rest of us. So, I want to thank all the writers giving us chuckles during this unexpectedly anxiety filled time.

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    1. That’s a great way of putting it, too. It’s not so much “funny” as just what someone would actually say.

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    2. I'm pleased to be one of those writers who likes to write humor, who thinks I owe my readers both entertainment in terms of plot and characters and a chuckle here and there.

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  12. Welcome Leslie! I have a lot of Florida connections--went to the Univ of Florida for grad school and have a naturalist/writer sister in the state and of course live now half time in Key West. One year I helped my sister tag Sandhill cranes--that could be good scene in one of your books:) So absolutely yes to rural FL!

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    1. Great idea for a scene, Lucy! Xxxx

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    2. I love the Sandhill cranes here with their cute babies. I have a pen and ink drawing of several of them.

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  13. Welcome, Lesley and congratulations on your new novel. Big fan of cozy mysteries here. I enjoy humor in cozy mysteries. As long as the murder is "off camera". If I ever think a cozy mystery goes too far, then I stop reading.

    Hank, I am interested in learning more about Guppies. Is it for people who have WIP (work in progress) novels?

    Diana

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    1. I highly recommend the guppies group. I've been a member for over a decade. They offer so much for newbies and for established writers, manuscript exchanges, on line classes, etc. Check them out. I read the guppies digest daily and it is filled with good information.

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    2. Diana, I can hook you right up! Yes, Guppies stands for "the great unpublished" but so many of us have to gone on to be published--but it's such and offers so much wonderful information and its such a terrifc community that its hard to leave! Email me at hryan at whdh dot com xox

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  14. I, too, am ramping up the percentage of cozies in my reading pile - they're just perfect for trying times: a quirky community you can escape to, a puzzle to keep your mind engaged, and funny characters and events to make you laugh.

    As for Lesley's setting in the Okeechobee area; you had me at "cows."

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    1. Julia, cozies are perfect for trying times.

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    2. These cows are so special. I just want to grab their big, ole ears and caress them!

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  15. I wasn't even aware there was rural Florida. Every state has their stereotype, and I've fallen victim to believing Florida's I guess.

    Your books sound like fun.

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    1. Rural Florida is a fishing paradise especially if you like bass. With the cattle and the cowboys, it looks like Texas with palm trees.

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  16. Cozies! Most definitely. After coming home from work and having to listen to the news (whole state in lockdown now), one most definitely needs a good distraction. Cows in Florida, sure, makes perfect sense to me. Floridians need to get their beef from somewhere and local is always best. Brahmans ARE huge. I think there was one in pasture one in a small back road at the edge of town. It sure matches your description. Now the real question is this, are there vineyards and wineries? Seems like everywhere I look I see vineyards.

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  17. I think there are a few wineries, but not many. There are a few, but they feature citrus fruit based wines.

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  18. One can find humor everywhere. It may be dark, but it's still humor. As for story location, anything goes! What is unusual and exotic to one reader is perfectly normal to another. I went on a swampboat tour near Orlando years ago. The dumb cows were grazing in the water, totally oblivious to the gators and snakes. I know cows aren't the smartest animals out there, but I was unaware they'd voluntarily get in water up to their necks! I look forward to meeting your sassy new protagonist, Lesley.

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    1. Cows aren't the most intelligent of creatures, but they are big, most too big for a gator to take them on. On the other hand, calves are at risk.

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    2. What a funny scene to imagine, Pat!

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  19. Gosh, this is fun. I love talking about rural Florida because so many are unaware of this place and what it has to offer. It isn't all gators and snakes, although we have our share of them. Note I chose not to include a picture of an alligator.

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    1. Very very wise! And we are delighted you are here.

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  20. Lesley, this is such fun. I am definitely enjoying more cozies these days, and humor makes them even better. The landscape sounds like parts of Texas, and I love the cows.

    Our local PBS station was showing (at least before the recent interminable pledge break) All Creatures Great and Small. Talk about great humor and heart-warming stories. We need more!

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    1. Any opportunity for a laugh, take it!

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    2. Oh my goodness, I would cry if I watched that show!

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  21. OK, twice I have typed a comment and twice when I hit preview, it disappeared. So typos and all, whatever I type this time is going straight to publish!

    This series sounds wonderful. Some of my favorite cozy writers ever have been the ones who knew how to incorporate humor. I have been disappointed, as I seek new cozy series to follow, at how much sameness I encounter. I suspect it may be the publishers using the same two sentence descriptions for books that are actually quite different, but who can tell?

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    1. Oh, that’s so interesting Susan! Remind me to tell you of the time Joe Finder and I compared the log lines of our upcoming books— Word for Word the same! Absolutely terrifying.

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  22. No sameness with Eve Appel and her friends and family. This is not your usual cozy. I love cats and dogs, have a cat of my own, but there are no cute animals in this cozy. Just horses, cows and alligators...and some very unusual people.

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  23. Laughter is the best medicine, and I enjoyed Reader's Digest - but most of them were groaners, not laughers as they were so corny! I do enjoy a book with humor sprinkled throughout so I'm putting you on my list. I enjoy this group because I get exposed to so many authors, but it's a struggle to keep up with all the reading...somehow I will manage LOL

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    1. I think a read of Eve and her pals might give you a good chuckle. Try it!

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    2. Oh yes, so corny! But they were designed for the people who are our age now, or right? Oh.

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  24. Leslie, how did I miss these books all these years! Of course, I think a cozy set around the Lake is perfect, but then, I live in Hendry County!

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    1. The setting should be familiar to you then. There are now seven in the series, so they should keep you busy...and laughing.

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  25. Leslie, what a good idea, using rural Florida for a setting! We have friends in some of those areas, all over the state: Citra, Bell, Lake Oklawaha. It's too bad beachgoers miss the middle parts of Florida, in my opinion. Shell driveways, mossy trees, and quaint little cracker houses.

    Speaking of which, I can't tell from the photo, but are those cracker cows? Or are they only found in the northern part of the state?

    Humor is keeping us sane. I've noticed a lot more appreciation for funny in various venues. And I do love cleverly funny writing, in any genre.

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    1. Something has to keep us sane, right? It is a tough job these days… Love you !

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  26. These cows are cross bred with Brahmans, so they are a mixture of many different ones. I'm told that the Brahman mix is good for Florida because they can withstand a lot of heat, which we have plenty of here.

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