Elmwood, Indiana, the fictional town in which the ELMWOOD CONFIDENTIAL series is set, is much like the town where I grew up and lived three-quarters of my life. Both communities are tight-knit and revolve around a diverse assortment of citizens, high school sports, parades, festivals, chicken-and-noodle dinners, traditions and local folklore. While my hometown is generally peaceful 24/7 and murders are rare, Elmwood is plagued with murders. In real life, murder is tragic. But in a cozy mystery, murder is its lifeblood.
Long before I became a cozy mystery author, I noodled around with short-fiction. After noodling for almost ten years, I finally took the leap and started writing my first long piece.
I set it in a small, Indiana town that I named Elmwood and populated with an array of distinctive, often quirky, characters from which I could cast the story’s many roles. The starring role of protagonist went to Crystal Cropper, a Boomer-aged, former big-city crime-beat reporter, who’s as smart and fearless as she is snarky and stubborn. She had been content working at her West Coast newspaper, but due to changes she could not control, she returned to her hometown and became editor of the Elmwood Gazette.
Filling co-starring roles are Crystal’s life-long and dearest friend, Verlin Wallace, the crotchety sheriff who leans on the newspaper editor and her superior detective skills more than he wants to admit; and Gertie Tyroo, an eccentric, 80-year-old cleaning lady, whose natural curiosity, observation skills, and access to her clients’ personal business have positioned her as Crystal’s most trusted confidential informant. Besides that, there is a secretive side to Gertie that even Crystal isn’t sure about. She suspects Gertie might have been in Dallas on November 23, 1963, and as a result, might be in the FBI’s witness protection program.
I wasn’t certain what I was doing as I developed my plot, hammered out scenes, killed the victim, introduced suspects, planted clues, and clumsily cobbled everything together. Thankfully, my loyal writers’ group approved of the way the story was going, offered helpful feedback, and encouraged me to continue.
And continue I did.
As I cranked out page after page, I looked everywhere for ideas. Nothing … or no one … was off limits. The town where I grew up and returned to after living in L.A. for 21 years, the neighboring community where I’d worked as the newspaper editor, city leaders, scandals, rumors, my best friends and acquaintances, people I didn’t know, and even my own life experiences — they were all fair fodder for my novel.
Once I established all the required elements of a whodunit, I drafted a basic outline. After that, I turned my characters loose and let them react organically to the situations I’d plopped them into. Then all I had to do was sit back and take notes. More or less.
For Book 1, “DUST BUNNIES & DEAD BODIES,” I followed the characters as they worked through the mystery and cover-up of the death of a young man, who had suffered a heatstroke during football practice, and the disappearance of his classmate. They took me places I might never have explored, such as the illegal use of steroids in athletics, elder abuse, and family secrets. For Book 2, the just-released “DEAD AIR & DOUBLES DARES,” they taught me to have empathy for the most hateful people we know because unbearable heartbreak might be what drives their hatred. That was the case for my victim. In addition, they also taught me about self-forgiveness and risk taking.
My characters never cease to surprise me and show me new ways of looking at life. I hope that carries over to the readers, along with a few good laughs.
I also hope readers who decide to take a chance with Book 1 and/or Book 2 of my ELMWOOD CONFIDENTIAL series learn something about human nature that they haven’t previously thought much about. And if they do, I invite them to send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know.
Most of all, I hope they have a good time in Elmwood and come back often.
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Janis Thornton
“Hold on, Miss Cropper! We’re gonna crash!”
I knew it! Ever since my friends dared me to add “fly in a powered parachute” to my bucket list, I had known “Hold on, Miss Cropper! We’re gonna crash!” would be the last words I’d ever hear.
My young friend, Clip Parker, was piloting the floating two-seater cart—which looked more like a dune buggy dangling from an inflatable pool raft than a federally approved aircraft—hundreds of feet above the Elm County countryside with me seated behind him. We’d been enjoying the view for a half-hour without incident until some bird-brained, directionally impaired waterfowl snuck up behind us, flapped loosey- goosey into the aircraft’s propeller, and burst into a kaleidoscope of shredded feathers and shards of red. Bye-bye birdie. A second later, the cart’s engine choked on a glob of the organic fallout, coughed once, and died.
I lurched forward, wrapped my arms around Clip, and dug my knuckles into his burly chest for dear life. The kid was good, but he was no Sully Sullenberger. Not every pilot whose jet plane tangles with a flock of geese has the wherewithal to crash land on the Hudson River and watch his passengers walk away unscathed.
Cruising at thirty miles an hour generated a noisy wind that would have made conversation impossible if not for the two-way radio wired into our helmets. I had forgotten about the sensitive, audio connection, and possibly could have busted Clip’s eardrums when I screamed, “We’re gonna what?”
“Hold on,” he shouted back. “I’m bringing her down.”
Without a motor to keep the propeller spinning, our lives literally depended on the rainbow-colored parachute to keep us airborne. I’m sure it was the altitude causing my split-second lapse into hysterical clarity, when I started to think that gliding through the crisp, spring air was not a totally unpleasant sensation. For a moment, I flashed back to a childhood dream I once had where I was soaring with the eagles. I felt like shouting, “Whee!”—and would have if I hadn’t been about to die.
As we approached Elmwood from our lofty vantage, the city looked like a crocheted doily. Unfortunately, it lacked a single landing spot as smooth and soft as the meadow we had taken off from in the northern part of the county.
“Where are we going to set it down?” I yelled.
Clip pointed toward the southeast. “Over there,” he said, steering the cart’s nose in that direction.
I was confused. “Over there” was the courthouse steeple. Surely, we weren’t going to land anywhere near there. Several blocks beyond the courthouse was the local radio station’s five hundred-foot-tall transmission tower, and past it was the cemetery. I had no idea what Clip was referring to.
I have always taken pride in my ability to keep myself grounded—both feet firmly planted with my head bobbing some six feet above them. But I’ll admit I was
intrigued when Clip, my mechanic, who was a genius at tinkering with combustion engines, invited me for a ride on his new toy.
I mentioned it to the girls when we all met for a Tuesday night burger. They thought a ride in a powered parachute would make a great feature story for the Elmwood Gazette, my hometown newspaper. I’ve been the Gazette’s editor for just under a decade. But still, I hesitated. They assured me I would be fine, that Clip is a sensible young man, and he wouldn’t invite me to do something dangerous.
I sat for a moment while my common sense battled with my adventurous nature. Then my pals brought out the big guns … they double dared me.
Which is why I called Clip and left the message, “Sure, I’d love to go up in your powered parachute.” From then on, every time the phone rang, I feared it would be Clip calling to tell me weather conditions were perfect for our flight. The ideal conditions finally arrived early that morning. Memorial Day. How appropriate.
“Wait! Where are we landing?” I asked Clip again.
Below us, the neighborhoods, streets, treetops, automobile traffic, people—and even cats and dogs—were growing increasingly larger. I was beginning to think we had shifted into free-fall.
As if that weren’t alarming enough, we were on a collision course for the courthouse lawn, where approximately five hundred men, women, and children had congregated for the Memorial Day ceremony, complete with the community band and the American Legion firing squad.
“We’re going to die, aren’t we?” I gasped.
In the crowd below, people had begun to notice us and our flimsy craft. They
grinned and waved. They yelled “Helloooo,” which attracted the attention of others around them, who also joined in.
I stared at the innocent bystanders. “How many will we take with us?”
“Crystal,” he said, addressing me by my first name, which meant I must have really ticked him off, “you’re going to have to trust me.”
That was the last thing he said before the stampede. By this point, nearly everyone was waving and cheering at us. Then they realized that if they didn’t get out of our way, the funny-looking flying machine was going to mow them down like spring grass.
Panic took hold all at once, and the screaming crowd parted like the Red Sea, unwittingly clearing a perfect landing strip on the courthouse lawn. Clip gently touched down on the grass, and the cart taxied to a graceful stop with both of us in one piece. We were alive and unscathed.
I threw my arms around Clip and shouted, “Whee!” Sully Sullenberger, eat your heart out!
“Dead Air & Double Dares”
is available in ebook and print formats at Amazon.com.
KNIT YOUR OWN MURDER
In the Needlecraft Mysteries, Betsy Devonshire has her hands tied between running her needlework shop and turning her sharp eye for deduction to solve a knotty murder at a local fundraiser…
The Monday Bunch and other local knitters are participating in a fundraising auction to save a community center, creating a growing pile of stuffed animals and toys right in front of the auctioneers as the audience bids. Among those contributing the most knitted goods is temperamental businesswoman Maddy Hanover—who keels over halfway through the event.
After she is pronounced DOA, an autopsy reveals that Maddy had been poisoned. But how? And by whom? One of the prime suspects is her ruthless business rival, Joe Mickels, who lost a bitterly contested property bid to Maddy.
When Mickels pleads his innocence to Betsy, she reluctantly believes him. But if Betsy is going to uncover the real murderer’s identity, she must first untangle the knots Maddy made in her relationships throughout her life…
My Farmers Daughter series (book #2 Sowed to Death just out!) is set in Lovett, a fictional rural farming community in Michigan.
It doesn’t take long to drive through what passes for downtown Lovett. You’ll pass the General Store, the Feed Store, St. Andrews Church and the Lovett Diner.
The Lovett Diner is the center of the universe in Lovett. Every small town has one. It’s where locals gather for breakfasts that will sustain them during a morning of hard work—three eggs, a stack of pancakes, half a dozen rashers of bacon and a serving of hash browns. All washed down with coffee served in thick white mugs.
No one in Lovett needs Twitter or Facebook—all information, gossip and news is spread right there at the Lovett Diner as efficiently as through any form of social media or iPhone app.
Truckers stop in late at night for something to eat—turkey on white bread with gravy, meatloaf and mashed potatoes or whatever the special of the day is. But by then the locals have long since gone to bed.
We had a diner in the town in New Jersey where I grew up and it’s still there although all sorts of fancy shops have sprung up around it. The cook, standing behind the counter, managed to juggle numerous tasks at once—frying eggs, turning bacon, flipping hamburgers and plunging fries into their hot oil bath all while plating the orders the waitresses leave on slips of paper impaled on a spike set near the stove.
And of course in New Jersey we had Taylor ham and the sandwich known as the New Jersey Breakfast—Taylor ham, an egg and cheese…with or without ketchup.
What are your favorite diner meals?
Janis Thornton continues writing her Elmwood Confidential series. We were first introduced to Elmwood Gazette editor, Crystal Cropper and her friends in book one, Dust Bunnies and Dead Bodies, when it was published in 2014. The second book in the series is Dead Air and Double Dares, which was released last month.
Janis also is the author of two local history books, Images of America: Tipton County and Images of America: Frankfort, and is a contributor to Undeniably Indiana, a bicentennial project from Indiana University Press. In the works for a 2018 release is No Place Like Murder, a collection of 15 true crime stories that rocked the East-Central Indiana counties of Clinton, Hamilton, Howard, Madison, and Tipton between 1869 and 1950.
She is a member of Sisters in Crime, the Indiana Writers Center, the Midwest Writers Workshop Planning Committee, the Tipton County Historical Society, and the Tipton County Chamber of Commerce. She lives in a small, Indiana town not unlike Elmwood.
And we begin with, what inspired you to create the character of Elmwood Gazette editor Crystal Cropper?
When I started planning my first novel, “Dust Bunnies & Dead Bodies,” I knew my protagonist would reflect much of my views and background so I could tell the story with a reasonable degree of authority. I knew right away my protagonist would be a professional, single woman about my age, only way funnier and smarter, much more headstrong and courageous, and with life experience that both overlapped and far exceeded my own. I had been the editor of a small-town newspaper and was well acquainted with the access the job afforded me to stick my nose into everyone’s business. So I felt a Boomer-aged, female editor with a serious background in crime reporting would provide plenty of situations that would translate to story possibilities.
Tell us about the type of news we might read in the Gazette.
Elmwood, Indiana, isn’t nearly the hotbed of criminal activity that big, Indiana cities like Indianapolis or Michigan City are, but when crime does rear its ugly head in Elmwood, the Gazette is on the job, sorting it out for its readers. For example, the Gazette scored lots of points two or three years ago by reporting that a former city councilman’s brother, who was Elmwood’s animal control officer, had been routinely picking up dogs and selling them to an out-of-state pharmaceutical company for drug experimentation. Likewise, the readers were delighted when the Gazette outed a local used-car dealer for turning back the odometers on his inventory, not to mention the all-you-can-eat buffet caught recycling its patrons’ leftovers back to the serving table. In addition to the shocking stories, the Gazette also provides lots of good news, like boys and girls softball, concerts in the park, and a large helping of chicken-noodle news.
How does a small town react to a woman as editor of the local paper?
Because Crystal hails from Elmwood and is deeply rooted there, the majority of the community accepted her with open arms as the Gazette’s editor. Others, however, such as the smarmy, deposed Mayor Head and the recently deceased radio station owner, Horace Ogilvie, never quite warmed up to the idea.
What type of life does she have?
Crystal is a bit of a workaholic and spends a lot of time alone. But don’t feel sorry for her. That’s how she likes it. Although she’s a loner, she has great friends and a full life. During the fall and winter, she and her three girlfriends bowl weekly in the Gutter Chicks Bowling League at Rosie’s Bowl-O-Drome, and more recently, they formed a team for the Elmwood Ladies’ Summer Horseshoe Pitching League. Besides that, there’s lots to do in Elmwood … it has a lovely library, plenty of high school sports to cheer for, a family-owned movie theater, an annual festival, holiday celebrations, plus it seems there’s always a mystery to keep her busy. And then there’s Verl—Crystal’s life-long, best friend, whom she enjoys spending time with bickering, reminiscing, and laughing.
How did she become an amateur sleuth?
Crystal fell into the crime beat when she went to work at a West Coast daily newspaper some thirty years ago. Although she was a novice at the start, she kept her head down, her eyes open, and her mouth shut. She quickly earned the respect of her editor, her readers, and law enforcement authorities, who trusted her reporting and discretion. Crystal became one of the rare reporters police looked to as an asset, rather than a liability. She loved her work and thrived on it.
I see this as part of a series. Tell us about the first book, Dust Bunnies & Dead Bodies.
In a nutshell, late one night, cleaning lady Gertie Tyroo, the Elmwood Gazette’s number one confidential tipster, phones Editor Crystal Cropper to tell her she has just swept up the missing clue to a 21-year-old, unsolved murder. But before Gertie can reveal what it is, she is attacked and left for dead. While she is comatose for the rest of the novel, Crystal starts snooping around to learn what Gertie found, where she found it, what it means, and who wants to keep it quiet. She uncovers a trail of dirt and gossip that leads her straight to the doorsteps of Elmwood’s most prominent people, a clamorous upheaval of secrets, and the shocking answer that finally brings closure to the case.
Have you continued with the same characters? Added new ones?
Yes, Book 2 stars the same ensemble cast introduced in Book 1: Crystal, Verl, Gertie, Bud, Clip, and Crystal’s three best galpals — Auggie, Richelle, and Shay — as well as cameos by Crystal’s bowling rivals and the former Elmwood mayor. Book 2 introduces Crystal’s granddaughter, Jordan Hightower, who Crystal previously hadn’t known even existed. I’m planning to bring Jordan into the ensemble beginning with Book 3.
In your second book, “Dead Air & Double Dares,” the owner of the local radio station is killed. What was it about Horace Q. Ogilvie that someone wanted him dead?
Ogilvie had a nasty habit of broadcasting live editorials revealing the most sensitive and hurtful secrets of highly regarded Elmwood residents for the purpose of ruining them. So … why wouldn’t someone want him dead?
Why would anyone want to get to the truth of his death if all he cared about was destroying people’s reputations?
A friend of Crystal’s actually suggested offering a reward for the murderer, but she hadn’t been referring to the kind of reward offered to bring the killer in. Rather she was suggesting giving a reward “as a sort of thank-you gift.” The suggestion was meant to be funny, but there was a hint of honesty to it because Ogilvie had been the most reviled man in Elmwood for more than 50 years. Despite that fact, Crystal was determined to find the killer, because her good friend, Clip Parker, had publicly threatened to kill Ogilvie a day before the murder. Crystal knew Clip was incapable of such a heinous act, but she needed to prove his innocence before the town had a chance to make assumptions and incorrectly put 2 + 2 together.
Why is he such an angry man?
Ogilvie is very complicated. He made a terrible decision more than 50 years before, which led to the death of his only child — a son. Ogilvie’s guilt and self-hatred were unbearable, and so he turned it outward, recycling it as an excuse to hurt everyone around him. Conversely, what’s fascinating about Ogilvie is that residing deep in his soul is a part of him that’s decent and good. Readers will understand when they near the end of the book.
How does Crystal get involved in the case?
To get involved with the murder case, Crystal needs only to ask her best friend, Sheriff Verlin Wallace, to let her poke around. The request, as always, sets Verl off with a chorus of huffs and puffs, but it is all part of a bogus protest designed to help him retain his dignity. Crystal is an expert at criminal investigation, and she brings a fresh eye to every case she covers. Verlin rarely will admit it, but he needs her.
Does the local sheriff or the police tell her to back off?
More or less. Verl asks Crystal to back off after he informs her that circumstantial evidence points to her friend, Clip Parker, as Horace’s killer. But Crystal will have no part of it and convinces Verl to make a deal with her. He agrees to give her 48 hours to find the real killer. From that moment on, the clock is ticking.
Does she understand she’s putting herself in grave danger?
Danger isn’t something Crystal prepares for. She tends to improvise in the face of danger and stare it straight in the eye until it blinks.
What did you love about writing this book? What was the most difficult part to write?
I love the characters, and I love plopping them into challenging situations and watching them deal with it. Sigmund Freud would probably say each one is a figment of my personality, and he’d probably be right. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t feel as comfortable writing them. That aside, I especially adore writing Crystal. I enjoy poring my experiences, feelings, views, etc. into her, and, in return, she acts on them without regard to what the other characters think—something I would never have the nerve to do. The most difficult part to write is “The End,” and saying goodbye to my “friends.”
Are you already working on the next book in the series?
I’m easing into it. As my father used to say, Book 3 is a sparkle in my eye.
What mystery authors do you follow?
I’ll always love Sue Grafton. Over the years, her protagonist, Kinzey Milhone, has brought me hours of reading pleasure. It makes me sad that Sue is running out of letters. I’m also a huge fan of Michael Connelly and William Kent Krueger. In addition, I enjoy works by Terence Faherty, Jess Lourey, Julie Hyzy, Susan Furlong, Lori Rader Day, D.E. Johnson, and Larry Sweazy. And now that I’ve become acquainted with you, I’ll be adding you to my list of authors to follow. Thank you for this opportunity to introduce myself and my characters to you and your readers. It’s been great fun!
Of all the covers on the Psychic Eye Mystery series, I think the cover for A Panicked Premonition is my absolute favorite. I’m so in love with the scene that it captures; from Abby’s alarmed posture, to that glorious bloody handprint which evokes such wonderful tension, to the Architectural Digest –worthy house in the background.
Typically, an author gets very little say in what imagery goes on our covers, but we are often allowed to make suggestions, and for this cover I’m very proud that what I envisioned and suggested to the awesome art department at Penguin was not only listened to and put to use, but also taken to such an aesthetically interesting level. (And yes, I had to FIGHT for that bloody handprint!) J
The fabulous thing here is that the cover also highlights a theme that really, until this book, I’m not sure I was completely consciously aware of, and that is the integral role architecture plays in my novels. It’s probably a natural condition of being in love with an architect—my S.O.—who’s also the inspiration for Dutch, by the way. Brian—my hunka gorgeous man—is such an interesting character in his own right and his love of architecture and art is such an interesting and wonderful thing to be exposed to. Early on in our relationship I started to see how architecture is really so much more than an expression of something abstract; it’s actually an expression of our personas –who we are is distinctly reflected in where we live and even where we work.
And I think it’s this concept that crept into my creative psyche and began to majorly influence the scenes in the stories that I write. Giving a description of the locations and homes that Abby and her gang visit or spend time in became an interaction every bit as revealing as her interviews with suspects and witnesses. And in A Panicked Premonition I definitely turned up the volume on this theme.
The house in the background on the cover is the setting for a violent crime, (duh, hello bloody handprint!) and Abby’s intuition suggests the structure itself has actually absorbed a lot of the energy of that violence, which plays counter to what we’re visually seeing in the image of the house in my description—and the cover. When I was writing the novel I liked that juxtaposition so much that I used it in several more places throughout the story, and if you’re very clever and looking carefully you’ll be able to find the clues hidden in the homes and buildings that Abby and Candice visit as they work their way through the mystery.
I think of this novel as a bit of a treasure hunt that way, and it’s added a no small measure of extra excitement for the release of A Panicked Premonition. Giving my fans and readers something extra to think about as they follow along is something that gives me a squidgy little thrill. In any event, I so hope you enjoy this one. I loooooved writing it, like, I actually had a blast parceling out the somewhat complicated plot, putting in a lot of twists, turns, and crazy characters just to keep you all guessing! I’m thrilled that it’ll be released this 4th of July too—just in time to take a nice break from the rat race and dive into something fun and intriguing. May your holiday week be glorious, and may you all enjoy my latest and greatest!
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