I first met V.M. (Valerie) Burns in a workshop at Seton Hill when we were working on our MFAs in Writing Popular Fiction. Valerie workshopped a story about a feisty amateur sleuth busily solving mysteries in her retirement community. I absolutely loved it and sensed that she was on her way to a successful writing career. I wasn’t wrong! She’s the Agatha Award-nominated author of three cozy mystery series. Below is what she shared with me about her work, as well as her bio, contact info, and a listing of her books.
First off, congratulations on your newest release, Book #6 in your Mystery Bookshop series, A Tourist’s Guide to Murder. Please tell us about the book.
A Tourist’s Guide to Murder, is the 6th book in my Mystery Bookshop Mystery Series. This series features two mysteries for readers to solve in every book. Samantha Washington owns a mystery bookshop in North Harbor, Michigan. She is also an aspiring writer of British historic cozy mysteries and these are included in the book. In book #6, Sam travels to England to research her next British historic mystery. When a murder occurs on their Mystery Lovers Tour, she has to try to figure out Whodunit.
I know our readers would also love to hear about your other two series, the Dog Club Mysteries and the RJ Franklin Mystery. Can you tell us a little about those?
After Lilly Ann Echosby’s marriage falls apart, she goes in search of her “happy place.” She reconnects with her best friend, a professional dog trainer, adopts a toy poodle, moves to Chattanooga, Tennessee and gets involved solving murders with the help of her new friends. Each book in this series features a different breed of dog.
The RJ Franklin Mystery is a cross between a police procedural and a cozy mystery. Detective RJ Franklin solves crime in the fictional town of St. Joseph, Indiana with the help of his godmother, Mama B. All of the titles in this series come from Negro spirituals and each book includes delicious soul food recipes.
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? What books inspired you to want to write?
I didn’t always know that I wanted to be a writer. However, I always loved to read. For as long as I can remember, I read books and imagined different endings, sequels/prequels, etc. If I read a book that I didn’t like, I’d imagine a change to make it better. I used to call it “my imaginings.” Honestly, I thought everyone did that. As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, I met a friend who was studying screen writing. I used to make tons of suggestions: “You should write a screenplay about…blah, blah, blah.” As a writer, I now realize how annoying I was. At the time, I thought I was being helpful. Invariably, my suggestions would get made. Eventually, my friend suggested that maybe I should write those ideas myself. At first, I didn’t have a desire to write them. I considered myself more of an idea person. She gave me a book by one of her professors and that’s what started my writing journey. I first started writing screenplays. After attending the Maui Writer’s Conference, I developed an interest in writing books rather than screenplays.
I’m a huge Agatha Christie fan, and she was a big influence. I was also inspired by Victoria Thompson, Rex Stout, Patricia Wentworth, Jill Churchill, and Emily Brightwell.
When did you decide to pursue writing seriously?
Through a series of unusual events, I got the opportunity to attend the Maui Writers Conference in 2007. The conference included a screenwriting track along with a track for traditional book publishing. This was the first time that I truly felt comfortable and excited about writing a book. A couple of years later, I finished my first mystery. Unfortunately, it was in horrible shape and I couldn’t find an agent or a publisher interested in it. However, by that point, I was hooked, and I knew writing was what I wanted to do. In fact, I enjoyed the process so much, I knew I would continue to write, even if no one ever paid me to do it. This was the opportunity to get all of those ideas (my imaginings) out of my head and onto the page.
You earned your MFA in Popular Writing from Seton Hill University. How did the program help you to grow as a writer, and do you recommend pursuing an MFA to aspiring writers?
I do not believe you need a degree in English or an MFA to be a published author. However, I learned so much from Seton Hill University (SHU), that I can say without a doubt, I would NOT be published today, were it not for SHU. The professors and mentors are all published writers and are excellent. The program is a low-residency MFA which focuses on genre fiction versus literary fiction, which was exactly what I wanted. Best of all, SHU creates a wonderfully inclusive environment. It’s where I found my tribe, and I highly recommend the program.
You have been so prolific and have managed to write three different acclaimed series while still working fulltime as an operations manager for a call center. How have you done it all?
I joke that I don’t have a life. However, the truth is, I plan my time. I set a weekly writing goal of 7,000-10,500 words. That sounds like a lot until you break it down to 1,000-1,500 words per day. I try to write every day. It doesn’t always happen, but that’s my goal. The good thing about a weekly goal is if I don’t have the energy to write one day, I can skip that day, and make it up later. After spending every day with my characters, by the time I’ve written 70k-80k words, I’m ready to move on to something else. I can completely understand why Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill Sherlock Holmes (The Final Problem). Writing multiple series provides a much-needed break.
Do you consider yourself more of a pantser or a plotter? Or somewhere in-between?
I consider myself a pantser, although I aspire to be a plotter. I’ve tried plotting, but once I know what’s going to happen in a book, I lose interest. I enjoy the surprise twists and turns my characters take me on as we try to figure out whodunit.
Historically, Black writers have had a much tougher time breaking in to the white-dominated publishing industry. While there is still so much work to be done to level the playing field, have you seen signs that things are improving?
After the turmoil from 2020, there has been a brighter spotlight on many of the issues with publishing including getting a publishing deal and the disparity between what publishers pay black writers versus white writers. The movement #publishingpaidme, was a big contributing factor in pulling back the curtain on a touchy topic (advances). When presented with the evidence, some of the big five publishers made a commitment to doing more in an effort to leveling the playing field, but there is a long way to go. I have heard of more writers of color getting higher advances. However, it remains to be seen if publishers will support writers of color by promoting their books.
When you’re not writing, what do you enjoy doing? (And why do I think it might involve your super cute poodles?)
Many moons ago, I was a member of a dog club and my dogs Coco and Cash (the models for the dogs on the covers of my mystery bookshop series) were registered therapy dogs and also competed in canine obedience and agility competitions. Sadly, they are both gone. Now, I enjoy spending time with my two poodles, Kensington and Chloe. I also enjoy baking and when the planets are perfectly aligned, I enjoy cooking. However, my favorite thing to do is to read mysteries.
What is something I didn’t ask that you wish I had?
What’s next for me? I’m currently working on the next book in the RJ Franklin Mystery Series and book #7 in the Mystery Bookshop Mystery Series (Killer Words) is scheduled to release in December 2021.
V.M. (Valerie) Burns was born and raised in the Midwestern United States. She currently resides in Eastern Tenness with her two poodles, Kensington (Kenzie) and Chloe. Valerie is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Dog Writers of America, Crime Writers of Color, International Thriller Writers, and Sisters in Crime. Readers can visit her website at vmburns.com.
Mystery Bookshop Mystery Series
THE PLOT IS MURDER – https://amzn.to/308Gntf
READ HERRING HUNT – https://amzn.to/30orIu8
THE NOVEL ART OF MURDER – https://amzn.to/2N4dY6a
WED, READ, AND DEAD – https://amzn.to/2Ig8Yai
BOOKMARKED FOR MURDER – https://amzn.to/2Uy8EIk
A TOURIST’S GUIDE TO MURDER – https://amzn.to/3fmcs8p
A Dog Club Mystery Series
IN THE DOG HOUSE – https://amzn.to/2VwzsId
THE PUPPY WHO KNEW TOO MUCH – https://amzn.to/2UXSmH0
BARK IF IT’S MURDER – https://amzn.to/2QNmnKl
PAW AND ORDER – https://amzn.to/3bm1grc
SIT, STAY, SLAY – https://bit.ly/sitstayslay
RJ Franklin Mystery Series
TRAVELLIN’ SHOES – https://amzn.to/2Uf9jB7
MOTHERLESS CHILD – https://amzn.to/2k1AEG0
STEAL AWAY – https://amzn.to/2SR3Q0k