What’s it like to write a mystery series set in a small town? It’s like having the coolest set of blocks to play with that you can imagine—complete with action figures and accessories!
For my Haunted Yarn Shop Mysteries, I took my blocks and built Blue Plum, Tennessee, borrowing the best parts of my favorite small towns for inspiration. The streets crisscross a creek (with fish) that meanders through town. The courthouse is there, and the library (with real books,) and if my action figures get hungry they can stop by Mel’s on Main, the best café in town (with real pastries in the bakery case—that you can smell!) And then, of course, there’s the fiber and fabric shop called the Weaver’s Cat. It’s in a three-story, antebellum brick row house and it comes with gorgeous yarns, flosses, quilting fabric, needles, notions, spinning, dying, and weaving supplies, and a window seat in the study up in the attic. And I get to play with all of it!
Kath Rutledge is the main action figure for the series. She’s new in Blue Plum, but getting settled, and she’s playing nicely with her friends. There’s Ardis, her shop manager; Mel, who owns the café; Thea, the librarian; Joe, the fisherman; Joe’s brother Clod, the sheriff’s deputy; Argyle the cat; and Geneva the ghost. Each of their mystery stories comes with an Action Figure & Accessories bonus pack, too. For Spinning in Her Grave, their latest adventure, the bonus pack includes a baker, a piano salesman, working spinning wheels, a bass boat, and a piglet that really squeals.
In this story, everyone is getting ready for the annual heritage festival called Blue Plum Preserves. Oh—and the bonus pack also includes pavilion tents, a music stage to set up on the courthouse steps, banjos, a high wheel bicycle, and antique rifles. Fun! (Although the rifles are a little disturbing.)
This business of writing a small town mystery takes a love for micro-scale world building and playing with dolls. It takes a love for something else, too—something related to the love for driving little cars around the streets and creating window displays at the Weaver’s Cat. But this goes beyond a love for picking paint for other people’s kitchens or dressing some of the action figures with questionable taste. A key part of writing mysteries is a love for meddling in other peoples’ lives.
I set Blue Plum up so that it’s just right—add trees, porch swings, a festival on a pretty summer weekend where people are having a good time—and then I start tinkering, tweaking, and tossing problems at them. What if the piano salesman is directing a piece of street theater involving guns? What if he approaches Kath and asks if one of his actors can hide in the Weaver’s Cat and shoot blank rounds from a second-story window? What if she says no, but someone does it anyway, the rounds aren’t blank, and the baker dies? What if Clod, the sheriff’s deputy, still thinks Kath might be interested in him? What if Geneva, the ghost, discovers she’s afraid of ghosts? Do you see what I mean? Why can’t I leave these poor people alone?
People might assume, after reading Spinning in Her Grave, or the first two books in the series, that I spin, dye, weave, or knit regularly and well. Especially knit, because the action figures belonging to TGIF (Thank Goodness It’s Fiber) challenged themselves to knit 1,000 baby hats by the end of the year and they’re always talking about self-striping yarn and other knitter stuff.
I do knit, in a rudimentary way, and I’ve done a bit of weaving, spinning, and dyeing. But what I really like to do with knitting needles (or spindles or shuttles or crochet hooks) is poke around in the lives of my action figures, gum up the works, and see what happens. I’m not mean, though, except for killing one or two people in each book. These are cozy mysteries, after all, and I care about my action figures. Even the poor things who do end up dead—bless their hearts.
So, what’s it like to write a mystery series set in a small town? For me, it’s a great way to knit (or spin, weave, or dye) vicariously. It’s a way to indulge my meddling gene safely. And it’s just plain fun.
Molly MacRae spent twenty years in the foothills of the Blue Ridge
Mountains of Upper East Tennessee, where she managed The Book Place, an
independent bookstore; may it rest in peace. Before the lure of books
hooked her, she was curator of the history museum in Jonesborough,
Tennessee’s oldest town.
MacRae lives with her family in Champaign, Illinois, where she connects children with books at the public library.
Berkley Prime Crime has kindly provided a copy of Spinning in Her Grave for me to give one of my lucky readers. Please share your favorite hobby in the comments below, and don't forget to include a valid email address. Entries from the US only, please.