Give us a brief summary of your life till now and how it led you to write.
Goodness … How to sum up forty-two years …
Let me start off by saying that I write in several genres, and Mildred Abbott is the pen name I use for my cozy mystery writing. That said, all details that I give about my real life, are just that — real of the writer behind the pen name.
I grew up in a small Ozark town in Missouri for my first eighteen years, and directly after graduation, my family and I moved to Estes Park, Colorado—which is where the Cozy Corgi series is set. I spent the next twenty-three years in Colorado by way of Estes Park and Denver. Recently, I moved to New Orleans, Louisiana.
School was always rather difficult for me. I got very good grades, but it was because of lots of tutoring and unbelievably hard work, not because I was naturally gifted. During my sophomore year in high school, my teacher, Miss Hungerford, instructed us in creative writing. It was the first time in my life I enjoyed a subject (though to this day I can’t spell worth beans!) and the first time I was told I was good at something without a prolific amount of tears over hours of homework and tutoring. From that moment on, I wanted to be a writer (that or a country music singer. Yep … you read that right)
I have a master’s degree in special education, and from the ages of 21 through 37, I worked with children from third grade through high school who struggle with emotional disabilities, many of whom suffered tremendous abuse and often transferred that abuse onto others. During this time, I was both a youth treatment counselor and a special education teacher.
From the time I was 15 until 32, I wrote, planned novels, and submitted manuscript after manuscript to countless publishers. At 32, my dreams finally came true when I received my first publishing contract. At age 37, I made the leap to write full time. It has been terrifying and the most wonderful thing in the world.
And … turns out, that wasn’t so brief, was it?
How did you create the fictional Estes Park, which is a real town in Colorado? Did you base the characters on anyone (or any corgis) in your life?
I’ve loved cozy mystery books for as long as I can remember, starting with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. But there’s something I love about the small town, quirky characters, and quaint shops of the cozy mysteries I read and watch as an adult.
Estes Park seemed to fit the bill perfectly. And as far as scenery, you don’t get much more beautiful than that area. Like many tourist towns, there are several standard types of stores—gift shops, bakeries, bookstores, etc. There are only a couple of places that exist in Estes Park that I use directly in the series. One of which is the historic Baldpate Inn, which was kind enough to allow me a behind-the-scenes tour and gave an interview for that particular installment. I did not base any of the characters off of actual people in Estes Park, though a few of them are caricatures of people I know in my real life.
The star of the series, a corgi named Watson, I modeled after one of my own corgis, Alastair. His love of treats and grumpy disposition is spot on. Although, Alastair wasn’t nearly as brave as Watson as he helps solve his mysteries. His owner, Winifred Page, who owns the Cozy Corgi Bookshop, was named after Alastair’s sister, Winifred. However, other than they both loved snacks and treats, there’s not too much corgi-like about Winifred, the human. Although both the human character and the real-life dog are extremely stubborn.
What inspired the ongoing story of the Irons Family?
I love, both in the books and the cozy mystery series I watch on television, when each episode or installment has a murder mystery that is solved by the end. However, my favorite is when some ongoing mysteries or questions thread throughout. There’s a few of those in the Cozy Corgi series, though the Irons family is the biggest and most prevalent. Though Winifred’s father died before the series ever began, he is a presence in the series and still impactful in Winifred’s life. As the Irons family is responsible for his murder, it gives Winifred a larger goal to hunt for, and a smoldering of danger that can rear its head from time to time.
Winifred Page is such a strong, outstanding character. Did you model her on any specific person or people? And what’s with the fondness for broomstick skirts – aren’t they made of polyester? I can’t see Fred wearing polyester.
Winifred is my most beloved character that I’ve written. I don’t feel like I’ve ever known one any nearer to my heart. Although, we’re almost at twenty books together, so at this point, she’s almost as real as I am. At the start, she was a combination of a few different people. I took some of my own weaknesses and offered them to her (much to her irritation), hoping to make her a little more well-rounded — caffeine addiction, stubbornness, and sticking my foot in my mouth on a regular basis despite my best intentions. Her color palette, though both characters and readers question the wisdom, is all me as well!
It’s funny you bring up the broomstick skirts. As if there’s anything that’s complained about in reviews on a regular basis, it’s her wardrobe, which both Fred and I find hilarious. And, like I mentioned, she and I both share stubbornness, so that only increases her devotion to broomstick skirts.
As far as the material, broomstick skirts are made out of lots of different materials — polyester is easily avoidable. Lightweight cotton is preferred. In real life, I remember my mother wearing them when I was little. I found them fascinating, both all the colors and patterns they came in, how crinkly they were, and that she would wash them and then twist them up, stuff them in a pair of hose and hang them to increase their texture. They’re comfortable, flowing, easy to move in and… for someone who has a bakery above their bookshop … elastic-waisted! I’ve also gotten complaints about Winifred hiking in her cowboy boots. One of my many jobs throughout the years was as a boot salesman in Estes Park during college. I can’t tell you how many mountains I have hiked in cowboy boots.
See … stubborn to a fault! Both of us. Well … Watson, too, actually.
All of the employees of the Cozy Corgi (and their significant others) have experienced serious trauma in their lives. Yet, they’ve created a strong and loving chosen family, which is especially important for Katie, the twins, Ben and Nick, and Leo. They’re the foundation for all the books. Please explain why you feel chosen, rather than just birth, families are so important.
It’s a fine balance, when writing a cozy mystery series, to have a lot of painful pasts and dark moments. But I think it’s part of the reason people love these characters and are willing to continue reading as we move into books twenty and beyond.
We all have hurts and scars. It keeps us, hopefully, from being shallow. And while, in a cozy mystery series, you don’t want to wallow around in those so that it’s so heavy that you can’t breathe, you also want your characters to be real enough to connect with, to fall in love with, to cheer when they overcome when they find love or their chosen family. I don’t know how much depth of character a person can have without struggle and without experiencing pain. As silly and quirky as some of my characters are, I want to respect them and love them and show their strength, even in the middle of their weakness. But, as is the joy of a cozy mystery, there is always brightness and hope and the celebration of love and life.
As far as the chosen family … as stated before through my teaching and counseling career, I have seen just how vital people can be to our well-being when they embrace us as family, even when we share no blood. As I’ve entered the world of a cancer journey the past couple of years, I’ve found this to be true in struggles of sickness and health as well.
In addition, the fight and struggle for equality — in the real world, and in fiction — without chosen family coming along to stand behind us, beside us, or at other times, in front of in order to protect, there wouldn’t have been much family at all.
Have you made any of the recipes included in every book?
I love to cook, I do it every single day. And, not to toot my own horn, but I’m pretty good at it, from savory dishes to homemade pasta, to bread and desserts of all kind. Not to mention, my most accomplished skill is that of a voracious eater. I don’t understand people who only eat to live. (Neither does Book Review Gal.) I live to eat, over and over and over again. That love of food in all its glory is why I love cozy mysteries so much. As far as the recipes, however. I’ve made several of them, but not all. There are a couple installments that I’ve used recipes passed down to my own family, but that makes me nervous, as you never know where those recipes originated, and how much or how little was changed through the years. I never want to steal someone else’s work or infringe on copyright.
That’s the main reason I rely on bakeries to offer their creations for Katie (Winifred’s baker best friend and business partner) to make. Plus, I think it’s so fun to collaborate. To tell the baker about the mystery, time of year, etc. that their story will happen and see what recipes they think might enhance that particular installment. Not to mention, it’s an honor to highlight their bakery in the books. Just like writers, they are fighting for their dream of baking and small business ownership.
Tell us about your next project.
Well, there’s always a new Cozy Corgi coming. Vengeful Vellum comes out in October and Antagonizing Antiques in December.
In spring 2021, I hope to start another cozy mystery series (while continuing the Cozy Corgi). The new series is Cordelia’s Casserole Caravan. It follows three elderly women in a small town in the Ozarks who use their Volkswagen vans as a Meals on Wheels type of delivery service. They just happen, of course, to solve murders along the way. And, you guessed it, the recipes in that series will be … casseroles! (Book Review Gal loves casseroles.)
What’s your research process like?
It depends on the type of research. Google has become my best friend. As far as how to kill someone, I’m surprised I haven’t been arrested by Homeland Security for the things that I’ve had to look up. However, for certain jobs, locations, or personalities, I’ve interviewed many people in real life. It’s amazing how open and helpful people are and how they long for either their careers or whatever is special about them to be highlighted in a book. However, maybe the most important skill is simply being an observer of humanity and a great listener.
What’s your writing routine? Do you have a dedicated office, or do you write at the kitchen table? Do you write longhand or type everything?
I do have a routine. I’m very structured by nature. I get up, have breakfast, and write for three or four hours. Typically, one chapter that’s 5 to 8 pages. Then, go to the gym, go on a walk with the dogs, and do the second writing session, which is another chapter and another 5 to 8 pages. The rest of the time is taken up with editing, plotting, planning, research, and unbelievable amounts of social media and advertising.
I used to write at a desk, like a real grown-up. Then I adopted a sweet little terrier mix, Winston — who is also featured in the Cozy Corgi series — and he quite literally is at my side or on my lap 24 hours a day. That did not work at a desk. So now I sit on a couch, which is horrible for my back, and write. Winston is either at my feet, on my feet, or at my shoulder as he hangs out on the back of the sofa. Talk about a dream job!
All my planning is longhand. Before the book begins, I will have written, outlined, and back storied for roughly 30 to 60 pages. Once I dive into the writing process, I’ve actually started using a dictation program, as the constant typing was beginning to take its toll on my body.
Do you outline your stories or let the characters take you where they want to go? Do your characters speak to you?
Oh, dear Lord, I am a planner, planner, planner. Outline upon outline upon outline. Family tree upon family tree upon family tree. Everything is outlined and planned out forever in advance. That said, the characters always have a mind of their own, which is frustrating and unbelievably wonderful. I can spend weeks planning out every minute detail, and then with one little choice, Fred or another of the characters makes, half the stuff is thrown out the window. When that happens, we go with the flow of it, and I sit down and do another outline with the new direction. It’s not uncommon for there to be five or six completely different outlines by the time the book is finally finished.
And, yes, the characters speak. All. The. Time.
During the writing process, they speak so much that part of me is always hanging out with them no matter what I’m doing. Once the final page is written, it’s always a little sigh of relief as I’m fully present once more to the world and the people around me. But that never lasts very long as the next book is always just a heartbeat away.
What writers do you admire, past or present?
So, so many. My all-time favorite series—while I have some very strong qualms with the author herself — is Harry Potter. That may be cliché, but I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve reread and relistened to the entire thing. Every couple of years, if that many, I go through them all again.
As strange as it may sound, the two biggest impacts on my writing is Hans Christian Anderson for The Little Mermaid, and Peter Beagle for The Last Unicorn.
Beyond that, my most beloved of all time — Agatha Frost, Angela Pepper, Kelley Armstrong, JD Robb, JR Ward, Anne Rice, Susanne Collins, Justin Cronin, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Jean Stratton Porter. And sooooooooo many more!
What do you like best about being a writer? What do you like least?
I can’t narrow it down to what I like best outside of simply writing itself. It was a battle for so long and so hard-fought for that I treasure it unbelievably deeply. Books have made my life — both childhood and adulthood — so much better. Helped me grow, helped me become the person I am, have offered me comfort, challenged me, and got me through dark periods that I don’t know if I could have survived without the beauty, pain, and escape found within the pages. The fact that I get to take part in that history is so humbling. Getting emails every now and then from someone who says that the Cozy Corgi enhances their life in such a way is a privilege that I can’t begin to express. Plus, I get to hang out with characters that I love so much all the time and tell their stories. It’s wonderful.
As far as the least … that’s easy. Money and fear. I write full time now, and it’s always by the skin of my teeth that bills get paid. Knowing that there are moments where I have to set things aside, otherwise, I’d let the fear and expectation dictate what the stories are or should be. And while you have to have business sense as an artist, I also want the stories to be what they are and should be for artistic reasons and to stay true to the characters. And as with anything, there’s that fear of loss, what if the next book doesn’t sell, what if people quit caring, what if I don’t get to continue living the dream? But I suppose as in with all things, that tinge of darkness, risk, and fate makes it all much sweeter, doesn’t it?
What little personal quirk would you like to reveal to your readers?
Well, that’s hard to narrow down, as I’m a bit of an oddball. While not a quirk, I do want readers to know, especially those of the Cozy Corgi, that my love for animals and dogs is a real and thriving passion. Not at all a persona to sell books. By the time I’m finished doing errands and going to the gym for a couple of hours during the day, I’m desperate to get back home because I’ve missed my dog. Pathetic and wonderful all at the same time.
Quirk? Well … I’m afraid I never grew up. While I like all the adult dark and suspenseful shows that are on now, I still sit down and color in coloring books and watch episodes of My Little Pony. Fluttershy for the win! Not to mention, I still read a Garfield or Archie comic book every now and then as well.
What a fun interview! And of course I love the dog aspect!