Interview with Dickens & Christie author Kathy Manos Penn

Give us a brief summary of your life till now and how it led you to write.

The oldest of three girls, I was the shy bookworm in a boisterous New York City family of Greeks and Italians. From the moment my mother first put a book in my hands, I took a book everywhere—to family dinners, to the doctor’s office, on family drives, and to bed.

When my Brooklyn-born Greek father took a job in Atlanta, my Southern mother was delighted—and I was devastated. Imagine me at age 13 moving from NYC to Georgia, happy with finally having gotten permission to wear stockings, only to discover that saddle oxfords were the height of fashion in my new high school.

In no time, I’d switched to Villager and Bobbie Brooks outfits, lost my NY accent, and become a typical Southern teen. Still, I was a bookworm, and even took novels to school to surreptitiously read during class. As I like to say, I was interested in books, boys, and drill team, not always in that order.

Pursuing a degree in English was a natural fit. From there, I taught high school English for a few years and earned my Master’s degree in English before landing a job in corporate America. It was my good fortune to have a manager early in my career who recognized I could write well. From then on, my various roles always involved writing. That’s when I first understood that not everyone could craft a well-written sentence.

As for writing for pleasure, it never occurred to me to write beyond what I did to make a living in corporate America, until one day I was inspired to write an article for our local paper. I had something to say, composed it, and fired it off to the editor. When he contacted me and offered me a job as a columnist, I was shocked and delighted. It only took a few months as a columnist for me to realize I had found my passion. I was hooked and started a blog too.

As I looked towards retirement, I thought of pulling together a collection of columns, and that became my first book. From there, a blog I wrote in my dog’s voice led to a book written by him.

It was pure chance that I met someone who read a draft of my second dog book and suggested I write a cozy mystery. My reaction? Me? What do I know about plots? But, I gave it a whirl, and voila, now I’ve published four books in the Dickens & Christie cozy mystery series.

What prompted you to create a new life for Leta Parker in the Cotswolds?

I took a bucket list trip to England after I retired, and I fell in love with the Cotswolds. Fortunately, because I still write columns, I took copious notes, so I had the perfect foundation for creating a fictional village. If you read cozy mysteries, you know the main character is usually single, widowed, or divorced. I chose widowed because I wanted Leta to be an older, mature character, and I wanted her to have the wherewithal to take care of herself.

Talking pets aren’t new to cozies, but Dickens and Christie are so inspired. They’re very much a part of solving mysteries with Leta. What were your influences in creating them?

It seemed natural because I’d already “co-written” a book with my dog. You can’t believe how much fun it is to write the dialogue for the four-legged characters. Both Dickens and Christie are based on the personalities of my pets, Banjo the dog and Puddin’ the cat. Banjo is part Great Pyrenees, and like Dickens, he has a happy-go-lucky, easygoing personality. Puddin’, my calico cat, runs the house. She is fussy about her food, she’s a fiend for treats, and yes, she curls up in the drawer in my desk, just like Christie does. Somehow she seems sassy to me and that trait shows up in Christie’s demanding personality.

Tell us about your next project.

Book six, due out in September, is with my Beta readers now and is set in the Cornwall village of Tintagel, where, according to legend, King Arthur was conceived. My books have lots of literary references in them, and in this one, the book club reads T.H. White’s The Once & Future King—the book the musical Camelot is based on.

What’s your research process like?

Thank goodness for the internet. I do some preliminary research as I’m brainstorming a plot. For Book One, Bells, Tails & Murder, I referenced the notes I’d taken on my UK vacation. We visited Stanway where J.M. Barrie and many of his writer friends summered for several years, and when I googled him, I discovered fascinating details about his life. The story that evolved from tumbling down the rabbit hole of the internet is a blend of fact and fiction about Barrie and his writing. It’s set in modern times but weaves in details about Peter Pan and more.

For each book, I research details along the way via the internet, like the distance between two villages or what time the sun sets or names of hotels. Whenever I use a real place, I want to be as accurate as possible.

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?

Because I worked at home for the last decade of my banking career, I already had a home office. That’s where I type my books. I jot handwritten notes on ideas for a few weeks before I sit down to start the book, but from then on, it’s typing all the way. Once I start a new book, I strive to write 1,000 words a day until I finish it.

Do you outline your stories or let the characters take you where they want to go? Do your characters speak to you?

I have tried to outline, but I’m not very good at it. I call it a quasi-outline. I know the setting, the book for the book club meeting, the new characters, and who will die, and I often have an idea about the confrontation scene. From there, my characters lead me! In several of my books, my idea for who the villain is has changed along the way. I like to think that my confusion over that makes it more difficult for readers to guess who it will be.

Who are your favorite authors, past or present?

First, I’m a huge mystery fan. Second, I’m an Anglophile through and through. For past authors, the first one that pops to mind is Dorothy Sayers, though that is likely because I only last week read a book by Jill Paton Walsh, who continued the Sayers series in 1998. Many of the present-day authors I follow write mysteries set in England—Jacqueline Winspear, Deborah Crombie, Elizabeth George, J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith, Charles Todd, and Anthony Horowitz.

On this side of the pond, an author I admire is Lousie Penny, who is Canadian. I was already a fan and became a bigger one when I had the opportunity to hear her speak. I also consider Pat Conroy and John Irving amazing.

What do you like best about being a writer? What do you like least?

I feel fortunate to have found my passion. Like my character Leta, I’m a word nerd. I love wordsmithing—finding ways to make a sentence, a paragraph better. Do I always find the time to do that as well as I’d like? No, but I try. When I’m not in the throes of writing novels, which I only started doing in mid-2019, I feel as though I’m in withdrawal. Fortunately, there are columns to write which means I can always find a reason to put fingers to the keyboard. My day is not complete unless I write something!

That said, what I like best is when my characters lead me through a scene. That’s when the writing flows. What do I like least? I call it the muddle in the middle—when I realize things in the book don’t quite add up. Then, I have to sit back and ponder what to change.

What little personal quirk would you like to reveal to your readers?

The quirk that drives my husband crazy, though he’s adjusted to it through the years, is my need for quiet in the mornings. I’m usually up before him, and now that I’m retired, I start my day in my easy chair reading the newspaper online with a cup of coffee on the sofa table, the dog at my feet, and the cat somewhere nearby. For that, I want quiet. I do NOT want to hear the television nor do I want to hear videos on the computer. When he makes it downstairs, the first thing he does is fire up his laptop, an act which quite often leads to a video. Most of the time, he quickly turns it off, but on those occasions when he lets it run, what can I say? It’s like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.

Kathy’s website

Kathy’s Facebook Author page

A YouTube video about the Dickens & Christie series

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