Tricia: Welcome, Liz. Can you tell us about yourself?
Liz: After spending 30 years in the corporate world, writing everything from political encyclopedias to technical documentation, I retired a few years ago to travel and write mysteries. Since that time, I’ve visited some 50 countries on four continents, and have written five books –one that will remain forever hidden away in a bottom drawer.
I live most of the year in Hollywood Florida, close to the beach, with my two Lhasa Apsos, Mattie and Jakey, where in addition to writing, I own a vacation rental business. The rest of the year, when I’m not traveling, I live in Pen Mar, Maryland, a small mountain village, not unlike my fictional town of Mount Penn. Since I’m outdoorsy, and love to hike, bike, swim, and play, both locations suit me well.
My two sons, sprinkled around the US, have both played key roles in getting Thursday Morning Breakfast (and Murder) Club out. Todd, Publisher of the Jackson Free Press, Jackson, MS, and author of some forty computer books, is my literary agent. Brian, a radio program manager and on air celebrity in Wilmington, NC, is my media guru. I have one grandson, Owen, who lives with his mom in Wisconsin.
Tricia: When did you begin writing?
Liz: I’ve been writing every since I can remember. My first job out of graduate school – I have a Masters degree in Political Science from Webster University in St Louis – I wrote political encyclopedias and articles for current affairs monthly magazines for six years before moving into the high tech world of computers. For the next 20 some years, I wrote everything from marketing literature to technical manuals.
It was when I found myself stranded in a South Dakota winter that I wrote my first mystery. Alone in a big house and a new town after taking a job thousands of miles from my friends and family, I found solace in creating puzzles that involved murder. Although this early manuscript is tucked safely away in a drawer somewhere, it was great fun to write. I’ve been writing mysteries ever since. Thursday Morning Breakfast (and Murder) Club is the first in a series to be published.
Tricia: Describe your writing process. Do you plot or write by the seat of your pants? When and where do you write?
Liz: When I start to work on a book, I know who gets murdered, who did the murder, and why. Since my characters are so central to my books, I build detailed descriptions of each character and keep the data in a journal. Next I do scene outlines, but only three chapters or so ahead of where I’m writing. I write a book like I play golf. I know where I want to go; I have a toolkit to get there; but, I make lots of adjustments along the way as unexpected surprises and obstacles pop up.
I do my best writing at my front room desk, looking out over the Hagerstown valley in Pen Mar, Maryland, in the spring and summer and early fall. Birds chirp and leaves rustle, but other than that, it’s amazingly quiet and peaceful. It’s cool and crisp, and the smells are as delightful as the scenery. It really is a special place and I’m so lucky to be able to write there. When I not in Pen Mar, I write in my home office in Hollywood, FL.
Tricia: Can you tell us about your most recent release?
Liz: Thursday Morning Breakfast (and Murder) Club is an American village mystery, with a younger, feistier, Miss Marple-like protagonist, named Lillie Mae Harris as the leader of the club. In some ways I’ve mimicked a traditional British village mystery, but have given it an American flare. The Thursday morning breakfast club, a group of village ladies, has been meeting in Mount Penn, my fictional mountain village on the eastern slope of the Appalachians, in rural Maryland, for many years. News of neighbors and local events, and gossip have been the main topics of discussion at the weekly gatherings. But when murder comes to the village, and one of their own is arrested for the crime, they ban together, despite differences and misgivings, to make things right again. Thursday Morning is a story about friendship, community, and love, written in a traditional who-done-it style.
Tricia: How did you get the idea for the book?
Liz: As I mentioned earlier, I have a vacation house in Pen Mar, Maryland, a mountain village not unlike Mount Penn. And, there is a group of ladies who have been having breakfast together on Thursday mornings for many years. That’s the extent of anything real in the book. I did want to introduce a place like Mount Penn (Pen Mar) to the world, since it really is special.
I love close knit communities, and I believe we’re moving away from them in our very busy modern lives. Relationships in cyberspace have replaced relationships down the street. I’m guilty of my own complaint. I, too, love having friends all over the world, and Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter have given me far more pleasure than I ever dreamed they would. But I miss the small town community I grew up in, and the city based community where I raised my two sons.
I wanted to revisit those times, so I created a community where friends and family are of first importance, and technology is still used infrequently. I could do this partly because the area is rural, and in the mountains, and the infrastructure for the technology is still primitive.
Mount Penn is the best of all communities. People still accept and enjoy and love each other, despite their differences. In fact it’s often their differences that make them so lovable. The Thursday morning ladies automatically assume they have most things in common with each other, and they do. I’d like my readers to feel a part of this community when they read my book and maybe, yearn to visit it again, when they finish the last page.
Tricia: Of all your characters, which one is your favorite? Why?
Liz: It’s so hard to say. I love all my characters. They seem real and alive in my brain from the very beginning. I’ve known people like them my whole life. Dear, unpretentious, special people who care about their family, friends, neighbors, and community. None of the characters are particularly hard to write, but then none of the characters are particularly complex – at least not on the surface. As I get to know more about them, I realize how wonderfully unique and human they are, how blessed they are in their (albeit fictional) lives, and how deep and complex and rich in spirit they truly are.
My characters have been talking to me for years, so they came to life for me through a natural process. They created their own stories and then used me as the vehicle to get them told. This sounds terribly weird, but is more true than not – and wonderfully fun.
Tricia: Which authors have inspired your writing?
Liz: Agatha Christie has influenced my work, as has Georgette Heyer, authors whose books I have read, many times over, since I was very young. I’ve always loved the way Christie and Heyer use an ensemble of characters in plotting and solving crimes. I have attempted to do a bit of the same in my books.
While Lillie Mae Harris has some of the characteristics of a younger, feistier, more modern Miss Marple, she is also very different from Miss Marple. Her motives are the same, to solve the crime, but her methods are unique to her.
Louise Penny and Jan Karon are contemporary authors who have influenced me greatly. I love their use of quirky, yet lovable characters, and their unerring commitment to community. The British writer, Ann Granger, who writes traditional village mysteries, has also influenced my work.
Tricia: What projects are you currently working on?
Liz: I’m currently writing my third Thursday Morning Breakfast Club mystery. My second one is in the done pile, and hopefully, will be released in or before early 2014. I also have another mystery series that I’d like to publish, but I’m not going to tease you with what its’ about.
My grand epic, not even nicknamed yet, set in 1920s Pen Mar against the advent of the mass produced automobile and the demise of the railroads, is under construction. Henry Ford is a central character. This book, based on a lost history, is going to be so much fun to research and write, and, I hope, equally fun to read.
About Liz Stauffer:
After some thirty years writing everything from political encyclopedias to software manuals, Liz Stauffer retired from corporate life to write fiction, travel, and play on the beach. Since that time, she has traveled extensively throughout the United States and the world. With her two dogs, Liz lives in Hollywood, Florida, where she owns and manages a vacation rental business.
Excerpt from Thursday Morning Breakfast (and Murder) Club by Liz Stauffer
When she spoke the words, her voice was so low it was barely above a whisper. The sturdy woman with short, curly red hair dropped the handset back into its cradle and began to pace, the phone still ringing on the other end of the line.
Lillie Mae Harris stopped at the front window, taking no notice of the white buds that were just opening on the two Bradford pear trees in her front yard, or the spring flowers peeping through the freshly hoed soil in the close- by flower bed. Her thoughts were of Clare.
She had the best view in Mount Penn from this window. On a winter’s morning she could see for some thirty miles out over the valley with the big blue sky as the backdrop. The night view was even more amazing, offering a shower of dancing lights in the distance competing only with the brightest stars.
It was now early spring and the vista had already begun to shrink even though the trees were just beginning to bud. Once the trees were filled out with big green leaves the view would pull in even more until fall when the colors exploded and the view once again took one’s breath away. But today the scenery did nothing to still Lillie Mae’s pounding heart or quell her shaking hands. She couldn’t stop worrying about Clare. Rushing back to the phone, she scooped it up, and punched in a familiar number.
“Hello.” Alice Portman answered in her sweet Southern drawl, after just one ring. Her Jack Russell terrier, Alfred, barked in the background.
“Clare’s not answering her phone this morning,” Lillie Mae said. “I’m so worried about her, Alice. I’m not sure what to do.”
“Settle down, Lillie Mae,” Alice said, shushing Alfred. “Why are you more concerned today?”
“You were at the water meeting last night,” Lillie Mae said. “You saw how Roger was acting. Yelling and screaming like an idiot. When he’s gotten that riled up in the past, Clare’s been his punching bag.”
“Well, yes,” Alice agreed, deliberately slowing the pace of the conversation. “But, Roger was just being Roger last night, dear. Just showing off. I didn’t see anything unusual in his behavior. Certainly nothing to make you so worried this morning.”
“He was acting worse than usual,” Lillie Mae insisted, still pacing the living room floor. “And I’m sure he drank himself crazy when the meeting was finally over. That’s the real reason I’m worried, Alice. You know how he is when he drinks. What he does to Clare.”
“Roger playacts, you know, when it suits him, Lillie Mae,” Alice said, her voice still soft and cool. “He knows he’s going to make a lot of money hooking people up to the public water in a few short months, but he wants to come across as the good guy to his neighbors, not the money grubbing fool that he is. He’ll use every wile that he has to seduce the community. If the project fails, which it won’t this time, he looks like he’s the man who stopped it. If it passes, he wins big time.”
“You’re probably right, Alice,” Lillie Mae said, calming a bit. “I know Roger is shrewd. If he wasn’t always out there trying to make a deal, he wouldn’t be Roger, I guess.”
“So, stop overreacting, Lillie Mae. What’s brought all this on anyway?”
“I’ve been calling Clare’s house all morning and nobody answers the phone,” Lillie Mae said. “It’s stupid, I know, but I picture Clare lying on her kitchen floor, needing my help. Dead, even.”
A sigh escaped Alice’s lips. “You’re way over dramatizing this morning, Lillie Mae,” she said. “Roger’s not even home. He drove by me in that stupid yellow Hummer of his while Alfred and I were out on our early morning walk.”
“That’s good to hear,” Lillie Mae said. “Stop imagining the worst, Lillie Mae. Clare’s probably out, too. It’s such a warm spring day. Doesn’t she usually go grocery shopping on Wednesday mornings?”
“Maybe,” Lillie Mae conceded. “Or she could be in her garden, I guess.”
“She’ll call you back when she gets to it,” Alice said, a hint of impatience in her voice.
“I doubt if she does.” Lillie Mae’s voice broke. “She rarely calls me anymore. We’ve been such good friends for so many years and I miss her, Alice. I wish I knew what I did wrong.”
“Clare’s changing, Lillie Mae. She’s getting stronger. Give the girl some space.”
“I’ve noticed a change, too,” Lillie Mae said, “since Billy went off to university. She does have more confidence, I’ll give you that.”
“Have you written your article on the water meeting for the Antioch Gazette, yet?” Alice asked. “I thought it was due today.”
“Not yet,” Lillie Mae confessed. “I’ve been too worried about Clare.”
“Maybe being busy will take your mind off things that are not really any of your business,” Alice said.
“I guess you’re right,” Lillie Mae said. “Clare’s a big girl and can take care of herself.”
“I know that well,” Lillie Mae said, then suddenly turned serious again when her thoughts returned to Clare. “I’m walking down to Clare’s to check things out before I start on the article. I need to make certain she’s all right, or I won’t be able to concentrate on my work. Do you want to come along?”
“No, you go on, if it’ll make you feel better,” Alice said. “You can fill me in on the details at dinner this evening.”
* * *
Roger Ballard’s yellow Hummer was not in the driveway when Lillie Mae arrived at Clare’s house a few minutes later, but Clare’s Ford Escort was. That was good news on both fronts.
Lillie Mae walked around to the back of the large white two-story house trimmed with neat green shutters, to see if Clare might be working in the garden as she often was at this time of the day. She paused when she heard Clare’s voice through the open back door. She sounded angry. Or was it scared? Lillie Mae couldn’t tell for sure.
As she approached the back of the house, Lillie Mae could see through the screen door that Clare was on the phone, her back facing the door. Ready to call out a greeting, Lillie Mae stopped when she heard what Clare said next.
“No, don’t come over here. I’m fine.”
A brief pause.
“There is nothing for you to worry about. It was an accident. Really. Roger didn’t touch me. I told you the truth about what happened.”
“We have to be careful,” Clare said, her voice quivering. “If anyone finds out what we’ve done, it would be a disaster for both of us. Roger would kill us if he knew or even suspected.”
A stab of guilt pricked Lillie Mae’s conscience. She stepped back around the side of the house and then called out a belated greeting in her loudest voice.
“Clare, are you home? Lillie Mae here.”
“Just a minute Lillie Mae,” Clare called back. “I’ll be right there.”
Lillie Mae could hear rustling in the kitchen and what could have been Clare whispering something and then hanging up the phone. Clare’s big black tomcat was at the door mewing to get out, making it impossible to hear the rest of the muffled conversation.
Clare stood at the door a few seconds later, flushed and anxious. “Thanks for stopping by, Lillie Mae,” she said, brushing a strand of dark-brown hair behind her ear as she pushed the door open with her other hand. The slight smile on her lips was not in her bright blue eyes. “What a beautiful bouquet you have with you.”
“It’s for you.” Lillie Mae stretched the vase out toward her friend.
Clare took the flowers from Lillie Mae, then ushered her into the large country kitchen. “Come in and tell me the news,” Clare said, without much enthusiasm. “Would you like a cup of coffee?”
“That would be nice,” Lillie Mae said.
Clare busily arranged an impromptu coffee while Lillie Mae took a seat at the table. Watching her friend as she prepared the table, Lillie Mae was struck again at how attractive Clare was despite her years with Roger. A large-boned woman, Clare could easily be a plus-size model with curves in all the right places. Although she must be in her mid-forties by now, Lillie Mae thought she could pass for a younger woman. Only her son Billy, now a freshman at the university, gave her age away.
Clare set the table with raisin-nut muffins, butter and jam, and a plate of strawberries and fresh pineapple, then poured the coffee in the mugs at each of their places. She had set the flowers in the center of the table. Sitting down opposite Lillie Mae, she passed her the plate of fruit. “These are the first strawberries out of my garden. I picked them this morning.”
Lillie Mae took one of the deep red strawberries from the bowl Clare had passed her, and popped it into her mouth. “That’s good,” she said when she had swallowed. “So sweet for an early spring berry.”
“Sweet berries always come after a cold winter.” Clare picked up a berry and tasted it.
It was then that Lillie Mae saw the bruise on her left cheek.
“That bastard,” Lillie Mae said. “What did Roger do to you?”
“Roger didn’t do anything to me, Lillie Mae,” Clare said, her hand flying to her face. “Right!” Lillie Mae exclaimed. “Roger never touches you, does he? In all the years I’ve known you, you haven’t had one bruise or broken bone, thanks to Roger Ballard, have you, Clare?”
Clare looked Lillie Mae squarely in the eyes, and said very slowly, enunciating each word. “Roger did not do this to me, Lillie Mae. It was a stupid accident I did to myself.”
“Right,” Lillie Mae said again, this time muttering under her breath.
Clare blushed. “I’ll tell you what happened if you give me the chance. You’re so judgmental, Lillie Mae. You jump to the worst conclusions with very little information, and you always have to be right. I’m not a needy little girl anymore. I can take care of myself.”
Lillie Mae stared at her friend, shocked by the outburst. “I’m sorry.”
“Do you know what I hate the most, Lillie Mae?” Clare said, ignoring her friend’s apology. “The pity. I can see it in your eyes and I can’t stand it. Why do you think I’ve been avoiding you lately?”
Tears sprang to Lillie Mae’s eyes.
“Clare I didn’t realize—again, I’m sorry,” she said, truly repentant. “Tell me what happened last night, and I promise I’ll believe you.”
Clare looked at her friend for what seemed like a full minute.
“It was so stupid,” she finally said, as if the earlier conversation hadn’t taken place. “I went to bed around ten o’clock and went straight to sleep. It had been a busy day and I was tired. When I woke up around midnight and Roger wasn’t home yet, I got worried. As you know, when Roger stays out late, he usually comes home drunk.”
Clare glanced at Lillie Mae, who was nodding, but didn’t wait for her to say anything. “Most of the time he falls asleep on the sofa in his living room, but, on the rare occasion, he wants to talk to me. All I have to do to avoid him is hide in Billy’s room. Roger never thinks to look for me there. So, last night when I was moving to Billy’s room, I didn’t turn on the lights in case Roger came home just then, and I tripped on an old pair of Roger’s boots that he had left by the landing. I fell and hit my cheek on the wall. That’s what happened, Lillie Mae. As I told you before, Roger didn’t touch me.”
“So it really was an accident.” Lillie Mae said, thinking that indirectly Roger was as responsible for the accident as he would have been had he made the blow himself. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
“No, Lillie Mae, there’s nothing I need from you or anybody. I’ve told you it’s not a big deal. I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine. Please, let’s not talk about it anymore. Okay?”
“Okay,” Lillie Mae said, wondering who else Clare had been trying to convince it wasn’t a big deal that morning.
The phone rang, the shrill noise blasting through the tension in the air. Clare turned pale. She looked over her shoulder at the phone, than back at Lillie Mae. “I’m not going to answer that,” she said with a nervous laugh. “I’ve been getting so many crank phone calls lately.”
Lillie Mae moved her eyes from Clare to the phone, but remained quiet.
The ringing stopped as quickly as it had begun. Clare inhaled deeply and clasped her hands, but Lillie Mae could see they were shaking.
“Let’s go outside, Lillie Mae,” Clare said, jumping to her feet. “It’s way too pretty a morning to be sitting in the house. Besides I want to show you my garden. The onions, carrots, and the spring lettuce I planted last week are already peeking through the soil.” Clare picked up a bowl off the counter. “Let’s pick some strawberries for you to take home.”
Lillie Mae glanced back over her shoulder at the phone as she followed Clare out of the house.