Let's Talk with Lois Winston

November 9, 2023

 Craft, Crime, Title, or Setting? Which Comes First?

A budding writer recently asked me, “How do you start writing a mystery?” My answer was, “It depends.” Writing is not a one-size-fits-all act, and it’s a bit more complex than choosing the chicken or the egg. There is no right or wrong way to write a novel. Every author has her own process, and most writers spend years developing and perfecting that process. That includes how we start.

I write the Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries, a crafting-themed humorous amateur sleuth series. Because my sleuth is the crafts editor at a women’s magazine, unlike many other craft-themed mysteries, I don’t limit myself to one craft throughout the series. Just as my sleuth features different crafts in each issue of the magazine where she works, I feature a different craft in each book. I chose this direction when I began the series years ago because I didn’t want to compete with all the other well-established craft and needlecraft mysteries already on the market.

Like many cozy and amateur sleuth mysteries, especially humorous ones, mine employ “cute” titles. Sometimes the craft featured in each book is specifically mentioned in the title, as in Decoupage Can Be Deadly. Other times, it’s inferred, as in A Stitch to Die For. And sometimes a craft is neither mentioned nor implied, but the title still refers to crafting, as in Revenge of the Crafty Corpse.

But which comes first, the title, the craft, the crime, or the setting? For me, it varies from book to book. The idea for the title of the first book in the series, Assault with a Deadly Glue Gun, came before anything else. Aside from knowing my sleuth would be a crafts editor, I knew nothing about her or how she stumbled into sleuthing.

Because I’m a multi-tasker, while I was mulling over my soon-to-be-written series, I was also engrossed in my day job of crafts designer. But maybe not as engrossed as I should have been because my glue gun slipped and badly burned my finger. Although painful, it led to a Eureka! moment. While icing my throbbing digit, my mind churned. What if someone was killed with a glue gun? Was it even possible? Of course, the murder weapon would have to belong to my crafts editor, thus making her the prime suspect and forcing her to become an amateur sleuth to find the real killer and clear her name. The next thing I knew, my second-degree burn had resulted in the creation of both characters and a plot for my long-running series (twelve books and counting.)

With some books, I start out knowing the craft I want to use, and the plot evolves from there. In Death by Killer Mop Doll, the second book in the series, I had decided I wanted the killer to leave a mop doll at the scene of each crime.

As a crafts editor, Anastasia is not confined to working in a shop. This avoids Cabot Cove Syndrome and enables me to set my books in varied locales. For my latest book, I wanted to write a story that took Anastasia out of New Jersey. My husband and I moved from a New York City commuter town to a suburb of Nashville two years ago. Ever since, readers have asked when Anastasia would move to Tennessee. Although I have no plans for my diehard Jersey girl sleuth to move south, I decided to send her and Zack to Tennessee wine country for a few days.

Once I established the setting, I remembered having seen some lovely collages of antique wine labels when my husband and I were in Napa a few years ago. Anastasia and Zack stay at a Bed & Breakfast connected to a winery. Their guest cottage has a framed wine label collage hanging on the wall. And voila! I had my craft.

I also like to incorporate crimes beyond murder in my books. There are many reasons why people commit murder, and often secondary crimes are committed to cover up the main crime. Several other crimes occur in this latest book. That’s when the title popped into my head—A Crafty Collage of Crime.

As for crimes, each of my books is inspired by real-life crimes or human-interest stories. Sometimes, l decide on a crime, then build the plot around it. That was the case with Handmade Ho-Ho Homicide, the eighth book in the series, which was inspired by a murder in a nearby town.

Craft, crime, title, or setting. Which comes first? I never know until the idea pops into my head.

What’s your favorite part of a mystery, the characters, the plot, the setting, or the crime? Post a comment for a chance to win a promo code for a free download of the soon-to-be-released audiobook version of Handmade Ho-Ho Homicide.

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Posted in Let's Talk, with Lois Winston • Tags: , |  43 Comments


43 thoughts on “ Craft, Crime, Title, or Setting? Which Comes First?

  1. Lois,
    I love all of your books because they flow and each one is original, but it is the characters that I’ve bonded with. For me, characters make or break a series.

    1. Lois, Adore your book books📚. I have done arts in many media’s since I was a small child. Gran bought A big huge Sears wish book size Book, 1 Vogue stitches, The other Goodhouse keeping stitches, and another ideas of craft’s. All back in early ’60s. I self taught knitting, crochet, sewing needlepoint, embroidery., quilting, drawing, painting- You name it. Found your Books and they clicked📚 with fun and mystery. Fabulous character’s and flow.

      1. Kathy, I remember some of those books. I had a huge collection but wound up donating most before we moved a few years ago. And I’m thrilled you’re enjoying reading about Anastasia and her adventures!

    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Carol. I have a feeling that’s going to be the case with most readers. If you can’t bond with the characters, you won’t be interested in reading about them.

  2. Hi Lois, I’m in Debra’s corner. I LOVE the characters closely followed by the information on craft. Love your series.

  3. Your characters are memorable and that’s why your fans keep coming back. Plus, I love the humor in your stories. As for me, I can be inspired by a news article, a setting, a personal experience, or a situation. My latest book, Star Tangled Murder, was inspired by a visit to a living history village. That one was easy to plot with a built-in cast of suspects.

  4. I love reading this origin story for your highly entertaining series, Lois. It’s true, inspiration for a mystery can appear from almost anywhere. And though my books are not autobiographical, they each were sparked by random life experiences. I think character is the most essential ingredient for a successful mystery series, followed by plot, although for a cozy, the title ranks up there, too.

  5. Yeah, Lois. You’re so right that stories can start in many different ways. I think it’s J.S. Bell who emphasizes the role of asking “what if?” and then letting the thoughts go. Sometimes they go nowhere. But often they yield something. “What if someone were killed with a glue gun?” One can ask “what if” about anything one happens to focus on–location, event, personality or other character trait, …

    Even if one starts from a prompt, one has to brainstorm some kind of “what if.” I remember a Weekly Knob prompt was “dumbbells.” What popped into my head was, “What if some narcissist always carries a couple of dumbbells with him?” Then they became small, gold-plated dumbbells. Then he became a killer.

  6. I’ve had a few bad glue gun burns as well. Not a pleasant sensation! I enjoy reading your series Lois. You have a knack for tossing out just enough information to keep us turning the pages. I don’t have an easy answer for how I get my book ideas. Some part of it comes to me through the story ether and I make up the rest. Sounds pretty hokey but its true.

    1. Except painful, Terry! But you know what “they” say: That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Or if you’re a writer, provides you with plot and character ideas!

  7. For me the characters can make or break it, especially the main character. The other things are important but not as important as that.

  8. If I am not familiar with the author, the plot is the deciding factor. For a series, it’s the characters that keep me coming back for more.

  9. Well, Lois… They do say, “Write what you know,” and I suppose you suddenly knew very well the potential potency of an innocent-appearing little GLUE gun as a pain-inducing weapon. And once you had such a unique weapon, you quickly created a whole plot line. I think for mysteries, the plot is centermost, but if you want me as a reader to love it, then I need to love the characters. Me, myself… I tend to skip through most of the descriptions of the setting. Thanks. This was a fun post!

    1. Yes, Pam, too much description can really drag down a plot, especially when it’s a mystery, which should be fast-paced. I wish more budding authors realized that. I’m reading a book right now that could be greatly improved by editing out at least 50 pages of excessive and repetitious description. I’m doing a lot of skimming.

  10. From the writing end of things, I think any of your four options is a legit way to jump into a story. But from a reader’s point of view, particularly when you’re talking romance or cozy mystery, characters are the heart of a good story. I’ll forget plots and interesting settings and clever crimes. but I won’t forget great characters. And, OUCH, glue gun burns really do hurt!! 🙂

  11. Diane, I absolutely agree that great characters will stay with readers, but it has to be a good story for me to keep reading about those characters. If the plot isn’t interesting or the writing bland, I give up. So I never really bond with the characters and therefore, don’t remember them.

  12. Lois, I am not entering the contest for the download, I just want to say that I have read and loved Handmade Ho-Ho Homicide, and please don’t move Anastasia and her family out of NJ. Being a Jersey girl, I LOVE that she lives in NJ!

    1. Rest assured, Robyn, Anastasia is staying put. She’s told me she’ll go on strike if I move her to TN. So we compromised, and she agreed to a vacation there in the latest book, A Crafty Collage of Crime.

  13. Great characters and the story is very important. I’m not crafty at all so I’d probably hurt myself or burn down the house. 😅

  14. I am not a writer, so I can’t really say which one comes first, like the situation of the chicken or the egg first; and like Lois Winston says: “Writing is not a one-size-fits-all act”. If I was going to write a mystery, I would have an outline of the story/plot/crime because I would be greatly drawn into the story/crime, then I would shape my characters, settings, etc.. And then, different authors would have different writing procedures. In any case, I would always enjoy a good book! Thank you for writing.

  15. I know when I pick up one of your books to read that I am going to love the storyline and the characters. I am always entertained with a smile on my face and I am full of suspense until the very last page.

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