Local author whips up delicious mysteries

Author Karen MacInerney’s Gray Whale Inn series proves that cozy murder mysteries are delightful. That Other Paper’s Kendra Crispin caught up with her to discuss her alter ego, writing, and the struggles of making it in the business.

Open the pages of Murder on the Rocks and you’ll watch innkeeper and cook Natalie Barnes keep her bed and breakfast, the Gray Whale Inn, afloat while whipping up incredible treats for her guests – and for some of the fellow residents on Cranberry Island. The move to this small part of the Maine coastline is a huge adjustment for the Austin native, but it’s nothing when she’s accused of murder and has to prove her innocence to a sergeant who apparently answers to no one. Surrounded by developers who want to raze her historic house, islanders who suspect her, and a rocky coastline that could kill, Natalie has to save not only her inn, but her life.

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Karen MacInerney 

This salt air mystery grew from the imagination of author and Austin resident Karen MacInerney. A Yankee by birth, she yearned to create her own version of the cozy mystery genre. “I grew up reading Miss Marple, and I started with Nancy Drew, so I fell in love with mysteries early on.” She read them in her bedroom with secret treats, like M&Ms and butterscotch, and came to associate cozy mysteries with food. Add a dearth of books with a tone that she wanted to read, and a fateful description from her parents, and the stage was set for the spawning of The Gray Whale Inn mystery series.

MacInerney reminisced: “My parents went to an inn in California, and came back and just raved about it. And I thought, ‘Oh, that’d be a fabulous place for a mystery. Because you always have different people, and it’s a wonderful kind of dream setting.” Then she had a chance visit to Cranberry Island in Maine. “I got there and it reminded me very much of the island I visited when my grandmother lived in Newfoundland, and that I always wanted to write about, but I couldn’t do the accents.”

With the perfect setting that she sought, MacInerney began working on what became her first published novel. “I have this penchant for wanting to write about places other than where I live,” she acknowledged, “which makes it harder. So we were going up to Maine, and I was going to be a plant population biologist in a former life. So I know a lot about plants and where they live, and could identify them easily.” MacInerney goes back every year possible with her family, giving her opportunities to examine the real Cranberry Island and bring readers there.

She has collected books on the flora, fauna, and landscape of the island, and once went out on a lobster boat to experience that part of the community – and all have featured in her series. Naturally, she researched running bed and breakfasts. “I joined a professional international association of innkeepers, and read the forums,” she added with a grin. “And I’ve become friendly with a couple of innkeepers, so it’s been interesting.”

Some of the details have hazy histories. Like the series’ namesake. She sighed and thought about it. “I don’t know where I came up with that name. There are no gray whales in the Atlantic Ocean. The book was out for eight months and I’m thinking, ‘Nobody’s called me on it. My goodness.’ And the very next day I get an email that said, ‘You might be confusing your readers. There are no gray whales in the Atlantic Ocean.’ But it just had the right name to me.”

The narrator, who solves the murders in the series, was born from MacInerney’s need to escape from reality. “Natalie is who I would be if my life went a different way. I wanted her to be old enough to have the wherewithal to do this, and yet young enough that there was still a chance for – I don’t know. She just sort of came to me. I guess I didn’t want her to have kids, but I wanted her to have a bit of maternal instinct, so that’s why I brought in her niece, Gwen, who’s older and doesn’t need supervision day to day.”

Cooking is a large part of Natalie’s work at the Inn, and it also features prominently on MacInerney’s website. “I’ve always liked food. I do have some domestic tendencies. I like to garden and I like to cook. I’m not a big cleaner and I’m a terrible organizer. But I think it’s a creative thing. I remember going to Newfoundland and my grandmother was a fabulous cook, and she would bake us these blueberry lattice – topped pies and blackberry – steamed puddings.” The association of cooking with both comfort and home dominates scenes at the inn.

To promote The Gray Whale Inn, MacInerney said her “little brain” created the “Muffins are Murder” contest. It attracted attention and plenty of potential recipes for her next book. “We had over 100 entries, and I wrote the winner into the [second] book.” The winner was Barbara Hahn, and she joined her husband and their two dogs in the sequel, Dead and Berried. MacInerney laughed as she spoke about the real-life characters, including their paraplegic dog. “That’s what’s so funny about it. They’re real people. I interviewed them and got what I needed to write them in.”

“Muffins are Murder” entries were judged by a party of MacInerney and her friends. Entries sometimes boggled the imagination. “Tuna Fish Muffins. The lady said, ‘My husband tried them and said they’re not too bad when they’re warm.’” Those and the Hamburger Surprise were not among those that the judges thought were appealing and worth being made. Using judging forms, they sampled little bits. Hahn’s winning entry was Berried Medley Lemon Streusel Muffins. The recipe is at the end of Dead and Berried.

Each book lists recipes for the foods mentioned at the back, so a reader could bake and then enjoy them along with the books. Laughing, MacInerney admitted that all the cooking has taken its toll on Natalie’s figure. “I’m putting Natalie on a diet in the next book. I’m having a weight loss retreat at the Gray Whale Inn.” On her blog, she’s requesting diet-friendly recipes to include in the upcoming third book, tentatively titled Murder Most Maine.

Success has not changed the uncertainty of the trade. “You go out and write the book, and you have no idea – you just write it and it’s a total leap of faith. And what’s so satisfying is when what resonates with you resonates with other people.” Feedback is vital to any writer, but “to hear people who the book has – I don’t know if the word is ‘touched.’ It’s that they felt strong enough about it that they took the time to write to me. That just makes my day. Because when you write, you sit in this little corner and you write for months at a time, and you have no idea if your vision is going to be in line with what other people are looking for.”

That convinced her to teach for UT Informal Classes and the Writers’ League of Texas, in addition to talks at various conferences. “Writing is a scary thing sometimes, and it’s about the faith to do it, and sometimes having that cheerleader can make all the difference.” She got to see that difference recently. “I just did a conference a few weeks ago, and two or three of my former students came up and were pitching their books that they had finished since taking my class, which was really satisfying to me.”

MacInerney’s avid reading created many reflections on writing. “The writing itself, a lot of what you need to learn is already out there, and you can pick it up by reading books and seeing how different authors did things. Just as artists learn by doing what’s out there.” Noting when you enjoy how something was done, and studying it is one morsel of advice, but she also recommends “learning to take it in pieces and have an overall vision of what you want to do, and how to come up with a plan to get there.”

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Karen MacInerney’s Dead and Berried 

“That’s where I can help people the most, and show them how to use the resources that are already out there, which are the books that speak to them. You know, if a book speaks to you, that one you mentally want to hold on to, and refer back to when you’re trying to do it yourself. A book is such a monumental thing, but if you break it down and say, ‘If I write this many words a day, and focus this long, then I’ll be done with this book on X day.’ It’s liberating to know that I won’t be carrying this thing for the next 20 years. I could actually be done with it in six months and then write something else.”

She recognizes the problems that writers face, especially getting started. “You just have to take it day by day, and scene by scene. And I do it a lot by numbers because that frees me up. I’m not panicking so much about how good this scene is. I’m going to show up at the page and write the best I can.” The key for her is always move forward, and not spin her wheels. “If I make progress, even if it’s not 100 percent, I’m still further ahead than I was because I know that it’s the direction that I want to take it.”

MacInerney’s writing success forced her to develop yet another skill. “I was talking with a writer I was chairing a panel with two weeks ago, and I said, ‘You know, it’s funny. You don’t think of “public speaking” as being one of the big skillsets for being a writer, but it is.’ And he said, ‘Yes, I know. You write a book and all of a sudden people expect you to be able to get up in front of a bunch of people and talk coherently. Why is that?’ But it’s an interesting part of it.”

Not that selling has been easy. Her current project underwent a huge change because the publisher was stronger in romance than mystery. “It was a crush on the book that I pitched and sold as a mystery, and they decided on page 200 that they were going to publish as a romance. There was already a strong romantic element in it. So I finished the book and my agent says it would benefit from 10,000 words of romance. So I go back and really enhanced the romantic. I just added a few more scenes that really touched on the connection between the characters. Now it’s a paranormal werewolf romance.” Yet she still had to add more back story, and so an 18,000 word manuscript expanded to over 100,000 words.

But she says it was worth it. “I got to put in the back story of being a werewolf and your mom having to move from daycare to daycare, city to city because a daycare worker gives you apple juice instead of orange juice and you start growing teeth and fur and try to bite her hand off. There are issues with being a bouncing baby werewolf that I hadn’t really addressed, so I got to do a lot of fun stuff with it.”

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Karen MacInerney’s Murder on the Rocks 

Writers, and readers, need to know that “These days when you send a proposal, it’s a gamble. You never know if it’s going to hit. I mean, you just keep moving and never look back. It doesn’t mean that you don’t care about your work. You recognize you just have to do the best you can and then send it out into the world, and you have very little control over what happens to it.” A hard truth, but vital knowledge.

With all this experience, what does she say to prospective writers? “Read a lot, and be aware of what it is that you’re trying to do.” Knowing the latter will spare writers from blind wandering. “You don’t have to know the whole book, but you do have to know at least the feel of the book, the type of book, the length of the book, and it helps sometimes to know what it’s like and what it’s not like.” And set a reasonable schedule for writing, and realize that you’ll fluctuate weekly, but “continue going after it. And the other thing is always be thinking about what you’re going to do next… but you can’t start until the first book is done.”

It is also critical, MacInerney says, to think of it as a career. “Nora Roberts, she writes six books a year. Now I don’t have to write six books a year, but even if I write one page a day, I’ll write a book a year. So in 10 years I’ll have written 10 books if I do that. And the more books you write, the higher the likelihood that one of them will sell.”

Experience has also taught MacInerney to be careful with your topics, no matter how well you write. She wrote a book about a mother of two that didn’t sell. Her dad read it one night and worried that it was too close to her life. One scene involved the little boy, who had “an accident, and the mom forgot to replace his clothes. So he has to come home in his sister’s pink skort.” She was adamant that “‘I really need him to come home in that pink skort.’ As I finish this, I look over and realize that my son has had an accident and the – and I’ve already written this – and the only clean clothing I had in the car was my daughter’s pink plaid skort. And he walks in the room wearing my daughter’s skort, and I looked at my dad and said, ‘You might have a point.’”