by Debbie Burke
Tis the season and I have great fondness for Christmas cookies. Today’s guest Leslie Budewitz is an expert in those buttery, sugary treats. She is also an Agatha-winning author for fiction and nonfiction as well as an attorney. Her latest book As the Christmas Cookie Crumbles is a tasty mystery with recipes.
Leslie is the author of two cozy series and a reference guide for writers: Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately about Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedures. She’s a past president of Sisters in Crime and, after a two-year stint on the board of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, will be joining the national board of MWA in January.
Question: Although you write cozy mysteries, you also tackle serious themes. How do you balance the lighthearted tone of a cozy with grim issues like homelessness and family dysfunction?
Leslie: Any mystery—any novel—depends on conflict, some internal, some external. Those conflicts often arise from the world around us, whether it’s family tension or a dispute over whose turn it is to beg on a particular street corner. Other cozy authors have tackled social justice issues as well—Cleo Coyle, Elaine Viets, and Diane Mott Davidson among them. The trick in a cozy, I think, is to explore the emotions and motivations that the issues raise and make sure that the external actions flow from those internal tensions, because a cozy is ultimately about the personal impact of a crime and the community response to it.
I tend to use an ABC plot structure, with the murder the A or primary plot, the protagonist’s relationships the B or main subplot, and life in the shop or community the C or secondary subplot. That keeps the balance, I hope, and allows me to sneak in some humor and lighter moments while giving the murder the respect it deserves.
Question: The Spice Shop series is set in Seattle; the Food Lovers’ Village series takes place in a tiny Montana town. Can you talk about the differences in handling urban vs. rural settings? Do the personalities of your big city characters differ from those in a small town?
Leslie: To me, the heart of a cozy is community, and the role of the amateur sleuth is to probe and protect it. That makes a small town a natural setting. An urban cozy works when it is set in a community within a community—the Pike Place Market and Seattle’s restaurant community, or Coyle’s Greenwich Village coffee house and the coffee business in NYC.
On the flip side, small-town series are prone to Cabot Cove Syndrome—after a while, there’s no one left to kill! You can root the conflict in the town, bring it in from outside, or create a clash between locals and visitors. An urban setting makes a high crime rate more credible, and allows you to move around the various neighborhoods of a city, although you have to simplify geography and keep the protagonist’s home or shop at the center.
As for differences in personalities, that’s a great question and not one I’d considered. Both my main characters grew up where they now live and identify deeply with their communities. Erin Murphy in the Village series left for 15 years before returning; that’s a common story, especially in Montana; it’s my story, and I’m enjoying exploring it through her eyes
Question: You’ve worked with a Big Five publisher as well as smaller presses. Share with us the contrasts.
Leslie: They’re not as different as you might think. In both, the author’s primary relationship is with the editor. At my nonfiction house, Quill Driver, my editor was also the publisher. At my fiction houses, Berkley, Midnight Ink, and Seventh Street—large, medium, and small—the editorial relationship is still key, even when the structure differs. Larger houses tend to have more robust systems for accounting, routine publicity, and sales and distribution, although smaller houses often contract with big companies for the latter.
Both the decision of the post-merger Penguin Random House to drastically cut mass market paperback originals and the recent decision of Llewellyn to stop publishing new Midnight Ink titles after the Spring/Summer 2019 catalog, as well as the still-fresh sale of Seventh Street Books, demonstrate that business decisions beyond your control can come out of nowhere and dramatically change your career. The only thing you can control is the work itself. Fortunately, that’s the most satisfying aspect, but being able to predict your cash flow ranks pretty high, too.
Question: You’re an attorney yet none of your fiction features a main character in that profession. Is there a reason you’ve chosen other fields for your characters? Is there a legal mystery in your future?
Leslie: A cozy depends on an amateur sleuth; lawyers and journalists are semi-pros, so if one were to star in a cozy series, she’d probably need to be retired and running a bakery! Pepper Reece in the Spice Shop series managed staff HR for a large law firm that collapsed in scandal, and she uses her knowledge of people rather than a knowledge of the law to solve crimes. But she also reaches out to lawyers and paralegals she’s worked with now and then. Erin Murphy consults her step-father, a lawyer turned herbalist and acupuncturist, when she needs to understand a legal detail or two.
I don’t see myself turning to legal mysteries or thrillers, but I can say that injustice will always be at the heart of what I write.
Question: Anything else you’d like to talk about?
Leslie: While writing is a solitary activity, one of the most important elements in a writer’s career is her community. You and I met ages ago, long before we’d published any fiction. We shared a magical writers’ group for a couple of years, and have met for countless lunches and cups of coffee since then, brainstorming and bolstering. I encourage Kill Zone readers at all stages of their writing careers to form and maintain those communities, on line and in person. Cozies are sometimes criticized as unrealistic—as if Jack Reacher were more realistic than Jessica Fletcher—but one thing they get absolutely right is the fundamental importance of community.
Thanks, Leslie, for sharing your thoughts with The Kill Zone.
At TKZ, even cookies have aliases. Below is Leslie’s recipe for Russian Teacakes AKA Snowballs AKA Mexican Wedding Cakes:
Merrily’s Russian Teacakes
by Leslie Budewitz
The classic shape is a ball rolled in powdered sugar. But they can also be made as slice-and-bake cookies dipped in chocolate. A reader suggested the Dirty Snowball—add a little cocoa powder to the powdered sugar when you roll the cookie. A delicious idea, especially since a snowball plays a crucial role in the climactic scene.
Whatever you call these scrumptious little treats, I know they’ll be popular with everyone you see this holiday season—even the Grinch and Mr. Scrooge.
1 cup butter (2 sticks), softened
1/2 cup powdered or confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup finely chopped pecans
1/3 cup additional powdered sugar, for rolling
2-3 ounces semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate, for dipping
1 tablespoon cocoa powder, for Dirty Snowballs
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a mixing bowl, cream the butter, ½ cup powdered sugar, and vanilla. Combine the flour and salt and stir into the creamed mixture. Stir in pecans. Chill up to an hour.
Roll dough into 1-inch balls and bake on an ungreased cookie sheet for 10-12 minutes. Pour the additional powdered sugar into a flat bowl or on a plate; for the dirty snowball, add the cocoa powder. When cool enough to touch but still warm, roll cookies in the powdered sugar. Cool, then roll in the sugar again if you’d like.
For slice-and-bake cookies, shape the dough into two logs, about 2 inches wide, and wrap in waxed paper, plastic wrap, or parchment paper. Chill about 20 minutes. Slice and bake 18-20 minutes. Cool cookies on a wire rack.
Melt the chocolate and dip one end of each cookie in the chocolate, or drizzle a bit on the end with a spoon. Return to rack to allow chocolate to harden.
Makes about 4 dozen.
Wishing you all a joyous holiday season!