Take Five with Valerie (V.M.) Burns

September 19, 2022 | By Baltimore County Public Library

photo of author Valerie BurnsValerie Burns is the author of multiple mystery series, including the Mystery Bookshop Mystery Series and the Dog Club Mystery series, both written under the name V.M. Burns. Her latest series The Baker Street series opens with the recently published "Two Parts Sugar, One Part Murder". Enjoy getting to know Valerie and her writing process, which includes discipline and dogs!

1. "Two Parts Sugar, One Part Murder" is the first in a new series, The Baker Street Mysteries, which published at the end of August and your Mystery Bookshop series will get a new installment in December. First, congratulations on such wonderful success! How challenging is it to keep multiple series going concurrently?  

cover of book titled Two Parts Sugar, One Part MurderThank you so much. I’ve been juggling three series for years. It’s not as challenging as you would think. I feel the key, for me, is discipline. I try to write every day. I have a weekly goal of 7,500 to10,000 words per week, which works out to 1,000 to 1,500 words per night. Some nights I write more and some nights I write less. When I’m writing a book, I spend a lot of time with the characters in my head. Honestly, after about three months, I’m really tired of them. So when I finally finish a book, I'm usually really glad to move on to a different series with different characters. Three months later, I’m ready to move onto my third series. By the end of my third series or six months later, I’m ready to revisit the characters from the first series. Writing multiple series keeps me from getting bored with my characters and keeps me writing. If I stop writing, I find it difficult to get back into the routine. Each writer is different, I’ve found this is the best schedule for me.   

2. Two  of your series have strong settings in Michigan. Are these real towns? Why Michigan? How important is setting to your storytelling? 

Both my Mystery Bookshop Mystery series and my Baker Street Mystery series are set in small towns in Southwestern Michigan. While neither North Harbor or New Bison are real places, they are both based on real places. North Harbor is based on the real town of Benton Harbor, Michigan. While New Bison is based on the real town of New Buffalo. Using real places as the basis for my fictional stories is helpful for me as a writer. I don’t have to create everything. I can use the basic layout of real places to anchor my stories. I also love providing little clues or Easter eggs for readers who are familiar with the area. I love getting emails from readers who recognize familiar buildings and places. I love when readers write to ask questions like, "Is the Four Feathers Casino based on the Four Winds?" Why, yes it is!   

3. Maddy is such a fun, independent character who is trying to rebuild her life. Is she based on anyone you know? Baby, the English Mastiff is also a delight! You clearly are a dog person. Is there an English Mastiff in your life? 

Thank you. Maddy is not based on a real person that I know. In fact, most of my characters are not based on real people. Often, I consolidate various traits from multiple people to use as characters in my books. I might use one person’s quirky personality. Another’s sense of style. And yet a third person’s infectious laugh. All of those things are rolled up together to create Maddy. My nephew and his wife are both in the fashion industry in NYC, so they were my experts for Maddy’s fashion style. I have a niece who is my social media advisor for Maddy. And, I know several people for whom cooking/baking is a challenge.    

As for Baby, I am definitely a dog lover. All of my books include dogs. Poodles are my breed, and I've had poodles since I was a child. Poodles don't shed and have hypoallergenic coats, so they were one of the only dog breeds my mom would consider when I was a kid (although I wanted an Old English Sheepdog). Poodles are also very smart and easily trained. Now, I always have at least one (usually two). When I started the Mystery Bookshop Mystery series, I had two chocolate toy poodles, Coco and Cash. They are Snickers and Oreo in the books. I was thrilled when my publisher decided to include them on the covers. So the poodles on the covers are my dogs. I love how the illustrator captured their personalities. I can always tell which dog is which whenever I see those covers. Baby was inspired by two of my coworkers who owned English mastiffs. As a dog lover, I want to own lots of different dog breeds. Including them in my books allows me to live vicariously through my characters. Currently, I have two toy poodles, Chloe and Kensington (aka Kenzie).   

4. You are one of the contributors to a well-received and popular anthology of short stories called "Midnight Hour: A Chilling Anthology of Crime Fiction from 20 Authors of Color." How important is this collection to you and to the mystery genre? Do you enjoy writing short stories? How is it different from writing a novel?  

Book cover of The Midnight HourI was thrilled to write a short story for the "Midnight Hour" anthology. All of the contributing authors are members of a group of marginalized writers, called Crime Writers of Color. Publishing this anthology was a way to have our voices heard, so I feel that it is important. This was the first short story that I have had published. Short stories are hard for me because you must get to the point quickly. When writing a novel, you have 60,000 or more words to get acquainted with your characters, the setting, and to tell your tale. In a short story, you have considerably fewer words. I prefer writing a novel where I can take my time and develop my characters. However, my short story, "The Vermeer Conspiracy", was nominated for both an Anthony and Edgar Award. So I might try my hand again one day.   

5. Do you remember the first mystery you read that led you to love the genre? Did you always want to be a writer? How do you find the time to write between your work as an Operations Manager for a major appliance manufacturer and mentoring at a university? 

I remember reading Nancy Drew as a kid. However, the book that stands out the most with me was, "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd", by Agatha Christie. It blew my mind. I immediately followed that with, And Then There Were None, and I was hooked. I’m a huge Agatha Christie fan and I read and reread her books whenever I can find the time. I don’t recall wanting to be a writer when I was young. I wanted to read more books like the ones Agatha Christie wrote. Over the decades, I had a running list of books that I wanted to read but couldn't find. After some time, I realized that no one was writing those books, so maybe I should try my hand at writing them. I hoped that I wasn’t alone. If I wanted to read those books, perhaps others would, too.   

My day job as an Operations Manager provides a regular paycheck and health insurance. Both of those are important to my peace of mind. Mentoring at Seton Hill University allows me to give back to the university and the MFA program that was instrumental in helping me achieve my goal of becoming a published writer. It’s a low-residency program and I limit myself to only two mentees, so that helps my workload. Still, finding the time to write can be challenging. I tackle writing by breaking it down into small chunks (the same way you eat an elephant). I strive to write 1,000 words per day. In three months, I have 90,000 words (or close to it). There are 24 in every day. Sometimes, I write during my lunch hour or immediately following dinner. Usually, I write in the evening. I’m not a morning person, so I rarely write in the early morning, although I know people who prefer to do that. I find that when something is important to you, you make time for it. Deadlines help! 

Category: Collection and Materials