Grand Openings Can Be Murder (Bean to Bar Mysteries)
by Amber Royer
I am excited to welcome Amber Royer to Escape With Dollycas today!
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m Amber Royer, author of the Bean to Bar Mysteries. I’m also the author of the Chocoverse space opera trilogy, and the choc-centric cookbook There are Herbs in My Chocolate. I fell into this whole chocolate thing by accident, when the local herb society I participated in asked me to do a presentation combining culinary herbs and chocolate. Since chocolate has become my schtick, I’ve embraced it. I’ve visited cacao plantations and craft chocolate factories, tried my hand at making chocolate in my kitchen, and started growing cacao trees indoors at my husband’s office (the tallest of our trees is now as tall as I am). I’ve been a creative writing coach/writing instructor for going on a decade and a half. I teach adult novelists, and aspiring teen writers. My philosophy about books and writing is that you should go in with a plan, and understand the structure and desired meaning of what you are going to write, viewing fiction in a similar way to how a journalist approaches a news assignment: plan first, write second. I started developing worksheets to use with my classes, and recently compiled those into a workbook: Story Like a Journalist. I live just north of Dallas, where we have two excellent bean to bar chocolate companies, and a TON of chocolatiers, bakeries and restaurants that specialize in chocolate desserts.
What are three things most people don’t know about you?
1—I enjoy flying stunt kites.
2—I’m left-handed. (Just like the Man in Black in the Princess Bride.)
3—I have zero sense of direction and once made a map for someone that came out upside down.
What is the first book you remember reading?
Ramona Quimbly Age 8. I know I participated in my local library’s summer reading program from a very early age, and I probably read picture books before that, but Ramona was the first one that made a real impact and made me want to read the rest of the related works. I actually look like Ramona at that age, as she is drawn on some of the covers. I loved her world, with Henry and Beezus and Ribsy. It felt like discovering a whole group of friends. Which, honestly, lays a pretty good groundwork for writing a cozy mystery, since they usually have a large cast of your protagonist’s friends, family and workmates that make up the community the book is set in. And you hope the reader comes to think of them as friends.
What are you reading now?
The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris by Jenny Colgan. I did a bit of research on how other authors are incorporating chocolate in their manuscripts before this year’s – virtual – Dallas Chocolate Festival, where I did an informal chocolate book meetup. This one sounded so interesting I bought it. There are two storylines, one in the present and the other in 1972, and both play out in Paris, centering around a chocolate shop and a lost love. I just got to the point in the story where the modern-day protagonist has traveled from England to France and starts working at the chocolate shop. She is realizing she’s going to be mopping floors, not designing recipes. So far, it’s a fun read.
I always include at least hints of a romantic subplot in my own work (even the science fiction), so it shouldn’t be a surprise that I like stories that focus on friendships and romantic relationships.
What books have most inspired you?
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island has always been a big influence on my overall writing style. There’s the whole thing about adventure and plot twists, counterpointed by character relationships. I love the dynamic created between Jim and Silver, who are on opposite sides, and yet emotionally are what the other is missing. Silver’s the father figure Jim lost, and Jim represents the honor Silver wishes he could get back. Another thing I love about Treasure Island is how nothing is ever wasted. Every bit of foreshadowing comes back up, in unexpected and important ways.
Mysteries that have inspired me include:
—Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels.
— Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax series
— Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who series.
— Dorothy Cannell’s Ellie Haskell series.
— Diane Mott Davidson’s Goldie Bear series.
What made you decide you wanted to write mysteries?
I’ve always found mysteries intriguing. Some of my earliest literary influences were Hank the Cowdog and Encyclopedia Brown, and I never outgrew my enjoyment of that sense of adventure and puzzle solving. I read a lot of cozies starting in my teens, and I’m also a fan of shows like Psych and Monk. I devoured the BBC Agatha Raisin miniseries the minute I got my hands on the box set.
There are even some mystery-influenced elements to the plot of the Chocoverse books.
At the same time, I kind of fell into taking on the project: I do monthly presentations as the discussion leader for my writer’s group (the idea is to funnel people into taking my writing classes). One of the presentation topics the group voted for was How to Write a Mystery Plot/Subplot. So I did a bit of research, and found out there’s a standard for the emotional beats in a mystery. And then a couple of months later, I had a coaching client who wanted help with the plot structure for his mystery. Between the two projects, I got an itch to try my hand at a mystery myself, even though it was a departure from what I’ve written previously.
Mysteries are about justice and restoring order to the world. In a way, they are the very essence of story.
Do you have a special place you like to write?
I write on my laptop, so my writing location is mobile. Before COVID, I did a lot of writing in public spaces. Sadly, at least one of the coffee shops I used to frequent has closed.
The writing group I lead, Saturday Night Write, used to meet for in-person write-ins at a local ramen and bubble tea place. This year, we’ve been doing our write-ins over Zoom. It’s good to at least see people’s faces. And I invested in a home cappuccino machine, so I’m not missing out on my creativity fuel. I am, however, missing the chicken karaage. I could make it myself – but not and still get a writing session done.
Where do the ideas for your books come from?
The basic idea for all my books come from something I’ve learned or observed, combined with a series of What If questions.
There’s a good deal in Grand Openings Can Be Murder dealing with social media. I have a love/hate relationship with my own social media, and I wanted a context in which to think about it. So then I started asking what if’s about it.
The idea behind Felicity herself was a bit more straightforward. I’d written a science fiction trilogy relating to chocolate, and in the course of researching and publicizing those books, I’d met a lot of craft chocolate makers and seen the passion behind what they do. (Trust me, nobody gets into the bean to bar chocolate business to make a quick buck.) I was at an event where I had paired with a local chocolatier to talk about food writing at a local writer’s group festival. I made the offhand comment that there were cozy mysteries with chocolatiers, and ones showing chocolate making as a magical process – but nobody had done an honest-to-goodness craft chocolate maker, the kind who would go to origin to work with specific farmers in order to create a superior product.
After I went home, I thought about my favorite Toni Morrison quote: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Grand Openings Can Be Murder was the book I desperately wanted to read. Therefore, I had to write it.
When I did the Chocoverse books, I borrowed one of my best friend’s last name for my character, Bo Benitez, and another of my friends decided the character Chestla encapsulated her. But I have another close friend who is more about Burn Notice than Guardians of the Galaxy. I asked her if I could borrow her last name for Felicity Koerber. When she said she was delighted by the idea, I started thinking about writing the book my friend would want to read, too. So while Felicity’s got this whole Cajun aspect to her (like me), she’s a huge Jane Austen fan, like my friend (who used to be a bookseller).
Is there anything about writing you find most challenging?
The hardest part for me is getting the story down to a reasonable wordcount. My sci-fi novels come in at 130 -140 thousand words a pop – and I had to cut around 20K out of each one to get them there. Grand Openings Can Be Murder is my first cozy mystery, and I went into it knowing the word count expectations for the genre – approximately half of one of my sci-fi novels. Despite having an outline, I still had to cut several scenes in order to get it into the right range.
What do you think makes a good story?
A good story is driven by uncertainty. If we believe we’ve figured out your plot ten pages in, we lose interest in reading – even if our guesses aren’t correct. Which means that If you’re planning to fool us with a red herring or an obvious suspect, you still have to leave a level of doubt. Without doubt, there’s no suspense. There needs to be questions and little mysteries for us to figure out along with your characters in every chapter of the book – while never meandering away from your main conflict. The minute you give us a stretch of manuscript without a conflict where the outcome is in question – well, that’s the kiss of death.
But in order for this uncertainty to matter to us, we have to be attached to your characters – and that doesn’t come automatically. The characters in a good story need to be fighting to achieve their goals. Readers love an underdog, and we love people working hard to achieve great things despite improbable odds. In a mystery, this means clues can’t just be handed to them. They have to earn every bit of information, every big revelation, so that we can feel like we are earning the information as we read along with them. This is one reason why I decided to write a cozy. My amateur sleuth is a chocolate maker. While she has a logical mind, she’s never solved a mystery before, and she doesn’t automatically know how to go about it.
Attachment also comes from the characters themselves being appealing – or at least sympathetic. Because if bad things are happening to characters we don’t like, we probably won’t care enough to keep reading.
The last element you need for us to care about your story is for the events in it to be of a significant magnitude. And we need a hint of that magnitude right away. If the biggest thing at stake in the first two chapters of a book is whether or not the character gets the cheese sandwich she wants for lunch, we’re not likely to get to chapter three, even if there’s a murder in the sandwich shop. The character also needs a reason to solve the particular murder at the heart of your story. Maybe she cares about the person suspected, or is suspected herself, or somehow her reputation or her business is at stake. In most cozies, the protagonist isn’t solving the mystery as part of her job. So you need to manufacture a reason. If the sleuth has nothing at risk, we won’t believe that she cares so much about solving a murder, when there are other people on hand with catching killers in their job descriptions. I tried to tackle this head on by having the murder victim be one of Felicity’s employees, and having her suspected.
Which, of all your characters, do you think is the most like you?
I think all my characters have a little of me in them – even the bad guys. Demographically, Felicity is most like me. I gave her a Cajun side to her background, because I wanted to get to pepper the series with food references and flavors of my childhood. Felicity has a good heart, and she genuinely feels bad when she makes mistakes while investigating. And like me, she loves books and reading and a good cup of coffee. But unlike me, she’s good at chemistry, and has a medical background, while I was too squeamish to even do my own experiments in high school biology. Which makes her strong and cool in a crisis, whereas I tend to go into panic mode.
Psychologically, I’m more like Autumn Ellis, Felicity’s best friend. Autumn is a former mystery writer, who wanted to be a poet since she was a little girl. She and Felicity met in eighth grade, when they were both doing UIL Poetry competitions. She’s more intuitive than logical. She speaks her mind – sometimes without regard for the consequences. And like me, she’s an extrovert who works from home, which means she needs routines for social interaction – and she gets terribly excited when she gets invited to a party.
What makes your books different from others out there in this genre?
I have a chocolate maker who is concerned with working with farmers at origin for a protagonist – which allows for a wider scope of interests and secondary characters and a different feel than the other chocolate-themed culinary cozies I’ve read. And rather than coming home broke and recently jobless as many recent cozy mystery heroines seem to do, Felicity is coming home to start a new venture by choice, because she’s passionate about it. But more importantly than her occupation – Felicity is a widow. A lot of recent cozies have been over-the-top with the humor. Felicity is a somewhat more subdued character, because she is protagging from within her grief – and using the story to find a way forward. There’s humor, but it’s a bit more subtle. And a great deal of this story is about reinvention and self-discovery.
Felicity is also winding up connected to characters who come from a different world than she’s comfortable with. Especially Logan, who used to be a bodyguard and has tragedy in his past. He feels like he stepped in out of a different kind of story, and he’s going to bring in different type of conflicts as the series progresses and Felicity has to decide what she wants life to be. There are hints of this already in the first book.
What’s next on the horizon for you?
I just finished the first draft of the second book in the Bean to Bar Mysteries, and I’ve already outlined several more. So look forward to more adventures with Felicity, Logan, Arlo and the rest.
I’m also working on a manuscript involving time travel and Impressionist art.
More About Amber Royer
Amber Royer writes the CHOCOVERSE comic telenovela-style foodie-inspired space opera series, and the BEAN TO BAR MYSTERIES. She is also the author of STORY LIKE A JOURNALIST: A WORKBOOK FOR NOVELISTS, which boils down her writing knowledge into an actionable plan involving over 100 worksheets to build a comprehensive story plan for your novel. She blogs about creative writing techniques and all things chocolate at www.amberroyer.com. She also teaches creative writing for both UT Arlington Continuing Education and Writing Workshops Dallas. If you are very nice to her, she might make you cupcakes.
About Grand Openings Can Be Murder
Grand Openings Can Be Murder (Bean to Bar Mysteries)
1st in Series
Publisher: Golden Tip Press (February 2, 2021)
Paperback: 266 pages
Digital ASIN: B08JLFHD7N
Felicity Koerber has had a rough year. She’s moving back to Galveston Island and opening a bean to bar chocolate factory, fulfilling a dream she and her late husband, Kevin, had shared. Craft chocolate means a chance to travel the world, meeting with farmers and bringing back beans she can turn into little blocks of happiness, right close to home and family.
She thinks trouble has walked into her carefully re-built world when puddle-jump pilot Logan Hanlon shows up at her grand opening to order custom chocolates. Then one of her employees drops dead at the party, and Felicity’s one-who-got-away ex-boyfriend – who’s now a cop – thinks Felicity is a suspect. As the murder victim’s life becomes more and more of a mystery, Felicity realizes that if she’s going to clear her name in time to save her business, she might need Logan’s help. Though she’s not sure if she’s ready to let anyone into her life – even if it is to protect her from being the killer’s next victim. For Felicity, Galveston is all about history, and a love-hate relationship with the ocean, which keeps threatening to deliver another hurricane – right into the middle of her investigation. Can she figure it out before all the clues get washed away?
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