Q&A with Julie Hyzy

MWW is delighted that popular, award-winning mystery author Julie Hyzy is returning to this year’s conference. Julie was last a featured MWW faculty member in 2012.

HyzyShe is a New York Times bestselling mystery author and winner of the Anthony, Barry, and Derringer awards. An incredibly busy writer, Julie produces a book a year for two cozy-mystery series — the White House Chef (featuring Olivia Paras) and Manor House (featuring Grace Wheaton) — both for Berkley Prime Crime.

During this year’s Part I, Thursday intensive sessions, Julie will share what she’s learned as a novelist. Her workshop is, “Your Novel and How to Write It.” Her Part II sessions are “The Voices in Your Head” on Friday afternoon and “Friends Indeed” on Saturday morning.

Julie makes her home with her family in Chicago. Visit www.juliehyzy.com for more information about her books.

This week, MWW committee member Janis Thornton caught up with Julie for a Q&A.

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 MWW: What led you … or perhaps you were driven … to write cozy mysteries? When did you know you had found your niche?

 JH: Believe it or not, I never set out to write cozy mysteries. Although my first novel was a light romantic suspense, my next two (the start of my Alex St. James series) were a little edgier and my short stories have always been dark. But back in about 2006 or so, Marty Greenberg (then head of Tekno Books — now, sadly, deceased), asked me if I had any interest in writing a series involving the first female White House executive chef. Of course I was interested! Oddly enough, until he shared a couple of titles his team had dreamed up for the books, I didn’t know they were expecting a cozy. That definitely changed my approach.

Since then, I’ve come to embrace the genre and I truly enjoy writing Ollie’s adventures. In fact, I had so much fun with them that I created a series of my own with Grace and the Manor House gang. I do, however, hope to return to my darker roots (and I’m not talking about my hair <grin>) one of these days.

MWW: As you’re preparing to start a new book project, how much of the story do you plan, such as outlining, and how much of it is simply organic?

JH: I always have a plan of attack, but it’s never set in stone. I outline, but the actual method changes from book to book as I explore new techniques and adopt new habits. When I begin a new manuscript, I generally have most, if not all, of the key scenes jotted down. That said, if an unplanned character shows up and says “You need me,” or my protagonist tells me that she’d prefer to follow a different path, I listen. The final manuscript rarely matches the original outline.

MWW: One of the difficulties with writing a series is keeping the characters, situations, and mysteries from getting stale. You clearly don’t have that problem… so what advice do you give authors looking for ways to keep their series fresh?

JH: That’s so nice of you to say. Thank you! I have to give Ollie and Grace the credit here. They lead interesting lives and I simply follow along and write it down. That sounds like a non-answer, doesn’t it? But it’s the truth. I try very hard not to get in my characters’ way when I’m writing. I place them where they need to be, but then I let them take over. They constantly surprise me with ideas and actions I could never have imagined on my own.

MWW: Your stories are also realistic. For example, you obviously have spent a great deal of time in the White House kitchen <smile>. But seriously, how do approach the research for your books so the settings and situations seem so real?

JH: Again, thank you! I research like crazy. I read everything I can about the White House so that I can portray life there as realistically as possible. (Within reason, that is. In real life, they’re WAY more detailed than my characters are. But that could get boring for readers, so I pare it down.) When I’m writing for Grace, I refer back to photos and books I’ve collected from mansion-tourist museums in the U.S. Plus, I visit as many key locations as possible — as often as I can. In fact, I’m traveling to Quebec City later this year because I have some scenes in mind I’d like to set there (for an entirely new story). Although there’s a lot of information online about locations, there’s no substitute for actually visiting a place in person. How else to experience the sounds, the smells, the people?

MWW: What do you enjoy most about being a full-time writer? And what about it, if anything, continues to challenge you?

JH: I love the fact that I can make a living (albeit a small one) following my passion. I’ve always wanted to be a writer and I really feel as though I’m living the dream. I enjoy being my own boss and setting my own schedule. Hilariously, that’s also what I struggle with most. Hitting deadlines on time, every time, takes discipline; and while I’m usually pretty good at sitting my butt in the chair and keeping my fingers on the keyboard, I’m also very easily distracted. Our youngest daughter, Biz, and I enjoy watching BBC dramas while we drink tea. Using our tea time together as a carrot (er, in this case, crumpet) often gets me to complete my daily word count.

MWW: What project are you working on currently?

JH: I’m writing the seventh book in my Grace (Manor House) series right now. The sixth book (Grace Cries Uncle) saw some major changes in Grace’s life so I’m using this one to kind of re-settle things before her world gets upended again in Book #8. I’m also jotting notes for something altogether new.

MWW: You are teaching a Part I intensive session called, “Your Novel and How to Write It.” What’s the best way for your participants to prepare for your class, and what is the best new writing tip you want them to take home?

JH: The best thing a participant can do is simple: be prepared for a fresh approach. I was impressed with the level of professionalism at MWW when I was there in 2012. These writers aren’t looking for someone to parrot old rules like “Write what you know,” or “Avoid talking heads.” They’ve been there, done that. We’ll definitely cover some basics (it’s impossible not to) but I hope to encourage these writers to dig deeper. No one has all the answers, of course, but I’m eager to share what’s worked for me.

MWW: Thank you, Julie!

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