By Dawn Ius
Mystery author Barbara Graham likens writing a novel to creating a new quilt—both begin with an idea that grows.
“The book may begin with, ‘I could kill someone with XYZ.’ Then the story takes off as I explore who, how and why,” she said.
Though Graham has been writing far longer than she’s been quilting, these two passions are now intricately entwined. The Mystery Quilt series is centered on Sheriff Tony Abernathy and his quilting wife, Theo. While Sheriff Abernathy focuses on the more scientific, forensic facts of each mystery, Theo fills in the gaps from an entirely non police-procedural perspective.
“It seemed natural for the sheriff’s wife to have a profession and quilters are a very chatty, eclectic group,” said Graham. “The sheriff follows law enforcement protocol—interviews people, has evidence processed—you know, cop stuff. People who don’t want to ‘bother’ the sheriff with gossip, tell things he should know to his wife and she relays it.”
The quilting connection doesn’t stop with Theo, either. In each Quilting Mystery, Graham includes a specially-designed mystery quilt pattern. Over the years, she’s amassed quite the collection of quilt pictures, sent to her by fans of her novels—a wonderful point of relevance for an audience that, like Graham, enjoys a good mystery and a beautiful quilt.
Not to mention a little laughter.
“Murder is not nice and not a laughing matter but my books have odd and eccentric secondary characters that are found in every community,” she said.
In MURDER BY SUNLIGHT, the fifth book in the Mystery Quilt series, Graham goes a bit darker: A corpse in a tree signals the start of an onslaught of murder, mischief and mayhem.
“Not only is the victim someone they know but there is an increase of apparent random violence in a normally safe community, “ said Graham.
Quite a twist for the people who live in fictional Park County, Tennessee.
Although Graham never intended to write a series, she enjoys the evolution of these characters—and her writing career.
“I found I was curious about what was happening in these characters’ lives and wrote the next book to find out what they were doing,” she said. “I’m still curious about them and don’t feel like I have much control over their evolution or actions.”
Graham discovered a love of mysteries as a young reader while “borrowing” her brother’s Hardy Boys collection. Ironically, this also gave Graham a little first-hand knowledge about crime, punishment, and being really sneaky.
Her love of story, and maybe being sneaky, soon translated into the desire to write her own tales—though the process was much harder than stealing books from her brother’s room. Like many aspiring writers, Graham encountered “the cruel teacher” at an impressionable age and was turned off of writing for a few years. But eventually, the stories spilled from her daydreams and onto the page.
“Before MURDER BY SERPENTS: THE MYSTERY QUILT sold to a publisher, I had written maybe eight books that were never deemed worthy,” she said.
This early rejection process didn’t deter her from following her dreams and instead she passes on this sage advice to new writers.
“Write this quotation from Elbert Hubbard on a piece of paper and hang it where you can see it while you write, ‘There is no failure except in no longer trying.’ Seriously.”
She notes that few writers achieve overnight success. Building a publishing career takes dedication and hard work, not to mention practice, practice, practice. “Attend conferences, read books on technique, join a critique group if you can.”
And finally, Graham said, add this inspirational quote from William Van Horne to your arsenal: “Nothing is too small to know, and nothing is too large to attempt.”
For more on Barbara Graham and the fifth book in her Mystery Quilt series, MURDER BY SUNLIGHT, visit her website.