A DISGUISE TO DIE FOR, out this month from Berkley Prime Crime, is the first cozy mystery in the new Costume Shop mystery series. Margo Tamblyn, a 32 year old working as a magician’s assistant in Las Vegas, comes back to Proper City to temporarily run the family costume shop, Disguise DeLimit, when her father is hospitalized after a heart attack. Soon she is involved in hunting down clues to clear the family friend who helped raise her, Ebony Welles, of suspicion in the murder of a local rich trust fund baby, Blitz Manners.
Please tell us something about yourself. For one, you worked in fashion for 20 years before starting to write.
I’ve liked clothes since as long as I can remember—back to first grade. At one point I wanted to be a designer. After graduating from college with a fine arts degree, I did the logical thing: I went to the mall for a job. Decades (and a few promotions) later, I started to write. My first series character is a former fashion buyer turned amateur sleuth. A perfect example of what you know, right?
Please tell us about your new mystery, A DISGUISE TO DIE FOR. It’s your fourth cozy mystery series?
I wasn’t actively looking for a fourth series. True story: I was in New York and set up a face-to-face meeting with my agent and editor. It was September, and we got to talking about Halloween costumes. I told them that I was making a tiny yeti costume for my teddy bear and described how funny it was to put him into this little suit of white fur that had vampire teeth attached. My agent interrupted the conversation and said, “You should write a costume shop series.” I was ready to leave the table and start writing sample chapters right then and there, but she asked me to hold off until we found out if the publisher was interested. After seeing a proposal and sample chapters, they bought three books.
Why did you start a fourth series? Why a costume shop and an unusual town near Las Vegas?
My first three series all connect to someplace where I’ve lived (Style & Error in Pennsylvania, Madison Night in Texas, and Material Witness in California). I wanted a different setting, and I wanted it to be within driving distance from where I lived so I could absorb the feel of the place without needing to fly. The part of Nevada where I set the costume shop series is right past the California border, which I found interesting because it attracts scofflaws from California and is basically desert, a drive-through toward Las Vegas.
My town is quirky: people like to throw costume parties for any occasion. They’re a community of people who are okay being a small town, though there is the constant threat of incorporation and of local government trying to leverage their location for national attention.
I especially liked the humor along with the personal growth of Margo. Is it hard to get the right mix of lighter and more serious tones?
Thank you. I think the humor must be balanced with a more serious tone, because ultimately this is a murder mystery. It is a huge compliment when someone tells me that the humor in a book helped them deal with a tough time in their life. It is a fine line, though, because there are definitely times when there is no room for humor.
There is just a hint of romance in A DISGUISE TO DIE FOR. Will this relationship develop further in later books or is it a deliberate choice to downplay any romantic element?
Margo is a character who has issues of abandonment, and because of that, she’s remained relatively unattached for her whole life. I see the romantic element progressing, but not without obstacles, which makes for some fun entanglements. Plus, with four series, I want each one to feel different, so I needed to approach this one differently.
Your heroines have a range of ages but all seem to be starting over in a new life. Is this an important theme for you personally? What other messages, if any, would you like to convey to readers?
I think the idea of starting over is a huge theme with me. I lived it myself, completely changing my life and starting on a new path. I think it is so much better to recognize if you’re not happy and try to do something about it than to accept things and be miserable, so this trickles into my characters. One character started over because she was unhappy with her career, one was post bad break-up, one received an unexpected inheritance, and in the costume shop series, Margo’s new start is triggered by a family crisis. In each series, the character gets to a crossroads and has to decide: go back to how things were, or take the scary leap into the unknown future? I think if there’s another message to convey, it’s that nobody is perfect, and that it’s better to try something and make mistakes than not to try at all.
Why did you decide to leave the business world to become a writer? Were you already writing before that? Any particular writers who inspired you?
Aside from a short attempt at fiction in high school and a partially completed Batman/Catwoman mystery I wrote in the early nineties, I started writing when I was a buyer. I’d recently discovered Janet Evanovich, and loved the combination of humor and mystery; they felt like grown-up versions of the series books I’d loved so much growing up (Trixie Belden, Connie Blair, The Three Investigators, Nancy Drew). In my buying job, I had to travel several times a year and I don’t love to fly, so I took my laptop and wrote on the plane. First drafts of my first few books were written in the air, and even today I look forward to flying as a time to write.
Do you feel your experience in business has helped you as a writer beyond giving you a background in fashion? You must be disciplined and organized to be working as vice president of Sisters in Crime, being active in social media, and keeping multiple series going.
I do think that my business experience has helped, though I didn’t see it for awhile. Now, I can step back from the creative process and build a marketing plan or a launch strategy. I set goals for three months, six months, a year. In addition to fashion magazines, I read magazines for entrepreneurs (because, like Melanie Griffith’s character says in Working Girl, “You never know where the big ideas could come from.”). I like to have business-minded characters, too, as a counterpoint to the crafty/creative characters.
You started your own press, Polyester Press, in 2011. What was that experience like? How has it been different working with an agent and an editor at Berkley Prime Crime?
I had been querying agents for several years and reached a point of frustration. I started thinking about self-publishing and the idea energized me. Since I’d spent years learning about the industry, I mapped out what I’d expected from the publishing process and planned on how I could achieve that on my own. When I started Polyester Press, I didn’t know if I would only publish my own books or if I would eventually publish others, so I left that door open.
It was a tremendously eye-opening experience. Within six months of deciding to forge my own path, I learned more than I’d known in years of querying. Designer Dirty Laundry, my first book, came out about a year after I made the decision. Before publication, an ARC of that book was passed along to an editor at Berkley, who asked if I’d be willing to pull my plans to self-publish it and rework it to better fit their cozy market. When I declined (I felt very empowered and wanted to follow this new, unchartered path), she asked if I had other series ideas. The Material Witness mysteries came out of that opportunity. Once I had interest from them, I approached an agent and ultimately signed with her. I do think my writing career is a case of the door to the industry being shut and me going through a window.
You seem to have embraced a female readership—your motto at Polyester Press is “Fiction for women who like shoes, clues, and clothes”—but is it annoying that cozy mysteries don’t receive much critical attention?
I do think that having a solid mystery in place is important in any of my books, more so than the fashion element, but I can’t deny who I am. That phrase, “shoes, clues, and clothes,” came to me while writing the bio for my first-ever publication credit, a short story in an anthology, and it is surprisingly representative of anything I write. I’m slightly fascinated with the concept of branding, and that phrase also gives a snapshot into my various projects.
As far as the critical attention given to cozy mysteries, I don’t think “annoyed” is the right word. I do hope that good books gain exposure through word of mouth and reviews. While I know there are readers who would never buy a cozy because of the cover, I know there are also readers who would never buy a thriller for the same reason. The e-reader revolution has improved this, because now you can read a book and nobody knows what you’re reading! I heard that the romance industry experienced significant growth after the first e-readers came out because readers were no longer embarrassed to be seen reading books with those covers.
Is there anything you wished you had known when starting out as an author? Any advice for aspiring writers?
I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a community where you can talk about the process. I joined Sisters in Crime and the Guppies, and through that latter group, I found people who understood what it was like to get up before work to send query letters, the frustration of getting rejected, the desire to try to interpret what agents really wanted, and the quirks of researching a mystery. I’ve found that the knowledge you pick up while researching gunshot wounds and slow-acting poisons doesn’t always make for good dinner-party conversation, so you best find an outlet (or be prepared to eat alone a LOT).
I also believe there is no one way to succeed, so if an aspiring writer isn’t getting results one way, there’s nothing wrong with trying something different. There’s a quote next to my desk: “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” Einstein said that. It’s true. We tend to work harder at seeking out solutions when things are not going our way—and that’s a good thing! Things that come easily are often not appreciated as much as the things that come from hard work and perseverance.
On your website you mention dabbling in women’s fiction, middle grade, and nonfiction/biography. Any future plans to write in other genres?
I have ideas for lots of projects, some mystery, some not. Right now time is the number one factor in what I’ll pursue, but I don’t discount any other genres, as long as I think there’s a story to be told.
Thank you for your time today and good luck with your new book!
You’re welcome, and thank YOU!
After two decades working for a top luxury retailer, Diane Vallere traded fashion accessories for accessories to murder. CRUSHED VELVET, the second book in the nationally bestselling and Lefty-Nominated Material Witness Cozy Mystery Series, comes out August 4. Diane is the current president of Sisters in Crime Los Angeles, and was co-chair of the 2015 California Crime Writers Conference. She also writes the Madison Night and Style & Error Mystery Series. Diane started her own detective agency at age ten and has maintained a passion for shoes, clues, and clothes ever since.
To learn more about Diane, please visit her website.