By Kia Dennis
COVER ART by Vanessa Westermann, the first book in the Charley Scott mystery series, takes readers to Ontario cottage summers and the art world. The series has received praise from bestselling cozy mystery authors such as Daryl Wood Gerber and Ellie Alexander.
In this first installment, Charley Scott is the owner of a pop-up gallery in Ontario’s cottage country. Fellow business owner Matt Thorn owns the chocolate shop in town and is working through a tumultuous family history. Deadly secrets lurk beneath the surface of their peaceful tourist town—secrets that will threaten both Matt’s and Charley’s businesses, as well as their lives, if they aren’t able to find the killer first.
In this interview with The Big Thrill, Westermann shares her perspective on writing, art, and cottaging.
Can you talk a little about your writing journey? Did you always want to be a writer? What was your path to publication?
I was raised in a family of avid readers and always wanted to be a writer. When I was 12, I submitted a mystery short story to a contest. I didn’t win, but my parents received a letter from a concerned psychologist asking if I had previously witnessed a crime. That wasn’t the case, but I figured a cause-for-worry imagination wasn’t a bad thing for a crime writer to have.
The best writing advice I’ve gotten was from a literary agent, who told me to read as many books in my genre as possible and to keep writing, no matter what.
While querying agents and publishers for my debut mystery, An Excuse for Murder, I read as many new crime novels as possible, by writing book reviews. I also got the opportunity to judge the Arthur Ellis Awards for excellence in Canadian crime writing. A fellow judge suggested that I try submitting my book to The Wild Rose Press, who ended up publishing it.
Shortly after An Excuse for Murder was released, my editor at The Wild Rose Press retired. For COVER ART, I had to start the submission process all over again. While chatting with the owner of an independent mystery bookstore in Toronto, I told her that I was writing a cozy mystery set in Canada’s cottage country. She thought the plot sounded interesting and mentioned it to the publisher at Cormorant Books. He invited me to submit my manuscript and loved it.
I’ve learned that it’s so important to be a reader and to support other writers because you enjoy their writing. The advice to read as many mysteries as possible truly did pave my path to publication.
The heroine in COVER ART runs a pop-up art gallery. That’s a profession not often seen in mysteries. What made you choose it for Charley?
I chose to make my amateur sleuth a struggling artist who is running a pop-up gallery, because both art and mysteries are about perspective. To understand artwork, you have to pull it apart and figure out how the pieces fit together to make a whole, the same way you do when solving a mystery. When we look at a painting, we’re trying to uncover the artist’s truth. When a sleuth gathers clues, she’s trying to uncover the criminal’s truth. All it takes is a shift in perspective, to empathize with a murderer, to understand the motives, the mistakes, that lead someone to take another person’s life.
It was fascinating to read a touristy cozy mystery set in Ontario. Did you draw from your own experience for the book?
My family has been cottaging in Ontario for generations. My grandfather loved being at the lake so much that he and my grandmother spent their honeymoon at the family cottage, back in 1945. My brother and I grew up spending summers in the Kawarthas, eating s’mores around bonfires, diving off the dock, reading thrillers in Adirondack chairs while watching canoes drift by. In Canada, fresh water is within driving distance of many cities, and cottage life is part of our culture. Cottage country is such an appealing setting for a cozy mystery series because of the opportunity for conflict between locals and cottagers escaping the city for the wilderness. I wanted to give readers that same chance to experience cottage life and whisk them away on a vacation to the lake, between the pages of COVER ART.
The book has many humorous moments, but it also has a serious aspect to it as the characters are dealing with a murder, old secrets, and lingering hurt feelings, among other things. How do you balance writing witty banter and a hint of romance with the more serious aspects of penning a mystery?
My favorite mysteries are those that carry emotional resonance, but I especially admire the way Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries are about terror, but also goodness, friendship, and enduring love. I wanted to write a mystery that felt like a cottage vacation and used humor and romance to give readers a respite from the darkness of murder.
When you’re not writing, what hobbies or activities do you enjoy?
I’m much better at painting a picture with words than watercolors, but I thoroughly enjoy visiting art galleries, like the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Vincent Van Gogh immersive exhibit. Pre-pandemic, the Northumberland Hills studio tours showcasing local artists were wonderful as well. I’ve always loved art, especially Impressionist works, with the interplay between light and dark.
You mention on your website that your mother is a milliner. One of my favorite cozy mystery series is the Hat Shop Mysteries by Jenn McKinlay. Have you ever considered writing a series with a milliner-heroine (hint, hint!)?
My mom and I both enjoy Jenn McKinlay’s Hat Shop Mysteries, but I indulged my passion for fashion through the Blast from the Past boutique in COVER ART. It’s filled with a treasure trove of vintage clothing, and my characters go to the boutique to find the perfect outfit for any occasion. My mom makes bespoke vintage-inspired hats, using original wooden blocks from the 1930s and 1940s. Each piece tells a story about the past. So often customers come to my mom, not looking for just a hat, but for the power and confidence that the right headpiece can give the wearer. Eric, the owner of the Blast from the Past boutique, knows his customers’ strengths but also the weaknesses they’re trying to hide, which makes him a perfect source of intel for my sleuth.
What are you working on now? Can your readers expect to see Charley and Matt again?
Yes, readers can expect to see Charley and Matt again! COVER ART is the first Charley Scott Mystery. I’m grateful to have received an Ontario Arts Council writing grant to support the completion of the second book in the series, which I’m working on now.
An avid reader of mysteries, Vanessa Westermann is a former Arthur Ellis Awards judge, holds an M.A. in English Literature, as well as a Bachelor of Education, and has taught creative writing. Her debut mystery, An Excuse for Murder, was published in 2019. At the heart of all of Westermann’s stories are strong female protagonists inspired by the heroines in her own life. She currently lives in Ontario.
To learn more about the author and her work, please visit her website.