Liz Mugavero is the author of the Pawsitively Organic Mystery series, which debuted with Kneading to Die (2013)—an Agatha Award nominee for Best First Novel; A Biscuit, A Casket, The Icing on the Corpse, Murder Most Finicky, and Custom Baked Murder followed. She recently launched a new Cat Café cozy series with Cat About Town, written under the pseudonym Cate Conte.
A corporate communications and animal lover, Ms. Mugavero has also worked in journalism, PR, and communications. Her short stories have been published in the UK and Australia, and her essays have appeared in the national publications Skirt! and Sassee Magazine for Women. Mugavero’s newest, Purring Around the Christmas Tree (available September 26, 2017) is the sixth title in her saga featuring Kristan “Stan” Connor and the people and pets that populate fictional Frog’s Ledge.
Recently, the author generously indulged curiosities about the growth of her series, using the holiday season as a backdrop for suspense, her passion for animals, and writing under an assumed identity, among other topics of cyber chat.
Purring Around the Christmas Tree is your sixth Pawsitively Organic Mystery. How do you endeavor to keep things fresh—both for yourself and readers—and in what ways do you think your storytelling has evolved from the first book to now?
I definitely want the readers coming back for more, so I’m very conscious about my characters staying fresh and growing as people in every installment. It’s a lot more fun for me that way too. For me, the most important piece is Stan’s inner journey, which reflects the people and situations going on around her. When we met her in Kneading to Die, she was a woman who carried her profession as a shield, and having lost that, she’d also lost her confidence.
She came to Frog Ledge basically to hide out and lick her wounds, and she found herself in a whole new life beyond her wildest dreams. By meeting people she probably wouldn’t have allowed herself to encounter otherwise, she realized she’d only been living a fraction of her potential. And while finding her confidence in business came more easily to her, she was also forced to address her difficult family relationships, which has had limitless potential for stories.
From the first book to now? When I opened the series, I had the town, the characters, and my plot for the first book sketched out, but I was sort of winging it with the rest. I had an idea for a character arc, but once I got into Stan’s world and she became more like a friend to me, her journey became clear. And the more invested I’ve become in the goings-on in Frog Ledge, the more fun I have with the books, and it really opens me up to the possibilities for new stories.
This particular book takes place during the holiday season. What about Christmastime lends itself to murder and mayhem, and how do you maintain the spirit despite one dead Santa and one MIA?
I love the juxtaposition of everything being merry and bright while this major scandal and murder/missing person mystery are happening behind the twinkling Christmas lights. I love showing the contrast between the “perfect” small town and its “perfect” people and holiday celebrations with an undercurrent of you know something isn’t right here. I think it adds to the suspense if done well.
These stories take place against the fictitious backdrop of Frog’s Ledge (CT). What appealed to you about creating your own setting versus using a real one, and how is a small town/community such as yours befitting of your style of storytelling?
The setting presented itself to me because of a real place—the town green near my old town where I used to walk the dogs. It seemed the perfect place for a cozy series. There was a walking/running path around the green, and they had all kinds of celebrations and farmers’ markets and other events. It seemed like the unofficial town hall where people gathered to conduct all kinds of business and gossip, and that really appealed to me. I wanted to make my town fictional so I could include things that didn’t exist in this real town, and also so I wasn’t bogged down with geography and street names and angering someone by murdering a character at a real place. I ended up making Frog Ledge a hybrid of a few area towns so I could pull in certain elements. And the rest I invented.
The small town thing is critical in a cozy. It evokes a feeling of connection for the readers. They become invested in the place and the people, and it makes them want to visit every time a new book comes out so they can see what their friends are up to!
You are a pet lover. Not surprisingly, four-legged fur babies populate your books along with the two-legged ones. What do you hope to impart about animals and their influence on humans through your fiction, and how do you research and incorporate the organic food element?
Animals have always been a passion of mine. One of the reasons I was so excited to write this series is because I was able to talk about the importance of nutrition for our pets. I’ve also been able to weave in elements of rescue. A lot of people understand the importance of rescue work, but often times they don’t know a lot of the inner workings, so I’ve been happy to shed light on some of those challenges and opportunities.
And I wanted to show the bond between people and their fur babies. That dog or cat is truly your best friend, and the one being who never judges and is always, always happy to see you. Well, dogs, anyway …
As for the recipes, I’m beyond blessed to work with the wonderful folks at The Big Biscuit in Franklin, Massachusetts, who create the recipes for the books. It’s a really fun doggie bakery—in fact, the launch of Kneading to Die was held at the shop, complete with a doggie cake for Shaggy and any other pups that showed up. This has been an amazing solution because I rarely cook. Shh … don’t tell anyone.
Your books are classified as cozies. What do you see as the conventions of this sub-genre, and how much latitude do you allow yourself in terms of adhering to them (or not)?
Cozies are typically set in small towns, or in some cases a small community within a larger city. The violence doesn’t make it on the page, and there is usually no sex or swearing. The bodies can still pile up, but everything else is light, and in the end, the killer gets his due. And there’s usually a cat!
I’m not a fan of rules in general, I’m afraid. I think my style of writing alone has the tendency to push the cozy limits a bit. I’m unapologetic about swearing in real life, and sometimes that makes its way into the story. Nothing really bad, and it has to fit the person/mood, but I won’t shy away from it if it’s true to the scene.
Dennis Lehane once said—and I forget the entire quote, but the gist of it was—“I always want my books to be about something.” I think you can do that with any book, and sometimes the thinking around cozies is that they are just fluffy and light and full of cats. A book can be full of cats and still mean something, and that’s what I strive for in every book.
You have an alter ego, Cate Conte. What inspired this double-identity, and why might readers of these books wish to check out Cat About Town?
Cate Conte is the author of a new series, The Cat Café Mysteries, published by St. Martin’s Press. The first book, Cat About Town, was released in August, and I’m wrapping up the second book now. Due to the fact that it’s with a different publisher, I had to choose a pen name. Conte is my grandfather’s last name, so I thought that was a nice way to honor him.
Fans of Pawsitively Organic Mysteries would be interested in this series—it’s full of cats, for one thing! It’s built around a cat cafe but with a twist. Where a cat cafe would typically be found in an urban setting, this one is on a fictional island off the coast of Massachusetts. I’m loving getting to know my new protagonist, Maddie James, and so far this series has been a lot of fun to write. Hoping the readers love it too!
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Liz Mugavero is a corporate communications consultant and animal lover from the Boston area, whose canine and feline rescues demand the best organic food and treats around. She is the author of The Icing on the Corpse, Kneading to Die, Murder Most Finicky, and A Biscuit, A Casket; her short stories have been published in the UK and Australia; and her essays have appeared in national publications Skirt! and Sassee Magazine for Women.
John Valeri wrote the popular Hartford Books Examiner column for Examiner.com from 2009 – 2016. He can be found online at www.johnbvaleri.com and is featured in the Halloween-themed anthology Tricks and Treats, now available from Books & Boos Press.