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Pet project: Liz Mugavero on 'A Biscuit, A Casket' (Q&A)

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Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes Liz Mugavero.

The author of A Biscuit, A Casket (Kensington, $7.99), Ms. Mugavero is also a corporate communications consultant and animal lover whose rescue pets demand the best organic foods and treats. 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. She is currently at work on her next novel. Ms. Mugavero makes her home in Connecticut.

A Biscuit, A Casket was published earlier this month and marks the second Pawsitively Organic Mystery, following the Agatha Award-nominated Kneading to Die (2013). In a recent review, Miranda Owen of Fresh Fiction noted, “A BISCUIT, A CASKET is a wonderful cozy mystery with likeable characters, a good story, charming pets, and a pinch of romance. I very much look forward to the next book in this entertaining series …”

From the publisher:

The small town of Frog Ledge, Connecticut, has wholeheartedly embraced Kristan "Stan" Connor's new business - preparing quality organic treats for dogs and cats. On a healthy diet, the animals may live longer...but one local farmer won't be so lucky. As Halloween approaches, Stan is asked to cater a doggie costume party hosted by the Happy Cow Dairy Farm. Part of a local co-op, Happy Cow specializes in organic dairy products, and farmers Hal and Emmalee Hoffman have started opening up the farm for parties, offering a "haunted" corn maze as an added attraction. When Hal's lifeless body is found in the maze, the police at first suspect his wife, but Stan soon learns the dairy farmer had plenty of enemies - from bitter family members to shady business associates. If Stan can't extract a kernel of truth from the labyrinth of lies, she may be the next one to buy the farm...

Now, Liz Mugavero discusses her methods of murder, mystery, and mayhem …

1) What inspired the idea for A BISCUIT, A CASKET – and how did you find the process of writing this book to compare to that of the first?

I actually live near a dairy farm and when we go for walks on the Town Green, we pass by and admire the cows. Shaggy loves to see them. This particular dairy farm is part of a co-op set up, meaning a bunch of farms contribute to the bottom line. I got to thinking one day about farming in general and what a difficult business it appears to be, and how many farms seem to be passed down from generation to generation. That can be tough on someone who doesn’t want to live that life but feels obligated. Plus, farmers don’t make much money. Throw a few other farmers into the mix and you have a whole lot of opportunities for murder. I wanted to explore some of those paths.

2) This particular book is set during the Halloween season. How do you feel that such a backdrop enhances the overall story – and do the confines of the cozy ever pose a challenge when writing about small-town murder and mayhem?

I love Halloween. It’s my absolute favorite holiday and I love everything fall and pumpkin. So I jumped at the chance to set it at this time of year. A murder in a Halloween-decorated corn maze with costumed killers all around was perfect and a fun way to kick off the story.

I actually don’t feel constrained by writing cozies. I still kill people the way I want to, without getting into the gory details, and I think it’s okay to be a little bit edgier in these books without going over the top. I think it’s more important to let your own voice spill into the book - it’s what will make it original, and if you squash it to keep within a perceived confine, it will come through in the writing and readers will feel that disconnect. The only thing I can’t do is swear!

3) Tell us about the research you did for this book, both in terms of co-ops and organic pet food. What’s the key to balancing education with entertainment when it comes time to set pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as the case may be)?

I was able to get a private tour of the dairy farm. It was great - I went through the entire farm, basically an entire day of the routine, the chores, the milking. I watched the milk-making process in the tank room. We walked the field and met the cows. I learned about the co-op practices. It was incredibly helpful to be able to write knowledgeably about what Stan would find on the farm in her travels there. I also had a lot of conversations with the bakers at The Big Biscuit, my pet food consultants, about ingredients and flavors and what makes good dog and cat treats and food.

I think the key to balancing education with entertainment is about getting the important details right while leaving room for fictional liberties. In other words, if I need to adjust something about the farming schedule to make the story work, I feel comfortable doing that because, after all, it’s fiction.

4) Pets populate the pages along with people. How do you endeavor to make them distinct characters – and how do you hope that this depiction might influence the way readers think about our four-legged friends?

What I love about this series is the opportunity to educate people about animals, rescue and best nutrition and care practices. It’s easy for me to make my fictional pets distinct characters, because my real pets are so distinct. Each one has their own personality, and it’s so great. My hope is that more people will appreciate what pets bring to a family. I know a lot of people already feel that way about dogs, but cats don’t get as much love. I want to introduce people to some really cool cats and hope they’ll give a feline a chance!

5) In addition to the central mystery, there is also a progression of the series’ story arc. Did you find that this unraveled organically (ha!) or was it methodically plotted – and, in general terms, how do you foresee the Frog Ledge community continuing to evolve?

Frog Ledge, like all small New England towns, is so interesting. It’s a typical New England town - everyone’s in everyone else’s business, but people are also reserved and secretive, and leery of outsiders. It makes for a lot of fun conflicts that can go so many places. I’m having a lot of fun letting the town evolve on its own. The characters are carrying it along so well - they keep doing unexpected things! Izzy, for example, really surprised me with some of the things she’s gotten herself into that reveal themselves in this book. I expect to see more of that as we go along, and hopefully some of the “regulars” will step up and create starring roles for themselves. I’d love to see Char embroiled in some mayhem. Her southern way of dealing with problems could make for some wacky twists.

6) Leave us with a teaser: what comes next?

Frog Ledge is a hopping place (no pun intended) and Stan doesn’t get much rest between disasters. Her next adventure involves a groundhog, a murdered 87-year-old town historian, a possible ghost and a whole lot of secrets that span many decades. I’m polishing that book right now for a May 1 deadline, and it will publish in 2015.

***

With thanks to Liz Mugavero for her generosity of time and thought.

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