Tag Archives: Guest Blogs

Interview With Carolyn Wilkins, Author of “Melody for Murder”

I had the privilege of working on Melody for Murder with Pen-L Publishing, and it was a thoroughly delightful book. I loved the main character, Bertie, and all the trouble she gets herself into trying to help others. You can find my review of the book on amazon.com at this link.

I’m thrilled to share this interview with the author, Carolyn Wilkins. Welcome, Carolyn!

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Tell me about your latest project.

My latest project is a murder mystery.  It is the sequel to my current book Melody for Murder, which comes out with Pen-L Publishing in June. The series features Bertie Bigelow, an African American choir director and amateur sleuth who lives on the South Side of Chicago.  At this point I’m most of the way through the second draft of the sequel to Melody and hope to have something ready to submit to Pen-L by the end of the summer.

MFM Cover fb size

Click on the cover to purchase from amazon.com.

What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?

My whole family loves to read and write.  My mother is a wonderful storyteller, and my father, a lawyer by profession, wrote poetry, skits and song parodies for fun.  As long as I can remember I’ve written stories, songs, and poems.  However, I didn’t take myself seriously as an author until I published Tips for Singers in 2008.

 What is your writing practice, your writing routine?

I try to write every day.  Sometimes when things are really busy at work or I am on the road, this doesn’t always happen.  But I’ve noticed that my writing flows much better when I am able to maintain a consistent daily routine.  If possible, I try to write in the morning before my brain gets too cluttered up with other things.

I will say, however, that I am also to some degree a seasonal writer, meaning that I write a lot more during vacations when I do not have to teach.

Who are you reading now?

Of course, I read murder mysteries, lots of them.  I just finished Vertigo 42 by Martha Grimes and before that Prime Time by Hank Philippi Ryan.  Today I will treat myself to Dennis Lahane’s latest – Live By Night.   I also enjoy well written and briskly paced nonfiction – Eric Larson (The Devil in the White City) is a master.  Before the summer is out I will read his newest book about the sinking of the Lusitania as well.

What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?

This is such a hard question!  There are so many great books out there, and I have a hard time picking favorites.  Three books that had a profound impact on me as a writer are:

 Roots by Alex Haley

After I finished my singing textbook, I decided to write a memoir about my grandfather, who was appointed Assistant Secretary of Labor by President Eisenhower in 1954.  At the time, he was the highest ranking African American in government.  As it turned out, he had a very rough time in the Labor Department and ended up resigning his post abruptly after only 3 years.  Haley’s seminal book about discovering his family’s hidden past was a big influence.

 When Death Comes Stealing by Valerie Wilson Wesley

This book was one of the first mysteries I read that had an African American female protagonist.  At the time (1994), this was revolutionary!  I’ve read every one of her books since.  Two other authors who inspired me in this regard are – Eleanor Taylor Bland (the Marty MacAllister series) and  Barbara Neely (the Blanche series).  All three of these series were huge for me because they showed me it was possible to write traditional mysteries with black characters.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

The granddaddy of all mysteries!  I grew up reading Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Amanda Cross as a kid.  Maybe if I hadn’t, I would not be writing mysteries now.

How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?

With difficulty!  Right now, because Melody for Murder is coming out June 1, I am spending a lot of time on the web and in person promoting it.  But hopefully, once I get the book launched I’ll be able to focus more on writing the sequel.  My best advice on this is to put aside quality time for your creative work (in my case, the early morning hours) and do my social media stuff later in the evening.

 What is a typical day like for you?

When I am teaching, I try to get up at six so that I can meditate, exercise, and write a bit before breakfast.  That way, if I am too tired to do anything when I come home from work that night, at least I will have accomplished something.

Now that it’s summer, I can be a bit more relaxed. In addition to my writing, I try to make time for playing and practicing music, visiting friends, and having time to just vegetate.

Your main character in Melody for Murder, Bertie, is a choir director. I sense that you are also a music teacher and have a musical background. How much of you and your background is reflected in Bertie?

A great deal of my own background went into Bertie’s character. I am a singer, a piano player, and a choir directer. Both my mother and I have taught music in the Chicago City College system, so that part of Bertie’s story came easy for me. Of course, I also took many liberties – my experience as a teacher was considerably less exciting than Bertie’s.

What do you think is Bertie’s biggest flaw? Did you plan that, or did it evolve as you wrote?

I think Bertie’s biggest flaw is also her most endearing trait. She is, as she tells one of the characters in my book, “an inveterate optimist.” She always sees the best in people and tends to plunge into situations that a more cynical individual would regard with greater caution. This quality gets her into lots of trouble – bad for Bertie but good for readers, as it keeps the plot humming.

To some degree I planned this. But her personality also evolved and clarified itself during the writing process.

The city of Chicago is almost a secondary character in Melody. What do you love the most about that city and why did you chose to set your story there?

Often when you read books about Chicago, they take place Downtown or on the North Side, which have a very different feel. When I wrote my book, I wanted to give the reader a taste for a part of the city that is often overlooked. As I was born and raised on the South Side, it is also the part of the city that I know best.

I loved that Bertie has tea every morning instead of coffee. I’m also one of those rare people who doesn’t care for coffee. What about you? Coffee or tea?

I have to say I’m a tea person. I will drink the occasional cup of coffee, as Bertie does in the book. However, when I am at home relaxing, I (just like Bertie) prefer to put the kettle on.

The cover for your book is wonderful. Pen-L does consistently great covers for their books, but I’m wondering how much you already knew what you wanted it to look like and how much came from your publisher?

Didn’t Pen-L do a fantastic job?! When we first discussed the cover, I sent them jpegs of other covers for music-themed mysteries. But the cover Pen-L came up with is better than any of them – it is truly eye-catching.

What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?

First of all, be stubborn! Believe in yourself and in the value of your work.  Lock in your writing time and do not allow it to be interrupted.  Don’t let other people, whether they are friends, family, or book professionals, discourage you.

Second of all, be flexible. Be willing to receive and at least consider criticism that is given from a place of being supportive.  Read and study the work of authors you admire for tips, and always be ready to revise your story one more time.

Check out Melody for Murder at Pen-L Publishing’s web site, and you can sample a chapter for free!

And you can watch Carolyn’s book launch concert at this link through YouTube.

You can find Carolyn on Facebook, on Twitter, and at her web site.

Other books by Carolyn:

Hi Resolution TRMU copy

dnw cover photo


Author Interview: Lily Iona MacKenzie

Welcome to Lily Iona MacKenzie for this special guest post and author interview feature.

Pen-L Publishing will be publishing Lily Iona MacKenzie’s novel Fling! in July 2015. 

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Click on the cover for more information from Pen-L Publishing.

  1. Tell me about your latest project.

It’s hard to describe a “latest project” since I’m usually working on more than one thing simultaneously. I’m revising my novel Bone Songs that will be published in 2016. I’ve just completed another novel whose focus is a young version of the main character in another novel of mine, Freefall: a Divine Comedy. And I have several short stories in process.

  1. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?

When I was 13, I started a diary, but I was afraid someone would see what I had written, so I used a coded language that I can’t remember. I would love to see those pages again so I would have a better sense of my writing self at that age. I didn’t start keeping a diary again until I was in my mid-20s and going through a deep depression. The writing was my attempt to understand what was happening. I began then to journal daily not only about what I was thinking and feeling but also recorded my nightly dreams. I’ve continued this practice ever since, learning much about myself in the process. I feel the keeping in close contact with my dreams has fed my writing and enriched my imagination.

  1. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?

I try to write a minimum of one hour per day. I usually can fit in that amount of time, and I’ve produced an amazing amount of material over the years as a result: three poetry collections, one of which is published; four+ novels, two of which are on their way to being published, and I’m sure the other ones will as well; a short story collection; travel articles; reviews; memoir; and much more.

  1. Who are you reading now?

It’s hard to say because I always have so many books on my night stand. I love the Norwegian novelist Per Petterson and have read all of his books except the last one, which is now waiting for me. I recently finished Three Light Years by the Italian author Andrea Canobbio. Francine Prose had praised it highly in The New York Review of Books, and over all it lived up to the accolades. My husband and I will be spending a month in Italy this summer, so we read John Hooker’s The Italians, a wonderful overview of the country and its people. I intersperse fiction and non-fiction with poetry since that’s a genre I also write in. I’ve been impressed with Mark Strand’s Collected Poems and have been going through it. Always much more to read than I have time for!

  1. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?

I really can’t identify three favorite books. There are too many that I love. But I can say that certain novels had a profound effect on me at different stages of my life for various reasons. When I was working on my BA in English, I took a Modern American Novel class that did exactly what Lionel Trilling said such books should do: they read me as much as I read them. Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and his Light in August. Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. And many more. Each book made me aware of elements of myself that were also manifested in the characters inhabiting the books.

Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude found me at a time when I needed a model for the magical realism approach that seems natural to me and inhabits much of my work. I LOVE that book and return to it often for inspiration.

In another mode, Roberto Bolano, a Chilean writer, has also inspired me. He diverges from the more familiar magical realist vein and creates his own genre. I’ve read most of his books now, and they create a world that seems like a parallel universe to ours. He also steps beyond the usual fiction boundaries, violating our expectations of how a novel should unfold or end. I’m always entranced by his work.

And I haven’t mentioned W.G. Sebald yet, another writer who died far too young. He’s another writer who invented a new genre, a hybrid novel form. Again, I’ve read all of his work, and I’m stunned by it.

I’m sorry that all of these authors are men when there are so many female authors I love as well, including Anne Enright. I’ll read anything she writes because of her sharp wit and illuminations of contemporary life.

  1. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?

Platform has become a hated word in my lexicon. I feel we writers have become cogs in the publishing machine instead of masters of it. Of course, we don’t have to create platforms, but most publishers wouldn’t work with us if we didn’t. So I now find myself stealing precious time from my writing to keep up with the demands of social networking, finding reviewers for my novel, writing blog posts, etc. In the last week, I haven’t had time to go near the various projects I’m working on. I’m clearly not doing very well in the balancing category.

  1. What is a typical day like for you?

I’m not sure I have a typical day. I teach freshman comp at the University of San Francisco, just one class a semester now. I also am vice president of the part-time faculty union. Those two responsibilities take a considerable bite out of my day. I’ve already mentioned the marketing demands I’m dealing with. Working out is essential for my mental and physical well being, so I ride a stationary bike for 45 mins each day. Three days a week I also do strength training at a gym. I love to cook and enjoy making healthful meals for my husband and myself. I also am a great tennis and baseball (SF Giants) fan, so I squeeze these activities into some days. The writing I fold into whatever spaces are left.

  1. What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?

Write. Rewrite. Write some more. Get feedback from respected editors. Revise, revise, revise. Keep writing.


Thank you, Lily, for sharing your writing life and journey with us. I can’t wait to read Fling!

You can find and follow Lily on Facebook, Twitter, and at her blog.