Tag Archives: mysteries

Writing a mystery novel, together


Betsy Draine and Michael Hinden are the authors of the Nora Barnes and Toby Sandler mystery series published by the University of Wisconsin Press. Death on a Starry Night, the third in the series, follows Murder in Lascaux and The Body in Bodega Bay. We talked with them about the new book and their process of writing novels together.


Nora and Toby solved their first mystery on vacation in southwest France and their second at their home in northern California. Why did you send them back to France?

Draine-Hinden-Death-on-a-Starry-Night-cMike: It was Vincent Van Gogh who lured us back! We read Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s new biography of the artist, which argues that Vincent didn’t commit suicide. Instead, they claim he was murdered.

Betsy: That made a great premise for a mystery. Who killed Van Gogh? Who kept the secret, and why? Since Vincent painted his most famous works and met his death in France, that’s where the trail led. We were happy to return there for our research—it’s where we started writing together. Our first book was a memoir about buying a summer home in the Dordogne (A Castle in the Backyard: The Dream of a House in France).

Why did you set the action in St. Paul-de-Vence, above the Riviera?

Mike: We’re always looking for colorful settings, but this one had special resonance for me. The summer after my junior year abroad in Paris, I got a job as a singing waiter in St. Paul-de-Vence, a beautiful walled village in Provence. I fell in love with the place and didn’t want to come home. My dream was to stay and become a writer, maybe write a novel set in the village. Well, my parents talked me out of it, and like a good son, I came home and finished college. It took a half-century to get a second bite of the apple, but this was it. As they say, it’s never too late.

Betsy: St. Paul isn’t far from Van Gogh’s territory, though Vincent never painted there. We created a link by setting the action at a fictional scholarly conference about Van Gogh held at the Maeght Foundation, an actual museum and research institute on the outskirts of the village.

What is it about Van Gogh’s death that remains a mystery?


Vincent Van Gogh

Mike: He died of a gunshot wound, but beyond that, little is certain. Even at the time, there were questions about his death. What happened to the gun that was used? The police never found it. What’s more, they never found his easel and the other materials he was carrying with him on the day of the shooting, including the painting he was working on—they all disappeared. What became of them? Was someone else at the scene? If Vincent intended to kill himself, why did he shoot himself in the side rather than in the head, and why did he seek help afterwards? Why didn’t he leave a suicide note? There are enough gaps in what we know about the shooting to call for speculation.

Does your plot parallel the account of Vincent’s death given by Naifeh and Smith in their biography?

Betsy: No. We think they build a weak case against the person they name as a suspect, and there are better explanations, one of which we dramatize. Our novel has two narrators. The first is a contemporary of Van Gogh who gives his account of how the artist died. The second narrator is our character Nora. The art history conference she’s attending starts with the murder of the keynote speaker. Nora and Toby set out to unmask the killer. The two plot lines cross and come together in the conclusion. Working out the connections was fun and also a challenge.

How do the two of you write novels together without causing a divorce?

Betsy: We do a lot of talking first about ideas for settings, plots, and characters. Then Mike writes a chapter-by-chapter outline, and we tinker with that until we are in agreement. Then we take turns writing scenes. When I’m finished with a scene, I turn it over to Mike and he edits it. And vice-versa. We go back and forth until we’re satisfied that we’ve done the story justice and the voice of the novel is consistent. When two writers decide to re-write each other on a daily basis, you might say they’re asking for trouble.

Mike: So we made a rule that says we’ll accept the other’s edits without a fight. We call it our mutual non-aggression pact. If one of us says “it goes,” it does. By and large, the process works for us. We’re still married, and we’re still writing together.

Are you working on a fourth Nora and Toby mystery?

Betsy: We are! We can’t say much yet, except that our sleuths will go to Ireland.

New Books in April 2016

We are proud to announce these five books debuting in April.

Clewell-Almost-Nothing-To-Be-Scared-Of-cApril 1
Almost Nothing to Be Scared Of

David Clewell

Winner of the Four Lakes Prize in Poetry
 Almost Nothing to Be Scared Of

“David Clewell has a lot to say, peppering his essayistic poems with lopsided wit and keen observations on the spectacle of American culture. His social commentary deserves a gang of listeners for the truth of his insights and the sheer fun of the delivery. By the way, did you know that the Inverted Atomic Drop was a wrestling move?”—Billy Collins



April 5
Death on a Starry Night
Betsy Draine and Michael Hinden

Death on a Starry Night is a romp through French art, fine wine, romance, and murder. This is the third novel in the Nora Barnes and Toby Sandler mystery series, as these artful sleuths investigate the mysterious death of Vincent van Gogh.  “Thoroughly engaging. Draine and Hinden’s eccentric and amiable characters (one of whom happens to be a murderer) gather together to share delicious meals, amble through medieval villages, and argue about van Gogh’s art, life, and mysterious death in this charming whodunit.”—M. L. Longworth, author of The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne


Virgil and Joyce

April 12
Virgil and Joyce
Nationalism and Imperialism in the Aeneid and Ulysses
Randall J. Pogorzelski

Virgil and Joyce illuminates how James Joyce’s Ulysses was influenced not just by Homer’s Odyssey but by Virgil’s Aeneid, as both authors confronted issues of nationalism, colonialism, and political violence, whether in imperial Rome or revolutionary Ireland.  “Joyce emerges here as a literary reader who rethinks Virgil’s Aeneid as a post-imperial epic, a poem about colonialism and national identity.”—Phiroze Vasunia, author of The Classics and Colonial India



April 19
The Invisible Jewish Budapest
Metropolitan Culture at the Fin de Siècle
Mary Gluck

The Invisible Jewish Budapest is a groundbreaking, brilliant urban history of a Central European metropolis in the decades before World War I.  “A magnificently consequential book. Gluck examines the vibrant modernist culture created largely by secular Jews in Budapest, in counterpoint to a backward-looking, nationalistic Hungarian establishment and a conservative Jewish religious elite.”—Scott Spector, author of Violent Sensations


Buccitelli-City-of-Neighborhoods-cApril 26
City of Neighborhoods
Memory, Folklore, and Ethnic Place in Boston
Anthony Bak Buccitelli

City of Neighborhoods  “This fascinating deep-dive into historically ethnic neighborhoods reveals that old stereotypes have been supplanted by vibrant, multiethnic neighborhoods that now use ethnicity as a means for inclusion. A riveting, insider look into what really happens in Boston’s diverse neighborhoods.”—Timothy Tangherlini, UCLA




April 27
My Sister’s Mother
A Memoir of War, Exile, and Stalin’s Siberia
Donna Solecka Urbikas

My Sister’s Mother is an American baby boomer’s account of the ordeals of her Polish mother and half sister as slave laborers in Siberia who escaped and survived. “This stunning, heartfelt memoir looks unflinchingly at the scars borne by one Polish immigrant family as their daughter tries to become a normal American girl in Chicago. A gripping study of family dynamics, this is also a must-read for World War II history buffs.”—Leonard Kniffel, author of A Polish Son in the Motherland

Reading to Write

By Patricia Skalka, originally published on Buried Under Books

The first time I visited the Door County peninsula, I was sure I’d followed the wrong map. This was Wisconsin? Quaint villages and cherry orchards. White sails on blue water and fishing boats dotting the far horizon. Cliffs and caves. Fudge shops and cool, quiet forests. The Wisconsin I knew was dairy country: small, family-run farms, the kind of place where you quite literally made hay while the sun shone (I drove the tractor) and arranged the daily activities around the milking schedule.

I didn’t grow up on a farm; but my mother did, and as a girl I spent many summer weeks and months helping my grandmother and uncle who ran the operation. I was one of the city cousins who counted the days to the end of the school year, eager to pack my suitcase and head north from Chicago. I thought of the farm experience as my summer vacation but in reality it was an introduction to a way of life that centered on hard work.

Patricia Skalka Beach 3This was my Wisconsin until I discovered Door County. Stepping out on the peninsula – the “Cape Cod of the Midwest” – I was transfixed. The land is stunningly beautiful; the people welcoming; the pace relaxed. The county’s tourist attractions are impressive: three hundred miles of shoreline, five state parks, eleven lighthouses, a mecca for visual artists, writers and musicians.

But for me Door County is so much more than all the statistics suggest. It is where some twenty years ago pure luck handed my family ownership of a rustic cottage filled with handmade furniture and memories passed on by the previous owner. For me, having the cottage was a dream come true. By then the old farm had been sold and while I still had my childhood farm summers to treasure, I worried about how to provide such memorable experiences for my daughters. The cottage with the beach at its doorstep and summers in Door County answered that question.

The cottage never disappointed. Here on the beach my daughters discovered the freedom of doing as much or as little as they wanted. Here there was no schedule, no planned activities ─ just the simple joy of one day after another unrolling in a seamless parade of sunny mornings and moonlit evenings. Here they learned to make their own fun.

Patricia Skalka Beach 2The cottage provided a bonus for me as well: for here I read. For hours, for days on end. Packing for a visit, no matter the duration, I crammed a canvas bag full of books, almost always fiction but sometimes poetry as well. Some were for me to read quietly, others to share with my family, reading aloud in the evening. The cottage was not insulated and the times I came up alone in the chilly spring to write, I’d drape wool blankets over the doors to keep out the drafts, build a fire and then pull up a chair as close to the flames as I dared and sit and read.

Reading did more than entertain and enlighten. Reading shaped me as a writer. As I transitioned from nonfiction to fiction, from magazine articles to the novel, I followed the prescribed steps to learn the craft. I signed up for classes and attended conferences and workshops. I joined a critique group and took in lectures and seminars. But beyond writing itself, the most important activity I embraced was the simple act of reading.

I always preferred mysteries and literary fiction, but it really didn’t matter what I read — historical fiction, thrillers, travelogues – as long as the writing had depth and feeling, the result was the same. Reading the words and sentences, the paragraphs and pages that others had composed made me a better writer. Something about the flow of words moving from the printed page into my brain vanquished doubt and set my imagination free. Reading was like eating; words became the vitamins that energized my writing and nurtured my thoughts. Reading dispensed courage; it cured writer’s block. The more I read, the more I wrote.

Patricia Skalka Beach 1My debut novel Death Stalks Door County was spawned in the cottage overlooking the inland sea we call Lake Michigan. Chapters were written sitting before the fireplace or out on the small screened porch. The second book in the series was started there. The ideas for books three and four bubbled to life as I lounged and read in an old Adirondack chair set in the sand near the water’s edge.

There’s probably a scientific explanation, something about synapses and electrical connections between brain cells to explain how reading helps me write, how the thoughts and ideas expressed by other authors spark my own thoughts and ideas and send them flying to the page.

I think of the process as magic.

I try to read every day. When life interferes and pulls me away from books, I feel drained and grow listless. My work stagnates. In my world, writing without reading is akin to breathing without air.

It simply can’t be done.


Patricia Skalka Beach 4


A lifelong Chicagoan, Patricia Skalka is a former Reader’s Digest Staff Writer and award-winning freelancer, as well as one-time magazine editor, ghost writer and writing instructor. Her nonfiction book credits include Nurses On Our Own, the true-story of two pioneering, local nurse practitioners. Death Stalks Door County, released in  May 2014, marks her fiction debut.