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Saturday 1 June 2024

Interview: Lizzie Sirett in Conversation with Connie Berry

Connie Berry is the author of the Amazon and USA Today best-selling Kate Hamilton Mysteries, set in the UK and featuring an American antiques dealer with a gift for solving crimes.  Like her protagonist, Connie was raised by charming eccentric antiques collectors who instilled in her a passion for history, fine art, and travel.
Besides reading and writing mysteries, Connie loves history, foreign travel, cute animals, and all things British.
She lives in Delaware, Ohio, and northern Wisconsin with her husband, and adorable Shih Tzu, Emmie.

Home - Connie Berry

Lizzie:     Hello Connie, thank you for agreeing to have a chat with us.

You have a series set in the UK featuring American antiques dealer Kate Hamilton. Book number five.  A Collection of Lies, will be published on the 18 June 2024. Can you tell us about this latest book? 

Connie:      Hello Lizzie. I’m delighted to be here. A Collection of Lies is the fifth full-length novel in the Kate Hamilton Mysteries. Kate and DI Tom Mallory are honeymooning in Devon where a local history museum had asked them to trace the provenance of a bloodstained dress said to belong to a murderous Victorian lacemaker—exactly Kate’s kind of mystery. If authentic, the museum intends the dress to be the centre piece of a new exhibit, Famous Crimes in Devon’s History—until the donor of the dress, a man who dresses and lives as a Victorian gentleman, is found dead in a pool of blood. Why kill a history buff? The mystery deepens when the local tough-on-crime M.P. receives death threats and the investigation uncovers a baffling connection with a Romanichal family who camped on Dartmoor in the 1880s. As Kate and Tom race to find the murderer, they learn that old secrets can be deadly—and this killer isn’t going to come quietly.

Lizzie:     You were born in Wisconsin and still live in America, although I understand that you have links to Scandinavia and the British Isles. Is that what attracted you to set your books in the UK?

Connie:     Like many Americans, all four of my grandparents were born in Europe, and I still have close relatives in Norway. But it was my father’s Scottish parents who sowed the seeds of Anglophilia in me. They emigrated to the US as adults and pretty much brought Scotland with them. The whole story is rather more complicated, but I grew up hearing the Scots’ accent, eating the foods, and hearing many stories of the “auld country.”  Although I’ve never been able to trace it, my grandmother’s favourite expression was “I’m old and cold and full of wee beasties.” Maybe it was Robert Burns—or simply something she heard her own grandmother say. 

Later, I fell in love with Agatha Christie and the writers of the Golden Age of Detection. I fell in love with P.G. Wodehouse and Kenneth Grahame and devoured the novelists of 19th- and 20th-century Britain. At university, I studied English literature and history, and I spent a semester studying the modern British novel at St. Clare’s College, Oxford. That’s when I really fell under the spell of the British Isles. I was fascinated with the layers of
history and the slightly disorienting sense of the past and present existing simultaneously. As they say, “In the UK, a hundred miles is a long way; in the US a hundred years is a long time.”   

When I began writing my debut mystery, I knew I wanted the series set in the UK. Scotland seemed a natural first location, so I created a fictional island in the Inner Hebrides where Kate’s sister-in-law owns a country house hotel. The second novel, A Legacy of Murder, moved to a Long Barston, a fictional village in Suffolk. I’m drawn to Suffolk because of the deep Anglo-Saxon roots and villages forgotten by time. That novel centres around the “Finchley Hoard,” buried during the Peasant Revolt of 1549 and unearthed in 1818.  

Lizzie:     Did you always want to write?

Connie:   I’ve always been fascinated with stories. My mother was an elementary school teacher, forced to resign when she married. She read to me from birth, and those stories and poems came alive in my imagination. I wanted life to be like fiction—worlds where animals could talk, and elves lived in forests and children had great adventures. So, I began creating my own adventures (AKA telling fibs). Realizing this, my mother was wise enough to redirect my “creativity” into writing stories. Fortunately, she was also a saver, so I have many of those stories today. While they don’t feature dead bodies, they all include some sort of mystery to be solved. Later I wrote academically and for business; and I did a lot of editing. In 2010, I started writing a novel that became A Dream of Death. When I retired from teaching theology in 2016, I decided it was “now or never.” 

Lizzie:          Your biography says that you were raised by charming eccentric antiques collectors who instilled in you a passion for antiques, is that why Kate Hamilton is an antiques dealer, or did you choose that because you know a lot about it?

Connie:        Writers are often told to “write what you know.” I don’t really agree with that. Crime writers don’t have to commit crimes to be believable, and we don’t have to be police professionals to credibly describe an
investigation. Part of the fun of writing fiction is creating lives we’ve never lived. With that said, I chose the antiques trade because having grown up in that environment, I knew from first-hand experience the thrill of the chase, the passion of true collectors, the intrigue of research, and the sense of objects as time travellers from a lost world. Since my novels explore the impact of the past on the present, I knew the antiques trade would provide a perfect backdrop for mystery. My stories usually have a contemporary mystery and a historical mystery woven together.
Also, my own personal knowledge of the antiques trade has provided a wealth of material. Antiques dealers are notorious gossips. For example, my third book, The Art of Betrayal, revolves around the looting of Chinese art and antiquities in the 19
th century and the efforts of the Chinese government to repatriate their history. Every antique has a backstory, and some of them are deadly. 

Lizzie:    What are the pitfalls of setting a series of books in a foreign country where the police procedures are very difference from those in America. Did it take a lot of research?

Connie:   While the goals of policing are the same in the UK and America—catch the perpetrator and bring him/her to justice—the methods and procedures differ. Police in the US are armed. With certain exceptions, police in the UK are not, although they are better trained to deal with violent suspects. Another difference is the length of time a suspect can be held in custody without a charge. Still another example is the protocol for interrogation. Police in the US generally use the Reid technique (banned in UK), designed to maximise confessions, along with what is called the “cognitive interview,” designed to best preserve the suspect’s memory. UK police generally use a less confrontational method of interrogation called PEACE—Preparation and Planning, Engage and Explain, Account, Closure, and Evaluation.  

Another pitfall is change. When I started writing my first novel, set in Scotland, I discovered that everything changed in 2013 when Police Scotland was formed. No longer were serious crimes investigated by local detectives. Instead, they were given to MITs—Major Investigation Teams, parachuted in from locations around the country. That meant that fictional detectives like Ian Rankin’s John Rebus were effectively out of a job. Rankin solved the problem by having Rebus retire and then return as a cold-case consultant. It also meant that the investigation I’d initially imagined was outdated. Fortunately, Val McDermid introduced me to the head of policing on the Isle of Skye who explained how things really worked. Later I connected with a female detective inspector in the Suffolk Constabulary who spent a day showing me the headquarters in Bury St. Edmunds, introducing me to their various divisions and specialists, and answering all my questions. With my latest book, set in Devon, a retired policeman was kind enough to answer questions.

Lizzie:     Do you plan your books, or have an idea – start off and see where it takes you?

Connie:   Both. I begin with an idea of the major plot points—how the plot will unfold—but I also allow the characters to take the story in ways I’d never imagined. In one book, for example, Kate was questioning Ivor Tweedy, a local antiquities expert, about a suspect. This is the way it went: 

My daughter is an intern at Finchley Hall. Lady Barbara asked me to look into rumours about a stranger in the village. Have you seen him?” 

   Maybe yes, maybe no. I did see someone, but whether he is a stranger or the stranger,  

I couldn’t say.”  

 “What did he look like?” 
     Didn’t get a good look. Dark clothing, some kind of cap. Saw the back of him, not His face. 
He was in
the churchyard of St. Æthelric’s, near the entrance to the footpath.”  
The villagers say he’s Lady Barbara’s son, returned from Venezuela.”  

“To murder another young woman, yes.” Ivor Tweedy pursed his lips. “I’ve heard the  rumours. That’s all they are.”

How can you be sure?”      

Ivor Tweedy replaced the tortoiseshell box in the drawer and closed it. “Because Lucien Finchley-fforde is dead.” 

I was shocked when I typed those words. It was a plot twist I’d never planned, but it turned out to be exactly the right thing. At that moment, Ivor Tweedy, a minor character, became a major character

Lizzie:       What is your writing process? Are you a disciplined writer i.e., do you write for a certain number of hours each day, or set yourself a target of x number of words?

Connie:     I wish I were more disciplined! I admire writers who set word goals and would love to be more like them. I do try to work on my current book every day, but I’m often side-tracked by other writing commitments such as blogs and articles. Writers today don’t have the luxury of just writing books (at least most don’t). We’re expected to do a lot of our own publicity. I write for two blogs—Miss Demeanours and Writers Who Kill. I attend several writing conferences a year. I write a monthly newsletter, and I’m currently working on two articles, one for Writer’s Digest and the other for CrimeReads. I also have a schedule of online and in-person appearances at bookstores, libraries, and book clubs. While all of this is fun—I love meeting readers—these commitments take time away from working on my current book. And then there’s life! My husband and I just returned home from a trip to Africa. I’d envisioned myself writing for an hour or so every day, but I never opened my computer. That’s okay. In order to write, I have to fill up my tank of experiences. And I have to have time to think and imagine. On the trip I met people from different cultures with different life experiences. Some of that will probably end up in a book. 

Lizzie:       When embarking on a new book, what area of the book challenges you the most?
Connie:     I love planning a new book—choosing the setting, creating new characters, constructing the basic plot and subplots, deciding on themes, researching the history. I do a lot of reading and research before I ever begin writing. It’s all challenging, but I love challenges. The hard part for me is putting words on a blank page. I usually begin with the first sentence and the first scene written in advance in my head. Although they often change, having a starting place gives me the confidence to push ahead. Every scene is a challenge: where do I begin, what is the purpose, who are the characters, what clues and red herrings can I sprinkle in, how does this scene relate to the whole? Writing is work, and meeting these challenges is what makes the final product so satisfying. 

Lizzie:      Following on from the last question, what part of the writing do you find the most fun?
Connie:    Easy question! I love the process of revision. Putting words on a blank page is hard labour for me. Revising those words is pure pleasure. I love shaping a scene. I love tightening language and making the words flow seamlessly. I love using dialogue to reveal character, and I love creating tension to move the plot along. Revision is where the craft of writing comes in: first the slog of putting words on the page and then the delight of making them sing. .

Lizzie:     In this latest book, not to give anything away, there are big changes on the cards for Kate. Is a new series in the pipeline or new beginnings for Kate?

Connie:    What readers don’t realize is how traditionally published writers depend upon contracts. I’m currently working on a sixth Kate book, hoping for a new contract. Because this isn’t ever a sure thing, I’m also working on a new series, a historical set in Hampshire in the 1820s. And I’m also working on a short story, part of my Chief Inspector Henry Blackstone series, set in England in the 1920s. Not surprisingly, he’s going to South Africa! That’s all I’m willing to say at this point, but I will keep writing. That’s a given. Writers aren’t writers because they write; we write because we’re writers. 

Thank you for interviewing me, Lizzie. I look forward to the Mystery People newsletters and appreciate the

Kate Hamilton Books

A Dream of Death (2019)
A Legacy of Murder (2019)
The Art of Betrayal (2021)
The Shadow of Memory (2022)
Mistletoe and Murder (2023)
A Collection of Lies (2024)

A Collection of Lies by Connie Berry will be published 18 June 2024.  

Click the title to read a review of The Shadow of Memory.

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