In this episode, Linda Hengerer talks with Shawn Reilly Simmons about Murder on the Chopping Block (the latest novel in the Red Carpet Catering Mystery series), culinary cozy mysteries, Malice Domestic and 2021's More Than Malice, and writing. Shawn has a short story in the summer beach-read anthology Murder on the Beach.
In this episode, Linda Hengerer talks with Shawn Reilly Simmons about culinary cozy mysteries, Malice Domestic and 2021's More Than Malice, and writing.
Shawn Reilly Simmons is the Agatha and Anthony Award-winning author and editor of The Red Carpet Catering Mysteries and of twenty short stories appearing in various anthologies. She serves on the Board of Malice Domestic, is an editor at Level Best Books and a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, the Crime Writers’ Association, and International Thriller Writers. She lives in historic Frederick, Maryland, with her husband and son.
Visit Shawn at www.shawnreillysimmons.com.
Find out more about Malice Domestic and More Than Malice at www.malicedomestic.org.
Podcast: Five Compelling Questions with Shawn
Get to know Shawn - The Tart Words Baker's Dozen:
1. Plotter or Pantser? Combo? I’m a pantser for sure. I’d like to be more of a plotter, but for some reason it doesn’t stick with me.
2. Tea or Coffee? Coffee in the morning, and tea later on (in colder months).
3. Beer, Wine, or Cocktails? All of the above! I’m taking a break from wine right now, so I’m drinking more vodka and soda with my own mixers (fresh herbs and citrus). This is my usual spring/summer routine, when I’m out running more in the sun.
4. Snacks: Sweet or Savory? Savory. I love a good dessert, but can go months without sweets. Chips on the other hand…I’ll eat the whole bag and look for more.
5. Indie Published, Traditionally Published, or Hybrid? Traditionally published.
6. Strict Writing Schedule: Yes or No. Yes. When I’m on top of my game or on deadline, I write for 2-3 hours early mornings. The rest of the day is for working on my other jobs (Malice and Level Best)
7. Strictly Computer or Mix It Up? Computer, although I always have a journal with me to jot quick notes. I also use Google Keep and Notes for random thoughts when I’m away from my desk. And Pinterest to save articles that have kernels of inspiration in them.
8. Daily Goal: Yes or No. Yes, although I’ve been working on putting less pressure on myself in all areas of life.
9. Formal Track Progress: Yes or no. Yes, I use Scrivner which keeps my goals in front of me.
10. Special Writing Spot? If it’s dark out and everyone is asleep still, I’ll write in bed, or on the couch under a blanket. I love my desk but spend a lot of time there on other work that I try to mix it up during my creative hours. Coffee shops are good for me too (when we can do that again!)
11. Writer’s Block? This hasn’t been a challenge for me (thank goodness). I have too many ideas. My challenge is managing time and accomplishing everything.
12. File of Ideas: Yes or No Yes (see Pinterest comment above, and journal notes)
13. Favorite Author(s)? Oooh….that’s a really long list, and I’ll forget some folks I’m sure but off the top of my head now: Louise Penny, Ann Cleeves, Martin Edwards, Jennifer Hillier, SA Cosby, Stephen King, Megan Abbott, Sherry Harris, Bruce Coffin, Tana French, Gillian Flynn, Agatha Christie, Ruth Ware, Laura Lippman, Rachel Howzell Hall, Lori Rader-Day, Edwin Hill, Walter Mosley.
Transcribed by Otter.ai; Lightly edited by Linda. Please forgive typos or grammar errors J
Episode 226 - Shawn Reilly Simmons
Welcome to Tart Words. I'm your host, Linda Hengerer. And I'm a writer, a reader and a baker. I talk to writers about their latest book and what inspires them, chat with fellow author Suzanne Fox about what writers can learn from reading their favorite authors, and share fast and easy recipes for anyone looking for a sweet treat. Join me as I share Tart Bites, Tart Thoughts, and Tart Words. In this episode, I’m talking with Shawn Riley Simmons.
Shawn Reilly Simmons is the Agatha and Anthony Award-winning author and editor of The Red Carpet Catering Mysteries and of twenty short stories appearing in various anthologies. She serves on the Board of Malice Domestic, is an editor at Level Best Books and a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, the Crime Writers’ Association, and International Thriller Writers. She lives in historic Frederick, Maryland, with her husband and son. Visit her website at www.ShawnRileySimmons.com and find out more about Malice Domestic at www.MaliceDomestic.org. Links for both will be in the show notes.
Welcome to the podcast, Shawn, I'm really looking forward to talking with you today.
Well, hey, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Now we met first at Bouchercon, I think it was 2019 when it was in St. Petersburg, Florida. We were on the same panel, it was a culinary cozy panel. And it was lots of fun talking about killing people and food.
Yeah, yep. I'm usually on a panel either about murder or food. So that's always I do end up a lot of the food panels. But that was a great Bouchercon. It was a fun trip. And it was great to meet you there.
Tell me about your latest book.
My most recent book is Murder on the Chopping Block. And that came out I think right around the time we wrapped that Bouchercon. You know, everything in the world has sort of been on hold for a while. My series is based on a job I used to do, cooking on movie sets. My character’s a chef, owner of a culinary theatrical culinary company, and they travel around the country and cook for movie stars, much like I used to do. That was the inspiration for it.
That sounds exciting. But it's probably more work and less glamour than people think it might be.
Yeah, it's extremely long days. You're working outside in the elements. A lot of the time, the one movie I did full time it was winter in DC, which is it can get cold here. I know we're a southern state, but it's still pretty cool. In the wintertime, and they're in the water, especially…
A less magical time of year.
Exactly. But it's really fun. And there's a lot of excitement because you're cooking for such a huge amount of people, they'll be trying to get another shot and they'll be running late. And you're like, oh my gosh, can't let all this food go bad. And then you have to speed things up sometimes. But it was a learning experience, a lot of fun. But definitely like 18-hour days, very physically demanding job. But yeah, I had a great time, it was very good. I like sitting in the chair and writing about it now.
I think people underestimate the physical toll that cooking takes on your body.
Absolutely. A lot of times you're standing on a hard surface, especially if you're on a catering crew for movies – we were standing in a parking lot. We're standing on asphalt for most of the day, they're not rolling out rubber mats for you, you're setting up a table and you're cooking. So yeah, and then just the carrying of the giant trays around. And it is it's not for the weak, for sure.
I did the Wilton cake decorating course. I did all four of them that were available at my local Michaels. And each course was four weeks. And it was interesting to me how hard it is to be standing on your feet for that long when you're piping out something and how tired your hand would get piping out 24 cupcakes and doing all kinds of different things. So that was good for me to have as a backdrop for what I write, which is a cozy mystery series about a tea shop. But it gave me the definite idea that I didn't want to do it as a business.
I started working in restaurants when I was pretty young, like 18 during school and I worked catering and restaurants for a very long time. And as you get older, you notice the hours more. Like wow, I was standing up for a long time. And I really, really like when you're 18 I did that never even really noticed it. But I had a lot more energy. And you don't see a lot of chefs that are over 50s/60s. So it's just because it's really hard.
It's hard on your legs, hard on your back.
Yeah. And I think if you're at that level, then you are more like overseeing the brigade or crew.
As opposed to being on the line.
Exactly. It's just too hard. But there's a huge reward at the end of the day, when you get finished doing all that and you're physically spent, you're mentally spent a lot of the time. You just want to go to bed and then you have to get up in a few hours later to go back to work.
The never-ending cycle.
Yeah, people need to eat every day.
Exactly. And someone's got to do the dishes and carry the food and prep the food. All the good stuff.
Where in the series does your latest book fall?
That book is number seven. The first one is Murder on a Silver Platter. I had read a lot of culinary mysteries and I really love culinary mysteries, but I've never seen one that was set on the movie sets. So that's when I sat down and I decided to do that. Yes, seven books later. I can't even believe it. It's a long, a long journey.
Are you working on number eight?
The first draft is done. But you know, that's just like, Okay, I got all the words out. Now that's to be fixed. Because it's just like a big ball of clay on the spinning wheel. I'm in the spinning wheel phase of getting it into some kind of shape. I'm not sure what's going to happen with that one, because my publisher has decided not to renew, they're going to keep the series going. But they're not taking on new books. And they're not taking on new books from anybody. They're changing their direction, I'm not sure what they're up to. So it's in doubt what will happen with that book. But hopefully it will find a home.
And you also write short stories. Do you write short stories in your series world? Or are they different?
They're actually all different. And I kind of started writing short stories that way, because it was a break from the series, it was nice to just do a totally different idea or a different style - I could be a little darker than a traditional culinary mystery can generally be, so they're all totally different. A lot of them have to do with food, because I can't seem to get away from that. That is my thing. I love food and drink and music. A lot of them do have things to do with that. I have author friends that do novellas and then short stories or whatever. But I have never done that, I've never done a Penelope story. So maybe. I never say never.
You also have been involved with Malice Domestic. Tell us a little bit about that.
Malice is a traditional mystery fan convention that takes place in the Washington DC area every year in the springtime. That being said in parentheses, it has not taken place the last two springs because of the pandemic. So we haven't had it and we didn't have a virtual one last year, because it's always in April. And that was when everyone was coming to the realization that things couldn't happen. We're kind of like right after Left Coast Crime, which had started their convention and then had to shut down I think after the first day, and ours is like a couple weeks later, so we were ready to go, then the world started shutting down. And I just remember having meetings, like what's going to happen, what's going to happen, and then we had to pull the plug. So we weren't prepared to do a virtual event last year, so there was no Malice. So this year, we were also right on the cusp of when it maybe, it was gonna be okay, but still not really safe to have 700 or so people gather. Instead of having a virtual Malice Domestic, we just decided to welcome our friends and family back next year, when we can all gather safely. We're having a different, completely different kind of thing called More Than Malice. It's not Malice. It's More Than Malice. And it's a festival and a lot of people are asking What is a festival? and it's more like the British style of meeting groups and meetings, and festivals are organizations which invite attendees to come and talk on a certain topic on panels and things like that. So we're trying out this new thing, it's a one-time deal. It's not the way we're gonna go forward with anything. But we just wanted to do something, because we missed everyone. And we want to just see what we could put together. And we've had a lot of support from the community. And we also wanted to have an event that was like an open house kind of thing. A lot of the guests that are coming probably would not come to a normal Malice Domestic. We have more thriller people coming, on the different edges of the genre, we're really excited to have them come. Our theory is well, they'll bring readers to Malice, and they might enjoy themselves and then remember us for next time and come back. We're doing this experiment, and it's been pretty exciting and a lot of work.
And where's the website that people can go to, to register for More Than Malice?
And how much is the registration?
Right now it’s $60. All the information is there. And you can see who has currently been invited to come. And it's, it's pretty cool. It's a pretty cool list of people.
And what are the dates?
It's July 14 through 17th. But it's all virtual, so if you do register, we are planning on recording a lot of the things so you don't have to be glued to your seat for four days in a row. We're trying to make it as accessible and fun for everyone.
It's really exciting to see that you're able to…not transition an in-person event straight to virtual, but to do something so that the fans are satisfied and are able to connect with their favorite authors or find new authors to read and get excited about.
Yeah, and that was the intent. We've had a such an enthusiastic response to…the registration is you know, through the roof, it's going over really well. Now the next thing is to put on a really good show. So we're in those phases now. People have been asking us for years, you know, why doesn’t so and so come, and why doesn't this person come, they'd be perfect at Malice. We took those comments and we really did try to do a lot of outreach.
I'm looking forward to connecting with other people. That's one thing that the pandemic has made me realize, that even though I'm perfectly happy hibernating in a cave and not going outside, I do miss the social interaction with other writers, other readers, and just that talking about good books and getting recommendations from people about books that I would like or finding a new author.
Absolutely. Yeah, I do miss everyone. I'm the odd extrovert in the community, been pretty happy staying home and I've been so productive. I got a lot of stuff done, a lot of work done, a lot of writing projects started and finished. Just have to count your blessings where you have them and it's like okay, I wasn't traveling every month I have all this extra time.
The other shining silver lining of this whole thing that's been happening to us is that I've gotten to go quote unquote go to many, many things that I would never probably get to go to. Like virtually been able to attend way more things. I couldn't go to Bloody Scotland, it was too close to Malice. Their horizons were expanded in some ways.
I went to Murder and Mayhem, which is usually in Chicago in February, which I haven't gone to before, because it's February in Chicago, but they did it online. They had pushed it back from when it was originally scheduled last year to the fall, so I went. It was a lot of fun. And I do enjoy the virtual conferences, generally see a panel, you're chatting with people in the chat. It's just a nice way to stay connected, for authors to stay connected to their audience.
Yeah. And we've all done a really good job of keeping in touch. And it's been great. I went to that too, think they did a great job. It's just fun to see people's faces.
I ordered their mug afterward, they sent out an email and I there was a mug that says, I love that journey for you.
Do you have a writing routine or schedule?
I do. I like to write early in the morning. Although it's hard to get up in the morning sometimes in summertime, because I do like to stay up late too. I have a dual personality. I love both things – like getting up early and like staying up late. I can't, I can't choose one. But if I feel like if I get up early and write before everyone else wakes up, then I get the most done, because the world just gets busy, you know, after about nine o'clock. And I have a small child who now is playing baseball. So that's another level, level of stuff, in school and we've had homeschool for so long. But now he's finally back at school.
I have a lot of Malice work to do. And then I have a lot of editing work to do for other people and other various things. And that day goes by fast. So I do try to prioritize it first thing in the morning and then try to get at least 1000 words out a day. And then I'll go back around and edit later in the day. If I have any mental energy left.
I'm the same way – if I can get my words done first thing in the morning before the day encroaches on my schedule, then I'm in a good shape. I can edit later in the day. But it's hard to be creative when I am tired from doing other things.
Yeah, I feel like we start out with your batteries charged 100% like a phone, by lunchtime it’s about like 75, if you know maybe hovering towards 50. It's like I am not feeling like doing much after that. Studies have been done, do the thing you need to do when you’re at your freshest, and then you'll get it over with and done. And if you do nothing else the rest of the day you feel like you've accomplished at least one thing.
Do you outline?
I don't. And I tried to outline. I'm definitely a pantser. I wrote my first book when my son was first born and he was not a good sleeper, he did not sleep, I didn't sleep or he didn't sleep, for three years, we were exhausted all that I…he was just not a good sleeper. I would be rocking him trying to lull him back to sleep. And I would just think of the next chapter while we were falling asleep. And then I would get up in the morning and write it down real quick before I forgot it. And that was my method. And then I thought, the second book, he was a little bit older, I had a book contract, had a deadline. I said I am going to be nicer to myself, I'm going to be more professional, I'm going to sit down, I'm going to make this outline. And I did and I took a while to do it, a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, those deadlines come at you like every single day. And then I would sit down I immediately deviated from the outline. I'm like, I just didn't – I just wasted all this time. And I just can't, my brain doesn't work that way. But I have friends who swear by it. And I, I totally get that. And I wonder sometimes if I would be less stressed out if I was but I just don't, I just don't do it. The thinking of it the night before is my thing. And it helps me fall asleep as well. So I can tell myself the story until I fall asleep. But I feel like I dream about it all night. And then I wake up and I never have to sit there and stare, it's just, it comes all comes right out.
It's really funny. I've noticed that too. Like when I'm in the throes of writing a story I'm thinking about it before I fall asleep. I often do dream about it. And then when I wake up, I often have a solution to something if I was stuck, or I have a place to start writing from to keep the momentum going. But I think everybody's writing process is different. And as long as the way you work works for you, then you don't necessarily need to change.
Exactly. I mean, I managed to get seven, eight books written that way. So I think it's, it's probably for the best, for me. I think that's a good - that's so funny how we're so similar. But yeah, I do think you work through things – your brain closes down, but it works through problems. So you do wake up with a fresh perspective. You need that rest I think.
Your subconscious keeps working even when you're not aware of it.
Absolutely. Even when you're awake too, sometimes, because I'll think of stuff when I'm like taking a shower or washing the dishes or out for a run. I always get inspired at the gym and I'm like, of course I have no paper, I'm running on a treadmill, I have no paper to remember it, but your brain like if you're not pressuring it to think of something at the moment it's sort of opens up and lets you get that solution.
So it lets things float up to the conscious level of your mind.
Do you cook yourself still or do you have another creative outlet that gives you some respite from the writing?
I cook all the time. I love cooking, so I still cook almost every night, and it's funny because I think my husband just thinks that's how everyone is. It's just like he's very spoiled but I do love to cook. With deadlines and things I try to come up with like a lasagna or like a crockpot kind of thing this so we have leftovers, I don't have to be on call. I can make a salad and skate by with making a salad one night with leftovers. Food Network is always on at our house. That's definitely my outlet. It's comforting to me, to make a meal. I put on British mystery shows or music and I just cook and open some wine and it is fun.
A nice way to recharge your batteries and feed the family at the same time.
Absolutely. If they weren’t so picky it would be better. My husband's pretty good, but my son is the most picky kid, which is like the irony of all ironies, like, you know, basically I'm a chef and I have a kid that will not – he eats five things. So hopefully he grows out of it one day, but I'm like, Yeah, I can make you anything in the world and you won't eat it. You won't eat anything. You know.
That's funny. What are the five things that he likes?
He loves cheeseburgers. I mean real basic stuff. He likes cheeseburgers. Grilled Cheese, oatmeal, nothing…chicken fingers, like just the basic basic basic stuff. So yeah, he's not an adventurous eater at all, but I blame my in-law family who probably will be listening to this, but they a lot of them are like, I don't eat onions. I don't this one doesn't eat this one. This one doesn't eat that one. Like they have a whole that's like the whole vibe in the family, like have to be really careful what you bring to the potlucks because they don't a lot of them don't eat different things. But my husband broke out of that. And he's pretty, he's pretty good. He’ll even eat anchovies if I order it.
Nice. Well, I'll have the links to your website and to Malice in the show notes. And I've really enjoyed talking to you again. It's been quite a while since we talked in person. I look forward to More Than Malice in July and seeing you again in person either at another writer’s conference or Malice next year.
Absolutely. And I was so excited when I heard from you and you reached out and to be on the show. And thank you for thinking of me.
You’re quite welcome.
Thank you for joining me this week. To view the complete show notes and the links mentioned in today's episode, visit tartwords.com/tart226. Before you go, Follow or Subscribe for free to the podcast to receive new episodes when they're released. Follow now in the app you're using to listen to this podcast or sign up for email alerts through an easy signup form for Bakers, Readers, and/or Writers at tartwords.com/about. Thank you again for joining me, Linda Hengerer, for this episode of Tart Words.
Shawn Reilly Simmons is the Agatha and Anthony Award winning author and editor of The Red Carpet Catering Mysteries and of twenty short stories appearing in various anthologies. She serves on the Board of Malice Domestic, is an editor at Level Best Books and a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, the Crime Writers’ Association, and International Thriller Writers. She lives in historic Frederick, Maryland, with her husband and son.