Friday, December 11, 2009

How to write a Holiday Mystery

*Editor's note: We have a special treat today. Maggie Sefton, author of Berkley Prime Crime's Knitting Mystery series is celebrating the paperback edition of her bestselling 'Fleece Navidad' and is here today to give us a little insight into writing the holiday-themed mystery. Please welcome her kindly and enjoy!!

by Maggie Sefton - Author of Fleece Navidad

When my publisher asked me to write a Holiday-themed mystery for my Knitting Mystery series, I knew I had a problem. The series, featuring 30-something corporate refugee, Kelly Flynn, is set in a college town in northern Colorado and has many scenes in Kelly’s favorite knitting shop where her friends gather around the knitting table to socialize, hash out problems, and work on their fiber projects. In the previous five books in the series, I deliberately used those “warm and fuzzy” scenes to allow Kelly to sort through all the information and clues she uncovers when she’s investigating a murder. “Sleuthing,” as her friends call it.

It should be pointed out that Kelly is not a cop, nor a private eye, nor a lawyer. She’s a CPA and has absolutely no business messing in murder. But---she can’t help herself. She can’t resist a puzzle. And solving a murder is an irresistible challenge. Kelly’s analytical mind goes on automatic. Having been a CPA myself, it really is almost automatic. We simply have to analyze a problem, weigh and measure, and—here’s the key—look for things that don’t belong.

Whether it’s on a balance sheet or in searching for clues, Kelly naturally picks up details that others do not, even police officers. That makes for a confrontational relationship between Kelly and the Fort Connor Chief of Detectives. Kelly’s convinced he’s never forgiven her for finding her aunt’s killer—the real killer—the one who strangled her aunt in her cozy cottage across from the knitting shop. Kelly proved the cops had the wrong guy in jail.

So, what’s the problem?

Well, I knew that many of the readers would be expecting more than the usual warm and fuzzies in this book simply because it’s set during the entire month of December. They would want “holiday” warm and fuzzies—scenes of hectic preparations, shopping, characters knitting mittens, and holiday parties. I even found the perfect holiday title for the book: FLEECE NAVIDAD.

The problem is I just can’t have the characters sitting around wrapping presents and drinking wassail. I have to kill someone. After all, that’s what I do. I kill people on paper for a living. So a body has to hit the floor. And my problem was how to insert that in the midst of all the holiday cheer.

I finally decided that I would “play off” the crime scene talk and Kelly’s sleuthing against the holiday cheer, deliberately putting them together in the same scenes. Warm and chilly. And with the help of some fascinating new characters who walked to center stage for this book, it was easy.

To me, it’s all about the characters, and these two people exhibited charming and attractive sides of their personalities as well as darker sides. And since both these women had opposing goals, they clashed. Accusations began to fly and scandals from the past came out. And I deliberately chose to have it all happen right there at the knitting table, crowded with shop regulars knitting charity hats, mittens for disadvantaged children, as well as holiday gifts. The normally congenial atmosphere disappears. People choose sides and argue. Loudly. In fact, it gets so acrimonious one afternoon that the normally-cheerful shop owner, Mimi, throws everyone out into the cold.

Add to that, the victim is a librarian. Gasp! How could I do that? Librarians are my favorite people. And to make it worse, Juliette, had found love for the first time. To think someone could run into her one night then drive away and leave Juliette to bleed and die alone in the dark. . . how heartless.

We novelists are a cruel lot. We kill all sorts of people—nice sweet people and nasty mean brutes. We do not discriminate. And Juliette was the perfect victim. Of course, the plot definitely thickens when police discover that her death was not accidental, but deliberate. Someone lay in wait for Juliette to appear that night in her beautiful Christmas cape.

Kelly has her hands full trying to unravel this puzzle. On top of that, Kelly tries to keep the peace between two spinster sisters who’re at odds with one another. The fractious arguments around the knitting table are taking their toll on relationships.

Before I knew it, there was plenty of contrast for the holiday warm and fuzzies. And just to make sure the temperature didn’t get too chilly, I allowed Kelly and Jennifer to get in touch with the holidays—up close and personal. They’re recruited to oversee the Saint Mark’s Catholic Church’s Christmas Eve Nativity Pageant, complete with a cast of surly thirteen-year olds. The original leader was poor Juliette, our librarian victim. So Kelly and Jennifer—the two lapsed Catholics in the group—take over the job.

They soon discover this project will require more than their usual organizational skills. Let’s put it this way--Joseph is wired into his iPod, the shepherds are texting, and Mary has a nose ring.
However you choose to celebrate the holidays, enjoy!

Maggie Sefton is the New York Times Bestselling author of the Knitting Mystery Series, published by Berkley Prime Crime and set in Colorado. The paperback edition of last year’s hardcover Barnes & Noble Bestseller, FLEECE NAVIDAD, was released November 3rd. It’s available in bookstores, specialty shops, and online. Visit her at her website: Visit Maggie’s blogsite at

(Article previously published in Mystery Readers Journal).


  1. Isn't it fascinating! Thanks for tweeting it... I don't tweet... or chirp, or caw!

  2. Great post, Maggie (and Donna Lea). Mixing murder and mistletoe was my challenge this year, too, with Holiday Grind. (Ho-Ho-Homicide! LOL!)

    Happy Holidays to you both. I am also happily retweeting you!

    ~Cleo Coyle
    author of The Coffeehouse Mysteries
    “Where coffee and crime are always brewing…”
    Cleo Coyle on Twitter

  3. Hey, Elizabeth, Cleo, and Donna---thanks for tweeting the post. I don't tweet. But I chirp a lot, especially around this time of year when there's so much chocolate available.

  4. Spiritulity author covets your talent to write a cozy mystery.