Tracy Gardner is a fellow Michigan author. I had the pleasure of meeting her at a local author showcase a few years ago. It was very exciting when she announced she'd sold a cozy mystery, Out of the Picture, to Hallmark Publishing. Congrats, Tracy!
Mysteries of any type are not the first thing I reach for when I'm ready to get lost in a good book, but Quarantine time seemed like a great opportunity to expand my horizons, so I decided to purchase a copy from a local independent bookstore, Nicola's Books. I'm so glad I did. It was a refreshing read with very likable characters in a lovely Michigan setting! I definitely recommend it. The second book in the series releases this summer and I'm looking forward to seeing what's next. I hope you'll check it out too.
Keep up with Tracy on her website.
SJ: I’m intrigued by the process of writing a mystery. How do you start? Do you know who the culprit is first and then fill in the story around that? How did Out of the Picture come to you?
TG: Stories always start with characters for me, so in developing the storyline for Out of the Picture, I had the characters in my head first, and then looked at who would make a good victim—who could the mystery center around? Once I know who the victim is, then it’s figuring out all the possible people who might have a motive. I tried to make sure I had a handful of good red herrings. I did a lot of research on cozy mystery writing before formulating the concept for the series. I’ve learned, and I think I already knew this as a lifelong reader, that you absolutely should never trick your reader. The reader needs to have all the information, all the possible players, early in the story. It’s a dirty trick to throw in the actual culprit late in the game.
SJ: I was fascinated by Savanna’s background as an art authenticator. How did you come up with that? Was it all research or do you have a personal connection to the art world?
TG: I love the idea of the amateur sleuth who has an ingrained habit of spotting hidden details, things someone else might miss. That’s basically what Savanna’s done in her career as an art authenticator for the last several years in Chicago. In the series, she does this without even trying; she can’t help it. Her talent often leads her to uncover clues that surprise even seasoned Detective Nick Jordan.
I love fine art. I have a few artist friends and am constantly amazed at what they do. I have zero artistic ability myself, I can’t draw or paint and I’m pretty terrible at most craft projects, but I find so much beauty in so many forms of art. We have the DIA here in Detroit, with incredible works of art, and the last time I was in New York my daughter and I spent hours in MoMA. My all-time favorite piece is Van Gogh’s Starry Night. I did have a lot of fun creating a few fictional artists, like Sergei Minkov.
SJ: I don’t think enough books are set in Michigan, so I really loved that this one is. How did you settle on placing the story on the Western Coast of Michigan?
TG: I’ve always loved Lake Michigan! I think most Michiganders agree that our great lakes are fantastic. We’ve spent many weekends on Lake Michigan and the dunes and beaches up and down the coast. The idea of a small town situated on the lake that truly does look like an ocean was so appealing to me, I knew I’d enjoy spending time in the story and visiting the lake. The fictional town of Carson is a combination of the small towns I’ve lived in, with a dash of the always lovely Stars Hollow (Gilmore Girls), and a pinch of real life Lake Michigan town Saugatuck, known for its art community. I named my town Carson as a nod to Carson Drew, Nancy Drew’s dad, and as a tribute to my own dad, who cultivated my early love of reading, especially mysteries.
SJ: Did you write this with the intention of it being a series or did that idea develop later?
TG: I always planned on the Shepherd sisters having several stories. I saw Savanna’s return to her hometown and her sisters as a new beginning, with endless places to go from there. I find that as I’m writing one manuscript, ideas occur to me for the next one, which characters to use, possible locations in town I want to explore further, that kind of thing. And, while Savanna remains the main character throughout the series, I look forward to seeing Sydney’s and Skylar’s stories unfold as well.
SJ: What was the revision process like for this book? Is there anything that changed significantly from the original draft?
TG: I think I’m a little odd in that I actually enjoy getting feedback from my agent and editors and revising aspects of the story. My agent Fran Black reads through everything first and gives me notes, and then Stacey Donovan and Rhonda Merwarth comb through the manuscript and send me developmental edits, followed by line edits. Stacey, Rhonda, and Fran catch so many things that I’m probably too close to the story to see, and their input always makes the end result stronger. In Out of the Picture, I was asked to add a scene to ramp up the tension at one point, and that was excellent advice. I added the car chase scene on the expressway with Savanna and her sister, and now I can’t imagine the story without it!
SJ: I really enjoyed the entire cast of characters in this book. What’s your approach to character development?
TG: I’ve learned that doing character development exercises makes a world of difference in how I see the characters. I have several questions I answer about each character before I start writing. I do have an idea of physical appearance, but most of the process focuses on things like the character’s personality traits, quirks, general attitude, personal style, favorite colors, what their greatest hope is, what they are most afraid of. The less work I do on a character before I begin, the harder the writing is. The sisters pretty much write themselves; I’m just along for the ride. Peripheral character development is less intensive, but sometimes I’ll end up adding a personality trait late in the manuscript and then have to go back to the beginning and revise all of that character’s scenes. Jack Carson is an example of a character I had grossly underdeveloped, but grew to really love while writing, which led me back to the drawing board to learn more about Jack so that I could do him justice throughout the manuscript.
SJ: There are three great dogs in the story. Do you have any dogs?
TG: Yes! Savanna’s Boston Terrier Fonzie is named after our crazy dog Fonzie, who we loved for 11 years. He’s sadly no longer with us, but writing Fonzie in the series lets me spend time with him. Right now, we have a Border Collie rescue who is happy and waggy literally all the time, a Blue Heeler mixed breed with major attitude, and a blind, diabetic Yorkie who is the boss of the house.
SJ: The book includes a recipe for Holy Yum Baked Chicken. Is this a recipe of yours or is it something the publisher took care of? Have you tried it?
TG: I love the name of the dish, but Hallmark provided the recipe, which was featured on Hallmark’s Home and Family show. The recipe is in the back of Out of the Picture, and it’s delicious!
SJ: Can you tell a little about your path to getting a publishing deal?
TG: My path to publication was long and twisty and full of obstacles. Out of the Picture was my first traditionally published book, but it came after years and years of writing, revising, querying, submitting, and weathering rejection with other manuscripts. I’ve never counted the number of rejections I’ve received, and I try not to think about how long ago I started out on this journey. I don’t see any point in trying to pretend it was easy. The path to publishing is hard. I’ve been fortunate to have a dedicated agent who believed in me, and fortunate again to have caught the interest of Stacey Donovan, Hallmark Publishing Director, who was willing to look at my work even though I had no publishing credits to my name.
SJ: The second Shepherd Sisters Mystery comes out this summer. Can you give us a teaser of what that will be about?
TG: Sure! In Behind the Frame, a well-known community member is murdered and the beloved town statue is vandalized, just as Savanna is preparing to host Carson’s Art in the Park Festival. When a close friend of the Shepherd family is arrested, Savanna and her sisters race to find the real killer and prove an innocent man has been framed—before more people get hurt. Detective Jordan and Aidan Gallager are in the mix, and we meet Aidan’s visiting younger brother, Med-Flight paramedic Finn.
SJ: Will we see Caroline again in future Shepherd Sisters Mysteries? And, more importantly, will we see Aidan?
TG: Yes and yes! Caroline makes an appearance or two in Behind the Frame and I’m sure she’ll be around in future books in the series, since I think she’s a pretty awesome lady. As for Aidan, we get a much wider view of Dr. Gallager’s world in Behind the Frame, as he and Savanna grow closer and deal with obstacles to their budding romance.
Thank you, Tracy! I really enjoyed this book and am looking forward to Behind the Frame.