Wednesday, November 25, 2015

What Would Happen if You Crossed an Agatha Christie Mystery with "Watership Down?" The Story Behind "Shady Hollow?"

The story begins in the small village of Shady Hollow. Vera Vixen is the ace reporter at the paper; her boss is a just-the-facts kind of editor. The economic engine of the town is the sawmill, but the village center is bustling with spin-off activity – a coffee house, a bookstore, a hardware store, even a vegetarian restaurant. It turns out that just about all the inhabitants are vegetarians, as they wouldn’t likely survive otherwise. Because the inhabitants of Shady Hollow are all woodland creatures – Vera is a fox, the bookstore proprietor is a raven, the town doctor is a snake, a beaver owns the sawmill, and his chief accountant is a mouse.

But the truth is that the story really began in a small bookstore called Boswell. There, several years ago, most likely on a winter evening where there was no author event to keep them busy, and few customers to brave the cold, Jocelyn Koehler and Sharon Nagel began to play with the finger puppets. And Sharon turned to Jocelyn and said, “I think this mouse’s name is Howard Chitters. And my goodness, he is a hardworking mouse indeed.” And over the very dead evenings ahead, the little finger puppets began to get names and personalities. The idea for the novel that became Shady Hollow was in place.

Now Sharon and Jocelyn both had been writing in their spare time; it’s a rare bookseller who does not dabble, being that we’re all surrounded by books all day. Sharon had taken part in several National Novel Writing Month projects. And Jocelyn? Well she soon moved east to Philadelphia, and started writing historical romance ebooks, which proved to be quite successful. And then NaNoWriMo came around again, and they decided to take the characters they had created and make a story. But what kind of story would that be? The answer was clear – it must be a mystery! And so Shady Hollow was born.*

With Jocelyn and her husband Nick already publishing their work under the Hammer and Birch imprint, it made sense for them to bypass the long and often fruitless process of finding an agent and a publisher, not when they’d seen the kind of success they could get by using digital publishing tools. They were savvy enough to not settle for the typical jacket treatments that make most contract-published works stick out like a sore thumb. And another breath of fresh air is how well edited the book is. If there was a typo or any other sort of gaffe, I didn’t spot it. See? It is good experience to proofread the Boswell email newsletter.

Shady Hollow was published in early November and we celebrated with a lovely launch, with very respectable attendance and sales. But of course I didn’t need to read the book for launch; when you know a lot of people like Jocelyn and Sharon do, the success of the event is pretty much assured, and my reading pile was high enough to be labeled “teetering.”

Something kept nagging at me, though. I knew that if I read the book and liked it, it really would make a big difference. If I didn’t like it, I could just put it aside and pretend I never read it. I wouldn’t be lying even – when someone asks me whether I’ve read a book, I consider a truthful answer to refer to completion, not process. While many people say they’ve read a book when they’ve read some of a book, I consider the only acceptable truthful response to be “I read some of it.”

And so I began. And dagnab it if I wasn’t pulled into a murder mystery featuring animals. From Lenore Lee, the bookseller raven, to Otto Sumpf, the cantankerous toad, Sharon and Jocelyn gave life to these characters and made them engaging and memorable. The story is a classic cozy trope – murder, yes, but not too bloody, with a little humor mixed in too. The friendship between Lenore and Vera is heartfelt, and there’s even a budding romance. I asked Sharon if she had named Lenore Lee after one of our customers, and she replied that no, of course her name came from two Edgar Allan Poe heroines, one of whom had some relationship to a raven.**

It’s a very good mystery, and honestly, you’ve probably never read anything like it, despite the occasional success of anthropomorphic animal novels like Watership Down and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh. Because of the animals, a lot of folks ask us if the books are appropriate for kids. It’s our feeling that if the child in question is reading Agatha Christie, they are ready for Shady Hollow. I remember reading Murder on the Links when I was a pre-teen, and while I didn’t quite understand some of the adult relationships, I enjoyed trying to solve the murder before Hercule Poirot did. I generally did not.

Pardon me for a little trade talk here, but the truth is that the blog has a decent bookseller readership, or at least it did when I wrote it more regularly. One of the nice things about Shady Hollow is that while it’s print-on-demand from Ingram, it’s available at full trade discount and returnable to bookstores, meaning there’s little risk in stocking it, except for the returns penalty. But really, with its attractive cover that really delivers on a clever and charming mystery, Shady Hollow is the perfect addition to a woodland creatures table, as these animals have been all the rage in the gift world over the last few years. Or heck, display them next to your Folkmanis finger puppet rack. Perhaps one of your young readers will come up with a book too.

Bravo for Shady Hollow, a charming and just a little frightening mystery. It's nice to know that Jocelyn and Sharon are working on a sequel.**

*I am not a journalist. There’s a bit of creative license with this retelling.

**My rule of thumb is that I use full or last names when referring to authors. But I feel silly writing Nagel and Koehler. But if you don’t know them, you should refer to authors by their last names.

No comments: