cozy mystery · Gramma's Off Her Rocker

Writing a Cozy Mystery

tunnelI’ve always known I wanted to be a writer.  My first memory of writing anything was as a precocious 11-year-old.  Together with five or six others, I was assigned the daunting task of writing a 4-5,000 word essay on the topic of my choice.  I clearly remember researching and writing the essay — sad to say the topic has been lost in the mists of time — I can say with certainty however, the final product  was nothing like a cozy mystery!

An introduction to Lissa  Knowles

I’ll start out by saying that I am an avid, often voracious, reader.  When my husband asked what I wanted for an anniversary present a few years back I replied without hesitation that I wanted a tablet, mostly because they were the newest rage in computer technology.   I was sure that my network engineer husband would break down and get me a good one, even though he couldn’t see a reason for me having one.  Why did I want a tablet?  Simply put, I had discovered the joy of e-books and having Kindle available at the touch of an icon meant I could carry around hundreds of books at a time without dropping anything off the reading pile!

reading reader kindle female
With Kindle in hand I can read anywhere–even in  the bath, my preferred spot!

With my Kindle installation (this has gone through two tablets and is now on my smart phone until I get another tablet) I discovered the joy that is Kindle Unlimited and FREE  e-books!  I finally noticed that most of the books I was reading followed a similar writing style and had fairly standard covers.   I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but my favorites (when not considering the author’s name) all had a very similar appearance.  It was about that time that I discovered, while browsing through on-line job postings, that the type of books I most enjoyed were a specific sub-genre of mysteries, cozy mysteries to be precise.

Not All Cozy Mysteries (or Cozies for short) Are Created Equal

Once I narrowed my field of interest to cozy  mysteries, I devoured everything I could get for free in the genre, and even — before I got myself under control — started plunking down $0.99 or more to follow a favorite series.  The more I read, the more I wanted.  Somewhere along the way though, I started looking at the cozies I was reading with a different eye.  Sometimes the writing was a little uneven, or maybe the plotting had some gaping holes that even I (speed reader extraordinaire) noticed — one particular book finally got deleted from my Kindle app when the author repeatedly said that her protagonist was falling on the floor laughing, even when said protagonist had just been walking through glorious autumn leaves or tromping along on a gravel path.  Really, falling on the floor laughing?  I realize that it’s an expression, but my literal mind rebelled at imagining the protagonist running over to the nearest patch of flooring just so they could fall over laughing.

One day when I was enlightening my long-suffer husband as to what makes a mystery a cozy mystery and why Agatha Christie was the Queen of Cozies (he enjoys the A&E Poirot series with David Suchet as much as I do), he finally said to me, “Well why don’t you write one yourself, I’m sure you could.”  With his support, the rest — as ‘they’ so often say — is history.  My Gramma’s Off Her Rocker series of cozy mysteries was born.  Another series, Living the Dream on an Island in the Pacific is also in development, but has yet to reach the light of day.

Deciding On A Setting

HDR tonemapped
Looking out on the grounds of The Hollow

Once I decided that, yes, I jolly well could write a cozy mystery, I allowed my imagination free rein.  I’ve always been able to write more freely if I have some knowledge of the subject that I’m writing about, so my protagonist would be a 60-something grandmother, like me, who has a love for cozy mysteries (if you missed that part about me, go back and re-read the preceding paragraphs), crafts, and logic problems.  That sums me up in the least amount of words so I felt like I was well on my way to creating a cozy mystery to rival Agatha Christie’s classic efforts.

I discovered a book  on How to Write a Cozy Mystery (on Kindle of course) and devoured it almost in one sitting.  There it was everything I needed to know from outlining to plotting, to character creation and, perhaps most importantly, creating a setting.  One point that I see emphasized over and over is that for a cozy mystery to work well, your setting should really be a ‘closed’ or self-contained environment.  This ‘closed’ environment, doesn’t have to be cut off from the real world, but  it should be a small, self-contained place like a small village, or even a business where most of the mystery action takes place.  I decided that my setting was going to be a mysterious castle located close to the Adirondack Mountains, where all  of my regular characters lived or passed through on a regular basis.

Introduction  to The Hollow

The Hollow is an large estate situated in the foothills leading into the Adirondack Mountains.  Built by Captain Amos Agnew – a privateer who, following the capture of several large ‘prizes’ decided to leave off privateering and take his accumulated fortune (without sharing it with the government at the time) into the wilderness of New York.  Archibald Drew (the great-great-great-grandfather of my protagonist Jane Drew), was the Captain’s ‘partner-in-crime’ and he oversaw the construction of the castle building and the walls that encircle The Hollow on three sides (beginning in 1790). Captain Agnew died with no children, leaving the castle property and the remainder of his fortune to the holders of a numbered account in the Bank of Scotland, with the proviso that management and maintenance of the castle and its estate must always be handled by a member of the Drew family as long as they were living there.

The location for Captain Agnew’s hiding place was chosen with care.  Underneath the natural depression that encompassed several acres there was a large grotto and tunnel system connecting several limestone caverns that had been carved out by a series of hotsprings.  The caves were ideal hiding spaces for the treasures that had been hauled inland using mules and there were even some rudimentary stone cottages scattered around above ground.   A start had even been made on building some stone walls so, never ones to look a gift horse in the mouth, Captain Agnew and Archibald Drew enlarged the caves, created more stone walls and tunnels through surrounding hills,  builting an imposing castle in the middle of it all.  Of course, none of this could be seen by casual passersby — in the 1800’s there weren’t many of those and the Native American tribes who did stumble across the perimeter walls quickly decided that the hotsprings they had heard of must have been simply a legend after all.

Over the years  an extensive tunnel system was developed, joining castle with outbuildings. Hot water from the springs was piped to all parts of castle and outbuildings, while the grounds outside the castle walls are dotted with soaking hot pools.  A long soaking pool (heated of course) with a rustic bridge over it is the fourth side of the wall around the castle.

There are 11 stone houses built around the grounds outside the castle and Jane lives in the 12th house, a large Victorian style house that is built on a slight rise overlooking the castle and the rest of the grounds.  A small town gradually grew up a short distance from the hidden castle as workers were brought in to  complete Captain Agnew’s vision.

There You Have It!

And that’s my self-contained setting in a nutshell.  The hidden location of The Hollow made it a natural (in my mind) for setting up a rehab center/retreat for those uber-rich and infamous folk often have trouble coping with the curve balls that fame, fortune and too much of everything throw at them.

The hotsprings and the castle combine to attract a wide range of people.  The Eastern Kingdom of the Society for Creative Anachronism finds it the perfect spot for some of their Gathers, and an archaeological dig turned up some interesting Celtic relics so there is no shortage of mysterious goings on inside the walls of The Hollow.

Check out Toasted to Death on Amazon and discover what happens when a reality show shows up uninvited and storms the gatehouse.  A murder ensues and Jane along with her gaggle of grandmothers who share her home do all they can to keep things under wraps.

Rock On!

Lissa Knowles


Gramma’s Off Her Rocker

When the kids were in a jam
They could always count on Gram.
In the days of gracious living
Grandma was the girl for giving.

Life before grandchildren.

baby holding person s index finger

As a young (relatively speaking) Mom I was stuck at home with two kids in school and baby #3 on the way.  Since at the time hubby and I were living four hours from anywhere I got into crafts in a big way.  When a friend gave me a handwritten version of the Gramma’s Off Her Rocker  I made a cute tote bag and appliqued on it an empty rocking chair, complete with a tiny knitting project and ball of wool.   The words “Gramma’s Off Her Rocker!” completed my project and the grandmother I proudly presented it with was thrilled.

Word Play

I love anything that is a play on words, so the phrase at the end of the poem that introduces my first cozy mystery Toasted to Death has stuck with me since I saw it.  When I first read the words ‘Now that Gramma’s off her rocker!’ I visualized my own mother — at the time grandmother to six.  Energetic, hard-working and more than a little off-kilter in her own special way, my Mom regularly put me, her slothful youngest daughter to shame.

I grew up enjoying British comedy in all its subtlety and was fortunate enough to marry someone who also gets the silliness that often makes up the English language! For my husband and my sons, the phrase ‘off her rocker’ clearly indicates that Gram is completely bonkers, cuckoo, or otherwise a few bricks short of a load.  I have to confess that sometimes, midway through a project I have thrown myself into without  a lot of forethought, I do find myself mumbling under my breath,  “Am I nuts?  What was I thinking when I started this?”

A Cozy Mystery Series is Born

I carried around that handwritten version of the poem Gramma’s Off Her Rocker for many years but the line of crafts and what-nots  emblazoned with those words never managed to materialize outside of my head.  As my children grew up, I updated some of the verses to reflect what I felt modern grandmothers would really be doing.   Senior’s magazines were  suddenly more appealing to me and I realized that the average grandmother was really a super-Mom (possibly even one on steroids)  because she was looking after herself, her husband, her adult children and her grandchildren all at once.

The more I thought about it, and then had grandchildren of my own arrive — trust me here, I never even really wanted to be a Mom  (which does not explain why I had four children!) so being a grandmother was not some long-cherished goal of mine, the grandmother referenced in that poem was clearly just so busy that she was never in her rocking chair to begin with.  After all, what grandmother has time to rock (unless a crying grandbaby is involved) when her week starts with a Manic Monday, followed by Training Tuesday, Workout Wednesday, Thoughtful Thursday, Daycare Volunteer Friday and Special Events Saturday/Sunday.

Love houses like this, they can be purchased.  Look for Painted Lady listings at CIRCA

Thus my cozy mystery series began to take shape.  My heroine Jane, would  be a hyperactive over-achiever (I’ve been told I resemble that description), who is living in a modernized Painted Lady house.

Initially, I set Jane’s home in a small town, trying to stay true to the basic premise of a cozy mystery, that the heroine  lives in a small area–preferably her home town.   Jane was going to be running a business — since my first grandchild was barely a year old, it made sense to me at the time that perhaps she and her fellow grandmothers living near her were starting a diaper service.  As an aside,  this came about because disposable diapers are my primary pet peeve as a grandmother.

Location is Everything

HDR tonemapped
Dundas Castle

As the story started to take shape I found I was getting bogged down in the details of the small town that Jane was living in.  The characters weren’t the problem, my over-active imagination and obsessive compulsive mania for minute details were.  Finally I realized that what was needed was to move the entire story into a self-contained estate, but that mania for details was still slowing me down. I still  had so many questions.  Intriguing ones like:  Could there really be a castle like I’m imagining in up-state New York or; how about the school for butlers that was quickly becoming an indispensable part of the plot line, are there really such things in the  world?  Google is an amazing tool for research and without getting sucked too deeply into the research I found information on Dundas Castle, an honest to goodness castle (abandoned), deep in up-state New York.

Once I had established that something like what my imagination had conjured up, it was time to move on to the pressing question of how on earth was Jane going to look after such an imposing pile.   Once I found The School for Butlers , opening an American subsidiary of the Swiss-based European Butler Institute seemed perfectly possible, and I was off and running.  My estate was taking shape and there was going to be plenty of people available to help Jane solve the first mystery that was coming her way.

A Sequel Is On The Way

Now that Toasted to Death is getting to the toddler stage, having survived some (necessary) edits and out-right character revisions, it is time to start thinking about a younger sibling. Book  2 of the series, tentatively titled  Sinnin’ Buns is starting to take shape.   There will be butlers, some genetic exploration and a recipe for sticky buns that will knock your socks off!

Rock  on!

Lissa Knowles


Butler · cozy mystery · Gramma's Off Her Rocker

Gramma Used to Sit and Knit

grandma_rocking_in_ch_a_haIn the dim and distant past,
When the future wasn’t fast,
Gramma used to sit and knit,
Crochet, tat and babysit.

Grandbaby #2 arrived safe and sound in March.  Grandpa and I only had a few sleepless nights waiting for the phone call saying that everything was okay as the projected delivery date came and went.  Our first grand-daughter made  her appearance exactly a week later, unfortunately by emergency cesarean.  Mom and baby were both fine, but any gram worth her salt will tell you, often endlessly, that first deliveries can be a royal pain.

I discovered a new obsession during the wait for the newest grandbaby though.  Writing my very own cozy mystery has now joined quilting and crocheting as my latest obsession, along with walking, avoiding housework and (of course) playing with grandbaby #1.

A Baby Book is Born

It was with a huge sigh of relief and feeling of accomplishment last week that I performed my very own version of an emergency cesarean and clicked publish on the first rough, and I do mean rough, draft of the first book in a new cozy mystery series.  Bottom’s Up was safely delivered and deposited in an incubator at Wattpad.

For readers who haven’t met Wattpad yet, it is a place where new and established authors share their books with the reading public.  It offers writers a way to reach more readers and for readers there is a treasure trove of reading, all of it free and as an added bonus you can comment and nit-pick on anything you like.

New Cozy Mystery Series

08My ‘Gramma’s Off Her Rocker’ cozy mystery series is set in the Adirondack Mountains located in up-state New York.  Hidden in a secluded valley is an amazing castle, complete with secret passageways, butlers and footmen, and the cutest outbuildings you’ll ever see.

The Hollow

Jane is the chief administrator (she prefers the term ‘Chatelaine’) of The Hollow.  She inherited the position from her parents, who got it from their parents and so on and so on through a couple of ‘greats’ back to Tobias Drew who was the ‘Executive Assistant’ to a government sanctioned privateer —  so far  nameless — operating on the high seas in the early 1800’s.  Tobias and his fearless commander apparently managed to take more than a few prize ships before taking their gains and leaving New England for the seclusion that is now described as ‘up-state New Your.

Tobias was a Master Mason and assisted in the construction of a castle, its surrounding walls and secret tunnel system that connects everything with a hidden series of caves containing hotsprings galore.  Thomas’ boss recognized a good thing when he saw it and designed his castle to be a refuge for the rich and infamous of the day (read his closest associates who had turned from privateers to a life of piracy) as a place where they could rest and heal, far away from any inquiring reporters who might be wondering where they had disappeared to.

Over the years the actual ownership of The Hollow has vanished into a haze of bureaucratic documents but Jane and her family remain firmly established as the caretakers of the property ‘in perpetuity’ or forever to put it simply.  Occasionally the mysterious owners send gifts to The Hollow, like their stretch limo, known simply as ‘The Beast’.  It’s the perfect way to transport those who are rich and infamous coming to The Hollow for rest and rehab.  There are fully equipped spa and medical facilities inside the walls of the castle itself, and half of the 12 houses scattered outside the castle are being operated as bed and breakfast spots for the entourages that accompany visitors to the Secret Springs Spa and Wellness Center located at the heart of The Hollow.

Security for visitors and residents alike is provided by the European Butler Institute, the American arm of a training academy for butlers to the uber wealthy.  These butlers and housekeepers can do it all, including ridding their employers of unwanted pests, if necessary.  It’s easy enough to get into The Hollow, providing you have enough money and are willing to give up your cell phone, camera and any other perks of life that you probably should be doing without anyway.  Getting out, on the other hand, can be murder if you’ve annoyed the wrong person.

The Characters

Jane’s husband died under mysterious circumstances outside the castle walls, so some of her closest friends moved in with her to help with the grieving process.  These feisty women share many interests with Jane.  They are all grandmothers for starters and while they are mostly retired, one or two hands are kept busy in a wide variety of activities that have nothing to do with crocheting, tatting, OR babysitting.

gramsplaceAll of the grams live together in Jane’s large Painted Lady, aka Gram’s Place, similar to the one shown on the right.  It has been fully modernized inside to accommodate even the most persnickety senior citizen.  As well, the trainees of the EBI  wait on everybody hand and foot, honing their skills on some of the most demanding grandmothers you’d ever want to encounter.

There’s BJ for starters.  A retired corporate lawyer, BJ has been known to reduce hardened real estate speculators to tears as they realize that she has crafted an iron-tight contract for her client.  Or Lynne, a semi-retired clinical psychologist.  Lynne looks after the infamous clients who are deposited in the spa inside the castle, willingly or otherwise.  Lynn has written the book on disorders of the infamous and her assistance is much sought after by psychologists who are ready to throw their hands up and walk away from some of their recalcitrant patients.

Two of Jane’s children are also living in The Hollow.  Her second son, Nick and wife Madge are the resident managers of the castle building, running the spa and clinic exactly like an upscale hotel.  A very, very upscale hotel that is!  Nick’s twin sister, Nora, lives with Jane high up on the third floor of Gram’s Place.  Her four-year-old son Robbie was with her father when he died unexpectedly and Robbie hasn’t spoken since, whether due to trauma or because grandpa told him “Don’t say a word” is hard to tell.  Robbie is safely ensconced in the castle with Nick and Madge  under Lynn’s watchful eye, while Nora’s husband Richard is MIA, somewhere deep in the valleys of the Adirondacks.

09Charles Phillis-Pennick is another interesting fixture at The Hollow.  Nick returned from his ‘front of house’ training at the European Butler Institute headquartered in Switzerland with Charlie in tow.  Soon after his arrival there was a school for butlers established in the imposing house that sits just inside the front gate of the castle walls.

The Rest of the Story

(updated July 9, 2018)

Now that you’ve met just a few of the characters who inhabit the secretive world of The Hollow, follow the link below for the finished version of  Bottoms  Up! and find out what happens when a reality show suddenly turns up inside the walls of The Hollow!  It’s enough to send any grandmother ‘off her rocker’!

Bottoms Up!  was retitled Toasted to Death  when it was released through Amazon in September of 2017

Available wherever e-books are sold.

Rock on!

Lissa Knowles


First Words

“Come to gram, sweetheart.”Elliott-same-age

I have to be honest, those words probably weren’t what I said to my first grandbaby when he was handed to me, but that’s okay.  The thought was there somewhere I’m sure.  I’m not much of a baby person, never have been, much to the bewilderment of my daughters-in law.

Now I’ve established that I’m not your typical grandmother.  I do have white hair (a genetic inheritance from my father who was snow white by the time he was 40), but I initially had a hard time even referring to myself as ‘gram’.  Even now I’m not quite sure who it is that I’m talking about when I hold my running conversations with my 2 year-old  grandson.

I also do crafts — on a good day lots and lots of knitting crocheting and quilting — but very little of it makes it to the hands  of my children and grandchildren.  Again, not quite typical grandmotherly behavior but then I’m not exactly sure any more what a typical grandmother looks like any more.

Everywhere my husband of 42 years and I look there’s another grandparent, taking a toddler to the park or the doctor’s office, on walking trails pushing a jogging stroller or biking with baby in a trailer behind.  I’m sure there are loads more grandparents that I don’t see daily, sitting at home working  on a blanket or wooden toy for the newest arrival, or the one that is anticipated.  Perhaps they are having coffee with friends, pulling out pictures of the newest baby and sharing them.

Today grandparents are just as likely to be the primary caregivers of a grandchild rather than an infrequent visitor.  My husband and I moved 3,500 miles — give or take — to be closer to our first grandbaby.  Now on the opposite coast of North American, grandbaby #2 has arrived.  Naturally the burning question of the moment is — do we stay and enjoy every moment of the toddler time we spend enjoy weekly, or pack up and head back home in order to get to know our new granddaughter?

What would you do?