“The Story Behind the Story,” in The Rap Sheet

I love reading literary or historical fiction, biographies, and science, and consumed one or two books a week until I started treatment. After my first round of chemotherapy, already bald and weakened, someone gifted me a couple of Diane Mott Davidson’s culinary mysteries. Lying on the couch, I devoured the charming but suspenseful tales about Goldy, who baked complex, butter-rich concoctions for her wealthy clients while solving murders in a pretend, Aspen-like ski town. The food mentioned in Davidson’s books didn’t appeal to me, either because I don’t eat meat or because chemotherapy made everything taste metallic, even in my thoughts. Despite that, the stories brought me back to Colorado, where my children were born, where I met my husband, where I was awed whenever I lifted my eyes to the mountains. And real murders rarely happened at high altitude.

One day, my mother brought over a few Donna Leon novels, and I was transported to Venice, to the sumptuous three-course lunches Inspector Brunetti and his family enjoyed each day, prepared by his wife, who’d stopped to pick up fresh ingredients on her walk home from her full-time academic position at the nearby university. In real life, I could barely eat, but as I recuperated, I consumed large quantities of fictional pasta.

After my final chemotherapy, I needed to recover before surgery, and that’s when I discovered Martin Walker. I spent a few months in the south of France with the marvelous Bruno, Chief of Police, who always knows the correct wine pairing for whatever meal he’s tucking into. I also stopped in Sicily for a few books and followed Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano as he devoured every meal while solving one crime after another. Then an old friend introduced me to Dr. Frank Tallis, a clinical psychologist whose protagonist, Dr. Max Lieberman, solves crimes in turn-of-the-century Vienna, with help from a colleague, the young Dr. Sigmund Freud, and Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt, a fine baritone with whom Max performs classical duets, always followed by a trip to one of the many nearby cafés to imbibe sumptuous Viennese pastries.

It took months to recover from surgery, but I spent that time in Tasha Alexander’s Tsarist Russia, following beautiful Lady Emily as she charmed all of Europe’s royalty, and in Victorian England, reading Jennifer Ashley. I’m still trying to perfect a vegan version of the seedcake her protagonist, Kat Holloway, enjoys every afternoon with a cup of fragrant tea. Kat, with a nod to Agatha Christie’s Inspector Poirot, inspired me to graduate from grocery-store teabags to heavenly jasmine teas or herbal tisanes. When I wasn’t reading, I lay on the couch sipping tea and watching the entire Inspector Poirot series on cable television. I also briefly visited New Orleans with Jacklyn Brady, and A Sheet Cake Named Desire is still one of my favorite culinary mystery titles.

I spent my six weeks of radiation in early 20th-century New York, reading Rex Stout, who’d been the first author I’d encountered to include enticing descriptions of food in his mysteries. It was delightful to be immersed in the world of the portly Nero Wolfe, who consumes elegant gourmet meals, alone in his fabulous New York City brownstone.

When the cancer was eradicated and I knew that I had a good chance of living many more years, I decided to finally write my dream novel. I planned to write a cozy culinary mystery, the kind I adore, without violence, gratuitous sex, or gross descriptions of blood. And it would include recipes of the kind of food I both needed to eat and liked. The pastry chef would be vegan, so she would never use eggs or butter in her confections, and the café would be the kind of place I wish we had in my neighborhood.

Although I’m a conservatory-trained musician with no formal writing background, I’d written a heap of stories and even a couple of long, blabby manuscripts that got tossed when we last moved. Years before, I’d taken an online writing course with three other students, one of whom continuously proselytized in her stories. I dislike when people try to force their beliefs down my throat, and after having to listen to three stories about bad people who saw the light, I felt like it was time to fight back. My next three submissions involved dishonest, greedy, and otherwise amoral characters who live long, happy lives devoid of theology. Writing was more fun than I’d expected—turns out I really love telling stories.

My first culinary mystery was loosely based on a cryptic news item about a man who is discovered stabbed to death in a neighbor’s apartment. I filled in the hours before the body is found and described the scene from the viewpoint of the person who finds him. But I realized that I needed help, started googling writing teachers and editors, and found S.L. Wisenberg by reading a moving editorial she’d written in the Chicago Tribune. It was about how she’d opted against a bilateral mastectomy, and as soon as she’d conquered breast cancer, had developed blood cancer. Not only did she teach writing at the University of Chicago, she lived nearby. We met at a coffee shop and hit it off. Soon after, she began editing my first chapter. I wrote and rewrote that chapter repeatedly for the first six weeks, and she never gave up on me. After Battered: A Whipped and Sipped Mystery was published in 2019, the Tribune published my letter thanking the paper for having printed Sandi’s life-changing editorial.

I call her my teacher in addition to editor, because I learned what needed to be said and what could be left unsaid. Sandi taught me how to get inside a character instead of just describing external characteristics or actions. She helped me create the framework through which my fictional Whipped and Sipped Café could spring to life. She encouraged my portrayal of the protagonist’s building and neighborhood as the small, friendly town I feel it to be in real life. That’s important in a cozy mystery—characters cannot wade around in a sea of unknown faces. They need to say hello to the colorful locals, greet the postman, clink beer mugs with a neighbor. When you read a Whipped and Sipped Mystery, I want you to feel like you’re in Chicago, staying in a Lake Shore Drive high-rise across from Lake Michigan, overlooking one of the harbors. Just like the way I felt I was visiting Colorado, Italy, France, and turn-of-the-century Vienna, Russia, and England, all from my bed.

I loved my imagined travels across the globe during my illness, and indulging metaphorically in rich food and wine, but now that I’m a cancer survivor, I’m supposed to eat healthfully for the rest of my life. So, over the years of writing and rewriting, I took pastry- and bread=baking courses, and created healthful recipes for entrees, dips, and desserts. Friends and family tested them, including my pastry chef niece who showed me how I needed to describe the ingredients with great specificity. The recipes I include in my books are dairy-free, mostly vegan, and more healthful than is usual for a culinary mystery.

I don’t wish cancer on anyone, but if you’ve lost your appetite and you’re facing some recovery time on a couch, or you’re stuck at home during a pandemic, I recommend a little pretend murder, preferably with a side of peach pie. And you’re always welcome at the Whipped and Sipped Café.