Writing for the Holidays

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here. This year, as every year, many publishers brought out Christmas-themed books. Some editors regularly request Christmas books or novellas from the authors of the series they publish. One of my contracts even specified that the second (untitled) book I was to write for that publisher would be “a Christmas book.”

Aside from the occasional “October is much too early to be buying books about Christmas” complaint, most readers seem to enjoy stories centered around popular holidays. In the Liss MacCrimmon series, written as Kaitlyn Dunnett, I’ve done Halloween (Vampires, Bones, and Treacle Scones), Thanksgiving (Overkilt), and Christmas (A Wee Christmas Homicide and Ho-Ho-Homicide). Because the plot I had in mind required fireworks, I wanted to do a 4th of July story, but “those who decide such things” didn’t think that would be enough of a draw. That book (Kilt at the Highland Games) ended up focused on an annual local festival rather than a national holiday. I can’t say that it made any huge difference. It was just a little trickier to explain the fireworks.

But to return to Christmas, I enjoyed writing those two books, although both were more focused on the weeks leading up to the holiday than on the actual day. In A Wee Christmas Homicide, my amateur sleuth, Liss MacCrimmon, realizes that she has in her shop, Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium, one of the last remaining stashes of the hot toy of the season, Tiny Teddies. But are they real, or ringers smuggled in from nearby Canada? Two other stores in Moosetookalook have a supply as well and when one of those shopkeepers is murdered, finding out the truth may be a matter of life or death.

Ho-Ho-Homicide is set on a Christmas tree farm in Maine, one Liss and her husband are visiting as a favor for a friend. What that friend hasn’t told them is that the former owner disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The book actually ends before Christmas, when Liss returns to the scene of the crime to buy a tree for herself, but it still counts as a “Christmas mystery.” By sheer serendipity, it also got a major publicity boost when the title caught the attention of the good folks at The Tonight Show. Although Ho-Ho-Homicide isn’t precisely recommended by Jimmy Fallon, since the titles were obviously chosen so he could make fun of them, he does say that “it has two things everybody loves—Christmas and murder.” That’s what we call a “pull-quote” in the book business and it now appears on all my book jackets.

I’ve also written one other mystery novel and one mystery short story with Christmas settings, both in the Face Down series I wrote as Kathy Lynn Emerson. Set in sixteenth-century England, the second in this series, featuring Elizabethan gentlewoman, herbalist, and sleuth, Susanna, Lady Appleton, is Face Down Upon an Herbal. It takes place in a castle in rural Gloucestershire during Yuletide and gave me the opportunity to have my characters engage in holiday customs of yesteryear. It was first published in 1998. Then, in 2010, I was asked to write the Christmas story for that year’s Christmas chapbook from Crippen & Landru, a publisher of short story collections, including my collection of LadyAppleton stories, Murders and Other Confusions. The result was “Lady Appleton and the Yuletide Hogglers,” which was later included in my second short story collection, Different Times, Different Crimes from Wildside Press.

Going back even farther, when I was writing contemporary romance novels, again as Kathy Lynn Emerson, I set two at Christmastime. Relative Strangers takes place at an inn in rural Maine, one with a resident ghost, where my heroine has gone to escape from her family. That Special Smile is set in the same small Maine town, Waycross Springs, which is about an hour’s drive from Moosetookalook, and although it starts several months earlier, the fast-approaching holiday is what forces characters to make some life-changing decisions. Some of the characters in these two romances reappear in minor roles in the Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries.

Although it’s fun to structure a murder mystery around a holiday, especially one that gathers large family groups together, it’s also a sad reminder that many real murders happen at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Ask anyone in law enforcement. Tensions run high over the dinner table and in front of the tree, and when they do, it may not take much to incite violence. To quote from an old TV show: be careful out there.

With the June 2019 publication of Clause & Effect, Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty books traditionally published. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries and the “Deadly Edits” series as Kaitlyn. As Kathy, her most recent book is a collection of short stories, Different Times, Different Crimes. Her websites are www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com and she maintains a website about women who lived in England between 1485 and 1603 at A Who’s Who of Tudor Women.


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5 Responses to Writing for the Holidays

  1. Anonymous says:

    I wrote a Christmas story last year for MCW readers and am deep into one for this year. Since I write cops, of course I am thinking of all the things that can go wrong at Christmas. I do love the title Ho Ho Homicide.


    • kaitlynkathy says:

      I’ve always wondered why Christmas mysteries are so popular. Clearly they are, and most have “happy” endings in the sense that the crime is solved, but murder at Christmas? That said, my favorite Christmas murder mystery is Charlotte MacLeod’s REST YOU MERRY, which is hilarious.

  2. Kate Sullivan says:

    Absolutely the best Christmas mystery!

  3. Janet Howell says:

    Composing for occasion issues of magazines can be somewhat dubious. At any rate for me. I just consider thoughts for articles and stories during the real occasion. The issue with that is it’s past the point of no return, or too soon, to then send it into the magazine.

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