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If At First You Don't Succeed

Cleland’s first attempt at publishing a novel didn’t go so well

Her manuscript, about a male New York City private detective, was similar to other mysteries that she liked to read, which turned out to be a problem. Too many of those types of mysteries already existed, and publishers rejected her book.

To break into mystery writing, Cleland needed to pen something different. An editor suggested that she write about an amateur female sleuth living outside of New York. Heeding that advice, and drawing from her own experience as a rare-book dealer in Portsmouth, N.H., in the 1980s, Cleland created Josie Prescott, a Granite State antiques appraiser who solves crimes when trouble, inevitably, seems to find her.

Cleland thinks an antiques environment is a perfect setting for a mystery series. Appraisers have the research and analytical skills needed to be amateur detectives, and they handle unique and priceless items that may invite scandalous behavior. Theft, forgery, fraud, and even worse can happen in the antiques world, she says.

That antiques setting proved to be a winning idea, and Cleland since has published four Josie Prescott novels, with the latest, Killer Keepsakes, coming out this past April. Cleland also will have her second Prescott short story appear in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine this June.

With her novels, Cleland wanted to create a fictional universe that was “sweet and decent,” a place where readers would want to spend time and return again and again. However, that’s not to say her books are playful, cozy, and cute. Cleland sees herself in the mold of Agatha Christie, and her novels are smart and serious and involve grave crimes.

The novels also deal with the “underbelly of emotion,” as Cleland puts it. Her main character struggles with isolation from her old life, having blown the whistle on a price-fixing scandal at a New York auction house, and she moves to the rugged coast of New Hampshire to begin again and build a new community.

Unfortunately, the author can identify with her creation’s feelings of isolation all too well. Within a few tragic months in 1999, Cleland’s mother, brother, and cat died, and she was divorced from her husband of 20 years. It was a dark time, and Cleland channeled her emotions into Prescott, though writing also became a way to experience something good and fun. “I felt like I needed joy in my life, so I created joy in this world,” she says.

Now remarried and living in New York, Cleland lives a busy life. Part of her time is spent as a self-employed corporate trainer. She’s been doing that for 25 years and is the author of four books on business communications.

She also continually works on her fiction writing, and just like with Hammond and Jones, a big piece of that involves marketing. Cleland plans book tours, ships promotional materials, guest writes on mystery blogs, sends out a newsletter, and maintains two Web sites: one for her fiction and one for her corporate training.

Additionally, she attends mystery conferences, where she meets readers. At one conference, she remembers a fan of the novels asking about the future of Ty Alverez, who is Prescott’s romantic interest.

Joking, Cleland replied that Alverez was headed for trouble, but the fan wasn’t in the mood for playing. She grew serious. “What kind of trouble?” the fan said. At that point, Cleland realized that her characters were important to this woman and other readers like her. “These characters are real to her,” the author says.

Cleland immediately told the woman that she was only kidding.