In this year’s Craft of Writing blog, we’ve been concentrating on interviews with authors who write series. Each one of our guests this year has published several books in a series, and sometimes more than one series. This month is slightly different, and I think it’s going to be a special treat for readers.

My July guest, Dale Ivan Smith, is a fellow contributor to the Kill Zone Blog and recently published his novel, A Shush Before Dying: A Meg Booker Librarian Mystery.

Since Dale plans this to be the first book in a fun, cozy mystery series, I thought this would be an ideal time to interview an author who is on the leading edge of his series journey with all the first novel lessons fresh in his mind.

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Once again, we’re doing something fun for this interview. The name of each person who enters a comment today will be put into the drawing for this beautiful hand-crafted pen, made by my good friend, author and craftsman, Steve Hooley. Many thanks to Steve for donating the pen for today’s post. I will post the name of the winner after 9 o’clock pm CDT tonight. So join the conversation and earn a chance to win.

Former winners are excluded from the drawing. (But not from commenting!)

What better way to celebrate a cozy mystery in a library setting than by winning a hand-crafted pen. Join the interview with Dale Ivan about his new mystery A Shush Before Dying. Click To Tweet

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Welcome to the Craft of Writing blog, Dale Ivan Smith, and thank you for joining us!

Thank you so much for inviting me, Kay. It’s a real treat to be here.

You’ve recently published your first-in-series cozy mystery, A Shush Before Dying. Why did you decide to write this book?

I’d idly thought about writing a mystery for years, but kept putting it aside while I worked on fantasy novels. After publishing the final novel in my Empowered series in May 2020, the desire to write that mystery at long last hit me, and hit me hard. The previous December I had retired from the public library after thirty years, and I realized I wanted to set my mystery in a library, immersing the reader in the people who worked there and their perspectives, as well as show how much that library could be the heart of a community.

Why did you choose to place the novel in a library in the 1980’s?

I began working at the library in September 1987, after graduating from Portland State University, and have many fond memories of the small branch I began at. It was the last days of the pre-internet library. We used “dumb” computer terminals to check-out and check-in books, and create library cards, but did everything else by hand. Stamping date dues, putting newly arrived magazines into the collection, and especially searching for books in the card catalog. Each branch had a very distinctive character, with their own larger-than-life patrons and staff. Physical books were the heart of the library then: popular novels, non-fiction, an extensive collection of magazines and newspapers, and reference books on almost every topic.

In some ways, the public library back then felt like an old-fashioned bookstore, quite different from the open-concept and digital resources aspect of the modern 21st century library. The library was very much centered in the community, too, with book groups, neighborhood association meetings, programs. Some of those persist today, but not to the same degree.

I also have a lot of personal nostalgia for that decade with its colorful and varied fashions, music, books, and movies. I was in college, newly married, and there was a sense during those years that anything could happen, and that your life could go in any of a number of different directions.


You told me you always planned for this to be a series. What issues did you run into as you were writing this book, and what lessons did you learn from this experience?

There were several challenges. There was the obvious one of coming up with a mystery that worked. The more series specific challenge was managing a large cast of characters—my beta readers pointed out that I simply had too many to keep track of in A Shush Before Dying, which was vital feedback. I trimmed the cast down and also removed names from several minor characters. Lessons learned: Keep the cast to a number the reader can readily track, and be judicious about naming incidental characters when they’ll only be in one scene.

I also learned the importance of the developing both the series cast and the ongoing “cozy” plots, like a romance for Meg, what her actor brother Theo, a ball of enthusiastic energy, was up to, and foreshadowing future events and charaters. One example of this is Meg’s big sister, Shirley, who is absent in A Shush Before Dying, and lives a life of mystery. Another is why is the new page, Keith, who is always late, is so steadfastly mysterious about what he is doing when he’s not at work. I hope these questions and others propels reader interest going forward.

Creating the setting was not a challenge—it’s inspired by the real southwest Portland neighborhoods I worked in. I wanted the freedom of a fictional neighborhood, so I created Fir Grove, and invented the Portland Area Library System as an analog to the real library system that hired me. I realized that keeping track of setting details in a series bible is crucial so that the series remains consistent over a number of books.

What plans do you have for future books in the series?

A romance for Meg, what her brother Theo is up to, answering questions about Keith, Meg’s friendships with coworkers and with “Aunt” Dorothy and others, as well as what happens with a certain kitty who will appear in Book 2.

When the series begins, Meg sees her librarian job as a short-term affair while she finishes her delayed master’s degree, with a PhD in history and a career in academia to follow. But her heart is drawn to library work, and this conflict will play out as the series develops and we see Meg growing into her various roles.

How do you plan to keep the series fresh after readers become familiar with the stories?

Great question! I hope to keep the series fresh by showing Meg’s unfolding life, relationships, and what happens with both the family she was born into and the family she found at the library, and her growing reputation as an amateur sleuth, along with a few surprises.

Have you considered what to do if a reader picks up the second book in the series without having read the first one?

Since this is a cozy series, each novel’s main story line will be self-contained (even as each book advances the ongoing series arc) and so will need to open by grounding a reader in the setting and the characters, especially Meg. I think with a cozy mystery series doing this is easier because you also need to show the “world” as it is before the crime disrupts everything. Establishing that world in brief is an excellent opportunity to bring new readers on board at the start of each book.

What advice would you give an author who’s considering writing an episodic series, such as cozy mystery?

Consider character-centric questions you don’t answer in the first book, as well as an ongoing, open-ended storyline, like a budding romance. Also, think about your continuing supporting cast, because they will appeal to readers and keep them reading as well. Can you discover more about what makes each of them unique, interesting, quirky even, and fun to read about?

Where can we find out more about you and your work?

My website is The mystery page there has a link to my mystery reader group newsletter. You can email me at I’m also on Twitter: @dalevan.

Thank you, Dale, for being with us today.

Thank you so much, Kay. It was a genuine pleasure being here.

What better way to celebrate a cozy mystery in a library setting than by winning a hand-crafted pen. Join the interview with Dale Ivan about his new mystery A Shush Before Dying. Click To Tweet


Dale Ivan got into trouble in Fifth Grade for sneaking off to the school library during class, so naturally he wound up becoming a librarian. He started out at a small branch library in Portland, Oregon after graduating college, and worked at several different branches in the Multnomah County Library system for over thirty years.
Dale loved helping readers find their next great read, showing students how to use the library, teaching computer classes, working with library patrons from every walk of life and every part of the world, and giving story times for families. He retired in 2019 to follow his passion for writing. A long-time mystery reader, when he’s not writing, reading or watching mysteries, he can be found doing jigsaw puzzles with his wife, playing board games or outdoors at night stargazing. He blogs every other Saturday at The Kill Zone.


  • I’ve read A Shush Before Dying. Great setting, fabulous amateur sleuth character (Meg), and good mystery. I’m looking forward to book 2!

  • Good morning, Dale and Kay.

    Great post. Very interesting story, Dale, of how you ended up in the library and what lead you to start your mystery series. Thanks for the wonderful advice on writing a series. Very helpful!

    The best of luck with A Shush Before Dying.

    • Thanks, Steve! I’m glad you found my thoughts on writing a series helpful, it’s a topic I’m continually learning more about. I really enjoy reading various series, and being able to write my own series is a chance to share my love for them.

    • Good morning, Steve! As a writer of fantasy series yourself, you can relate to everything Dale said. Your Mad River Magic series is a great example of middle grade fiction. How many books are there in the series now?

  • Kay, a little history for readers on the pen that is being offered today in the drawing:

    The pen is made from Red Oak, the favorite wood for library shelves, according to Dale Ivan and his library associates. The wood was harvested in 2015. The trunk diameter was 27 inches, yielding an age of about 121 years, and dating it to about 1895, the year of the first U.S. auto patent, and the year Roentgen discovered X-rays in Germany.

    Grab a piece of history, point the pen at a friend, and tell them you have X-ray vision.

    • Steve, Thank you for giving us the history of the pen. For folks who aren’t familiar with Steve’s work: the pens he makes are truly unique. They are made from special wood that Steve selects, often because of its historical significance. Each pen is hand-crafted, so no two are exactly the same. I’m the proud owner of one of the pens made of wood from a clock tower.

      You can find out more about Steve’s pens on his website at

  • debbieburkewriter

    Dale, Shush was a delightful book and a great launching pad for a new series. Really fun to travel back in time to the pre-computer period and setting.

    Wishing you success with this book and the series future.

    • Thank you, Debbie. I’m so glad you enjoyed the book and revisiting the pre-computer library. I’m looking forward to sharing the next one in the series in the not-too-distant future.

    • Good morning, Debbie. I’m glad you mentioned the “pre-computer period” the book is set in. It does bring back memories.

  • Great interview. I’ve found that keeping track of those little “throwaway details” you add to make a character interesting can come back to bite you when the character shows up again later, or in another book. Toss in a line like, “I told him not to use his kid’s birthday as his password” and oops…now you have to give that character a kid. Do you stop and make notes every time you add a detail, and how do you track which details might end up being important. (In the above referenced line, that character ended up being the lead in a subsequent book and I had a heck of a time figuring out how to deal with that child.)

    • Thanks, Terry. That’s an excellent insight, and an issue I’ve struggled with. Many of us series writers would benefit from having a series bible to track all those little details that can come back to haunt us in subsequent books. I’ve started one for Meg Booker—the challenge now is to keep it up to date.

    • Great question, Terry! Those little throw-away comments can come back to haunt a series writer, and readers won’t be happy if the author tries to gloss over them.

      You’ve written lots of books in series. How do you handle it?

      • Because the thought of creating series Bibles at this point is too daunting for me to attempt, I do a lot of skimming previous books, and when I’m starting the next one (I’m not a plotter at all), I’ll make notes, or copy bits and pieces into a file document.
        The hard part is knowing what to keep track of, so I’ll copy sections of descriptions of settings, etc. Is the municipal building brick? What floor is the boss’s office on? And for characters, because secondary or even tertiary characters have a way of sneaking back in when you least expect it.

  • Sounds like a book I would like to read. Really like that it takes place in a library. Thanks for the blog

  • You had me at “dumb computers.” I immediately purchased a copy of this book, because I used to spend hours at the library in those pre-internet, pre-digital, days. You could usually find me at the microfiche table, laboriously copying stuff out of ancient magazines and the like. This book sounds like everything I know and love about libraries. Well, except maybe for the murder, but I expect even that will be fun. I’ve also pre-ordered your next book!

    Mel Hughes

  • I’ve got a copy of the book in my library, but haven’t read it yet. I enjoyed hearing more about creating the cast of characters and the setting. I like reading series and learning more about the characters as the series progresses. Looking forward to reading this one soon.

  • Thanks to everyone who stopped by and left a comment on today’s post, and a special thank you to Dale Ivan Smith for being my guest today.

    I listed all the people who commented today who were eligible to win, and gave each of them a number that corresponded with the order that they commented in. Here’s the list:

    1 Terry Odell
    2 Sue
    3 Mel Hughes
    4 Michelle C.

    Then I ran a random integer generator to pick a number between 1 and 4. The number that came up was 3. Congratulations to Mel Hughes for winning the pen.

  • A mystery in a library?!? I’m hooked! So looking forward to reading this. Great interview – really a lot of practical questions and answers for anyone who considers writing a series. Thank you Kay & Dale! BTW, I LOVE my Steve Hooley pen. Congrats in advance to today’s winner. Lisa

  • Squeeeee! (Doing the happy dance on reading the announcement.) I may have to buy a new journal just for this pen. And I’m loving the book so far!

  • Congratulations, Mel! You’ll love the pen. Use it in good health.

  • Hi Kay and Dale! I tried to comment last night but I was on my iPad and didn’t remember my password for my WordPress account. 🙂 I have A Shush Before Dying and will be reading it soon! I have one of Steve’s pens I ordered to give away, but after I got it, I decided I was keeping it. lol

  • I remember our old neighborhood library. It was about 2 miles away, in an otherwise all residential area. I tend to put libraries in my novels. I used to study at several USC libraries. Lately, I attend writing workshops and literary events at the nearest branch. Shoes are optional, there.

    • Hi J. Thanks for stopping by.

      Although there’s a lot to be said for the convenience of our online access to everything, I miss my frequent visits to libraries. I check out most books digitally now.

      Hope you enjoy Dale’s book. Have a great weekend!

    • Hi J. I love that you put libraries in your novels, it shows how much they’ve influenced you.

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