Interview with Gwen Gardner: Fall 2020 Flash Fiction Runner Up

Monday, March 29, 2021

Gwen Gardner
writes clean, cozy, lighthearted mysteries with a strong ghostly element. Since ghosts feature prominently in her books, she has a secret desire to meet one face to face—but will run screaming for the hills if she ever does. 

Her lifelong love of books and reading transitioned naturally into a love of writing, where adventure can be found around every corner—or down a dark, twisting alley. She thinks there is nothing better than a good mystery (being an excellent armchair detective herself), unless it’s throwing a ghost or two into the mix to “liven” things up. Don’t worry, though. Ghosts may be tricky to keep in line, but it turns out they’re darn good sleuths. 

Gwen’s short story, A Stitch in Crime, won 1st place and feature spot in the 2018 Insecure Writer’s Support Group anthology, and she published her cozy mystery novella, A Scandal in Boohemia, in 2019, among others. Find out more about her writing journey at (and watch for ghost-crossings!) or follow her on Facebook and Twitter

Gwen holds a BA degree in English Literature from San Diego State University, and is a member of Sisters in Crime, an organization for women crime writers. 

Please take a moment to click through and read Gwen's story, "The Elephant in the Tomb."  Then come back to learn about her writing process and inspiration. 

------interviewed by Sue Bradford Edwards

WOW:  Your story grabbed me and didn’t let me go, but I have a fondness for cozies and ghost stories. What was your inspiration for the Elephant in the Tomb?

Gwen: My stories always start with character. For me, character is the hallmark of a cozy mystery, filled with quirky, lovable—and sometimes grumpy—characters to draw the reader in. 

When building Brother Bart’s world, I placed the setting in the Monks Meditation Garden. Brother Bart is a Benedictine monk in charge of taking care of the cathedral grounds. His character is a playful, creative “ghostly” monk who loves making topiary creatures from the hedges he is charged with maintaining. To that setting, I added the tomb of the unknown monk. When I thought of Brother Bart poking his head through a hedge like a disembodied big game trophy (the elephant), and the tomb with no name, I had both the title and the premise of the story. 

WOW:  It sounds like you started with a lot of the important elements of the story. How did the piece evolve through the rewrite process? 

Gwen: I didn’t make the cut on submitting this story the first time to the WOW contest, but I had signed up for the WOW critique and received some really helpful advice. Mostly unanswered questions about the stakes and the why of it, but also too many instances of telling instead of showing. The person who critiqued my story even said that it felt like it belonged to a longer piece, and she was so right! Brother Bart was always meant to be part of a larger story. 

When this contest came up, I pulled out the abandoned novel and edited the first chapter (which was all I had written haha!) to fit the contest parameters. Once I edited the “telling” parts, tightened up these loose strings, and narrowed my focus, I had an improved story to submit. 

And indeed, the next time I submitted it to WoW, I made it into the top ten finalists. I couldn’t be more thrilled! 

WOW: Both mysteries and flash stories rely heavily on pacing and not revealing too much too soon. What advice do you have for readers who are crafting their first mystery? Their first piece of flash fiction? 

Gwen: With flash fiction, the trick is to narrow your focus by limiting the number of locations, characters, and length of time. In Elephant in the Tomb, the story takes place in one location—the Monk’s Meditation Garden—and in the span of one misty morning. The story has only two “active” characters. 

I am an outliner. In writing a full-length mystery novel, I first create the clues and red herrings (after creating characters and setting), then work the story/plot around them. Each chapter needs to move the plot forward, and I try to end each chapter with something that makes the reader want to burrow under the covers with a flashlight and keep reading. 

Then on the second draft, you must “kill all your darlings.” The saying is usually attributed to Stephen King, but actually coined by William Faulkner. What this means is that you must get rid of any words or ideas that don’t add anything to the story (even though you personally love those words and ideas). It’s hard! But cutting them out, as well as getting rid of weak verbs, adverbs, prepositions, and overuse of pronouns will help the pacing of your story. 

There are software programs, I use ProWriting Aid, that help with self-editing and it is eye-opening the things you will learn. Of course, short stories, and especially flash fiction, are less forgiving than full length novels so I found myself spending hours and hours (and hours and hours) editing and revising and getting rid of “all my darlings” to meet the 750 word count criteria. 

Then put the work away for a couple of weeks. When you return to it, it is with fresh eyes. 

WOW:  As a mystery lover, I have to ask.  Who are your favorite mystery authors and why? 

Gwen: I love the classic British mystery writers such as Sir Author Conan Doyle, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, and M.C. Beaton. I also love Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Jacqueline Winspear, and Ann Cleeves. 

If you are familiar with these authors, then you’ve noticed that I am a complete anglophile and gravitate toward British authors. I am an American writing as a Brit, as well, as most of my writing/settings take place in fictional towns and villages of England. I find the history, architecture, and settings evocative, which lends itself to my brand of “haunted” stories perfectly. If you’ve read my bio, you know that I love my ghosties! From afar. 

WOW:  M.C. Beaton and Ann Cleaves are definitely among my favorites.  What are you working on now? Maybe a new series? 

Gwen: I have several series that I’m working on including my Indigo Eady Paranormal Cozy Mysteries. Book I, A Scandal in Boohemia, came out a couple of years ago. I’m now working on the second book in the series called, Something Borrowed, Something Booed. My sleuth is a ghost whisperer and her ghostly sidekick, Franny Bishop, is a former Victorian madam of some repute. Franny is a lovable but interfering old ghost who insists that Indigo needs a man before she becomes an old maid—at twenty-eight. 

My Brother Bart series is in process, currently untitled. Elephant in the Tomb is the prequel to the series. Really, what could be more fun than a sweet, beguiling, ghostly Benedictine monk as a sidekick amateur sleuth to his great, great, great nephew? 

But they’re not all ghost stories. I’m working on a “Brozy” mystery called Without Redoubt, a somewhat new, up-and-coming genre that is a “broader” version of the traditional cozy mystery and appeals to a broader audience. The protagonist is a wounded former RAF Navy pilot, and his sidekick is a gentle, whiskey-drinking giant of a monk and their little old, retired schoolteacher-turned-cabbie who can drink the two of them under the table. A humorous brozy, but like a traditional cozy, no overt violence, or sexual situations.

WOW: Brozy?  That's a new one for me.  Off to check it out and find you online.  Thank you for taking time out of your writing schedule to answer our questions.  


Sioux Roslawski said...

Sue--Thanks for doing this interview and for giving us a link to Gwen's flash fiction story. I enjoyed it.

Gwen--Congratulations. What a great twist at the end. I am not a mystery reader, but any good story--whether it's romance (I've only read a few of those... only Lisa Ricard Claro's books) or mystery or the genres I usually read--can engage me. Your story engaged me to the very end.

Good luck with your future writing, and congrats again.

Gwen Gardner said...

Sue, Like you, I read across all genres as long as it's a good story that keeps me engaged.

Thanks for your kind comments. I'm so glad you enjoyed my story :)

Gwen Gardner said...

Sioux, thank you for your kind comments! I'm so glad you enjoyed my story.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

And thank you for broadening my reading horizons. I love learning about new types of books. Maybe I'll discover a new favorite author.

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