Wendy Corsi Staub is about as versatile an author as one can find. But whether she’s writing a thriller, YA novel, romance (under the pen name Wendy Markham), or a cozy mystery, her books deliver character-driven narratives that bank on the unexpected. Staub chatted with PW about the new Lily Dale book, Prose and Cons; about worldbuilding across multiple genres; and how writerly inspiration can arise from the unlikeliest of places—specifically, in the form of a pregnant stray cat named Chance.
In the first book of the Lily Dale series, your heroine’s circumstances take a dramatically unexpected turn, and thank goodness for that. In writing and in life, have you experienced any similar detours?
Absolutely! My life, like my characters’ lives—and even my writing process itself—is so much richer for the detours I’ve taken. At 23, an aspiring writer supporting myself as an office temp in New York City, I landed in a large advertising agency and wound up with a full-time job offer. It wasn’t part of my career plan, but I accepted on impulse, and met my husband there two months later at the corporate Christmas party. I stuck with him, if not advertising—we celebrated our thirtieth wedding anniversary this week. And a few years ago, an ailing, pregnant stray cat appeared on our doorstep and triggered the idea for my Lily Dale mysteries. We adopted her on a whim, named her Chance, and she’s still thriving, as are the books!
How has Bella Jordan evolved throughout the series, and what’s in store for her in Prose and Cons?
When we first met Bella, she was a newly widowed young mom—also newly jobless, homeless, and penniless. En route to a fresh start in Chicago, she and her son Max came across an ailing pregnant stray cat named Chance—sound familiar? They are detoured to Lily Dale, NY, a town populated by people who talk to dead people. Bella, a true skeptic, thought they were all...well, eccentric, to put it kindly. Now, the lovable locals have become family to her and Max, and Lily Dale is home. She runs the local guesthouse and solves mysteries using common sense—unlike her neighbors, who tend to rely on psychic visions, or channeling spirits to solve their own murders. Is Bella now a wholehearted believer? Nope—but that doesn’t mean she’s found a logical explanation for everything that goes on around the Dale!
What ingredients go into writing a “cosy mystery”?
A twisty plot full of clues and red herrings is a must. So is worldbuilding—a three-dimensional cast of characters and a vivid backdrop that seems simultaneously familiar and unique. The protagonist should be resourceful, courageous, and eventually a few steps ahead of the antagonist, and readers. And of course, the crime is always solved in the end, and the bad guys never get away. Which ingredients are forbidden? Graphic violence, sex, language.
Your body of work includes not only thrillers, psychological suspense, romance, and lighter mystery fare like the Lily Dale series, but YA novels as well. Which is your favorite to write?
I’ve always approached my novels more as part of my brand than as belonging to a certain genre. I’m fulfilled if I’m writing a page-turner with plenty of twists, a touch of humor, a hint of romance, and multigenerational characters. Tweens and teens are a great source of domestic conflict in fiction as in life!
Do you have a personal relationship with spiritualism?
Not with spiritualism per se. But like Bella, I’ve experienced my share of bizarre coincidences and inexplicable events. For example, in 1995, my mom gave me a small hibiscus. She passed away a decade later. In the years since, despite my occasional neglect, that potted plant has grown into a potted tree, and for whatever reason, it blooms only once or twice a year—never during a specific season or in certain climate conditions, but always on a meaningful day. It bloomed last Friday on my birthday! Or when I’m struggling and really need to feel like my mom is with me. So, while I’m not a spiritualist, certainly the yearning to reconnect with a lost loved one is universal, and grief can be tempered by the belief that they remain with us.
The village of Lily Dale is a vibrant character. How much do you base it on the real-life New York town, and have you spent much time there?
It’s very much based on the real town, a gated lakeside cottage community and the birthplace of spiritualism, populated almost entirely by psychic mediums. Other than Chance and fellow felines, my characters are purely fictional, as are a few of the locations, like Valley View guesthouse. I grew up a few miles away from Lily Dale and was always fascinated by what went on there. I spent a considerable amount of time exploring the Dale in my youth, and of course in recent years, researching the Lily Dale mysteries as well as my earlier YA paranormal series set there. I have great affection for the town and its people. I now count many of the mediums among my personal friends and have tremendous respect for what they do.