1. Welcome, Elizabeth, and thank you for taking the time to do this interview for the Literary Sewing Circle! Can you tell us a bit about how you came to write Premeditated Myrtle? What was the genesis of this character and her delightful story?
I am so happy to be here! Thank you for the generous invitation! Premeditated Myrtle is the product of an early morning Freudian slip. Several years ago my husband and I were dragging our groggy selves through our morning routine, attempting to carry on a cogent conversation while woefully precaffeinated. One of us, remarking on something on the news, tried to say “premeditated murder,” and it came out “premeditated myrtle.” I looked at my husband and said, “That is a middle grade mystery!”
2. Myrtle is such a clever, intellectual character, but she's also a believably young girl with emotional issues to face in her life. How did you find that balance, which makes her so relatable and sympathetic?
Well, confession time: Myrtle is me, when I was in eighth grade and my home room teacher told my parents I was antisocial and argumentative. I remember being a clever twelve-year-old, fascinated by things that my peers couldn’t relate to, and yet surrounded by supportive adults (Mr. Lippe notwithstanding) who nurtured my interests, encouraged my intellectual pursuits, and gave me room to be myself—argumentative and all.
Writing Myrtle therefore comes pretty naturally! But I’ve also realized that Myrtle is at her best and most entertaining as a character when she is pushed to the absolute edge. She may see herself as a totally rational professional, but she’s also twelve, and being twelve and clever in a world that is not quite prepared for you is a recipe for some moments of… passion, shall we say? One of my favorite scenes in Premeditated Myrtle is when Miss Judson tells Myrtle she sounds hysterical and ridiculous, to which she stomps her foot and cries, “I am NEVER hysterical!” Of course not, Myrtle. Sorry we suggested it…
3. There are so many great female characters in this book - Myrtle herself, of course, but others like Miss Judson. She's a complex and intriguing person. Did her relationship to Myrtle come to you immediately when you first conceived of this story, or was it something that developed as you wrote?
Interestingly, the book really started to come alive for me when I focused on writing Miss Judson. I had been doing character and scene sketches with Myrtle, Peony, the neighborhood… but the important pieces of the world didn’t click together until Miss Judson’s efficient boots first telegraph-tapped into the schoolroom, in what became the very first scene of the book. As soon as she was on the page, I knew her. But, of course, she has a fascinating and complex background—she’s an immigrant and a woman of color in Victorian England, a world with a very narrow definition of British Womanhood. Having been thrust forcibly into that world as a young girl—Black and French in an English boarding school—and expected to become as British as possible as fast as possible, I think she has a unique perspective on how to help Myrtle navigate the challenges of becoming a Young Lady of Quality while still learning how to be true to herself.
It’s been such fun exploring even more aspects of her personality as the series goes on. As Myrtle herself says, “Miss Judson is a deep well”—she’s constantly surprising me. I’ve just turned in the first draft of Book 5, Myrtle, Means, and Opportunity, which revolves around a surprising change in Miss Judson’s fortunes, and it's been a great chance to really explore the evolution of the relationship between my two (human) heroines.
One thing readers might not have noticed is that Miss Judson gets the first line in every book. (“Correct me if I’m wrong,” being her opening in Premeditated Myrtle.) When I begin a new book, it’s that first comment of Miss Judson’s that sets the tone for the whole story.
4. What was your inspiration for the precocious Peony? Are you a cat lover yourself? And if so, do you have a "cattern weight" who helps you with your sewing?
I am a cat lover—a cat adorer—a cat worshipper! I am a Friend to All Cats! I always thought of myself as a Confirmed Dog Person—so much so that I wound up sharing my home with a retired racing greyhound and ten unemployed coonhounds. I mean, that’s some serious Dog Devotion right there! As they grew older and needed more fulltime care, I took time away from writing to focus on them. In the summer of 2016 a little stray cat showed up on our doorstep (actually our garage), and gradually insinuated herself into our lives until, over the course of the next year, she became a permanent member of our family. When she meowed, she really did sound like she was saying “No!” …And she said it a lot. At the time we first met her, I was just starting to play around with the notion of a new story, and a friend reminded me that mystery lovers love cats (or maybe it was cat lovers love mysteries?). She suggested I write a mystery about the opinionated little feline. Peony was the perfect fit for that back-burner idea I had, the middle grade mystery called Premeditated Myrtle…
My cat Quincy—always called Boo—is my biggest sewing fan. Ever. He tests all new fabrics for coziness, monitors my progress, and peforms quality control tests on every project. He also likes to photobomb awards ceremonies.
5. I find that this book works perfectly for both middle grade and adult readers; personally I especially enjoyed the footnotes. But I can imagine it takes some work to get the tone just right. Is it difficult to write something aimed at the middle grade audience which is also an entertaining read for adults?
No. 😊 Well, at least I don’t find it so, in these books. I had a very specific audience of young readers in mind when I began Premeditated Myrtle: kids who “read up,” or whose reading level is above their age and grade level. My first several books were for young adults (teens), but most of my fan mail was coming from younger readers—fifth and sixth graders. They were responding to my dense prose, the historical settings, the darker themes… did I mention the dense prose? I realized I needed to write a book especially for those kids. And that meant not changing anything about the way that I wrote: with respect for the intelligence of my audience, and with trust that they will follow—and enjoy!—a story even if they don’t know every single word on the page. Myrtle certainly didn’t disappoint me as a narrator: she uses some words even I have to look up! (She knows four languages, after all, and I have… one.)
One of the first fan letters I got after Premeditated Myrtle came from an eleven-year-old who told me she studied Latin and forensics and had no idea that there were books about murder written for her! Smart kids like Myrtle often find themselves reaching for—or being handed—adult books. Such kids who are mystery fans very often find their way to Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie and fall in love with the genre. But as wonderful as those stories are, they’re not about kids. They don’t have young heroes solving the crimes. And that’s what I wanted to give my younger fans: all the complexity of an adult novel, but starring somebody like them.
6. I know that you are also a sewist and maker with a wide range of interests. What are some of your favourite creations, and where can people find out more about your creative pursuits?
You’re asking me to pick a favorite project? That’s like trying to pick a favorite cat—or book! I’m a lifelong needlewoman (I had my first embroidery project handed to me when I was five), and an internet-taught seamstress who learned to sew as an adult. My first love was historical costuming, and I learned to sew making Renaissance Fair costumes for my whole family. (If you come to visit during Fair season, you get a costume. Full stop.) Along the way I started making costumes related to my books (I made an 18th century ensemble all in wool for my first book, A Curse Dark as Gold, which takes place in a woolen mill.) With the Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries, though, I am quite a few years (cough, decades) removed from the age of my protagonist, and the schedule of a book a year hasn’t left a lot of time for my own costuming endeavors. I have since discovered a delightful new outlet for my historical costuming: I now make them in miniature, modeled by 18” dolls. I have been developing a girl’s 1890s wardrobe based on period fashion plates—and I’ve gotta tell you: this is the most fun you can possibly have with a needle and thread. The second-most-fun is quilting, although these days I do more garment sewing than anything—my everyday work clothes are disgracefully casual, but I enjoy dressing up for author events, and this spring I got to make a couple of Very Posh Frocks for awards ceremonies (Cold-Blooded Myrtle, Myrtle Hardcastle #3, was nominated for the Edgar and Agatha Awards). Since Myrtle debuted during the pandemic, these were my first events for which I need something presentable on my lower half!
I try to share my projects on social media. I blog at my website, www.elizabethcbunce.com where there is also a page devoted to Making. You can find all my social media handles/links there, too. And, of course, I participate in the message boards and post reviews at the sewing website PatternReview.com, where I go by the handle “stirwatersblue” (a reference to my first book, and at the time the only username I could come up with that hadn’t already been taken!) There is now a lively contigent of fellow seamstresses who know me primarily as “Stirs!”
7. Are you working on anything else that you'd like to share right now?
Having just turned in the latest Myrtle book, I am now officially On Holiday! But I have an incredibly exciting event coming up next month. The Kansas City Public Library, Westport Historical Society, and the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures Museum have teamed up for World Doll Day 2022 to celebrate this year’s theme, Dolls & Books. To that end, they are creating a Myrtle Hardcastle doll! They had no idea I was a doll costumer when this idea was conceived, and I am beyond excited by their project. We’re doing a presentation at the festival, for which my vintage 1993 Battat 18” model will be getting a new frock, Myrtle’s outfit from the cover of In Myrtle Peril (Myrtle Hardcastle #4), which comes out October 6. The dress is based on a period fashion plate I sent to Brett Helquist, the cover artist for the Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries. I have been gathering all the materials for this project for the past couple of months, and now at last I have time to start sewing! Kaufman fine-wale corduroy in “amethyst,” some deep purple microsuede, pleated organza… It’s going to be very fun!
Thank you for sharing some of your writing and sewing journeys with us, Elizabeth! We hope you'll enjoy seeing the projects we make inspired by your writing.
You can find out more about Elizabeth here: