Welcome, Kelly. Let’s get started, shall we?
Tell us about your novel. Is it part of a series? If so, please tell us about the series too.
Dead of Winter Break is the third in the Cassandra Sato Mystery Series and takes place between the fall and spring semesters when most of the campus is closed for the holidays.
Cassandra Sato, the smart, witty Morton College administrator, has traded in her designer heels for furry boots and she’s buried under her first Nebraska blizzard. Housebreaking her new dog isn’t going according to plan; neither is pinch hitting as dorm supervisor over the holidays while everyone else enjoys family time or vacation.
Her boss is dead, and the police are calling it a burglary gone wrong. When the killer comes after her, it’s going to take more than Andy Summers, the campus security director with a not-so-secret crush on her, to keep her out of deep trouble.
Once again, the entire college squad is in action, including Meg, Cinda, and Professor Bryant, shoveling through knee-deep suspects, wisecracking their way through this fast-paced, holiday themed whodunit.
Cassandra’s first Christmas in Nebraska could be her last unless her friends help unravel the mystery and housebreak her dog.
Where did the idea for the mystery that is central to the story come from?
There’s a kernel of Nebraska uniqueness in each of my stories. My brother-in-law sells seed corn to local farmers and kindly explained the importance of soybean seeds to this city girl. Huge lawsuits in recent years impacted large seed corporations and the trade agreements or tariffs related to international trade of farm goods. If you live in the Midwest for twenty-five years, you pick up some of this stuff by osmosis. Once I did a deep research dive, I realized how important proprietary seeds are to the bottom lines of local farmers and international corporations. Like most people, I was pretty oblivious to how all of that boils down to what’s available on my grocery store shelves and the price of consumer goods. Foreign countries actually send spies to farms to steal the drought and disease resistant seeds and use them in their own countries. It seemed like the perfect motive for murder!
Is there a theme or subject that underlies the story? If so, what prompted you to write about it?
In the first two books of the series, Cassandra’s predicament as a fish out of water helped readers relate to her difficulties getting used to her new home in Nebraska. Now that she’s settled in a bit, I threw a few obstacles to disrupt her plan for a quiet, restful winter break between semesters.
Winter in the Midwest isn’t for wimps and Cassandra quickly learns what it feels like to shovel snow off her driveway. She has a new dog, Murphy—her first pet ever—and she’s learning some ASL so she can chat with her Deaf students and colleague, Dr. Bryant. All of these changes push Cassandra to her limits.
By the end of the holidays, Cassandra has to decide the depths of her commitment to her long-term career goals and balancing those with a healthier home life. Can an orphaned dog worm his way into her heart?
How do you create your characters? Do you have favourite ones? If so, why are you partial to them?
I’m a pretty concrete thinker. Usually I start with a first name of someone I know, then I add a last name of another person. Then I choose the way someone I’ve seen looks, the way another person talks or walks, and a funny phrase someone else says. I mash all those people together to come up with my characters. Then when I’m writing dialogue, I imagine, “How would so-an-so say that?” Or “How would that person walk into a room?” It helps me visualize the scene and the conversation.
The more books I write in this series, the more I get to know about the background of all the characters. I already was attached to Cassandra and her bestie Meg. In Dead of Winter Break, she spends more time with her quirky friend Cinda and Dr. Bryant.
Dr. Bryant started off as a small character in a few scenes, like an extra on a movie set. Quickly I realized his life experiences are so different than Cassandra’s that she finds him fascinating and wants to know him more.
Bryant has become such an important part of Morton College; I could see him getting his own short story or novel in the future.
How do you bring to life the place you are writing about?
It helps that I’ve lived in Nebraska for twenty-five years. Real towns and college buildings flash in my head as I write the scenes. I think those details come through in the books. Many readers have told me that they enjoy visiting fictional Morton campus again with each new book and seeing what the characters are up to now.
I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but for this book I actually took a road trip to a nearby town that figured in the ending scenes. It was a wonderful excuse to drive in the country on a warm summer day, the top down on my Mini Cooper convertible, after being cooped up for months at home because of the pandemic. I took photos of the places I wanted to include in the story so I could envision the scenes better while I wrote them.
It was so much fun, I think I’ll do that again with my next book. When I reach a point where I’m struggling to imagine what comes next, I’ll take a drive to spot locations and see what happens next.
What research do you do to provide background information to help you write the novel?
Since I’m an extrovert, I like to interview local experts about background information I might need. For Dead of Winter Break, I talked to my brother-in-law who works for a farmers’ cooperative, a global studies college professor who knows about food shortages around the world, and another friend who is Deaf and a pilot because I had some questions about aviation practices in small airports. Talking to someone face to face (or on zoom) is better than simple internet searches because those people give me real stories or a flavor for how it feels to do their job. I think those authentic experiences make their way into the book and make the overall story better.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell readers about the book?
2020 has been quite a year of ups and downs. If you’re looking for a fun, quick escape during the holidays, I hope you’ll pick up a copy of Dead of Winter Break. If you haven’t read the previous books, you’ll still be able to follow along with this story.
Wishing you a peaceful holiday season, good health, and a better 2021. As Cassandra would say, “Mele Kalikimaka and Hau‘oli Makahiki Hou!”
Thanks for answering my questions, Kelly, and good luck with Dead of Winter Break, the latest book in the Cassandra Sato Mystery series.
The novel is available online at Amazon
About Kelly Brackenhoff: Kelly writes the Cassandra Sato Mystery series including DEATH BY DISSERTATION, a 2020 RONE Award Mystery Finalist, DEAD WEEK, “a diverting whodunit,” (Publishers Weekly), and DEAD OF WINTER BREAK available in November 2020.
Kelly is an American Sign Language Interpreter whose motivation for learning ASL began in high school when she wanted to converse with her deaf friends. NEVER MIND and FARTS MAKE NOISE, her children’s picture books featuring Duke the Deaf Dog and illustrated by her sister, Theresa Murray, have quickly become popular with children, parents, and educators for promoting inclusive conversations about children with differences. The mother of four young adults and a German Wirehair Pointer, Kelly and her husband call Nebraska home.