Today James J. Cudney is visiting Ascroft, eh? to tell us about Legally Blind Luck, his latest novel in the Braxton Campus mystery series.
Welcome, James. 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.
Legally Blind Luck is the 7th book in the Braxton Campus Mysteries. The series follows all the rules in the cozy mystery sub-genre, but it pushes the limits with more complexity and side stories than the traditional approach. The setting and plots focus on Kellan Ayrwick, a 30-something single father who’s returned to his Pennsylvania hometown and accepted a job teaching at a local college. He comes from a large family, is dating the sheriff, and has many women in his life who try to run it for him, including his mother, grandmother, ex-wife, girlfriend, boss, and some close friends.
In this latest book, Kellan’s uncle somehow got involved with a mysterious African talisman that was cursed by Queen Tessa many centuries ago. Kellan is asked to work with the head of the Art department to ensure the college’s newest exhibit is successful. Unfortunately, a bunch of museum folks and art connoisseurs descend upon Braxton, which also piques the curiosity of an FBI agent Kellan’s met before. One of them ends up dead, and a blind woman is intent on getting a hold of Kellan to tell him a secret about his uncle. Queen Tessa’s curse is causing people to do some strange things, and when it all comes together, Kellan finds himself near death once more. But he does solve the mystery, even if the repercussions for his future are graver than last time.
Where did the idea for the mystery that is central to the story come from?
Each book, I pick a different department or building on the campus that becomes the primary focus. I hadn’t done much with the art world, and in the last book, we knew Kellan’s uncle was returning from South Africa to visit his son. I wanted to add something above and beyond the norm, a curse. Even though it’s not real, people tend to believe in these types of things… and their reactions often lead them astray. I created a fictional tribal leader and tied her into some existing characters, then decided to bring in the culture of another country. It’s hard to send Kellan outside the US as a college professor (and still have all his supporting characters help him solve the crime), so I brought the world to him this time.
Is there a theme or subject that underlies the story? If so, what prompted you to write about it?
In a very small way, yes. The curse is about a vendetta… a grudge. People can hold them for a very long time. In the most dire of circumstances, it leads to death. Would a curse from 350 years ago truly prompt a person alive today to seek revenge? Yes, if you put the right spin on the curse and what it causes someone else to believe. I can’t say much more, but this plays into people’s impressions of themselves and those they are closest too. Ultimately, there is a lesson here, but readers won’t learn it until the very last chapter.
How do you create your characters? Do you have favourite ones? If so, why are you partial to them?
I am not partial these days. There are over 140 characters in the Braxton Campus Mysteries now. Add another 10 for the Christmas novella coming out this fall. Everyone ties back to 10 or 12 core families who founded the area in the past. There is a fine balance to creating a setting that is real but also allows for murder and death. I can’t kill the same family members or make villains of every family, so there are tenuous connections to people who live in Braxton as well as strong bonds by blood. I love that I brought in characters from early books again, people who were casually referred to and had little back story at the time. Now, they are critical to understanding what’s going on in Braxton these days. Take for instance, Jordan Ballantine from Academic Curveball. He was a suspect (and maybe the killer, I won’t say here) in the debut of the series. We have heard little about or from him since that book. Now, his father is around, and I’ve fit him in so easily, I can’t imagine it being any different from the beginning. Lindsey Endicott is another one… we meet his ex-wife and son, only hinted at in the past. Fern has a sister that we meet in this book. So many ways to keep the sense of intimacy within the pages.
How do you bring to life the place you are writing about?
Details. Reality. Imagination. A small town is nothing but a small town if you can’t create places people want to visit. In Legally Blind Luck, the president’s office (which appeared in past books) now has a name – Prentiss Hall. Ursula has remodelled it since the last book she was in, and now we understand her personality and the way she wants the college to be perceived. The science department built a man-made pond on campus… it serves as the backdrop for a few scenes in this book, but it also creates an atmosphere where the town and campus become familiar over time. I want to live here!
What research do you do to provide background information to help you write the novel?
Usually, very little. I rely on creativity and imagination. This time, I did research a bit of South Africa’s geography to ensure I lined up with some truths about the location in terms of mountains, sea, and safaris. I had to do a little digging about the differences between the FBI and ICE, when it comes to international issues. And two characters are modelled after people in reality, so I had to find a bunch of descriptions and photos to get the voices and physical characteristics correct.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell readers about the book?
As readers have come to know about this series, I end with a few cliffhangers. Sometimes, they are huge… like in the last book with the Orlando Airport incident. I had to choose when to start this book carefully. If I picked up the moment the last one left off, I’d have to handle a ton of grief, funeral scenes, and pain. Instead, I chose to fast-forward 10 weeks so that characters could be in a reasonably more balanced mood. Death changes people, but you can get through a day without crying at some point. If this were a different series, I could’ve focused on the sad parts… but Braxton is based in humor, in particular Kellan’s sarcastic personality. I’m happy with how it turned out in the end, but I know it will leave some readers concerned that we missed 10 weeks of potential clues and tender moments. That said… be prepared for another whopper of a cliffhanger at the end of Legally Blind Luck.
Thanks for answering my questions, James, and good luck with Legally Blind Luck, the latest book in theBraxton Campus Mystery series.
The novel is available online at Amazon.
About James J. Cudney: James is my given name, but most folks call me Jay. I live in New York City, grew up on Long Island, and graduated from Moravian College, an historic but small liberal arts school in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with a degree in English literature and minors in Education, Business and Spanish. After college, I accepted a technical writing position for a telecommunications company during Y2K and spent the last ~20 years building a career in technology & business operations in the retail, sports, media, hospitality, and entertainment industries. Throughout those years, I wrote short stories, poems, and various beginnings to the “Great American Novel,” but I was so focused on my career that writing became a hobby. In 2016, I committed to focusing my energies toward reinvigorating a second career in reading, writing, and publishing.