Juneau writer pens first mystery novel of series

Cover of Barnhill’s first novel. Courtesy image.

Cover of Barnhill’s first novel. Courtesy image.

Many know Juneau writer Peggy Barnhill for her “Gimme a Smile” column with the Juneau Empire. Soon, however, she’ll be known by her pen name Greta McKennan as she releases the first of her “A Stitch in Time” mystery series, “Uniformly Dead,” through Kensington Publishing.

“I always wanted a pen name ever since I was a kid, and I had this name all these years and I went, ‘You know, I’m over 50 now and it’s time to start doing all those things I’ve always wanted to do,’” Barnhill said. “Greta” comes from her given name and “McKennan” comes from an ancestor.

The book is about a historical seamstress, Daria Dembrowski, who lives in a small town in Pennsylvania. During a Civil War reenactment, a colonel is impaled by his own bayonet and an antique goes missing from a local museum. Dembrowski must stitch together the clues to prove her brother’s innocence for the theft and to clear a bridal client’s fiancé of the murder charges.

Her first novel falls under the subgenre known as a “cozy mystery.” These types of books generally have shared characteristics — for example, they’re set in a small town, the sleuth is an amateur, and the story isn’t too violent. It also usually has a romance and happy ending, and the overall tone tends to be light, she said.

“You have this ethos of a small town like Juneau. People don’t lock their doors; it’s a peaceful lifestyle, and all of a sudden this terrible thing happens with a murder … the idea is to try to return back to the peaceful existence. There’s always a sense of shock for the characters about how such a thing could happen in a place like this,” Barnhill said.

Other mystery writers like Diane Mott Davidson (culinary mystery series), Mary Stewart (romantic suspense), and M. M. Kaye (stand-alone mysteries) have inspired Barnhill’s work. Outside of that genre, as a child she enjoyed the “Childhood of Famous Americans” series, and writers Louisa May Alcott and Charlotte Bronte.

Dembrowski’s sleuthing adventure is a tale of persistence, but so is Barnhill’s in getting published. In 2010, Barnhill had the initial idea for the book. It began during National Novel Writing Month, which takes place in November and challenges participants to write 50,000 words of a novel in the month. She was shy by 10,000 words, she said, but she went on to finish her draft in February 2011. In the following years, she completed more than 12 intense revisions of the book, submitted to a total of 20 agents, and became a finalist for the Poisoned Pen Press’s “Discover Mystery” contest in 2013. She finally signed to Kensington in June 2016.

The reworking didn’t end there. After she got an agent, they suggested a plot point change. It altered the story, she said, but she thinks the book is better for it. It’s something she took away from the whole experience of working to get her book published: writing isn’t just a solitary activity — sometimes you have to let others become part of the process. You can have a stronger piece because of it.

“There’s a lot in the story that comes from my life or from lives of people that I know,” Barnhill said. Like her protagonist, she too has lived in a large house with roommates and has also worked as a seamstress. “I’m curious to know what people think when they’re reading, going ‘That is so unbelievable it must true,’” she said, referencing a certain scene involving spaghetti near the end of the book.

Barnhill is revising her second novel of the series “Historically Dead,” which she said has been easier since she already well acquainted with her characters and knew what the expectations were for the book. It will be released December 2017. She’s also got plans for a third.

“Uniformly Dead” is available digitally on most platforms like Kindle, Kobo, Apple, etc., and will be released for on-demand-print on May 16; preordering is available through Kensington. To learn more about Barnhill and her series, go to gretamckennnan.com.

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Geoff Kirsch is an award-winning Juneau-based writer and humorist.
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