Peggy Rothschild and I have a few things in common. We both share a passion for writing, matched only by a deep love for animals, especially dogs. And we’ve both been scarred by losing a house to a fire. After Peggy and her husband Richard lost their Ventura home in the 2017 Thomas Fire, they wandered a bit before eventually relocating to Los Osos. The move allowed Peggy to again focus on her writing and sign a two-book contract with Penguin Random House for a series of “cozy” mysteries involving dog wrangler Molly Madison. A Deadly Bone to Pick debuted in 2022, followed by the publication last February of the follow-up, Playing Dead.

David Congalton: Playing Dead is the second in your Molly Madison “cozy” series. What has happened to Molly since we met her in A Deadly Bone to Pick? How is she adjusting to her new life in California?

Peggy Rothschild:  Only three months have passed since the first book. Molly is still getting to know Pier Point and Detective Miguel Vasquez—though she suspects he is hiding something from her. She and his sister Lupe have become good friends and Molly gets a new—if challenging—client through her.

She is also helping her agoraphobic neighbor, J.D., and spending time with eight-year-old whiz kid Ava and her dog Butterscotch. When Molly takes her Saint Berdoodle to try his nose at Barn Hunt, they find a dead body and a new mystery begins. During the course of this story, more dogs enter Molly’s life—and she even winds up with a kitten in her care for a while.

DC: That’s a lot. Was writing easier the second time around? Share with us how you map out a mystery novel. How much do you know in advance or do you learn as you go?

PR: Since I already knew the setting, the main character, and her dogs—as well as several of the secondary characters—it was easier. Granted, I had to figure out the mystery part, but having Molly and her world gave me a place to start. Though I don’t outline, I do set up an Excel spreadsheet, showing where the first plot point should hit, the first pinch point, the midpoint, the second pinch point and second plot point along with moments or possible actions that could work there.

I like discovering my story as I write, but having my Excel “safety net” gives me a comfort zone. I usually know who my victim will be, though I may add victims along the way. With this new book, I didn’t want the denouement to play out the same as it had in A Deadly Bone to Pick. I want to keep things fresh.

DC: Who or what was your inspiration for Molly Madison? How much of you is in this character?

PR: I didn’t model Molly after anyone I know, but I did steal her love of agility work from a dear friend. The truth is that I would make an ineffective dog trainer. I love dogs, but I’m the one overlooking misbehavior and saying “down” like it’s a question rather than a command. Molly and I do share some characteristics including our lack of enthusiasm for cooking, and our commitment to finishing what we start. That said, Molly is much braver than I.

DC: A good writer is also a good reader, so what mystery writers do you enjoy? Has anyone in particular helped shape your writing style?

PR: I love the work of Margaret Mizushima and her Timber Creek K-9 Mystery series. I also eagerly anticipate each book in Paul Doiron’s series with Maine game warden Mike Bowditch, and Rachel Howzell Hall’s Detective Lou Norton series as well as her standalones. The writing of Robert Crais and Michael Connelly have also been long-time favorites. I don’t know that any particular one shaped my writing style, but reading so many great authors can only help.

DC: What kind of shape is the publishing industry in today? Are people still reading and buying books? I assume mysteries, especially “cozies” are still popular.

PR: The number of cozies, thrillers, traditional and procedural mysteries being published each month seems a good indicator of publishing health. With my own books, the paperback version of A Deadly Bone to Pick is doing well, while hardback sales have slowed—which I totally get. Hardbacks are so much more expensive than e-books or paperbacks. I also think the growth and success of independent bookstores speaks to a resilient book-buying public.

DC: I’m sure any writer reading this article is dying to know how you landed a publishing deal with Penguin Random House. Tell the story.

PR: I have to thank my agent, Melissa Jeglinski of the Knight Agency, for the publishing deal. I wrote the book, but she contacted publishers with the manuscript. So often, things like this are all about timing. All we can do as writers is write the best book possible, polish it to a fine shine, then send it out into the world. I was also fortunate in my editor: She was easy to work with and even gave me the opportunity for input on the book covers—which I think are wonderful.

DC: Molly is the protagonist, but her dogs Noodle and Harlow are also important to your books. Your readers are big dog fans, so they must expect a lot of the story to involve dogs and the dog world. There must be a lot of research involved.

PR: So much research! Fortunately, I love dogs and doing research. I’m also lucky that my good friend let me pick her brain about agility and Barn Hunt. In Playing Dead, I have Molly give another character a tip to trim her course time but wasn’t sure my idea would cut the requisite number of seconds. My friend reassured me Molly suggesting this would shave enough time. It’s lovely having that sort of expertise available.

DC: Rumor has it that you’re already writing the third in the series. When might we expect that, and might Molly find a love interest?

PR: My publishing contract was only for two books, so I’m not sure when book three will see the light of day. Since the third manuscript completes Molly’s story arc—tying up the loose ends from her husband’s murder (which happened before book one began)—I definitely want to see it in print. And yes—Molly does finds love.

DC: Fingers crossed for good news. Meanwhile, share with us a bit about your writing process, please. Do you write every day? Is there a lot of rewriting involved? Does your husband read your work or do you have other writers who offer guidance?

PR: In general, I don’t write every day. There are exceptions of course. Like, when I’m deep in a story—either editing or charging ahead into fresh story territory—I’m at it daily. But I think it’s important to give myself days off, rather than forcing myself to stare at my laptop screen. I also write two different ways—on my laptop and on paper. I find writing—or editing—by hand engages my brain in a different way than typing on my laptop.

Because I don’t outline, there’s a lot of late-night mulling that goes along with writing. As I mutter, “What would Molly do next?” I’m always looking for the logic inside the story. Though many writers say not to do this, I constantly go back to edit along the way. I find re-reading and editing the previous chapters or pages is a great way to kick off fresh writing. Then, once I make it all the way to the story’s end, I go back to the beginning for a wholistic edit/rewrite—which I genuinely enjoy doing.

My husband, Richard, is my second-to-last reader before I send the manuscript to my agent. It always shocks me how many typos he still finds after my critique partner or writing group has already read it. He also gives me plot, dialogue, and character notes. He’s an excellent reader! After him, I send the manuscript to my final reader—my friend in dog-agility.

DC: Finally, the standard interview question: What advice do you have for the beginning writer, the next Peggy Rothschild?

PR: I highly recommend finding a critique partner or writing group. Without a writing group, I’d probably still be polishing the opening chapters of my first manuscript. I needed the group’s biweekly meetings pushing me forward, which had the side benefit of helping develop my writing habit. But it’s important to know it’s okay to walk away from a group if it isn’t working for you. Not every group will be the right fit.

I was lucky; I was introduced to my critique group through a UCLA Extension mystery writing course over two decades ago, and met my critique partner through an artist friend. You never know where you might meet a kindred writer.

The value of a critique group isn’t just from their feedback. My first writing friends were my critique group. Also, critiquing the work of others is incredibly valuable and helped hone my editorial eye. If there are any writers out there looking for a critique group, locally SLO NightWriters offers pre-meeting critiques. For mystery writers, some chapters of Sisters in Crime offer critique groups, and Sisters in Crime National also has online writing resources for their members.

:: David Congalton