Do you remember your first time?

Reading your favorite mystery novel, that is. What did you think I was talking about? Get your mind out of the gutter and join me as I talk about the first time I read a book by one of my favorite authors, Sue Grafton.

Back in the early nineties, I was working at a home for unruly children. There’s probably a better term for this, but at the time that’s what I called it. I worked the third shift and part of my duties included sitting in the back hall at night and making sure that the girls on the unit stayed in their rooms. I occasionally had to walk around and check each room to make sure that they were, in fact, sleeping and not hurting each other. For the most part, they behaved, so it was a fairly easy assignment. We were allowed to read while we sat in the back hall, since there was really nothing else to do. So, one night I grabbed a random book from the shelf in the office before venturing back to my post. The title was, simply enough, “B is for Burglar.” I thought it sounded fairly mild and that it wouldn’t require much thought on my part, so it seemed like a good choice. Little did I know that waiting for me beyond that cover were pages of a story that would inspire me to start writing my own mystery series.

It was around 1993 or ’94 and the book had been published in 1985. The author, was Sue Grafton. One of the reigning queens of mystery (in my opinion). And after reading this book, which was the second book in the series, I immediately went in search of the first book. And from there, I later read every single one up to the very last book Grafton published before she passed away in 2017. I read them in paperback and listened to the audiobooks throughout the years, sometimes several times over. They were comforting, in the way that old television reruns are a comfort. And when I needed inspiration or just motivation to keep going, listening to Kinsey Millhone work her way through a case without the help of the internet, cell phones, or other modern-day accoutrements was refreshing. It reminds me that anything is possible no matter what it may look like on the surface.

In 2006, I actually received some advice in a letter from Ms. Grafton. Unfortunately, it was not what you’d call uplifting. It was early in my writing career and I had stupidly sent her a copy of my first book, In the Wash: The Rona Shively Stories. She had read a few chapters and then decided to let me know that my work was substandard, in her opinion. I had been so hurt by her feedback that for a time, I couldn’t even look at her books for several years after that. In the letter, she made the snap judgement that my first attempt at a hard-boiled private eye novel was something I’d not taken seriously and implied that my motivation was simply to be published quickly and get famous. She decided this without knowing anything about me and I was so absolutely deflated by her comments that I nearly trashed the whole writing thing. But I knew that my motivation had never been anything so lame or pretentious as just wanting to be published or popular, so I decided to press on. She had no idea how many hours I’d spent in the library researching all of the pieces of the plot I’d put together in my head. She had no idea that I’d been discouraged from being a writer when I was still a teenager and that I’d only just picked it back up after nearly fifteen years of not writing. She had no idea that the birth of my first and only child had inspired me to try writing again. Or that reading her books was why I had decided to write a book in the first place. She just assumed that I was another of hundreds of amateur writers who would never put in the kind of time and energy she’d put into her novels. But she was wrong. She was an excellent author, but God rest her soul, she knew nothing about me, my personal struggles, or what kind of writing I was capable of and her criticism became the number one reason why I went on to write books two through ten of The Rona Shively Stories series.

Eventually, I did read the rest of her books, as I indicated above. I read the whole series and was always impressed by how she could weave a story together so vividly and with so much detail. She was an excellent writer and I’m truly sad that she did not get to finish the Kinsey Millhone series. It’s probably one of the greatest injustices a writer can suffer; leaving a great series unfinished. But no one will ever be able to write Kinsey like she wrote Kinsey. And no other author should want to do that. As authors, we should want to write our own characters in the way that we want to write them. And we should write unapologetically, using our experiences and the skills that God has given us to create stories of our own; stories that will speak to readers as no other author’s stories can. Her words may have ripped my heart out at the time (even if that wasn’t her intention), but in that pain I found what I needed to justify writing Rona the way I wanted to write her. She was my character and my characters don’t always know everything they need to know when they need to know it. My characters are on a journey, trying to figure out what it all means and why we bother.

Ultimately, Grafton’s words did motivate me to become a better author and to help others get their stories out there (hopefully without ever making them feel as low as I felt back then). I’ve always felt that there is more than enough room on the stage for all of us. Writers who have just started and writers who have been around a while. And I never saw the logic in making someone feel terrible about their writing if they had the courage to at least try it. Everyone has a story to tell; some may not be as exciting or endearing as others, but they don’t have to be. We can all learn from one another’s experiences and if someone wants to try and share those experiences in a book, what harm does it do to encourage them to do just that? As a publisher now, I always try to look at the stories I receive through the lens of someone who is looking for advice in whatever the subject mater area presented in a manuscript may be. Some are a fit for my company, some aren’t. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t serious about writing. Or that they shouldn’t bother. We can’t all be Sue Graftons or Lisa Scottolines or James Pattersons or Janet Evanoviches (pardon the pluralization on these). It would be ever so boring if we all were. I’d much rather be Rebecca Benston writing Rona Shively and reading all of these other great authors who have given me such inspiration and joy over the years. I think that’s how it’s supposed to be.

Rebecca Benston is the owner of Higher Ground Books & Media and the author of over twenty titles currently available through Amazon and other outlets. Her books include a mystery series (The Rona Shively Stories), empowerment resources such as Wise Up to Rise Up, Don’t Be Stupid (And I Mean That in the Nicest Way), and From Judgment to Jubilee, children’s books including Grumble D. Grumble Learns to Smile, All the Scary Things, and See How Strong You Are. Benston lives in Springfield, Ohio with her awesome daughter, Mya and enjoys traveling, reading, writing, and telling it like it is. She enjoys being able to help other authors get their stories out there through Higher Ground and has recently expanded her freelance services to offer more extensive guidance as a writing coach and social media manager. For more information, you can contact Benston at

Writing Mystery vs. Fiction…Preference or Passion?

I’ve always loved a good mystery. In reading, I prefer a good whodunit to almost anything else. Whether it’s the witty charm of a Kinsey Millhone or the brazen determination of a Stephanie Plum, I would never choose to read straight fiction over a mystery novel. I think this is why, when I started writing my own books, that I chose to write a mystery series. Although I had little experience with writing this genre, I was compelled to try my hand at putting together storylines that sort of drag the reader into a big mess. Was I successful? Who knows? That, in and of itself, is a mystery.

I was once told by a famous author that I should never have tried to journey into the intricacies of writing mystery without first having tried my hand at mainstream fiction. Her exact words were, “I advise novice writers to conquer the basics of characterization, plotting, tone and narrative in straight fiction before launching into the mechanics of the mystery.” Not bad advice, but certainly a little discouraging for the aspiring mystery writer. If I had no desire to read straight fiction, how would I go about writing it? My plot ideas always come out the same way, someone gets killed or wronged in some other way, my main character tries to figure out who is responsible for it, and everyone eventually finds out who, what, when, where, why and how. I like to throw in some awkward situations for entertainment value and occasionally, my characters have substantial epiphanies that keep them motivated to figure out what has happened. I’m not sure I could comfortably write straight fiction. I couldn’t stay interested enough in what I was writing.

Before I wrote the first two books in my Rona Shively mystery series, I checked out nearly every mystery writing book in our local library and looked at hundreds of websites on how to write, plot and develop your voice. I wanted to make sure that I was doing the right things and that my writing technique followed whatever patterns a good mystery writer should follow. After all, my qualifications for writing a mystery were pretty much made up of my tendency to read three mysteries at any given time, watch shows like Law & Order, CSI, and reruns of The Rockford Files, Charlie’s Angels, and Starsky and Hutch. I have an inquisitive mind, what can I say?

I have thought about branching out into other genres and have even gone so far as to write a short horror story. In my mind, it still played out much like a mystery, only scarier than normal. The reason I write this post today is because I am at a point where I’m considering taking my mystery series in a new direction. In thinking about where I’ve been and where I would like to go with my writing, I know that I still want to be a mystery writer. I only hope that my series gets better and better with each intallment. In spite of my lack of professional experience, I want to be able to put together stories that are as compelling and entertaining as those I enjoy reading. My favorites, Janet Evanovich, Lisa Scottoline, Sarah Strohmeyer, and even Sue Grafton have inspired me to continue writing and trying to make my characters as intriguing and engaging as those they present.

For writers, do you have a preference of genre? If so, which ones? And what led you to that preference? I am wondering if any others out there feel that it is important to be an avid reader of your genre in order to effectively write within it. Readers, feel free to add your two cents. Just a conversation starter on this dreary Tuesday morning.

Until next time…

BB’s Mini-Mystery #3

Dead Weight
By Rebecca Benston

Darnell Wooten worked at a local fitness center. He was a personal trainer and was fairly well-liked by his co-workers and clients. Maybe, a little too well-liked by some. He had plans to get a degree in Physical Therapy and go to work for a rehabilitation center. He was just three classes away from graduation when he was found dead in the gym’s weight room.

Three months prior, Darnell’s clients included a doctor, a college football player, assorted college cheerleaders and the occasional housewife. The nearby university sent plenty of business his way. It had been rumored that Darnell played the field and that he often became romantically involved with his clients. Although he was generally discreet, he’d had his share of confrontations with angry boyfriends and even husbands.

He had been dating a local cheerleader named Betsy Jantzen for the past six months. Before that, he had spent some quality time with the wife of a local attorney. Before that, he had befriended a shy, young art student, Beverly Whitford and a waitress, Darla Hughes, who frequented the gym. Both of whom he dumped without explanation and both of whom were devastated by the breakups.

On one evening, his girlfriend Betsy stopped by to see if he would like to meet her for dinner later. She just happened to see him locked in an embrace with a fellow trainer, Tandi Gershwin. She walked over to him, tapped him on the shoulder and then stood there until he turned around. He broke free from Tandi and when he turned around, he said, “Betsy, hey, what are you doing here?”

“The better question is what the hell are you doing here?” she snapped. Tandi backed up a step and turned to lean against the counter.

Darnell grabbed Betsy’s hand and walked her away from where they had been standing. “Hey, Tandi’s grandmother passed away, I was just consoling her. She’s upset.” He was smooth and he had a million excuses ready to use at any time. He just hoped that she hadn’t been there a few minutes before the hug when he had been flirting and snapping at the straps on Tandi’s leotard.

She thought for a moment and then seemed to be okay with what he had said. She asked him about their dinner plans and then went on her merry way, turning to wave at Tandi on her way out. When Betsy had left the parking lot, Darnell went back to Tandi and told her that Betsy was under a lot of stress and that she had just overreacted. Tandi didn’t really care because she had a boyfriend and considered this to be just harmless flirtation. Nonetheless, she agreed to meet with Darnell later that evening after he had dinner with his family.

This is how Darnell got through the days. He juggled relationships and made sure everyone thought he was the good guy. In reality, he was a cheater, a liar and a hopeless jerk. Darnell eventually met his match in a woman named Sally Metzger. She was an attractive, albeit overweight, mother of two who came into the gym to work on losing the extra pounds she had gained after her second child was born. She worked with Darnell for close to three months and had made great progress, losing a whopping thirty pounds. By the time she was ready to tell Darnell she no longer needed his services, he had started to notice that she was looking pretty good. The prospect of a new conquest loomed large in his mind. He decided to make his move.

On their regular rotation, Sally was to do a variety of floor exercises and follow it up with nautilus. She was just getting up from doing a series of push ups when Darnell gave her a pat on the rear end. She looked around at him and said, “What was that?” She wasn’t angry; in fact, she had been smiling when she said it.

“Oh, nothing,” he said, “I’m sorry, my hand must have slipped.”

They exchanged a few comments and then agreed that he should come and have a drink with her later. She wasn’t married and she had a babysitter for the evening. The met as planned and from there, the affair began. She was, by far, the most intriguing woman Darnell had ever pursued. She was smart and now, after losing the weight, he found her to be amazingly attractive. After a couple of weeks, he decided that he was going to go ahead and dump his girlfriend Betsy. He had only been stringing her along in case things didn’t go well with Sally. He decided to call her and tell her on a Thursday evening.

Betsy picked up the phone on the third ring and said, “Hello.”

“Betsy, hey, it’s me,” he said.

“Hey, I wasn’t expecting to hear from you today,” she said, sounding pleasantly surprised.

“Yeah, well, I wanted to call and talk to you,” he said, “I’ve been doing some thinking.”

“About what?” she asked, puzzled at the serious tone in his voice.

“Well, I’ve been thinking that this just isn’t working out, you know,” he said.

“What isn’t working out?” she asked.

“Us, dating, it’s not been going the way I wanted it to,” he said, “and I really don’t want to drag it out any longer.”

“Drag it out!” she shrieked.

“That’s what I mean, you’re too moody for me and I just don’t feel like we’ll ever get past it,” he said, still maintaining a calm demeanor, “I just want to call it quits and move on. I do wish you the best.”

“Now wait a minute…” she was saying and then she heard the dial tone. He had hung up on her. He had broken up with her over the telephone and then topped it all off by hanging up on her before she could respond. She was furious. She hung up the phone and then grabbed her coat and purse from the wall hook on her way out the door. She wasn’t going to let him get away with this. When she got into her car, she drove straight over to the gym. He had called her from work, so she knew he would still be there. It was almost closing time and there were only a few cars in the parking lot, none of them familiar to her.

She slipped into the gym unnoticed. No one was at the counter and it appeared that the place was nearly empty. She could hear the sound of weights clanging in the weight room so she decided to head in that direction. He was probably back there trying to impress Tandi with his bench pressing. When she got to the doorway of the weight room, she looked inside and started to say, “Don’t bother trying to impress her…”

Before she could get the words out, she gasped at the sight before her. Darnell was lying on the weight bench with a heavy barbell resting on his neck. He wasn’t moving and when she went over to try and lift it off of him; she couldn’t even move the thing. She ran out to the counter to find help, but there was no one around. The lights had been turned off and it looked like someone had shut the place down at the same moment she had discovered Darnell. She picked up the phone on the counter and dialed 9-1-1. When the paramedics arrived, they pronounced Darnell dead at the scene. Betsy was taken into custody by the police and an investigation ensued…

Who killed Darnell? Why? Think you can figure it all out? Send your guess to me by Friday at 5 p.m. EST. I’ll announce the winner on Friday night!

Good luck!

BB’s Mini-Mystery #2 Winner?

Here’s what happened:

Standing behind the gun was Regina, Westmiller’s wife. She had long suspected Westmiller was having an affair with someone, but she wasn’t sure who. He spent many nights out without so much as a phone call. He talked incessantly about his friend Art and seemed way too interested in what he was doing every evening. She had followed him on several occasions and found him leaving board meetings only to visit Art at his home. She knew that Art was single and that he was a little on the eccentric side, though she had never pegged him as a homosexual. She had changed her mind about this when she intercepted an e-mail message that Art had sent to her husband earlier in the week. The message had said, “I’ve got something for you and I think you’re going to like it.” Mistaking this cryptic message for something flirtatious instead of what it had actually been, a message about the money the two were embezzling, she began planning her revenge.

First, she had paid a homeless man to call the house and threaten her husband. She figured she might be able to scare him into spending less time with his friend by making him think that he was suspected of impropriety. She hadn’t actually known that he was trying to take money; it was just something she had made up. When that didn’t seem to work, she had sent him the package with the dead snake hoping that he would be so creeped out that he would confide in her. He hadn’t. Instead, he hadn’t even mentioned it when he had called her that day. He had called her after his board meeting to say that he wouldn’t be home until late. He had some things to take care of at the office.

She was overcome by rage and decided that she would go to Art’s house and confront him. She expected to find her husband there, but when she arrived, she found Art dead on the floor. She had hurried out of the house and back to her car, driving away quickly to avoid being spotted. On the way out back to her house, she passed Thornton. He was headed toward Art’s house. She had been right about the two of them, she thought to herself as she turned around and headed right back to Art’s house. She pulled the dainty little gun she kept for self-defense out of her glove box and headed into the house. She saw Thorn standing over Art’s computer, phone in hand. She didn’t even give him a chance to explain. She shot him…three times…in the heart.

When the police came, Regina was standing in the hallway. The gun had dropped to her feet after she’d fired the shots. The police quickly handcuffed her and hauled her away. Upon closer investigation, they found that she was only responsible for one of the murders. Coughley had been killed by someone else entirely. Further investigation and an eye witness produced a suspect almost immediately. Mr. Chandler, the Mayfield Family Shelter director had been so enraged by Westmiller’s report that the estate money from Mr. Thompson wasn’t going to be what they expected that he had gone directly to Coughley’s home after the meeting and the two of them had exchanged words. Things had gotten heated and Mr. Chandler had stabbed him, killing him instantly.

Not exactly a professional exchange, but money has a strange effect on some people. Standing there in Coughley’s opulent home, Chandler thought about his humble apartment and his measly $30,000 per year salary as shelter director. He looked around at all of the fine things that Coughley had afforded by shuffling money around and his jealousy overtook him. Before he knew it, the knife was in Coughley’s chest and he had blood on his hands. He took off, hoping that he hadn’t been seen. Unfortunately for Chandler, a homeless man had been hanging around the neighborhood checking the trash cans for things he could resell. He saw everyone that came and went that night and he went straight to the police.


Well, folks, this one must have been tough. Though she didn’t guess both killers, this week’s winner Angela Robinson, did guess that Westmiller’s wife had killed him. That’ll do! Congratulations to Angela! Your $10 gift card will be in the mail asap! And the names of all those who sent in a guess will be entered into the drawing for the Grand Prize in week five!

Keep watching for next week’s Mini-Mystery! It’ll be posted on Monday, January 21st.