At home with mystery

Published 5:38 pm Thursday, October 29, 2015

B.K. Stevens likes nothing better than a good mystery; she’s been sharing “whodunits” in short story form for years. Two novels by the local English professor have been published this year, a pleasant surprise for Stevens but no mystery to readers familiar with her work.

“Ever since I can remember, I’ve had two career goals — to teach and to write,” the author said.

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Stevens published her first mystery short story in 1998.

“There were two magazines in those days, ‘Ellery Queen’ and ‘Alfred Hitchcock,’” she said. “I was lucky enough to sell a story to ‘Alfred Hitchcock,’ so that’s been my home.”

The author of almost 50 short stories, one of which won first place in a suspense-writing contest judged by Mary Higgins Clark, Stevens recently took a break from a 30-year career as an English professor to focus on writing.

Currently Stevens lives in a historic 1830-era home, Penshurst, on the Hampden-Sydney College campus with husband Dr. Dennis Stevens, provost and dean of the faculty.

“When we came here my husband said, ‘Why don’t you take a couple of years and just write,’” Stevens said. “I’d been writing short stories all these years but not a novel.”

Stevens’ adult fiction novel, “Interpretation of Murder,” was published in April. Her most recent release for the young adult audience, “Fighting Chance,” was released in early October.

“I taught high school for four years when we lived in Cleveland,” Stevens said. “That’s when I really started thinking about doing something for young adults, especially for boys. When students had to write reports for summer reading and asked me for suggestions, it was always easier to find books that girls would like.”

From her experiences in the classroom and raising two daughters, Stevens easily related to young adult issues and problems.

“I think the biggest challenges of being a young adult haven’t changed,” she said. “Growing up has always been very hard. There are some changes, but the basic task of growing up is still the same.”

Stevens noted that the current trend in young adult fiction is to stress modern issues such as abuse or addiction.

“Some of these dark topics are certainly deserving of attention, but I do think some young people feel like their problems aren’t important because nobody’s beating them up or their parents are still together. I think it it’s important to acknowledge that growing up is hard even if you don’t have one of the big ‘hot button’ issues going on in your house.”

For the main character in “Fighting Chance,” Stevens selected 17-year-old Matt Foley.

“I decided that Matt would have an intact family,” the author said. “He feels distant from his parents sometimes, but he still loves them.”

In considering a plot choice that would appeal to young men, Stevens turned to sports.

“I started thinking about a sports-related theme while teaching high school,” she said.

It was a natural choice. Steven’s husband holds a 5th degree black belt.

“My husband’s been doing martial arts of one sort or another since junior high school,” she said. “When we lived in Lynchburg he took a class in krav maga, and I found it really interesting.”

The action in “Fighting Chance” begins in a small Virginia town when Matt’s mentor and coach is kicked in the throat and killed during a tae kwon do tournament. Matt and a group of friends, including school newspaper editor Graciana Cortez, decide to investigate — and the mystery begins!

“I am primarily a plotter,” Stevens said of her writing technique. “I take detailed notes — pages and pages. Eventually I do try to fit it all into a kind of outline, and I do plot it out. With a whodunit you almost have to do that.”

Stevens believes the suspense should begin in the very first chapter.

“To me it’s no fair to throw in the crucial clue at the last minute,” she said. “I’ve got important clues in the very first chapter.”

Accuracy and attention to detail are also important to the local author. Stevens’ husband was consultant and choreographer for her book.

“We actually acted out the martial arts scenes,” she said. “We’d do something, and I’d say, ‘stop,’ so I could write it down. My husband read things over to make sure they were right, and we also ran things past the krav maga instructor in Lynchburg.”

Stevens believes that attention to detail helped with the quick publication of her manuscript submitted to The Poisoned Pencil, the young adult imprint of Poisoned Pen Press.

“I wanted to make it right because I wanted this book to appeal to young people who like martial arts,” she said. “You have to plan as you get into writing — things do evolve in surprising ways.”

Creating a plot and following the twists and turns that unfold, the author believes, are all in a day’s work.

 “I’m excited about this new phase in my writing career and hope it’s just the beginning,” she said.  “I hope many more stories and novels lie ahead.”

“Fighting Chance” is available locally at the Hampden-Sydney Bookstore and Longwood Barnes & Noble Bookstore.