All God’s Sparrows — a cover reveal and origin story

It’s a two-book year. To Err is Cumin, will be out later this month, and in September, my historical short story collection, All God’s Sparrows and Other Stories: A Stagecoach Mary Fields Collection, will be out. I think the cover is perfect — more on how it came about below. (If you subscribe to my newsletter, you’ve already seen it. And if you don’t, I hope you will — link here.)

Leslie Budewitz' All God's Sparrows and Other Stories

From the cover:
Born into slavery in Tennessee, the remarkable “Stagecoach Mary” Fields was a larger-than-life figure who cherished her independence, yet formed a deep bond with the Ursuline Sisters, traveling to their Montana mission in 1885 and spending the last thirty years of her life living there or in nearby Cascade. Mary is believed to have been the first Black woman in the country to drive a U.S. Postal Star Route, the source of her nickname.

In All God’s Sparrows and Other Stories, Agatha Award-winning author Leslie Budewitz brings together three short stories, each originally published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, imagining the life of Stagecoach Mary in her first year in Montana, and a novella exploring her later life, including:

“All God’s Sparrows,” winner of the 2018 Agatha Award for Best Short Story; “Miss Starr’s Goodbye,” a nominee for the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Derringer Award; “Coming Clean,” a finalist for the Western Writers of America’s 2021 Spur Award for Best Short Story; and “A Bitter Wind,” a brand-new novella in which Mary helps a young woman newly arrived in the valley solve the mystery of her fiancé’s death and his homesteading neighbors’ bitterness toward him.

Includes an abbreviated bibliography and historical notes from the author.

“Finely researched and richly detailed, All God’s Sparrows and Other Stories is a wonderful collection. I loved learning about this fascinating woman . . . and what a character she is! Kudos to Leslie Budewitz for bringing her to life so vividly.”
—Kathleen Grissom, New York Times best-selling author of Crow Mary

All God’s Sparrows is available for pre-order. Please ask your local library to consider ordering it. Details here.

How did the cover come about? Readers had suggested to me for years that I should write more stories about Mary Fields. The three stories were too short for a collection, so if I wanted them to be available, I had to follow my readers’ advice! Last fall, I decided to write a novella to anchor the collection. I wanted to carry through on some of the themes that had emerged in the stories; I had a woman I thought was a mail order bride, a teacher, and the name Amelia, but not much more.

While I was struggling to figure out the crux of the story, I had a dream showing the image of a late 19th century woman and a rose coated with frost. I knew immediately that my subconscious was reminding me of a story told by a woman I once worked with, about her grandmother coming to Montana from Pennsylvania as a picture bride, carrying a cutting from a pink and white rose in a coffee can. The message was clear: Amelia should be the focus of the story, and the rose was a key image. I still didn’t know the crime or its effects, but the themes and key imagery put me on the right track. A rutted two-track through unbroken prairie, but a track nonetheless!

The dream image was reminiscent of the collage style of a Montana artist, Amy Brakeman Livezey, whose work I had long admired, though I had never met her. Why my dream voice chose her work I have no idea – I can only guess that I’d seen posts on Instagram or Facebook for an exhibit she was part of at the Hockaday Museum in Kalispell. I couldn’t make the exhibit opening but stopped in the next week. When I saw her portrait of the woman in blue titled “When Worlds Meet,” I’m sure my mouth fell open. I don’t know if that painting was in the posts, and I did not see that particular image in my dream, but I knew she was my Amelia, right down to the blue suit, and I kept that image in mind as I wrote. (And yes, I have told the artist this story, and she was pleased.)

I’d read an essay by novelist Barbara O’Neal on Writer Unboxed about using collage to unlock story imagery, so I tried it. Here’s the result.

I shared the story and collage with my editor. He collected covers from other historical novels that spoke to him, I added a few, and we settled on the key elements. He did a mockup, then gave that to his cover designer, and you see the final result.

What’s the lesson I can give you as writers? Trust your inner voice. Ask all your senses to work with you. Give yourself time. Play, whether with paint and glue and collage, or something else. (Finally, a use for my childhood stamp collection, still in a box in the closet!) Be open to all that’s around you. Be part of the creative community — go to art exhibits, concerts, and readings. Soak it all up.

And — how can I not say this? Follow your dreams.

Cover Reveal — BLIND FAITH

This cover is too gorgeous to make you wait for it any longer! (And of course, you know Alicia Beckman is my suspense name.)

Long-buried secrets come back with a vengeance in a cold case gone red-hot in Agatha Award-winning author Alicia Beckman’s second novel, perfect for fans of Laura Lippman and Greer Hendricks.

A photograph. A memory. A murdered priest. 

A passion for justice. 

A vow never to return. 

Two women whose paths crossed in Montana years ago discover they share keys to a deadly secret that exposes a killer—and changes everything they thought they knew about themselves.  

I’ll confess, when I’m waiting for a book cover, I’m on pins and needles. Will it be anything like I imagined? Will it suit the book? Will you love it?

The last two, of course, are what count. 

The cover process is truly fascinating. These days, it’s done primarily with stock photos and computer graphics, layered upon each other. The covers of my cozies contain literally dozens of images, from plates of cookies to salt and pepper shakers, antique cash registers, armoires, cats and dogs and ducks—all designed to create a sense of place that draws you in. That makes you want to shop there, eat that food, pet those critters, meet the people who live and visit there, and find out what happens between the covers. 

The suspense covers are designed to draw you in as well, by creating a mood, conveying a place, and hinting at danger.

Typically, the editor asks the author to provide ideas for the cover—images from the book itself and pictures of any real places that inspired the story. For the first in a cozy series, they want a description of the shop or bakery or library—the central location. I often create a private Pinterest board of images collected while I wrote, and I share that with the designer. (Later, closer to publication, I create a new public board of images connected to the book to share with readers.) 

For Bitterroot Lake, the questions came while I was still writing the book. I knew the cover needed to focus on the lodge and the lake, though I’m not sure I’d settled on the title then and wasn’t yet sure how central the lake would turn out to be. (Hard to imagine that now, isn’t it, knowing the whole story?) I sent images of historic Montana lodges, a mix of private, public, and lodges in Glacier National Park. I envisioned Anja, the Swedish servant, running down the lawn to the lake, much like she does in Sarah’s mother’s painting. I had a color palette in mind, drawn from a painting I’d seen in a local show—of a bird, if I remember right. Nothing like what you saw on the cover of the book! The process of answering the publisher’s questions about the key imagery, the mood, the lodge and the surrounding landscape, all helped me tremendously to hone my own vision of the place and strengthened the writing.

Of course, what the cover artist created is much better than what I suggested! It’s moody, both inviting and a little bit frightening. And that canoe? Well, of course there should be a canoe on the shore of a mountain lake! But there wasn’t one in the story. I added a canoe to the century of stuff Sarah and Holly find in the carriage house, put Holly and Michael in it in the day of the accident twenty-five years ago, and sent Sarah and her daughter out on the lake in the final chapter. I love that the artist could see what I hadn’t seen—but that absolutely needed to be there.

Blind Faith, on the other hand, was already written before the cover process began. I knew we needed a sense of the land, and we needed that central image of the intersection. A bit like a cross, isn’t it? I can’t say much more without spoilers, but I can tell you this cover is absolutely nothing like I’d envisioned and absolutely perfect. When I saw the draft, it took my breath away. 

I hope you love it, and Lindsay and Carrie and Father Leary and Detective Brian Donovan, as much as I do. I hope this book takes you deep into the forest of possibility and asks you to make a decision, just as it asks them to do. 

And don’t worry – if you’re a fan of my cozies, you haven’t missed the cover reveal for Peppermint Barked. Coming soon, I promise!

Remember, both books are available for pre-order anywhere you buy books. Indies and other bricks-and-mortar booksellers will be THRILLED to pre-order a title for you.

A fun bit of news to share: Some of you have read my Stagecoach Mary Fields short stories, all published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. The third, “Coming Clean” (AHMM Jan-Feb 2021), has just been named a finalist in short fiction for the Spur Awards, given by the Western Writers of America. Here’s a list of all the finalists and winners.

The first Mary story, “All God’s Sparrows,” won the 2018 Agatha Award for Best Short Story; you can listen to me read it here, on the AHMM podcast. And the second, “Miss Starr’s Goodbye,” was nominated for a Derringer award, given by the Short Mystery Fiction Society. 

Maybe this will “spur” me to tell more Mary stories!

Thank you, my friends, for keeping me company on this journey.