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Cynthia Riggs Profiles
Vineyard Author Pens Senior Sleuth Mysteries
Cynthia in her garden.
Cynthia Riggs, the author of seven Victoria Trumbull mystery novels, lives on Martha’s Vineyard year-round.

Vineyard Author Pens Senior Sleuth Mysteries
By Valerie A. Russo for The Patriot Ledger

Martha’s Vineyard is no place to commit murder - not if you hope to get away with it. Since 2001, seven cases have been solved by Victoria Trumbull, a 92-year-old amateur sleuth who has traded her rocking chair for a police deputy’s cap.

There’s no use waiting for the deputy to be indisposed or deceased, Trumbull, the protagonist in the Victoria Trumbull mystery series, will stay a spry 92 forever.

‘‘My mother, Dionis Coffin Riggs, lived to be almost 99; the series is my way of keeping her alive,’’ said author Cynthia Riggs, a 13th generation Islander. ‘‘She was a poet, not a sleuth, but she was a strong woman and very active ‘til the day she died. People who knew her say they recognize her in the character ‘Victoria’.’’

Riggs, 75, has written seven Victoria Trumbull mysteries. Six have been published by St. Martin’s Press; the seventh will be out next year.

‘‘There are different categories of murder mysteries - cozies, thrillers, police procedurals and hard-boiled,’’ Riggs explained. ‘‘Mine are Agatha Christie-style cozies, which are solved intellectually. You can sit in front of the fire with a cat on your lap and read this mystery without being scared that someone is going to jump through the window and strangle you.’’

Each title in the series is a plant that grows on Martha’s Vineyard and fits with the story theme: ‘‘Deadly Nightshade,’’ ‘‘The Cranefly Orchid Murders,’’ ‘‘The Cemetery Yew,’’ ‘‘Jack in the Pulpit,’’ ‘‘The Paperwhite Narcissus’’ and ‘‘Indian Pipes,’’ which came out in May.

Riggs was 70 when her first Victoria Trumbull murder mystery was published. But she isn’t exactly a late bloomer.

Her writing career began in her 20s, soon after she graduated from Antioch College with a degree in geology. While married and raising her five children, she penned ‘‘Toilet Training Your Baby’’ for a diaper service magazine and went on to write for the Smithsonian, National
Geographic, the Washington Post, Petroleum Today and several scientific journals. Research took her around the globe - from the drilling rigs off the coast of New Jersey to the north shore of Alaska when the pipeline was being built, to Antarctica and the South Pole.

After her divorce in 1978, Riggs became a mariner. She lived on a houseboat in Washington, D.C., for 12 years, captained tour boats on the Potomac, taught at the Annapolis Sailing School and delivered boats to Europe and in the Caribbean. She also started a ferry service on
Chesapeake Bay.

She had learned about boating during her many summers on Martha’s Vineyard.

‘‘My dad was a school principal in New Jersey. But we were here from the end of June to after Labor Day,’’ said Riggs. ‘‘I never claimed to live in New Jersey; the Vineyard was my ‘soul home’.’’

Eighteen years ago, she made Martha’s Vineyard her yearround home. She worked as a rigger and assistant dockmaster and turned her 18th-century house into a B&B catering to artists and writers.

She never thought about writing fiction until a guest, who happened to be a Vermont College student, recommended the college’s Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing. She applied, was accepted and earned her degree. During the two-year program, she wrote four Victoria Trumbull murder mysteries.

‘‘It’s fun working upstairs in the study of my great big sprawling house,’’ said Riggs, who attended workshops and lectures at Vermont College but did all her writing at her West Tisbury home.

‘‘Mystery writing is much freer than nonfiction writing, where you have to make sure everything is accurate. I am still careful about facts, but I can also poke fun at people,’’ she said.

Everyone on Martha’s Vineyard is fair game. ‘‘Indian Pipes’’ featured the bikers who raced noisily past her house during a motorcycle rally. ‘‘Shooting Star,’’ due out next year, shows the dark side of community theater. ‘‘The Cemetery Yew’’ was inspired by a selectmen’s meeting.

‘‘The selectmen in our town are also the cemetery commissioners,’’ said Riggs. ‘‘I found out the superintendent has been burying people in the wrong graves. It’s the perfect start to a story.’’

Riggs has no plans to slow down anytime soon. She hosts a weekly cable TV show, ‘‘On Island Writing,’’ and reads manuscripts for Poisoned Pen Press. She has finished ‘‘Murder on C-Dock,’’ the first book in a new series that draws on her house-boating experiences. And she is
working on another Victoria Trumbull murder mystery, this one lampooning the town assessors who have given her a hard time.

‘‘My mother wrote poetry and a newspaper column in her 90s. She used to say it was the best age she’d ever been,’’ said Riggs. ‘‘I hope I can be the same way. I look forward to seeing what is going to happen next.’’

Author provides writing tips

Cynthia Riggs gives some advice to potential writers:

  • Read a lot of excellent writing and notice the techniques
    the author uses to make it shine.
  • Good writing is character-driven. Do not outline the plot;
    let the action unfold.
  • Don’t finish your thought; leave something to start with
    the next time you write.
  • Write, then rewrite. Don’t edit as you write. However, you
    may want to start your writing session by editing the
    previous day’s work.
  • Start where the story really starts. If it starts on page six,
    cut pages 1 through 5 and paste them at the bottom of your
    file or in a separate document (in case you want to use the
    material later).

- Vineyard Author Pens Senior Sleuth Mysteries is reprinted with permission from Valerie A. Russo.

©2017 by Cynthia Riggs