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How Animal finger puppets at Boswell Book Company led to a murder mystery series

Penguin Random House/Headshot by Kat Schleicher
Sharon Nagel (left) and Jocelyn Koehler used to work at Boswell Book Company together. There they found the inspiration to create the characters and stories of their Shady Hollow series, going by the pen name Juneau Black.

Shady Hollow is a small town populated by friendly woodland animals — from birds to bears to its foxy reporter Vera Vixen — but it’s also home to various murders that need to be solved.

The concept for this cozy mystery series was created by Sharon Nagel and Jocelyn Koehler when they used to work at Boswell Book Company together back in 2014. They go by the pen name Juneau Black and were also featured in this month's Milwaukee Magazine.

"Our boss Daniel Goldin asked us to price some of these adorable little finger puppets for the children’s department. And because we are us, we also gave them names and occupations and then we thought it would be fun to write a story about them," Nagel recalls.

With three books and a holiday novella currently out in the series, Koehler explains the premise for Shady Hollow: "It is a traditional murder mystery setup with the twist that it is all anthropomorphic animals. So it is a human-free world, and it is all different types creatures and they live together in harmony, mostly, in a small town and everything is just wonderful until the bodies start piling up," she says.

Both Koehler and Nagel had a similar childhood experiences growing up reading mystery novels, so it was their natural choice of genre to write. They spent November of 2014, which was National Novel Writing Month, co-writing the first book about their animal characters, which was then self-published in 2015.

Koehler notes that they would trade off days taking turns to add to a document emailed back and forth to write the mystery — a method they still use today.

"We did not even actually know who the murderer was when we started writing, we sort of figured that out in the course of writing," she says. "So the first book was very much 'seat of your pants' kind of, we don't know what we're doing and a lot of editing afterward. But it was just very fast, fun writing to get us going."

Over the course of the pandemic, a representative from Penguin Random House read the series and gave them an offer to republish the three existing books, plus a contract to write an additional three books to add to Shady Hollow series.

"We've been so lucky on everything. Sometimes other authors will come up asking, 'How'd you do it?' We're like, we literally just lucked out. We have no advice to really duplicate it for another author," says Koehler. "Just be really lucky and have the most amazing publishing rep ever and also work in indy bookstores for 10 years — that's how you do it."


Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
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