Spinning tales of death, deception and discovery

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

They covertly stroll the streets of Oak Park and Forest Park. These two even pose as teachers during the day. But as night falls, they strike, spinning webs of deception and murder, false accusations and puzzlement.

Haul them in for questioning? No! Instead of being interrogated for hours, they're getting awards. That's because they are up-and-coming writers recently recognized by two national mystery organizations for their works.

Allison Baxter of Oak Park received the 2018 Helen McCloy Mystery Writers of America (MWA) Scholarship for Mystery Writing, and Mia P. Manansala of Forest Park was just honored with the 2018 Eleanor Taylor Bland Crime Fiction Writers of Color Award from Sisters in Crime. Both are unpublished, a qualification for the awards.

The MWA scholarship recognized Baxter's work on Death in Logan Square, the story of Carmen, a Peruvian immigrant teaching in Chicago who is wrongly accused of murdering her husband's mistress. Befriending her jail psychologist, they work together to prove her innocence, "or she will go to prison and her 14-year-old daughter will be deported."

Baxter, age 50, who teaches English as a Second Language (ESL) at West Chicago Community High School, began writing 11 years ago when she took a six-session creative writing class with another Oak Park writer, Mary Anne Mohanraj.

"I was an English major and could do some writing," Baxter said. "It takes a lot of practice to get to where I am today."

Baxter cited the support she receives from other writers as key to her process. She has continued her writing relationship with Mohanraj, whom she calls "an inspiration," through a monthly writers' group, and credits series mystery writer Julia Buckley, also of Oak Park, for giving input on her work.

Death in Logan Square is complete and as Baxter pursues an agent, she is writing the next mystery for her protagonist, Carmen: Death in Humbolt Park.

Manansala's novels also take place in the Chicago area. Her first, Death Comes to ComiCon, takes place at the Chicago comic book convention and features Sunshine, a female Filipina-American millennial who is "full butch" as the lead character. Her yet-to-be-titled second mystery, which was recognized by the Sisters in Crime award, has protagonist Lila, a young Filipina-American woman who moves back to her hometown outside Chicago to help at her Aunt's restaurant. Manansala "tends to write humorous," using "biting sarcasm" in Death Comes to ComiCon and keeping the other mystery lighter, but "there are still dead bodies, of course."

The 32-year-old of Filipino descent who teaches ESL at Education First, Chicago, began seriously writing her amateur-sleuth-based mysteries a few years ago.

"I hadn't seen characters like myself, so I wanted to insert myself into the tradition," she said.

Like Baxter, Manansala is grateful to the writing community. Lori Radar Day, of Chicago, who taught the first writing class Manansala took, was cited by both writers as being a mentor to the local mystery community. Manansala has received support, critiques and found her agent through the website Pitch Wars. She is now mentoring others through the site and also gives back as board secretary to the MWA Midwest Chapter. Manansala believes these roles she has taken on are "important to help younger and marginalized writers" of the genre.

Both writers received money as part of their awards. Baxter used her $500 prize for a one-week intensive Write by the Lake class at the University of Wisconsin Madison. Manansala was awarded $1,500 and plans to use it to attend Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention in Florida in September "to accept the award and thank everyone" and also to attend a writers' retreat in Wisconsin for one week with friends she has made through Pitch Wars.

As the women await the publication process, they will continue to spin their writerly webs.

"Planting clues, making a tone — dark or light, weaving it like a tapestry, trying to make everyone look guilty, being deceptive," Baxter revealed, "makes it fun."

More on Allison Baxter and Mia P. Manansala at allisonbaxterauthor.com and miapmanansala.com. Local chapters of Sisters in Crime and MWA meet at Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore in Forest Park Sept. 15 and 16. Info: centuriesandsleuths.com/event/2018-09.

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