AshEdit—News About Books & Writers

January 24, 2015

HOLLY WEST – Mistress of the Query Letter

Filed under: Uncategorized — ashedit @ 6:49 am
Elaine head shot


HOLLY WEST landed a book deal for MISTRESS OF FORTUNE with Carina Press (a division of Harlequin) based on a strong, clear query letter–and she’s agreed to share it with Ashedit readers. How open and generous! But that’s Holly. She volunteers for the Mystery Writers of America as well as Sisters in Crime and everybody knows her smiling face. A better team player, networker, and historical fictionista, you won’t find anywhere. Over to you, Holly…



HOLLY WEST: At the time I was querying the title [of my book] was Diary of Bedlam. (Elaine’s note: obviously, Holly and her agent or editor, revisited the title and renamed the book MISTRESS OF FORTUNE before going to press.) Overall, this query letter was successful for me. About 50% of those I sent out received a request for more material, which is pretty good. What I quickly learned, however, is that a request for additional pages is just that–most of those requests ended up in rejections. Ultimately, my agent made an offer of representation after I’d already secured a deal with a publisher. My agent had already requested the full manuscript but it took a long time for her to get around to reading it. Once the publishing deal was offered, she moved it up in her reading queue and offered representation a few days later.

VOILA, the finished book cover. Letter below.


Dear Agent:

I am seeking representation for my 80,000-word historical mystery, DIARY OF BEDLAM, a standalone novel set in 1678 London with series potential.

Isabel, Lady Wilde, a former English spy and occasional favorite in King Charles II’s bedchamber, has a secret: she makes her living disguised as Mistress Ruby, a fortune-teller who caters to London’s elite. Charlatans, rogues, villains, and swindlers lurk in every corner of the city, and Isabel concedes she is one of them. But hard experience has taught her that women have few enough advantages in this world, and her conscience does not often bother her.

Everything changes when Sir Edmund Godfrey, a London magistrate, seeks Mistress Ruby’s counsel and reveals his accidental involvement in a covert plot to murder the King. Shortly after his visit, her diary, the sole record of her illicit activities as a soothsayer, is stolen, and Isabel must locate it before anyone connects her to Mistress Ruby. When Sir Edmund’s corpse is discovered a few days later, Isabel suspects whoever committed the murder also has her diary.

Unwilling to trust the investigation to a royal court infamous for its schemes and intrigues, she begins her own inquiry and learns that Sir Edmund’s murder is only a small part of a conspiracy that leads all the way to the throne. A series of increasingly violent threats against her and her loved ones convince Isabel that her business is not the only thing at stake and that she must find Sir Edmund Godfrey’s killer before she becomes the next victim.

Headshot 2About me: My short story, Once a Loser, appears in the Fall 2011 issue of Needle: A Magazine of Noir. My short fiction has been featured online on Shotgun Honey and is forthcoming in the Shotgun Honey Both Barrels anthology and the Feeding Kate charity anthology. I am an associate member of the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.

The complete manuscript is available upon your request. Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you.


Holly West

Address and contact info goes here.


This is more or less my first draft. I wrote it based on the successful

"La Lettre" by Delphin Enjolras

“La Lettre” by Delphin Enjolras

query letter of a publishing-savvy friend and had her look it over when I finished mine. She had a few small suggestions, but nothing major. The only change I made to my original query letter happened later in the process. When replies to the query seemed to be drying up, I added this statement right after my first paragraph:

Historical note: On 12 October 1678, a popular London magistrate named Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey left his home in Westminster and never returned. Five days later, two local tradesmen found his slain body in a drainage ditch at the base of Primrose Hill, a London suburb. To this day the murder remains unsolved. DIARY OF BEDLAM is based upon these events and their aftermath.

My thinking was that the fact that the book was based on a real unsolved murder would provide a hook. I didn’t see a noticeable uptick in requests for more pages after I added it, and honestly, I think the letter is stronger without it.

As far as drafts of the novel itself are concerned, there were probably about five (not including my publisher’s edit). After three drafts, I declared the manuscript finished at 106,000 words, which was way too long. But I began querying anyway and soon found that agents were rejecting it based solely on the word count. I stopped querying and revised the manuscript down to 81,000 words and made some changes based on suggestions from agents. After querying this manuscript for about three months with no offers of representation, I decided I would self-publish. As part of that process, I had it edited by a professional freelance editor who said she thought I could get a traditional deal with it. So I did a final edit based on her suggestions and sent the manuscript out into the world one final time.

The query I sent to Carina Press included this query letter and the full manuscript. I received “the call” about four weeks after I submitted it.

Here’s the cover of the second in the series, MISTRESS OF LIES:



Thank you, Holly. This is valuable insight into the process.–Elaine Ash



  1. Always good to get a look at a successful pitch. Thanks.

    Comment by charlesgramlich — January 24, 2015 @ 10:07 am

  2. Well done, Holly! And thanks to Elaine for her post.

    Comment by Oscar Case — January 24, 2015 @ 10:08 am

  3. it probably goes without saying, but the DEAR AGENT is just a placeholder. Always address your letters to the specific agent you’re querying (unless directed otherwise in their submission guidelines).

    Comment by Holly West — January 24, 2015 @ 10:33 am

  4. Hi Dr. Gramlich, always a pleasure to have you comment! Hi Oscar, you are most welcome. Holly, thanks for that. I’m sure people will understand that. I have the smartest readers in town (and out of town, around the world!) Elaine

    Comment by ashedit — January 24, 2015 @ 12:53 pm

  5. Thank you Holly for sharing your story and a sample of your letter.

    Comment by Sheilah Brooks — January 24, 2015 @ 12:53 pm

  6. Reblogged this on Writing For Writers and commented:
    Sage “Query letter” advice from someone who’s been there, done that!!
    My advice? Take what she says to heart and learn what you can…

    Comment by Lisa Ciarfella — June 2, 2015 @ 12:21 pm

  7. Great advice here…reblogged just now!

    Comment by Lisa Ciarfella — June 2, 2015 @ 12:22 pm

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