If you’ve never checked out the wonderful Writers Who Kill blog, might I suggest that today would be an excellent day to do so? Coincidentally, they have kindly featured an interview about my Lindsay Harding series. 🙂 I’ve posted an excerpt below.
An Interview with Mindy Quigley
Mindy Quigley writes a mystery series featuring a most unusual sleuth, one with a profession I never contemplated before. Main character, Lindsay Harding is an ordained minister who serves as a hospital chaplain. Her profession brings her in contact with victims, but her personal life and history connects her to criminals as well. She’s not your parents’ minister.
How did you concoct Lindsay Harding? Was anyone you knew a hospital chaplain?
One of my many jobs (and, as a project manager who moved every couple of years, I’ve had many!) was working with the chaplains in the Pastoral Services department of the Duke University Medical Center. The chaplains would come back from the wards with these unbelievable stories, full of drama, heartbreak, and humor. It was a very unique place to work. I often told them, “One of you has to write a book about this.” None of them ever took up the challenge, so I was obliged to do it myself.
I have another source of real-life inspiration in that two of my four college roommates became ministers. One is a very “high church” Episcopal minister who happens to also be lesbian, and the other is an agnostic-leaning Unitarian Universalist minister who was a complete party animal in college. They are both fantastically empathic, deeply spiritual women who help their congregants wrestle with the big questions. Knowing them definitely changed my perception of what kind of person makes a good minister. Read more…
Writer, reviewer, and book blogger Judy Nickles featured an interview with me on her blog yesterday. Check out an excerpt here:
If you’ve written more than one book, what have you learned between the first one and the new release? I’ve learned to greet critiques from my beta readers with wide open arms. The prospect of doing major rewrites (or even minor ones!) can be daunting, but it’s a necessary part of improving the final product. I owe it to my readers to put polished, entertaining work out there for them. Odds are high that anyone’s first draft is going to suck. The more comprehensive the feedback you receive and incorporate, the more you diminish those odds in subsequent drafts!
I’ve also learned that there’s a reason most writers don’t achieve success at a young age. Writing well, for me, involves a deepening of wisdom, a broadening of life experience, a honing of the skills of observation and concision, and a hell of a lot of practice. A few very gifted, very lucky individuals write fantastic first books at an early age, but obviously those people are freaks of nature who should be isolated from society to keep the rest of us from looking bad.
In Part Two of the Minty Fresh interview, retired prison, hospital, and mental health care chaplain Norman L. Martin gives the straight truth about handling lies.
Read Part One
Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): In addition to your work with psychiatric patients, you also provided pastoral care to prisoners. Neither of those populations has a great reputation for trustworthiness. Do you think that’s fair? Were the people you ministered to generally honest with you?
Norman Martin (NM): Before I began chaplaincy at a state prison, I took two weeks of training in a correctional training center. There were many “Don’ts” and warnings. One thing I learned from the correctional staff at the prison was if you weren’t “had” every so often by something a prison inmate said, you probably were not working. It takes about a year before you learn what not to believe and discover the unwritten rules for security. Of course prisoners or inmates lie. If you work in a prison, the inmates think of you as a duck. What you say? A duck? Well, have you noticed how the feathers on top of the duck are thick and even repel rain? The underbelly is soft. They look for that underbelly, with ploys like: “Chaplain, they really mess up my uniforms in the laundry. Can you get me a little sewing kit, so I can repair them? You can get them at a convenience store.” It seems so simple, an act of ministry to that poor inmate.
No, I didn’t do it, but a few prison staff did. When a security team went through the units, several kits were found. A prison break had occurred years earlier at the state’s most secure prison. The inmates had been able to make (with the sewing kits) patches resembling state correction emblems, which were then sewn onto the blue pajamas the inmates had. That had allowed some murderers to escape from that other state prison earlier.
I would say that certainly some patients in mental hospitals do lie, but not usually with such harmful results. The depressed person can lie about being ready to re-enter society, family, and job. The schizophrenic patient will lie, saying (s)he will take his/her medications when (s)he gets home. The alcoholic/addict will lie about going to AA and drug abuse support groups when they are discharged. They will sign a contract for 90 groups in 90 days and take the list of groups home with them. While some will not stay with the plan, many will.
As a prison clinical chaplain, I valued the counseling sessions with inmates, also my classes about the Bible and spiritual matters. One year there were one hundred baptized, after they confirmed their beliefs. Some were “jailhouse religion” maybe, but for some, it was a life-changing experience.
Group sessions with sexual offenders went well. One rule was that each had to admit and talk about his offense at the first meeting of the group. Most were child sexual offenders. In conducting such a group, the leader has to be careful not to let any member get to the point of “getting off on the telling.” An AA type model is somewhat useful, but for a pedophile there is little hope that they will not offend again, if given the opportunity to do so.
There was much honesty in all populations I worked with. I don’t think comparing trustworthiness to either is good. Frankly, it doesn’t matter all that much if patients or prison inmates are lying to you. Just take everything you hear with the proverbial grain of salt. At the same time listen for what you do not hear. Listen and you will eventually hear at least some of the real person behind the façade. In one-to-one encounters a chaplain often experiences a spiritual moment with client or patient or inmate.
Chaplains operate in difficult areas seldom seen or experienced by others. For that reason, the clinical training and supervised experience given by a certified Clinical Pastoral Education program is a requirement all chaplains should have.
I had the pleasure of being interviewed today on the Clean Indie Reads blog, home of “Flinch-Free Fiction.” So what exactly is flinch-free fiction?
While flinch-free books aren’t squeaky-clean Disney-Princess pure in every imaginable way, they are “clean” in the following ways:
They contain no erotica or sexually explicit scenes. There should be nothing that gives a play-by-play description of a sexual encounter or describes nudity in detail. Mild innuendo, reference to sensual or sexual activity that is “off screen” and not graphically portrayed may be used in some books written for adults, but that will show up in the interview with the author on the book’s page. They contain no graphic violence or gore. There should be nothing that paints a very specific and horrific image in the reader’s mind. Scenes generally described as appropriate for war stories, crime stories, etc. may be present, but that will show up in the interview with the author on the book’s page. The authors have curtailed offensive language. There should be no use of the “F-word”. Other words commonly considered as swearing and/or racially offensive terms should be used very sparingly, if at all. If such words are present in an effort to mimic speech in times of great duress for a character (and not just peppered in gratuitously), this will be noted in the interview with the author on the book’s page.
Retired chaplain Norman L. Martin has had an incredibly varied career, having provided pastoral support in prison, hospital, and psychiatric facility settings. He also worked as a college professor, pastor, drug and alcohol counselor, and pastoral counselor in a medical center behavioral unit. He’s been married to his wife Alice for almost fifty years. They have two children and two grandchildren. Part One of the Minty Fresh interview…
Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): You served in both general hospitals and a psychiatric hospital. What were the special challenges of caring for people who had mental illnesses? How did that work differ from your work with people whose main ailments tended to be physical?
Norman Martin (NM): I find that I can only answer that by giving examples. I could have written, “Well there are huge differences and some much the same.”
Of course one of the special challenges of caring for people in the psychiatric setting was getting the patients to take their medications when they were sent home after being stabilized. A challenge for me as chaplain/pastoral counselor was to honor the patients’ understanding of their faith, even when their beliefs were detrimental to their mental health. Often severely depressed patients would express the belief that they had sinned so badly that they could not be forgiven by God, exhibiting a level of hopelessness so great that it threatened their very being. Of course suicide prevention measures were put in place, but at this level patients were often too depressed to even try. As the medication for depression began to take effect and with talk therapy, they could voice their thoughts more clearly. I need to take this time to let readers know most of patients I encountered believed in the Christian God. There were times when a patient during my spiritual group sessions would state that they did believe God had forgiven them, but they hadn’t forgiven themselves (hanging on to a reason for depression). I would chide them a bit by saying: “So you are higher than God, He forgives you but you are stronger in not forgiving yourself?” Unfair? It got them thinking.
Many, many bi-polar patients found comfort in their faith. The stronger the faith, the better hope for them. There is a high suicide rate among people suffering from this illness. More than one told me if it weren’t for God they wouldn’t be living.
One told me that if it weren’t for God she would not have been able to hold on to a bit of control to keep herself from losing it all.
I never forgot the lesson from my clinical supervisor, that even if a belief (especially religious) were used as just an unsteady crutch, don’t kick it out until something better was established. I had one patient tell me that he had started out of the house to shoot himself in the yard when he remembered that he would go to hell for taking his life. Would it have been wise to argue theology on that belief? Not on your life or his.
There was the elderly lady who was brought in to the Psych. Unit by her family. She kept “bugging” them about visiting and talking with angels. In counseling with her, I found out there were multi-generations of family living together, and her going out on her porch to rest and talk to the angels was a real comfort to her. As usual with patients talking to voices, I asked if the voices were threatening, “Oh no,” she would say, “They tell me good things.” I don’t remember what she said they said but the voices were not dangerous to her or others. Her family had no complaints about her conduct other than her telling them about the voices. It’s not in any manual that I know of, but I counseled her to enjoy her meeting with the angels, just to be careful who she told about it. She wasn’t admitted again during the years I was there.
In the medical setting I found how certain religious beliefs were detrimental to patients’ physical as well as their spiritual/mental health. One hospital patient leaps to mind. She was sitting up cross-legged in the middle of the bed. When I introduced myself as chaplain, she told me that Christians are not supposed to get sick, for sickness is a sin. That belief was not giving her any comfort, but it was her barrier to receiving help. She wasn’t ready to discuss it further. At that time a California evangelist was preaching such stuff and having a lot of converts.
A number of times when I introduced myself to a patient their first response was, “Are you saved? Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?” I would say, “Yes, ma’am” or “Yes, sir.” Get that out of the way and make a pastoral visit.
Chaplaincy in a general hospital and in a mental health setting was different in that the stay in a general hospital was usually much shorter and the issues were different. The chaplain was called on more to give comfort to the seriously ill and the families that waited with them. I served five years at a fairly small hospital in an area which contained a group of people who had come down from the mountains many years before to work in a cotton mill. They had maintained their culture. They believed in the whole family “sitting up with the sick”. That meant crowding our small waiting area outside the ICU. I quickly learned what to expect when their loved one died. It would be a loud explosion of grief. This is one of the times when the physician, who told the bad news, would quickly turn everything over to the chaplain and leave forthwith. I was thankful to God that these folks respected ministers and calming prayer. I learned to take note of the younger children, for adults in the throes of grief would not think of the young. I made sure they were “noticed.” I would advise all chaplains not to forget the young griever.
Fear of dying during surgery would sometimes be spoken of to the nurses, and I would be called. If, in my opinion, the patient’s fears were such that the surgeon should know, I told him. I don’t know of any time that the operation proceeded without the physician conversing with the patient first; sometimes surgery was cancelled. One time a woman with an abusive husband had expressed fears but went ahead with surgery. She died on the table. Her written funeral service was found in the drawer by her bed after her death. The staff and physicians needed ministry after that. I learned later that she had talked with an employee and stated that maybe if she died, her husband would straighten up. Communication, people communication!
During my Chaplaincy at the general hospital, I conducted research and wrote my doctoral project entitled: Ministering to Health Care Persons as He or She Experiences Patient Death. Staff members who had not come to terms with their own mortality had more trouble. Also if they had unresolved grief issues, this also could be a problem. Seventy-five percent of the nurses I gave a questionnaire to believed in God and in heaven. It seemed to give them more strength in dealing with patient death.
Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): Many of the chaplains I worked with had keen senses of humor. Do you think that being able to see find the lightness in dark situations is important for the job? Was there a time when finding the humor in a tough situation allowed you or a patient to get through something bad?
Laura Arnold (LA): Humor is absolutely essential for chaplaincy, be that playfulness with patients at times or the use of humor and joking with chaplain colleagues as a way of processing and coping with the situations we are faced with.
One afternoon, I was called to visit with a patient who had just been through a procedure to get a colostomy bag. She was depressed and not sure that God could love her anymore. It was hard to focus on her words as the pressure of her body produced an actively audible gargling bag of waste. “Let’s bless your colostomy bag!” I announced during our conversation. She burst into laughter—roaring about whether or not I’d have to use oil or water, whether I’d have to hold the bag, and whether I could stomach even being in the room much longer with the eruptive gurgling and the stench. I’ll admit it was the strangest idea I’d had in a while, but I’ll tell you it was one of the most remarkable and honest times of blessing and prayer I’ve had. We could be honest as well as playful about the absurdness of the experience, but name that, even in the midst of it, God was there with her.
Playfulness was constantly present with my chaplaincy colleagues. We kept a list of public service announcements that we would occasionally act out. My favorite tales and skits included these: don’t tick off your spouse if they are carrying a
hatchet, but in the event you do, ask them to leave it in your head until you get to the ER; drinking on rooftops is generally a bad idea as is having sex on a bridge without good guard rails; masturbating on the gear shift of your car is generally a bad idea as it leads to an awkward need for Xanax after having your car towed to the trauma bay.
MFM: From TV, we’ve learned important facts about hospitals. For example, thanks to accurate, fact-based documentaries like General Hospital, Grey’s Anatomy, and ER, we know that hospitals are populated almost entirely with hot, young doctors and nurses who all sleep with each other. Did your own experience working closely with doctors and nurses differ in any way from those highly realistic portrayals?
LA: I generally find medical dramas to be a bit over the top and roll my eyes at how they portray reviving folks in cardiac arrest through the cleanest, gentlest looking CPR imaginable (y’all, seriously, it’s intense in person) or portray such mild suffering experience by so many folks in their last bit of life or make it seem like every case has a fully collaborative team of well-rested, properly nourished, Ivy league trained physicians. The reality is that most docs and nurses I’ve worked with are exhausted, emotionally drained, and generally overwhelmed by their patient load. Many experience stressed home lives because of their own compassion fatigue and disconnection with their families, simply because they don’t have one more ounce of energy to give when they get home. I’d love to see a show that grappled with the hard questions nurses and docs face: when ought treatment shift towards palliative care rather than charge on at full steam, what the moral implications of what patients receive kinds of treatment, and how do you help prepare someone to die well? And I’d like a network show to include chaplains. Seriously, how is it that the Colbert Report had a chaplain repeatedly on the show and not one hospital drama does?
Self-proclaimed church nerd Laura Arnold served as a hospital chaplain and as the Associate Minister for Theological Education for the Southeast UCC Conference in Atlanta, GA. She currently serves as pastor of the Decorah United Church of Christ in Decorah, Iowa and as the Director of Online Learning for the Center for Progressive Renewal. She is active in her local community, seeking to demonstrate God’s love in the world. In Part One of the Minty Fresh Mysteries interview, Rev. Arnold shares some of the wit and wisdom that served her well during her time as a healthcare chaplain.
Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): Burnout seems to be serious occupational hazard for chaplains. Was that a factor at all in your decision to transition from healthcare chaplaincy to parish ministry?
Laura Arnold (LA): Though I have always been drawn to the local parish (and get church nerd excited about all aspects of church life—even meetings), chaplaincy was a seemingly perfect balance between the adrenaline junkie in me and my love of pastoral presence and theological reflection.
But there was a turning point. I wouldn’t call it burnout as much as warping of worldview after being a part of the aftermath of so many devastating injuries and violence. I began to presume that pregnancies were inherently dangerous and healthy infants were rare, that violence was a normal experience, that everyone I loved was going to wreck their car and suffer a brain injury, etc. In truth the warping of my worldview happened over a long period of time, so it wasn’t until the morning I started to strap a bike helmet to my head before getting in the car that I started seriously considering what the work of chaplaincy was doing to my spirit. I was becoming someone I didn’t want to be and knew it was time to transition to another form of ministry. That said, I wouldn’t trade my years in chaplaincy for anything. It was a tremendous and overall amazing place to serve.
MFM: You’ve shared with me that you had some pretty, ahem, colorful encounters with patients and their families, like the time a patient’s family member put his hand on your rear end during a prayer circle. (I’m totally going to use that in a future Lindsay Harding book, by the way.) What’s another example of a time when a patient’s family or friends were really undermining your ability to provide spiritual care?
LA: A family asked for an anointing and blessing upon a dying family member. We scheduled a time for the next day when the family could all be present. I wrote a beautiful liturgy and was honored to preside given that I had formed a long standing pastoral relationship with the patient as he was dying. When I got to the room, oil and liturgy in hand, a brother announced that they had decided to check out the phonebook and call in a “real pastor.” Ignoring their brother’s wishes, the family decided that I as a woman did not have proper authority to provide spiritual care.
As difficult as family and friends of patients sometimes were, staff members also managed to doubt the validity of our role. It was 3:04 a.m. when I was called by a charge nurse for an “urgent consultation.” I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and fixed my hair before heading up to the floor. The nurse only pointed to the patient’s room and announced that he was incredibly upset and “needed some Jesus.” What the patient actually said he needed was to have the chickens chased out of his room because their clucking was keeping him awake. Given that his experience of his hallucination was real, I proceeded to run around the room, arms swinging wide open, “gathering the chickens,” then loudly announcing that I was taking them all to the elevator to send them downstairs and outside. The report was that he was asleep within 15 minutes of the chickens’ being driven out. While I’m thankful that he finally slept, I wonder what in the world prompted the nurse to call me. I continue to wonder if it was misconception of what chaplains do or if it was a manipulative use of power.
In 1992, Karen was ordained as one of the first 200 female rabbis worldwide, and she later became a hospice chaplain. Endorsed by a reporter for The Huffington Post, you can see stories and commentary about how people deal with death on her blog, offbeatcompassion.com.
Currently, her focus has shifted exclusively to writing. She teaches essay writing and grammar to speakers of English as a second language and heads The Angry Coffee Bean Writers’ Group. She’s currently working on a collection of compassionate science fiction short stories (no swords, no murderous robots).
Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): You’re Jewish, but as a hospice chaplain you often provided pastoral care to non-Jews or adherents to different “flavors” of Judaism from your own. How do you think your own religious beliefs played into the way you approached your work?
Karen B. Kaplan (KBK): Ideally, chaplains aim to keep their own agendas, including religious ones, out of the way, so they can really listen carefully and take in what the patient is trying to express. Our job is to go where the patient goes, not have the patient follow us. In other words, a chaplain’s job is not so much to provide answers but to ask questions. So your question could become, “How do the religious or non-religious beliefs of a patient shape how you provide pastoral care to that patient? The answer is, if a patient is secular, we might discuss spiritual matters all humans face such as the meaning of life and how they want to be remembered. As for people of different faiths from my own, I simply listen to them express their beliefs and explore how those beliefs may be encouraging, strengthening, hindering or confusing them at that moment. I follow their lead; if they are distressed, I help them articulate their concerns.
Patients rarely know anything about my beliefs, unless they ask. And even then, I usually turn it around to ask about their own beliefs, which is what they really want to and need to talk about
MFM: Frankly, you’ve seen a lot of dying and death–your body count would put a mafia hitman to shame. What do you think happens when we die? Did your idea about the afterlife (or lack thereof) change in the course of your work?
KBK: You have a colorful way of putting things. I do answer these questions in detail in the book, so I don’t want my answer here to be a spoiler. However, I’ll give some hints: With a front row seat as it were between the edge of life and impending death, I have listened to many patients tell me their beliefs about the afterlife, everything from the traditional heaven/hell dichotomy to creative ideas of their own. I just hope that in my case, I don’t have to end up with my dysfunctional parents and that there will be an Option B for people like me.
MFM: I recently interviewed Stacy Sergent, who, like you, published a memoir about her work as a chaplain. I’m going to ask you the same question I asked her: If you could fictionalize your account, how would you change it? I’m guessing your fictionalized memoir would have at least one spaceship in it…
KBK: Funny you should ask. Fact is, I’m happy to report as I am not on hospice, the last chapter is fiction! In that chapter I imagine that at some nice ripe age in my nineties that I will be on hospice and thinking back on my life with the help of a chaplain. The reader will see a dialogue between me and that chaplain. You might think this is hokey or very risky to do, but like the rest of the book, it passed review after review with flying colors. One point of doing this exercise was to reveal how my own life story influenced me to take on such an admittedly peculiar career.
MFM: I liked your ending, too. In fact, I cried when “you” died. Still, I’m disappointed that you refuse to add vampires or spaceships to your memoir. If you’d like, I will spice it up for you–Fifty Shades of the Hospice, perhaps? No? Moving on then… Talking about death and dying can bring out strong reactions in people, so I’m wondering, did any of the reactions to your book (or the idea of you writing such a book) trouble you or upset you? Or were you able, to quote the great poet Taylor Swift, to shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake it (i.e. other people’s opinions) off?
KBK: No, no one’s strong reactions have upset me. I expected such reactions. Furthermore, as a chaplain visiting the sick the dying and the bereaved, I have had plenty of experience with strong emotions face to face, so anyone backing away from my book in horror is mild stuff in comparison. Besides, I have not heard too much negativity. I think people who dislike the subject keep that to themselves and solve the issue by not purchasing the book.
It is a bit amusing how close friends, even with their very own signed copies, have put off reading anything within besides my signed note to them. Shall I dare them?
For the next few months, Minty Fresh Mysteries will be profiling some real-life chaplains who’ve written interesting and thought-provoking accounts of their work. I’m kicking things off with Stacy N. Sergent, whose incredible Chaplain Jesus Lady blog I discovered while researching the second book in my hospital chaplain mystery series, A Death in Duck.
Stacy was born and raised in the mountains of Harlan, Kentucky. She completed a Bachelor of Arts degree at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, and a Master of Divinity at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, as well as five units of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at Carolinas Medical Center and Spartanburg Regional Medical Center. Her experience varies from English teacher to French interpreter, children’s minister to return desk cashier at Lowe’s, all of it enriching in its own way. These days she is a gardener, a blogger, a crocheter, an occasional preacher, and a hospital chaplain at Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) in Charleston. She makes her home just across the bridge in Mount Pleasant with her wonderful dog, Hurley, who takes her for frequent walks on the beach.
Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM):As a young, female hospital chaplain, do you find that you defy people’s expectations of what a chaplain should be? Have there ever been times when you’ve been able to use that to your advantage?
Stacy Sergent (SS): Yes, I am sometimes a surprise to people. Just this week someone knocked on the door of our office and when I opened the door, he said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I was looking for the chaplain.” When I explained to him that I was the chaplain, I could tell he was completely caught off guard by this. He fumbled for words for a moment, then explained that he had previously met with one of our male chaplains for prayer. I offered to pray with him, but he declined and said he would come back later. That only happens occasionally. Usually once people get over the initial surprise, they open up to me and find that I’m able to meet their pastoral care needs, even if I’m not what they expected. There have been times when my presence as a young (and very short) woman has been disarming, usually with men expressing their grief in loud and angry ways. They expect me to be scared away, I think, but when they find that I don’t turn and run from their anger, their surprise is often enough to make a crack in the facade. It allows them to trust me with the sadness that is really behind their show of anger. And once they know that I can handle it, then the real grief work can begin.
MFM: I’ve heard it said that the role of a chaplain is to provide a “listening presence.” What does that mean to you? Do you ever want to stop being a listening presence and become, say, a “screaming, hollering banshee presence”?
SS: Being a listening presence is harder than it sounds, at least for me. It takes tremendous effort to stay in the moment with someone, not to let my mind wander, not to express disapproval or judgment, not to just think of what I need to say next. Active listening is tough and tiring. But it never fails to amaze me how much it means to someone to feel truly heard. So many times I’ve had a patient or family member say to me, “Thank you for everything you did for us. It meant so much.” And I find myself wondering what exactly I did — because I mostly remember being in the room with them and not saying anything. To anyone observing from the outside it would have looked very much like doing nothing. Yet being heard let them know they were not alone, and as a chaplain it’s my hope that by being there with them, even in silence, I bear witness to God’s presence with them, too. And yes, there are a few times when I’ve had to bite my tongue, when someone has literally made me want to scream, but I’ve always managed not to, so far.
MFM: You’ve written a wonderful memoir about your first few years of chaplaincy. I read it and loved it. But as a fiction writer, I want to know, if you could fictionalize your account, how would you change it? Would it become a black comedy? An erotic thriller? Would you change all the doctors into cowboys?
SS: First of all, thank you very much. I was beyond thrilled when I read your review of my book, since I am such a fan of your writing as well! This is a really interesting question. I never thought about what my story would be like as fiction. I suppose it could be wish fulfillment. I could, like your fictional heroine Lindsay Harding, eat lots of junk food and still be thin. And I could have romantic interludes in the elevator like the characters on Grey’s Anatomy. I can’t tell you how disappointing it is, after years of watching that show, that of all the thousands of times I’ve been on hospital elevators, never once have I had occasion to make out with a gorgeous doctor à la McDreamy or McSteamy. Of course, if I really wanted to sell books, I would need the hospital to be threatened by zombie hoards, only to be saved by the chaplain who is secretly an angsty vampire. All these missed opportunities . . . But I will say, I’m pretty happy with the story I did tell, and really touched with the messages I’ve been getting from people all over the place who say it resonated with them. I think so many of us experience times of questioning who we are and what God is up to (if anything) and what it all means. Exploring those questions honestly through my own life was an exhilarating writing experience, even without zombies or vampires or elevator makeout sessions. And people seem to enjoy reading it, so even better!
Nancy Lynn Jarvis finally acknowledged she’s having too much fun writing to ever sell another house and let her license lapse in May of 2013, after her twenty-fifth anniversary in real estate. She invites you to take a peek into the real estate world through the stories that form the backdrop of her Regan McHenry mysteries. If you’re one of her clients, colleagues, or contractors, read carefully — you may find characters in her books that seem familiar. You may know the person who inspired them — who knows: maybe you inspired a character yourself.
Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): Your Regan McHenry mysteries are known for having lots of plot twists and turns. Have you ever drafted an epic twist (à la The Sixth Sense or Planet of the Apes) only to realize that — amazing as it is — it’s just not going to work?
Nancy Lynn Jarvis (NLJ): I’ve never had that experience, but I have had a character throw a plot twist at me. When I started writing Backyard Bones, I couldn’t decide which one of two characters was the murderer, but knew the choice could be put off until I was part way through writing the book. By the time I reached the deciding point, it was clear neither prime suspect was guilty; the villain was another character. No worries. I thought I’d just go back, do a little rewriting, and plant clues in the appropriate places. When I got to the revision points, the clues were already there. My character was in charge the whole time and laughing at me as much as at my protagonist for missing them.
MFM: Real-life events from your 25-year real estate career form the basis of your mysteries. With all that experience, have you done all the usual realtor things like walking in on naked homeowners, trying to sell a crazy cat lady house, or shoving dirty dishes in the trunk of your car before a viewing? Have you done anything even wackier than that, say, shoving a naked crazy cat lady in your trunk before a viewing?
NLJ: Several of the wacky things I’ve encountered or friends in the business experienced have found their way into the books. The (very common) naked homeowner story made a great little bit in a book as did the crazy cat lady (mine was a crazy dog lady) who wore tinfoil hats to keep the space aliens from reading her mind. The most unusual wacky story may have been a friend’s experience of finding a dead seller during a showing. The realtor was upset and assumed the potential buyer, who left the bedroom where the body was while he called 911, was too, until he found her in the living room sitting in a yoga pose, communing with the dead seller to negotiate the purchase of his condo. I used that in “The Death Contingency.” FYI readers, all the murders in my books are made up; the real estate stories, no matter how implausible they may seem, are all true.
MFM: Tell me about the absolute weirdest house you ever took clients to view. Did any elements of that experience find their way into your books?
NLJ: Let’s see. The one that was so cold the evil in it was palpable? No, I ran out of it and never took clients to see it, although it was the model for The Murder House. The one with the working dungeon dug under the house? Maybe. My clients and I got out of there quickly once we noticed the massive lock on the dungeon door and heard noises upstairs indicating the owner had come home. I haven’t used that one…yet. Oh, I know! The one where the building inspector announced he found Jimmy Hoffa. There was an anomaly in the structure of the house that created a perfect hiding place for a body. The inspector was kidding about Hoffa, but the house and that space are in Buying Murder.
MFM: You’ve now published more than half a dozen books, so I’m sure you’ve learned a thing or two about what works and doesn’t work for getting the word out. What are your go-to marketing strategies? For example, I was thinking about buying ad space for my book series on Kim Kardashian’s butt…
NLJ: Back in the day, I had great success offering a free download of a series book. It’s counterintuitive to give a book away to increase sales, but it worked beyond my wildest dreams, which is saying a lot because I’m a writer and dream up all sorts of things. Recently I convinced 128 cozy mystery writers to submit recipes related to their books for a cookbook and asked them to include biographies and links for buying their books. Authors are now a promotional army mentioning the cookbook everywhere. Sales are good and we are all getting publicity from Cozy Food: 128 Cozy Mystery Writers Share Their Favorite Recipes. It doesn’t hurt that “Cozy Food” is full of witty stories, terrific and entertaining recipes, works equally well for recipes and for discovering new authors to read, and is garnering rave reviews.