Author, star, mom

By Ben Beagle, Daily News Lifestyle Editor

Author Julia Spencer-Fleming has gone back to the ordinary life.
After three days of signing books, posters and newspaper special sections, talking about writing, and having lunch with winners of a book review contest, she returned to her rural Maine farmhouse.

This week she’s back to being a mom, a role that included — before it broke down Thursday — driving the family’s decrepit old station wagon to the bottle store to unload a trunk filled with recyclables.

But for three days, during the “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project, she felt like a celebrity.

Everywhere she went in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties she found people eager to meet a famous author.

“They’ve made me feel like ‘Julia Spencer-Fleming International Superstar Celebrity,’ ” she said. “Now I know how John Grisham feels.”

More than 400 people attended programs March 10 to 12 at Genesee Community College and Richmond Memorial Library in Batavia, Lee-Whedon Memorial Library in Medina, and Perry Elementary/Middle School, a program hosted by the Perry Public Library. Spencer-Fleming also talked about writing to students at GCC.

“I like the idea that reading is something that can be talked about,” Spencer-Fleming said as she signed her last book in Perry. “I like that reading can be entertaining and social and vital in people’s life. It’s not just about who was voted out of American Idol.”

Spencer-Fleming talked about her unconventional route to becoming published — she won a writing contest — her characters and settings, and gave the barest hints at what’s ahead for her characters, the Rev. Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne.

Here, in her own words, is some more of what she had to say:

Space, not the final frontier

When Julia Spencer-Fleming decided to become a writer she thought she might tackle science fiction. Growing up, her father had shelves full of popular sci-fi novels. She read them all.

After sharing short stories and other bits and pieces with an Internet writer’s group, she found she had about half a novel. She took the manuscript to a science fiction convention where two authors and a writing instructor offered a critique.

“They said the characters were well written and realistic. The writing was of a professional quality. But my ideas of science fiction were 40 years out of date,” she recalled.

Her dreams of being the next Isaac Asimov may have been crushed, but Spencer-Fleming had been bitten by the writing bug. She eventually saw in her story the beginnings of her mystery. Her heroine was a former military officer now in social service, who finds herself drawn to an attractive — yet unavailable — chief of security when they discover a body and try to find out who it is and how it ended up where it ended up.

She still has the half-finished work.

“Who knows, maybe when I’ve won a bunch of awards, it’ll be trendy to do,” Spencer-Fleming said.

If there was a movie …

Maybe it was because the Academy Awards had been just a few days earlier. But from the college campus to library reading rooms everyone wanted to know who Spencer-Fleming would cast as Clare and Russ in a movie.

Hilary Swank, who had just won the best actress, was a clear favorite for Clare. Mel Gibson’s name came up for Russ. And Linda Daviau of Batavia suggested Tom Selleck, who the audience preferred with a mustache.

Spencer-Fleming, however, kept mum although she acknowledged a willingness to help Selleck understand his character.

“I want you, when you read, to come up with your own mental image,” Spencer-Fleming explained. “I don’t describe what people look like in a lot of detail, I give them an identifying tag. For Russ, it’s his height. Clare notices his blue eyes … We know Clare is fit because she runs.

“Writing,” she said, “is a joint effort. I do part of it and you can do the rest. The book is not complete until you read it … I trust the reader to use their imagination and plug in the details. You create the visual image that you need to go with your emotional connection to the characters.”

Editing doesn’t hurt

Spencer-Fleming said editing is not painful. In fact, she said she likes being edited. “It means your writing is getting better,” she said. “My editor has been editing longer than I’ve been alive. I’d be an idiot not to listen.”

The author shared her struggles with her forthcoming book, To Darkness and to Death. The manuscript was 500 pages long — and not done — when she submitted it to her 80-something editor.

She got back three pages of notes. Gone was a major character; so was about one-third of the book.

“Sometimes what may be a perfect scene in your head doesn’t come out that way on paper. She helps get it out,” Spencer-Fleming said.

Three people typically get the first read of her novels: her mother, a former English teacher who circles every obscenity and writes ‘Is this really necessary?’ (she’s usually right, Spencer-Fleming noted.); a mystery-loving friend who is director of the Maine Preservation Society; and the director of a small local library where Spencer-Fleming still volunteers one day a week.

“I try and triangulate their comments. If all three have a problem with something, then I know there is a problem,” she said.

Titles from hymns

Each of the book titles are taken from Episcopal church hymns — either the title itself or some phrase within the hymn.

“When you do a mystery, the idea is to have a naming gimmick. It makes it easier for readers to identify your work,” Spencer-Fleming said.

The alphabet had already been taken. So, too, had numbers, colors, even nursery rhymes. But no one had done hymns.

For her second book, A Fountain Filled With Blood, Spencer-Fleming provided a list of 14 possible titles. When Fountain was picked, she rewrote the scene where Clare discovers a body to include a fountain.

Book three, Out of the Deep I Cry was altered from the hymn, “Out of the Deep I Call.”

“Cry was far more ominous,” Spencer-Fleming said.

The author shared one of the titles she is considering for book five during her talk in Perry. All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent was greeted by murmurs of approval and nodding heads.

“Good, there’s one thing off my to do list,” she said.

Opening up the story

After two traditionally-told stories, Spencer-Fleming changed her style in book three. Out of the Deep I Cry has Clare and Russ investigating the disappearance of a doctor, but also find themselves revisiting a mystery from the 1930s. The novel, recently nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America, explores Millers Kill of the present and the past.

Her forthcoming book borrows a technique from the hit television drama 24. The plot of To Darkness and to Death plays out during a single day.

“I didn’t want the same old, same ole,” she explained. “When you pick up my books you know there’s going to be a story about Russ and Clare and a forbidden relationship, you know there’ll be a plot twist. But I don’t want it all in the same package. I want to keep growing as a writer.

“It’s liberating,” she said. “Once you get into a series, you have more freedom. You can open up your storytelling.”

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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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