Faith and Murder

By Ben Beagle, Daily News Lifestyles Editor

Author Julia Spencer-Fleming had never won anything of significance before taking the top prize — publication of her first novel — in a national writing contest. Sure there was the complete set of hardcover Harry Potter books she had won a few years earlier. But at the time the popular series was only three stories old.
“It was a very nice thing to win, but it doesn’t set you up with an expectation for a lifetime of winning,” Spencer-Fleming said in a telephone interview from her home, a 180-year-old farmhouse in rural Buxton, Maine, outside Portland.

One of most outstanding winners

The aspiring author really was just hoping an editor would see her manuscript and offer feedback when she entered the St. Martin’s Press/Malice Domestic best traditional mystery contest in 2001.

Instead, the story that introduces amateur sleuth Clare Fergusson, an Episcopal priest and ex-Army helicopter pilot, beat out about 230 other entries to win the contest. Her story, published in 2002 as In the Bleak Midwinter, was called one of the most outstanding winners the contest has ever seen.

The book, the featured selection in this year’s “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project, went on to win a half-dozen additional awards, including some of the most prestigious for the genre.

The story is centered around the relationship between Clare and the Adirondack town’s police chief. It has so captured readers’ interest that libraries in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties have waiting lists for all three books in the series.

“It has attracted new readers to ‘A Tale for Three Counties,’ ” said Kelly March, director of the Corfu Public Library. “I’ve even had a few teens tell me they enjoyed the book and want to attend our book discussion group.”

Tired of lawyers

Spencer-Fleming, a former personal injury attorney (she worked for one of those firms that advertise on television), wasn’t interested in writing another lawyer-sleuth story. She didn’t think there was much she could add to that genre.

Besides, she said, “whiplash cases rarely make good crime fiction.”

“When it got time to sit down and spend time with a fictional creature I was a little tired of lawyers,” Spencer-Fleming said. “But I felt there was something I could say about this woman who had come to the clergy after a very different life.”

Spencer-Fleming started writing In the Bleak Midwinter in the fall of 1998. She finally finished it during Labor Day weekend 2000, a few weeks after her third child was born.

During that time she went to a new law firm, her husband downsized from his corporate law job and became a full-time student (he’s now an elementary special-education teacher), she cared for two active kids, became pregnant and delivered her second daughter.

Spencer-Fleming jokes that she was lucky to find time to write shopping lists, much less a novel.

“There were a lot of things happening. The writing, for me, started as a break, a hobby,” she said.

She continued rewriting and editing during her maternity leave — sometimes with the baby under one arm, manuscript under the other — and learned about St. Martin’s best first novel contest a week before its deadline. She shipped out the manuscript on Halloween and waited until the winner was announced in April. She never expected it would be her.

“I was very surprised when I won the contest and enormously gratified,” she said.

Mystery as road map

Spencer-Fleming was part of a small Internet-based writers group. Members would write and then send the pieces to each other for feedback. It was just for fun, Spencer-Fleming said, until “I got seriously bitten by the bug.”

She began setting the alarm and propping herself up in front of a computer at 4:30 in the morning, writing until her children got up to go to school. Then, it was on to a full day at the law firm.

“I found myself very cranky and irritable if I didn’t have time to write,” she said. “And I became more and more interested in not just popping out something quickly for the other members of the group to read, but really improving what I was doing and thinking very carefully what worked and didn’t work. And very quickly I decided that I wanted to try my hand at writing a novel.”

Deciding to write a novel was far easier than doing it.

“Starting out to write your first novel is very intimidating,” Spencer-Fleming said.

Mysteries, she said, provided the road map she needed.

“You know there has to be a murder, you know there has to be suspects, there has to be clues, there has to be a resolution,” she said. “So it helped me have the confidence that I could put meat on the bones — to switch metaphors — and to flesh out a whole book based on those touchstones that had to be there.”

To get started, she went to the Portland Public Library and took out dozens of mystery books, every one she could find that had been nominated or won one of the three major mystery-writing awards — the Edgar, the Agatha and the Anthony. She read the books critically, looking at what she thought worked, didn’t work, found confusing or what she liked.

The idea for In the Bleak Midwinter began with news reports of a college girl who gave birth to a baby in a bathroom at Boston’s Logan Airport. The young man had no idea that he was about to become a father; the girl was arrested. Later, there was a bit of a tussle over custody of the baby, Spencer-Fleming said.

“I started playing with that scenario, the abandoned baby idea,” she said. “I started doing the writers’ game, asking the ‘what if this happened’ questions.”

Her Upstate roots

But Spencer-Fleming’s novel really began with her heroine.

Virginia-bred Clare Fergusson is a newly-ordained Episcopal priest when she arrives in Millers Kill — the first female priest at conservative St. Albans — and soon finds an abandoned baby on the church stairs. The mystery is followed by murders, and she teams with the local police chief to find answers in a rugged and secretive Adirondack environment.

“I wanted to write about someone who was an outsider, but who also was an insider,” said Spencer-Fleming, who moved to Maine after growing up around Upstate New York.

Spencer-Fleming was born at Plattsburgh Air Force Base and spent much of her youth living around the Adirondacks.

“I was a military brat,” she said. “Until I was 12 or so, we had moved around constantly. Once every 11 months or so. I had the childhood experience of always being the new kid.”

Her parents moved to the Syracuse area, where they still live, when she was a teen-ager. A childhood roaming the hills and wandering through old cemeteries or listening to older people gossip in her grandmother’s living room left a deep impression on her.

Millers Kill, the setting for the Clare Fergusson series, is fictional, an amalgam of upstate towns the author remembers from her childhood.

Some of the place names have a familiar sound. Cossayaharie, for example, is the combination of Cossayuna Lake in Washington County on New York’s eastern boarder, and Canajoharie in the Mohawk Valley. Fort Henry is substituted for Fort Edward. Spencer-Fleming even acknowledges pulling out her old yearbooks and local history books to create character names.

“There’s a lot of fictional names mixed in with real ones and I try and get things that sound very probable,” Spencer-Fleming said, “so that when you’re reading you’re getting that sense that you do when you’re really there.”

Introducing Clare

“Ministry seemed like the ideal vehicle” for the character she wanted to create, Spencer-Fleming said. “We expect clergy of whatever stripe to be involved in people’s lives, to know things about individual families that other people don’t know about. We expect them to be involved in social work in the community, but at the same time it’s a very common human reaction to treat clergy people as different from the rest of us. Somehow better. And more pure, more godly. Just the sort of people that would not swear or drive fast cars or end up in an inappropriate relationship.”

By making Clare a priest, the conflict between her new vocation and her emotional attachment to Russell Van Alstyne, the very married police chief of Millers Kill, became more realistic, Spencer-Fleming said.

From an awkward first meeting in a hospital emergency room (where the chief first thinks Clare is a meddling reporter, and after learning she’s the new priest isn’t sure what to call her), they develop a friendship, a strong sense of trust and maybe more.

“Nowadays, let’s face it, there aren’t a whole lot of commitments that people make that they don’t feel they can toss over if something better comes along. We commit to jobs, and then we jump to another job. We commit to marriage and then we divorced,” she said. “But committing to the priesthood is a very serious, extended commitment process and so I think it helps make it more realistic for her to be obviously falling in love with this man but still holding back.”

Series will end

Spencer-Fleming knows how the relationship will end; that story is coming in book six. The fourth book, To Darkness and to Death, is due out June 3.

“I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you,” she said laughing, before adding that she already has the story arc planned out.

“It’s a very popular trend in publishing to have mystery series that go on and on and sometimes on and on,” she said. “While it’s very enjoyable for readers to be able to come back and revisit characters they love time and again, I think sometimes for the writer it doesn’t work. Certainly in my series where the key emotional arc is a single question — will two honorable people who seem to be meant to be together find a way to be together or will they have to say good-bye? Once you answer that question, positively or negatively, then that story is over and I don’t want to keep going back to the well after it is dry.”

The author’s decision to take the relationship between Clare and Russ to some kind of conclusion is courageous, said Al Diamon, who has reviewed all three of Spencer-Fleming novels for Maine newspapers.

Often in series writing, readers know the central characters will live to solve another case no matter how dangerous a situation they may face. But Spencer-Fleming’s readers know “that anything can happen, and you don’t really know what is going to happen to the characters, or their relationship,” Diamon said in a telephone interview this week.

“She has an enormous conflict at the center of her stories. A lot of people would cop out in that situation,” he said. “I think that it is brave on her part to end it, especially with characters that people have come to like.”

Diamon, a political columnist for several Maine publications, wrote in one review, that Clare was “a spiritual descendant of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.”

“The books to me read like an English cozy mystery gone disastrously awry,” he said. “There’s nothing cozy about them.”

Her latest honor

Spencer-Fleming’s success has continued with her most recent book, Out of the Deep I Cry. Her third novel featuring Clare Fergusson was just named one of five finalists in the Mystery Writers of America’s annual Edgar Awards, named for Edgar Allan Poe. Winners will be announced in April.

“She says she was very, very lucky. I think she’s just talented,” said Janet Linder, who organized a program last November at the Saratoga Springs Public Library that brought Spencer-Fleming and two other mystery writers to the library to talk about their work.

“With Julia you’re not giving up literature,” Linder said. “She’s a good writer not just a guilty pleasure.”

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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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