Killer opening line serves Tale’s mystery writer well: Spencer-Fleming tells Perry audience hooking readers into story important

By Ben Beagle, Daily News Lifestyles Editor

PERRY — Consider for a moment these opening lines:

Call me Ishmael.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

The priest was putting on pantyhose.

The first two are quickly recognized — from Melville’s Moby-Dick and Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

The third line was the original opening sentence for Julia Spencer-Fleming’s award-winning debut novel, In the Bleak Midwinter. But as she edited her manuscript, she realized her novel really started with its second chapter. With the first chapter gone, her opening line became “It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby.”

“With mysteries you need a killer opening line,” she said. “My goal was to sink a hook into you with that first sentence and pull you in and keep you up until 2 in the morning reading because you couldn’t wait to find out what happened.”

Hundreds of readers in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties took the bait. Since January, they have read Spencer-Fleming’s novel for the “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project.

“I couldn’t put it down,” said Hattie Schroeder of Silver Springs. “I can’t wait to read the second, third, fourth and fifth books.”

More than 400 people took part in public and private programs with the author during her three-day, three-county visit, which ended with a Saturday afternoon talk and booksigning at Perry Elementary/Middle School hosted by the Perry Public Library with assistance from the county’s other libraries.

About 85 people attended the 21/2-hour long Perry program, which followed similar events in Medina and Batavia.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard as much discussion about a single book as I have with this one,” said Peggy Parker, director of the Perry Public Library.

Schroeder, who won a “Tale” promotional poster signed by the author, made a day of it with three friends, going to lunch before attending the author visit.

“She is so down to earth. I found her very interesting,” said RoseAnne Lindsey of Castile. “I don’t want to miss any of her books.”

The series features Clare Fergusson as a newly-ordained Episcopal priest, ex-Army helicopter pilot and amateur sleuth, and Russ Van Alstyne, the police chief in the fictional Adirondack town of Millers Kill. As they investigate an abandoned baby, and later murders, they develop their own delicate relationship that continues to be explored in future books.

Gail Brown of Williamsville found the first book exciting, “and now I’m reading another.”

Spencer-Fleming, a former personal injury attorney, traced her unlikely route from writing contest winner to author of a mystery series that is planned for six books. Three are published, the fourth is coming in June, and she was working on the fifth during her trip.

She joked that she had tried crafty things such as home canning (until her husband asked her to stop after “the salsa incident”), quilting (but still has large bags full of little pieces of cut-up fabric), and needlepoint, but found her niche after finding an Internet-based writer’s group. From there, her interest in writing grew to the point she decided to tackle a novel.

Spencer-Fleming explained how she often envisions her action scenes as if watching a movie before writing them and that the only person in her books that is based on a real person is Lois, the church secretary, who shares several traits with Spencer-Fleming’s mother.

“She has the same haircut, the same slim figure, the same weird eating habits, and the same sardonic sense of humor,” said Spencer-Fleming, later adding that she promised her mother that “Lois will always be a size 6.”

The author also talked about the importance of rewriting and working with editors. She said the first novel she attempted was a science-fiction story that was deemed “about 40 years out of date” when it was critiqued at a writer’s conference. But the characters and mystery got Spencer-Fleming convinced she should write a mystery.

That revelation got the attention of Sean Magee of Warsaw, who usually reads science fiction but picked up In the Bleak Midwinter through Genesee Community College’s participation in this year’s “Tale” project.

“That was different, how she used her science fiction story,” Magee said. “I thought it was kind of cool that she started that way.”

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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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