Author’s imaginary world draws from life

By Ben Beagle, Lifestyles Editor
Oct. 17, 2006

In creating her fictional world of Miller’s Kill, a small town in the Adirondacks, mystery author Julia Spencer-Fleming likes to weave in pieces – the name of a person or thing, for example – of the real world.

“It’s a useful technique. It helps give readers a sense of a real-life world to my fictional one,” she told a gathering of readers Monday morning at Richmond Memorial Library in Batavia.

About 70 people from Genesee, Orleans, Wyoming and nearby counties attended the first “A Tale for Three Counties Celebration.” The event was organized to mark the beginning of the fifth year of the community reading project organized by public libraries in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties.

Spencer-Fleming , the Tale author in 2005, signed copies of the just-released All Mortal Flesh , the fifth installment of her mystery series featuring the sleuth-solving Rev. Clare Fergusson, for about 45 minutes both before and after her hour-long talk. Spencer-Fleming talked about the new novel, her writing methods, and the future for Clare and Russ Van Alstyne, the married police chief of fictional Millers Kill.

“I know where their relationship is going. I know how it’s going to end,” Spencer-Fleming said, adding a deep, hearty “ha-ha-ha.”

The cozy relationship of Clare and Russ is the source of whispers in Millers Kill – and among readers.

“I had read the first three books, and I was really curious to see where the relationship is going,” said Peggy Lamb of Oakfield, who is about 20 pages into the latest book.

Erica Caldwell, owner of Present Tense, a book store in Batavia, said she has seen a lot of interest in all of Spencer-Fleming ‘s books.

“I think readers find her characters very real, and she’s got a great hook with her mysteries,” said Caldwell, with three signed books tucked under her arms.

Tori Reilly came with a small group from Fairport.

“We’re big-time fans, we’ve read all the books,” Reilly said. “I’m Episcopalian and love mysteries. I love the idea of an Episcopal priest solving mysteries in a small town. It makes for a good read.”

Spencer-Fleming opened her talk with a reading from about one-third into the book. While the author read the parts of her protagonist, she had Daily News Lifestyles Editor Ben Beagle read the parts of a new character in her series, investigative reporter Ben Beagle from the Glens Falls Post-Star , a real newspaper.

Spencer-Fleming explained she sometimes uses the names of friends and relatives in her novels “mainly to amuse myself.”

“And if I’m going to borrow a name like Ben Beagle, I’m also going to borrow the Snoopy tie,” she said, noting the real reporter’s tendency to favor such neckwear.

Other real-life people whose names appear in All Mortal Flesh include Spencer-Fleming ‘s two favorite teachers (as the high school principal and guidance counselor), her sister, using her first married name (the hotel manager), and three uncles (as church aldermen). Those are all characters with limited roles; the reporter developed a larger part through what Spencer-Fleming calls her “organic style of writing.”

“I found having a reporter in the story very useful,” she said. “By having him call around and ask questions I had someone to put in a few more pieces of the puzzle that Clare and Russ couldn’t get to.”

All Mortal Flesh picks up eight weeks after events in To Darkness and To Death . The new novel finds Russ being investigated for the apparent murder of his wife. Clare wants to help, but her own life has been upended as she struggles with the authority of her church, the law and her heart. The many twists and turns in the novel has made it difficult to talk about without giving anything away, Spencer-Fleming said.

“Russ and Clare have been a subtext, a secondary story even though emotionally they’ve been carrying the load” in the earlier books, Spencer-Fleming said. “The bad things always happened to other people. In this book, the bad things happen to them. They are the movers and shakers of the story.”

What she did reveal – and readers were reassured by – was that the series was going to extend to seven books. She has started work on the sixth book, and will resume writing following upcoming appearances tonight at the Southern Tier Library Council’s annual meeting in Bath, and talks and signings at bookstores in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., at the end of the week.

And, Spencer-Fleming , says she is considering her first book outside of Millers Kill.

“I love the characters. I love Millers Kill. But I think it needs to be limited,” she said. “If you’re a mystery reader, you can probably think of series that have gone on too long. You pick up the latest and feel the author is bored, there is no spark to the story.”

But future books will likely retain a small-town setting, she said.

“To me, there’s nothing left to say about mysteries and crime in the big city,” said Spencer-Fleming , who lives in an old farmhouse outside Portland, Maine, with her three children, husband and two dogs.

Leslie DeLooze, a reference and community service librarian at Richmond, opened the event by thanking the program’s sponsors, many of whom have supported the program since its inception, and offering a glimpse at the project’s history, which began with book discussions and visits from Leif Enger in 2003.

DeLooze told those in attendance that the Tale for Three Counties Council was still working on getting an author for 2007. An inquiry has been made to an author, she said, and the group is awaiting word on his availability.

“I just love ‘Tale for Three Counties,'” Lamb said. “I had never been to a book discussion before Tale, and now I’m going to one at 7:45 in the morning. There are so many people interested in talking about books, I had no idea how much I would enjoy it.”

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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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