Today I am pleased to bring you the wonderful bestselling author Julia Spencer-Fleming. She grabbed almost all the major mystery awards when she debuted with IN A BLEAK MIDWINTER back in 2002, the first in what was to be a successful mystery series with unlikely paired sleuths Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson and local police chief Russ Van Alstyne and their even more unlikely romance. Readers were hooked and so was I. Millers Kill where the action of the books takes place, is a small town in upstate New York. And as you know, when you read mysteries set in small towns--when it comes to murder--they seem just as bad if not worse than the urban streets of any big city.
Jeri Westerson: Tell us about the hiatus between your last book and ONE WAS A SOLDIER. We’ve missed Russ and Clare.
Julia Spencer-Fleming: Part of it was simply life happening. I had a bunch of health issues, none of which were life-threatening, but all of which affected my ability to work. (As they say in Monty Python, I got better.) Then there was the college search and application process with my oldest daughter, transitioning my son into high school, and switching my youngest daughter into a new elementary school.
I also spent far more time researching One Was A Soldier than I’ve ever spent on my other works. I felt a deep obligation to get the background and the experiences of my fictional veterans right, and I wound up taking some six months to read books, scour the internet for mil(itary) blogs, dissect newspaper and magazine articles, and interview vets. Honestly, I don’t know how you do the level of research the Crispin series takes and still manage to write a book a year!
I know the delay has been very frustrating to readers who’ve been following the series. I can only say that I think this may be my best book yet, because I took so much time to write, redraft, and revise.
Jeri: What do you think it is about a small town that interests authors—and readers—so much?
Julia: The sense of community? Even when living in huge cities, we live and work in our own small “villages.” So in that respect, everyone recognizes a small town. I also think the interest in fictional small towns stems from the way the reader can encounter the same characters over and over again, sometimes stepping to the forefront of the story, sometimes acting as a spear carrier. As an author, I love having this large cast of characters to use. We follow the residents of Millers Kill as they grow and change, as bad and good things happen to them. Finally, I suspect a certain nostalgia for small town life. I’ve lived in a town of 8,000 for 17 years now, and I still catch myself thinking, Wow, it’s just like Mayberry when I’m walking with my neighbors in the 4th of July parade or eavesdropping on ladies gossiping in the library. Although I can’t imagine anyone eager to live in Millers Kill - the per capita murder rate is appalling!
Jeri: Your minor characters are playing a larger role these days. Do you have plans for them?
Julia: I do. Several minor characters become significant viewpoint characters in One Was A Soldier, enabling readers to find out much more about their lives and backgrounds. One of the things I find useful about bringing minor characters to the foreground this way is the ability it gives me to reveal the main characters in a different light. The reader and I get to look at Russ and Clare through the eyes of the people around them - who may see our heroes entirely differently than they see themselves.
Two secondary characters are stepping up in a big way to become the next romantic duo. Officer Kevin Flynn has been in the series from the beginning; readers have seen him develop from a grass-green 21-year-old rookie to, in One Was A Soldier, a 26-year-old with quite a few experiences under his belt - including that of falling hopelessly in love with newcomer Hadley Knox. Hadley was introduced in I Shall Not Want, a thirty-something mother of two fleeing a bad marriage in California for the (to her) dubious pleasure of becoming a member of the MKPD. She doesn’t particularly want to be a cop, she doesn’t really want to become a part of the small-town society, and she more certainly doesn’t want to have a young puppy like Flynn panting after her. But there is this undeniable attraction...
Jeri: What comes first for you—the villain, the victim, or the murder method?
Julia: Of those three, the victim always comes first. Most of the time, I don’t know who the killer is until I’m halfway through the first draft. I have to write into it to uncover the twists and turns of the plot. The murder methods people use in my books are extremely straightforward - shooting, stabbing, bludgeoning. Although one victim did get defenestrated. Isn’t that a wonderful word? (Jeri note: It means being thrown out a window. One of my favorite words, too!) And I didn’t even use it in the book when it happened. At any rate, I’m trying to keep the crimes realistically small-town America, which mostly means guns.
However, if you’re talking about the book, I start with...I guess “the theme” or “the issue” is the right word. For instance, when I began teasing the threads of One Was A Soldier out of my head, I knew I wanted to write about returning veterans, the kind of mostly National Guard members who live and work right here in Maine. I had been reading articles about the deployments of various units and groups, and I couldn’t help but wonder what it must be like for them, coming back to their small rural towns, family and friends expecting them to be exactly the same as when they left. I knew, from friends who had been to Vietnam, that no one returns from war the same person. So that was my starting point, wanted to tell the story of a handful of individuals who came back. Then I had to think of a way to weave a mystery into their narrative.
Julia: Can I quote the flap copy? I’m terrible at off-the-cuff descriptions of my own work.
On a warm September evening in the Millers Kill community center, five veterans sit down in rickety chairs to try to make sense of their experiences in Iraq. What they will find is murder, conspiracy, and the unbreakable ties that bind them to one other and their small Adirondack town.
The Rev. Clare Fergusson wants to forget the things she saw as a combat helicopter pilot and concentrate on her relationship with Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyne. MP Eric McCrea needs to control the explosive anger threatening his job as a police officer. Will Ellis, high school track star, faces the reality of life as a double amputee. Orthopedist Trip Stillman is denying the extent of his traumatic brain injury. And bookkeeper Tally McNabb wrestles with guilt over the in-country affair that may derail her marriage.
But coming home is harder than it looks. One vet will struggle with drugs and alcohol. One will lose his family and friends. One will die.
Since their first meeting, Russ and Clare's bond has been tried, torn, and forged by adversity. But when he rules the veteran's death a suicide, she violently rejects his verdict, drawing the surviving vets into an unorthodox investigation that threatens jobs, relationships, and her own future with Russ.
As the days cool and the nights grow longer, they will uncover a trail of deceit that runs from their tiny town to the upper ranks of the U.S. Army, and from the waters of the Millers Kill to the unforgiving streets of Baghdad.
Jeri: What’s next? Tell us there is another Russ and Clare. Please? I mean, without giving anything away, I’m thinking there has to be.
Julia: Indeed there is! I’ve recently signed a three-book contract with the lovely folks at St. Martin’s Minotaur for another three Millers Kill mysteries. I’m already at work on the next book after One Was A Soldier. As is usual for me, I wanted to write a story that’s 180 degrees away from the most recent book, so this one is more of a stripped down thriller, taking place over the course of one week (and requiring very little research!) Think Russ and Clare trapped in an ice-bound cabin in the woods by a stone-cold killer. The working title is Seven Whole Days.
Jeri: A big thank you to Julia for stopping by Getting-Medieval. The book will be out in days. Go order it. Now!
Julia Spencer-Fleming is the Agatha and Anthony-award-winning author of the upcoming One Was A Soldier, the seventh Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery. You can find her on Facebook and on Twitter. One Was A Soldier is available for preorder at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Borders, Powell's Books and your locally owned independent bookstore.
Start at the beginning of the story with In the Bleak Midwinter, now only $2.99 as an ebook. And don’t miss Letters to a Soldier, a free ebooklet with exclusive content and an excerpt from One Was A Soldier.