How the Testimonies Guide My Art
I am a Friend, and I write and publicize novels about murder. How do I reconcile what at first glance might appear to be opposing values?
Let me give you, dear reader, a little background. I have been a member of Amesbury (Mass.) Meeting for nearly 30 years. Amesbury is a former mill town tucked into the northeast corner of Massachusetts, and our unprogrammed meeting is a monthly meeting of New England Yearly Meeting. I have served as recording clerk and as clerk of the meeting, been a member of Ministry and Counsel, and taught First-day school. My two sons grew up in the meeting.
After a number of careers over the years, I now write mystery fiction full-time. I write several contemporary cozy mystery series (two under the name Maddie Day) published by Kensington Publishing. Cozy mysteries are village-based amateur sleuth stories that avoid obscenities, sex, and violence on the page.
I also write the Quaker Midwife Mysteries, a series set here in Amesbury in the late 1880s (published by Midnight Ink, a division of Llewelyn). My protagonist Rose Carroll is a Friend and a midwife in her mid-20s, and John Greenleaf Whittier is a character in the books. He was on the Building Committee for our lovely, simple, light-filled meetinghouse, completed in 1861, and he’s a friend and sometimes-mentor to fictional Rose.
It turns out a midwife is an excellent occupation for an amateur sleuth. After all, she can go places and hear secrets the local police detective will never be privy to. She helps women birth their babies in their bedchambers; she hears their confidences during prenatal visits, and witnesses things they say during the throes of labor that they otherwise would never reveal.
Rose is also something of an outsider in town. She didn’t grow up in Amesbury, but in a small city 20 miles away. She’s already different, being a Friend, wearing plain dress, and speaking in thees and thys. And she goes about town independently on her bicycle without a chaperone. Outsider status is a great qualification for an amateur sleuth.
I don’t want to know where the story is going until I get there. The process reminds me very much of Quaker discernment.
How does being a Friend affect how I create stories? For me, creativity is a mysterious thing, no pun intended. Every morning but Sunday I’m at work in my home office by seven o’clock. (I’ve learned that if I work on a book prior to meeting for worship on First Day, the story takes precedence over God in my brain.) I work from a very rough plan, which is a five-page prose description of what will be a 300-page book. Most of the time I’m writing organically, also known as writing into the headlights or by the seat of one’s pants.
I don’t want to know where the story is going until I get there. The process reminds me very much of Quaker discernment, of listening until way opens. I am doing the typing, but often events happen and the book takes a turn I had not planned and didn’t expect. Those are the truly magical writing mornings. My favorite example of this magic is what happened in my very first mystery novel (I now have 14 in print and 19 completed, with more under contract). I was describing a scene in which a group is eating dinner in a restaurant. A woman fell off her chair, unconscious. I looked at the page and thought, “Wow! Why’d she fall off her chair? Was her food (and only hers) poisoned? Did she have a heart attack? Did someone shoot a poison dart into her neck? Did she have a stroke?” I was amazed and eager to keep typing to see what was going to happen next.
This kind of writing doesn’t happen all the time. Sometimes I need to get the characters from point A to point B, or cleverly fill in some back story with dialogue, or execute other mechanics of writing a 300-page book. Sometimes I have to figure out the logic of the puzzle. But when I am surprised at my own work, it’s like I’m channeling some other power. I hesitate to say God poured those words into my fingertips. I don’t know where that muse lives. All I know is that I love the experience.
Justice is always restored to the village by the end of the book.
So how do the so-called SPICE testimonies (simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality) guide my art?
Simplicity: I write sparse and too-short first drafts, probably as a result of previously being a technical writer. I refuse to create flowery, overly long descriptions that don’t move the story forward. I do want to obfuscate the ending for my readers and give the story a twist at the end: success at pulling off a surprise ending is always a plus. But integrity comes in because I need to play fair with my readers. Several of my revision passes involve going back and dropping in both real and false clues. When readers finish one of my mysteries, I want them to say, “Aha—so that’s why she found that letter/tool/smear of mud back on page 57.”
Peace: I do not show violence on my pages. Sure, someone finds a dead body or two, and often my heroine is threatened in a climax scene at the end. But you will not read descriptions of blood shooting out, of heads being chopped off, or of other violence that simply doesn’t need to be on the page.
Integrity: I mentioned it with respect to playing fair. In addition, my amateur sleuths in all my series are honest and loyal women. I don’t write noir. I don’t write from the point of view of troubled, evil actors. Justice is always restored to the village by the end of the book.
Community: All my books are deeply rooted in community. The continuing characters are family and friends of my sleuths. In each series, my protagonist ends up friendly with one of the police officers who regularly investigates her cases.
Equality: I believe in creating a world where my characters are viewed and treated with equality. All my series include at least one gay or lesbian couple, characters with different skin colors, immigrants. I don’t make a big deal about it, but that’s what life is like, and why shouldn’t equality be part of my stories?
Writing the best book I can needs to be my priority during working hours. Achieving the right balance isn’t easy.
After the books are written, polished, edited, proofed, and published, my job is to spread the word about them to readers everywhere. How do the testimonies affect how I present my writing to the world?
It’s tricky. Nobody wants to be told, “Buy my book; buy my book.” But this is my livelihood. I do want them to buy my book! Community plays a big part in making promotion work. I am on several social media platforms regularly. A savvy author pal told me when I was starting out that social media should be 90 percent about others, 10 percent about me. So I share the news of my fellow authors with my several thousand followers on Facebook. I retweet their posts on Twitter. I like and comment on their Instagram posts. And I also post pictures of food and sometimes share concerns or personal joys.
By doing that, I’ve built a sizeable community of readers who love my books. And when it comes time to share my own good news—a glowing review, a sale price, a major award nomination—my followers are as happy about it as I am. (At least I think so; I don’t notice them leaving in droves, anyway.) For example, both Delivering the Truth and Called to Justice, the first and the second Quaker Midwife Mysteries, were nominated for an Agatha Award for Best Historical Novel, and I’ve had loads of readers congratulating me.
Simplicity can get complicated in promotion, especially when it comes to simplifying my schedule. Guest blog posts, personal appearances at libraries and bookstores, and attending fan conferences eat up a lot of time that I might otherwise spend writing. I’m also the president of our Sisters in Crime chapter; I’m active in my meeting and in my town; and I have a family. Writing the best book I can needs to be my priority during working hours. Achieving the right balance isn’t easy.
As for the remaining testimonies, I tell the truth when I promote my books. I am equally happy for the successes of my fellow authors as for my own. And I go about what I do peacefully. When it comes right down to it, becoming a convinced Friend 30 years ago is one of the best things I’ve done in my life spiritually, personally, and for my art. I wouldn’t have it any other way.