By Allison Brennan
I am traveling home today from the RT Book Lovers Convention, where I hooked up with fellow Murderati members and alumni: Rob, Brett, Stephen, and Alex. I haven’t been to RT in three years, and while the last one I was at in Houston left a sour taste in my mouth, this one was so wonderful it more than made up for it. I also brought my book lover daughter, my 15 year-old RT book reviewer, who took my credit card and stocked up on enough books to get her through the next few months . . .
Speaking of reading, I was lucky enough to get an advanced reading copy of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s ONE WAS A SOLDIER, on sale this Tuesday. This is the 7th book in her Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series, and while it was the first I’d read, I didn’t feel lost. There’s a lot of backstory that I assume was in other books, beautifully woven in for us new readers so that the parts relevant to the current mystery and character arc were all there. Julia said, “I trust my readers to follow along without a road map. They don’t need all the hand-holding we authors sometimes think they do.” I, as a reader, greatly appreciated that level of intelligence!
I read virtually every page on Julia’s website (which is a terrific site, BTW, easy to navigate with lots of information) and asked her a bunch of questions as well in preparation for this article. I was tickled to learn that Julia and I are a lot alike—like me, she’s an organic writer (that means she doesn’t plot – yeah!) and her favorite quote is one of my favorite quotes: “I can fix anything except a blank page.” — Nora Roberts. Among her many favorite childhood books was the Narnia series, which I loved when I was a kid and reading them again to my children. But in one of those little twists of fate, I picked up One Was a Soldier not knowing it was set in a small, depressed Adirondack town . . . and I just turned in my next Lucy Kincaid book, set in the Adirondacks. Needless to say, I was hooked on page one!
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.
Doesn’t that teaser make you want to read the book?
I love Julia’s heroine Clare Fergusson. The Reverend at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Clare is complex, wounded, matter-of-fact, and facing very real personal and professional conflicts that have no easy or one “right” answer.
“Clare was created originally out of my desire to look at crime from the point of view of someone whose job was to repair the torn social fabric, rather than bring down the bad guys,” Julia said. “At the beginning of In the Bleak Midwinter, she is the very definition of the classic story idea ‘Someone Comes to Town.’ Everything and everyone is new to her – and her role as parish priest is also brand new. So she has a lot of connections to make.”
Keeping a character arc moving forward from book to book is not easy, something I’ve grappled with in my own series as I’m three books in. When I asked Julia how she keeps Clare fresh and growing as a character, she said, “The most surprising way Clare has grown has been in her questioning of, and experience with her ministry. She starts out very unsure of herself, bluffing her way through on her Army leadership skills and a (usually unsuccessful) determination to play the role of “priest” to perfection. As she grows throughout the books, her ability to confidently lead and guide her parish develops, but her self-doubts about her fitness for the priesthood does as well.”
To me, this conflict is so natural and organic that it made Clare real to me as a reader, someone I could see walk off the page living and breathing. And isn’t that the sign of an amazing writer? It’s no wonder that One Was a Soldier has received so many outstanding reviews, included starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist.
“If you allow the characters to be changed by the events that unfold around them, they’ll stay fresh,” Julia said. “I think series characters stagnate when they stop being affected by crime and murder (or vampire slaying, or planetary conquest) like real humans would be. Series characters can’t be stones in the stream of story. They have to be boats, constantly moving forward through a changing emotional landscape.”
Because I’m always curious if a protagonist reflects an author in any way, I asked Julia how she was most like and most different from Clare.
“The way in which we are most alike is probably our sense of humor. Snarky, with a side of wry,” Julia said. “The way in which we’re most different? Clare is almost boundary-free; open to everyone, willing to help everyone. I’m a great deal more tightly buttoned. I wish I could reach out to others the way she can.”
One other thing I loved about the series was the very real relationship between Clare and the Police Chief, Russ Van Alstyne. While not a “romantic mystery,” the interaction between these two characters and the depth of their feelings enhanced the story and the suspense. Since I write romantic thriller, I really appreciate when other mystery/thriller writers create a wonderful hero/heroine who I can root for and respect. In addition, the characters relationships not only with each other but everyone else in Millers Kill created a very real world.
The setting for Julia’s series, Millers Kill, NY, was a character in itself: beautifully described without the description being set-aside and separate from the story—the town came alive through the eyes of the characters and lyrical word choice of the author. I asked Julia whether Millers Kill was based on a real place.
“It’s based physically on the town of Hudson Falls, NY, relocated to the far northwestern corner of Washington County. I get a lot of the details from neighboring North Country towns and villages. I go back several times a year to soak up the atmosphere and take lots of mental notes. I also get a lot of detail from the small town I live in in Maine and the nearby rural area. Like Tolstoy’s happy families, all small towns are essentially alike.
“My home town, Argyle, NY, is the basis for Cossayuharie in my books – rolling hills and dairy farms. The difference is the real Washington County has something like one murder every decade or so—while the homicide rate in Millers Kill is considerably higher!”
Julia is currently researching her eighth book, Seven Whole Days, and I was thrilled to learn that St. Martin’s signed up for three more Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne books!
Julia’s road to publication was a bit different than most–shortly after the birth of her third child, she sent her recently finished manuscript to the St. Martin’s Press Best First Novel contest. She soon after got a call from legendary mystery editor Ruth Cavin informing her In the Bleak Midwinter had beaten out over two hundred and thirty other manuscripts to win the 2001 Best First Traditional Mystery Award.
How cool is that?
I asked Julia some fun questions, but please ask her some more yourself! She’s going to try and visit us today to answer them for you.
Dog person or cat person?
J: Dog person, though we also have two sister-cats who are very sweet. My current Big Dog, Marvin, is a lab-husky mutt who likes to sprawl next to my chair as I work.
Favorite book(s) as a child?
J: It’s a toss up between the “color” Fairy Books, the Narnia series, and Walter Brooks’ Freddie the Pig stories. I believe “Freddie the Detective” was my introduction to the world of crime fiction.
Favorite classic movie?
J: Christmas in Connecticut
Favorite movie you’ve seen in the last year?
J: Julie and Julia. We got it on DVD so we could watch only the Julia parts.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing or reading?
J: What is this strange space/time anomaly you speak of?
Favorite vacation spot?
J: I’m living in it – the beautiful state of Maine.
One fact about you that most people don’t know …
J: I wore an eye patch to correct amblyopia when I was a kid.
Now the bio . . .
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.
On her website, Julia ponders an oft-asked question about whether her books are “cozies” or “hard-boiled.” As a reader, I find them neither, but with elements of both, making the books an original voice that I very much enjoyed. If you don’t have a question for Julia, maybe we can discuss labels — whether labels hurt or hinder an author, books that transcend labels, or books that are called one thing but are really something very different.