by Jennie Bentley
Welcome to the Stiffs on this lovely Wednesday morning, when I’ve booted Annette out of the desk chair and taken over. I’m here with my fellow Realtor® and writer Nancy Lynn Jarvis, a real estate practitioner in California, to talk a little about her books, THE DEATH CONTINGENCY and BACKYARD BONES.
Here’s Nancy’s bio:
Twenty year veteran of the real estate industry, Nancy Lynn Jarvis, is writing murder mysteries instead of selling houses. Real estate is an interesting business, the stress level involved in buying or selling a home ranks right after death and divorce. People reveal a lot about themselves during the process. The business attracts its share of colorful practitioners, too. Their stories and Nancy’s experiences provide the settings where her Realtor and part-time sleuth, Regan McHenry, works while she unravels mysteries.
Nancy, would you give us the elevator pitch for the series, please?
The characters in my books have secrets. Protagonist Regan McHenry is good at unraveling them. She has been compared to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple because she solves crimes by observing and seeing connections and asking questions the police overlooked. You’ll have fun figuring things out right along with her as you read. As the San Francisco Examiner says, the books are “smart, funny mysteries.”
Doesn’t that sound interesting, fellow Working Stiffs?
I’ve got a real estate mystery of my own coming out in June, by the way. Y’all know about the Do-It-Yourself home renovation mystery series, featuring designer turned renovator Avery Baker, and her boyfriend, hot handyman Derek Ellis. This is something different. The book is called A CUTTHROAT BUSINESS, and stars Savannah Martin, new-minted Realtor® and Southern Belle in Nashville, Tennessee, who stumbles over a dead body in a house she’s showing to a potential client. I’ll give you three guesses as to cause of death.
But enough about me. Nancy, tell us a little about how you came to write BACKYARD BONES and THE DEATH CONTINGENCY. Were these your first books, or have you written others? Have you always been writing, or is this a more recent dream?
I never had aspirations to be a writer. Starting The Death Contingency was almost accidental, really. My husband and I decided to experiment with being retired for a while when the real estate market tanked. To beat being bored, he built a spectacular greenhouse and a 16’X22’ foot office from the ground up — I decided it would be an interesting puzzle solving game to see if I could write a mystery. I had a beginning and ending in mind and a stockpile of real estate related experiences ranging from the humorous to the bizarre to use as background material and not a clue what to do to weave them into a book.
To get started, I read Tony Hillerman and reread my favorite Agatha Christies for structure, made the protagonists me and my husband and other characters people I knew, and began acting out the day’s scenes and dialogue alone in my office each morning. Over time the characters developed personalities separate from the people who inspired them. The Death Contingency was a learning experience; large portions of it had to be rewritten several times.
By the time I started Backyard Bones I had discovered the importance of outlines, at least loose outlines, and time-lines of who-knew-what-when which are critical for mysteries, so the first draft was much easier.
The books are different, though. Pacing for The Death Contingency is slower and the book more introspective since the amateur sleuth thing is new to Regan, the protagonist. She can’t quite believe what’s going on, she keeps hoping she’s mistaken, and she’s reluctant to trust her instincts. Backyard Bones begins with a Regan who, while she may change her mind as to who she thinks the murderer is, is much more surefooted in her sleuthing.
Those sound great! And way to go developing the main character over the course of the series!
So tell us a little more about Regan. You said she’s based on you, but that she developed a personality of her own as you wrote about her. Share a few things that you and she have in common, and a few ways in which you're absolutely different.
She’s curious, impatient, and determined. She’s a bit of a crusader. She cares a great deal about her family, friends, and clients. Those aspects of her are like me. But she’s much more daring, younger and thinner, and more obsessive than I am. She’s also a lot better at thinking on her feet than I am, especially in stressful situations.
Yeah, Savannah is younger and thinner than I am, too. What’d be the point otherwise, right?
So does Regan get up to any trouble in the books that you've been in yourself? Does she do things you wouldn't do in a million years?
The murder story lines in my books are made up, but other than that, the things that happen to Regan have happened to me. Occasionally I’ll get an email from a reader saying, while they liked the book, they thought a particular event wasn’t believable. I love responding to those emails, although one man emailed back that he still didn’t believe me.
I’ll bluff like Regan sometimes does, but I wouldn’t pursue a criminal like she does. I’d be afraid I might be right and that the murderer would realize I was on to them and come after me.
Definitely. Although Savannah tends to fall into trouble more than she seeks it out. Some poeple are just like that, you know? She causes things to happen, but not on purpose.
So what was the hardest part of writing the books for you? Was it the same thing for each book, or did it vary? What did you do to overcome it? Do you have a favorite part?
The hardest part of writing for me is creating an unpleasant scene like finding a body or being in a tight situation with the bad guy. When I write, I’m really in the moment and sharing what’s happening to Regan. I get upset. I’ve been known to cry while I’m writing.
I haven’t figured out a way to overcome that problem, but I may not ever want to.
My favorite parts of writing are coming up with the Dave character’s terrible jokes and puns and creating the characters I completely make up like Jerry in BACKYARD BONES and Mrs. Rosemont in THE DEATH CONTINGENCY. As I was writing about her, I ran into Mrs. Rosemont, a very unusual looking and completely made-up elderly woman, in the grocery store. I was afraid to talk to her because I had her voice perfectly imagined and I didn’t want to risk ruining it, but I did silently follow her to watch how she moved. Evidently I wasn’t a very good stalker, though. She finally got so troubled by my staring at her that she abandoned her grocery cart and hurried out of the store.
That’s funny! I amuse myself by following people around sometimes, too, just to get the feel for what tailing someone must be like. Just in case I ever want to write a PI novel.
So what has most surprised you about being a writer?
Two things have surprised me about writing. The first is how much fun it is. I love all aspects of it: writing, publicizing, and especially talking to people at book signings. I’ve met many interesting people I would never have known if I hadn’t written the books.
The other thing that’s even more of a surprise to me is that even though I have an outline and have created a life history for all the characters so I understand them, sometimes the characters tell me things about themselves I didn’t know. In BACKYARD BONES I had intended to have a different character be the murderer, but when it came time to write the unveiling, as it were, I knew I had been wrong about the killer’s identity. I thought I could go back and change a few things and add a few clues to make the new killer work since the book presents many suspects, but when I went back to make the changes I discovered the clues were already in place. Evidently the killer had been telling me about his guilt all along and I missed it until then.
That’s happened to me, too! And isn’t it fun when the characters correct you that way?
If you could give one piece of advice to the prepublished writers reading this, what would it be, and why?
Edit, edit, edit. When you think your book is ready for prime-time, edit it again and get a good copy editor to go over it, too. Even if your story is wonderful, your reader won’t think it is if they get distracted by mistakes.
This is very true. As someone said—I have no idea who—editing is where the real writing begins. And as it happens, it’s my least favorite part of the process, but a very necessary one. I'd also recommend making sure other people get some input into the process, as it's soooo easy to become too close to our own work, and to not see it clearly.
So there you have it, fellow Stiffs: my friendly chat with Nancy Lynn Jarvis about the Regan McHenry books. We’ll both be hanging around the blog today, if you have anything you want to ask us. And big thanks to Annette for relinquishing her Wednesday!
See you next time!