Saturday, September 01, 2007

Mary Welk on Being an ER Nurse, Writing Mysteries, and Surviving Murderous Moments in a 39 Year Marriage

Hi, Mary! Thanks for chatting with me.

You are still a part-time ER nurse. What’s more stressful: the ER, or writing on a deadline? :)

Let me put it this way: I didn’t get gray hair from writing fiction! I may go sleepless some nights, but I can always find time to revise a manuscript, erase any errors in spelling or catch a flaw in the plot and correct it. Unfortunately, there’s no time for re-writes in the ER. You have to do things right the first time, or both you and your patient could be in big trouble. Compared to the stress of my job, writing on a deadline is a piece of cake!

Good to know--it puts things in perspective! You have written or published a story in seven (nine) books; you work; you are the mother of six children (one of whom still lives at home) and the grandmother of seven children; you review for Mystery Scene (and How do you do it all? Are you just really efficient?
Don’t I wish! Luckily, I have a great husband who doesn’t mind shopping for groceries or putting in a load of wash when I’m at work. Also, our children are all grown now and generally don’t need Mom the way they did when they were younger. I have more time for myself than ever before, but I still don’t get everything done that I’d like to do. I’m juggling a half dozen different projects right now and wishing I could clone myself! :)

You are a role model for modern women.

Your Caroline Rhodes mystery series is set in the fictional town of Rhineburg, Illinois. How did you come up with this name and location?

My parents were first and second generation Americans of German descent. Although we lived in Chicago, many of our relatives lived in rural farm areas in the Midwest that had been settled by German immigrants. Each summer, when we made what I called the “annual pilgrimage” to Kansas City to visit my grandparents, we’d stop in these towns to see the relatives. They were all great storytellers, and catching up on a year’s worth of family tales made for great entertainment for a child on hot summer afternoons. I learned a lot about small town living from listening to these grown-up conversations, some of which – the more gossipy type – weren’t, of course, meant to be heard by ears as young as mine. The stories stuck with me, though, and when it came time to writing my own stories, it only seemed natural to set them in a place I knew from experience – a small Midwestern farming community settled by German immigrants where everyone knew everyone else’s business. There is no real Rhineburg in Illinois, but the name is Germanic, as are the names of many of the characters in my series.

That's so interesting! Didn't Washington Irving base a lot of his tales on German folk tales? Washington Irving experts, please check in.

Back to your characters: Like you, Caroline is an ER nurse; her husband is a professor of history. Is your husband a professor as well?

No, my husband worked for the U.S. Air Force for seventeen years and is now with another department in the federal government. My dad was a biology professor in Minnesota before he came to Chicago many years ago to work in medical research. Two of my sisters are retired teachers, and two of my daughters are now in teaching. My knowledge of university politics comes mainly from what I’ve learned from these family members along with my own experience in putting several kids through college. As for the history angle, I’m a history buff and enjoy reading historical non-fiction.

One of your books is titled A Deadly Little Christmas. What made you want Christmastime as a mystery setting, and how did you use the season to your advantage in writing the plot?

A Deadly Little Christmas was the first book in my “Rhodes to Murder” series. It’s been out of print for several years now, but thanks to Echelon Press LLC, it will be back on the shelves this fall in a revised second edition under the title A Merry Little Murder.

The idea for setting the story during the Christmas holidays came to me one snowy December day when I was putting up our artificial tree. It was an old tree, and the various colors painted on the ends of the branches to indicate where each one fit in the trunk had chipped off long before. Guessing which branch went where was a real pain, as was having to strip the tree of decorations three times after various strings of lights – previously working like a charm – died one by one. I was feeling more like Scrooge than Santa by the time I finished the job, so I didn’t take it kindly when my husband walked into the room and noted that I’d placed a medium sized branch where a long branch belonged. In a moment of total madness, I whipped that branch out of the tree, turned to my husband, and rammed the end of the steel shaft directly at his stomach.

Luckily, he pulled his abs in before I could do any damage to either him or our marriage. (We’ve been together 39 years now. :) While my actions didn’t land me in jail, they did give me an idea for a nifty murder weapon. A little research into plastic explosives convinced me that an exploding artificial tree was doable, so of course the story had to take place at Christmas. As for the rest of the plot, I revised and enlarged upon an unpublished story that I’d written years before, and voila! My first Caroline Rhodes mystery was born.

What a great story! Your latest book, The Scarecrow Murders, has a very scary cover. Do you have any input into how the books look?
I had no input into the cover of The Scarecrow Murders. I had a more humorous cover in mind since the whole idea of a battle of the sexes between the residents of Rhineburg – the town fathers picketing the university in support of the school’s football team while their wives marched in solidarity with a group of female rodeo riders – seemed amusing to me. But the publisher chose this cover, and I do think it’s good and scary for a Halloween mystery.

Do you like to read mysteries, or just write them?

I love reading a good mystery. One of the perks of reviewing for Mystery Scene and is that I get to read a lot of newly published books from both the major publishers and the independents. I’ve found some excellent new authors to add to my TBR list this way. When I’m not deep into a new mystery, I tend to read historical and political non-fiction.

Who are some of your favorite writers?
Among the bigger names in the mystery field, I’m a huge fan of Nancy Pickard, Lisa Scottoline, Barbara D’Amato, Sharon McCrumb, Dick Francis, Donald Westlake, Carl Hiaasen, David Morrell, and Martha Grimes, because I’ve learned so much about writing from reading their books. Among the now-gone-but-not-forgotten authors, I love Emma Lathen, J.J. Marric, Constance and Gwenyth Little, and Norbert Davis for their writing styles. Among the midlist authors, I enjoying reading books by Steve Brewer, S. D. Tooley, Mary Saums, Eileen Dreyer, Judy Clemens, Carolyn Haines, and others too numerous to name. For a little fun sci-fi/paranormal reading, I love Terry Pratchett.

What are you reading now?
Flawless by Joshua Spanogle. It’s a medical mystery, or as the publisher calls it, “a novel of medical suspense”. So far, it’s very good.

I met you at a mystery event in Schaumburg, Illinois. Do you attend many events and conferences throughout the year?
I attended many more in the past than I might in the future. Some conferences are now using the MWA membership guidelines for panel consideration or placement of books in the sellers’ room. I’m currently published by three different independent presses, not all of whom meet the MWA requirements. That means I don’t meet the requirements for all of my books, and it would be rather silly to attend a conference where only one of your titles could be stocked in the bookstore. So, I’ll be more particular in the future as to which conferences I’ll attend. I’ll still attend as many book fairs as possible.

What are your plans for the Caroline Rhodes series?

I’m currently working on a fifth “Rhodes to Murder” novel featuring Caroline and Carl. When it will be published depends on contract negotiations with Hilliard & Harris. Echelon Press LLC has expressed an interest in re-printing the second and third books in the series, and I hope to see the second one out in spring of 2008.

If you could go anywhere in the world to do your writing, what location would you pick as inspiration?
Much as I love Chicago, I’m most relaxed when camping along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Give me a cottage in western Michigan where I could watch the sun set over the lake each day and I’d be in heaven.

That does sound heavenly, I must agree. How can readers find out more about you and your books?
I have a new website at where readers can sample a chapter from A Merry Little Murder and where (hopefully!) I’ll have a blog running soon. Also, all my books are available at where readers can find reviews of the series.

Thanks for chatting, Mary!
Thank you for the wonderful questions!:)


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