Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Real Estate Can Be Murder

Nancy Lynn Jarvis is a Santa Cruz realtor-turned-mystery writer who uses her tricks of the trade as details in her novels. Her latest book is called Backyard Bones.

Nancy, what made you go from being a realtor to being a mystery writer?

It was 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’X20’ 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 the 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.

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 and I discovered the importance of outlines, at least loose outlines, and time-lines of who-knew-what-when which are critical for mysteries.

Do the occupations have anything in common?

Realtors, especially buyer's agents, (which was the role I most enjoyed) and mystery writers have a lot in common. Both listen carefully but observe what is being said non-verbally, recognize the interpersonal dynamics between the principals, and play detective based on what they learn about people.

I always told clients stories to make contract complexities understandable and to persuade during negotiations. As a writer, I still tell stories, just in written form.

What’s the premise of your latest book, Backyard Bones?

Backyard Bones begins with children unearthing a skeleton in their new back yard. It’s an ancient burial, but they find another burial in the same place a few weeks later and that time it’s murder. All of the characters in the book have secrets regarding the murder victim and no one’s relationship with the victim is quite as it seems.

That sounds similar to another book I read recently called The Crossing Places! You'll have to check it out.

You live in Santa Cruz, California. What are the selling points of this city?

Santa Cruz is a fantastic place to live. Within twenty minutes it’s possible to go from the beauty of dense redwood forests to miles of walking beaches. The air is clean and clear, temperatures are moderate, sunshine is abundant, and the surfing is great. It’s an easy trip to San Francisco or San Jose for theater and opera, but we have a great music scene and acclaimed Shakespeare Santa Cruz locally as well as a University of California campus. But what’s best about Santa Cruz is that it combines a warm community feel with a real commitment to it’s official motto: “Keep Santa Cruz Weird.”

Sounds fun! Your detective, Regan McHenry, is also a Santa Cruz realtor. Is she like you?

She’s curious, impatient and determined, a bit of a crusader, and cares a great deal for her clients. Those aspects of her are like me. But she’s much more daring, younger and thinner, less naïve, and more obsessive than I am.

You have a recipe for Mysterious Chocolate Chip cookies on your website. I think I figured out the secret ingredient. :) How did you happen to add this to your cookie recipe?

Like almost all aspects of my books, it started with a real estate interaction. A client of mine came up with the idea. She added habanero chili oil to a cookie recipe she created and would leave batches around for people seeing her house to sample. If I warned people about what was in the cookies, most wouldn’t try them. If I didn’t, people would take a bite and rave they were the best cookies they ever had. In moderation it turns out habanero chili enhances your chocolate-tasting experience.

Hmmmm. I will have to try that.

In your books you point out the euphemisms that realtors use in order to make things sound more attractive. What are some of your favorites?

I love the phrase, “home with potential.” Usually that means the house is a disaster. Some of my other favorites are: “easy commute” which translates to practically on a freeway; “seller added custom touches” which means the seller thought he was a good handyman/designer but we know better; and in notes to other Realtors, “don’t worry, the dog is big but friendly.” You don’t need an explanation of what that means, I’m sure.

What are you writing now?

I’m working on the third book in the series, tentatively titled Buying Murder. It begins with a building inspector finding a partially mummified body in a wall space. This too is based on truth: there was an odd triangular space in a house my clients were buying. They joked with the building inspector that it seemed like a good place to hide a body and asked him to explain why it was there. He came down from the attic after taking a look and, with a perfectly straight face, announced he had found Jimmy Hoffa. Now I’m taking it further and using it as the starting point for a book.

Do realtors have time to read often? What do you like to read?

Realtors do read. We are always planning to be better organized and put our open-house-when-no-one-comes time, being-at-inspection time, and waiting-for-our-clients-to-get-out-of-a-traffic-jam time to productive use, but we more often grab a book and read for pleasure. For fiction give me Amy Tan, Margaret Atwood, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I also loved The Life of Pi and Death Interrupted, but usually I read non-fiction like Team of Rivals, which was a remarkable book.

How can readers find out more about your books?

Readers can go to my website: http://www.GoodReadMysteries.com, where they can read the beginning of The Death Contingency and Backyard Bones and print out that Mysterious Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe.

Thanks for chatting with me, Nancy!


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