|Shadows of Lancaster County|
Mindy Starns Clark
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Anna thought she left the tragedies of the past behind when she moved from Pennsylvania to California, but when her brother vanishes from the genetics lab where he works, Anna has no choice but to head back home. Using skills well-honed in Silicon Valley, she follows the high-tech trail her brother left behind, a trail that leads from the simple world of Amish farming to the cutting edge of DNA research and gene mapping.
Anna knows she must depend on her instincts, her faith in God, and the help of the Amish community to find her brother. She also must finally face her own shadows-and pray that she's stronger than the grief that threatens to overwhelm them all.
Mindy Starns Clark
"In God's great grace, He has blessed me with the career of my dreams. He has also provided what has to be one of the most wonderful publishing houses in the world. As I look to the future, I don't know what God has in store for me as a writer. But I will forever be thankful for having had the opportunity to share Callie Webber with the world. Sometimes even I don't know what she is going to do until I see it on the page. When that happens, I simply run along behind her and write it all down as she goes. That's the joy of being a writer."
Favorite Verse: 2nd Timothy 1:7, "For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love, and of self-discipline."
Our Interview with Mindy Starns Clark
How did you come up with the concept for Shadows of Lancaster County?
For many years, I dreamed of writing a gothic novel, which is one of the sub-genres of mysteries that I have always loved. That dream came true when my publisher accepted my pitch for a series of gothic mysteries, each one a stand-alone story set in a different location. The first one, Whispers of the Bayou, (January 2008) takes place in Louisiana, the state where I grew up. The second one, Shadows of Lancaster County, (January 2009) takes place in Pennsylvania, the state where I live now. In both cases, establishing the setting was the easiest part of the writing process, because I already knew so much about the region. The concepts, however, grew out of the guidelines of the genre.
How closely is Shadows of Lancaster County based on your personal experience?
I probably share some personality quirks with my main character, but otherwise nothing about the story comes from personal experience other than the picturesque setting of eastern Pennsylvania.
How long did Shadows of Lancaster County take you to complete?
Let's see… six months of research and plotting, two months of around-the-clock writing, one more month of around-the-clock rewriting and tweaking, so I guess that's nine months total—just like having a baby. (And almost as difficult!)
How did you choose the story line?
The spark for Shadows of Lancaster County came from a book I read that focused on the medical peculiarities of the Amish—a situation known as the "Founder Effect." Because most Amish marry from within the community, they can trace their roots back to the same small set of ancestors. As a result of this, they have a very high incidence of birth defects, unusual blood types, and rare disorders. On the positive side, they are of great interest to DNA researchers, because studying the genes of Founder Effect Societies is the best way to locate the genes that cause disorders which also affect society at large—disorders such as diabetes, cystic fibrosis, and Parkinson's Disease. Understanding this, the Amish have been extremely cooperative with researchers, allowing blood draws and DNA sampling in the hopes that their efforts will allow doctors to unlock the secrets of the human genome to better care for others.
Once I learned all of this, the little plotting engine in my brain went to work on a medical Amish/DNA mystery, one that simply begged to be told. This ended up being one of the most difficult books I have taken on, simply because of the extensive research I had to do, but it was also one of the most fulfilling.
What is the symbolism for the title Shadows of Lancaster County?
Primarily, it refers to the shadows of my heroine's past. In the story, Anna is solving a current mystery—the disappearance of her brother—but she is also weighed down by a terrible tragedy that took place long ago. Like a shadow, feelings of guilt and regret darken her world. Much of her story is about coming to terms with everything that happened back then and leaving the shadows of her past behind.
On another level, the shadows signify the "darker side" of the Amish life, the tragic medical problems that plague them as a community and will continue to be a part of their lives unless they can find a way to broaden their gene pool.
Given that, what started simply as a gothic novel also evolved in something of a medical mystery. The more I learned, the more fascinated I was by the entire topic.
Do you have a favorite character in the Shadows of Lancaster County? Why?
The main character, Anna, ended being one of my favorite protagonists I've ever written. As I told her story, she became incredibly real to me. I actually missed her once I was finished.
Beyond that, I had a great time with the character of Stephanie, a real-life historical figure that the reader gets to know through a series of (fictional) letters and diaries. I knew where her part of the story line was going as far as the plot was concerned, but her emotional development came as a complete surprise to me. That's always thrilling, when a character takes over and grows in ways the writer didn't expect.
How much research did the Shadows of Lancaster County take?
Waaaay too much. Goodness, this book required such extensive research that at one point I printed out all of my notes from the computer hoping they'd be easier to work with that way, only to find that they filled a three-inch binder!
In the end, this book taught me a valuable lesson about biting off more than I have time to chew. There's always some topic that I need to research in depth, but for this book, there were three topics: the Amish, genetics, and German history. With so much for me to learn, there were times it felt like my head would explode. Once the book was finished, I decided to make plotting decisions more carefully in the future so that I never have more than one major learning curve per book.
Is this the beginning of a Series?
This is a stand-alone mystery, not part of an ongoing plotline, but because it is similar in style and tone to Whispers of the Bayou, the books could loosely be considered a series.
My next book, Under the Cajun Moon, is also a stand-alone gothic mystery with a strong female heroine, and it will probably feature similar cover art as the first two, but, again, each story features different characters in different settings.
What was the most interesting fact that you learned while writing Shadows of Lancaster County?
Because I did so much research, writing this book gave me an endless series of interesting facts. If I have to choose, I'd say I was utterly astounded by the true story of a young man named Kaspar Hauser who lived in Germany in the 1800's. So many things have been written about him that I don't know why I had never heard of him before. I won't take the time to tell his (true) tale here, but if you google his name, you'll see what I mean. His story is amazing and heartbreaking all at the same time. In a roundabout way, I was able to integrate part of his true story into my fiction.
What are some of the challenges you face as an author?
Time management is my biggest challenge, though that's probably as much a reflection of my own shortcomings as it is about the job of being a writer. Besides writing books, I also have to find time to speak, go to conferences, do marketing and public relations for my books, keep my website and blogs updated, plan and propose future writing projects, write occasional side pieces (like for short story anthologies), respond to reader mail, etc. Even if I could accomplish all of that on a timely basis, I also have a home and family to care for, a spiritual life, church and community obligations, etc. Most of the time, it feels like there just aren’t enough hours in the day.
My saving grace is my supportive husband, who does all he can to facilitate my writing even if that means handling things on the home front while I go away for a few weeks at a time to concentrate just on writing.
What aspects of being a writer do you enjoy the most?
There are two parts of the novel-writing process that I love: the beginning of a book, when it's still in the brainstorming stage, and the end, when the story draws to a close. The brainstorming is super fun, and the ending is deeply satisfying. A lot of hard work comes between those two points, however, so during the in-between times I find encouragement through reader letters (those can be such a blessing) and reading great reviews.
I also enjoy going to conferences, because hanging out with other writers is always a blast. We're all weird in the same exact ways! Best of all, meeting my readers face-to-face is incredibly fulfilling.
What clubs or organizations are you involved with helping with your writing?
The greatest influence on my work comes from a private group of published Christian authors I belong to, one that is dedicated to the principle of "iron sharpening iron."
Beyond that, I love being a part of Sisters in Crime (www.sistersincrime.org), an international group with a local chapter that's both useful and highly entertaining.
I'm also a member of American Christian Fiction Writers (www.acfw.com), which I highly recommend to anyone interested in writing Christian fiction.
Finally, I have my own online internet group, called Consensus, that anyone can join. (Go to www.mindystarnsclark.com/newsletter.php and scroll down to the bottom for the sign-up box.) I often use Consensus as my own personal sounding board when I'm writing, and the help I get there is invaluable.
What do you do to keep your writing fresh and improve on it each time you write a book?
No matter how pleased I am with how a book turned out, I know there's always room for improvement, always more to learn about the craft of writing to make the next one better. To that end, I do a lot of reading, attend conferences, discuss technique with my writer friends. I also read like a writer, paying attention to what does and doesn't work and why.
Are there any other new projects on the horizon?
Yep, I'm currently writing my next mystery, Under the Cajun Moon, which will come out in the fall of 2009. I also have some other book projects lined up after that, so I'll be busy writing for a while.
Who was the person who influenced you the most with your writing?
For sheer knowledge about writing, I'd have to say Dr. Tim Gautreaux, who taught my first college-level creative writing class. (He's also a highly-acclaimed literary author in his own right.) Of course, many wonderful teachers shaped my writing over the years, but Dr. Gautreaux opened my eyes to so many writing truths that I had never understood before. I was just a beginner when I took his class, but the lessons he taught stayed with me and continued to shape me as a writer for many years.
The person who has the greatest influence on my current work is my husband, John. Fortunately for me, he's the best brainstorming partner and unofficial editor a girl could ever find! John's input is so integral to every book I undertake, from conception to completion, that whenever a new book comes out I almost feel guilty that his name isn't on the cover next to mine.
What message would you like your readers to take away from Shadows of Lancaster County?
That true love is selfless.
What is your greatest achievement?
That my two daughters, Emily and Lauren, both know and love the Lord. At 16 and 19, they are amazing kids, wise and kindhearted and full of God's grace. Of course, my husband and I don't take full credit for the fact that both of our children made a personal decision for Christ, but at least we can say that we did the most important job any parent can do, by helping to influence them in that direction.
What is your goal or mission as a writer?
Actually, I have one goal and one mission, and they're different.
My goal is to write books that bring the reader into a place that they don't want to leave, with characters that they absolutely love and feel like they know. Basically, I want readers to have mixed emotions as they get to that final page, a deep contentment at having read a story well told but a sorrow at having reached the end of their time in this world with these characters.
My mission, on the other hand, is to show how real Christianity is lived out in the day-to-day. I usually achieve this by trying to create intelligent, likeable, well-rounded heroines who just happen to be Christians. They have flaws, yes, but they also love the Lord and try to be Christlike. So far, this approach seems to be working for both Christian and nonchristian readers. My Christian readers often write to thank me for showing certain Christian principles in action—for example, how to remain celibate outside of marriage even for two adults involved in a serious relationship. My non-christian readers, I hope, are at least seeing the real side of Christianity and not the ugly version that's so often painted in the media. Most of my secular reviews praise the books "despite the Christian elements". That's fine with me! Whether my stories plant a seed for future redemption or merely show a more positive slant toward Christians, I'm just happy to be able to tell my stories the way I want to, peopled with characters who are doing their best to love God in a fallen world.
What do you do to get away from it all?
I very rarely do get away from it all. Our family loves to travel, which lets me escape from the everyday stuff like paperwork and telephone calls. But no matter where we are, it seems like I'm always brainstorming the next book or solving plot problems in the current one. Of course, brainstorming is always a lot of fun, but to truly get away from it all I have to leave that behind as well.
That's why my husband and I make a point of taking a weekend away, just the two of us, three or four times a year. Whether we stay close or travel far, visit some new place or settle in somewhere familiar, we make a point of leaving our worries and projects and preoccupations behind and just enjoy being together. Even though our kids are old enough to stay home alone, we ship them off to Grandma's as well so that we don't have to worry about them or check in with them or even talk to them the whole time.
On these weekends, my husband and I make a pact that we won't discuss kids, chores, money, work, or anything else that will pull us out of the moment. We focus solely on ourselves and each other and God. When we return home, it's always with far less stress, a new perspective, and the renewed energy to jump back into life as we know it.