An Interview with Mindy Starns Clark

Have you visited Lancaster County?

Actually, I live near there, so it’s a familiar place and has always been one of our favorite mini-vacation spots.

What drew you to the world of the Amish?

Our two daughters were always fascinated by the Amish lifestyle, so over the years we’ve learned a lot about them. The spark for Shadows of Lancaster County came from a book we were reading 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 that 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.

Whispers of the Bayou is quickly becoming a fan favorite! Why did you want to write a Gothic novel?

The first grown-up novel I ever read was the gothic mystery Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart, which I read when I was about 16. From there, I began to devour the novels of all of the gothic mystery writers, especially those of Mary Stewart and Phyllis A. Whitney. As a teenager, I loved nothing more than to curl up with one of these books and escape to a world that was exotic, creepy, and completely captivating.

My goal was to capture that feeling with my own fiction. Of course, I had to “modernize” the genre a bit. (For example, those old books used to begin with pages and pages of the heroine sitting on a train or bus simply thinking about her situation, whereas modern readers want to jump right into the action.) But even though some changes were necessary, as I wrote I found that I was able to retain the tone and feeling of those old novels that I loved so much. Given the success of Whispers, I think it’s safe to say that I’m not the only one who loves this particular genre.

Currently, I’m also in the plotting phase of my next book, another gothic mystery set in Louisiana called Under the Cajun Moon. This time, I focus on New Orleans and the surrounding Cajun bayou country. My main character is the daughter of a famous French Quarter chef, and when he suddenly takes ill she has to step in and save the day, solving a mystery even as she runs for her life. It’s very fun!

What interests you in “Cajun country,” as it’s called?

I was born and raised in Louisiana. Even though I no longer live there, whenever I write a story in that setting it’s kind of like going home—in my imagination, at least.

Growing up, I was always fascinated with Cajun music, culture, cuisine, and history, so it was a natural leap for me to learn more about all of those things and put them into a story.
Writing Under the Cajun Moon has also brought me back to that world, and I’m loving every minute of it.

Whispers of the Bayou is set after Hurricane Katrina, which figures into the plotline. How did you learn about the effect Katrina had on the area?

For most of the world, Katrina came and went, but if you go down there and take a look around, it’s obvious that the effects were far-reaching and long-lasting. So many lives have been changed forever! Our family members who lived north of New Orleans were able to patch things up and move on. But for those who lived in the city itself, their lives were completely changed by that storm. They have now scattered to Texas and California, with no plans to return home to New Orleans. Last year, we visited relatives who resettled in Houston, and though they love their new hometown, their sense of loss over New Orleans is palpable.

The saddest part of the whole thing, of course, is that it had been known for years that this was eventually going to happen, yet steps were never taken to minimize the potential damage. There are so many actions that could have been taken, so many changes and fixes that would have kept the city dry and the people safe, but those changes cost money, so they were never implemented.

I still get letters from readers who recently discovered my fifth book, The Buck Stops Here. The book was published two years before Hurricane Katrina, and yet the potential for massive flooding in the city of New Orleans is an important part of the plot. The letters I get say, “How did you know that before it ever happened?” My answer is always the same: “Everyone knew it; they just didn’t do anything about it.” Very sad.

What other kinds of research did you do? How did what you uncovered help you develop the plotline?

It’s hard to talk about the plotline in Whispers, because the story takes several shocking turns, and I never want to give away too much to anyone who hasn’t read it yet. I’ll just say that my research for that book focused primarily on Cajun history, some medically-related conundrums, and antebellum architecture. In the story, that translated into long-buried secrets, a mysterious death, and some creepy plantation hiding places.

Let’s talk about The House That Cleans Itself. Did you ever think you would be writing a housekeeping guide?

Oh good grief, no! I’m a terrible housekeeper and have been my whole life. It wasn’t until I began writing the Smart Chick Mystery series that I finally started to understand why. My protagonist in that series, Jo Tulip, is a household hints expert, and in researching her character I ended up reading about 40 books on housekeeping and organization. As I read, I soon came to realize that all of those books were written by people who were just naturally gifted at housekeeping. Their advice sounded fine on paper, but for someone like me who seemed to lack all housekeeping talent, their advice simply didn’t work. I was trying to follow the “rules” for a clean home, but my house was still always a mess because those rules didn’t work for people like me.

Finally, I made a radical decision: I would throw out all of the conventional wisdom on the matter and instead find solutions that would work for my home, my habits, and my family. I approached the messy-house problem creatively, by looking at each mess, evaluating its components, and then problem-solving a way to keep it from happening again. It took a while, but eventually I problem-solved my way through the entire house. One day, I remarked to my husband that the house was staying so consistently clean that it was almost like the house was cleaning itself. That’s when the idea for the book was born, when I realized that my system actually worked, and that it could work for others as well.

What’s your best piece of advice for the “housekeeping impaired”?

Make it just as easy to do the clean thing as it is to do the messy thing. In other words, engineer cleaning convenience throughout your home, not by changing your own habits but by making changes to the house itself. Even little changes—like having a trash can in every room (so trash gets thrown away immediately rather than sitting around until “later”) or placing mats inside and outside of every exterior door (to stop dirt before it even gets inside)—can go a long way toward eliminating mess in your home, even if you have no housekeeping ability whatsoever.

You’ve taken an interesting path toward becoming a novelist. What else have you written?

Plays, musicals, computer software manuals, comedy routines, short stories, articles, speeches, catalog descriptions, marketing and public relations copy, advertising, corporate and copywriting—everything except the back of a cereal box. Once I got a flyer in my credit card bill and realized I had written it!

At what point did you finally consider yourself a writer?
About 15 years ago, one of my plays was taken on the road by a church theater troupe. I was invited to ride along to a performance, and as they ran their lines, I realized that there were 20 people on that bus and every single word was something that I had written. I understood then that I was a writer.

Have you pursued any other creative endeavors?

Years ago, I was hired to lay down the vocal tracks for a line of karaoke music. If you recorded a karaoke song, chances are the voice you were singing along with was mine! One of my favorite writing jobs was as a contributing editor to a regional bridal magazine. I reviewed restaurants, hotels, and wedding-reception facilities—which meant lots of dining and dancing, all for free. I also worked as a stand-up comedian but didn’t like the late-night hours. So, I combined comedy with singing and created a “Senior Entertainment” business. During the day when my kids were in school, I performed at senior clubs, nursing homes, and retirement communities. It was a lot of fun.

What do you like to do just for fun?

I love to travel, so when time and budget permit, my family and I head off to somewhere new. This past summer we visited Spain, Italy, and France, with a fascinating side trip to Malta.

I’ve also been to 46 states—including Alaska and Hawaii. With just four to go, I’m determined to get to all 50 soon. Then I’ll start working on the seven continents. So far, my husband and I have three down and four to go.

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