Mindy Starns Clark

Mindy Starns Clark is the bestselling author of the inspirational Million Dollar Mysteries , the Smart Chick Mysteries, and three standalone mysteries, as well as the nonfiction books The House That Cleans Itself and A Pocket Guide to Amish Life. Her novels include Whispers of the Bayou, Shadows of Lancaster County, and Under the Cajun Moon. Her next mystery, Secrets of Harmony Grove, will be released in October 2010. Mindy is also the author of numerous plays and musicals which have been performed all over the United States. She has written textbooks, articles, short stories, and more than 75 computer software manuals. Other writings appear in numerous anthologies. A former singer and stand-up comedian, Mindy lives with her husband and two teenage daughters near Valley Forge, PA. She enjoys speaking to churches, civic groups, and libraries across the country. Her unique blend of humor and insight make her an audience favorite. Visit her website at: http://www.mindystarnsclark.com/

Christian Amish Gothic Mysteries? Seriously?

There are sub-genres and then there are sub-sub-genres, but how I managed to find myself writing in a sub-sub-sub-genre is no mystery to me. All I have to do is walk into a library and inhale that old-book smell—the intoxicating scent of stories waiting to be discovered, characters to befriend, pages to be turned—and my mind goes straight to my first literary love: Gothics. Given my lifelong fascination with this spine-tingling genre, it’s not surprising that eventually I would dabble in it myself. But because I’m a Christian author who enjoys writing about the Amish, I decided to find a way to combine all of the above, making me, to my knowledge, the only Christian Amish Gothic mystery writer out there.

So what is a Gothic? Though Horace Walpole laid the groundwork in 1764 with The Castle of Otranto, Gothics as a genre would evolve and change over the next two hundred years. By the 1950s, they were defined by:

Setting: ancient castles or big, creepy old houses, often with hidden staircases, secret passageways, etc., and usually somewhere remote and exotic

Protagonist: a young, attractive woman who has been in some way left utterly alone (via death of her parents, abandoned by husband, etc.)

Antagonist: often a powerful, manipulative older relative

POV: first person through the eyes of the young heroine

Atmosphere: often gloomy: fog, darkness, rain, etc.

Tone: impending danger, mystery, and near-excruciating suspense

Foreshadowing & Plot: an old family warning or prediction, odd happenings, unsettling characters, and vague threats

The first Gothic I read was Mary Stewart’s Touch Not the Cat. I can still remember the chill bumps, the shivers, the gut-wrenching fear as the heroine wandered labyrinthine hallways, hidden staircases, and fog-shrouded gardens. If every mystery is in part about the exciting anticipation of what’s to come, a Gothic is that anticipation times ten. The masters of the genre—Phyllis A. Whitney, Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, et al.—did this with tremendous finesse. When I was younger, opening the cover of one of their books felt much like waiting in line for a roller coaster ride. Terrifying. Dreadful. Unbearably exciting. Of course, after devouring the story in a single sitting, I would usually lie awake all night, eyes wide, as every creak of the house grew predatory and sinister. Ah, the delicious terror of it all.

Over the years, I discovered many other favorite mystery sub-genres, first as a reader then as a writer. My literary debut took the form of a private investigator series, (the Million Dollar Mysteries), then I moved on to humorous cozies (the Smart Chick Mysteries.) After that, I decided that I wanted to revisit my first love and try some good, old-fashioned Gothics. Though I wanted my stories to include many of the elements of the genre listed above, there were other characteristics that would need tweaking, such as:

Shifting the backstory

Almost every Phyllis A. Whitney novel begins with the young heroine on her way to an old family home, having been summoned by a letter or similar. As she rides the train (boat, plane, etc.), she thinks at length about all things that led up to this moment of her life. Of course, today’s readers wouldn’t slog through two paragraphs of that, much less several pages, so my stories would need a more modern construction with backstory lightly sprinkled throughout a more action-packed tale.

This was easier said than done given that Gothics can require some very complicated backstory. With my first Gothic, Whispers of the Bayou, I included the requisite letter that would summon my heroine, Miranda, but I preceded that with an encounter with a mysterious stranger, a bizarre attack in an alley by two thugs, and the revelation of a shocking secret by Miranda’s aunt. By the time our heroine boards a plane and heads for the old family home, set along a Louisiana bayou, we’re ready to learn a little more about her.

Expanding the setting

Though I loved the claustrophobic feel of Gothics, I had trouble leaving my heroine completely stranded. Ours is a far more mobile and connected society than those portrayed in the older Gothics, which means that regardless of location nowadays she would almost certainly have a car, cell, laptop, etc., at her disposal. Trying to get around that required serious and credibility-straining machinations.

Thus, I surrendered my desire to keep her totally isolated and allow her some mobility and communications to take place. I set

my second Gothic, Shadows of Lancaster County, in the dead of winter and used bad weather and icy roads to keep her trapped as much as possible. I also put her in a Amish home, where the lack of electricity would make it hard to recharge her cell and laptop. Still, in the end, my heroines have all covered far more territory in the course of the story than their Gothic counterparts of yore, who rarely wandered past the backyard.

Eliminating the HWTSTL

My biggest pet peeve in any mystery is what’s known as an HWTSTL, or Heroine Who’s Too Stupid to Live; for example, one who tiptoes out the backdoor in her nightgown, bearing only a candle, to check out the creepy noise coming from the yard. Puh-leeze! To keep my heroines brave but not stupid, I picture myself in the same situation and then go with the action that I would take if I were there. (Trust me, if there’s a scary noise out back and I’m home alone in my nightgown with just a candle, I’m running around locking every window and door even as I’m hitting 9-1-1 on speed dial and reaching for the fire poker! Ergo, that’s what my characters are most likely to do as well.)

My third Gothic, Under the Cajun Moon, features an exciting cat-and-mouse chase through the Louisiana backwaters, much of it at night. For research, my husband and I forced ourselves to stay in a swamp cabin, go outside at 3 a.m., and take note of how it felt, smelled, looked, and sounded. Let me just say that standing on the dock beside that black water without a soul around nor even a flashlight was one of the most terrifying experiences of our lives. The research payoff was tremendous—my character’s time in the swamp feels very real (not to mention horrifying) indeed—but between the plops, gurgles, and glowing eyes that surrounded us on every side, we were having our own TSTL moment just by being there!

Justifying the essential elements

Why would I want to write a Gothic if it didn’t include hidden staircases, secret passageways, and even buried treasures? I wouldn’t! The problem is that in this day and age, each of these has become what you might call laughably cliché.

What’s a writer of a modern Gothic to do?

Because the thrill of the genre is intrinsically woven into elements such as these, I decided that they would stand. To combat the cliché factor, I make them necessary for the setting, plausible for the characters, and utterly intrinsic to the plot.

In my fourth and most recent Gothic, Secrets of Harmony Grove, the buried treasure in question is a cache of diamonds linked to WWII Europe and the heroine’s Amish grandfather, who served as a noncombatant army medic and was present at the liberation of Buchenwald. In the end, the diamonds are not a mere Gothic “device” but a poignant symbol of the Holocaust, life’s fragility, and the enduring hope of the human spirit. With its heady themes, isolated location, and eerie tone, this book is my most Gothic-feeling yet.

Even as I move on to explore other genres and sub-genres with my writing, I’ll revisit the Gothic with future books. “Christian Amish Gothic Mystery” may sound like an oxymoron, but in truth it’s more like that literary equivalent of a roller coaster ride.

Time for some delicious terror, anyone?


Secrets of Harmony Grove