Mindy Starns Clark: Good Housekeeping and Great Gothic Novels
- Thursday, April 09, 2009
Chatting with Mindy Starns Clark is like having a conversation with a dear friend. The one who is full of interesting facts. The one who offers meaningful insights. And the one who makes you laugh—at life and at yourself.
That’s what I experienced when I met with Mindy recently and talked with her about her first nonfiction book (The House That Cleans Itself) and her latest gothic thriller, (Shadows of Lancaster County).
In addition to being an author, Mindy’s also a former singer and stand-up comedian and has written numerous plays and musicals. Wife and mother of two teenage daughters, she’s got a love for storytelling and now a knack for keeping it real and organized for those who she calls—and with whom she includes herself—the “housekeeping impaired.”
What was the inspiration for The House That Cleans Itself?
What happened was in doing research for The Smart Chick Mysteries series, I collected a lot of research. I must have collected 40 different household hints books as my own personal research. And in the middle of that research what struck me was that none of those books worked for me. I was the worst housekeeper in the world. And everybody who wrote those was very good at housekeeping.
It was kind of like reading a diet book written by someone who had never struggled with their weight. Maybe there are people who are just born without the gene of cleaning and maybe there’s a totally different way to do it for them. So it was throughout researching for that series that I said I’m going to throw it all out the window and treat this like there aren’t any experts at all. I laid emotion aside—the guilt and the shame—and just thought about creative problem solving.
Most of it amounted to rearranging furniture, adding a hook and a bin here and there. It was working with the problem, instead of looking at it like, “This is the fault of me.” I saw it as this is the fault of the house, and the house I could definitely change while our behaviors are probably never going to change.
You’ve got to think about it like singing. If you were born tone deaf, are you lazy because you can’t do the solo? Maybe it’s that you just can’t sing. And if you look at it like a talent, it’s much easier to deal with.
I have ideas for another book, too—sort of a sequel. I'd like to call it something like The House That Cleans Itself: Room by Room. I’ve learned a lot from readers, too, who've uploaded pictures to my blog ... their before and after photos.
What is one of your favorite household tips from The House That Cleans Itself?
I call it the “sight zone.” You have to stand in every doorway and evaluate the sight zone. It’s just what you see when you’re standing there. Take the thing that you always know is messy (a bookshelf, for example) and move it away and out of sight from where you can see it. It’s not until you’ve come in the room and have swung around that you see it. But by then, you’ve also seen the areas that stay neater, too. It’s about forming the positive opinion right away and that when you first walk into the room, you’ll see the neat things first (a chair, a sofa, etc.).
The idea came to me because you can see the right side of my sink from the front door of my house. And the dishes would pile up and pile up and my family just always put their dishes on the right side of sink. So every single person—even the mailman!—who came to my front door would see that I had a sink full of dishes. But you couldn’t see the left side of the sink. So step one was to say, “Let’s put all the dishes to the left.” And instantly the problem was solved. And then when we renovated the kitchen, we got a deeper sink. I still don’t get to the dishes every night, but it doesn’t matter because we don’t see them.
What is the "horizontal thinking" method that you talk about?
Experts will have you file. Literally, filing takes a piece of paper and makes it vertical. There are those of us who once a piece of paper is vertical, not only can we not find it, we forget that it ever existed.
Most people who are bad at housekeeping are horizontal thinkers. And that’s why so much stuff is out where we can see it. Somewhere deep inside we know that if we put this away the way the experts told us to, we will never see it again.
For example, the book I’m writing now I have tons of research for and I’ve never known what to do with all of that stuff. So I bought a desk with a layer of glass over the desk; the glass sits about an inch above the desk. I put the research papers lying flat in between the desk and the glass. So when I need to reference the information while writing, I just move away what I’m working on and look down. It’s right there for me through the glass, so I can see it and won’t lose it.
In The House That Cleans Itself, there’s a whole chapter on creating a movable paper sorter. Most people’s dining rooms look like archaeological digs, and mine did, too. So I got a rolling cart and a shoe bin with cubbies and turned it on its side. It only has eight categories. It has space for a shredder, a recycling bin, a box for mail order catalogs and a trash bin. And every piece of paper that comes in the house must be taken to the cart. And when you’re done looking at the paper you have to act. When the box of mail order catalogs gets full, you can’t add anymore unless you take some out. It’s just weird systems like this that I’ve developed to work around the way my brain thinks. And it works!
Speaking of other writing projects, your latest work of fiction is Shadows of Lancaster County. It’s a suspense thriller and involves the Amish community in its story line. How did you research for this book?
It’s the hardest book I’ve ever had to research and all of my books are very research heavy. I really wanted to know the Amish world. I wanted to get it right. That was very important to me. And I live right there [in Pennsylvania]. I’m two counties over. But the harder I pushed to get a real insider’s view of the Amish life, it bothered me a lot. It felt almost exploitative. The low point was when I asked a guy how I could sit down for dinner with an Amish family. And he held out his hand and said, “Anything for a price, lady.” And I have paid experts before, but he wanted me to pay him.
That so rattled me that I rethought the whole plot. I changed it to an outsider’s viewpoint who’s had good experiences with the Amish, but did not grow up in this kind of a life. And I have some Amish friends, but I was never comfortable asking the kind of questions I would normally ask on other topics—because this is their whole life. They don’t even understand why anyone would care in the least why they do what they do. So, once I changed the perspective of the novel, it was a little easier.
What inspired the story of Shadows of Lancaster County?
There’s a certain type of novel called “gothic mystery,” and I found them when I was a teenager. It’s always exotic locations, a creepy old house, and deep, dark family secrets. These were my favorite books for years, and I always said that one day I wanted to write my own.
So I had actually pitched to my publisher a series of stand-alone, gothic mysteries. The first one was Whispers of the Bayou which was set down in Louisiana in a creepy old house. And then we were tossing around locations for the next one, and I suggested the Amish since people don’t know a lot about them.
[Gothic mysteries] are reminiscent of these old, first-person, strong female heroine type of stories. And they’re really fun to write!
What will your next book be about? And is if fiction or nonfiction?
It’s also a gothic and is called Under the Cajun Moon. It comes back to Louisiana. That’s what I’m working on now, and it’s been great. It’s the most fun I’ve had in a long time. My husband and I went down [to Louisiana] a couple of months ago and had a blast. The story is set in a famous family, French Quarter restaurant. So, of course, we had to visit a lot of French Quarter restaurants. A lot of it is set out in the swamps, so we booked a swamp cabin right on the edge of the bayou. We met an old Cajun man and interviewed him for hours.
The best thing I got from that experience was when you just stand outside in the dark of night—which I needed to do because that’s what happens to my character—you find that the noise never stops. And primarily what you’re hearing are things plopping into the water. So, was that an alligator? Was that a snake? Was that a rat? You can’t see anything. We were there during hibernation. But according to the guy who rented us the house, during the summer if you turn on the flashlight and shine it out across the swamp, you will see lots of eyes.
It was fascinating. If you could stay in that part of writing the book, that’s the part I enjoyed the most. That, and typing “the end” at the end. Everything in the middle is a little harder. Under the Cajun Moon is more about a strong, first-person female—who’s not a detective or an investigator—who’s swept into something that has to do with family secrets, her past, her history and how she works her way through that.
What is your pie-in-the-sky dream project that you'd like to work on someday—writing or otherwise?
A movie! I would love to write a screenplay or have one of my novels adapted by a really good screenwriter. My degree was in creative writing, and when I graduated from college I wanted to be two things: a novelist and a screenwriter. And I realized pretty soon you’d better narrow it down. Screenwriting is … well, you gotta live it and pitch. I didn’t have any desire to live in California, nor to fall into the ocean when the big earthquake happens. I just like to visit there.
I actually made a conscious decision that I wanted to have a family and kids, so I thought that a novelist was the better way to go. I intentionally closed that [screenwriting] door in my brain. But once you have some books—especially Whispers of the Bayou and Shadows of Lancaster County—and you start getting a little attention on them, you start getting options for movies and you wonder if the door could open this other way. Which is how God works anyway, because we can close a door but if it’s something that he put in me then I feel like at some point in my life, one way or another, I will be involved with seeing something I’ve done on paper be on film. So, I’m not quite sure how it’ll happen, and there’s nothing I’m pursuing right now. But it is my pie in the sky!
If you had to pick just one of your books today to be adapted for a movie, which one would it be?
Probably Shadows of Lancaster County. It has very film-like pacing. It’s got that Da Vinci Code sort of feel and moves along really fast and there’s a lot going on.
I will also say my first series, The Million Dollar Mysteries, of which there were five books in the series. You don’t meet “the man” right away—he’s not even in the first book at all. It’s a five-book romantic arc. Each book is its own mystery, but it’s the same people. At the beginning of the first book, the main female character is a young widow and isolated. And hopefully by the end, she and “the man” will live happily ever after.
I did have to come up with “him” when it was finally time to bring him on the scene. I had to picture him in my mind because she had never pictured him either. He’s a philanthropist, and she’s the investigator for his foundation and so it’s like Charlie’s Angels. He calls her on the phone and sends her out to go investigate this and that charity. And then if it’s good, he’ll give them a lot of money.
So, this was her job and she had never met him and when I finally had to bring him in, I thought, I can’t bring him in. I don’t know what he looks like. Because she doesn’t know what he looks like. And so when it finally came to me, I actually was watching a movie. The book was overdue, and I had one last scene and I didn’t know how to write it ‘cause I didn’t know what he looked like. I was watching The Count of Monte Cristo with Jim Caviezel, and there’s a scene where he stands up and the wind is blowing and he’s got this cape on. And I said, “That’s Tom!” So I ran upstairs and wrote the whole scene and the book was done.
I will also say that I thought The Smart Chick Mysteries would have made a nice TV show, because of all the household hints and the mysteries. And then wouldn’t you know there’s a series of movies on Lifetime with Jane Seymour. I hadn’t heard anything about it, but I started getting so many e-mails from readers who said, “Congratulations! I heard about your movie.” But it wasn’t me or my books and not the same exact situation. It was different enough that I know they didn’t copy off of my work. But it’s a household hints expert who gets pulled into solving crimes.
So, it was like, Aw shoot. I’d always kept it in my head that it would make a great TV show. But I never even tried and didn’t take steps and someone else did. But hopefully someday a movie will be made of one my books. That would be really exciting.
For more information about Mindy Starns Clark and her latest books—The House That Cleans Itself and Shadows of Lancaster County—please visit www.mindystarnsclark.com or Harvest House Publishers's site, www.harvesthousepublishers.com.
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