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Carrie Stuart Parks is an internationally recognised forensic artist and creator of the award winning Gwen Marcey suspense series featuring an FBI trained forensic artist who is always being thrust out of her studio into life and death action.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- How Carrie found her mentor through a thoughtful Christmas gift
- Why writing “kept her sane” in dark times
- The ‘Don’t Lie To Me’ workshops that contribute to Gwen’s character
- The two things behind Carrie’s writing success
- How book research led her to Pentecostal serpent handlers
- Why she breeds Great Pyrenees Mountain Dogs
Where to find Carrie Stuart Parks:
For more details, a full transcript follows: Note – this is a “close as” rendering of our full conversation with links to key points. (Not totally word for word)
Jenny: Hi there: I’m your host Jenny Wheeler, and today Carrie Stuart Parks is talking about writing inspirational suspense.
But before we hear from Carrie, just a reminder that the show notes for this BingeReading episode are available at the website, thejoysofbingereading.com
That’s where you’ll find links to Carrie’s website and books, as well as a free E book, and information on how to subscribe to our podcast so you don’t miss future episodes.
And now here’s Carrie. Hello there Carrie, and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Carrie: Thank you Jenny and I am absolutely thrilled to be here.
Jenny: You obviously are a very talented artist – you give forensic art workshops and you have written several how to paint and draw instruction books – so what was the “Once Upon A Time” moment or process that led you to express yourself through writing rather than through pencil and paint?
Carrie: The original writing I did was for ‘How To Books.’ I decided I really needed to put down what I taught my students in a book rather than explain it over and over again.
So I ended up doing five books with my husband Rick on how to draw and how to watercolour paint. And I thought that all I could do was write non fiction – “here’s how to sharpen your pencil.” Eventually I moved over to writing novels, but it wasn’t until I’d been writing non fiction books for a number of years that I ended up in this place.
Jenny: Yes and it’s a very different process writing novels to writing fiction. Was there something that led you to make that jump?
Carrie: Yes, and it’s a strange story! I have a girl friend who has absolutely everything and every year I spend hours looking for the perfect Christmas gift for her. Well this one year I just couldn’t find anything. So I thought maybe I’ll just write a little short story about people who go on this adventure.
So I wrote this story about two gals who go on this adventure. A murder mystery kind of a thing. And I gave it to her for Christmas. And she’d be reading it in bed and laughing out loud and her husband said “What are you reading?”
And she said “well there’s this really funny short story” and she read it out loud to him. He rang me up the next day and he said “I want to come over to your house” and I said “OK” and he came over and said “I think you have writing talent. I think you can write fiction and I am happy to teach you how to do it better.”
Well the gal I gave it to was Barbara Peretti, and the guy who came over was Frank Peretti (famous as the author of The Present Danger and Piercing the Darkness – editor note) So for the next eight years the ‘Dean of Christian Writing’ was my personal mentor.
Jenny: Gwen is similar to you in many ways – for a start she is a forensic artist – and in other ways of course she is very different… Tell us about those similarities and differences.
Carrie: Gwen Marcey is a breast cancer survivor as I am, she has a Great Pyrenees dog which I have a whole bunch of, she has a sense of humor, which I have in abundance, and of course she is a forensic artist. She is divorced – and I was divorced, though I am happily married again to a wonderful man who teaches with me,
At the start of the series she has a fourteen year old daughter who is just horrible – she is acting out in every way possible. I have no children but I based the horribleness of her daughter on how I treated my parents at fourteen. It wasn’t particularly hard to imagine just how horrible you can be to your parents!
Gwen is much younger and much slimmer than me, though at her age I was probably closer to her size than I am now! She is independent like me, but she is not very secure, which is not really like me, I am pretty comfortable in my shoes.
Jenny: There’s a couple of other talents she has and I wonder if you share those. For starters, Gwen a photographic memory – or close to it, Is that a talent you share?
Carrie: I do – I just keep forgetting to put the film in! I am very good at being able to tell you why you remember and why you forget but it doesn’t help me remember any better than anyone else! She is also good at detecting deception, which is one of the things that I teach my law enforcement students, so I did incorporate that training and background into Gwen.
Jenny: Yes, you run workshops titled Don’t Lie To Me and in the books you will list a few little things suspects do which make her realise they are either telling lies or telling the truth – I found that fascinating. I loved that TV series Don’t Lie To Me which was along similar lines.
Carrie: Yes that was a very good show and it actually had a lot of good information but then they took it off.
Jenny: Yes I was sorry when it didn’t continue . . .
The first book in the series, A Cry From The Dust won the Suspense/thriller category in the 2015 of the American Christian Writers Awards… That must have been a confirmation you were on the right track. Was that also the point at which the first novel became a series?
Carrie: I had pitched it as a series to Thomas Nelson. A Cry From the Dust was actually the second book I wrote. I wrote The Bones Will Speak – the one that came out as a second book – first. It was my learning curve book. I worked on it for eight years. I got an agent and tried to sell it, and I’d already had the idea for the second book, so I was working on that one – I got a new agent and that’s the one I pitched to Thomas Nelson and when they said yes to the series I went back to the second book. I re-read what I had written it was truly awful! I was so glad it didn’t sell. So I put it back on the drawing board and threw away everything except about one chapter and a couple of people and started again.
Then I wrote the third book When Death Draws Near – that’s the won that has just won a Carol award – and then I got a two book contract which produced the fourth book in the series Portrait of Vengeance which is just out now.
All three have been finalled in the Christie Awards. I don’t know if the third one has won a Christie because that is not announced until November 9. It’s pretty intimidating because I am up against authors like Terri Blackstock and Ted Dekker; it is really intimating.
In fact at the Carol awards this year I was so convinced I wasn’t going to win an award that I had taken my dress shoes off, my little sparkly slippers, and kicked them under the table because I just knew there was no way I was going to have to go up to that podium. So when they called my name, there was no way I was going to get my shoes on, it took me half an hour to get them on in the first place, so I just carried my shoe in my hand to show them I actually had shoes and received the award with my shoe in my hand.
Jenny: You do have sense of humor! Gwen in the series is always drawn into the action – she is never just quietly drawing in her studio . .Is that typical of your work as well?
Carrie: It would definitely be much more exciting if it were. They do occasionally have us do things beyond the drawing. They might for example get us to go out to a crime scene and sketch it, There was one time when I did the drawing and the police department took me into a back room and we were standing around talking, and then they brought this guy in and said to me “Is that the guy you just drew?’ (It was the murderer – editor note,) I thought to myself – “Why are you putting him in a room with me?”
Another time I was locked in a prison cell with a guy who had murdered two people with a baseball bat and a screw driver, and I really didn’t know how he used them. So occasionally you end up in rather odd places, but it’s easier if you put your protagonist like Gwen into a small police department where one person does a lot of different tasks, so they could end up in more circumstances than they normally would.
Jenny: You’ve mentioned you’ve got one of the biggest Christian publishers behind you – in Thomas Nelson – but readers obviously don’t have to share your faith to enjoy your books- is that a fine line you walk appealing to general readers?
Carrie: It is. I am very blessed with Thomas Nelson, which is a subsidiary of Harper Collins Christian, it is (and I’ll put quotes around this ) really the most “liberal” – it’s not liberal – but of all the bigger Christian publishers – in that I have no problem with their not wanting me to have any bad language, which I don’t use unless I hit my hand with a hammer and then “frogs” will slip out of your mouth – there is no cussing in the book.
It bothers me when I am reading myself – I don’t want to read those words when I am reading suspense. And then the other thing is there is no sex… though I will warn you, I have gone out on a limb – in the book I have just put in there is a kiss! Yes there is an epic kiss, so that is my very first kiss.
Cuss words and sex do not move the story line unless it’s an erotic book. Sex and cussing stops the story. People want to solve the mystery, they want that heart pounding feeling of coming to the end of a story. I don’t know anybody who is a mainstream suspense reader that would have a problem with anything I have written. In all four books, there is a moral in the story.
Now I was a Unitarian Universalist for 22 years and I truly understand the unchurched and the atheistic and agnostic mind set.
I try to write it in such a way because I want to reach people like I used to be. Because you can’t beat people into faith. . .you can’t abuse people into a faith or beat them over the head with it. But you can present the Christian message in such a way that people think – ‘yes I see that, that works.’ No way am I preaching I make sure in reading my reviews there is no preachiness, no salvation message. There are other books that have that in them, but mine are just a really good adventure story.
Jenny: Moving on from the specific books to a more general consideration of your writing career, how do you fit your writing into an already very full life? Obviously you’ve been disciplining yourself with this writing for many years – we’ve seen four books since 2015, but you’ve been writing for much longer than that. And you are still working as a forensic artist and law enforcement instructor, based out of your home on a ranch in northern Idaho? That must involve quite a lot of travel?
Carrie: I do a fair amount of travel. When I do travel I try to use it as a researching situation, so as I travel I will be researching a book, or writing as I travel. I get up every morning after my devotionals I will write for several hours every day.
I set a writing goal of so many words, and technically I work seven days a week. I discipline myself to work, and unfortunately my house dogs don’t share my discipline so their needs to go outside often doesn’t necessarily work in with my writing
So I might be in this great crashing scene with thunder and everything is going south and the one of the dogs will need to go outside. And then I also think ahead – so okay I know I need to set this up for class, I need to do this, this and this. I am a consummate list maker, I write everything down and then cross it out so I am sure I am getting everything done in a timely manner.
Jenny: You mention the dogs and Winston a huge mountain dog has a role to play in your books . . .I gather you have a Great Pyrenees kennel as well. How many dogs do you actually have in the house?
Carrie: I have three in the house and three in the kennels right now and that’s about as much as I can handle. My girlfriend and I own dogs together. She lives about three to four hours away from me, and we trade dogs back and forward. She has about six or seven dogs – about the same number as me, and I do the showing and she does the breeding and whelps up the puppies. I have had Pyrenees since I was eight years old, my parents had kennels before me so we’ve been in Pyrenees since 1959.
Jenny: Wow! Have you won any trophies?
Carrie: Just a few . . . !! I am now an AKC junior handling judge and just got off the board of the Great Pyrenees Club of America, where I was president for five years.
Jenny: Is there one thing you’ve done in your writing career more than any other that’s been the secret to your success?
Carrie: There’s a couple of things. First of all it’s very hard, because your story is your baby. So you have to put your baby out there and let people beat up on your baby. You have to be flexible . . . when I first gave Frank my writing he said “This is pretty good but you don’t kill anybody till the third chapter.” And I said “Yeah, well it takes me three chapters to get over there.”
And he said “No no you have to have a body in the first chapter.” Well I just couldn’t see a way to do it, I was very inflexible, So I worked and worked and finally got the body into the second chapter and I was very proud of that. . . And he said “No, no I want that body in the first chapter, in fact I want the body on the first page!”
So one of the things I had to learn was the flexibility to express the same story in different ways, and do so effectively. I had to plow through in spite of the rejections and set backs. One month after Frank said he would help me to write I was diagnosed with breast cancer and my mother was dying of emphysema. So during that year when I was having surgery and chemo and caring for my dying mother, the writing I think helped keep me sane. And so I just kept with it and I kept learning.
And that’s the next thing I would say, you never stop learning. Everything you do, you need to be examining it and saying is there a better way to do it, is that really the best you can do it, is there something more you can learn – and I find the longer I am in it, the more I have to learn, and it’s just fascinating.
Jenny: Turning to a bit more of a fun question . . one of the things I enjoy about your books is that the settings are in really out of the way places that you don’t normally read about. If you were going to organise a magical mystery literary tour for your books, where would you suggest readers go?
Carrie: We research it by going to the place where its set. So for the first book Cry From the Dust, (based on controversial events in Mormon history – editor note) we went to the Mormon History Museum. We were on our way to the Mountain Meadows Interpretive Center when our car developed mechanical problems and we never made it.
When we did the second book – it was based near my home and was quite closely based on some of my cases, so that would put you in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and you would probably drive past where the Aryan Nations compound used to be. . . then in the third book, and now you’ll have some fun, that’s set in the eastern Kentucky Appalachian mountains where the Pentecostal serpent handlers are.
We actually went to a serpent handling church in Jolo, West Virginia and worshipped with them on Sunday and they took out one of their snakes for us to see. There was an adventure right there! They turned out to be incredibly, lovely gracious people, There are several churches there that do that. The fourth book takes place in the Clearwater Valley in northern Idaho, on the Nez Perce Reservation, which is on the edge of the largest wilderness area in the lower 48th. and the Nez Perce tribe which was a very historic tribe with a fascinating history.
And if you hang around long enough, you’ll be ready the next book, which is not a Gwen Marcey book, which takes you to Alaska, to Kodiak Island which is the second largest American island – not nearly as big as you guys of course – but the largest island outside of one of the Hawaiian Islands and talks about the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands during World War II. You might go on down and take a look at Attu and Kiska as well!
Jenny: And you went there for your research?
Carrie: We went to Kodiak. Attu and Kiska is about are quite a long way – we didn’t get there.
Jenny: I’m surprised the serpent handling churches are still operating, I’d assumed they would be underground.
Carrie: There are certain states that have outlawed the practice – Kentucky – which is where I placed the story – is the only state that has outlawed handling serpents specifically as a religious practice. In our laws, that is really pushing that first amendment – the government staying out of the free practice of religion. I wanted to examine that so I placed the story in Kentucky. In West Virginia is is quite legal to handle snakes in church.
Carrie as Binge Reader
Jenny: Have you ever been a binge reader – either now or in the past If so who – any recommendations for listeners?
Carrie: I haven’t been binge reading lately because I read so many books for research. But I was addicted for years to Dick Francis, who was a champion English steeple chaser and mystery writer. Of course growing up on a ranch around horses – all of his stories are wonderful and he passed away and I just couldn’t believe it. I read all of Sue Grafton, and as a child I read all fifteen of the Wizard of Oz books.
When I read and find an author that I love I am totally crazed to read it as fast as I can and then go back a year later and re-read it.
Jenny: Sounds like you are a mystery reader:
Carrie: Yes mystery, thrillers, and growing up I loved animals so Albert Payson Terhune’s collie books deeply affected me, I loved that series and owned a lot of those books too. Not much romance, you’ll see, which is why that one kiss is so epic!
I also read the work of some of my suspense partners – Colleen Coble, Lynette Eason, Ronie Kendig these are all dear friends of mine as well, so they send me their books and I send them mine. I love to read them but I don’t have time to binge read them because they are a lot more prolific than I am.
Circling around from the beginning to the end
Jenny: At this stage in your career, if you were doing it all over again, what, if anything would you change?
Carrie: I probably would have started writing earlier. I think that now, but on the other hand the maturity and patience that you develop, I’m not sure I would have had it earlier. Also the experiences that you have – I am now 65 – I’ve experienced things I didn’t know earlier – so I don’t know. I haven’t had it easy but there’s not a lot that I would change. I wish I hadn’t lost my parents, but there is not a lot I would do differently.
Jenny: What’s next for Carrie the writer? You mentioned the book set in Alaska – what’s that one called?
Carrie: It’s called Formula Of Deception, it comes out next August, and it features a young lady called Murphy Anderson. And then I am in the process – I am here this week, at a rental house on the Atlantic Coast with this group of my fellow students and gals who are students, friends and dear people, and I was running my plot ideas past them and they immediately guessed who the bad guy was, so now I’ve got to go back and redo my plotting because it was far too obvious! It will take place in Albuquerque New Mexico and I hope to weave in a whole lot of native belief ideas into it – and/ or also the home of the Sandia Labs and the Los Alamos project. They may both feature . . . .
Jenny: Are they stand alones or a start of new series?
Carrie: They are both stand alones, (the publisher) asked for stand alones. But if they go well, we’ll see.
Jenny: Does this mean Gwen is being retired?
Carrie: Oh no, she has got a lot of work to do yet. She’s got to get that daughter into college, her ex-husband’s wife is expecting a new baby, there is a problem there, she has just got that new job and then there is Blake the love interest. We’ll have to see what happens there. She wasn’t very nice to him last time, so he may not wait around for her.
Jenny: Where can we find your books and connect with you online?
Carrie can be found at:
Jenny: Thanks so much for joining us – it’s been wonderful talking with you. All the very best with the rest of your career.
Carrie: Its been an absolute joy to talk with you. God Bless and have a wonderful week.
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Great interview! I love all the Gwen Marcey novels, and now I’ll be looking forward to Formula got Deception too.