A Conversation with C Hope Clark, author of Tidewater Murder and Lowcountry Bribe by Janna McMahon.

C. Hope Clark

JM: Commercial agriculture is an unusual backdrop for a crime novel. People don’t usually think of farmers as being bad guys, but Carolina Slade sure seems to find plenty of criminal types with green thumbs. I hear you worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 25 years. Did you see a lot of crimes that inspired your writing career?

Tidewater MurderHC: Yes, I did, Janna. Most of the incidents were small time activities, like selling a few head of livestock and keeping the money instead of paying the loans that bought the livestock, that sort of behavior. But I also saw major crimes. Yes, some have grown marijuana and made a healthy living from it. Some have lied about crop losses when they actually killed the crops or never planted the fields in question. A crop insurance fraud ring was just busted in North Carolina. Farming is a business, and like any business venture, you have good, honest business people and then you have the scammers and manipulators. However, the majority of farmers are doing what they do because they love nature and land stewardship. It’s an extremely difficult profession, and I respect those who pursue it.

JM: The Inspector General’s office in South Carolina was recently formed to detect, expose and deter fraud throughout state government, but one gets the impression from Tidewater Murder that things aren’t always on the up and up inside such agencies. You paint a pretty realistic picture of power-hungry, backstabbing bureaucrats. Did you mean to paint the “system” with all its rules and hierarchy as a separate antagonist holding Slade back from breaking the case?

HC: Actually, yes, I did. The IG in Lowcountry Bribe is at the federal level, but the concept is the same: to deal with waste, fraud and abuse of government funds. But just like you have good and bad farmers, you have good and bad players in the IG as well. I worked with many IG agents in my 25 years. Some were shrewd and savvy, able to ferret out illegal activity missed by the average person. Others were lazy, some not very professional, and others were just nasty. But that’s life, in any profession. In law enforcement, you find the nice cops and then there are those who enjoy their power a little too much. I wanted to raise the odds against Slade by making the IG and its system yet another obstacle in her life, so I drew upon the negative types I’ve met in my past. IGs do important work for the government, but like any organization, it’s not perfect. I capitalized on those imperfections.

JM: Speaking of reading newspapers, the first book in your series, Lowcountry Bribe, was inspired by a true crime. Is Tidewater Murder also ripped from the headlines?

HC: No, Tidewater Murder is pure fiction based upon my knowledge of how migrant workers have been abused in the past and how a few farmers I’ve known have scammed by altering facts when selling their commodities at the market. When I pursued minor investigations with my work with the US Department of Agriculture, I was frustrated by not being able to go after every proven case of fraud. I drew upon some of that emotion to mold this story.

JM: Do you research a lot? Do you interview people? How do you inform your characters and plots?

HC: My degree is in agriculture, and as said earlier, I have 25 years of experience with USDA. However, I do research the areas, try to keep up with agriculture changes and update myself on cropping practices I may have forgotten or become outdated in my knowledge. I’m about to start the fourth Carolina Slade book, and I’m to the point I need to speak to some chicken growers as well as USDA specialists. I still have contacts within the agency. Hopefully, they’ll open their doors to me so I can nail down the details with accuracy. But the plots are just a game of “what if?” Keep in mind that my husband was a USDA Federal Agent with the IG. Between his experiences and mine, we have a wealth of information to draw upon. He helps keep me honest when I’m trying to create crimes to solve, enlightening me about what the IG would and would not do. It’s great fun bouncing ideas off him. He uses our conversations as his excuse to go to the porch with a new cigar and a glass of bourbon.

JM: What made you select Lowcountry agriculture as the setting of Tidewater Murder? I read that you grew up around family farmers in Mississippi. What type of farm? Was it close to the coast? Do you have clay dirt and pluff mud in your veins?

HC: Actually, I grew up as an Air Force brat, but my grandfather was a cotton farmer in the Mississippi Delta. It was very rich farmland that grew some serious cotton. Not near the coast, but in my work with USDA, I spent a lot of time with coastal farming. I grew up near Charleston as well, so the smell of pluff mud is very homecoming to me. I head to Edisto Beach several times a year to breathe my mandatory dose of saltwater.

JM: Carolina Slade is a people person. She’s a daughter, a mother, a friend and a lover. While she wants to be good at her job, she seems to value life in terms of relationships. She even oversteps job boundaries in defense of strangers because she feels it’s the right thing to do. Do you think this is a uniquely feminine quality in a character and one that makes her relatable to a wide range of readers?

HC: I think most women prefer that relationships take precedent over jobs, rules, most everything in life short of safety and health. How wonderful life would be if we knew that family and friends would stand by us without reservation, without conditions. We all wish life was fair, and we’ve all experienced rules that seemed to violate what was fair.

Having handled a lot of personnel, administrative and borderline criminal cases during my previous career, I witnessed many cases based on an absolute interpretation of rules without consideration for common sense. Many people are afraid to be independent in their thoughts, hunting for rules to tell them what to do. I wanted Slade to learn in Lowcountry Bribe that the rules aren’t always right, and I wanted her to dare cross the rules and use her good sense, in the name of doing the right thing by people. There’s something very empowering and uplifting about being so bold. I feel we all wish we had that trait inside us, and had the strength to step up and use it. And yes, I hoped that readers would relate.

JM: Do you enjoy writing love scenes? What’s different about writing a sex scene and writing a fight scene? Is Slade turned on by danger?

HC: Actually, love scenes are difficult to write for me. I worry they will come across staged. I prefer an action scene and I write them differently. Love scenes are slow to write, methodical. Fight scenes are written in layers, getting the main action down then going back and adding in body movements, who hits who, how an injury handicaps and how it feels to be incapacitated or feel physically vulnerable.

I don’t think Slade is turned on by danger. Instead, I believe it’s more that she doesn’t think out the liabilities of her choices. If a situation involved just her, she would most likely take the coward’s way out, like most people. But in most of her danger moments, other people are involved: her best friend, her boyfriend, her children. So danger is not an issue as she attempts to aid those she loves. It’s how we all ought to be. Relationships should mean commitment at all cost.

JM: Carolina Slade is like Dirty Harry, she takes a beating and keeps coming back for more. She gets shot, stabbed, and nearly drowned. What makes her so tough?

HC: Again, her ideal of fairness and commitment to those she loves. I love that about her.

JM: You write about the Gullah culture, conjure bags and shamans, food and language. Do you find it takes a certain talent to write about cultures different from your own? Do you know a lot of Gullah folks from your time working in agriculture? Did you research this?

HC: Writers learn to write whatever it takes to tell the story. That often means research to such a level that the writer develops a strong comfort with the culture, setting, whatever pieces form a story. Our writing has to appear natural, and only with deep study of what we do not know can we speak it . . . write about it. I have met a few Gullah folk in my past dealings with agriculture. I lived a year in Beaufort and have a very dear friend in that area who taught me much about the culture. I read a lot about Gullah culture, in particular, books written by and about Sheriff James McTeer. He became well-versed in the culture in his 37 years as sheriff. He paints a fantastic picture of that population giving me a great feel for dialect and voodoo practices. Every writer has to do her research to get the facts straight. Readers can tell when they are not.

JM: What’s next in your series? Are you going to stay in the agricultural milieu or perhaps move offshore to a shrimping venture or down the coast to a fish hatchery? Or maybe Carolina Slade will start a new relationship with a ranger.

HC: Tidewater Murder is out in April 2013, set in Beaufort, touching upon the Gullah culture. The third is Palmetto Poison, in which I move Slade to the middle of the state, to a small town called Pelion, connecting the worlds of peanuts and state politics, with a particularly cute subplot involving not only her family but Wayne Largo’s as well. I love this story. The fourth book I hope to map out in Newberry, SC, touching upon chickens or dairy. Newberry is ripe with history and old Southern culture, to include quite a few skeletons in the closet.

I could write Carolina Slade stories for years. They are so enjoyable. I love talking about South Carolina’s rural flavor that the average visitor has never seen. This state is about more than Charleston and Hilton Head.

JM: You have one of the most popular blogs and newsletters for writers in the country. Can you tell us about Fundsforwriters.com? What advice would you provide an emerging writer?

HC: FundsforWriters was created to fill a niche I didn’t realize existed until I met with a small writer’s group outside Atlanta in 1999. Writing for the Internet was new, like eBooks are now. I was enjoying this new world and writing for whoever would take my work online. The topic turned from how to write for online markets into a string of complaints about how to earn a living as a writer. At that time I was fighting to establish a freelance career of my own. Not only had I collected many resources for markets, publishers and contests, but I already knew about grants, so I started talking to the group about their options. After the meeting, people inundated me with emails, with more questions seeking help, so I started the newsletter out of desperation to define my time and reduce the number of emails responses. Once Writer’s Digest magazine recognized the site as promising in their 101 Best Websites for Writers in 2001, interest skyrocketed. FundsforWriters.com has received this award for the past 12 years. Today I have 35,000 to 40,000 readers, and I speak around the country at writing conferences about these same subjects, trying to help writers see paths to potential writing careers. I’ll be in GA, MO, IA, KY, NC, WV, NV and SC this year. I was lucky enough to receive a nod to be a panelist at the 2013 SC Book Festival in Columbia, SC, and I’m excited about that new appearance.

Emerging writers need to define their niche or goal, and then decide if they need immediate funds or if their writing projects are more long term in nature. A novelist will not make money for several years, while a freelancer can jump out of the chute landing gigs that earn income. I tell all writers to write for paying markets like magazines and blogs. Not only does it bridge the income dilemma, but the practice also builds platform. Anyone can write for trade magazines. Anyone can enter contests, which do wonders for spring-boarding careers. But I think the most important advice I can give to any writer, whether storytelling as a hobby, working part-time or writing fulltime, is to do it daily. Without fail. Writers get better only by writing. Each word makes us improve. When we hit and miss, skipping days, even weeks, we only postpone success. We are what we pour into our work.

JM: What is the question you are asked most often when you give readings?

HC: Where did I find my characters and how much of the story and characters are real. When an audience learns that I worked for agriculture, was offered a bribe, and ultimately married the agent on the case, they immediate make the leap that the entire story in Lowcountry Bribe is more memoir than fiction. I have to explain that the real life situation, while traumatic, wasn’t nearly tragic or dangerous enough to make for a thrilling mystery. So I turned the bribe attempt as a catalyst for a who-dunnit mystery, playing “what if” to my heart’s content. My personal experience only planted the seed . . . I just watered and fertilized it and gave it sun to grow.