Author Julie Kramer displays a poster-sized copy of the cover of her newest murder mystery, “Shunning Sarah,” during a special appearance in Chatfield last Thursday evening.
Author Julie Kramer displays a poster-sized copy of the cover of her newest murder mystery, “Shunning Sarah,” during a special appearance in Chatfield last Thursday evening.
Murder mystery fans and literary enthusiasts were given the opportunity to visit with Julie Kramer, a Minnesota author, last Thursday evening in Chatfield. Kramer has written five novels featuring heroine Riley Spartz, an investigative reporter from Minneapolis. Her newest novel, "Shunning Sarah," is based in nearby Harmony and explores the inner workings of the local Amish community and the challenges that arise when investigating the murder of a young Amish woman.

Kramer visited Chatfield as part of the Minnesota Mystery Tour being sponsored by SELCO. Chatfield librarian Monica Erickson also thanked the three local organizations that helped sponsor the event, including the Chatfield Center for the Arts; Friends of the Library and the Chatfield Library Board of Trustees.

Kramer is a former investigative reporter herself, covering the crime beat for WCCO TV in Minneapolis. While she no longer covers the news as her primary occupation, she does do some freelancing for CBS and NBC when, she joked, New York reporters don't want to travel out to the rural areas of the United States.

She published her first book in 2008, "Stalking Susan," and has been writing a book a year since then. "Every journalist thinks they have a novel in them," Kramer explained. "So it came time to either put up or shut up."

She wrote "Stalking Susan" as a stand-alone novel, but her publisher liked it so well, they wanted to purchase it as a series. Therefore, Riley has continued to be the heroine in "Missing Mark," "Silencing Sam," "Killing Kate" and now "Shunning Sarah."

As one can see, with the two-word titles, Kramer has become "branded" so readers can easily associate these books with her series.

For her first novel, Kramer earned the Minnesota Book Award and was given an impressive glass trophy, which she brings to show her audiences. "It's a hefty award," she joked. "You could probably kill someone with it - fictionally, of course!"

As audience members passed the trophy around the room, she mentioned the fact that she could possibly be planning a murder at that very moment. The potential murder weapon was collecting a variety of fingerprints as it moved from person to person, which would confuse the matter when trying to find the murderer.

Kramer spent part of her presentation speaking about her newest book and explaining why she set her story in Harmony.

"I grew up not so far from there and was familiar with the Amish community," she added. Because the story opens when Riley Spartz hears about a young boy being trapped in a sinkhole, combined with the fact that a young Amish girl is found murdered, Harmony was a logical setting because it accommodated both aspects of the story.

This story also allows Kramer to combine two different aspects of her life in one book. She uses her experiences in television news to support her heroine and now utilizes her knowledge of the Amish community to present an interesting twist to a murder mystery.

One of the biggest compliments she received on her new novel came from fellow mystery writer, James Patterson, when he said, "Remember Witness - that truly thrilling movie with Harrison Ford in his heyday? 'Shunning Sarah' is an even better suspense story filled with horse-driven buggies and folks in black hats."

Kramer said she "hung around Harmony" and visited with many Amish residents as part of her research for this novel. She also read several memoirs written by former Amish to gather insights about the conflicts that may exist within this subculture.

Writing fiction did not come as easily to Kramer as one may expect after finding out she had been a journalist. "After a career on the straight and narrow, writing fiction felt a bit like cheating," she said. Kramer could conjure up evidence as needed, manipulate the crime scene to fit her desired situations and make her witnesses say exactly what she needed them to say to help her story go in the right direction. None of those things was possible when covering a story for the evening news.

"There is nothing in my books, however, that hasn't happened or that couldn't have happened in real life, I promise," Kramer added. "If you do a good job creating the world in your novel, people will believe anything."

She brings a lot of her news experience into her writing career in more ways than just giving Riley Spartz knowledge and skills. Kramer said she has interviewed hundreds of people - on their worst and best days. All of those interviews remain a part of her, she noted, and certain segments from those interviews can be accessed for a scene in her novels at any time.

"I got to do a lot of my research on the job, but I have also done a lot of things you might not normally do," Kramer added. As an example, she told of how she went to a gun range to learn how to shoot a gun. She put on her protective eye gear, the ear mufflers, loaded the gun and aimed, quickly shooting all bullets at her target. "I looked down at my hand and my thumb was bleeding from the gun recoiling and I had gunpowder residue on my hand, but I had no idea if I'd hit anything."

At that point, Kramer unrolled a large piece of paper, which revealed an outline of a body with six bullet holes neatly scattered through its center. "The moral of this story - don't mess with me," she added with a smile.

Kramer encouraged anyone who felt they had a book inside them to start writing.

"There are more options for authors now than there ever has been before," Kramer said in regard to e-publishing, self-publishing in addition to traditional publishing.

She recommended finding an agent to help sell one's book, but knowing what genre one is writing is essential in that step. "You are going to have to pitch your book that way and you are going to want to find an agent who specializes in that genre," she added.

Kramer also cautioned aspiring writers not to give an agent any money as legitimate agents only make money if the author makes money.

Focusing one's story is also very helpful when writing, Kramer added. "If you can tell your story to someone in a sentence, it helps you focus. If you can't you may need to narrow the scope of your book," she said.

Kramer admitted that she develops her stories "as she goes," writing without a set outline. "I have even written with one killer in mind, but then I have started to like that character so much that I don't want her to be the killer," she laughed.

Readers have often told her that they didn't see a certain twist coming in the novel and have been surprised by the ending, which is a great compliment to Kramer. However, she shared, she may not have seen those twists and turns coming either until she wrote it.

"I have to write it as it unfolds to me," she said.

As she wrapped up her presentation, Kramer assured her fans that the Riley Spartz novels will continue. "As long as the publisher continues to want them, I'll keep writing them. And I am sure as long as the sales are good, the series will continue," she added.

Kramer will be back in the area in April when she visits the Harmony Public Library. She encouraged her readers to visit the community where "Shunning Sarah" takes place and experience some of the references she makes in her newest novel. She then invites all to attend her presentation in Harmony to discuss why she included certain scenes and locations in her book. That event will be held on Saturday, April 6, at 10:30 a.m.