Lee Mims is and always has been a North Carolina farm girl. She played outdoors from dawn to dusk, built forts, drank water from garden hoses and ran with sticks. And for 25 years, she raised and trained Quarter Horses.
She was often sick as a child, and it was while staying home with her mother that Mims learned the beauty of words. Together they read endlessly: short stories, fairy tales and adventure novels.
Because of her love of the great outdoors, she later earned a master’s and bachelor’s degree in geology from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and worked as a field geologist. And as a popular wildlife artist, Mims owns her self-named studio where she does both portrait and fine art oil paintings. She has two pieces on tour with Paint America and recently sold a painting to Ms. Andy Griffith for his museum.
Books never escaped her, and her geology background inspired Hiding Gladys, the first of the debut author’s Midnight Ink-published Cleo Cooper Mystery Series. Busy writing the next installment, Trusting Viktor, Mims is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.
She lives on a family farm in Clayton, NC, with her husband.
What’s a live rattlesnake doing sunning itself in the back seat of field geologist Cleo Cooper’s Jeep? Nothing good, you can be sure — but the dilemma of how it might have gotten there isn’t as crucial to her as making certain it doesn’t stay. Yet, alarming as such an uninvited passenger might be, more disturbing to the plucky, single-minded Cleo is the need to nail down her deal for mining rights to a rare, vastly valuable North Carolina granite deposit.
The problem is that the property owner, Gladys Walton, has suddenly and mysteriously disappeared, while neglecting to sign the final documents.
First, a murder interferes with locating her: is the woman’s body found dumped in a well that of the missing Gladys? Amid the wooded, rocky countryside, suspicious misdeeds multiply and Gladys’s conniving relations all behave extremely badly.
The increasingly provoked Cleo sees her dog shot, the progress at her job site dangerously disrupted and, finally, is made witness to another death. Whom can she trust? And what kind of distractions should she allow herself when so much is at stake? Both her charming but exasperating ex-husband and an even more seductive former lover are both on hand competing to rescue her; it’s clear to Cleo, though, that she must go it alone and risk the consequences.
The Interview: Where We Get to Pry Into Another’s Life
You were raised on a farm and have lived with your husband on another farm for several years. Do you think that experience, living so close to the land, has fed into or is reflected in your writing?
Being raised on a real working farm and, along with my brothers, having all the chores you’d expect farm kids to have, definitely gave me a different take on life in general than, say a child raised in a high-rise apartment. We were charged with feeding the hogs we’d later eat. Same with the cows and chickens. That was some tough reality for us kids and maybe it forced us to learn to that for every good thing in life…like food, there’s a bad side somewhere. Still in all, I wouldn’t take anything for my childhood spent on a farm or my life with my husband on our farm. There’s a soft side to a farm, too, that only those who live on one can experience: the closeness to the land, the Zen-like beauty of rows and rows of crops and of course the endless stream of pets that are such a part of life on a farm. All these things show up in my books because all my books take place in the areas where I grew up.
Every field geologist I know has an infinite supply of crazy stories. Can I ask you for one or two, perhaps featuring wildlife?
Once, while prospecting on a large Weyerhaeuser pine plantation, tramping along on one of the logging trails, I kept getting the feeling I was being watched. Later that day I hiked back out along the same trail and about a mile before I’d reach my car at the edge of the woods, something made me look down. There, in the soft loamy soil of the recently graded trail, right on top of my previously laid boot print, was the enormous print of a bear paw. It was so big it almost covered my print. I stopped dead still and listened, knowing the next rustling I’d hear would be a giant American Black Bear tearing through the trees to rip me to shreds. Fortunately—because I didn’t have any protection, no machete or firearm—I heard nothing. Then, I realized the prints were telling me something. They were going the same direction I’d been going that morning. Mr. (or Mrs.) Bear had been following me, hence the feeling I was being watched. From that day on, I never went into the woods without my machete.
When did your interest in creating art first manifest and when did you know that your talent had blossomed to the point to call yourself a portrait artist?
Drawing or painting has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. When I was just a little, tiny Lee, I “borrowed” one of my brothers “paint by numbers” kits. This was way before it would have been age appropriate for me. But, once I completed it, I begged for more. Remember those kits? They had little plastic thimbles of paint and horrid square brushes with black plastic bristles, but you know what? They taught some valuable lessons. Primarily, since the colors were already mixed to the correct value, if you actually followed the instructions, i.e. painted by the numbers, you’d see the point of having cool, muted tones in the background and the warmer, darker colors in the foreground. Looking back, I now know that if you were the type of personality content to stay in the lines—and after two kits, I definitely wasn’t—then you probably weren’t going to spend your life painting.
I’ve spent very little time in formal drawing or painting classes, although in later years, I’ve benefited from several painting workshops with plain air painters and wildlife artists. Still, I would describe myself as mostly self-taught.
As for the portraits, like most people who become portrait painters I started painting my family first. Because I painted portraits of many of the horses my customers kept on our farm, they’d often want themselves included. I’d always decline until one day, I just jumped in and did one along with the understanding that if she didn’t like it, she didn’t have to buy it. She loved it and the rest is history.
As a writer, what are three non-writing activities that you would recommend to other aspiring novelists that would increase their writing abilities?
Painting, of course. The two processes are very similar. Start with a sketch. Work out the problems on paper before you get to your canvas or in the synopsis before you start writing your chapters. Be sure you know what the mood and atmosphere of the painting or book is going to be before you start, saves lots of time reworking. Although here I’d note: don’t be afraid to change in the middle if after a time, it seems you’re missing your best opportunity with the book or painting. The end result? When writing, you’ll be more inclined to know where you’re going and not afraid to show some flair on the way.
Also, I recommend any outdoor activity that stirs your imagination and ties in with your stories background. For example, say you’re writing a story about a detective called in to investigate the death of a victim washed up at a recreational lake and he discovers the victim was an angler, you might want to find out a little about angling, maybe even try it if the costs involved aren’t prohibitive, regardless that it isn’t paramount to the story. Two things will happen if you do: one, you’ll get some fresh air and exercise, which will give you fresh perspective on your story when you get back to it and two, you’ll add feeling and depth to your story because you can describe through first hand experience what it was like for the detective when he visited the scene of the crime.
Travel is the best motivator I know to stir the imagination and make you want to write a story. I mean, think of it, you and your spouse take a little much needed vacation to Costa Rica, have a great time, visit all types of restaurants and engage in all types of activities you’d never do at home, snorkeling, zip lining, etc. Suddenly, you’ve got the background to write a neat murder mystery that most people would love to read. A body is found early one morning on a trail below the zip line by the first employee on the job. Oddly, the body was dressed in a tuxedo, but in his hand was a pack of matches from a local bar. Your protagonist detective will have to visit this seedy bar. Just so happens, you’ve been there. And, at some point he’ll get thrown overboard at a popular snorkeling spot—you can describe what he saw down there as he held his breath and booked it for cover behind the boat of a vacationing tourist—whatever…you get the point. Besides, can you think of a better reason to take a cool trip, like to Costa Rica?
You and your husband had a horse business for a number of years and your first novel (currently unpublished?) featured horses. Were there any real-life horse personalities that made it into your novel?
Yes, my first novel about the Quarter Horse industry was unpublished and I’d dearly love to rewrite it one day. In fact, I’m chomping at the bit to do so if you’ll pardon the pun. While I based the story on real life experiences and the real life people who were in the business at the time, I didn’t use their actual names in my book. All my books are entirely fictional and as they say, any resemblance to someone, whether living or dead, is purely coincidental. Still, don’t we all write about people we know? And, if sometimes those people have a public presence, they’re fair game, I think, just as long as their identity is protected. Writing is supposed to be fun, not something that lands you in a protracted libel suit.
What drew you to write in the mystery genre as opposed to other genres?
You write what you love. I love mysteries, thrillers, suspense novels and military/spy thrillers as longs as they aren’t noir. I don’t want to read anything that includes vicious attacks that end in killing women. I don’t want to read about the torture of animals or children, sexual depravity, or just plain pessimism and hopeless despair, so quite naturally I don’t want to write about those things either. I may hint at some of these things, but only to create lots of tension. For example, Cleo has endured her share of attacks, but in the end, she always (somehow) gets the upper hand.
I don’t write other genres like romance because, I myself was never consumed by romance. My life has always been very full and I’d fit romance in when I could. Luckily for my two children, I found some time to work my husband in. My point, since I believe in life, romance rarely consumes us, so I don’t think I’d be good at writing a book in which it is the all-out focus without it becoming tiresome. I sprinkle a little love and recreational sex throughout my books because it adds an additional story—a story within a story, if you will—that will carry through the entire series. Those parts do, however, have to have a legitimate reason to be in the story.
Lastly, you write what you know. I don’t know enough about science fiction to understand the books I’ve tried to read, but I have great respect for those who do. Paranormal? Same thing, I don’t understand it enough to make it real for the reader and that’s the whole point of writing, isn’t it? Creating a work that is so real the reader will feel just like they’re right there.
Would you like to tell us about any ongoing or future writing projects or events?
I haven’t thought much beyond the three-book Cleo Cooper series. In fact, while I’m working on revisions for Trusting Viktor, the second in the series, my mind is racing ahead to the last story and what geological mischief I can get Cleo in. Way back in the late Jurassic, when I was young, the company I worked for, Martin Marietta Aggregates, “loaned” me to the Smithsonian Institute for a year to help assemble a display called Fossils as a Natural Resource. This was back around 1980. I was charged with creating a very large limestone pylon for the display. Anyway, that display is no longer up, but the experience has often come to mind of late. Maybe it would make a good background for the last Cleo book. Or, I also have some knowledge of fracking and since that is a hot topic lately, especially here in North Carolina with the enormous reserves of dry natural gas trapped in the Comnock Formation and all that entails, maybe that’s what I’ll wrap my last story around. I just can’t say yet.
This interview is part of the virtual book tour for Lee Mims by JKS Communications. For more stops on this tour, including reviews, guest posts, and giveaways, click HERE.