Alumna’s mystery novel nominated for Edgar Award, named to NYPL’s Best 100 list
Author and HFC alumna Tracy Gardner was thrilled to be nominated for the prestigious Edgar Award for her mystery novel, Ruby Red Herring. The novel was also named to the New York Public Library’s Best 100 of 2021 list.
“Earning the Best 100 spot with the NYPL stunned me. Finding out I was nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Edgar Award was shocking and surreal,” said Gardner, who lives in Howell with Joe, her husband of 30 years. Together, they have three children.
Ruby Red Herring is the first novel in the Avery Ayers series. In this story, Avery takes over the family business, Antiquities & Artifacts Appraised, following the death of her parents. Soon thereafter, Avery learns the theft of a priceless ruby may be connected to her parents’ tragic fate.
“I wrote the best story I could and worked hard to imbue Avery with what I thought were natural character traits as a result of losing her parents the way she did. It was important to me that she still be struggling with the aftermath,” explained Gardner. “Avery’s anger issues felt like a perfect fit for her bold, marathon-minded runner girl character. She’s strong and independent and a bit of a control freak, and she’s smart enough to know she needs the help she gains from therapy. I wanted to do my little part to try to remove some of the stigma surrounding mental health issues. While Avery deals with her own issues, someone very important to her realizes they’ve developed an anxiety disorder that eventually must be addressed.”
Gardner hopes readers might see some part of themselves in Avery.
“I have no idea how much the mental health aspect factored into the recognition by the (NYPL) or the Mystery Writers of America committee, if at all, but I’m proud of the character,” she said. “I could write another 10 books about her adventures. Getting the Edgar nomination has been the high point of my writing life. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t win. I would have loved just to tell my late father that I was nominated, but I think he knows.”
Excited to attend HFC
The eldest of two daughters, Gardner was born in Dearborn Heights and raised in Westland and Livonia. Both her parents were teachers. She graduated from Churchill High School in Livonia. Eventually, she enrolled at HFC (then Henry Ford Community College), where she earned her associate degree in nursing.
“Age and motherhood have made me more forthcoming about my mistakes and failings. My kids are aware of the crooked path to my degree and also to being published,” she said. “I wouldn’t change a thing, as all of it shaped my perspective now. That transition between high school and college – or not – can be brutal, and nothing can prepare a person to move forward until they are ready.”
Gardner spoke about what attracted her to the College.
“HFC was known to have the best and most challenging nursing program in Southeast Michigan. My aunt (Scarlett Theisen) graduated from HFC with her nursing degree in 1979 and had a successful career as an ER nurse. I had my mind set on earning my degree from the school that I thought would best prepare me and would look good on a résumé,” she recalled. “When I applied to the HFC nursing program in February of 1991, I was waitlisted to begin the program in the fall of 1992 because it was full. But in August of 1991, I received notification that there was a spot for the upcoming semester, which was to begin in three weeks. I did some frantic scrambling with my job and cancelled my classes at another school and excitedly began at HFC!”
Gardner felt her niche was working directly with patients. For nearly 30 years, she has been a nurse. She has worked for Aetna in Southfield as a nurse case manager for the past 18 months.
“I left bedside nursing due to my own health conditions at the start of the pandemic,” she said. “My personal care physician advised me against being inside patients’ houses any longer. I worked as a home care nurse – which encompasses infusions, wound care, post-op care, etc. – for 25 years in Detroit, Pontiac, Flint, and then Livingston County before leaving due to the pandemic and beginning at Aetna in December 2020.”
“It’s an amazing feeling knowing I’ve contributed to saving a life”
When she was a child, Gardner wanted to be a veterinarian.
“I realized how heart-wrenching that career could be to an animal-lover like me. When I entered college, I really wanted to pursue journalism or archaeology. But neither seemed practical, and my parents raised a practical daughter,” she recalled. “I’d always been fascinated by science, and having a nursing degree would mean I’d always have a job. Here's the silver lining: I love the job! I can’t imagine not having the privilege of being let into my patient’s private health concerns and having a role in offering support, education, knowledge, solace, and a path toward wellness when possible. It’s also an amazing feeling knowing I’ve contributed to saving a life.”
She vividly remembers her time at HFC.
“The nursing program when I attended was known to be excellent and very tough. I still remember my first professor that first semester informing us that the next two years were going to require sacrifices if we hoped to succeed. I took her day-one lecture with a grain of salt, not wanting to believe her. It turned out she wasn’t wrong. It was daunting, but I found a way to make it work,” explained Gardner. “I say HFC prepared me well because even though my first job out of HFC was at DMC Sinai-Grace Hospital – one of Detroit’s busiest hospitals with very acute cases – it was easy to draw on what I had learned in the classroom and clinicals to provide great nursing care. I had excellent instructors who covered the complicated content well.”
She continued: “I’d have to say my favorite part of being a nurse really hasn’t changed, despite my role transitions from hospital med-surg nurse to home care nurse to tele-health nurse and now to my virtual nurse case manager position. Connecting with patients, providing them an understanding of what is going on with their bodies, and giving them the tools and the resources they need for their best chance at wellness, or simply comfort, is what makes it worth doing.”
Gardner recommends the College highly to anyone pursuing higher education, regardless of their age.
“I would recommend anyone seeking an education go to HFC,” she said. “I found the campus easy to navigate, ample and varied course offerings, and responsive, interactive professors.”
Inspired by famous author Stephen King and others
Ever since she could hold a pen, Gardner has written short stories, poems, and “angsty” song lyrics. Her favorite subjects at Churchill were English and creative writing. She was a voracious reader growing up, reading the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mystery series, as well as John Steinbeck’s East of Eden and Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon. Influences on her work include best-selling novelists Stephen King, Jodi Picoult, Joshilyn Jackson, Danielle Steel, and V.C. Andrews.
“Stephen King’s storytelling sets the bar for me, which I know is crazy to admit,” she said. “I don’t expect to ever be the writer he is. But the way he writes – the juxtaposition of stark, gritty, real-life problems and descriptions and dialogue against often deep and moving themes and big picture messages; the conversational tone; the way you can curl up with one of his books and completely forget you’re reading a story – that’s what keeps me reading and inspires me to write. I’ve read his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft twice cover-to-cover and still reference it for reminders. It’s a compelling crash course from the master.”
Gardner continued: “I grew up an avid reader, devouring the maximum number of books the library allowed every week in the first few days after checking them out and then reading anything else around the house I could find. This wasn’t difficult, as my dad was a reader and an English teacher. I’ve always loved losing myself in books. I guess at some point, all of that reading sparked the urge to try my hand at story creation.”
The long, winding, often discouraging road to publication
In 2002, Gardner began writing her first novel. She stopped writing it in 2006 due to family illness and job demands. In 2010, a friend talked her into joining a book club. Gardner mentioned she had started a novel. Her friend wanted to read it and encouraged her to keep writing. Gardner eventually finished it and showed it to her friend, who enjoyed it.
For the next four years, Gardner sent query letters to more than 100 agents and publishers, to no avail. She was either rejected or didn’t hear back. Undaunted, she self-published her first book, The Fall of Our Secrets in 2014. Later that year, Gardner met her agent, Frances Black, of Literary Counsel in New York.
“Fran sent me a nice rejection letter, and I replied to thank her for the insightful comments she’d offered. She emailed back, so I reached out again months later with a different manuscript and query, which she also rejected,” recalled Gardner. “But she kept the lines of communication open, which was amazing for an agent to do for an unpublished writer. Eventually, she offered representation because she liked my writing. She helped me fine-tune one manuscript and then another, and sent them out on submission but got no traction.”
In 2018, Gardner told Black she was done. She was sick and tired of the merry-go-round of writing, querying, writing, submitting, revising, resubmitting, writing, submitting, waiting, hoping.
“It all piled up and killed my love of writing,” said Gardner. “Fran says she remembers sitting outside her apartment on the phone with me when I told her. I thanked her for all her amazing-ness because Fran is just that – an amazing agent – and then added that I wanted her to take me off her website. She refused.”
Incredible tenacity with the ups and downs of trying to get published
Several months passed with Gardner working her job as a nurse. Black called to inform her that Hallmark had just started a publishing arm. Black asked Gardner to write a proposal for a new series. Feeling she had nothing to lose, Gardner did.
“I knew it wouldn’t go anywhere, and it wasn’t like actually writing a story – just five pages. I wrote the proposal and waited. Hallmark liked bits and pieces of it, but not most of it, so I tried again and waited,” said Gardner. “A month or so later, Fran informed me that Hallmark liked my proposal. Stacey Donovan, Hallmark’s editorial director, called me. Scary prospect, but I was sure it wouldn't lead to anything. I was stunned to find how easily we chatted about my potential fictional town and characters and story. I agreed to rework the proposal again.”
Several more months passed.
Donovan informed Gardner that Hallmark liked her proposal about the Shepherd Sisters... and wanted her to actually write the series.
“My original idea for Hallmark was always a story set on Lake Michigan with three sisters,” she said. “My sister and I are close, my girlfriends and I are like sisters, and I imagined how enjoyable it would be to write about three sisters from a tight-knit family in a small community. Something in my wiring seems to turn every book I write into some kind of mystery, even when I’m not trying. So it was a natural fit when Fran suggested writing a cozy mystery pitch for Hallmark.”
Hope and coffee - working through impostor syndrome
At first, Gardner couldn’t believe Hallmark wanted her work.
“I learned that imposter syndrome isn’t just a funny-sounding thing writers joke about. Because, why me? Why would Hallmark want to publish my story after I’d tried and failed at the writing thing for so many years? I second-guessed every scene, every bit of dialogue, every single word,” she said. “When I turned in the manuscript, I held my breath. I was positive – I mean, positive – an email would come any day telling me that it wasn’t good, they’d made a mistake, I wasn't capable, and it wouldn’t be published. And I’d go back to my non-writing life and try to figure out how to be mentally and emotionally healthy without needing to write.”
Fortunately, things turned out differently.
“I wrote each Hallmark book (Out of the Picture, Behind the Frame, and Still Life and Death) with a one-book contract. The same is true of my books with Crooked Lane,” said Gardner. “So far, my sales track record hasn’t made me bankable enough to secure more than a one-book contract, but I’m hopeful. I’m fueled by hope. And coffee. Plenty of coffee.”
“Dark stories are my happy place”
Avery Ayers, the protagonist from Ruby Red Herring, will appear in the next book in the series called Peril at Pennington Manor. It will be released Tuesday, June 7. Gardner spoke about creating Avery.
“Avery is a mash-up of ideas from my agent’s head and my own,” she said. “Three of the characters from Avery’s world are named after Fran’s friends, and very loosely – extremely loosely – based on them. Fran asked me if I’d consider writing a story idea she’d had in her head for years about a set of twin priceless rubies and the eclectic gang of characters that endeavors to find the one that is missing. I took many liberties with the characters and the story, and Fran didn’t stop me.”
Her next book takes a darker turn: Rather than being a cozy mystery, it’s a psychological thriller.
“Dark stories are sort of my happy place,” said Gardner. “My mind tends to go there even when I’m making an effort to keep things light. I like the substance and oomph that a good psychological thriller can give you. I am always interested in human behavior.”
Tentatively titled Thirteenth Precinct, the novel features the debut of medical examiner Dr. Ella Sharpe. This is when Gardner's nursing background comes in handy -- and also when she has to tone it down.
“Most of the time when there is any kind of medical scene going on, I have to keep myself in check to avoid too much detail,” she explained. “Just because I know something about vital signs and cardiac function and how a person might bleed out if their carotid artery was cut does not mean everything I know should make it onto the page. But the overall knowledge that comes with being a nurse is super helpful in writing murder mysteries.”
Writing approach: “Plotter vs. Pantser”
At this time, Gardner has no plans to quit nursing and become a full-time novelist.
“Only in my wildest dreams,” she said with a laugh.
A self-professed night owl, most of Gardner’s writing happens after 10:00 p.m. She usually writes at the dining room table or her daughter’s empty bedroom.
“I write best with one of my music playlists in my earbuds. All of my notes are on my laptop, with the exception of one notebook I keep with diagrams I draw at the beginning of every story, which helps me figure out suspects and their viability.”
When asked if she’s a plotter or a pantser (an industry term that means “flying by the seat of your pants” rather than plotting a book), Gardner is a bit of both.
“Now I’m about 80% plotter and 20% pantser. I have a chapter breakdown that has plot points for each chapter, like a roadmap of what I need to write, each little clue I need to drop, for every stage of the book,” she said. “But a whole lot happens in the writing process that is unplanned. Sometimes it doesn’t work and has to be thrown out. But, sometimes, following those impromptu little side roads leads to amazing places.”
You can purchase Ruby Red Herring from Bookshop.org, which supports independent bookstores, or wherever books are sold.
Peril at Pennington Manor is available for pre-order.