The Weekly Book Scan caught up with real estate pro and author Bente Gallagher (a.k.a. Jennie Bentley) to talk about her new novel, Fatal Fixer-Upper (Berkley Prime Crime, 2008), a do-it-yourself mystery centered around a renovation project. The book follows New Yorker Avery Baker, who inherits her aunt’s 1870s Victorian cottage in Waterfield, Maine. While she sets out to learn all about home renovation, she unravels family secrets with historical ties and clues to a missing professor in the area.
Bentley used her experience as a renovator and real estate professional in Nashville, Tenn., to write the fiction book, which is her first published novel. In November, the book was No. 11 on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list for paperback novels.
Bentley is willing to respond to any of your questions, so after you read the Q&A, be free to post a comment or question for her below.
Where did you get the idea for the novel?
BENTLEY: I had first written an unpublished book Cut Throat Business about a real estate agent when I was a new agent myself. Whenever I walked into empty houses, my vivid imagination would start going wild. I would open the door to an empty house – and I realized that anything could be in there—you never know what you were walking into. So for that book, I made it about a real estate agent who stumbles over a dead body in an empty house.
My agent started sending it around to publishers and it made it to Penguin. They liked it but they didn’t think a real estate topic would work for them. Their books are usually focused on crafts, hobbies, and activities.
Because of my bio as a real estate agent and renovator, they asked me to write a mystery series about a home renovator.
The main character in Fatal Fixer-Upper is renovating a 19th Century Victorian cottage and is often at odds with her handyman on the design. She wants to add contemporary touches and he wants to preserve the heritage of the home. Is that based on what you often see in real-life renovation projects?
BENTLEY: It actually it is. My husband and I have renovated eight or nine houses over the last few years. We love the old finishes and how homes were built back then. We’ve always tried to be very sensitive to that, and keep the original as much as we can in homes. So often the house may look old on the outside but then when you walk into it, it’s been gutted to the suds and everything is new. That’s strange. If someone wants contemporary, they can go buy one.
You always have to have conflict in a book so having these two at odds about how they want to renovate I thought would be amusing.
You even included renovation tips at the end of the book as an extra.
BENTLEY: The publisher often has tips at the end of their books on how to do various things mentioned in the book. Readers like to try out what the characters are doing.
So I made a list of five different crafts from the book and the publisher selected a few. In the book, it has tips on how to create a mosaic tabletop or countertop, and using lace to create vintage kitchen cabinets.
Do you use your publishing success as a marketing tool in your real estate business?
BENTLEY: I talk about it on our Web site [Bentley, whose real name is Bente Gallagher, works with her husband, Michael Patrick Gallagher, also a REALTOR®], and we’ll do some cross promotion. In our newsletters to our sphere of influence, we have real estate news and we’ll include book news too.
But other than that, I’m not really promoting the book and real estate together. It ties in a little and gives me a little legitimacy as a writer — being a real estate and renovator makes me sound like I know what I’m talking about so I mention it when I do interviews and when marketing the book.
How long did it take you to write?
BENTLEY: I received a three book contract for 18 months so I have six months to write each book. So this book took me about four months to write, but it takes about six months then to go through the process from rewrites to deciding the cover, back page, etc.
This first book in the series I wrote last year around this time and it came out this November. The second book in the series will be coming out in August, and I’ve already started on the third book.
What are the other two books in the series going to be about?
BENTLEY: Avery and Derek, the two main characters in the first book, will be working on renovating more properties together. They’ll be renovating a haunted house, a mid-century ranch in Waterfield, Maine. They’ll find a skeleton in the crawlspace and when they lift the floor up, they’ll find bones and another mystery will evolve around this.
In the third book, Avery and Derek then will renovate their friend Kate’s old carriage house into a romantic retreat. They won’t buy a new house to renovate in the third book because they need to sell the house from the second book first. They aren’t overly rich people and they wouldn’t be able to sell it that quickly. You have to inject some reality into it.
Each book will focus on a new house and one particular room for the crafts in each book. So in the first book, the kitchen was the main focus, and in the second it will be the bathroom, and the third book will focus on a romantic bedroom. There will be four or five tips at the end of the book again for renovating these rooms. For example, in the second book, I have projects for turning furniture into a chest of drawers for a sink base.
Did you always set out to become a novelist?
BENTLEY: It was always a dream, but I didn’t think I’d be able to do it. I didn’t take it seriously as a career choice. Writers are special people – they’re my heroes.
Three years ago I met a woman who just moved here to Nashville and her book was about to come out. She was so normal – and I thought maybe if she could do it, I could too. She took me under her wing and showed me how to get a book published, and how to get it placed with an agent and then a publisher. Until I met her, I never thought it was something I could actually do.
Melissa Dittmann Tracey is a contributing editor for REALTOR® Magazine, writing about home & design trends, technology, and sales and marketing. She manages the magazine's award-winning Styled, Staged & Sold blog.