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Marcia Talley: Murder, She Wrote [Washington Woman magazine]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Washington Woman magazine
May 2003

It is a breezy, fall afternoon, and Marcia Talley is seated on the patio of her Annapolis home, sipping hot coffee and talking about murder.

Fifty-something Talley is not a serial killer, of course. Far from it. She has spent much of her adult life working as a librarian for the federal government, raising two daughters, and caring for Barry Talley, her husband of 3 5 years who is the Director of Musical Activities at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Nearly four years ago, though, her life changed when she landed a book contract with Dell Publishing, a division of Random House. The New York publisher commissioned her to write a three-book series about the capers of Hannah Ives, a smart, sassy, breast cancer-surviving sleuth.

The first installment, “Sing it to her Bones,” hit the bookstores in 1999 and won Talley awards and accolades. The second, “Unbreathed Memories,” came out in 2000, winning more awards and more accolades. Part three, “Occasion of Revenge,” was published in August 200l.

Also published then was Naked Came the Phoenix, a collaborative serial novel edited by Talley who, with 13 other mystery divas, including Faye Kellerman, Anne Perry and Mary Jane Clark, took turns writing one chapter each. “Each author picked up where the previous author left off,” Talley explains. “it was a challenge because we had to maintain the voice of the story’s main character.”

That character, Carol Blessing, is the young wife of a newly elected Congressman. She is at the Phoenix Health Spa in the Blue Ridge Mountains for a week of pampering when the spa’s flamboyant owner is murdered. Will Blessing be the next victim? “Read the book and find out,” says Talley, who seems thrilled to know the ending-and even more thrilled to be leading the life of a successful mystery maven. “I am having the time of my life.”


Talley has not always been on the literary fast track.

It was only two years ago that the Ohio native decided to indulge in writing full-time. Before that she wrote at night and on weekends, spending her days i n a windowless office at the U.S. Naval Academy Library in Annapolis, an easy 10-minute commute from home. It was a big improvement from the hour-long commute she made to her previous jobs in D.C—where she worked as head of technical services for the American Bankers Association. In 1996, she headed the library systems support team for the U.S. General Accounting Office.

Years earlier, in 1993, Talley’s life took a dramatic turn when she was diagnosed with cancer of the appendix. She had previously overcome b bout with breast cancer in 1983. This second illness made her realize it was time to make a change. A big one.

“I was under tremendous stress at work, and the commute was terrible,” she explains. “Barry and I had always talked about the fact that stress can contribute to illness, and I was walking proof. I figured I could die at any minute, so why go on living a life that wasn’t making me totally happy?”

What would make her happy, she knew, was writing. At first, she thought she’d create literary pieces, stories that were elegant, traditional, and a tad highbrow. She tried it for a while but found these stories didn’t sell easily. Friends at her writers group in Annapolis convinced her to write in a style she loved. For Talley, that was the mystery novel.


Despite her penchant for mystery novels, Talley wasn’t convinced she could write one herself. At least, not one that a publisher would buy. She wrote anyway, coming up with plots and characters, clues and twists whenever she could—while making that long commute, baking bread and folding laundry.

She fleshed out her stories in a 9-1/2 × 6-inch yellow executive notebook she always carries in her briefcase. Once the story line was complete, Talley headed to a makeshift office she assembled in the corner of her daughter’s old bedroom. There, she transcribed her notes onto an old laptop so worn that some of the letters were gone from the keycaps.

Her writer’s group friends got the first glimpse at the story, made suggestions, and she incorporated those suggestions before sending out the story to editors. It is a process she still follows today.

Back then, many of the stories met with rejection letters and were tucked away in her daughter’s antique dresser that doubles as Talley’s filing cabinet. But she didn’t give up. Instead, Talley took to writing long, fantastic letters about her life and sending them via e-mail to long-time friends—including Sara Ann Freed, executive editor for Mysterious Press, an imprint of Warner Books.

“She’d send me these wonderful, hilarious vignettes about her life,” recalls Freed, who met Talley at an American Library Association conference in 1980. “I told her she had to write a novel. She said she didn’t have time, and I said stop writing e-mails to your friends, you’ll have time. I think I bullied her into it.”

Figuring she had nothing to lose, Talley started writing her first look the next day.


Even before those words of encouragement, Talley had been kicking around an idea for a novel. Based on a real murder in 1970 in her husband’s hometown in western Kentucky, the plot centered in the death of a high school student who had gotten pregnant by a farmer. He didn’t want the baby and didn’t want anyone to find that he was having an affair with a minor, so he sent the girl to see a friend who tried to give her an abortion. He botched the procedure and the girl bled to death.

Events went from bad to worse: the farmer tied cement blocks to the girl’s legs and tossed her into a cistern on a nearby farm. She wasn’t found for years.

“The story made the front page of the local newspaper,” recalls Talley. “I’ll never forget seeing the photograph that ran in the paper of the girl’s parents walking hunched over along the dirt path away from the cistern after identifying the body. The look on their faces always haunted me, and I never could get it out of my head.”

She figured readers would be mesmerized, too. Wanting to get her hands on those old newspaper clips, Talley traveled to Kentucky and went straight to the local library to search through old records. She came up empty—until she asked the librarian for help.

“The librarian told me she thought that someday someone might want to look at those old newspaper stories, so she clipped the articles and tucked them away in a filing cabinet,” Talley explains, pulling copies from her own files. “I couldn’t believe my good luck. I will forever be indebted to that woman.”


After “Sing It to Her Bones” was released, it was nominated for an Agatha (Christie) Award for Best First Mystery. That year Talley also began publishing short stories, including one entitled, “With Love, Marjorie Ann,” which was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best Short Story 1999.

Her second book, “Unbreathed Memories,” was a “top pick” in June 2000 by Romantic
Times magazine—a publication that also graced the novel with a Reviewer’s Choice
nomination for Best Contemporary Mystery of 2000. Book number three, “Occasion of Revenge,” was the magazine’s top pick for August 2001.

In addition to an ego boost, the awards brought exposure, an element crucial to
success in the book publishing game, Talley says.

“The book business is just like any other business. It is about the bottom line. And if the publisher isn’t making money from my books, I’m not likely to get another contract.”
Currently, she’s taking her agent’s suggestion and is parting ways-for the moment-with Hannah Ives, so that she can concentrate on writing a suspense thriller.
“My agent tells me it is the type of book that is considered ‘hot’ with readers,” she says, noting that if it hits, she will earn national exposure, even greater name recognition and a shot at another contract to write more Hannah Ives sequels.

Talley is also writing the new nail biter, “At The Last Trumpet,” a story of murder and atonement set at the Annapolis Naval Academy.

“It’s a little unnerving because, even though I have the three books under my belt, ‘Trumpet’ is a change of pace-a bigger book with several point-of-view characters and complicated plot twists,” Talley says. “I’m hoping I’m up to the challenge. But a writer has to be a writer. What do I have to lose?”

“Naked Came the Phoenix” publisher, St. Martin’s Press, has commissioned Talley to compile a second serial novel, “Naked Came the Gryphon.” This one is set in Gryphon Gate, an exclusive gated community in the Maryland suburbs.

This time around, Talley has compiled a new set of mystery writers to share in the fun, including Gayle Lynds, Rita Mae Brown, Lisa Gardner, Kay Hooper, Linda Fairstein, Kathy Reichs, Julie Smith, Heather Graham, Jennifer Crusie, Tina Wainscott, Anne Perry, Katherine Neville and, of course, Talley herself.


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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.