In 2003, Vicki Doudera was sitting through the first hour of the first day of her real estate licensing class when it dawned on her: She could craft a career in mystery writing from the material she might encounter in the real estate business.
"It hit me — I had found my world in which to set my fiction," she recalled. "You’ve got great settings, luxury homes, and you’re getting a peek into people’s worlds.
"You have a lot of human drama, you see passions, and you have a lot of things that can go wrong," Doudera explained. "There’s a lot more to this than meets the eye."
She went on to get her license and works as an agent for Camden Real Estate Co. in Camden, Maine. She relegated the idea of real estate agent as gumshoe to the back of her mind until one day three years ago, when she sat down and started writing.
"A House to Die For" was published last year by Midnight Ink, and a second title, "Killer Listing," came out in April.
She’s on a roll. "Deadly Offer" is planned for April 2012.
In each book, protagonist Darby Farr, an agent in Southern California who grew up in Maine, unravels mysterious murders that are related to the sales of sumptuous homes.
Her agent and publisher both liked the idea of a series of books based on a female crime solver, and they were particularly partial to the real estate angle, she said.
"I could picture Darby having adventures in real estate, on and on and on," Doudera said. "And my editor at Midnight Ink likes the idea that I have expertise in the field that I’m writing about. I think I bring a reality to it, and a level of detail that I have because I’m in the profession."
Cover image courtesy of Midnight Ink.
Even with the story lines that touch on such shop talk as commission disputes and obscure, deal-killing deed restrictions, Doudera said she takes care not to let them dominate the narrative.
"I walk a fine line," she said. "With a medical thriller, you don’t want too much jargon, because it’s going to turn the reader off. I keep it accurate and I am keeping Darby ethical. But somebody who isn’t in real estate would still enjoy the characters."
Doudera said that during her day job, the houses she tours, the agents she does deals with, and sometimes her clients inspire characters and events in her books.
"The house I modeled Fairview after in "A House To Die For" was a mix of gorgeous summer homes I’ve seen in Maine," she said. "For the second book in Florida, a client let me rent her unbelievable home there on Siesta Key, and I created ‘Serenidad Key’ as a setting after staying there."
In that second book, a Florida agent is murdered while hosting an open house, a crime that police initially link to a serial criminal who has been dubbed the "Kondo Killer."
"Why she insisted on doing open houses alone is beyond me," a fellow agent comments. "I’d offered to help her, numerous times, but she always said she’d be fine.
"You know that real estate can be dangerous, especially for women," he said. "Maybe it’s different in other markets, but down here it’s a gamble."
Mostly, though, it’s the small things she notices in the real estate business that find their way into her stories, Doudera said.
"In ‘Killer Listing,’ a real estate agent is driving one of those ‘foreclosure buses,’ " she said.
"The other day I looked at a house with a client," she said. "The person who is renting it seems to be hoarding cats. She wouldn’t let us into one room," and Doudera said she made a mental note of the situation for further literary use.
Much of her writing gets done during slow times in the very cyclical local real estate market along Maine’s central coast, which has a concentration of second homes.
"Throughout the summer, I’ll get up and do some writing a couple of hours a day, and then it will be lots of real estate through the summer and fall," she said. "In the winter, I can crank on the writing more. It works well with my publication deadlines. My publisher wants manuscripts by March 1."
Doudera said she went into real estate after more than a decade spent running a Maine bed-and-breakfast and then five years as a full-time freelance writer of general nonfiction. Her articles have appeared in such magazines as the Old Farmer’s Almanac, Parenting, Reader’s Digest, and Down East, a lifestyle magazine focused on Maine, she said.
She also wrote two real estate-related books: "Moving to Maine: The Essential Guide to Get You There and What You Need to Know to Stay" and "Where to Retire in Maine."
"I was always kind of trying to do a novel, but it would get so far and then peter out," she said.
As much as the writing filled her days, it was an isolated existence, Doudera said.
"An editor would call and ask questions, and I would be chatting and chatting and chatting, and (the editor) would say, ‘Vicki, I really have to get back to work,’ " she recalled. "And I started to think, ‘This isn’t good. I’m starved for people. I need to get out into the world again.’ "
She decided real estate would give her the face time she craved.
"I like the fact that I’m meeting new people, and I love houses and writing about them in the books," she said. "I think it feeds my creativity."
Although she said she’d love to see her books reach a level of success that would demand writing full time, she’d really rather keep realty and writing in balance.
"I like selling real estate — I love it," she said. "It’s a real gift to get into real estate and to have it unlock the door of fiction for me. I’m doing something I always wanted to do."
Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.
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