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Globe South Behind the Scenes

Ministering through her novels

Pastor to offer tips on getting published

The Rev. Judith Campbell, author of the Rev. Olympia Brown mystery series. The Rev. Judith Campbell, author of the Rev. Olympia Brown mystery series. (Alison Caron)
By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / August 11, 2011

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Writing mysteries solved by a college chaplain and a Catholic priest is a spiritual practice for the Rev. Judith Campbell, a Unitarian minister and the creator of the Olympia Brown Mystery Series.

Retired from her church ministry on Martha’s Vineyard, though still active as a community minister attached to First Parish Church of Kingston, Campbell began writing fiction a few years ago. She has published two mystery novels, titled “A Deadly Mission’’ and “An Unspeakable Mission,’’ featuring the Rev. Olympia Brown and her detective partner, Father Jim Sawicki.

This month she will speak at the Kingston Public Library on a subject that’s often the object of prayers by would-be writers, “Getting Published.’’ Campbell will discuss her own trials in breaking into print as a fiction writer, offer advice on changes in the publishing industry, and read pages from “An Unspeakable Mission.’’

Library director Sia Stewart said Campbell’s presentation is likely to draw strong interest from book lovers.

“When there’s something practical they get from it, it adds something,’’ Stewart said.

Campbell, who now splits her time between the Vineyard and Plymouth, has been a teacher, artist, and nonfiction writer in addition to her ministry. Now semi-retired from the ministry, she presides at weddings and funerals and helps out at churches throughout her denomination’s southeastern district.

“It’s perfect,’’ Campbell says. “I’m a very serious writer and I want to keep on writing, and I want the time.’’

She’s been writing all her life, from a long-ago article in Yankee magazine to watercolor manuals, poetry, and children’s books. But breaking into the world of adult fiction is a different story, since the key to publication has long been finding a literary agent able to persuade a publisher to buy the book.

A publication history in other fields doesn’t unlock the door, Campbell said.

“When it came to starting over with mysteries, you’re a nobody.’’

But the publishing industry is changing fast, she said. She found a relatively new small press, Mainly Murder Press, interested in mysteries set in New England by local authors. She made inquiries and then found a publisher who liked her work.

“What I want to do is encourage people,’’ said Campbell, who sees her talks and writing workshops as part of being a minister. “If you think you can write, try it. There is so much available, and the business is changing so dramatically, so fast.’’

Not only are there more specialty publishers, electronic publication is an increasingly viable route to readership. “Two years ago, I would not have advised it. Now it’s quite respectable,’’ she said.

According to national surveys, e-book sales earlier this year more than doubled over the year before and surpassed the purchase of printed books during the Christmas holiday period.

Campbell’s advice to prospective writers is based on her own experience. “Good stuff’’ will sell, she said. And, while it’s easy to put your writing on the Internet, the important point is to “put something good on the Internet,’’ she said.

Campbell’s stories start with her own spiritual values, she said. Her books challenge “religious hypocrisy and social stereotyping. They are about people who do bad things in the name of religion, who use religion to harm, to attack somebody at their most vulnerable areas.’’

Good people populate her stories as well. Olympia Brown’s partner is a gay Catholic priest whom the author describes as “a wonderful man, a decent young man. He’s really important to the story. He represents the Catholic point of view. The books paint the Catholic Church in a kind way through Jim.’’

While characters like Olympia Brown and Father Jim are composites of people Campbell has known, Olympia’s “haunted’’ old New England house is based on an antique Colonial in Plympton belonging to her older son, which by the consensus of those who have lived there has a ghost.

Whether it’s the spiritual values or spirits in the attic, readers have been drawn to Campbell’s two “Mission’’ mysteries. “People get engaged,’’ Campbell said. “People call me and say I couldn’t put it down. And of course that’s music to my ears.’’

“An Unspeakable Mission’’ was described as “a superb follow-up’’ to the first Olympia Brown mystery by reviewer Brenda Scott in the Manchester Contemporary Literary Examiner.

Those interested in following Campbell’s account of her writing career in “Getting Published’’ need to register, either in person at the Kingston library, online through “Calendar’’ at www.kingstonpubliclibrary.org, or by calling 781-585-0517, ext. 112.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.

“Getting Published’’ The Rev. Judith Campbell

Kingston Public Library, 6 Green St.

Aug. 25, 3 p.m.

Register at 781-585-0517, ext. 112