“The best thing about being an author of fiction," Deborah Sharp says, "is that you can get back at all the people who done you wrong."
She does just that in her uproarious third novel, Mama Gets Hitched. "There was a bride who shall remain nameless — but she knows who she is — who made me stuff myself into a Scarlett gown."
The Mama of the book's title does the same thing to her three daughters, drafted as bridesmaids for her fifth wedding. Mama lets neither that multiple matrimonial record nor her age (62) dissuade her from a big, white Gone With the Wind wedding in the tiny Florida town of Himmarshee (based on Okeechobee). Not even the murdered caterer slows her down.
The book is the third in Sharp's series about Mama and her family, narrated by middle daughter Mace Bauer, a park ranger and informal solver of mysteries. "Mace is the idealized me, the stronger me, the younger me," says Sharp, 56, who's a middle sister herself.
And Mama does have some basis in her own mother, who's 96. "She likes the pink wine, too. She likes to gamble a little with the Seminoles."
Sharp says her mother did have some doubts about the first book in the series, Mama Does Time. "She told me, 'I don't like that title. People will think I'm in prison.' I think she was 92 at the time. I said, 'Mama, people will know it's fiction.' "
The second book in the series, Mama Rides Shotgun, was set amid a six-day horseback ride on the Florida Cracker Trail. "I was just cleaning my office and looked at my (research) notebooks. The one for Mama Rides Shotgun was crammed full of all these drawings of outdoor scenes, research on Florida Cracker cowboys. The one for Mama Gets Hitched was this tiny folder. Everybody's experienced a horrible wedding."
Sharp began writing the series after retiring from a career as a reporter for USA Today and other publications. "I always say I had a great career for 15 years. Unfortunately, I was in it for 20."
One stop along the way was working for Gannett News Service in Tampa, where her husband, NBC reporter Kerry Sanders, worked for Ch. 13. Then she spent several years reporting in Miami, covering hurricanes, riots and other disasters. After 9/11, she felt burned out. "As a reporter, you always arrive on the worst day of someone's life."
She knew she wanted to write mysteries, which were her own favorite escapist reading. But, she says, she had to unlearn some of her journalistic habits. "Like putting your whole story in the first paragraph. You don't want to do that in a mystery."
It took a couple of years of attending mystery conferences and studying the craft, but one day she saw a newspaper ad with a photo of a woman "laughing with her mouth wide open, driving a turquoise convertible. I said, 'That's Mama.' I wanted to write about where she was going in that turquoise convertible."
The series' small-town setting is based in part on her memories of Fort Lauderdale, her hometown, in the 1960s. "My father's generation in Florida was very Southern" before the state's population exploded and diversified. "His family was from Davie, in east Broward County, which was very rural, so that's where I got the horseback riding."
She has just finished the fourth book in the series, Mama Sees Stars. "It's about a movie shooting in Himmarshee about the days of early cattle ranching in Florida. Mama gets the part she was born to play."
The wedding theme of Mama Gets Hitched has led Sharp to dress up in a "horrifying veil" and encourage her readers to wear their worst bridal costumes to book signings, and she hopes that will happen at the Times Festival of Reading: "Bad bridesmaid gowns, pastel tuxedoes — whatever's in the back of the closet.
"I've learned to ask them to raise their hands if they've dressed in the spirit of the book, just to be sure. I went up to one woman at a signing and said, 'Oh, I love your outfit! It's so tacky!'
"And she said, 'What are you talking about?' "