By Sue Schneider
Like the unfolding of a good story, events in Judy Carlson’s life led to her fulfilling post-retirement career as a novelist. She’s recently started a sequel to her first novel, Thunder in the Tropics, a mystery that follows two nurses vacationing in the Hawaiian Islands.
The Rhinelander writer and retired nurse now spends several hours each day, usually outside on her patio overlooking Moen Lake, in front of her laptop computer. “I have been doing a lot of research for this one,” she says. “It’s medical-based, so I want to make sure everything is just right.”
Originally from Elgin, Ill., Judy and her husband, Gary Norling, and their three sons moved to the Northwoods in 1980, and she worked as a nurse at Bump Clinic (later Rhinelander Medical Center). A decade later, Judy helped start a research department doing drug trials, which led to her being hired by a national research company. The new job required her to travel all over the country visiting clinics.
“One of my trips took me to Maui,” she explains, “and with all the frequent flier miles I accumulated, I’ve been able to go back seven more times. It’s a beautiful and fascinating place, and I’m happy to be able to translate my experiences into my writing.
“I fell in love with Maui in the 1990s, so that’s when my novels are set,” says Judy. “I love describing the beaches, rainforests, pools, waterfalls and volcanic craters.”
A few years after Gary passed away in 1999, Judy married Keith Carlson, an old friend who had served as best man at her first wedding. “Keith’s wife, who had been my maid of honor, had died as well. All through the years, we had all been close friends and kept in touch.”
At that same time, in 2002, Judy retired, and after a busy career and raising three sons, she finally had some time on her hands. A few more trips to Hawaii, settling into the snowbird life with Keith that included summers in the Northwoods and winters in Florida, she began to think about writing.
“I had done a lot of technical writing for my job in research doing reviews and reports,” she explains. “But I always wanted to get into creative writing. I attended some writing classes at School of the Arts (SOA) in Rhinelander and thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Judy kept going back to SOA every July for 11 years. The sessions spurred her on to write throughout the rest of the year. “A group of us who met in SOA classes started a writing club,” she explains. “We would get together and talk about writing, critique each other’s work – it was a great motivator and I learned a lot.
“The story of Ashley and Candace, two nurses on vacation in Maui, started as a short story I’d done for the club,” she recalls. “But it just wouldn’t end! I worked on it now and then, but wasn’t very serious about it.”
Keith was the one who urged her to buckle down and finish the story. At about that time, Judy had a friend in Illinois who became laid up with illness. “She didn’t have much to do, so I sent her the first few chapters I’d written,” Judy says. “She loved them and kept saying, ‘Send me the next chapter!’”
The friends who helped critique her writing were invaluable, according to Judy. “You can’t write in a bubble,” she says. “But you have to be ready to take some criticism. There might be something there that you dearly love, but if someone says it takes you out of the story, it has to go.”
Judy describes her novel as a “cozy” mystery. “There is no strong violence or horror. The main characters are two friends on vacation who get into trouble because of their inquisitive natures and the poor decisions they make. The local authorities refer to them as the ‘double trouble twins.’”
Upon completion of Thunder in the Tropics, Judy took the advice she’d heard in writing classes and sent her novel to several literary agents. “I got back a few rejections, and that’s when I decided to look into self-publishing,” she says. “I found a company in Sarasota that was great to work with. They helped me find the cover art and I composed the story synopsis and other things for the cover. I sent in the electronic file of the story and they did the formatting.”
Judy’s book is now available in hardcover, soft cover and e-book format, although she admits she has given away most of the hardcover versions to friends and family. “It’s for sale on Amazon and a local bookstore and there are copies at the library,” she says. “It took a while for the royalties to start coming in. I’ll never get rich doing this, but I’ve broken even.
“I love getting feedback on Amazon,” she continues. “It’s gratifying to see that people I don’t even know enjoyed the book, and some have asked about a sequel. I’m taking this second book very seriously and working hard on researching the medical aspects as well as thinking about character development. I want Ashley and Candace to grow.”
As Judy and Keith prepare to head back to their winter home in Spring Hill, Fla., she will be ready to unpack her laptop and get back to work on her novel. She has some other projects lined up, too, including helping with the publication of a collection of stories and poems of another writer’s group she belongs to down there.
“I’ve also been asked to be part of a roundtable discussion at two local authors’ expos through Pasco-Hernando State College,” Judy says. “I’m very excited about that!”
Sue Schneider lives in Rhinelander. Her articles have also appeared in Northwoods Commerce and Living on the Lake magazines.