Historian by training, globe-trotting university project manager by necessity, and fiction writer by the skin of her teeth, Mindy Quigley has had a colorful career.
She has won a number of awards for her short stories, including the 2013 Bloody Scotland prize. Her non-fiction writing includes an academic article co-authored with the researcher who created Dolly the Sheep. More recently, she was project manager of the Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic, a research clinic founded in Scotland by the author J.K. Rowling. Her work as the coordinator of a pastoral services program at the Duke University Medical Center provided the inspiration for her bestselling Reverend Lindsay Harding mystery series.
Mindy’s stopped by to talk about how she uses the Cocktail Party Test to guide her writing.
Intrigued? I thought so! Read on:
The Worst Possible Cocktail Party
My husband, Paul, dreads cocktail parties. He’s a mild-mannered, polite British man—a combination of traits that seems to make him easy prey for cocktail-party nutcases. You know the type. The high-strung lady who asks rhetorical questions only to give herself the opportunity to launch into what seem to be well-rehearsed, and incredibly inane, monologues. “Do you like cats? Well, I love them. When I was growing up, we had a cat named Feather who would pee on anything plastic…”
Another type of nutcase who often ends up cornering Paul, usually next to the alcohol table, are those with nutcasia temporaria (a short-term case of the disease). People who’ve recently been divorced or endured a breakup fall into this category. British men like Paul aren’t known for their ability to share their inner lives, nor are they equipped with the skills to deal with people who spew out their tales of failed romance in large, undigested chunks. When confronted with this type of nutcase, Paul often ends up staring uncomfortably into the middle distance, as if trying to endure a particularly thorough dental cleaning.
The worst offenders are the nutcases who take advantage of Paul’s soft-spokenness and good manners to “enlighten” him with their views on politics or religion. “America isn’t what it used to be. I mean look at the state of the economy/the environment/local schools/boy bands.
Those Democrats/Republicans/Hippies/Rednecks/guys from One Direction have flushed this country down the toilet.”
When I’m writing my Lindsay Harding cozy mystery series, I think of these nutcases.
I cast my readers in the role of Paul at that cocktail party and myself as a stranger, approaching him near the snack table. With each chapter, I ask myself, am I being a cocktail party nutcase? Here’s what I mean. Say I’ve written a bit of dialogue that’s outrageously clever, full of nimble-minded wordplay and athletic leaps of language. I’ve peppered each sentence with ten-dollar words and Oscar Wilde-esque wit. But when I examine this brilliant bit of dialogue using the cocktail party nutcase test, I may realize that, it is a clear example of the high-strung woman cornering the unsuspecting partygoer. The dialogue probably doesn’t sound very natural, and all those big words probably impose too much unnecessary work on my readers. I’m just talking to hear the sound of my own voice.
Because my books all incorporate true historical elements, I must be careful to avoid nutcasia temporaria, too. In my case, this might manifest itself in my desire to tell my readers every detail of the blow-by-blow, honest-to-gosh true background historical events. After all, I put a lot of research into understanding those events and I want my book learnin’ to show! But the truth is, just like the gory details of some stranger’s marital breakup, the research a writer puts into her books should blend subtly into the background. If I am disgorging chunks of my research like a drunken frat boy in a Wendy’s parking lot, I’m probably suffering from nutcasia temporaria.
The last one, which is probably even more prevalent at family Thanksgiving dinners than at cocktail parties, is the know-it-all jerk, trying to ram his beliefs down your throat. Since my books have a liberal, female hospital chaplain as the main character, this can be an especially delicate dance. I’ve got to be careful to include enough informative little tidbits about her beliefs to reveal her character, but avoid any kind of posturing, proselytizing, or punditry. I want my characters’ views to feel like a finely woven part of who they are, sitting respectfully in the background of their personalities, never demanding center stage. Unless my character is a know-it-all jerk at a cocktail party. Then it’s kosher.
So that’s the cocktail party test. If I can read what I’ve written and think, yeah, Paul would like this cocktail party, I know I’ve succeeded!
Mindy lives in Blacksburg, Virginia, USA, with her Civil War history professor husband, their daughter, and their miniature Schnauzer. You can follow her at
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