Delaware News Journal article: If these old walls could talk

NJ house shotBy Ken Mammarella

The (Delaware) News Journal

The mystery started when the old man knocked on the door of the old house, once owned by his mother. “Did you ever find any money in the house?” he asked plaintively.

No hidden money has been found in that house in Chesapeake City, Md., but the encounter made new homeowner David Healey think “about the secrets that an old house keeps.”

He imagined a corpse, mummified after 90 years, between the walls. He imagined a crew creating an online series about house renovations. And melded those concepts with the colorful charm of Chesapeake City. The result is a new mystery called “The House That Went Down With the Ship.”

“I really love Chesapeake City and want others to appreciate it,” Healey said. “The book is my way to share and show off Chesapeake City to the real world. The town really stars as itself.”

The wild colors of some houses, the sound of the volunteer fire company siren, the canal that brought life and the highway that took it away all figure in the novel. So do a trailer, a Sears kit house and lots of tools, used in wholesome and nefarious ways.

Healey admits the house he shares with wife Joanne, kids Mary and Aidan and a cat and dog inspired the main setting, but he insists his fine neighbors were not the basis of any fictional characters.

His disclaimer hasn’t stopped residents from speculating who were the role models for the fictional family who lorded over the town for decades, the people who live in the past and all those gossips. “News got around this town faster than a stray cat finds a fish bone,” according to narrator Tom Martell.

Certainly none of them inspired Martell, a conflicted soul with a crumbled marriage, a one-night stand that wounded relationships with two co-workers and immediate lust for the policewoman investigating the case, which soon escalates to modern vandalism – and far worse.

Healey uses the knowledge acquired in decades of renovating his own foursquare (four rooms with a squarish floor plan) to add realism to the novel, particularly to the pain Delmarva Renovators feel when work slows or homeowners change their mind.

“The house needed everything,” he recalled about his 1993 purchase. “My wife and I learned by doing.”

Today, their children are in high school and can help with projects. The weekend before an interview, they were the crew for replacing kitchen ceiling tiles.

He started work on the novel in 2007, just before getting his master’s in fine arts from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. It took three years to write and another three to wend its way through the publishing system. The acknowledgments thank his family for putting up with the “dust and noise that any writing project generates,” and Healey said his wife is his first editor.

Joanne said she helps with minor elements like punctuation but said her greatest contribution is to “stay out of his way and finish house projects so he can focus on writing.”

NJ front porchDavid Healey has made a career in writing, including newspaper and magazine reporting, teaching journalism to college students and crafting 10 books, a mix of novels and local histories. He said books are stuffed everywhere in the house, and on some rainy days he wanders around, reading a chapter here and there. He calls it “booking” or “visiting old friends.”

His new friends include two novels in progress: He is wrapping up “Ghost Sniper,” a thriller set in Normandy during World War II, and he is working on a sequel to “The Sea Lord Chronicles,” a novel for young readers set during the Napoleonic wars. It blends Horatio Hornblower, magic and gryphons.

And he has roughed out a sequel to “The House That Went Down With the Ship” set in Lewes and involving pirate legends. If sales go well, he envisions a series, and Healey is thinking about St. Michaels, Md., for another novel featuring the Delmarva Renovators (Martell, his college roommate Mac, Iggy behind the camera, Marsha the decorator, Jenny as on-air personality and Kat as the gofer.)

Judy Slye, who works at the Old Gray Mare boutique, probably will be one of the fans for the sequel. She called the first a hit on multiple fronts: the mystery, the town history and the writing.

And here’s some final advice about old houses. Healey’s aunt stuffed thousands of dollars into her mattress. So you never know where to look. Or what you will find.

“Delaware Ken” Mammarella wrote this story for the Delaware News Journal’s Crossroads section published Oct. 10, 2013, and you can read the original here.

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