LUMBERTON — Opposite her living room window where author Patricia Terrell sits surrounded by her mystery-suspense novels, heavy rainfall pounds the saturated ground. Terrell, who writes under the name p.m. terrell, smiles and widens her twinkling eyes.
“The funny thing is,” she says, “is that truth is stranger than fiction.”
Terrell is responding to the question as to whether the plots in her Black Swamp Mysteries series, which is set in Lumberton and features a CIA psychic spy, stretch the imagination too far. As the author sits back in her chair, her calm nature slows the pace of an unlikely response.
“They say write what you know.”
What Terrell knows takes the conversation back to 1996 when she, then owner of a software writing company, experienced something that would give her inspiration for her very first book.
“I must have met someone at the Chamber of Commerce,” she said, “I can’t even remember who. A trucking supply company approached me and asked if I would hide illegal kickbacks.”
In other words, launder money. After calling the FBI to notify them of the scheme, she was told that she — an enthusiastic, attractive young woman — had probably been targeted. The FBI also told her she would have to remain undercover as an informant for the duration of the investigation. She knew too much.
After it was all over a year and half later, Terrell would still feel the gnawing pang of fear.
“I was terrified,” she said. “I thought they would kill me. I thought my head would end up in a ditch.”
Fourteen novels later, Terrell, the computer company owner and FBI informant who wanted to be a writer ever since her elementary school principal suggested it, says of her first book, “Kickback,” that she’s “always the type of person trying to make lemonade out of lemons.”
With the unveiling of the third installment to her Black Swamp Mysteries series, “Secrets of a Dangerous Woman,” Terrell continues to juice the sour fruit into a sweet concoction.
The internationally acclaimed author brings back the characters from the prequels “Exit 22” and “Vicki’s Key” in a twisted plot that takes the reader back to Robeson County. On Tuesday at 7 p.m., Terrell will speak about the real people and locations used in the book, which includes the very place where she’ll be speaking — the Carolina Civic Center and Historic Theater.
“Secrets of a Dangerous Woman” brings back Brenda Carnegie from “Exit 22” and picks up where “Vicki’s Key” left off, with Vicki returning to the house inspired by the Caldwell home on Caldwell Street near downtown Lumberton.
Terrell, who moved to Lumberton seven years ago from Washington, D.C., attributes her fascination with the Robeson County to its mystery.
“If you were just coming through, it would seem like a typical town,” she said, “but as you peel back the layers, it’s fascinating.”
Lumberton is also home to the place Terrell calls “perfect” for the book’s climax — the old, gutted building on Carthage Road that was once the city’s water plant.
“I needed something spooky, something abandoned, some place you wouldn’t want to be caught in a storm with no electricity knowing someone is after you,” she said.
The plot of “Secrets of a Dangerous Woman” takes the reader from places like the Village Station Restaurant in Lumberton all the way to Argentina as Vicki telepathically follows the trails of Brenda.
In the book, Vicki’s psychic episodes often leave her feeling as though she has jet lag.
“I interviewed psychic spies for the series,” Terrell said. “The side effects that they reported were that they were tired, disoriented, feeling like what they saw was real.”
She explains that the CIA weeds out psychics by testing them. She cites a typical practice that has psychics identifying a playing card being held up on the other side of the building. According to Terrell, the tests build from there.
Some might say that psychic spies sound “incredulous but believable,” which is how Terrell describes the writings of her favorite author, Erin Quinn. But writing is what Terrell likens it to.
“Certain people have the knack, but it takes cultivating. It’s the same with writing. Anybody can be a writer, but if you can’t study and hone that skill, you’re not much of a writer.”
Taking out a copy of “Secrets of a Dangerous Woman,” Terrell signs the title page the same way she signs all of her books — as her own secret nod to her first published book, and to the story that started it all.
“Kick back,” she writes, “and enjoy!”