"Hi. I'm the dead girl in the alley,” said Carolyn Gale.
At the moment, she was the waitress behind the bar, it being lunchtime at the Tavern. But sometime before Christmas, she will be on the back cover of the next Shallow End Gals' novel, as she requested.
“She insisted that if we're taking photos, she's going to be the dead lady in the alley,” said Vicki Graybosch, the books' lead author. “We said, ‘We don't even have a dead lady in the alley in the book.' She said, ‘You do now.'”
Here at this pub on a homey block in Niles, Mich., pretty much everyone has a part in the Shallow End Gals' books.
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Erika Canter, a local company business manager eating a burger at a booth, is the friend they hired to be their editor. And bartender Sadie Corban wasn't going to be left out.
"One day I told Vicki I wanted to be in the book," she said. "Next thing I knew, I was Spicey the Voodoo Mistress."
Sitting at the bar's L-shaped end, which gave rise to their nickname, were the self-published authors — the Shallow End Gals. They are a group of women friends who have been lunching together at the Tavern, a mainstay of this small town in southwest Michigan 100 miles from Chicago, for years.
They aren't writers by profession. Graybosch, 62, the lead writer, is a retired mortgage originator. Linda McGregor, 61, is a mortgage broker and the zoning administrator for Howard Township. Teresa Duncan, 52, works on a deployment team for UPS. Kimberly Troutman, 42, is a mortgage loan officer, a dealer at Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo and Graybosch's daughter. Mary Hale, a member of the group until her death last February, was a retired schoolteacher.
But they were talkers. "There's a constant flood of conversation, with all of them talking at the same time," Gale said.
One day a couple sitting in a nearby booth overheard them, Graybosch said. "They came up to us and said, 'You know, you guys should either write a book or get help.' We just looked at each other and said, 'Let's write a book.'"
They wrote three in 18 months — a trilogy that ranges from South Bend, Ind., to New Orleans, encompasses 1,300 pages and features a cast of more than 50 characters, many based on (and named for) people in Niles. Including themselves, albeit themselves in the hereafter.
The first book opens with four women friends — the authors by their real first names — getting killed in a car crash, except for Kim. They come back as "somewhat unready angels," Graybosch puts it. They have to go through angel training, which includes helping "mortals." And the mortals they are assigned to help — with assistance from Kim, the only mortal who can hear and see them — are two FBI agents trying to solve crimes including serial murder, drug trafficking and child pornography.
The crimes are heinous, but the narrative can be humorous. The series is "a police procedural/paranormal/comedy/drama," Canter said.
Turning themselves into characters has its perils. Kim Troutman is not always pleased with her mother's writing, and not because of its style.
"She makes me look stupid," she said.
"She does not," McGregor said.
"She got me arrested," Troutman countered.
"Oh. Well, that was kind of funny," McGregor said. (In the third book, bystanders call police because they hear Kim complaining to her angel mother, whom no one else can see, that she is tired of hearing about murder all the time.)
The Shallow End Gals have sold nearly 8,000 books, including e-books and paperbacks, through Amazon. Several movie production studies have asked for their contact information, though none has gotten in touch. The women are working on a fourth book (featuring one of the trilogy's characters).
They plot out the books and go over Graybosch's drafts over lunch at the bar, to the occasional concern of people sitting nearby.
"Customers will hear them say, 'I just threw this man out of a helicopter. How are we going to kill the next one?'" Gale said.
The Tavern has been such an integral part of the writing process that they invited bar patrons to help sketch out the fourth book.
Graybosch wrote lists of options for plot developments and character traits and assigned each a number from one to six. She brought 20 copies to the bar and handed them around. People sitting at the Tavern joined the Shallow End Gals in picking among them by throwing dice.
As it turned out, however, "the book is just not going in any of those directions," Graybosch said.
The women do research online. Graybosch consulted the websites of the FBI, the CIA and NASA so many times that she encounters screens saying she has exceeded the number of inquiries permitted and is denied further access.
"We were looking up explosives, gun delivery," McGregor said.
"And how to blow up an oil rig," Troutman said.
"I'm pretty sure I put myself on some kind of list," Graybosch said.
Mary Hale, with her background as schoolteacher, served as their first editor, pointing out the difference between "naval" and "navel" and telling Graybosch she wouldn't have passed Hale's second-grade glass.
But one day last February, Hale didn't show up for lunch at the Tavern. Her fellow Shallow End Gals, worried, called her and then a friend nearby, who rushed to Hale's home, as did the other women.
Hale had died, at the age of 62. After the coroner's office left, the Shallow End Gals returned to the shallow end of the Tavern bar, and wept.
"It was very hard to go on," McGregor said.
They did go on, but they leave Hale's seat at the bar empty. They still include her name as an author, and when they sign copies of the books, they make her mark by stamping on a drawing of an angel.
Amazon reviews of the first book in the trilogy, "Alcohol Was Not Involved," ranged from "the story isn't bad but the writing is awful" to "Great read ... can't wait to read the second one." By the third book, "Silent Crickets," most of the notices were along the lines of "so good I couldn't put it down to clean my house."
In Niles, the women have enjoyed full support. When they wanted to photograph the fourth book's cover, in which Niles will stand in for New Orleans, friends, family and the town rallied.
Voodoo figures prominently in the book, and Graybosch wanted appropriate props.
"I went on Facebook and said I need two chicken feet or one turkey foot; some buffalo hair; and some turkey teeth," she said. "I got it all by the next day."
McGregor's sister and her husband, who raise buffalo, went out into their field that night with a flashlight looking for fallen buffalo hair.
"Vicki told my sister to just go out there with scissors, but do you know how hard it is to get near a buffalo?" McGregor said.
When the women sought official permission for the shoot — "We figured if we had Tim (Wilson, a city utilities lineman the women modeled a prosecutor after) with a gun and a dead lady in the alley, someone would show up," Graybosch said — the Niles City Council not only gave it but approved sending a police car and a fire truck.
Niles Police Chief James Millin himself showed up and agreed to be photographed with his gun out, though he protested that a gun would never be drawn at a crime scene and he was wearing shorts and flip-flops, which "doesn't look police at all."
He hadn't heard of the books before the cover shoot, but "I will certainly buy the books now and read them," he said.
The Shallow End Gals appreciate their town's support and return the favor as they write.
That scene with a dead lady in the alley that they didn't have?
They do now.
Barbara Brotman is a Tribune columnist.
The Shallow End Gals Trilogy
By Vicki Graybosch, Mary Hale, Linda McGregor, Teresa Duncan and Kimberly Troutman
"Alcohol Was Not Involved" (2012)
"Extreme Heat Warning" (2012)
"Silent Crickets" (2013)