Marsha Self’s profession often leads her to consider the question of who-done-it. As a court reporter, she sits in a courtroom, transcribing the words spoken from the innocent and guilty alike. It’s a job she’s done for 32 years and one that defines her outlook on life.
“There’s nothing like going to court and listening to trials,” said Self, who brings an enthusiastic energy to her conversations, often punctuated by an infectious laugh.
The veteran observer of the judicial system has always been a fan of mysteries, the work of James Patterson being a favorite.
Three years ago, she took her love of the genre to a new level by becoming the creative force behind a series of murder mysteries at Fern Valley Farms on Rollins Drive in Washington County, Virginia. Ticket-holders come to the venue for a farm-to-table dinner prepared by Bill Bauer, who is chef and co-owner with his wife, Lynn, of Fern Valley Farms. After the meal, the guests, who arrive dressed for the theme of the evening, settle down to hear the clues and solve the mystery.
The idea for the murder mysteries came to her during court one day.
“I love people. In my job, I don’t see a lot of people. I’m a court reporter, and I sit by myself. I just thought, how could we do something to get people together?” she said, her hands folded on the table in the empty Fern Valley dining room, where on May 28 and 29 amateur investigators once again uncovered the culprit. The theme was “Cruising for Murder,” with participants urged to dress beach casual.
It marked the first time she was able to produce the shows since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Self started the mystery shows from her living room three years ago, inviting 28 people to join in on the “hunt” for a killer based on the game of Clue. Participants came dressed as characters assigned to them from the popular board game. Other shows have had themes such as Frankenstein. In each of the shows, participants are given their parts ahead of time and given strict instructions not to reveal what role they are playing.
Since that first successful Murder Mystery, other themes originated from Self’s own imagination, with help from ideas she has gathered over her years as a court reporter. She also credited the influence of crime shows, of which she is a big fan.
“Murder interests me. I watch it on television a lot,” she said, as if admitting a guilty pleasure.
Bringing friends together for an evening’s fun is a throwback to Self’s childhood, when entertainment came from personal creative energy.
She was born during a much simpler time in the small town of Dante, Virginia. For the first six years of her life, her family lived in a coal camp because her father worked for Clinchfield Coal Co.
“Everybody was close. The families got together on payday, on every other Friday, and baked a cake, and we all shared it. That was our Friday snack.” Her family eventually moved to Castlewood, Virginia, where she spent her later childhood and early adult life.
After graduating from college, she worked eight years for the United Mine Workers of America as a paralegal. After being laid off, she moved to Washington, D.C., to work as an administrative assistant for a program helping unemployed coal miners. Self only worked in D.C. for about a year before falling so ill she had to move back to Virginia. It was during this time that she saw a car on a Bristol street with a registration tag that read “CRT RPT,” short for court reporter.
“I went home and got the Yellow Pages and contacted the lady who owned Appalachian Court Reporting. She took me under her wing and taught me all she knew. I bought my equipment and started court reporting.”
Just three years later, Self bought the company.
Transcribing court proceedings has been a good career, but not without its troubles. In court, she sees the worst of mankind’s cruelty and spitefulness to one another. It’s a job that’s bound to overwhelm.
“Being in a courtroom for 32 years and hearing what you hear, it makes you a different person. It’s something to be sitting beside a judge in a black robe sentencing someone to death. That’s my depressing days,” she said.
During a period of self-reflection, she realized the need to express her creativity.
“I’ve got to have an out,” she said.
This was the start of Self’s second company, Self-Made Creations, which includes hosting the murder mystery dinners and shows, which raise funds to help area youth and the homeless.
Self uses the mystery dinners to fill a void in her life.
“It changed my life. It made me happy,” she said. “Murder mysteries are fun to me because my job is not.”
Darius White is one of several Middle Tennessee State University journalism students who are spending 16 days in the area writing feature stories for the Herald Courier.