I've been cryptic about my writing on this site over the past year, partly because I've been in the dark myself, partly because I've been waiting for the full story before I share it. People expect to hear endings when you begin telling a story, or so I've heard. But before we get to the ending, let me take you back to where all began...
Long-time readers, followers, stalkers, loved ones, and friends know I met a group of talented writers at the University of Iowa's summer writing workshop. We stayed in touch and began the Screw Iowa Writer's Workshop, an annual event where we exchanged pages of our works in progress and gave full-length feedback, including line-by-line notes. To say this improved my writing skills is an understatement. Under the influence (and encouragement and tutelage) of these women I've written five published novels, and completed three other books.
At the end of August 2022 I hit a dead end with a project. I needed to interview someone, but their schedule and health issues rendered them unavailable for months. I set that book aside and picked up the notes for a murder mystery that I'd jotted down over the summer of 2021. Maybe it would be a short story?
I began to type.
Wait. I need to go back even further to tell you this story.
Adorable, isn't she?
Once upon a time there was a little girl who perched on the edge of her desk intently listening to her teacher read from Encylopedia Brown. She tracked the details of each story and tried to solve the puzzle before the teacher turned the page to reveal Encylopedia's explanation. This same girl was the proud owner of a row of books with yellow bindings. She followed Nancy, Bess, and George into dark basements, spooky caves, abandoned houses, and dusty attics. She tagged along with Donna Parker and Trixie Belden, too. In middle school she picked up a paperback copy of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie while on a plane ride to California. By high school she wore out her library card to get more books by Christie, and discovered Simon Brett, Charlotte MacLeod, Martha Grimes, and Dorothy Cannell in the stacks. She got an annual subscription to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Murder mysteries became her go-to read, keeping her up too late too many nights and, like every addict, keeping her craving more, more, more.
A few years ago I reread one. Carolyn Keene loved using adverbs.
Nancy swam swiftly. George shouted loudly. The girls sped quickly.
The mysterious figure moved suspiciously. You effortlessly catch my drift.
Of course we want to write what we love to read, but my few attempts blew up. I abandoned my dream of imitating my favorite authors and decided to stick with being an enthusiast.
What's alluring about murder in a story? Murder mysteries provide the thrill of suspense, causing questions to percolate in my mind while I read. I can't be too lazy while reading a mystery because I'm speculating, guessing, hypothesizing, doing my best to keep pace with the sleuths in the story. The last fifty pages of any murder mystery will keep me awake until I finish reading them. I need to know whodunnit, how, and why!
Just as they baffle and confuse readers, murder mysteries offer some constancy. We expect fair play. We expect answers by the final chapters. Logic features in these books, facts add up, evidence is accepted or rejected using scientific precision. I love logic, it's a language that speaks to me, so of course murder mysteries please my sensibilities.
There's terrific familiarity in a mystery series as well. I come to know the characters and their worlds intimately. I'm at home with the locals in Three Pines, with the Skelfs in Edinburgh, with Ruth Galloway in Norfolk. Despite experiencing the constant trauma of death and killing, these communities remain resilient and welcoming to strangers. I'm invited to the table for pastries at the bistro with Olivier urging me to drink more cocoa. I can cozy up to a pint of ale in an old pub with Inspector Jury.
Two of the Screw Iowa writers penned mysteries, M.K. Graff and Mariana Damon. Working with them on their manuscripts schooled me in the rules of the genre. I'd read thousands of murder mysteries, so with my background and my notes I should be set, right? What did these notes include?
Take a look:
Ironic that a writer has crummy handwriting.
A few weeks later I came up for air and realized I'd written 30,000 words. For context, a short story is between 1,000 and 10,000 words. Novels typically run 80,000 words, give or take. Clearly I'd exceeded the perimeters of a short story and had stumbled into long form.
But was it any good?
You see, any writer worth their salt asks this question. They get someone else to read their work and tell them with some objectivity whether things are working or not. Sometimes we figure this out on our own as we reread our work, but in this case I was feeling it. I can't explain it exactly, but the ideas kept flooding into my brain and the characters each spoke to me and shared their funny quirks and fears and passions. Their dialogue was snapping and I didn't think I was manipulating the plot too much. (Another pro tip for writers: characters and motives drive good stories.)
I sent the first chunk of pages to MK Graff and she told me I wasn't crazy, it was pretty good. Lauren Small echoed this feedback, which really encouraged me. Of course I goofed on some of the police procedural stuff, but MK Graff set me straight and after a major rewrite of the first twenty pages, I continued plugging along.
A question people frequently ask me: How long does it take to write a book?
Answer: It depends. But in this case, I completed the entire manuscript by December 2, 2022. Yes, you read that right. I wrote an entire book-length murder mystery inside of four months. Record speed for me.
So, what happened next?
Reader, I confess to stringing you along, writing this in parts so you keep coming back, turning the pages, tuning in to the next episode to find out what happens. The book is done. I sent it to Small and Graff for feedback. I turned my attention to wrapping Christmas presents and finishing my coursework because yes, during all this I also went back to school.
Do Small and Graff like the book? Did you have a lot of revising to do? Did you send it out to agents and publishers? Did you start another project?
Come back in a week and I'll answer your questions. Meanwhile I'll drop a little clue: a few key people read the book and asked for more. Like a LOT more. Literally hundreds of pages more.