Twenty-Five Years Ago Today

Barb: Recently, I participated in an ebook anthology of essays 25 Years in the Rearview Mirror, 52 Authors Look Back. As a tie-in to her mystery book Twenty-Five Years Ago Today, novelist and award-winning journalist Stacy Juba invited her author colleagues to answer the question “What were you doing 25 years ago?”

Here’s an excerpt from what I wrote:

Twenty-five years ago, I was a busy working executive with a husband, a house and two little kids. I used to say I had a perfectly balanced work and home life—too much of both. People would say to me, “You’re so busy with the kids and the job, you should do something for yourself.” That would really stump me, because as far as I was concerned, I was doing it all for myself. I loved my husband and kids and I loved my job. If I wasn’t doing it for me, who the heck was I doing it for?

At times it was overwhelming and crazy. Like the time I got up to go to an early morning meeting somewhere in Ohio and found I had packed one blue and one black shoe. But most of the time, it was pretty great.

In my first mystery novel, The Death of an Ambitious Woman, it was important to me to show a woman who was a success in her career and had a happy home life, because we go through phases as a culture where people say this is impossible—and I knew from experience that it is not. It’s true that you can’t have “it all,” whatever that is, but you can have a lot. The Death of an Ambitious Woman isn’t just about working mothers and the choices families make, but these themes provide important background and context for the puzzle and pursuit of killer.

So today, I’m asking my fellow Maine Crime Writers, What were you doing 25 years ago? How did it influence you as a writer and a person?

Gerry Boyle here, 25 years ago I was a newspaper columnist for the Morning Sentinel in Waterville, Maine. Kennebec Journal picked me up, too, sometimes the Press Herald. I was up to my elbows in real crime, real cops, real criminals. My first novel, DEADLINE, was a pile of papers and eight years away but I was immersed in the world of milltown Maine and crime and I was hooked. Prison interviews, courtroom dramas, crime scenes, hanging with detectives, hanging with guys just out of prison (even a woman or two). Drugs, violence, the people trying to make sense of it all. I even started rubbing elbows with criminals in my private life (risky business, that). It was the human condition exposed. I was in effing heaven. As they say.

How did it influence me? It was the influence, led directly to the creation of Jack McMorrow and everything that followed. How did it influence me as a writer? Hmmm, maybe because these people didn’t take any crap, I couldn’t let my writing serve any up either. I remember early on the NY Daily News in a review referred to my characters as “a collection of dirtbags.” I said, “What? Who you calling a dirtbag? How ’bout we come down there, see what you say face to face. Are you xxxxing me? Dirtbags? These  are the people I know best! They would kill for me.”

In my books, they did.

Lea Wait. What fun questions! Twenty-five years ago … I was living in New Jersey, a corporate manager heavily involved with budget reductions and downsizing at a company that no longer exists:  AT&T Technologies. At home, I was single mom to four Asian daughters I’d adopted – most recently, to Elizabeth Purnima, who I’d brought

Lea Wait & her family, 25 Years Ago

back from Calcutta months before. In my spare time I headed a support organization I’d founded for single adoptive parents, edited an adoptive parent newsletter and lobbied for ways to make adoption of older children, and adoption by single parents, easier. I dreamed of someday writing fiction and living in Maine, but the closest I got to that dream was keeping a journal, writing chapters for books on adoption, and vacationing Down East. But the families I met through the adoption counseling I did, the advocacy work I did, the speaking I did at adoption conferences, and the adventure of raising delightful (and challenging) young women gave me enough experiences and insights to write about for a lifetime. Not to speak of a few corporate characters who gave me experiences working with sociopaths …

Barb: Corporate sociopaths! Ran into a few myself, Lea.

Kaitlyn: Twenty-five years ago, I was doing pretty much what I’m doing now only for less money and only using one name. I’d just turned forty and I was about ten and a half years into my writing “career” (ie. writing with publication as my primary goal). I was no longer working at UMF, either in the library or as a part time instructor in the English department. I’d had three books published and had another in the pipeline, along with two short stories for children and a few nonfiction articles. Now, that probably sounds fairly successful, until you consider that between June 1976 and October 1987 I’d actually written fifteen full-length books, some for adults and some for children, and had significantly rewritten five of those to the point where I counted them as entirely separate entities. I could, as the old saying goes, paper the walls of my office with rejection letters.

Did I mention that I was typing these on a manual typewriter with carbon paper? If I remember correctly, I was just about to acquire my first computer, a Tandy1000. I’m pretty sure the idea that we would one day send in entire manuscripts in electronic format would have seemed absurd to anyone then in the publishing business.

My third published book had just come out (September), as one of the launch titles of a new imprint at Franklin Watts called Orchard Books. Julia’s Mending, set in 1887 in rural Sullivan County, New York, where I grew up, was my second book for middle-grade readers (ages 8-12). The first, The Mystery of Hilliard’s Castle, had been published in 1985 by Down East Books and was still in print, although it would be remaindered in 1988. The book in the pipeline was a biography for young readers of newspaper reporter Nellie Bly, Making Headlines, part of a biography series published by Dillon Press. Unfortunately my option book for Orchard Books had been turned down, but I had more ideas to try on them so I wasn’t discouraged . . . yet. My first book was also still in print. It was nonfiction, published in 1984 by a small, scholarly press, Whitston Publishing. Wives and Daughters: The Women of Sixteenth-Century England came about because I had all these notes from the five unsold historical novels I’d written back in 1976-8 when I was trying to be the next Anya Seton or Dorothy Dunnett. I don’t like to let anything go to waste. That same year, 1984, I had my first fiction publication, a short story in Highlights for Children titled “How Chester Greenwood Invented Earmuffs.” As Chester was a local boy (Farmington, Maine) he seemed a natural subject. My records show I received a whopping $80 for this sale, but the amount didn’t really matter. From that moment on, I was a professional writer. Three years later, I saw no reason I shouldn’t continue to do this writing thing full time for the rest of my life. In fact, I was about to sell three YA novels to a new publisher . . . and have that line fold before any of them were published . . . and take an unexpected turn into writing romance. Never a dull moment!

For anyone interested in those early books, I’ve made the children’s titles available as ebooks at www.AWritersWork.com, along with that unpublished option book, Shalla. Wives and Daughters morphed into my online A Who’s Who of Tudor Women. Like I said, I never like to let anything go to waste.

Kate Flora: Twenty-five years ago I was in the middle of the decade I still sometimes jokingly refer to as “the lost years.” My sons were 3 and 7. One of them never slept or ate. The other was an escape artist. I’d temporarily given up practicing law (law being much of the inspiration for my crime writing) and had bought my first computer and was trying to figure out how to write a mystery.  Actually, I was deep into my second mystery, trying to fit the complexities of plotting around nursery school, elementary school, play dates, and all the other business of running a household. I’d knocked out my first mystery in 9 months, stuck it in a drawer, and gone right on to book two. But book two refused to let me write it. It ended up taking 2 1/2 years from start to finish and involved a plot based on a mock trial about red-lining that we’d done in law school.

What did I learn? I learned to write. I also learned a whole lot about myself and the importance, for a writer, of persistence and dedication. I ended up spending ten years in the unpublished writer’s corner, collected a whole box of rejections–more than enough to paper my bathroom. I learned that no one will ever value our work as much as we do, and I decided that only I got to decide that I was a writer. Those decisions have served me well through the years.

I still have three practice novels from that period. I describe them as locked in a safe which is wrapped in chains and encased in cement which lives at the bottom of the sea. And when aspiring writers come up to me at book events and say, “I always wanted to write a novel, but I tried it once and it was hard,” I’m likely to say: Try again. And again. Until you get it right. Of course it’s hard. Would people think to say, to a surgeon, “Oh, I always wanted to be a doctor, but I tried it once, and it was hard.” I doubt it.

Sarah: Twenty-five years ago, back when such a thing was still possible, I was scrambling to keep a surprisingly successful freelance commercial non-fiction career together. I say surprising because I had no idea how I was getting away with it, and I didn’t seem the type even to myself to be a “have pen, will travel” entrepreneur. But my card said “writing for business, advertising, and the arts,” and that’s what I did:

I wrote, edited, and project-managed newsletters; “Your Child’s Wellness” was the longest-running and most ambitious, but my favorite was the “Crown Royal Rodeo Roundup” (anyone else remember Ty Murray?). I wrote catalog copy, PR proposals, and press kits. I helped write and record radio ads complete with sound effects (creating thunderstorms by standing in the shower rattling a sheet of tin, for instance), ghost-wrote a book about technology education, and turned down a billionaire who wanted me to create a 300-page best seller out of a few sheets of half-coherent notes he’d dictated 20 years earlier.

Plus more I can’t even remember — and what I learned from it all that remains helpful to me now that I write fiction was…how to treat clients. How to be flexible, friendly, sensible, and businesslike; how to be patient and persistent and work effectively with others, and most of all, how to show up with the stuff, on time and in shape, pretty much no matter what.

Those may not be the most romantic lessons about how to succeed at being a writer — any kind of a writer — but boy, have they ever come in handy.

 Barb: So 25 years ago was a formative time for the Maine Crime Writers.  Only Kaitlyn was publishing fiction, but the rest of us were all on the path.

What about you, readers? What were you doing 25 years ago?

 

About Barbara Ross

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries and the Jane Darrowfield Mysteries. Her books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Portland, Maine. Readers can visit her website at www.maineclambakemysteries.com
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5 Responses to Twenty-Five Years Ago Today

  1. John Clark says:

    I was working in a mental hospital for incredibly evil people (someday they get killed off in a short story or two) as an adult educator and was about to get the chance to take over the hospital library. I had started writing newspaper columns (I still remember the inaugural column getting bumped by the great flood) on entering and winning sweepstakes. Writing novels or stories was not even on my radar.

  2. Lea Wait says:

    This was great fun! And, Sarah — I love what you wrote! Yes: writing corporate nonfiction taught a lot of lessons. How to write to different audiences. How to write for different voices. Writers’ block? Not when you had a deadline! Feelings hurt by edits? (Are you crazy?) So – maybe not glamorous. But the real world. And it paid. An essential bonus.

  3. Hmm. Taking care of my first son, a 16-month old, and tracking his incredibly early language development, plus developing the interface for radiologists to dictate their report into speech recognition software! Didn’t yet know I was a fiction writer…

  4. Stacy Juba says:

    What a great idea for a post, Barb! This was such fun to read. Twenty-five years ago, I was a teenager, but it struck me how over the years between then and now, I had so much in common with many of you. I wrote for a newspaper like Gerry; I learned a lot about adoption and adoption conferences like Lea mentioned when I wrote for a parenting magazine; Kaitlyn’s writing journey with all its ups and downs – have totally been there; I’m presently in the middle of those hectic family years that Kate mentioned; and I’m also balancing fiction with non-fiction newsletter clients as Sarah did.

    Editing the anthology made me realize that while people all have different stories, we also have a great deal in common along our paths. It’s fun to share stories from our pasts so we can be reminded of that.

  5. Thanks for the stories, all. Gerry, thanks for the reminder of my reporting days. I loved the adrenaline rush of riding with cops, interviewing prisoners, and stepping over “caution” tape. I even did an interview in a Crips drug house. I had a good chuckle over the end of your post: “‘Dirtbags? These are the people I know best! They would kill for me.’ In my books they did.” Nice. One reason its fun to think back 25 years ago is to compare the ways I’ve grown to the ways I’ll never change. I’m married now and I no longer date professional musicians, however my editor sings in a heavy metal band.

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