My entry into this excellent community of mystery writers comes a little less than two weeks before my debut mystery novel, Cold Hard News, is being released.
One question I get asked a lot is how long it took me to write the book. How long? Well, um. Hmm.
There are a lot of ways to answer that and the answers range from “my whole life” to “several years.”
I’d always wanted to write mysteries since I was around 9 or 10 years old. I read every kids’ mystery series I could get my hands on, graduating to adult books by the time I was 12 or so. I spent a lot of time in bed at night, or staring out the window in school or on long car trips reworking the characters and plots from my favorite TV shows: “The Mod Squad,” “The Rookies,” “The Streets of San Francisco,” “Columbo.” Looking back, it should have been obvious I’d become an editor, too (I am news editor of the Kennebec Journal in Augusta and the Morning Sentinel in Waterville) — I could spend hours or days reworking one scene in my head to get the dialogue or a character right.
The years went by and I never stopped thinking that “someday” I’d start writing that mystery novel, but somehow I never got around to it. Busy with jobs, relationships and work, I found a lot of excuses. But deep down, I realized what the real reason was — I didn’t know how to start. I’d convinced myself I needed to have the plot all figured out, the story all set in my head. I read a book by a mystery writer who I admired quite a bit who said she did full biographies of each character and deep outlines on each chapter before she began to write. I had some vague ideas about characters, themes and setting, but nothing else. I was paralyzed by the thought that I’d have to do all that before I could begin the book.
Another thing holding me back, which I only admitted to myself once I finally got going, was that what if I couldn’t do it? What if it sucked? What if the thing I’d always thought I would do turned out to be something I couldn’t?
About eight years ago, I’d recently started writing a newspaper column again at the paper I worked for in New Hampshire at the time and had gotten quite a response from readers. I hadn’t been a reporter or really written much of anything in more than a decade at the time, and told my mother I’d forgotten how empowering it felt to write and to have an impact on readers.
Her response? “Well, Mo, I’ve always thought of you as a writer.”
That comment had a profound effect on me. I felt like a huge fraud. How can someone who hasn’t written anything be a writer? It was time to fix that.
Cue the book by the famous author who outlines everything. Then my inaugural trip to the New England Crime Bake, a mystery writer’s conference that gave me the kick I needed.
But I still couldn’t figure out how to get started.
That’s where Stephen King comes in. I bet you were wondering.
In my desperation for some kind of key to unlock the secret formula, I picked up his book “On Writing.” Half autobiography, half writing kick-in-the-pants, it was just what I needed. There’s a lot of good stuff in that book, but the biggest takeaway was to stop talking about writing and just sit down and do it.
And he was right. I had an opening for the book, a plot explosion I knew was going to happen that was going to upend everything, characters I’d been developing in my head for 30 or more years, and some themes I wanted to be sure got in there, particularly loyalty and the price of friendship. I also knew it would take place in Maine (even though I was living in New Hampshire at the time) and that it would have a heavy and realistic newspaper theme. I wasn’t sure how it would all come together in a book, but after reading “On Writing” I felt a physical compulsion to start getting it down on paper.
I got over the fear and inner resistance and started writing. And Stephen King, brilliant as he is, was right. Things started happening, almost beyond my control. Characters did things, the plot started making itself known. It wasn’t easy, but knowing that it was working the way it was supposed to and the fun I was having doing it kept me going.
And now here we are, several years later, welcoming “Cold Hard News” to the world.
Another thing people have frequently said to me upon finding out my first mystery novel is about to be published: “Gee, I wish I could write a book.”
Well? OK. Start writing.