First, a confession. Most mystery writers, when asked, “When did you know you loved mysteries?” answer with a smile and the names, “Nancy Drew” or “The Hardy Boys” or “Agatha Christie” or maybe “Elmore Leonard.” They explain that they’ve always loved mysteries.
But not me. Sure, I read a few mysteries when I was a library “page,” re-shelving books at my local library when I was in high school. I sampled books from almost every section in the library. My favorites were classic books for children, like The Wind in the Willows, which I’d missed when I was younger, and books and magazines on writing and publishing. After all — I was certain that someday I’d be a writer, and someone else would be shelving my books. I never read one Nancy Drew book.
In college and after, my favorite books were, yes, classics (often nineteenth century classics,) contemporary books for young people, and modern books now called “literary fiction.”
When, in my forties, I started to write fiction myself, I journaled and wrote “literary fiction” short stories, a few of which were published. But when I tried to write a novel, I failed. I never managed to write more than 50-100 pages. I was fine creating characters and settings. But — plot? I’d stumble, and then stop.
A friend who was also trying to change from writing nonfiction to fiction glibly suggested, “Why not write a mystery? That would force you to focus on plot.”
Desperate, and not having read a mystery for twenty-five years, I asked her to suggest one. She suggested several. And my love of research kicked in. Over the next nine months I read more than two hundred mysteries, fascinated by a genre that included so many different subgenres, from noir detectives and police procedurals to cats who solved crimes.
Intrigued, I decided to write an amateur sleuth mystery set in a field I already knew: Maggie Summer would be an antique print dealer, since (in my non-corporate hours) I’d been an antique print dealer for twenty years. I didn’t plan to become a serious mystery writer: I just wanted to prove to myself that I could write a full book: maybe three hundred pages.
Six months later, on a hot New Jersey night, I typed “THE END” and drank an entire bottle of champagne to celebrate. I’d done it. I’d proved to myself I could write a book.
During the next year that book was rejected by over forty agents. But I had other things on my mind. I’d been offered a corporate buy-out and, thrilled, I prepared to sell my home in New Jersey and do something else I’d wanted to do for most of my life: move to Maine. I stuck my manuscript in a drawer. All those books on writing had said authors had unpublished first novels. Now I had mine. I focused on my new life.
In Maine I began writing historical novels for young people, and was thrilled when Simon & Schuster accepted my first one (Stopping to Home.).
Several years later my editor casually asked if I’d ever written anything for adults, and I told her (a bit reluctantly) about that mystery in my bottom drawer. She asked me to send it to her. And a year later Scribner called to accept the mystery they’d re-named Shadows at the Fair, and asked when the next book in the series would be finished.
Now, here’s the secret. That first book (which the following year was a finalist for a “best first mystery” Agatha Award,) was very loosely based on a classic British mystery scenario: a group of people isolated in the country, a murder or two, and only hours to solve the mystery. My “country” was a weekend antique show in New York State.
So, when I was asked to write another “Shadows Antique Print Mystery” I thought about other classic plots.
Shadows on the Coast of Maine, set in my own home in Maine, became my version of a Gothic mystery set in an old house.
Shadows on the Ivy? Maggie Summer had a day job as a New Jersey community college professor, so the third in the series became my academic mystery.
By the time I wrote Shadows at the Spring Show September eleventh had changed the way we looked at the world. I added suspense to the mystery.
Shadows of a Down East Summer? With Winslow Homer and two women who’d posed for him in 1890 as major characters, it was my art world mystery.
Shadows on a Cape Cod Wedding? Of course – a wedding mystery.
Shadows on a Maine Christmas? A holiday mystery.
And Shadows on a Morning in Maine? A family problems mystery.
Did anyone ever notice my tongue-in-cheek tributes to classic mystery themes? Not that I know of.
I now write two other mystery series (The Mainely Needlepoint Series and the Maine Murder Series,) and (although I have written another Christmas mystery and a mystery about an old, deserted, house,) none of them fall into the pattern I used for the Shadows series.
But I’ve written 18 mysteries so far — and definitely proved I can finish a book with a plot, as well as characters and settings.
And now I’ve even shared the secret as to how.