That’s the last line of my email signature, and it’s absolutely true. Furthermore there are no lengths to which writers—well, I should only speak about me as a writer—will go to in order to keep from sitting down at the computer and facing a blank new document.
Would you believe submitting to two complete knee replacements? I like to say that writing my second murder mystery had to be postponed because I was recuperating from two knee replacement surgeries in 2013, which was true, but not completely true. I have to admit that what was being replaced was my knees, not my typing fingers.
I was blocked. I had a terrific idea for a plot but I just couldn’t get around to composing the opening line. Allow me to return to 2012, as I was finishing up The Oldest Cold Case in Port Cabrillo. The characters of Carina, Anne and Charlotte were already very real to me, but I didn’t really know much about Emily—that is, not until I met and got to know Kathleen Sheehan.
She was, in fact, the first female police chief in Ventura County, and a larger-than-life figure, you will never meet. Everybody fell in love with her—from her officers to residents of Port Hueneme. She wasn’t afraid to pitch in if she saw a need. I remember the first time I made her acquaintance—at the Friends of the Library High Victorian Tea. As I recall, it was taking forever to get the raffle prizes to the winners.
Like all volunteer organizations, the Friends of the Library board was rapidly aging out. Most of the members’ ages ranged from the late-sixties to mid-eighties. Well, Kathleen didn’t wait to be asked—she jumped up, and started to pass out prizes. The following year, she purchased a tea service, and volunteered as a hostess.
And it wasn’t just our little non-profit that benefitted from Kathleen’s boundless energy. All of the local service organizations found themselves with a new board member or volunteer worker. She had no desire to hide behind her police chief title—she was all about helping others.
She also built up our K-9 unit—she did adore dogs, just as Emily does, and the German Shepherds she found funding for did a superb job or patrolling the Port and assisting the sworn officers. She did also offer to train Chloe, when she saw how much the six-pound Yorkie yearned to become a K-9 officer. Unfortunately Chloe couldn’t sniff out drugs. The only thing she could discover with her Yorkie nose was liver sausage.
Over lunch, one day, Kathleen told me about a cold case that became the inspiration for The Second Oldest Cold Case in Port Cabrillo. When she was working in another jurisdiction, a relative of Sharon Tate asked her to reopen a death that had been ruled suicide in that town. A young man was shot in a locked motel room in what looked like, to the former investigator of the death, to be a self-shooting. The young man was also judged by the investigator to be a worthless hippie and druggie.
Interestingly enough, the young man had been living at Spahn Movie Ranch with Charlie Manson. He had been ordered by Manson to drive the car with Charles “Tex” Watson, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel to the home of Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski. Instead of complying with Manson’s request to bring a weapon and his driver’s license, he ran away. He had told his mother that Manson had put out a hit on him. Some fifteen years later, a close relative of Sharon Tate’s requested that Kathleen reopen the case as a homicide. No physical evidence existed at that point in time. The death had been ruled a suicide. The motel, in fact, had been relocated several miles away, and had been completely refurbished. The case quickly went cold.
I wanted to use this case in my second book because of the link to the Manson Family killings but I had a really big problem. The Tate murders had occurred on August 9, 1969. The date of the murder that served as the basis of my first book was August 18, 1971. If this homicide was going to be the second oldest cold case, I would have to either fudge the date, or allow the young man to expire several years after he had been shot.
I am a big believer in serendipity. When I read an article in the New York Times I realized immediately that I could solve my problem with respect to the discrepancy in dates. The article was about a ninety-seven-year-old Brooklyn man who died on September 16, 2014 from a stabbing that occurred in either 1958 or 1959. You don’t have to be a whiz at math to determine that he didn’t buy the farm for fifty-five years after he got knifed in the back.
In fact, the New York City medical examiner determined that Antonio Ciccarello died from a bowel obstruction related to medical treatment for the stabbing. According to family lore, Ciccarello was stabbed for no apparent reason as he was walking to his job as a porter in Midtown Manhattan. He went to the hospital but never filed a police report. His death was reclassified as a homicide by the medical examiner, and the New York Police Department included Ciccarello’s death in its 2014 homicide statistics.
I decided to change the cause of death from a shooting to a stabbing for two reasons: first, although a gun was used during the Tate murders, Sharon, herself, was stabbed, and, second, I planned to have Woody ultimately succumb to tetanus, so a knife through a dirty sleeping bag seemed more appropriate than a bullet.
It wasn’t until I conferred with Dr. D. P Lyle, a former medical examiner and author, that I discovered tetanus could not be Woody’s cause of death. I had to find some other opportunistic disease that might take advantage of his tetanus-ravaged immune system. After considerable research, I chose Valley Fever as a credible cause in San Perdido County (which is actually Ventura County). Many residents of Ventura County contracted Valley Fever during the time our neighborhoods were being developed. Sheep used to roam the hillsides on which our homes were being constructed. The only deaths that resulted were older folks who were saddled with compromised immune systems.
Also I know nothing about guns. My firearm expert is Douglas Breeze, and he knows everything about firearms. I asked him about a possible .38 caliber weapon—something a female police chief would carry. He suggested a Smith & Wesson Chief Special. The gun also has an interesting history which I planned to work into the dialogue. I told him that the current police chief in town carries a .40 HK but I said that it sounded like too much gun for me. What I really meant was that it was too much gun for my character, so I didn’t blame him when he mistakenly thought I might be thinking about getting a gun. Me firing a gun is something that has yet to happen but I can assure you that it’s presently not on my bucket list.
I also was fascinated by the history of Summerland. I wanted to explore the culture that existed during the pioneer days when most of the population was made up of Spiritualists. We had also enjoyed a number of meals at the nearby Big Yellow House where we had heard fascinating stories about all the ghostly presences that haunted the place. I had already introduced a touch of the paranormal in the first book with the diary of Claire Berylwood, where the broader theme was overcoming estrangement, and I wanted to see if I could contrast spiritualism and Christianity as a broader theme in the second book.
The unfinished business from the first book still needed to be dealt with as well. First, I had devoted a chapter to the first murder by our serial killer but only the reader knew about what had happened because of limitations on the word count. I wanted to find a way to give the Hunter triplets this information as well. I also wanted to put the murderer on trial. Most murder mysteries end with the scene in which the detective lays out all the clues and explains how he or she solved the crime. The lessons Charlotte, who is our professional prosecutor, could teach were never dealt with. I wanted to show that despite all the evidence and testimony gathered, the final outcome is invariably in the hands of a jury, who can be, unfortunately, manipulated. It’s the law part, in “Law and Order,” that is MIA in most murder mysteries.
Finally, my own son, who is an Asperger’s adult, inspired the character of Anne. The psychologist, who prophesied that my son would never graduate from college, get a job, buy a house, and have a successful interpersonal relationship, was wrong about everything except the interpersonal relationship. I wanted to see if Anne could succeed in the romance department—maybe because I still dream about future grandchildren.
I use the words, “I wanted to see,” because I don’t always know what is going to happen with my characters. To be absolutely truthful, I’m just taking dictation most of the time. I give them a subject to talk about, and I can’t shut them up. I just try to get all the words down on paper. Also, I have no idea how my mystery is going to end. Honestly, there is no outline to my book—just brief biographical sketches.
I wish I could be like J.K. Rowling, and create incredibly detailed outlines. My feeling is that if I already know what’s going to happen, I’m going to telegraph it, somehow, to the reader. What I do is just keep introducing obstacles. I tend to be a very linear person, so I need to challenge myself with questions like, “How could things go terribly wrong, now?” I subsequently paint myself in a corner, and then brainstorm possible solutions. It’s how I work best, so that’s what I do. I know I’m on the right track when I tell my husband about the characters as if they were real people in my life.
The first book was pretty straight ahead—very much in the style of Agatha Christie. I concoct the usual red herrings and have my three detectives discard possibilities until they get down to the killer by the process of elimination. My major goal in the first books was tell a story that was character-driven. The villain is easy—mine are always toxic narcissists because that’s the kind of person who has always given me the most grief in life.
I once had lunch with Sue Grafton because her son was one of my students at CLU. She was going through a horrendous divorce and she said she could think of at least twenty-six ways she would like to murder her ex-husband. Hence her Kinsey Millhone alphabet series was born.
Somebody once told me that I have so many narcissists in my life because I have never learned how to deal with them—other than try to stay far, far away. I was disappointed and saddened to learn the people affected with narcissistic personality disorder will never be cured. No amount of therapy seems to help since the No. 1 symptom is denial.
In the meanwhile, narcissists attempt to destroy the people who try to live with them. I now think of them as “crazy-makers” with whom any semblance of reason does not work. Their reality is so different from ours simply because everything is always about them. I think of them as living on their own planet with very few people willing to apply for visas—since the cost of the visa is total co-dependence. They are also plagued with serious anger management issues because they feel compelled to protect and preserve their version of reality, no matter what the cost. When they are crossed, they are certainly capable of murder.
Like marathon viewers of such television series on Netflix as “Mad Men” or “House of Cards,” I’ve read everything ever written by Elizabeth Peters and Dorothy L. Sayers. I’m drawn to both of them because they are passionate about research, work and play well in academia, but they can’t help teaching.
I take solace in the fact that both were criticized for boring their readers with details that may seem fascinating to academics, but are not essential to the action. For example, Edmund Wilson wrote a savage attack on Sayers in a New Yorker article entitled “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”
In his review of The Nine Tailors, a detective novel by Sayers that won a “Best of the Thirties” British Crime Writers award, and was adapted as a four-part BBC series, Wilson wrote, “I set out to read [it] in the hope of tasting some novel excitement, and I declare that it seems to me one of the dullest books I have ever encountered in any field. The first part is all about bell ringing as it is practiced in English churches and contains a lot of information of the kind that you might expect to find in an encyclopedia article on campanology. I skipped a good deal of this, and found myself skipping, also, a large section of the conversations between conventional English village characters . . . ”
Wilson continues, “I had often heard people say that Dorothy Sayers wrote well . . . but, really, she does not write very well: it is simply that she is more consciously literary than most of the other detective-story writers and that she thus attracts attention in a field which is mostly on a sub-literary level.”
Wilson also hated Lord Wimsey, the fictional character so beloved by readers that he was the subject of nine books, has his own Wikipedia page, and fan clubs and societies dedicated to Peter Wimsey have proliferated all over the world. “There was also a dreadful stock English nobleman of the casual and debonair kind,” Wilson wrote in the same article, “with the embarrassing name of Lord Peter Wimsey, and, although he was the focal character in the novel . . . I had to skip a good deal of him, too.”
I relish learning new things—especially in mystery novels—and while too much trivia might bog down the story, most of it is necessary to give depth and richness to the plot and dialogue as well as evidence the clever ability of the detective to read clues invisible to everybody else.
Elizabeth Peters is the pseudonym that real-life Egyptologist Barbara Mertz used when she penned the Amelia Peabody, Vicky Bliss and Jacqueline Kirby series. Since I’ve always been fascinated by ancient Egypt, I devoured all nineteen volumes of the Peabody series before tackling the chronicles of Medieval Art specialist Vicky Bliss and librarian Jacqueline Kirby.
As with Sayer’s Oxfordian Harriet Vane, Amelia Peabody Emerson shares, unashamedly, many personal characteristics with Barbara Mertz. Both Amelia and Harriet are unconventional females. They have acquired advanced degrees, possess Sherlock Holmesian minds, and seem to be ardent feminists who would prefer being admired for their minds but don’t object to being sexually desired as well. Both the Peabody series and the Harriet Vane books qualify as historical fiction these days. Sayers’s novels, written during the thirties, were set after WWI, while the Peabody books satirize the Victorian era.
Cold cases inherently take the reader back two or three decades. In order to give verisimilitude to the narrative, I employed so-called hippie slang, dressed the characters in period clothing (no Beatles tee shirts because they didn’t exist until the next decade) and worked in such historical cues as Woodstock, the return of Vietnam vets, and the mainstreaming of psychiatric hospital patients.
Thomas House, the Victorian mansion brought back to life by Carina and Anne, may have been a figment of my imagination, but it enabled me to indulge my interest in the history of Eastlake furniture as well as to explore the early history of Port Hueneme, which included the impact of two generations of the Bard family.
I deliberately disguised the Bard family name because I didn’t want to risk a lawsuit, so I used the name of their mansion, Berylwood, instead. Thomas Scott, who is camouflaged as Scott Thomas, was the railroad executive who employed Thomas Bard to develop his oil interests in California. He never built a mansion for his son in Port Hueneme. In fact, there are no Victorian houses in this sleepy little beach town.
Thomas Bard (Berylwood), however, would become the Father of town (Port Hueneme) as well as Hueneme Wharf. His son Richard, who built the Port of Hueneme, actually decided to name his port after the town, rather than Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who explored this portion of Pacific coast in October of 1542. While an automated lighthouse still functions in Port Hueneme; there is no statue of the explorer.
Including a couple of historical figures in my first novel just whetted my appetite for more. I learned a great deal about grounding the narrative in time by including actual historical figures from the Amelia Peabody books. Barbara Mertz was quite skilled at organically inserting such real-life personages as Sir Evelyn Baring, Howard Carter, William Flinders Petrie, Gaston Maspero and Wallis Budge, without sacrificing any credibility in the narrative.
In the second novel, I had to mask the real life names of members of the Tate family, Roman Polanski (Cynthia Haas suggested the lyrical French name, Armand Duval), the Manson killers as well as H. L. Williams (the founder of Summerland) for obvious reasons. I believe I was able to successfully embed such actual historical figures as Abraham Lincoln, Nettie Colburn Maynard, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Susan B. Anthony as well.
While I was able to write the first book by basically weaving two stories together—separated in time by forty years—I knew the second book would be much more complicated. I was going to be dealing with five different arcs—Woody’s, Traveler’s, Francine’s, Penny and Phoebe’s and the Hunter Triplet’s. I wrote each arc separately, and then braided them together. Again I used dates at the beginning of each chapter to establish a timeline.
I also thought it would be fun to use Beatles’ song titles (when possible) to head each chapter since Manson was so heavily influenced by their so-called “secret” lyrics. I avoided, however, “Helter Skelter” as too obvious. Also I wanted to avoid being sued. That’s also why I sidestepped most copyrighted names of products. The owner of Get-A-Clue Publications is allergic to lawsuits.
I am terribly grateful to my beta readers—they are a diverse trio, and they provided me with lots of useful feedback. It’s always tempting to fall in love with your own creation, and critics, while they aren’t always right, do tell you what you need to know. At some point writers have to decide if one is writing for oneself, one’s audience, or some sort of combination one can live with.
Writing totally for yourself will only get you so many readers (people like you). Writing totally for your audience may get you lots of readers (ask Dan Brown) but your creation no longer looks like you. Can you still love such a commercial creation? That’s the question. You can always love the money your creation brings you if that’s why you are writing. I write because I can’t not write. Furthermore, I still believe that Deception Point is a much better novel than The Da Vinci Code, but then, that’s my humble opinion, Dan.
So now it’s time to get to the point of this essay—to talk about the writer’s block that took me more than eighteen months to overcome. I didn’t start churning out the totally disciplined, three to four pages a day, until I was struck with the most debilitating pain I’ve ever experienced.
I’ve had sciatica before, but this didn’t go away—no matter how much I exercised, how many massages I got, how many pain pills I took. It just got worse. Every day, for almost six months, I was in agony. The only time I could distract myself from the hurt was to write. I wrote and wrote and wrote. In the meanwhile, my doctors kept trying to figure out what was wrong.
Finally, I was told to get an MRI. That was certainly a picture that was worth one thousand words. Here was incontrovertible evidence that an extruded disc was the sole cause of the problem. The disc material had not only pushed out but it was pressing against the sciatic nerve. Fortunately there is a treatment that works eight-five percent of the time. It’s called a micro-discectomy. Just one day in the hospital and all the pain is gone. I’m not ashamed to tell you that tears of joy rolled down my cheeks that day as I guided my sexy red walker down the hospital hallway.
The best part was that the book was finished, and in the hands of the beta readers the next week. I was now free to do spell and grammar checks; reconcile punctuation, abbreviations, and all that other copyediting stuff with the Chicago Manual of Style. I was also free to design the book’s front and back covers.
I decided to enter the Amazon Scout program, not just because of the fifteen hundred dollar advance but also because they do a supersaturated advertising campaign. They’ve done right by me with the first book. A little check arrives in my checking account every month, and I don’t have to do anything but keep working on the next book in the series.
By the way, I’ve had three well-respected, non-fiction books published and purchased by hundreds of libraries as a reference. I made more money, however, on my first murder mystery, than on all three academic books together. What does that tell you about the publishing business?
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