A few months after my debut novel, Celebration House, was published in August of 2013, I received an email from my older brother, Kevin. He and I had lost touch over the years and hadn’t seen one another since the late 1990s. Kevin said that he and his wife, Kathy, had purchased my ebook and would like to have a print version. Where could they buy one?
My response to my brother was something along the lines of, “So, you’re the one who bought my book,” and that there was not currently a print version available. For my brother and I, my small success in writing was the catalyst, I think, for us to reconnect. A few months later, as 2013 came to a close, my brother wrote to me again to tell me that he had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer and was fighting for his life. He died July 30th.
And so began my journey into grief. It’s a private trip into one of the darkest places I’ve ever known. Unlike other struggles, like my divorces or child-custody battles, there’s no villain for me to attack. No one person against whom I can wage war. My mother died 12 years ago, but losing a sibling is a different genre of grief. Please forgive me if this sounds cold, but most of us expect to lose a parent. We don’t expect to lose a 51-year-old brother.
In August, I began working on the sequel to Celebration House. If you know my novel, you know how it ends. You also know that the heroine of the second book, Beth, walks a similar path to mine. Like me, or perhaps because of me, Beth feels overshadowed by sadness, remorse and perhaps guilt. She has little patience with the bridezillas who rent out Carrie’s house – she still thinks of it as Carrie’s – and doesn’t always know what to do with the tidal waves of emotions that pummel her daily. One of my favorite scenes is when Beth relates to a friend that her sadness has sat outside in the hot summer sun and rotted, turning into anger she can barely contain.
I stopped writing Beth’s story. Who would want to read it? Instead, I began working on a cozy mystery called Death Comes to the Ogallala Fair. My reasons for doing this are, I’ll be honest, a little financial. Cozy mysteries sell. They’re fun. They’re lighthearted. They’re not, well, sad.
I wasn’t sure I could do this. I mean, the death of my brother moved the foundation of my mental health a good three feet. So how could I kill people?
It was easier than I thought! Because to quote Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie, True Lies, I only kill bad people.
Something happened as I struggled to write my 1,000 words each day and piece together characters and a setting for the mystery. I began to have fun. Real fun! I would laugh out loud at the outrageous things happening in the small town of Ogallala, Missouri. (Yes. I know there is no such place, but I just love saying it: Ogallala. Ogallala. Say it with me. Ogallala.
The town itself is based on Pleasant Hill, Missouri, where I had the privilege of being a newspaper reporter for a year before taking a job with The Sedalia Democrat. Oh, did I mention I set it in 1988? Yep. No cellphones. No internet. Somebody break out the George Michael cassette tapes.
The novel is complete fiction, but like my other books, the people who live on the pages are based on people I know, including my former bosses and co-workers at The Pleasant Hill Times. I’ve elaborated on the sheriff because, well, I wanted to. And the ultimate villain? It’s…wait. I intend to finish this book and hawk it for $2.99. I better keep that to myself.
I am reading the Amazon bestselling books in this genre, and I purchased two e-books about how to write a cozy mystery. Right now, I’m crafting the characters. I want to create a protagonist who the reader cares enough about to stay up until 2 a.m. to see what happens to her. I want to intricately plot this book. I want to whittle my storytelling with my sharpest-edged knife. And I want to laugh, or rather, keep laughing at the things these new people in my life say and do.
The few pages I’ve shared with my critique group have been well received. They like the idea of this small town where a killer is loose and the sole reporter for The Ogallala (See! Isn’t it fun to say?) Gazette stays just one step ahead of the murderer. Or perhaps, murderess?!? Oh, this is going to be fun. One of my critique partners compared it to the Mark Twain’s The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. I would never go that far, but I will say this: it helps.
Hands and arms inside the cart: Next, have I gone too commercial?