How I Became a Mystery Writer

sayers-whosebodyOnce upon a time, a young Russian literature graduate wanted something a little lighter than War and Peace to read. (Seriously, that volume weighs a ton.) So a friend handed her a copy of Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers, and a love affair with detective fiction was born. After devouring Sayers’ entire oeuvre, our reader moved on to Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Wentworth, and even a few writers who were neither dead nor British.
Years later, that same reader set the demands of work and family to one side and began to fulfill her lifelong dream of writing fiction. After fumbling around in a variety of genres, she said to herself one day, “Self, you love reading mysteries. So why not try writing one?”
And because that reader still loved her classics—in English as well as in Russian—she found a way to write about them while also writing a mystery. She threw in some other loves—old houses, second chances at romance, and fictional small towns with casts of eccentric characters—and the Crime with the Classics series was born.

That’s the short version. The long version involves a decision at age 11 that I wanted to be a writer, followed by the usual adolescent scribblings, then college, where academia consumed all my words except for a few poems. Then marriage, motherhood, and a couple of years trying to write short stories with two toddlers and an unsupportive husband, battling a sense of inadequacy born of academic literature study and the idea that if it’s comprehensible to the average Jane it can’t possibly be any good. A few magazine rejections and I was ready to throw in the towel.

Follow that with several years of a disintegrating marriage, a couple of years as a single mom, then some years working while being mom to a second pair of toddlers—all years during which I did not allow myself to believe I had the right to take time to pursue my own dreams.

Enter midlife crisis. With my husband devoting every spare minute to his dream of becoming a composer, it became clear to me that the only way I could avoid resentment was to take some time for myself, whether it appeared to exist or not, and write. Around the same time, two other events confirmed my decision:

  1. A college acquaintance—one I had not much liked—published a bestseller that also won critical acclaim. I thought, “If she can do it, I can do it.”
  2. I read a biography of Charlotte Brontë, who persisted against tremendous obstacles to write and publish her few novels because the creative force in her was irresistibly strong. I felt that same force in myself, and knew that bottling it up was killing me.

So, in the fall of 2003, I began to write. Like many starting out, I drew heavily on my own life experiences, which has both advantages and pitfalls. That first novel took me four months to draft and four years to polish—years during which I gained an education in the ways of the fiction publishing world. The Former Desolations garnered dozens of rejections, ranging from a scribbled “no thanks” across my own query letter to thoughtful tomes detailing why the novel didn’t quite work.

At last I decided novel #1 was as good as I could make it. After a false start on a dud idea, a brilliant idea came out of thin air—well, actually, it came out of a house, but that’s another story—and possessed me. This one took two years to write and refine, and I believed in The Vestibule of Heaven so strongly that when I sent it out to the first round of four agents, I fully expected to spark a bidding war between them.

I got four rejections.

I sent out another round of queries, then another and another, and finally snagged an agent. But after trying for a year, she couldn’t sell it. My beautiful baby didn’t win the photo contest after all. I still don’t quite understand why.

Meanwhile, I pulled out a fantasy idea I’d been sitting on for several years. After a year, a complete rewrite, and numerous revisions, it became The Dome-Singer of Falenda, which was eventually picked up by Oloris Press and is set to release in fall 2014. I loved that story, but the writing process had been so excruciating that I knew fantasy was not where I ultimately belonged.

While Dome-Singer was making its rounds, I again became possessed with an idea and started working on The Ghostwriter. This one fell into the limbo between my first agent, with whom I amicably parted ways about a year ago, and my second, who came into the picture a few months later. So its (I hope) eventual publication story has yet to be told.

Before being possessed by The Ghostwriter, I had begun to consider writing a mystery series. I knew it would be a traditional series, set in a small coastal town and centered in some way around books. I had the silhouettes of my two main characters, a literature professor and a small-town sheriff who were once-and-future lovers. I’d never gotten as far as a plot.

Once Ghostwriter was finished, I returned to this idea and began to flesh it out. It came together surprisingly quickly, but I couldn’t be sure I was doing it right. As a newbie to the mystery genre, I needed to attend a specifically mystery-oriented conference, so I applied for the sole scholarship to the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference at the eponymous bookstore in Corte Madera, a couple of hours north of home. I couldn’t afford the conference fee plus a Marin County hotel, so the scholarship was essential. I’d entered so many contests and scholarship competitions in the past, with no result, that I didn’t really have a lot of hope.

I won.

At the conference, in late July 2013, I met with agent Kimberley Cameron, who told me she loved my series idea and my writing sample and wanted to see the novel as soon as it was finished. (It was about half done at that point.) I learned a ton of good stuff at the conference and applied it all as I worked on the second half. By November I had a completed second draft, which I sent off to Kimberley, thinking it would probably be months before I heard back.

She read it over Thanksgiving weekend and called the next week to offer me representation.

I took December to make the few edits Kimberley suggested, December being dead-time in publishing anyway, and sent her the revised manuscript early in January. Again, I expected to wait many months for any news.

On March 13, Kimberley called me to say we had an offer. A good offer, for two books, from one of the leading mystery publishers in the country—and one of the first three editors she’d sent it to, Marcia Markland of Thomas Dunne Books (a sister imprint of Minotaur). I would be in the same stable of authors as my idol, Louise Penny, and dozens of other wonderful, gifted, award-winning mystery authors. I got to meet some of them, along with Marcia, a week later at Left Coast Crime, and they welcomed me warmly into the fold.

I had made it. Despite persistent thoughts of They can’t realize I’m just me—just Katherine, I was in The Club.

So that’s my ten-year overnight success story. Ten years of blood, sweat, and tears, of two steps forward and three steps back, of “flying and thud,” as Anne Shirley would say. Ten years of learning my craft, refining my vision, finding my niche. Ten years during which I couldn’t count the number of times I was tempted to give up; but whenever I stopped writing for a few weeks, I became a person I myself didn’t want to live with, let alone my poor family. Ten years of struggling to master patience, equanimity, and faith.

Ten years: a significant chunk of my life to date, invested in something that could easily have never paid off in any tangible way.

Was it worth it?

Heck, yeah.

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This entry was posted in Writing.

6 comments on “How I Became a Mystery Writer

  1. wordykaren says:

    Brava, dear friend. I’m smiling from ear to ear! I’m so happy for you.

  2. Cheryl Anne Tuggle says:

    Congratulations! Can’t wait to read.

  3. Fascinating, Katherine. I enjoyed reading your steps to success, and look forward to reading your “baby”! So glad that you persevered in spite of it all.

  4. bevcooke says:

    I’m still so tickled about all this. It’s wonderful to see you have this success!

  5. Diana says:

    Katherine, I just discovered your blog via the Jungle Red Writers. I read that you won the scholarship last year and I looked for your books in the local bookstore after the conference. No, I did not go to the conference. I had four weddings and two baby showers to attend that month. Thank you for sharing your blog and your updates about forthcoming books. Your novel about arsenic and Austen sounds like something I would like to read.

    • Katherine Hyde says:

      Thanks, Diana! I’ll be at BPMWC again this year—will you be there? Arsenic with Austen should be out next spring.

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