Novel Writing: Making It Personal

Have you ever wondered whether or not the books you read have names, places, or happenings that are actually personal to the author? It’s like thinking about songs that you loved and wondering how they came to be written and what they mean to the composer.

ThreeMayKeepASecretFrontWhile only my first mystery novel, Three May Keep a Secret, is actually published, I have two more coming down the runway. The second, Marry in Haste, will be out June 22, 2016, and the third is done except for the last chapter. Death Takes No Bribes is the third book in the Endurance series, and it contains, like the first and second, some thoughts that are personal to me. The town of Endurance, Illinois is based on my town, Monmouth, Illinois, a place where I’ve lived since 1968.

In each of my Endurance books, I’ve used words provided by my children and a couple of friends. I decided it would be nice to include their efforts in the finished products. Some of these words were: tundra, helicopter, instrumental, disingenuous, and little pumpkin. The last one was not easy! They all think they can stump me with words that won’t fit into my plots. But I have triumphed in all three books, and the word-providers know which words are theirs.

teenagersA second theme that streams through all three of the mysteries is Grace Kimball’s memory of her high school students. Grace is the main character, a retired teacher with twenty-five years of English teaching behind her. But since she lives in a town of 15,000, she is constantly running into adolescents she taught who are now adults. She remembers things they did in their adolescent years, and her memories lighten the mood of the murders. Here’s an example:

Grace is walking down the corridor of the Endurance Hospital when she sees a hospital aide pushing a patient in a wheelchair. Andrew Weathersby. His locker was right outside my classroom his sophomore year. One day I heard a commotion and walked out to the hallway. It was a girl fight—the worst kind of fight. Andrew nonchalantly leaned against the wall and pointed out his twin sister Ally. “She’s the one on the top, beating the crap out of Lisa Watkins.” Then he leaned forward and shouted, “Hit her again, Ally!” Alphabetical propinquity. That year my hallway was a war zone. It was quite the entertaining year, but the following year their lockers were moved to the lower junior hallway, and all was quiet again. At least he was using his muscles now in a good cause. Each of the three books is filled with Grace’s encounters with former teenage students. Some are true, some are fiction.

You know who you are.

Finally, each book has items, events, dates, places, and people who are special to me. In Three May Keep a Secret, I described the Public Square of the small town where I live. No Monmouth Public Sq.Circleone knows how to drive around it without driving defensively, and anyone who grew up here knows the truth of that statement. I also borrowed the history of my town to use for the history of Endurance, a small town on the edge of the Illinois prairie, built by Scotch Presbyterians, civilized by women, and surrounding a college.

The second book, Marry in Haste, takes place partly in a house I lived in for five years when I first moved to Monmouth. It was a huge Victorian with quite a history, built in the late 1800s. In my second book, one of the characters buys it to restore it to its former beauty. I kept the original house number—402—but changed the location and street name. McCullough houseIt no longer exists as it was razed in 1990, but in my second book it comes to life once again. Also in this second book is a restaurant begun in Endurance by two of Grace’s former students. Such a restaurant began in our town too, and although the two restaurants are not the same in name or décor, the idea is the same. Jessalynn Folger plays a cameo in this book. She is quite a strong woman who had to fight her way out of a terrible childhood to become an amazing professional, an in-house lawyer for a huge New York bank. I borrowed that name from a real former student who is also the daughter of a friend. She has the premier chapter in the book and the spotlight for one night. I think she’s as strong as the woman named for her.

Finally, in the third book of the series, Death Takes No Bribes, I used the high school where I taught for thirty-four years as the setting of two murders. Apologies to all who worked with me in that school, but no one in this book is based on anyone with whom I taught.

Grace Kimball’s retirement replacement is a Ms. Jaski, and this seemed appropriate because my first grade teacher—a young woman I definitely admired at age six and who teachertaught me to love reading—had this name first, and each day she hugged us before we went home. She left to get married after that year, but I used her name because I’ve never forgotten her or what she did for us. Another character in this book is a teenager named Ginger. That’s my oldest grandchild’s name, and while I changed her age from 11 to 16, I think she retains some of the zany character of my granddaughter. In this novel, Grace stops in her old high school classroom, a stupid decision that causes her pain, but one of the things she notices is a “2002” carved on the teacher’s desk. She never found out who the artist was. This never happened to me—no desk carvings—but I retired from a job I loved in 2002, just like Grace. So I chose that date for a reason.

It’s been fun putting personal memories into books that strangers will read, not realizing the personal nature of some of my choices. As time goes by and books in the series pile up, I’ll continue to use interesting places, people, and events from the past.

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