It started when I read a FB friend’s post about the novelist James Patterson. Heard of him? Look at any display of paperbacks almost anywhere, he will have several on display all the time. He claims to be the world’s best selling author. The specific book, then series of books, was the Alex Cross series.
I liked these novels. Tight, suspenseful, with very short chapters that made them perfect lunchtime reads when I was cranking out history stuff for the Air Force. At one specific point, I remember thinking, “Hell, I could do this….” SO, I started spending my weekends working on the novel.
I honestly can’t recall how I came up with the homicidal obituary writer idea, but it turned out to be great fun. Marcie saved obits from the local paper in Logan, Utah, where “On the Death Beat” is set, and my sister-in-law sent a few from Seattle. I also looked at classic obits from the big papers in New York and London. The outside ideas were important because the local obits were not in fact written by the novel’s protagonist Jason Blair, they were written by families. Lovingly, sure enough, but, in general, dreadful to read.
I guess I like the big city obits better because they are professionally written, and the writers cast aside some of the template nature of traditional obits. For example, the obits here in Logan always mention who predeceased whom. A 90-year old dies and they list his parents as having predeceased him? No kidding! Better to use the space to tell us something interesting about the person, like Jason’s first victim, the fictitious Ina Golightly. Ina did everything in her life she was supposed to, but she also liked to belly dance.
I tried to put myself in the place of Jason, desperately looking for those golden nuggets in a stream of very ordinary lives to tell great stories. So the characters Jason finds in his search are ordinary people who maybe once in their lives did something extraordinary, or who kept a secret passion for an unusual hobby, or who cooked the books on their own wartime service, and so on. Of course, in the novel, this makes them Jason’s targets – maybe it would have been better for them to stick to the formulaic raised-on-a-farm-married-young-passle-of-kids-loved-to-cook-garden-and-knit trope used over and over and over locally in obits.
I truly had fun writing the novel. So different than writing history. No footnotes! No detailed outline! I kept a rough outline that took me ahead about three short chapters. I did not know how it would end until the end. I loved that. I thought it would stress me out since everything I have written professionally as an historian and throughout my college and grad school experience was always carefully outlined – and I knew what would happen because I had to say so in the introduction!
Well, I have not abandoned history, and I do see a historical novel in my future, but this crime novel was fun to write and I am very glad I did it. Hope you are too!