Sunday, January 13, 2013

Mental and Physical Poison

Judy's iris in April 2011, with the greening of the earth


Who says we don’t know what we’re doing when we write, whether it’s ancient Greek drama or modern mysteries?  Socrates asked Sophocles what he was doing in his plays, and Sophocles said he had no idea.  That would be consciously.

When an experienced writer sets pen to paper, she will write about what matters to her.  She may intend something light and humorous, but if her core beliefs are serious, they will be obvious to a reader, if not immediately to her.

I wrote my first mystery in 1991, at the age of fifty-four.  I hadn’t had any classes in how to write a crime novel.  No one told me how to do it, but I’d been reading the Golden Age authors like Josephine Tey, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Marjorie Allingham.  I plotted out who would be killed and by whom.  I invented my amateur detective, a mid-fifties poet, based loosely on me.  I set it in a bed and breakfast in a village on the coast of Wales.  My American amateur falls in love with a Welsh Detective Inspector.  I didn’t plan to take up any serious issues.  I do that in my poetry.  This was to be for fun.  

Looking back, however, I see the serious issues all right: the lingering hatred of the Germans after World War II, or as my landlady character calls them, “the Prussians,” and behind that, the Holocaust that also still haunts both Europe and America.

As I went along, writing new mysteries, the cultural issues that concerned me came more and more to the fore.  When I wrote my sixth novel, Killer Frost, which takes place in a Southern historically black college, with Penny Weaver teaching remedial classes in reading and writing to students, by and large, ill-prepared for college, I was very clear that I wanted to expose some harsh and tragic realities about the education of young African Americans, particularly those coming out of our inner cities, from Florida to New Jersey.

Killer Frost, which my reader friend said was my most political novel, was a Malice Domestic finalist.  I had been trying to publish the earlier books, but since this one was a finalist, and the first five had not been, I decided to work on getting it into print and six months later, I had a contract with Mainly Murder Press in Connecticut.  I had tried agents.  A few years ago being a finalist meant it was easy to get an agent, but not this time, or perhaps agents were wary of my taking up an issue like black education.

I myself had been a small press editor and publisher, and I was comfortable with that route to publication.  I was able to participate in the cover design and in the editing.  Most of the promotion falls on me, but I know that happens across the board now.  I’ve grown comfortable over the years with selling my own book.

Killer Frost debuted September 1, 2012, and I set up readings and signings around central North Carolina, did pre-sales and guest blogs.  As sales money comes in and gives me a cushion, I’ll set up more readings both in North Carolina and in other parts of the country where I have family or friends I can stay with.

One day I hope to get the first five novels into print and e-book format, as well as the five mysteries I’ve written in the series since Killer Frost.  When you debut as a mystery author at seventy-five, you can’t sit around.

Standing back, I see what I didn’t originally, that my books take up the issues I see as our new century’s most important: taking care of our planet so that we don’t pollute ourselves out of a home and learning to see all members of the family of man as equally valuable and important.  We have to stop making sub-groups out of human beings, which poisons our minds.  Differences enrich us and are to be cherished.  Our beautiful planet will feed and house us if we do our best to take good care of the earth, air, and water.

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