It’s been a hot, “weathery” summer in Boston: rainy in June, humid in July, dry in August. Lately we’ve had a stretch of sunny days and the temperatures have finally dropped while the nights have begun to hint at the chill of fall. But as often happens in New England, the weather is moody — out of the blue we had a couple of days that flirted with 90 degrees this week, and now things have settled back into the 70s. As I write this, a quick breeze is blowing outside my open office window, and the branches of the Rose of Sharon in front of the house are bending and fluttering with each gust.
My writing and professional lives have taken some interesting turns over the past few months. As I wait for the publisher’s revisions on my first book manuscript, MESSAGE FROM A BLUE JAY, I’ve worked on a couple of different projects. MESSAGE FROM A BLUE JAY is a collection of personal essays that have been tied together to read as a memoir-in-essays. The genre is literary creative nonfiction, a genre that I have worked in continuously since starting the MFA program I completed in 2010. I published something new in that genre recently when I wrote a guest blog post for Superstition Review that turned into a short personal essay titled “Fireworks.”
But then I decided to try something new. I entered a Mystery Short Story contest sponsored by Buddhapuss Ink, the same small, independent press that is publishing my collection. The contest was judged by an independent panel of readers and publishing pros, and all manuscripts were submitted to the judges without names (to allow for “blind” judging). I had no advantage related to the press publishing my book. As a result, I was thrilled this month to learn that my story, “Who Let the Cats Out?” placed third out of 200 entries in the contest and will be included in a print and Kindle anthology set to be published in September or October.
It might seem like quite a leap to go from creative nonfiction to mystery fiction — and it is. The leap has extended even further now because since I wrote the short story, which is narrated in the first person, I’ve begun expanding it into a full-length book that is written in third person and fits into the “cozy mystery” genre. Cozy mysteries are designed to be a form of light entertainment; they are character-driven stories that don’t delve too deeply into serious crimes or forensics. If a murder occurs it generally happens “off-stage” and isn’t described with a great deal of detail. My book doesn’t even have a murder in it, to be honest; the mystery centers, as the short story did, around who is targeting a cat shelter with vandalism in a small town in Vermont (the book will be different, however, and will have a different ending than the story). The goal is for the reader to have a chance to escape into a community peopled by characters they’ll enjoy getting to know while they also get caught up in a mystery being solved by (usually) an amateur sleuth.
Why, you might ask, have I made the leap from creative nonfiction to a cozy mystery? First, I have to stress that the change of direction isn’t permanent, and it’s not even a complete change. I am still writing creative nonfiction, and I do intend to get back to it full force; I’m just giving this cozy mystery a try for a few months. But again, you might ask…why?
The truth, for me, is that the literary world has been a tough world to break into and to exclusively exist in as a writer. I started writing MESSAGE FROM A BLUE JAY in 2008 and completed the manuscript four years later (including two years in an MFA program) after exhaustive work on both the pieces in the manuscript and the ones that didn’t make it past the final cut. During those years I also submitted my work to numerous literary journals, and although in the end I achieved a certain level of success, I faced just as much rejection as most writers do. It can be difficult to keep putting yourself out there month after month, year after year, and to be told by most of the editors you approach that your work isn’t what they’re looking for (which of course makes you wonder if it’s any good at all). The process of having an agent shop my manuscript wasn’t much easier, although it was incredibly worthwhile and a good learning experience. Many months of “no” responses came before the “yes” responses I received, and the only things that kept me going during those months were the “no’s” that included notes of regret explaining that the editor really liked my writing or the manuscript, but it simply didn’t fit with his or her press/publishing plans/what the press felt it could sell. I especially hung on the words of a couple of editors from very established publishers who praised the writing even though they didn’t accept the manuscript. I tried to remember those words every time a form rejection arrived that dismissed my work without another thought.
When two small presses finally said they wanted to publish the manuscript, I was thrilled beyond belief — but I also was mentally exhausted. My mind and my heart just needed a break. I did produce a couple of new short essays as the dust cleared, but I also found myself wanting to have some fun — some pure, unadulterated fun that had nothing to do with the intensity of writing and submitting good literary creative nonfiction.
I read a quote somewhere that said something like, “Write a book that you would enjoy reading.” And the truth is, as much as I love good literature (from the Russian classics to Jane Austen and more modern works), I also love mysteries. I read every one of Tony Hillerman’s Navajo mysteries, and I also loved and read (and hid from everyone) the entire series of twenty-eight “The Cat Who…” cozy mysteries written by Lilian Jackson Braun. I’ve always been this way — I can be absorbed by Anna Karenina one day and by The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern the next.
And why not? Sometimes it feels like life shouldn’t be so hard.
So that’s the story behind my brief change in direction and my current writing project. It is just plain fun, and that’s nice for a change. But I feel myself itching to get back to some essays, too, so that will happen soon.
In the meantime, I’ve been asked to teach two courses at a local college in Boston this fall: a freshman writing course and a course in Broadcast Journalism. I am a print journalist, not a broadcast journalist, but the college needed a last-minute sub. So I’m frantically putting the courses together now while still having to complete all of my usual freelance Web and marketing writing work, and I’m wondering what I’ve gotten myself into. Why do I do these things to myself?
Maybe that will be fodder for a new essay.