Writer at work

Mad in Pursuit Notebook

Becoming a Novelist by Night

Fresh air for the midlife doldrums

(Published Sept 13, 2022, in Crow's Feet on Medium)

A revelation: I stood browsing in the fiction section of the library. My eye caught something new. What was this? A shelf packed with books on how to write mystery and crime novels? I began looking at them, a treasure trove of instructions about plot, character, theme, and setting.

It never occurred to me that there were textbooks for popular fiction. Hell, if there’s an instruction manual, I can do it! I love instruction manuals! And wouldn’t I just love to write a mystery!

It was 6 p.m. on Friday, September 2, 1988, the start of the Labor Day weekend. I was 39 years old. I worked as the Director of Quality Improvement for a large child and family services agency. Next week was the big quadrennial site review from the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations. It was my job to facilitate everyone getting their paperwork done and their show-and-tell ready for the surveyors. This afternoon, I had packed up for a long weekend of running through manuals and checklists.

But as I was leaving the building, the CEO caught me.

“Hey, Susan,” he said, “you need to know that Stan is going to be out for a couple of months.”

What? Stan was the head of the organization’s largest program — residential treatment — the program that would be most heavily scrutinized by the JCAHO surveyors.

“What happened?” I asked.

“He’s taking care of himself. That’s all I can really say.”

Oh, brother.

In the parking lot, I bumped into another exec. “Stan’s out?” I asked.

“The buzz is rehab.” He winked. “Old drinking problem.”

I should have had compassion for this good man, but felt only betrayal. I believed all that stuff about teamwork. We were supposed to be in this excruciating business of accreditation together, not copping out. Locking my tote full of binders in the trunk, I headed for the library. Instead of fussing over policies and procedures, I’d rise above my job and find a good mystery to read.

But instead of a another author’s mystery, I found the secret to writing one myself.

I’d been toying with writing again. I was always looking for a more romantic version of myself. My job was all right angles and straight edges, focused on the serious business of protecting children in foster care. The work was respected, innovative, and humanitarian, but not colorful. I gave it my all but secretly longed for the freestyle curves of a more adventurous life. I wanted to be a character, whose job didn’t require a ten-minute explanation. In my mind, novelists had panache.

That Friday evening, when I showed up at Z’s with my stack of how-to-write-a-mystery books, he was impressed. We were both divorced and a decade into our no-strings love affair. He was 57 years old, his years in international medicine behind him, his professor’s job now mired in nursing home reviews. He too chased the fantasy of a more romantic version of himself: one of these days, he was going to dump it all to become a globe-trotting art dealer. His friends were all in the arts: musicians, artists, art dealers, actors. I was the youngest of his crowd. I wanted to fit in.

One day the previous winter, we killed time in the ski lift lines by dreaming up a murder mystery set in our athletic club, which was located in the basement of a decrepit Catholic services building downtown, a building that also housed a discreet battered women’s shelter on one of its upper stories. I’d made some notes about characters who caught my imagination.

Now I had textbooks. After dinner, I took more notes.

Back in my apartment on Saturday, I sat down at my computer, loaded the Multimate word-processing disk in one drive, a blank disk in the other, and began to write. I set up the murder. Added a blizzard. The Underground Athletic Club opens despite the weather. My characters make their entrances: the beleaguered gym owner; the lonely art dealer living upstairs with his parrot; the tough, red-headed trainer and her cocaine-addicted husband; plus a few women from the shelter and some stalwart workout nuts. The story streamed from my fingertips.

The JCAHO site visit came and went. But I continued writing, up at 4 a.m. and again after dinner. I didn’t have an outline till the plot got complicated and I needed to engineer my big climax.

During this time, I also devoured those how-to books. I bought some readability software to analyze my writing. I typed in long passages by John D. MacDonald, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and other favorite writers to compare their sentence-length graphs and grade-level scores with mine. I wrote long character studies and printed them out on small Filofax pages, along with lists of good words and notes from my reference books. I read every new chapter aloud to Z.

It took me about a year to get a draft I liked. I passed it around to whoever was willing to read it and learned not to defend my choices but to hear what their feedback told me. I revised and revised.

Finding an agent was next up. I used the Writers’ Digest listing to pick out a dozen names, composed my snappy query, wrote a story synopsis, and stamped my self-addressed envelopes. The rejections came. Kindly, some took the time to say that my writing was good but this particular story was not one they could sell.

I was not discouraged. Having fallen in love with a couple of my characters, I decided to forge ahead with a series about an art detective who tracked down stolen and smuggled cultural artifacts. Somehow, his beleaguered gym-owner friend would figure in. Z and I booked a trip to Thailand. I would take my characters with me.

I will end the story here with a consideration of what I gained from this year in the Underground Athletic Club.

  • I was able to step away from an all-consuming job. My life was larger than the job. (I would have to learn this lesson again ten years later.)
  • I acquired a substantial skillset in creative writing, as well as a working knowledge of preparing a manuscript for publication.
  • Sharing my drafts with Z and others was entertaining, a social thing.
  • I became a smidge more interesting to people as a writer. (Or at least more interesting to myself.)
  • I made friends with a couple of characters I wanted to spend more time with. We hear so much about the metaverse these days — that place we can escape to when our real lives frustrate or bore us. “Jackson” and “Dan” were the start of my personal metaverse — no 3-D rendering required. I had my imagination.

I often think of that transformative moment, that September afternoon in ’88 when a door was unlocked for me. I should have known that just about everything boils down to craft — sets of methods, tools, and procedures. Wasn’t that what I told social workers who resisted reading manuals and filling out forms in favor of their intuition? Even medieval magicians and alchemists had their grimoires and required long apprenticeships. The secret formula is nearly always a matter of high craft.

Step back. Write. Create a new world.


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Books from Mad in Pursuit and Susan Barrett Price: KITTY'S PEOPLE: the Irish Family Saga about the Rise of a Generous Woman (2022)| HEADLONG: Over the Edge in Pakistan and China (2018) | THE SUDDEN SILENCE: A Tale of Suspense and Found Treasure (2015) | TRIBE OF THE BREAKAWAY BEADS: Book of Exits and Fresh Starts (2011) | PASSION AND PERIL ON THE SILK ROAD: A Thriller in Pakistan and China (2008). Available at Amazon.