Footsteps in the Night: the Secret Life of a Mystery Writer

A crash in the room below… For real, not part of the bad dream I’ve been having. The clock reads 3 a.m.. Footsteps–someone’s in the house! Llyn?” I nudge my spouse. But he doesn’t respond. I lean toward him. I can’t feel his breath! He’s diabetic, I worry he might have sleep apnea. “Llyn?”

A terrible silence… then downstairs another crash, like shattering glass. Now thumping feet. “Llyn, wake up!”

“Huh?” Llyn is alive! But the thumping escalates. I hear a growl. “Llyn?”

“Jussa cats,” he mutters, pats my arm, and rolls over.

My mother always warned me to “Watch out. Don’t look a stranger in the eye. Never accept a ride with one.” As a child I wasn’t about to anyway. It was a ten minute walk to school and I liked walking alone. I could talk back to the voices in my head–creatures I called “snurds’ (which happened to rhyme with “words”). They were happy voices back then. The snurds and I giggled about Mrs. Biddle’s new fuschia hat or Mr. Atkins’s long underwear that had frozen on the line. My brother had threatened to shoot holes through those longjohns with his BB gun. Later he did, and at age ten I wrote my first mystery about the kidnapping of that pestiferous sibling. (Mother threw it out–my first rejection.)

But as I grew up and began to read the news headlines, my inventions grew darker. Bloated Body Found Floating in Otter Creek. Fifteen-year-old Girl Disappears. Father Backs Over Son in Driveway. Oh, no! After I had my own kids, I imagined them crossing the road and suddenly a speeding truck… Or one of them climbing into a friend’s car–but it wasn’t a friend, it was a guy in dirty jeans, a feed cap pulled down over his Neanderthal brow, a tee shirt that read EXTERMINATE.  I watched my six-year-old draw near, lured by the luscious handful of M&Ms in his open palm. But before I could run to her…

Miraculously, my four kids survived their childhood; it’s their turn now to obsess over candied strangers and speeding trucks. But the inventions multiplied in my brain. I couldn’t walk down the dirt road in my Vermont village without someone waiting in the bushes to jump out… Or just as I’d fumble for keys in the parking garage a rough hand would clap my shoulder and…

I told myself it was all nonsense. My purse was grabbed in Rome, but I screamed and got it back. A hand reached inside my pocket as I walked along the Nile in Egypt (Agatha Christie’s murders on my mind), but the guy just ran off, waving the twenty dollar bill he’d snatched. During a stay in Nicaragua a tourist was kidnapped in broad daylight (I saw eyes watching in every mango tree), but no one bothered me. I tried writing my fears into poems, stories, novels–the alarms still rang in my head. Until one day I read in a local paper about a pair of elderly farmers who were assaulted one night for the cash they kept in barn rafters and pockets. The cops caught the perps because the bills they threw about in bars and eateries reeked of barn.  And I knew I had to write a mystery. It was published and turned into a series for St. Martin’s–and later, oh joy, a new historical series for Perseverance. And eventually most of my paranoia went into my writing. I was cured, wasn’t I? I slept soundly, walked the night streets of my home town , swinging my arms. Anyway, who’d want to mess with a fierce-eyed female past her prime?

Last month I took a plane to St. Louis, Missouri to attend Bouchercon and to officially launch my ninth mystery, The Nightmare. Smiling at the irony of the title, I squeezed into seat 10C and shoved my carry-on bag underneath. Just as the plane was gathering steam, thundering upward into the air, I saw my stout seatmate lean over to examine his oversize black shoe.  I recalled the terrorist who had an explosive device in his shoe–was it happening again? No, I told myself, not with all this new technology. Though just recently, I’d read, a woman got through security with nail scissors sewn into her bra. The technology wasn’t perfect.

Now he was removing the shoe, feeling for something in the lining. Oh… Now his pudgy fingers were taking something out. A bomb, yes, tiny as a pinhead! I could see it…  Any minute the plane would explode into a zillion hunks of steel. No-ooo! I fumbled for the call bell.

“Pebble wedged in my shoe,” the man said, seeing my face. “Couldn’t find it after I went through security. Got to the gate just in time to board. Geez, hope I didn’t worry you.” The laugh came up out of his big belly.

I shook my head, wiped my damp brow. “Sorry,” I told the stewardess, who was bending over me with a pasted smile. “Guess I pressed the wrong button.”

When my heartbeat quieted, I pulled out my notebook: The Day I Saved United Flight 3166 from Exploding over Lake Champlain, I wrote. We were only a few thousand feet up in the air when a swarthy-faced fellow wearing a Boston Red Sox cap…

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7 Responses

  1. Can you say paranoid? And, this is the world we now live in. Good post – glad I’m not alone in my fears and imaginings.

    • Thanks so much, Diana, for dropping by. Is this paranoia? Or just an overweening imagination… Do all writers go through this? My 6’2″ spouse goes blithely through his day without looking behind him, but alas, I see an adversary lurking by every bush. Yet it does feed the brain. Write it down, write it down, I keep telling myself! And then I let a character take the blow while I sit at my computer, unscathed.

  2. Wow, I don’t think I could be your roommate, Nancy, but I certainly want to read your books! 🙂

  3. I didn’t intentionally put that smiley face there, but it sort of suits . . .

  4. Nancy,

    As you so vividly show us, the world has become a much more dangerous and scary place. I think that’s reflected in our fiction.
    I look forward to reading your novels.

  5. Thank you, Jacqueline! It’s partly the violent world we live in, but also my own overweening imagination, I fear. Interesting though, to think that our dangerous world is reflected so vividly in our fiction.

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