Saturday, January 29, 2011

One Coffee With

Index to study guides/ book club questions / background:

Bloody Kin – 9 January 2011

Bootlegger’s Daughter – 16 January 2011

Death’s Half Acre – 23 January 2011

One Coffee With – 30 January 2011

Up until recently, once a writer’s book was officially declared “OP” (out of print), that was pretty much it. No more new copies. One by one, seven of my eight Sigrid Harald novels have gone OP and readers who were late to discover her have had a hard time collecting all the titles. Only Corpus Christmas has remained in print. Some of you have told me poignant tales of finding the books in used book stores, library sales, or on-line from wickedly expensive collectors’ sites. Now, with the advent of Kindle, Nook, the iPad, etc., etc., these OP books can live again and I am absolutely delighted to announce that by the end of the year, I expect to have all of mine available.

One Coffee With has had several different covers over the years. Some I’ve liked, some I’ve hated. This one, created by Jacky Woolsey, a local Raleigh designer, I really like. Come over to Facebook and tell me how you like it.

In the meantime, what follows is the introduction that accompanies the electronic version, which can be downloaded to Amazon’s Kindle. (This was the test case and we hope to move onto other platforms soon.)

Background to One Coffee With

Up until the late 1970s, I thought of myself as a short story writer, and by short, I meant nothing longer than five or ten double-spaced pages, or 1500-3000 words max. Although the glory days of magazine fiction, when writers were paid four or five thousand for a story and could live on that for a year, were over, a short story for the “slicks” could still earn at least two thousand and there were a dozen or more markets. The mystery magazines—the “pulps”—paid by the word and usually capped out at 8¢ a word. Clearly I was not expecting to earn a living with my writing.

On the other hand, those sporadic checks were very nice and I had started to sell almost everything I submitted when the bottom dropped out of the market. Magazines began to fold left and right and those that survived discovered that non-fiction articles could be written in-house, more cheaply, and that only a few subscribers would cancel because there was no fiction.

Instead of six or eight mystery magazines, we were suddenly left with only two: Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. That’s when I first toyed with the idea of writing a novel even though the thought of filling up that many pages with a single story quite intimidated me.

I had written a longish (for me) short story set in a college art department and I had created a homicide detective with a Danish background, named Bohr in honor of Nils Bohr, whose biography I had recently read. I sent it off to AHMM.

It came back.

In those days AHMM ran a “novelette” in each issue, so I doubled the word count and sent it off.

It came back.

By now, I was getting more into the plot. I had worked as a secretary in one of the NY City University art departments and had been fascinated by the cavalier manner in which etching acids and photography chemicals were left unlocked. A poisoner could have wiped out half the college with very little effort.

This was also when women were starting to move up in the ranks of the NYPD. Female lieutenants and captains were still a novelty and resented by many of the rank and file male officers. The problems a woman would face intrigued me and the male Bohr morphed into the female Sigrid Harald (still of Danish descent.)

Because I enjoy series characters, I knew from the beginning that she would be one, and I gave her what was to me an interesting back story—a Southern mother and a NY father who had been killed in the line of duty shortly after making plainclothes detective. The mother would be a beautiful career photojournalist, the father tall and handsome and slightly egotistical. Their daughter would be the proverbial ugly duckling: uncomfortable in her skin, ill-at-ease in social situations, but thoroughly competent professionally. I knew most of the back story, which arcs through the eight books of this series, an arc which I will not discuss here because I do not want to spoil it for first-time readers, but each book gives a little bit more information about her dead father and his former partner.

Eventually I doubled the magazine-length novelette to make it a book novelette of about 30,000 words and sent it to an agent someone had recommended. The agent said he liked the characters, liked the setting, liked the story, “But it’s too short. Nobody’s buying novelettes. Now if you could double it . . .”

After much thought, I interpolated the Karoly subplot, which did not exist in the first three versions, and I finally had a book-length novel.

Having done it once, I entered in on a second, then a third. As I write this, I have just finished writing my twenty-seventh novel. I remain slightly astonished.

Each of my books is written in what is (and was then) the current “now.” In the late 70s, books (and police reports) were written on typewriters. In One Coffee With, Lt. Harald and her squad typed all their reports. Telephones were tethered to the handset with a curly cord and numbers were manually dialed. No one had a cell phone. By the time Fugitive Colors, the eighth and final book of the series, was written, typewriters were a thing of the past, and Sigrid wrote up her reports on a computer. If she owned a mobile, I was not aware of it.

You have downloaded this book to a device that was science fiction in 1979. Novels printed on paper are beginning to be referred to as “the physical book” as opposed to the electronic one.

For me, fourteen years had passed between the first book and the last. For Sigrid, it was only one short tumultuous year.

Try not to let technology and societal norms get between you and the page. Suspend your disbelief. Enjoy!

Margaret Maron / January 2011

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