Sometimes the universe converges and the stars align.
I’d been writing hard-boiled mysteries and I thought any lesser character than say, Mike Hammer, just wasn’t going to cut it in the mystery marketplace. That’s when my wife caught me off guard.
“Honey, you’re through with your latest blood-spattered thriller. Why don’t you write one of those British-style mysteries, the ones where someone dies, maybe by poison, but the author doesn’t dwell on the murder. The book is devoted to solving the mystery through shrewd policework, rather than following bloody footprints until the shootout in the end.”
I seized up. A British-style mystery? A cozy? Me?
Still pondering the prospect of writing a cozy, I ate lunch the next day with a group of friends. Brian, a jovial fellow, enjoyed joking with me about becoming the next Arthur Conan Doyle. He cornered me after lunch and asked a simple question, “Have you ever considered setting a mystery in my hometown, Two Harbors, Minnesota? There are lots of colorful people and I’d be happy to help you with settings and background.” I laughed, thanked him, and moved on. I’d never been to Two Harbors and knew little about the town except it was nearly tied with Frostbite Falls as the coldest spot in Minnesota.
My wife and I were dealing with another non-urgent emergency related to the custodial care of her mother, her aunt, my father, and my uncle. We’d run the gamut of issues and had gone from groans and eye rolls, to chuckles as the situations became inane. The latest was a call from my father. “You’ve got to move me. Someone ate my dinner brownie while I was in the bathroom and I can’t stay in a place where people don’t respect your right to have your brownie left alone until you return from the toilet.”
That night was my convergence. I sat down and wrote a chapter of a cozy, set in a Two Harbors senior residence. I brought it to lunch the next day and handed it to Brian. He munched on his sandwich as he read, his eyes twinkling. He pushed it back to me and said, “Nice start. I’ll bring you more fodder tomorrow.” The next day he arrived at the lunch table with a one-inch stack of recipe cards. He split them into two piles: characters and locations.
Months later I had a draft of a cozy. I’d incorporated what I thought was tasteful humor, but I had no idea if “it worked.” A dear retired friend, Nancy, has read all my books and is an avid reader of anything hinting of mystery. I emailed the computer file to her and asked for her opinion. There was an email in my inbox the next evening with the subject line, “WHEN’S THE SEQUEL?” I called and asked if any of the humor had resonated with her. Her response, “I spent the whole night mopping my tears of laughter. Yes! I love the humor!”
The protagonist is Peter Rogers, the recreation director of the Whistling Pines Senior Residence. The supporting characters include an understated police chief, an elderly neighbor who shoots at “vermin” in her urban yard with antique guns, and a host of senior citizens who, through their everyday lives, cause Peter no end of grief.
My most recent cozy, published this past October by BWL Publishing, is Whistling up a Ghost. (Spoiler alert) Peter is now married to his long-time girlfriend Jenny, and they’re moving into an old mansion given to them as a wedding gift. Eerie footfalls in the attic drive Jenny’s eight-year-old son to their bed the first night in the new house. The ghostly encounters continue to vex the newlyweds, who are convinced there is a worldly answer to the seemingly otherworldly events.
Meanwhile, the town finds a time capsule during the demolition of the bandshell. When it’s opened on live television, a gun, a poem, and a newspaper clipping spill out, providing hints about a 1950’s murder, an event that every Whistling Pines resident recalls. Not surprisingly, each resident also has an opinion about the murder and murderer. Peter is asked to sort the swirling Whistling Pines rumors from the facts, sucking him into the middle of a mystery as he and Jenny try to prepare their haunted house for their first Christmas as a married couple. Between the ghost, the antics of the city band, the Whistling Pines residents, and Jenny’s usually reserved parents, Peter and Jenny work through the ghost and time capsule mysteries. Just when they think all the mysteries have been solved, the ghost makes one more appearance on Christmas Eve.
Although I readily admit to skepticism about writing a cozy, I now know they’re fun for both the reader and the writer. In some ways, writing a cozy more challenging than a darker mystery, having to dance around the issue of death while still writing a murder mystery. Creating the senior citizen characters is a riot and my friend, Brian, has a never-ending stack of note cards with more characters, plot ideas, and locations. When I finished Whistling up a Ghost, I thought it would be the last of the series. It isn’t. BWL is publishing Whistling up a Pirate later this year.
Please offer you thoughts and comments about Whistling up a Ghost, the Whistling Pines series, or cozies in general. I’d love to see your responses.