By CJ Verburg
March 23, 2018
I knew exactly what I wanted to write. My life plan revealed itself in college, where I devoured Agatha Christie and Mary Stewart novels between Tolstoy, Joyce, and Woolf. I would travel to exotic places and write a romantic mystery in each one.
The pesky need to earn a living steered me into publishing, but I soon jumped off the career ladder. Moving into a waterfront mansion in Marblehead, I fell in love with one of my 7 housemates, a woodworker who was rebuilding a derelict yacht. Every morning I sat overlooking the harbor and wrote; every afternoon I hopped on my bike and pedaled 3 miles to the Salem boatyard. My lover’s life plan was to sail around the world, winding up in the Caribbean with a charter business.
I’d learned from Melville what can happen to a sea captain who’s gripped by an obsession. As months became years, as my lover’s funds and charms dwindled while his ship stayed in drydock, I moved to Cambridge to stir things up again.
The agent who’d embraced my Marblehead manuscript brought back grim news. A “bodice-ripper” boom had bulldozed the romantic suspense market. Not even Mary Stewart’s publisher wanted the kind of book I’d planned to spend my life writing. The heroine couldn’t be a smart accidental sleuth who joins forces with an enigmatic stranger. She must be ravished by a handsome scoundrel, thereby launching his transformation into a hero. Or she can have occult powers. Or (preferably) both.
What to do? I’d bought a plane ticket to Paris. I’d outlined the novel I wanted to write there. Back to Square One?
Maybe not. This was the heyday of rock music. If I pushed my plot toward whodunit and threw in a band, would that light enough fireworks to satisfy a publisher? Worth a try. I spent a week in a French village, celebrating their annual strawberry festival. Real fireworks! Perfect!
Back home, I conjured up a narrator: Boston journalist Cory Goodwin, a NY private eye’s daughter, assigned to cover an American band in France. It was ages, though, since I’d hung out with rock musicians. Research break! I told friends I was looking for a band to let me sit in on a rehearsal, to catch up on how they spoke, dressed, and so forth.
One friend knew a keyboard player. I called him, slightly nervous. It was OK: he didn’t sound drugged or deranged. Sure, I could come observe, only they weren’t rehearsing. They were playing clubs all over New England. Did I want to join them?
No way. Travel with five male strangers? Hang out every night in a different bar? Unthinkable.
“Isn’t that what your book is about?” he asked. “A writer who follows a band on tour?”
Well, yes (gulp), but…
I tossed my skis in my car, so this trip wouldn’t be a total bust. No problem. I learned so much about music, musicians, the entertainment business, and life, and I had so much fun, that I didn’t end my odyssey after the first leg. I sailed on with my 5 new friends (6, counting the sound man) into much more than a musical mystery novel called Another Number for the Road. Coming home I hit a killer blizzard which became Scene One of my next Cory Goodwin mystery, Silent Night Violent Night.
Writing of course requires applying butt to chair and eyes to screen. But a central reason WHY I write — and why I chose to write mysteries — is the adventure. I can’t know which of my books will click with any given reader, or with the ever-changing publishing industry. I do know that anytime “write what you know” hits a dead end, I’d rather expand what I know than shrink what I write. Shake it up, baby!
Award-winning playwright and director CJ Verburg has published two Cory Goodwin mysteries and two Edgar Rowdey Cape Cod mysteries, Croaked and Zapped (so far), plus the multimedia memoir Edward Gorey On Stage and several international literature collections. A Sisters In Crime member, CJ is juggling Book 3 in each series with editing San Francisco’s quarterly Semaphore. website: cjverburg.net