When I first started writing the Gray Whale Inn mysteries, it was summer in Texas; I was the mother of two small children, one of whom was a big fan of both projectile vomiting and tantrum throwing; and the most riveting part of my week was Gymboree class, where the topics included such things as — and I am not making this up — “What is your favorite baby accessory?” (Wipe warmers won by a landslide.)
It may not come as a surprise that I found myself doing a lot of escape reading during that period of my life. And, as I strapped belligerent children into car seats and endured yet another round of storytime at the library, I started to think seriously of dreams I’d not yet fulfilled. In particular, dreams of writing a book.
The problem was, what kind of book? I had always written vignettes, and some of them weren’t half bad. Whenever I tried to stretch them into something bigger, though, I found myself grinding to a halt. But I’d always liked mysteries. I’d cut my teeth on Nancy Drew mysteries, moving on to Miss Marple’s adventures (usually paired with butterscotch candy and M&Ms) in my junior-high-school years, and was a lifelong lover of cozy mysteries. And one afternoon, as I slid the minivan door shut, it occurred to me that mysteries had a built-in plot. Somebody died! And your protagonist had to figure it out!
It was a Eureka moment. I would write a mystery novel! My plot problems were soon to be a thing of the past! But that led to a new question: Who was my main character, and where on earth was I going to set it?
I was stumped again. But, as luck would have it, my parents took a vacation to a bed and breakfast in California called the Lost Whale Inn. They loved everything about it – the food, location, and above all, the cozy feel of the place. As I pored through the recipe book they returned with, salivating over the recipes, I found myself thinking that an innkeeper would be a great main character for a mystery. The problem was, I hadn’t been to Northern California, and my second setting choice (Newfoundland, where I’d spent summers with my grandmother) had so much dialect I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. Serendipity struck again a few months later, when friends invited us to visit them on Little Cranberry Island off the coast of Maine. As soon as we stepped onto the mail boat and felt the breeze as we cut through the cold blue water, I knew I’d found my book’s home.
I started writing the Gray Whale Inn mysteries 11 years ago, sitting in bed at ten o’clock at night and scrawling in a composition book. The first scene, which involved an islander coming to the inn with a basket of fresh wild blueberries, never made it into the book, but it succeeded in launching me into a new world.
Three afternoons a week, for five months, I fled… I mean, I left my children in the care of a babysitter and hurried to a Starbucks with the ambient temperature of a meat locker. I’d sit in my favorite green chair in the corner and pretend I was in Maine (not a challenge, given the chill in the air), imagining a different kind of day from the ones I usually led. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons were spent filling 20 notebook pages (double-spaced) with dreams of what life would be like on a Maine island, with no toddlers, loads of sinful cakes and muffins, and interesting guests. (With a few dead bodies tossed in, of course.)
Cranberry Island and the Gray Whale Inn were my haven for many years, and still are. Simply by picking up a pen (or a laptop), I could travel to an island where blueberries abounded, the cool sea breeze ruffled my hair, and I got to live in a gorgeous, gray-shingled Cape on the rocky shore of an island. There were no diapers. There were no clinging toddlers. Sure, there were murders and avaricious developers, but at least you didn’t have to feed them strained peas.
Now, more than a decade later, I’ve written lots more books, but the Gray Whale Inn is still special to me. Natalie, Charlene, Eli and Claudette are like old friends, and I love finding out what Natalie’s got cooking – and maybe whipping up something in my own kitchen to accompany a scene I’m working on.
So that’s how an imaginary “day in the life” turned into something much bigger.
But enough about me. What are your dreams?
You can read more about Natalie, Charlene, Eli and Claudette in Death Runs Adrift, the sixth book in the “Gray Whale Inn” mystery series, published by Midnight Ink. The first book in the series is Murder on the Rocks. Books are available at retail and online booksellers.
Comment on this post by 6 p.m. EST on May 29, and you will be entered for a chance to win a copy of DEATH RUNS ADRIFT. One winner will be chosen at random. Unless specified, U.S. entries only.
Meet the author
Critically acclaimed author Karen MacInerney teaches writers’ workshops and drives a mean carpool. Her book Murder on the Rocks was selected as an Agatha nominee for Best First Novel. When she’s not writing or chauffeuring children, she loves to read, drink coffee, attempt unusual recipes, and hit the local hike-and-bike trail. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, two children, and a rabbit named Bunny, and escapes to Maine as often as possible. Visit her online at karenmacinerney.com.
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