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The muse of murder mysteries turns out to be quite vocal

A retired college professor tries his hand at writing murder mysteries and finds the characters leading the way.

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When I retired from teaching college English, I felt I'd done just about everything I'd looked forward to as an eager undergraduate who'd been turned on by poetry, fiction, ideas, and the life of the mind – everything except write the Great American Novel.

I had written book reviews, academic articles, a chapter in a book, and read papers at American studies conferences. But the Great American Novel, after a meager false start, was abandoned. In the 1970s, I did manage to publish a novelette in Galaxy, one of those garish pulp magazines that flourished in the heyday of hard-core science fiction. But publishing fiction in an ever-dwindling market began to seem much like expecting to win a lottery.

A lot changed when I retired. I found I was no longer interested in reading serious classics. What I now enjoyed was sprightly entertainment that kept me alert, relishing characters I'd begun to root for and a story with twists and surprises.

Mysteries and novels of detection, which I'd thought trivial, now seemed just the thing. When I discovered a writer I enjoyed, I read everything by him or, more often, her. My problem was that I could not help but notice opportunities the author had missed or neglected to develop, implausible episodes, and forced or unsatisfactory endings.

Maybe I could do better myself?

So I gave it a try. In the process, I learned that characters in a novel take on a life of their own. I found myself writing to discover what my characters would do next. It is something like not knowing what's going to happen in a dream. Whatever orchestrates dreams became the coauthor of my book. The unconscious? Too tepid an expression. Try German. Das Unbewusste? Though that sounds a bit more mysterious, I prefer the Greek myth of a Muse or a daemon. Mozart, after all, felt his melodies came from heaven.


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