*Editor's note: Welcome to Nancy Means Wright, author of the soon-to-be published historical mystery 'Midnight Fires', starring an admirable woman, Mary Wollstonecraft. Her official bio: Nancy Means Wright is the author of 15 books, including 5 mystery novels from St. Martin’s Press, and this April, an historical novel, Midnight Fires: A Mystery with Mary Wollstonecraft (Perseverance Press). She was an Agatha winner and nominee for two kids’ mysteries, and has published stories in American Literary Review, Level Best Books, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, et al). Enjoy, everyone!!
Why I Write (Mostly) Cozy Mysteries
Nancy Means Wright
Shortly after I was divorced and had begun to teach in a small liberal arts college in Poughkeepsie, New York, I read a newspaper account about a pair of elderly Vermont farmers who kept their money in barn rafters and under mattresses. They were assaulted one night and the cash stolen—but the thieves were caught when they tossed the money about in bars and restaurants—and it reeked of barn! Up to that point, I’d published stories, poems, novels, and nonfiction books, but I hadn’t even read a mystery since fourth grade when, inspired by Nancy Drew, I penned a novella about the kidnapping of a pesky older brother—and my mother threw it out.
But I felt like a pariah so far away from my Vermont family, and desperately needed to put some kind of order back into my life. And mysteries, I knew from Nancy Drew, begin in chaos, but invariably end up in order—something I craved in my disjointed life. Moreover, in a mystery, one can do in the bad guys, including one’s former husband, and end on a bright note. I knew then that I had to write one. I’d begin with that assault, but change those elderly brothers to a French Canadian farmer and wife, and set the story on a small town dairy farm. After all, I’d lived most of my life in Cornwall, a town composed largely of farms and orchards, where Jamaican pickers came each fall to sing like dark birds in the ripe trees.
To me Vermont had always seemed an Eden, a place for healing and quiet meditation. But now I was beginning to discover the snake in the garden. Small independent farmers were being forced to sell their farms; I’d write in defense of those farmers. And I’d make the town of “Branbury” a character in the novel; I wanted a strong sense of place that was more than local color. But setting demands a sleuth. And knowing little about homicide detectives or PIs, I decided to make my sleuth an amateur, a good Samaritan farmer-neighbor to those assaulted men. Since I was going through a divorce, my fictional Ruth Willmarth would be a single mother of three. She would be like the novel’s author, the two of us trying to find out whodunnit and why—especially why—all those fractured relationships that can cause a murder. Ultimately, St. Martin’s Press published five Ruth Willmarth novels and a novella—until Ruth’s thirty cows were quarantined for mad cow disease, and the series came, like my first marriage, to an inevitable end.
But I had to keep writing. Writing is a compulsion—it keeps me out of the psychiatrist’s office. It’s my meditation, almost my raison d’être. I published two mysteries for middle grade kids—one an Agatha winner; and then a memoir about family, with real life people in it. I’ve always loved writing about real people, present or past—especially those with whom I share feelings and principles. One of them is Mary Wollstonecraft, 18th century feminist who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and led a wholly unconventional, rebellious life. I’d already published a small press book of poems in her persona, and now I wanted to write her into a mystery. She makes an ideal sleuth, I think, with her inquiring mind, her charismatic personality, and her daring. I would start with her year as impecunious governess to three unruly girls in Mitchelstown Castle in Ireland where, in my fictional telling, she saves a young rebel from hanging and tracks down the assassin of a roué aristocrat. A 2011 sequel will find her in colourful London, and then in bloody Paris during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, where in real life she lost her own head to a dashing but feckless adventurer.
I’ve loved writing Midnight Fires, which will be published in April by Perseverance Press. Writing about Wollstonecraft offers the chance to get into her head, to become her, to feel her passions and pains, the way I felt my farmer Ruth’s pain when the Feds killed her favorite cow Zelda in the end of Mad Cow Nightmare. Writing, then, is both pain and deepest pleasure, when light and order prevail in the end. It has given so much insight into other people and other worlds. How can one ordinary person live so many different lives—and all at once!
Nancy Means Wright
Midnight Fires: A Mystery with Mary Wollstonecraft (Perseverance Press--April,'10)
"Becoming Mary Wollstonecraft" Facebook page