Fifty years ago this week I began my writing career as an editorial assistant for the NEA Journal, then one of the country’s best education magazines. I just signed a contract for my eleventh book, Thunder Beneath My Feet, a middle grade/young adult novel set during the powerful New Madrid earthquakes in late 1811 and early 1812.
Those eleven books represent a relatively small part of my output. For twenty years I worked mostly on magazines, including as the editor of Industrial Research & Development News. The United Nations Industrial Development Organization in Vienna, Austria, published this international technical quarterly.
I didn’t enjoy editing technical articles from experts who spoke English as their second (or third or fourth) language and left in fear the bureaucratic writing style would damage my writing. On the plus side, I formed close friendships with wonderful people from different cultures, and the interactions of colleagues from some fifty countries fascinated me.
My Favorite Job
The job I held the longest (almost five years) and liked the most was as editor of Synergist, a magazine published by the National Center for Service-Learning, iWashington, D.C., for leaders of secondary and postsecondary student volunteer programs. Over those years, service-learning blossomed and moved into the elementary schools.
Much of my time went to locating model programs and soliciting (and editing heavily) articles from the outstanding educators who ran them. I also traveled around the country to write and photograph inspiring programs. I resigned to become a freelancer when I thought I had taken the publication as far as it could go under the politicians who then determined what we could publish.
Computers began to replace electric typewriters while I edited Synergist, and editors and designers struggled to stay close to the “bleeding edge” as publications moved into desktop publishing. Such programs as PageMaker enabled quick, relatively inexpensive turnaround and prompted the golden age of the newsletter.
Over the next twenty-plus years, writing and editing monthly newsletters paid my mortgage and covered most of my basic expenses. Relying on my journalistic skills, I took on many topics, including career tips for dental hygienists, innovative programs for chambers of commerce, and issues affecting sales of oil production equipment.
My major steady client over those years was Communications Concepts, a small company that produced a series of monthly subscription how-to newsletters for corporate communicators. I did most of the planning and wrote most of the articles. For each issue, I interviewed four to six people from around the United States and Canada, reviewed a book or two, and edited a contributor’s article.
The publisher gave me considerable autonomy, and the articles kept me up to date on the field. The newsletters also gave me credibility with other clients and led me to a sideline of teaching graduate-level continuing ed writing and editing courses and giving workshops for writers’ groups.
Other freelance assignments included subbing for an ailing magazine editor, writing a calendar for the National Portrait Gallery, writing the proceedings for a Library of Congress conference, writing and editing textbook material, and covering an International Red Cross meeting in Geneva. For several years I financed much of my travel in the United States and abroad by writing and photographing travel articles.
Most of the magazines and newsletters, and several of the newspapers, that I wrote for died years ago.
The Nonfiction Books
I wrote my nonfiction books between 1984 and 1994. My first two (and most profitable), Guide to Student Fundraising and Financial Fitness for Teens, were works for hire. I had a lot of fun but earned few dollars writing (with Betty C. Ford) Adventure Vacations in Five Mid-Atlantic States. Living in the D.C. area, I earned more respect than income from writing a young adult political biography, Elizabeth Dole, Public Servant.
My hair grayed at the same time the opportunities for lucrative, interesting assignments diminished. Both employees and freelancers felt the effects of the changes technology brought to communications programs and of employers’ increased tendency to equate the ability to type and use a spell-checker with the ability to write and edit.
The Transition to Fiction
Now what? I decided to go back to my original goal of writing novels. I hadn’t been a mystery fan until such excellent writers as Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, and Margaret Maron showed women could carry a mystery as the main character rather than sidle on the page as a male protagonist’s damsel in distress or lust interest. I enrolled in a class for beginning mystery writers taught by author Noreen Wald and began a long transition from nonfiction to fiction.
One of the great things that came from that class was a critique group of novice mystery writers, all of them now published. We met weekly, with two or three always presenting chapters for review. My first draft took a long time, and so did sales for most of us.
Finally a Novelist
At one low point, I debated whether to continue trying to sell a mystery. I pulled out the manuscript of a children’s book I had written years before and asked the group to critique it as I revised. In 2007, that manuscript, The Feedsack Dress, became my first published novel.
At another low point, I again questioned whether to give up on writing mysteries. While mulling that over, I greatly enjoyed researching the devastating but little remembered New Madrid earthquakes featured in Thunder Beneath My Feet. My initial marketing experience was frustrating, so I put that manuscript aside when I sold my first mystery, Show Me the Murder, in 2011 (published February 2013).
Midway through writing the fifth of the award-winning Show Me series, I returned to Thunder, doing a light revision and then searching for a publisher. I found one on my fiftieth anniversary as a professional writer.
Now I have to finish book five and decide what to write next.
To learn more about the earthquakes and read an excerpt from Thunder Beneath My Feet, go to the navigation bar and click on Other Writings/Works in Progress/Thunder Beneath My Feet.