I don’t know about you, but I’m edgy most of the time and worried the rest of it. The Creek Fire is burning a scant few miles away, and we’ve been living under an evacuation warning for weeks now. Of course, there is Covid-19, and now, RBG. Sigh!
At times like this, I find comfort in books. Not any books, but those books, the ones that mark your passages, the ones you’ve never forgotten because at that moment in your life they were perfect.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about three books that I liberated as a pre-teen from a dusty shelf above the stairs in our house in Michigan. The books were thin volumes, simply bound, in varying colors, with black titles embossed on the cloth bindings—Madge Sterling Mysteries, by Ann Wirt. I remember the feeling of anticipation as I lifted The Missing Formula from the shelf. Next thing I knew, I’d been swept away. I consumed all three of the slight books, one a day for three days, perched on a stair, reading in the stairwell light. They were mysteries—not Nancy Drew, or Hardy Boys—but mysteries with an engaging female alone in the world, armed only with her lively mind.
I never forgot Madge, even after I discovered Mary Stewart, who transported me first to the Isle of Skye, then to the South of France, to Crete, to Corfu to the world. And she brought romantic suspense gently into my reading. I have never fully recovered from Richard Byron in Madam, Will You Talk? or Simon Lester in My Brother Michael. Oh, there have been other men, but Richard is waiting for me in a courtyard in Avignon and Simon to drive me to Delphi. I know they are!
Reading Mary Stewart was the first time I experienced world-building, though I never would have used those exact words. Nothing is as soothing as crawling into a carefully constructed world that teaches you, woos you, and entices you to belong. A place you want to stay for a while or maybe forever.
Which brings me to the Amelia Peabody books. Each book should come with a warning that to venture with Amelia into the Valley of the Kings is to slip into a parallel universe from which there is no return. My favorite Amelia Peabody books are the four that take place during World War I. I love them. I read them when I need to return to a time of wry humor, careful history, joyous family, and adventure. Elizabeth Peters, Barbara Mertz to the world, left us real treasures in these books. Start with Crocodile on the Sandbank, but rush to The Falcon at the Portal.
The legacy of all of these ladies accompanies me when I write, though I know full well I’m not in their league. Sure, I have read the gents, lots and lots of mysteries, thrillers, and suspense by men. I adored Travis McGee and Lew Archer, trust me. But these ladies of mystery taught me everything.
First, have fun! Second, build a world that your readers can wander into and not want to leave. Third, make your heroes “all damn and dark your eyes,” even if they are blonds, and your heroines lively and ready to learn more than they ever wanted to know about themselves. As one reader of my first book, Perfidia wrote, “I really enjoyed this book because you can escape from the real world for a time. I loved the characters and did not want the book to end. Can’t miss with Islands, Ocean, Pirates and History.”
Maybe someday her daughter will grab a book from the stairwell and read: “My father, Del Lassiter, is a handsome man in his early fifties. Dark hair shot through with gray, blue eyes coupled with a nice easy smile that makes him the darling of all his female acquaintances whom he dates prodigiously but never marries. My girlfriends all adore him, especially my best friend, Gail. When he pours his honeyed-peanut voice over them, they swoon.”