The Quest to Write

This is my first post for the Ladies of Mystery blog. I’m in the first-Monday-of-the-month slot. Since I’m a first-timer (for the blog, that is!), I’ll tell you about myself. I always wanted to be a writer, even way back in elementary school when I wrote stories and illustrated them myself. I kept at it through high school and college.

The quest to write led me to a journalism degree from the University of Colorado, then to a stint as a reporter on a newspaper in a small Colorado farming community, covering everything from city council and school board meetings to the 4-H banquet. I joined the U.S. Navy, where I worked in public affairs offices in Guam, Florida, and the Bay Area, writing stories and taking pictures. After leaving the Navy, I earned a master’s degree in history from Cal State East Bay. I worked as a legal secretary and admin assistant for many years, finally retiring from the University of California at Berkeley.

Way back when I was covering city council meetings and writing features on Navy life, I also wrote fiction. Mostly short stories. I started a novel that got tucked away in a file box. So did the second novel, this one a mystery.

It was the third novel that did it. As I wrote it, I knew it would be the one that got published. Kindred Crimes won the St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America Best First Novel contest and launched the Jeri Howard series.

Jeri is a private eye working in Oakland, in the Bay Area. She sometimes goes farther afield—to Monterey and San Luis Obispo in Don’t Turn Your Back on the Ocean, West Texas and southeast New Mexico in Where the Bodies Are Buried, and New Orleans in the most recent book, The Devil Close Behind. Jeri made her debut 30 years ago. I’m aging faster than she is.

September marks the publication of my latest book, Death Above the Line, the fourth book in my California Zephyr historical series, which features Zephyrette Jill McLeod sleuthing in the early 1950s.

What, you never heard of a Zephyrette? Jill is the riding-the-rails equivalent of a stewardess. Other train routes had similar hostesses, called by different names. On the California Zephyr, they were Zephyrettes.

Jill is the only female member of the crew. She walks through the train, answers questions, runs errands—attuned to the passengers’ needs, ever alert to any problems. Who would be better placed to solve a crime than a resourceful woman who is supposed to keep an eye on things?

I introduced Jill in Death Rides the Zephyr, which takes place in December 1952. After that, Jill moves into 1953, with Death Deals a Hand, The Ghost in Roomette Four, and now Death Above the Line.

As for the California Zephyr, I mean the original, not the Amtrak Version. The old California Zephyr was sometimes called the Silver Lady, because of its sleek stainless-steel cars.

The first stop on the eastbound route was a small town called Niles, about 25 miles southeast of Oakland. Thought the train didn’t stop unless passengers were waiting to board.

In Death Above the Line, Jill gets roped into playing a Zephyrette in a movie. I chose Niles, now part of the city of Fremont, as the setting because it was a movie town from 1912-1916, when the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company made silent pictures there. Including one called The Tramp, staring a guy named Charlie Chaplin.

You can read more about Niles and its history on my website. Here’s the link.

What brought on the plot that ties trains with a movie? One night I dined with two retired Zephyrettes. One, Rodna Walls Taylor, was a Zephyrette in the early 1950s. She did indeed play a Zephyrette in a movie—Sudden Fear, starring Joan Crawford, Jack Palance, and Gloria Grahame. That scene where the Zephyrette tells Crawford that it’s time for her dinner reservation. That’s Rodna.

I’m looking forward to checking in once a month. If you’d like to check out Jeri Howard’s first nine cases, The Jeri Howard Anthology: Books 1-9, is free today, September 7, on Amazon.