The Day I Died has had an accidental life.
First, I accidentally started writing a novel when I meant to write a short story. The pages stacked up—thirty pages, forty. “Short” stories can be quite long, but this wasn’t one of them, I was told by a writing teacher. This was a novel.
Eventually, I very purposefully put that novel, fully drafted, away. In revising it over and over again, I was buffing at it, but I wasn’t making it shine.
In between those two moments—tripping over the story’s true nature and then realizing I couldn’t fulfill it—the story had another reckoning I didn’t see coming.
In 2008, when this story idea had been outed as a novel but wasn’t much further along than it had been as a rather long short story, I was invited to a writers’ retreat hosted by Midwest Writers Workshop. The nine chosen authors met at a lodge in Pokagon State Park near Angola, Indiana, ready to meet in small groups with teaching writers. I had never been to a writers’ retreat before. I was excited.
When I arrived, I found that the nine fellows had been divided into three groups: Fiction over here, Nonfiction over there, and... Mystery.
I was in the Mystery group.
“Um, excuse me?” I said to leader of the Mystery group. The other two writers in the group were excited to work with him: Edgar Award-nominated author Terence Faherty. These words didn’t make any sense to me. What was an Edgar Award? “I think I might be in the wrong group.”
I had been so excited about the writer’s retreat but I felt my chance to get the most from the experience rushing away. I looked longingly at the Fiction group.
“Well,” Faherty said, patient. “I read your first fifteen pages. There’s a crime in them. Are you going to solve that crime?”
I didn’t know. In the short story, the crime goes unsolved. The crime isn’t the point, not in the short story. And I’d never written a novel before. Maybe I would solve it. But didn’t I like stories that satisfied most reader curiosities? Yes, I did. So... probably. Yes, I decided: If I was ever able to write this story at all, then it would probably come around to solving that crime I had mentioned. “I think so?” I said, with what must have seemed like a low level of enthusiasm. “Yes.”
“OK,” Faherty said. “Then you might be writing a mystery. Maybe.”
So we decided to find out. It turns out the people at Midwest Writers Workshop could see what I could not, that all those years of reading Lois Duncan, Agatha Christie, and Mary Higgins Clark as a young reader (too young, perhaps, on the Mary Higgins Clark) had seeped in. I was a mystery writer.
It wasn’t just a label. That knowledge gave me a framework for my story. A crime story solves the crime; that’s the spine. All the other flesh of the story hung from that. Knowing I was solving a crime gave me a direction to move forward and finish.
In the end, I did put that novel draft away, though. I was not a good enough writer to see where I was going wrong.
I started a new one. But this time I knew who I was and what kind of story I wanted to write. The new project made me a published author. I wrote another one, published it, too.
When I began to consider what I would do for my third act, it was that lonely draft I thought of, the book that taught me I could write a book, the mystery novel that taught me I was a mystery writer. I pulled out the draft and rewrote it from scratch, purposeful and committed at last. Ten years from when I started that long ago, failed short story, The Day I Died is available on bookstore shelves. That is astonishing, to me.
Inside the freshly printed pages, you’ll find a nice quote about it from Terence Faherty, who didn’t just take the opportunity to say told you so. He’s too nice a guy for that, which is no accident. We mystery writers are the nicest folks you’ll ever want to meet.
By the way, I went to the Edgar Awards last year, and I took home a prize. Better than the prize, maybe, was the feeling that I was in the place I always needed to be.
The Day I Died is available now in trade paperback. Start reading an excerpt and order your copy here today.