17 September 2009

Pre-Bouchercon Guest Blogger #12 -- Roberta Isleib

Today's guest blogger, Roberta Isleib, lets us in on how she got an idea for a novel, through a real-world experience. Isleib attended her first Bouchercon in 1999 (Milwaukee, WI), desperately seeking publication, she knew no one in the mystery business. Many Bouchercon conventions later, she has had eight books published in the advice column and golf lovers mystery series (Berkley Prime Crime.) Her books and stories have been short-listed for Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards. She is looking forward to meeting old friends and new in Indianapolis! http://www.robertaisleib.com

AN IDEA IS BORN by Roberta Isleib

Sometimes a powerful personal experience percolates for years, lying in wait for the right moment to work its way into a book. I can trace one event quite directly in the first Rebecca Butterman advice column mystery, DEADLY ADVICE (Berkley, March 2007.)

My first marriage petered out twenty years ago during the last year of my graduate program in clinical psychology. I took the cats and moved from our cozy starter home, which had included a dog, a garden, and a wood stove, to a tiny apartment in a row of tiny apartments. No families here, just single folks, and not the kind who led swinging singles’ lives.

The separation didn’t have a dramatic “War of the Roses” kind of climax, but it felt plenty sad all the same. Questions circled: Was I doing the right thing? Would I always be alone? If I disappeared, would anyone notice I was missing?

Answers drifted in: Yes, I was making the right move. Someday I’d sort this out and find a relationship that fired on all its cylinders. And please, lose the melodrama! This was a period of pulling in, marshalling the interior troops, mustering energy for my dissertation and internship—I was not seeking new friends.

Every morning, my taciturn next-door neighbor left for work at 7:30, returning by six. She had no visitors and rarely went out. We never really talked, just nodded our polite hellos. She didn’t bring over a “welcome to the neighborhood” casserole. We never had coffee. Some nights she’d appear outside on the sidewalk between her car and her apartment and grill one hamburger. Medium well, I’d think, considering the time it sat on the coals. We might have exchanged a word or two about the weather. How sad, I’d think. Is that me? I’d wonder next.

I returned to my apartment from the library one evening and noticed a small U-Haul parked in front of my neighbor’s apartment. An older couple was loading the contents of her place into the van. I waved but didn’t ask questions. It wasn’t my business; we weren’t friends.

Over coffee the next morning, I skimmed the Gainesville Sun as usual. My attention was drawn to a small article near the bottom of an interior page. Based on the address listed in the paper, I realized that my neighbor had shot herself several days earlier. Her dead body had lain in the apartment next to mine for over forty-eight hours before someone found her.

I felt shocked and sad. What if I’d tried harder to connect with her? Could I have saved her? What private misery led her to take her life in such a violent way? Isn’t this every single woman’s worst nightmare—dead two days and no one even notices you’re gone?

Twenty years later, that’s where DEADLY ADVICE begins. When Dr. Rebecca Butterman returns home to find her neighbor an apparent suicide, she's wracked with guilt. As a psychologist and advice columnist, she should have been able to help the young woman. But the young woman’s mother suspects foul play, and soon persuades Rebecca to investigate. Before long, the newly single Rebecca wishes she had someone to advise her as she navigates her neighbor’s world of speed-dating and web-blogging, where no one is who they claim to be.

She doesn’t save her neighbor—as I didn’t save mine—but she resolves to unravel the story behind this woman’s tragic end. And that’s why I love reading and writing mysteries. A story that’s rife with loose threads in real life can be all tied up in a hopeful way in a book.

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