As a person who came to mystery publication somewhat late in life—past fifty for both my first novel and first short story—my mantra by default occasionally feels closer to “write what you lived” than “write what you know.”
Before landing my first full-time journalism job, I moved around a lot, both as a single man and later with my wife. I learned Gaelic in a village on Ireland’s west coast, volunteered on a South Dakota Indian reservation, and attended graduate school and later taught English as a Second Language in Providence, Rhode Island. Each experience transformed me in its own way, engraining in me lessons of success and failure that guide me to this day.
Yet not just years but decades passed before I finally started writing about those eras, inspired by my budding mystery career and the simple march of time. In the spring of 2017, I used the annual New England Crime Bake call for stories to summon up a tale of the mid-1980s Providence that I remembered. Mining my memory banks, I spun a story—“The Murderous Type,” anthologized later that year—involving mobsters, illicit love and Brown University (not necessarily in that order).
Later that year, my wife and I flew to Spain to celebrate the wedding of our oldest daughter to her Barcelona husband. Returning to Europe for the first time since 1984, recollections of my year in Ireland flooded back. By the time our flight home touched down, I had outlined in my head a story—“The Path I Took,” published in 2020—of a young linguistics scholar from Ohio whose early 1980s sojourn in a Gaelic-speaking village takes a dark turn when he discovers a murder victim tied to “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland.
At that point, I realized I was two-thirds into a trilogy of sorts, a trio of unlinked stories based on experiences from my early twenties. I knew the last entry would involve South Dakota, and that it would be the hardest to write. Volunteering on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was life-changing to say the least, as my wife and I found ourselves thrust into a world vastly different from anything we’d known before—socially, economically, racially, and geographically. We departed after two years buoyed by the adventure but also questioning our role as white volunteers trying to “help” people who never asked for our assistance in the first place.
With these concerns in mind, I set out to draft what became “Ignatius Rum-and-Cola,” appearing in the January/February issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I stuck with my lived experience, setting the story on a fictional Jesuit mission similar to the one we called home for two years. I made the conscious decision to feature a tribal policeman, but just as consciously chose to tell the story through the eyes and experiences of the mission superintendent—a white Jesuit priest—and the white mission volunteers. I did this not to elevate him or the volunteers in my story to any sort of superior status, but to honestly portray my own time on Pine Ridge, and to avoid as much as possible any hint of cultural appropriation.
So what did I learn from writing this personal trilogy?
Writing about one’s past is liberating, but it’s not a free pass to storytelling. Just as I do when writing contemporary stories, I did research and consulted experts along the way, from a retired Providence cop, to an Irish language specialist, to my wife and fellow reservation volunteer, to make sure I had my facts right after thirty-odd years.
One’s lived experience is the framework for a story set in the past, but it’s only half the picture. All three of my stories added the flight of fancy of a murder mystery to what were otherwise interesting but highly personal experiences—read: possibly boring without the discovery of a body.
As a writer, give yourself time. Lots and lots of it. I tell novice authors to brace themselves for playing the long game, encouraging them that success will come but it could be years in the making. Or decades, in my case. But I can say with confidence: it’s worth the wait.