Friday, June 20, 2008

Late Bloomer, but Lethal

By Jean Henry Mead

I’ve always been fascinated with mayhem and murder.

But I’m a Jeannie-come-lately to the mystery scene, and traveled a circuitous route to get here. I wrote my first mystery in fourth grade, a chapter a day to entertain classmates, which was fortunately never published. As a child I read about grisly crimes committed in California, especially the Black Dahlia murder, which was recently portrayed on film.

And speaking of films, I spent my formative years in Hollywood, a block and a half from Paramount Studios. In the evenings, we would sit on the front porch and watch the “stars” drive by. My mother, an avid star gazer, collected autographed photos of favorite actors as diverse as Clark Gable, Tom Mix and Mary Pickford. I inherited those pictures, which were pasted to the pages of an ancient algebra book. I now find actors’ names cropping up in my mystery novels.

When I became a photojournalist, I interviewed a number of actors and Hollywood screenwriters. But what I really wanted to write were novels: mysteries, suspense and thrillers. Long before that happened, I worked the police beat and wrote features for three daily newspapers. I also moved from California to the Northwest, where I served as a magazine editor and freelanced for the Denver Post’s Empire Magazine, specializing in celebrity and political interviews.

I’m a late bloomer when it comes to writing fiction. I married at 18 and returned to school at 30, majoring in English/journalism. A divorced mother of four daughters, I sometimes took my youngest to class, for lack of a baby sitter. While serving as editor of my campus newspaper, I secured a job as a “cub reporter” for my hometown daily. Working 35 hours a week, I drove to school in a nearby town and was back in time to do homework with my kids.

Sometime during that period of little sleep and managing girls’ softball teams, I took a Famous Writers course and attempted to write fiction. My first attempts were pathetic but I was fortunate to meet two western writers who helped me learn what A.B. Guthrie termed “the language of fiction.” A Western Writers of America convention was held locally and I joined the organization, deciding to write Maverick Writers, a book of interviews with famous western authors.

Elmore Leonard consented to be interviewed and inspired me to make the leap from westerns to mysteries, as he had done. It took six months to arrange an interview with Louis L’Amour at his home in Bel Air, and I then drove to northern Montana to interview A. B. Guthrie, Jr. at his modest A-frame home. Some fifty others gave me such good advice that I was able to choose among three publishers interested in producing the book.

But I didn’t write my first novel until Fred Grove, five-time Spur winner, guided me through the process . Richard S. Wheeler, another multi-Spur winner, then read it through, offering advice. I’ll be forever grateful to them both, and have tried to pass their advice on to other fledglings, as they requested. Some of it is included in my own personal blog:


Beth Terrell said...

Jean, what a lovely testament to the value of mentors.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thank you, Beth.

By the way, if I hadn't read your heartwrenching article about your father's death, I probably wouldn't have written an article about my niece's unsolved murder(this Friday). Thanks for paving the way.


Beth Terrell said...

Jean, is that what you're posting on the blog this week?

I wonder how many mystery writers have had experiences like this?