Yeah sure! That was before the crows got a hold of me, started directing my life and leading me from one dead body to another. Well, figuratively speaking, that is. But let me back up. It was a fall Monday, much like the days were having now. Monday is garbage day out where I live. so I was on my way up our drive to the road to collect the garbage can. The garbage guy had come and gone. Sometimes he would send my lid sailing like a Frisbee and other times hed have it neatly returned to the can. I never knew what I was going to find and retrieving Frisbee shots in winter, with five feet of snow on the ground, could get treacherous.
This was a good week. The lid was in place but still the usual flock of carnivorous crows was there, squawking, bowing their awkward, aggressive crow bows, strutting up the road at me, jumping out of the burning maples. Any leftover treat could do it: a bloody meat wrapper, a wormy apple. They were brave and pugnacious souls. Sometimes I shooed them. I often threatened them. But it got to be a game. Then one day I picked up my garbage can and got hit with the big What if? fiction writers ask themselves.
What if there was something truly awful in there? What if the crows had reason for their hysteria? Hmmwhat if there was a head in that garbage can?
FIRST, THE WOMEN
I was off writing what was to become Dead Dancing Women, a mystery about a cadre of elderly women who met around a bonfire out in the woods to celebrate their long friendship and to honor Mother Earth. First came the women -- a motley crew of old friends, and then came the suspects -- not too difficult to figure out; and then came my intrepid sleuths: Emily Kincaid and Deputy Dolly Wakowski of the two-man Leetsville Police Department.
Emily is a writer who quit her job on an Ann Arbor newspaper, divorced her philandering husband and came to Northern Michigan to write what turned out to be pretty crappy mystery novels. Deputy Dolly is an officious woman who looks a little like Barney Fife, only not as pretty. These two form an odd and uneasy friendship but stop arguing long enough to get the murderer.
The novel was brought out by Llewellyn Publishers Worldwide/Midnight Ink this fall with the second in the series, Dead Floating Lovers, to follow next July. A multi-book contract now promises a long life to Emily and Dolly, who will keep stumbling over bodies well into their dotage.
Northern Michigan is the perfect place to set mysteries. There are the deep woods, the expanses of water, all the little houses set back off the main roads, and most of all, the people.
Northern people are story tellers of the kind I hadnt met since visiting Ireland, where I sat up late in Shakespearean pubs listening to wild tales being spun and shared. Every one up here is an individual with specialized knowledge.
I am always learning from people, such as my friend Theresa, who spent her winters making crafts to sell during the summer. A specialty of hers was a crocheted hat made of beer can fronts. She would come for me, down my drive, in her red beer can hat. Outside my window, where I sat writing, she would wave and yell that the morels were up. Like a Siren, she summoned me to the woods to find those elusive little brown mushrooms, and later there would be milkweed pods -- to be cooked in three waters, drained, and fried in butter. Still later would come the puffballs. One morning I found a bushel-basket sized puffball and that find is still lodged in my memory as one of my better achievements.
STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE
Then there was Old Carl, a stick-like man with skin as wrinkled as tree bark. Carl had been a skidder back in the logging days and came to take out trees for the new-to-the-woods folks from down below. Old Carl told stories of the woods, the lumbering campstales of murder and intrigue.
One after another, stories about the people and places up here were handed to me. Bob Murray of Kalkaska told me about a used car salesman there in town who used to drive around in a hearse with the sign: Before You Die, Youll Buy From HI on it. Perfect character for the third book in the Dead series.
But back to the crows. The first book was finished and turned in. I was working on the second and went out to a little lake where Id laid the new story. The outline was done. I needed a little cabin on that lake, a little cabin I was going to burn down by the end of the book. There was nothing. No house. No cabin. Well, so what? A fiction writer creates whatever it takes.
Still, I was disappointed. A friend, along with me to take photos, asked a teenage swimmer if there had ever been a house on the lake. He shook his head but another boy piped up, Not now. But theres a foundation of an old house over there. He pointed to where Id put the house in the story -- before Id come to the lake. At that moment, six crows flew overhead, toward where that house had been. I tried to ignore them, but they took such glee in being there ahead of me, in being more knowledgeable than I -- they were owed at least a slight bow for the gift.
And then came time to begin the third book in the series. It starts in the ghost town of Deward, between Mancelona and Grayling, where Emily goes to do a story on ghost towns for a local magazine, and to drown her sorrows over receiving yet another churlish rejection of her latest mystery. I knew I wanted a body found under a jack pine out there, but had no idea who the dead woman was, nor why she was there, nor who killed her, or why. Out at Deward I was led to the perfect tree by a trio of crows, and found what looked to be a rectangular dug-over place beside that tree. A grave? Hmmm . . . Suddenly I knew who the dead woman was, why she was out at Deward, who else had to die, and who the culprit was. A lot of help from a bunch of carrion eaters.
So. Inventive people. Amazing stories. Mysterious woods and animals and, of course, crows looking for a poor, lost writer to inspire. If asked what advice I would give aspiring mystery writers in Northern Michigan, I guess the only thing I could offer is this: find a willing bird and follow it. Sorry, thats the best I can do a conundrum, wrapped in a riddle, tangled in a metaphor.