Margaret Maron is the author of twenty-six novels and two collections of short stories. Winner of several major American awards for mysteries (Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, Macavity), her works are on the reading lists of various courses in contemporary Southern literature and have been translated into 16 languages. She has served as president of Sisters in Crime, the American Crime Writers League, and Mystery Writers of America.
A native Tar Heel, she still lives on her family's century old farm a few miles southeast of Raleigh, the setting for Bootlegger's Daughter, which is numbered among the 100 Favorite Mysteries of the Century as selected by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. In 2004, she received the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for best North Carolina novel of the year. In 2008, she was honored with the North Carolina Award for Literature. (The North Carolina Award is the state’s highest civilian honor.)
SERENDIPITY / Margaret Maron
Ser•en•dip•i•ty \ n \: the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.
When people ask why I don’t outline, I always say that I find that my books come out better if I leave them open to serendipity.
So many lovely things have happened in my life and in my work by not planning for them, not expecting them, that I begin to think one really can cultivate the “faculty of finding valuable things not sought for.”
Recently, a reader who had stumbled across Bloody Kin, my first NC book, excitedly asked me, “When you were writing this book seven years before you wrote Bootlegger’s Daughter, did you know that you would be having the main protagonist of that book turn out to be Deborah Knott’s sister-in-law many books later? And that she would be the one to repaint the wedding cake topper for Deborah?"
No. But when I needed someone to repaint that cake topper, there she was. Already in the family.
Years later, when writing the 9th DK novel, Slow Dollar, I needed for one of the new characters to suddenly appear out of nowhere and be closely related to Deborah. I took a look at the family tree that I created for the first book to see where I could put her and was startled to realize that she was already there. She even had a name and a bit of a mystery as to where she was and where she’d been all those years. I certainly didn’t plan it out when I first stuck that twig on the family tree, yet there she was, waiting for me when I needed her.
It works for real life, too. Years ago, I favorably reviewed a first novel, knowing absolutely nothing about the author except that I liked the book and with no expectation that it would come to anything more than any other review. The author sent me a thank-you note, we began corresponding and became friends. A couple of years later, when I needed a new agent, she introduced me to hers which is how I came to meet the agent I will have till one of us dies. (Insert that S word again!)
Early in my Deborah Knott series, someone wrote me that she had read that I planned to take my judge to courtrooms all over the state of North Carolina.“If you ever want to bring her over here to the mountains, I’d be pleased to show you around and act as a resource person.” I wrote back and thanked her and stuck the letter in a folder marked Possible Future Books: Mtns. Eventually, I decided that yes, it might be fun to send Deborah out to the Blue Ridge Mountains. I rooted out the letter and wrote, “You once offered to be a resource. Does the offer still stand?”
Which is how Kaye Barley came into my life and will be in my life forever.
I mentioned Bloody Kin before? It actually triggered the main serendipitous turning point in my career. I had written three books set against the NY art world with a NYPD homicide detective, Sigrid Harald. The books sold well enough to keep my editor happy, but they didn’t seem to catch on and after writing three of them, I sneaked in that stand-alone set right here on our family farm. It sank like a rock, so I went back to writing about NY.
Two or three years later, the Triangle Romance Writers decided to put on a multi-genre conference in Raleigh. I was invited to do a workshop on mysteries. They had snared some associate editors and a couple of agents to come down from New York. I wound up having supper with one of the editors. She was nice. It was a pleasant meal, but others were at the table and we didn’t really connect.
When the conference began, it was early spring, a chilly rain all weekend, too raw to walk outside, but on Sunday morning, spring arrived as only spring can in our part of the state. Forsythia popped out, azaleas and dogwoods spread their blossoms, wisteria dripped from the pines, pansies came back to life—it was beauty everywhere you looked and after a weekend in the hotel, I was ready to go home and enjoy the farm.
As I passed through the lobby on the way to my car, I heard the editor I’d met ask the hotel clerk what there was to do within walking distance for three hours until her plane left. He suggested that she walk across six lanes of traffic to the mall that was across from the motel.
Now my husband is always telling me that I don’t know where my parameters end. That I always feel I must make things nice for others whether they want them made nice or not. That I don’t mind my own business.
But I couldn’t bear to think that this was her first time in NC and all she was going to see of it was a shopping mall no different from the stores in New York?
“Excuse me,” I said, “but if you’ve got a couple of hours to kill, would you like a quick tour of Raleigh?”
I showed her the Capitol Square (dogwoods and azaleas everywhere), our Victorian governor’s mansion and the historic section of town. I took her out to Meredith College and showed her the collection of dolls that each graduating class has dressed in contemporary clothes since shortly after the college was founded in 1891; and we wound up looking at the historic 1912 Dentzel carousel in Pullen Park and just sitting on one of the benches in the warm spring sunshine talking,talking, talking.
By the time I took her back to catch her airport shuttle, we were friends. Back in New York, she immediately hunted out a copy of Bloody Kin and loved it. “You really ought to write another North Carolina book,” she said.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “Nobody wants to read a mystery set in the rural South” and I continued to write another couple of Sigrid Harald books.
“Seriously,” she said whenever we met at conferences over the next couple of years. “You really should write another North Carolina book.”
So I did and she bought it (Bootlegger’s Daughter). Sara Ann Freed was my dream editor for ten books until her death and I will miss her forever. Every time I stop and think how close I came to missing her friendship when I passed through that hotel lobby, I shiver.
So yes, I will keep on leaving myself open to serendipity. (As does Kaye!)