Cynthia Hamilton


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Cynthia Hamilton

The Story Behind the Story: Joan Livingston’s Isabel Long Mystery Series

Before I embarked on my first novel 18 years ago, I harkened back to a piece of advice attributed to Ernest Hemingway: Write about what you know. The author of this week’s guest post is a perfect example of someone who has done just that in her debut series. Her protagonist, Isabel Long, is former journalist, just like her creator. Both draw on Joan’s decades of experience as she creates tangled plots and inserts them into everyday life in the hill country of Western Massachusetts, not coincidently a stomping ground Joan knows very well.

That authenticity rings through in Joan’s writing, giving the reader a real sense of place and confidence that the background given for Isabel’s former profession is accurate, something I really appreciate as a reader. Isabel brings with her a gaggle of supporting characters, quirky individuals who follow an unwritten code of small-town manners, though occasionally they forget the sixth commandment, Thou shall not kill.

It is my great pleasure to give you Joan Livingston:

Thank you, Cynthia, for this opportunity to tell the ‘story behind the story’ of my Isabel Long Mystery Series.

One day I got it in my head that I wanted to write a mystery. I had already written books for adult and young readers, literary fiction and magical realism, respectively. But it made sense to try this genre as I love a great mystery, especially one that fools me until the end.

So, I sat down, and the pieces came together fast. Extremely fast. That’s how it works for me. Not to sound like a nut job, but ideas come from somewhere. The same goes for the characters and what they do.

Anyway, it made sense that my protagonist, Isabel Long, would tell the story, so I wrote it in first-person, and because I want my readers to feel they are in the middle of the action, also in present tense.

Isabel’s back story: she has just come off a bad year when this series starts with Chasing the Case. Her husband died and she lost her job as a newspaper’s top editor. She is what the French call une femme d’un certain age. Isabel’s bit of a smart ass but she has a caring heart. Yes, I admit there is quite a lot of me in her.

After a year of proper grieving, Isabel is ready for a new life. And that’s when we meet her. She decides to solve a 28-year-old mystery of a woman who went missing in her town of a thousand people. It was Isabel’s first big story as a rookie reporter. She plans to use the tools she relied on as a journalist to solve this case. And Isabel has a ‘Watson’ — her 92-year-old mystery-loving mother who’s come to live with her. My own mother, who is 94, inspired this character.

Isabel also takes a part-time job at the local watering hole, the Rooster, where not only does she find clues for her cases, but a love interest in its owner, Jack.

That case leads her to her second in Redneck’s Revenge, where she solves the mystery of how a junkyard owner died. No, the man wasn’t too drunk to get out of a fire. He was murdered. And Isabel gets free mechanical service from the man’s daughter for solving it.

In the third, Checking the Traps, Isabel is a bit banged up from a car crash in her second case. But though her arm is in a sling because of a broken collarbone, she still pours beer one-handed at the Rooster and takes on a new case. A bad boy drug dealer who terrorized her a bit in her last one, hires her to find out what happened to his half-brother. Did he jump off a bridge known for suicides or was he pushed?

A fourth is in progress. I hadn’t expected to write a series, but here I am.

As a writer, I take what I know and have my way with it. For this series, I used my experiences living in very small towns in New England — think one store, one stoplight, one church, one school, one bar — to create what I believe is an authentic setting. I am familiar with feuds, families, gossipy old men, and secrets. I’ve also spent enough time in country bars, including as a bartender, to know what they are like. As for the characters I’ve created, they are made up although I believe they would be comfortable living in the small towns I’ve created.

I also know what it takes to be a journalist. I have worked over thirty years in the news biz. Like Isabel, I began reporting on the small town where I lived. It was a great opportunity for me to listen to the way people talk and to observe how they behave. The experience also broke a long writer’s block that coincided with birthing and raising six kids. And because Isabel snagged cold case folders on the day she was canned at the newspaper, I get to write news stories in my books.

Oh, about Isabel’s broken collarbone. I had a similar experience when a car hit me while I was a pedestrian in a crosswalk. I was glad to put that injury to good use for this book. Yeah, it was another case of taking what I know, and, well, you can figure the rest.

Checking the Traps, published by Crooked Cat Books, has a March 22 launch. Here’s the link:

Where to find Joan: