With the release of Harbor of Grace, I am officially ending the Hard Cider Abbey series of mysteries. Don’t worry, I did not kill off all my monks, nor shutter the monastery! The series ends in a very gentle way, and it’s possible, though not probable, that I will return to the series at some later date. But it just felt like time to end it, and I have to confess, I feel a great sense of relief in doing so. It’s been a joy to write, but (excuse the expression) hell to market, although the entire experience has been a valuable learning experience. Which is why I started the series in the first place: This was my mystery apprenticeship. I simply wrote it to learn how to write mysteries, and to see if I could sustain a group of characters and overall story arc over several books. And fortunately, I found I could.
The other valuable lesson I learned is the importance of identifying one’s audience. I had assumed my audience would be mainly folks fascinated by monks. And while that might have been a good audience for Thomas Merton in the 1940s and ‘50s, that same sort of audience does not really exist today. A strong and general skepticism about religion among literate folks has pretty much erased much of that curiosity; and if I thought Catholics and Christians in general would be entertained by my books, I was mistaken about that, too. For it seems that believers who take the time to read specifically Christian literature are of a deeply conservative, traditional bent, and those readers were not amused by my more modern, progressive take on the Church. I got some pretty unpleasant and unfair reviews, probably more on average than if I had written a less complicated mystery. But I don’t regret a word: Through it all I gained a number of faithful (and very intelligent!) readers, actually hit the best-seller list a few times and experienced the delight of hearing my work read and recorded by a narrator, when Hard Cider Abbey was turned into an audiobook; and got to connect with readers and writers in the beautiful state of West Virginia.
But it’s time to move on. I’ve begun a new series, purely secular--although some clergy might turn up now and then—and purely escapist. It’s historical, set in the post-war era of the 20th century, mid-century modern so to speak, which was just about the time I entered the world, so I remember a good deal about it. Though I came of age in the 1960s, I had a classic kind of 1940s-1950s childhood, living in the downstairs of my grandmother’s house, in the industrial southwest corner of Hartford, CT, on a street running alongside railroad tracks and flanked on each end by factories (Francis Avenue, for those of you who know Hartford). I grew up listening to tales of the Depression and World War II from grandparents and great-aunts and uncles, and now I have a chance to channel some of that sensibility into a new series of books, even though the book is not set in a factory neighborhood or a small New England city, but on a huge American fighting vessel that has been converted post-war into a luxury world-wide-cruise liner, with many intriguing ports of call. It’s a mystery series, with an amateur sleuth: the ship’s faintly starchy but sharp-witted librarian, Elsa Tamerlane. I can tell you the first book will be witty and fun and somewhat over-the-top as far as plotting goes, but an accurate depiction of its era. I’m hoping to launch sometime this summer, so check back in the spring for my progress. This year 2020 may have gotten off to a slow start, but I have a feeling it’s going to be amazing.