Kathleen Kaska, award-winning mystery writer of the Sydney Lockhart mystery series, has set her stories in the 1950s when women were caught between the dichotomy of career and marriage, when fashion exploded with a never-before-seen flair, and movies and music had the country dancing with gusto.
Kathleen’s first mystery, Murder at the Arlington, won the 2008 Salvo Press Manuscript Contest. This book, along with her second mystery, Murder at the Luther, was selected as bonus-book for the Pulpwood Queen Book Group, the largest book group in the country.
Growing up in the fifties in the small Central Texas town of West, her average American parents and the Catholic nuns of St. Mary’s School instilled in Kathleen the values of being a “good girl,” leaving an indelible stamp on her character. Unable to shake those ingrained teachings, Kathleen began writing her Sydney Lockhart stories in an effort to say and do things she would never attempt in real life.
Check out Murder at the Luther, set in 1952 at the historic Luther Hotel on the Texas Coast. It’s New Year’s Eve and just seconds before midnight, Sydney finds herself dancing with a dead man.
As writers we’ve been asked the “question” many times, and have answered with humor, wit, candor, only to receive that unbelievable stare in response. You know the one that says, “you can’t be serious.” So when I had a chance to write a piece for my writers’ group about how authors develop or invent their characters, I turned my answer into the following short story.
She sat on her suitcase waiting for a taxi, blowing on her fingers to keep them warm. I waved her a heartfelt goodbye; she winked, and was gone. I wondered if we’d ever cross paths again. I first met the old woman a few days ago. It was a breezy, autumn afternoon, and I was exploring the hills around Hot Springs, Arkansas, taking in the fall colors, when I made the wrong turn and had gotten lost. I pulled over and unfolded my map. Then suddenly without warning, she stepped out of nowhere, and tapped on the car window.
“Let me be the one,” she whispered as my window slide down. “Let me do it.”
“Do what?” I said.
“Kill the SOB.”
Introductions were not necessary; I knew who she was, and I was glad to see her. I had been waiting for two months, but I did not expect her to show up here.
No bigger than a stick, eighty-two-year-old Ida Springfield was the most cantankerous old woman I had ever known. A stiff wind kicked up and I grabbed her hand for fear she would fly away with the fallen foliage. She stared straight ahead, pulling at her lower lip the way she does when pondering a critical situation. I studied her profile. Pulled tight from her face, her hair was plaited in a long, thick braid. A few gray strands had come loose around her temples and with small, firm birdlike hands, Ida brushed back the errant hair.
Everything about her was petite. Her near-perfectly shaped nose and slightly pointed chin gave a rather simple face some dimension. Her tiny wrinkles looked as if they had been drawn on her face with a fine-tipped pencil. From a distance, she could pass for a woman several decades younger. One had to get close to tell Ida’s age. I wondered how close I would have to get to understand what Ida was all about.
“It won’t be easy,” I said.
“This type of thing never is. I’ll put the body in his car and push it into a pond on my ranch.” She nodded at the algae-covered quagmire across the road. “Like that one over there. No one will ever find him. Trust me.” The look on her face frightened me.
“But one murder might easily lead to another,” I reminded her.
“I know, sweetie. Let me worry about that,” Ida said. “Do what you do best; take care of the details.”
She threw her suitcase in the car and I drove her back to the hotel. By the end of the week I not only had the details, I had the entire murder plot for my next Kate Caraway mystery, A Two Horse Town.
After several trips to Hot Springs, I came to the realization that the place must be my Muse. Four years ago during my annual Thanksgiving trip to the Arlington Hotel, I met wisecracking Sydney Lockhart. She reminded me of a tall, redheaded Lauren Bacall. As I was unpacking, she walked out of the bathroom and asked me why there was a dead body lying in the bathtub, the very bathtub where she had been conceived thirty years ago. Before I could think of a reasonable answer, she then asked if I had room for her and her two pets, a cat named Mealworm, and a poodle named Monroe. Regardless of the hotel’s no pet policy, I welcomed them with open arms. By the week’s end, we had the plot lined out for the first Sydney Lockhart mystery, Murder at the Arlington, set in Hot Springs in the early 1950s when illegal gambling had gone underground.
One of the miracles of writing is when my characters present themselves when I least expect it. It’s almost like a seed had been planted a long time ago, and suddenly the conditions turn ideal, and the seed germinates—and for a moment, writing is simple.
When I tell folks that my best characters discover me, not the other way around, so what if they don’t believe me. I’ve come to realize that not everyone had the pleasure of growing up with imaginary friends.