Mary Miley is an Army brat who has lived in Virginia most of her adult life. She received her BA and MA in history from the College of William and Mary and taught American history and museum studies at Virginia Commonwealth University for thirteen years. She am the author of almost 200 magazine articles, most on history, travel, and business topics, and of nine nonfiction books. The Impersonator is her first mystery.
Every writer I’ve ever heard talk about his or her career begins by saying that she always knew from the time she was a youngster that she wanted to be a writer, novelist, journalist, or poet; she wrote her first book at six; and she has felt driven to write ever since. Not me.
When I was young, I wanted to be a spy.
I trained for this career by watching every episode of I Spy and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., all the James Bond movies, and by reading Nancy Drew, who, if she wasn’t exactly a spy, she at least did a lot of eavesdropping and investigating and thwarting of evil-doers.
Well, the spy thing didn’t work out.
I got married and put my husband through law school selling cheese in Cleveland. (Hey—it was a recession and I was lucky to have any sort of job!) We returned to Virginia as soon as he graduated; I got a masters degree in history and went into the museum field, working for Colonial Williamsburg developing historically authentic products for sale. Oddly, that’s where I learned how to write.
A minor part of my job involved promoting the products I developed with a short article in some in-house Williamsburg publication. Then as now, nothing at Colonial Williamsburg gets published without passing across the desk of one of its take-no-prisoners editors, but when my first submission reappeared on my desk drenched in red ink, I was mortified.
Determined to improve, I asked the editor for further explanation of my mistakes. She coached me that day and over the next few years—a one-on-one writing school that beat anything I’d ever had. Soon I was getting requests to write things for other departments—copy for the mail order catalog, parts of the guidebook, copy for fundraising brochures, and articles for the magazine that went out to the public.
I left my job in 1986 for an adjunct position at Virginia’s largest university teaching American history and museum studies. A month later, the editor of the Williamsburg Journal called—that’s their glossy magazine with a circulation of about 100,000—to ask if I’d like to write another article. I thought he was asking for a favor. I said, “Sure, why not?” He asked how much I wanted to be paid. I didn’t know what to say. I had no idea how people charged for writing. Whatever I’d written in the past had been part of my job description. Did freelance writers get paid by the hour? By the page? I remember thinking, “I wonder if they’d pay as much as $100?” But I didn’t say that, thank goodness. I said I had no idea. The editor asked if $500 would be enough. That’s when it dawned on me that there was money in this writing stuff. That’s when I became a writer.
I began contributing regularly to the Williamsburg Journal and branched into other magazines, national ones like American Heritage and regional ones like Virginia Living. Over the past three decades, I’ve written 200 articles and nine nonfiction books, mostly on history, travel, and business topics.
Then I reached my fifties. Have you noticed that when people get to that stage in their lives, they are seized with an urge to do something different? They want a new job, a new career, a new educational venture, or maybe a new hobby or volunteer gig. When the fifties struck, I decided to write a novel. I figured the easiest way to start would be to write a romance novel, the Harlequin-type, because they are short and have a single plot line, and because Harlequin accepted unagented submissions. So I wrote one. And another. And another. I think I wrote five. Harlequin responded to each with a polite rejection.
Forced to admit that I was not romantic enough to be a romance writer, I turned next to the Young Adult category and wrote a (too) long book about a 15-year-old orphan after the Civil War that began with her contemplating her burned-out plantation home. Then I attended a writing conference where an agent said that if she ever saw another manuscript that began with the heroine contemplating her burned-out plantation home, she’d vomit. The other agents on the panel nodded, and I was forced to admit I was not cut out to write YA either.
I turned next to mysteries. By now, I’d figured out that any novel I might write would have to be a historical. Like most historians, I find the past pulls me harder than the present or the future, but I was a bit tired of living in colonial America. So I moved up to the 1920s and wrote a murder mystery set in France. If I couldn’t be a spy, I would solve mysteries like my favorite heroine of old, Nancy Drew.
Seems I was on a better track here, for my French mystery got me an agent who sent it out to a couple dozen publishers. It got a few nibbles, but no contract. I wrote another, set in America this time, during the Roaring Twenties. My agent hated it. I learned that agents could fire authors. I got another agent. She sent it out to a dozen publishers, got a few nibbles, but still no contract.
About that time—three years ago—I came across something about a writing contest sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America and St. Martin’s Press. There was no charge to enter, so I packed my latest manuscript in a box, mailed it off, and promptly forgot about it, because I never win anything.
You know those junk calls you get—“Congratulations! You have won . . .”—and it’s about timeshares in Florida? When the senior editor at St. Martin’s Minotaur called to tell me I’d won the contest, that’s what it sounded like to me. I nearly hung up on her. She managed to get in one question before I slammed down the phone. “Didn’t you enter a writing contest?” I vaguely recalled that I had, so I said, “Yes, but that was 2 or 3 years ago.” She said, “No, it was nine months ago.” She loved my book, The Impersonator, and wanted to publish it. I was flabbergasted.
I’ve told you all this so you won’t think, as most people do, how lucky I was to get my first novel published. The Impersonator is my eighth or ninth novel, but the first one to be published. And it was released last week. St. Martin’s Minotaur has already contracted for the second in the Roaring Twenties series, and I’ve nearly completed the third. But it was a long, circuitous road full of potholes and detours. And that is often, perhaps usually, the case for those who choose to write novels. Their “first novel” is seldom their first.