They tell you the second book is the hardest. You have all your life to write the first. Nobody expects anything to come of it, there’s no pressure but what you apply to yourself. And the third, well, you’ve done it twice, you can do it again. But the second book, especially if your first novel came with a two book contract and a deadline, well that’s a different story. Dominick Abel, my literary agent, explained my predicament at our first meeting by putting his forefinger to his temple and cocking his thumb.
“Tick, tick, tick,” he said, and added, “I don’t envy you.”
At the time I was trying to write The Gray Ghost Murders, my second novel in the Sean Stanching fly fishing detective series, set in Montana’s Madison Valley. The first, The Royal Wulff Murders, set a high bar, having received a red star review from Publisher’s Weekly and having been chosen by both the Mystery Guild and the Book of the Month Club. And Dominick was right, the publisher of Penguin Press was expecting something new from me and I was feeling the pressure. So far, my sheriff, Martha Ettinger, had managed to unearth the bodies of two older men, hence the title, from the slopes of a mountain called the Sphinx; now my problem was getting Stranahan involved and figuring out how and why my gray ghosts had gotten buried there in the first place.
As a writer I’m what you call a muddler througher as opposed to an outliner. I start with a scene, I write the first line, the second is born of the first, and so the story develops. It’s like setting sail, you can see to the horizon, then you’re lost at sea. Finally you smell land, and you exhale the breath you didn’t know you’d been holding the past few months when your inclination had been to jump overboard into the teeth of the sharks. As a way of writing a plot driven novel, this is not a method I recommend, but it seems to be the only way I can work.
Still, I was muddling along admirably, despite the invisible gun to my head, when the birds appeared. To make a long story quite short (you’ll have to read the Author’s Note at the end of The Gray Ghost Murders for the full tale), I took over the rearing of four baby Brewer’s blackbirds that had been transplanted, together with the spruce tree their parents had selected for a nest, some 140 miles on a flatbed trailer. Finding the transplanted nestlings I called the local wild bird rescue person, who told me to dispense with formalities and just call her Captain Marvel. I asked Captain Marvel if she would take on the rearing of the little darlings — after all, I thought naively, this is what such people do. Captain Marvel said, “Honey, that’s how we all start.”
From that point forward, The Gray Ghost Murders emerged in fifteen minute bursts, for baby birds must be fed every quarter hour. It was sink or swim, not to belabor the ocean analogy, and the birds taught me to swim. Some three months later my blackbirds, fully feathered and boldly iridescent, migrated south. In another week, I completed the book. Yes, I thought, the plot worked. All that was left to do was hike up to Sphinx Mountain, which I hadn’t climbed in 25 years, to make sure the country in the novel matched the country of the gods. The week before, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks had tranquilized several grizzly bears in the area, taken their blood, administered other tests and released them, putting them in a bad mood when they saw humans forever after. I had visions of one sinking his teeth into my own (slightly?) graying hair and wondered if the newspaper story of my death would help sales of the novel.
A mauling may not have, for if it’s true that the second novel is the hardest to write, it’s equally true it’s the hardest sell. Eventually, Oprah’s Book Club resurrected interest by selecting it as “One of Five New Mysteries We Can’t Put Down,” and today many readers have told me it’s their favorite in the series. I would meet my personal Waterloo trying to write the third novel, but then that’s another story for another day.