A Lifetime of Writing

Last week a fan/friend in Grand Junction, Colorado, sent me the obituary of and a sample column from a long time writer for the city’s Daily Sentinel. Henrietta Hay died this past July at age 106. What struck me about that is that she and my mother, Evie, were born in the same year—1914.

My mother never went beyond seventh grade in school. Henrietta was a college graduate. My mother was strictly a spectator when it came to sports. Henrietta was a championship tennis player in college but wasn’t awarded her sports letter from the University of Colorado until some sixty years after graduation. My mother was a stay at home wife and mother. Henrietta was a writer, a broadcaster, a librarian, and a mother. What the two of them clearly had in common, however, was incredible amounts of common sense.

So I enjoyed reading Henrietta’s obituary and learning about her life, but I enjoyed the accompanying article even more because it was all about writing. She tells how, in writing a weekly column for more than forty years, she learned that it takes a lifetime’s worth of living to write each and every one, and it occurs to me that it takes the same thing to write a book.

In the column, Henrietta mentioned that one of her favorite writers was Sue Grafton, and she imagined that every night when Sue Grafton went to sleep, she shared her bed with Kinsey Milhone and her many fellow characters.

Boy did that one hit home! Because it happened to me just last night as a matter of fact. I’m currently at work on the next Ali book, Unfinished Business, and am, as of today, 37.9% done. (How do I know that? I keep track of the word count every day. Each book is supposed to be at least 95,000 words long, so that’s my goal. In the end, I may be slightly over, but by keeping track on a daily basis, I always know where I am in the process.)

Last night, when I went to bed, Bill was there and so were our two dachshunds, JoJo and Mary. (Do you have any idea how much space a pair doxies can take up in a king-sized bed?) But it turns out, I brought two characters from Unfinished Business to bed with me as well, and the pair of them managed to keep me awake for hours on end. One is a guy who just spent sixteen years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, while the other is walking around free as a bird forty years after getting away with murder.

And where are these two characters going to intersect? At High Noon Enterprises in Cottonwood, Arizona, of course. How exactly will they interact with Ali Reynolds? Beats me. What’s going to happen? I have no idea. By now you’re probably scratching your heads and wondering, “If she’s more than a third of the way through writing a book, how’s it possible that she doesn’t know what’s going to happen?”

The answer to that is easy. In a lifetime’s worth of writing, I have ALWAYS HATED OUTLINING!! If I knew what was going to happen in any given book, why in the world would I ever finish writing it? I write for the same reason people read—to find out what happens.

It’s the same way with this blog—I write to find out where it’s going. If these essays were published in a newspaper, I suppose they would qualify as columns, but a rose by any other name is still a rose. Blog or column, the end result is the same.

When I sat down to write this an hour or so ago, I had no idea about where the piece was going to go, but in the course of writing it, I found my way. In doing so, I also made use of my own lifetime’s worth of experience and of Henrietta Hay’s as well.

I think she’d be proud of me.

And my mother, Evie, would be, too.

16 thoughts on “A Lifetime of Writing

  1. Woman to woman I can say that many women are proud of you and your writing. The world we live in has changed so much in the last 100 plus years. We keep on evolving in order to move with the times. Your crowded bed sounds comfortable to me. I don’t have pets sharing my bed but my cat checks in at least once a night. He is a bit bossy. Thanks for sharing this weeks thoughts with us.

  2. Always so relieved when I read your columns, especially the ones in which you write about your writing process. On my third mystery novel, a series, and though it’s not the only thing I write, it’s what I love most. Compared to other kinds of writing, fiction is purely a gift of the imagination, and it can test a writer in ways like nothing else. Never knowing what’s next or how a character is going to behave or react, is unlike other kinds of writing. It tests our ability to ‘let it flow’. Despite my best laid plans, the characters lead me where they wish, and it’s not usually what I’m thinking is going to be the case. I took am about 1/3 of the way through. wondering if I can do it, and then I remember, it’s time to listen to the characters. Ask them to lead the way. Thanks so much.

    • When new writers ask me for advice, I’m tempted to say, why don’t you just go through my blog archives. It’s all in there.

  3. Yes, your Mother would be very proud of you & I am also. Why? Because I know about you & our life. You did not let adversity stop you from fulfilling your dreams of writing although at time it seemed like “the impossible dream”.
    A lot of people dwell forever on the adversity in their lives instead of getting the gumption of saying “I can do this”.

  4. During the five days without power the first part of August I had a lot of time to clean. One thing I did was dust books. I found articles about Sue Grafton who I first learned about in an interview Modern Maturity (the AARP magazine) in 1995. She wrote every day and did not make outlines either. She often didn’t know what Kinsey would do next.

    You had a great childhood. She wasn’t so lucky. Sue’s mother had a drinking problem and when Sue was little her mother would spend the day stretched out on the couch smoking after drinking bourbon for breakfast. She eventually killed herself with an overdose of pills on Sue’s 20th birthday.

    I can’t imagine your Mom acting like that. Can you?

    • I didn’t know that about Sue Grafton. I’m sorry to know that, but she certainly made the very best of a bad bargain.

  5. I look forward every Friday morning to reading your blog. Wondering where you are going to take us!
    Thanks for your lifetime of writing!

  6. It is always wonderful to read how you work. I hate outlining, too. Though I sometimes have an idea of how my book will end, it usually surprises me.
    How thoughtful of your friend to send you the article. I feel reading how someone spent their life is more than interesting. Sometimes it gives us courage to go on, and sometimes it simply provides strength and a smile.
    Thank you for always including us in your life.
    I hope you have a wonderful weekend,
    Cecily Vermote

  7. Oh, Judy!! We are twins separated at birth!! I feel exactly the same way about outlining and the joy of learning as I go who “done it”! And as it happens, I’m taking a short vacation from my mystery series to write a biographical/historic/novel/? about my mom’s life. I’m immersed in early 20th century history and customs, and trying to create a sense of how life was during that time. Then adding in the actual events I KNOW happened to my mom. I often take that to bed with me!!

  8. I always know when it’s Friday because your blog comes up in my email ? Thanks for helping me keep track of the days and for your sharing your awesome writing with us!

  9. I always know when it’s Friday because your blog comes up in my email ? Thanks for helping me keep track of the days and for your sharing your awesome writing with us!

  10. Thank you for sharing Henrietta’s story. She was a remarkable woman who I never never got to meet in person, but I read many of her columns over the years. She helped form my views on many a subject.

    I am glad the snail finally got the package to you (almost a week in the mail!) and you enjoyed it as much as I knew you would.

    As she said about writing her column and you can agree, it always starts with the first sentence and where that takes you… Well, that’s the adventure.

  11. You asked “Do you have any idea how much space a pair doxies can take up in a king-sized bed?” Yes, I do! There’s never enough room for 2 people and 2 doxies! My late husband always told people we had “dachshund birth control” because of the ‘hunds sleeping between us! LOL BTW – they always slept perpendicular to, and between us, to maximize the amount of space they had! I definitely agree with you about outlining – I want to see where things lead. It takes all the fun out of it if you know “who done it” before you know what “it” was that he (or she) did!

  12. This is great – I wonder if Ms. Hay’s columns were ever published as a book.

    Laughing about the dogs in bed – our little 15 pounder can take up half the bed when she tries.


    • Her son compiled many of her columns into a web site dedicated to her. You may visit it here: https://www.davehay.com/henrietta/

      In “Mystery stories as Literature” she addresses, as a Librarian and mystery lover, the snobbery of :Literature” versuss the genre of Mystery writing and JAJ got an honorable mention.

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