In the mid-fifties my father was offered a job selling life insurance. Why was he asked? Because he believed in life insurance. During the Depression, the bank was about to foreclose on the family farm. My grandfather had a $3000 life-insurance policy with a cash value of $300. Grandpa Busk cashed in the policy and used the cash value to pay off the farm. Shortly thereafter, he suffered a heart attack and was never insurable again, but that the farm stayed in the family for the next fifty or so years.
When I married my first husband, my father saw to it that I purchased a $50,000 policy on Jerry Janc, one where I was both the owner and the beneficiary. For the next fifteen years, I held onto that policy through thick and thin, and believe me, some of those years were pretty damned thin! My former husband died at the end of 1982. Three months later I received a check for the proceeds.
I had started writing by then, and I was doing it by hand—with pen and ink. That’s how I wrote first never-published opus, By Reason of Insanity—by hand. When I finished writing it, I had someone else—my sister—do the typing, all 1400 pages of it. On a typewriter. Years earlier I had managed to get a decent grade in Mr. Biba’s typing class at Bisbee High School, but I wasn’t especially proficient at it. (By the way, when you get around to reading Collateral Damage, you’ll meet a not very nice character with that same last name. It’s no reflection on the REAL Mr. Biba. He was perfectly fine, but when I needed a last name I’d never used before, his was the one that came to mind.)
But back to 1983. Even though I’d not yet published anything, I was determined that, no matter what, I was going to succeed at writing. At that point I took ten percent of those life insurance proceeds and invested a full $5000 in myself and my future as a writer by purchasing a computer and a daisy-wheel printer.
The first computer I brought home was an Epson. It was set up to do business correspondence. For the life of me, I couldn’t get it to produce the kind of manuscript pages I needed, and it wouldn’t add in page numbers, either. I was about to tear my hair out when another local budding author, Stella Cameron, gave me a call. She had bought her Epson on the same day from the same salesman and had encountered the same kinds of challenges that were frustrating me. When she called the shop to complain, the salesman told her that she could either buy a word processing program called something like Peach Tree which would cost an additional eight-hundred bucks, or she could bring the Epson back to the store and exchange it for an Eagle which came with a different word processing program. She had already made the exchange, and she suggested I should get my rear in gear and do the same. That’s exactly what I did.
Last night when I was thinking about writing this piece, I spent half an hour trying to come up with the name of that magic word-processing program. I remembered it had something to do with writing that it had seemed incredibly appropriate for my purposes, but for the life of me, but I couldn’t remember what it was. Neither could Bill. I decided to go to bed and sleep on it.
Bill maintains that I have a Waring Blender whirling away inside my head, and this morning I had proof positive that it plugs away on a twenty-four-hour basis whether I’m awake or asleep. Sitting in the bathroom and still thinking about the problem, I wondered how I would go about phrasing a search to Google. “Word Processing program for PCs used in the early eighties. Name has something to do with writing.” In that very moment, the answer came to me—the program’s name was Spellbinder. For someone intent on writing spellbinding mysteries, the name couldn’t have been any better. As an added bonus, it had no difficulty spitting out numbered pages in a proper publisher-approved format.
Let’s talk about that Eagle for a moment. It was anything but sleek, not steam-driven but close. It was a dual-floppy beast—green cursor and all. The floppies were the five and a half inch kind. The smaller three inch version came later. My Eagle had all of 128k of memory. If I wrote a document longer than 2000 words, the cursor would hit the memory wall and freeze up, causing me to lose any material I hadn’t previously saved. By the way, that’s why my first books have such short, punchy chapters. Writing anything longer than 2000 words was a no-no.
Once I had the computer in my possession, I had to learn to use it. While tracking down the official documents required in the aftermath of my former husband’s death, I had stumbled across the poetry I had started writing years earlier. Because I wasn’t supposed to be writing at the time, I had stowed the poems away in the family strongbox. When I read through it, it was like seeing my life in instant replay. Once I showed the poetry to someone else, that person said, “This needs to be a book.”
When it came time to learn how to run the computer—that’s what I tackled first—moving the poetry from scraps of yellow paper to computer file. Once I accomplished that, it was time to turn my attention to the first Beaumont book. I had written the first 30,000 words of Until Proven Guilty during five days of frenzied writing while my kids were away at Camp Orkila for spring break. That much of the story, a good third of the book, had been jotted down on blue-lined paper and stored in three-ring binder. What fascinates me now is that, when it came time to upload the story to the computer, I never once consulted the notebook. I checked on it years later when I was passing the Eagle along with my papers to Special Collections at the University of Arizona Libraries. I was surprised to see that the words in published book still matched the first words in the notebook version: “She might have been a cute kid once. That was hard to tell now. She was dead.”
Those words may have been scribbled down on paper, but they were also imprinted in my heart and on my brain.
I used my Eagle computer for years. After I married Bill, my own personal Electronics Engineer, he upgraded the Eagle’s memory and installed a hard drive. So long short chapters! Eventually floppy floppies were replaced by non-floppy ones. Originally it took five floppies to send a manuscript to New York. The non-floppy ones took three. But the publishers still required that each computer-file copy had be sent in paper format as well. Finishing a book always caused a crisis in our marital bliss as we fought our way through forcing that daisy-wheel printer to spit out four-hundred or so pages of manuscript. I can’t tell you how grateful I was when the world finally changed enough that I could load a manuscript into an email and simply press send!
These days, I no longer have a desk-top computer. I have long thighs giving me an extended lap which I use to hold my MacBook Air. The printer is hidden away in the other room. Thankfully, it’s not a daisy-wheel and there are no paper jams.
Tomorrow or the next day, I should be signing a six-figure contract on the next Ali book. I can’t help but think that investing that original $5000 in my writing future was an inspired decision and by far the best monetary investment I’ve ever made. But would you like to know who’s really responsible? That would be my father, Norman Busk, who in the 1950’s became Bisbee’s ‘Man from Equitable.” Because of him, in 1974 when teaching jobs were scarce, I followed in his footsteps and sold life insurance for the next ten years. My grandfather made my father a believer in life insurance and Norman did the same for me.
As far as I know, my dad never laid a finger on a computer keyboard, but because of him, I was able to come home with a computer loaded with Spellbinder and got to work writing spellbinding books.
I’m grateful for that, and I’ll bet my readers are, too.