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.

50 thoughts on “Spellbinder

  1. I love the way you tie the past to the future.

    In the eighties, my late wife wrote non-fiction on a Mac, which was the standard for the publishing industry.

  2. “I’m grateful for that, and I’ll bet my readers are, too.”

    They most certainly are!

  3. Wow, you should write your autobiography. It would be fascinating!
    I have a friend who is a fine writer and has her fifth novel in print. I love reading both of you because there are so many novels that aren’t worth the read. I don’t know how they end up published. And I am tired of picking up a book at the library that has a best seller recommend that has hit every woke trophe but no real story. Mary Higgins Clark could write a mystery without the F bomb repeated ad nauseum and without detailed sex scenes. Now some writers can’t seem to leave them out.
    Eh, sorry for the rant. I love your novels and your blog. Thanks.

    • One reader wrote to ask if Butch and Joanna had a “platonic” relationship. I wrote back and told her that since they had two kids, I doubted that was the case. What my characters do behind closed doors is none of my business.

  4. Not only do I love your books, I think Joanna Brady is my favorite, but I love reading your emails too! They are also stories! Thank you for spending that $5000 and I thank the person who led me to your books!

  5. You are correct! I am thankful for your writing career I enjoy reading your books. A couple of years ago I made a trip to Bisbee just to get a first hand perspective of Joanna Brady. My last book was a JP Beaumont book. I’m off to the library today to see what is available. I enjoyed your message today. I had a career in the insurance business for over 30 years. So I fully understand and appreciate how the impact has meant for your success and my pleasure. Keep up the good work.

  6. Yup! Very grateful!

    When I went to college, I wanted to study computers, but there was no computer major, because it was “too narrow a subject area”. There was a behemoth of a machine in the basement of the engineering building, and I did take a course in Fortran that involved large stacks of punch cards.

    Those of us of a certain age who now take our high-speed personal devices for granted might reflect in awe of the changes that have been made in our lifetimes.

  7. Word processing has come a long way. I sometimes use speak to text now but have to do a good bit of editing. Guess it’s this Alabama accent the machine has a hard time deciphering. Have you ever tried speak to text?

  8. In the late 1970s, when I was still using an IBM Selectric typewriter (in green, my favorite color), my about ten-year-old son and I went to the Apple store, and I purchased him an Apple IIe computer and printer to go with it (about $6,000.00 at the time). After he set it up and had used it for several weeks, I went into his room and asked him to show me what it could do. When he got to the word-processing program and showed me how he could correct mistakes before printing, I was stunned! How great! One could correct errors before printing without using an eraser or white-out to correct mistakes on a paper copy. And one didn’t need to guess how much paper was left at the bottom of a page — the word-processing program ended each page perfectly! What a great, great invention! I became a computer convert in that moment. Fantastic! I can’t express in words how impressed I was with this new method of writing and printing material.

    When he graduated from the Apple to the new IBM with hard drive, I inherited the Apple and used it for quite a few years. I bought my first modern computer in 1995 — a Packard Bell with a Pentium CPU and 8MB of memory. Today I use an Alienware laptop with i9 CPU and 64 GB of DDR4 RAM, yes, 64 GB RAM, the most available two years ago!

  9. Oh, my, what a wonderful story! I agree, you should write a biography! Yes, I had a Mac with a whole 40 mg hard drive in the 70s (and I believe it cost $1400!), which I used to laboriously type out a lady’s Catholic newsletter. Every other word was bold, italic, or underlined, and the whole 4 pages were nit-pick edited till I thought I’d go nuts! But it paid a little, and we needed the money. Between then and now my computer and I, and my mobile phone, have become great friends, and I love to help people with their tech problems (common, everyday users). Wow. I, too, marvel at the progress!

    Thank you for your amazing books! Blessings to you and Bill and your pet(s)!

  10. Thank you so much for sharing your beginning story.
    I haven’t written a book, altho I have many in my head & heart.
    But I’ve lived in a computer since my first Commodore. I started a monthly newspaper in Seattle on Dos & graduated to the first Windows . I thought I’d gone to heaven. At age 81 I’m thinking I really should get at least one of my stories out.
    I love everyone of your books & have lived in or near Seattle & Bisbee, Az. Now I live in San Carlos, Mexico & still visit both area for fun, camping & family.
    Most of my writing now consists of minutes for the organizations that I’m a Secretary for. But my iPad is needing an upgrade & I’m thinking A MacBook Air might be the way to go.
    Again thank you for all your delightful & insightful words.

  11. God bless your Dad! You write a lot about your Mom so it is good to hear how your Dad had such an impact on your career.
    My first computer was an IBM PC JR – with large floppy disks and a dot matrix printer.
    We’ve both come a long way!
    See you soon in Tucson!

  12. My first computer was a Radio Shack TRS-80 and I thought that was as technical as it could get, lol. I got into pixel graphics and wrote some programs for the kids to help in their schoolwork. I still have the TRS-80 and thought about firing it up again to check out the old stuff. After reading Patricia Parcells comment I remember that universities didn’t have a computer science course of study but you could build your own degree through offered classes. HUH? I’m glad that you muddled through and were able to let your creativeness be realized.

      • Sorry, that reply was for a previous comment. My Eagle, along with all the accompanying manuals, now resides in the special collections department of the University of Arizona Libraries.

  13. Love this blog
    Love the Beaumont books best but they are all good.
    Thanks for sharing your early days with us.

  14. One of the first transactions upon marriage in 1959 was a $10,000 Insurance policy. That is what prudent people do. In 1981, living/working in Germany I realized a computer would be necessary, flew to Santa Barbara for a class on an Osborne computer needing both input and savings drives. Bought an Apple II+ and took it home using Apple soft as operating system.Years later living in Seattle bought a PC Microsoft computer with integral HD and later still back to an Apple iMac. Great software, word processing, spread sheets, construction estimating, spelling and grammar check and Wikipedia. We tend to be products of our time.

  15. In the early 80’s my father bought a computer kit and had me build my own computer. I think it was an Epson computer. It ran on DOS and the 5 inch floppy discs. No one else in my school had a computer let alone built their own. I am glad I had that experience.

    I love the lesson your grandfather taught you about life insurance. I wish I had learned that when I was younger.

    I smiled when I saw your paragraph about your poetry as I love your book, After The Fire. I have read and re-read it over the years and always find a nugget that applies to my life at that time. That book helped me understand the other side of the coin to alcoholism. While I had a little understanding that my alcoholism hurt others, your book helped me start to understand the depth of that pain and still shows me just how deep that damage went. It has helped me become kinder and more patient with those who took a while to truly believe that this time I actually quit for good and this time sorry actually meant I am sorry enough to change the behavior that caused you pain. I will have 22 years of sobriety on March 13th, 2023. Thank you for After The Fire. I often have shared it with others in Alcoholics Anonymous. I believe it is a vital essay to understanding the depth of the damage we have caused.

    • Your comment gave me goosebumps. Thank you. Years ago, a high school classmate encountered After the Fire through my niece. She told me the same thing–that it showed her the other side of the coin. Thank you.

  16. A wonderful story, J.A. Especially the descriptions of the initial computers you used. Those brought me back to my early jobs straight out of college. It is amazing how far technology has come.
    And as Linda K did, thank you Norman for setting you on the path you are on now. Looking forward to your coming books.

  17. I am one grateful reader of your books! Your books helped me get through the dark days/years of COVID19! My now 96 year old mother is just starting the Ali series and already made her way through Joanna’s series! Beaumont is taking a backseat for her right now and she will get there. Counting the days until the new Ali Reynolds book is out! You bring me joy!!!!

  18. Thank you so much for sharing these wonderful stories. I really enjoy them. I have been a fan of your books for years, all 3 series, and my sister and I actually saw you in person at a signing at the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale prior to Covid. So looking forward to your upcoming books.

  19. For SURE!! Absolutely!! Your books have brought years of entertainment, as well as, brain exercise, personal “connections”. Years into following J.P. Beaumont and Joanna Brady, I found “After The Fire”, then reached out to you. How accurately, with emotional clarity, you described life w/an alcoholic husband, one I survived and lived well beyond those 22 years. How brave and wise of you to place yourself and your kids in a healthier life and not wait 22 years to do so. I now strongly urge anyone living w/an alcoholic to do two things, ASAP: attend an Alanon meeting, then read Melody Beatty’s “Co-Dependent No More”. “After the Fire” was not mentioned today, but I knew immediately the work you described hidden away during those difficult years. Again, thank you for writing “After the Fire” and for replying to my email all those years ago.

  20. Thank you for investing that five grand in yourself – it was a great investment. And, thanks to Mostly Books for referring your books to me three decades ago.

  21. I am grateful. I enjoy your books. I loved Ali and Joanna as their books came out. Now I am doint the Beaumont books. I did not like them at first but now I am finding I do. Maybe I had to be in my 70’s to be mature enough to emjoy your male hero.


  22. You know Judith, I like short, punchy chapters. You might throw a few in your next few books.
    Long time fan and neighbor up the road in Kirkland.

  23. Computers have certainly changed since I bought my first one in 1982. Getting smaller and no disks. But the programs keep changing when you finally mastered the last change.

  24. I found that once I started writing reports with the computer, in the 90s, instead of handwriting them, I was able to write much more fluently- It was like the difference between walking on a rough path and ice skating- For you Beau appeared as you were writing by hand on the train- It’s as if he was waiting in your subconscious to
    emerge en route to Oregon!

  25. Dear Judy,
    Yes, your fans are definitely grateful for all the times you were challenged, but kept going and found ways to keep writing. How easy it is to have great thoughts, even make plans, but to stick with something when you are bombarded with small or not so small interruptions and difficulties, now that is the mark of a true professional and an amateur.

  26. Another great story. I love these. Yes, we are very grateful to your Grandfather and father. Can’t wait for the new Ali book.

  27. Hi Judy! I’m 79 now, but at 21 I dove into the just emerging world what we now call personal computers. The products you described and the many, many others that came and went… I remember them all. It was a magic time and it continues (without me) today.
    Great story. Thank you!

  28. Thank you for this. It’s very touching in more ways than you can imagine…
    Most grateful!!!

  29. Dear Ms. Jance,

    I would have to agree wholeheartedly with the men in your life, that insured that you would go on to have a “Spellbinding” career in writing!!

    Nothing happens by coincidence, there is a reason for everything that happens in our lives. Sometimes we never notice these “things”, however, I am usually grateful when I notice.

    I am grateful for all of your books; of course I have my favorites, being the characters that you have written about for years; Beaumont and Brady, I hope that you don’t get too tired of writing about them. (J.P. is getting old; but he is like a fine wine).

    Thank You for entertaining me! And allowing me to connect/comment to you personally.


    Teresa Leonard
    Private Investigator
    Certified Process Server
    Notary Public

  30. Boy! Do your memories of computerland bring back memories for me. I have been working with computers in one form or another since about 1972, word processors since about 1975 or so, daisy printers (oh brother please give me a selectric any time!), slower than popcorn dot matrix printers (see previous comment), swapping floppies because there’s not enough memory…oh yes, those were the days. Now I have a phone that handles all that if I choose to use it as anything but a phone, an ipad that is a great reader of J. A. Jance’s stories, a desktop simply because I enjoy working with it although it’s obsolete, and an laptop that isn’t quite obsolete but close. I once worked as the secretary to a manager of a hardware (computer) department in a major insurance company that some parts of the building held six computers that ran on tape and in another part of the same department an IBM computer that did all the work of those six computers along with 12 smaller computers that were used as printers in another area of the building while I used an Underwood typewriter at my desk to produce one report that was often 35 pages of typed, single spaced status info. Those were the days!

    • Isn’t mind boggling to think that all those machines that took up so much space are now basically condensed into a hand held smart phone?
      My husband and I both worked for IBM back in the day…yet because he was in tax accounting and I did Orders and Movements (keeping track of who ordered which system and where it was located) most of our work was still done by hand, using ledgers, Amazing!

  31. Thank you for telling us about your writing career. It’s interesting how it developed with the help of computers. They are a wonderful invention. Keep on doing what you do.

    Beau is my favorite. Never get tired of him.

  32. That $5,000 life insurance policy not only paid dividends for you but also for the rest of us year after year as we enjoy each and everyone of your books. Can’t wait for the next one.

  33. That is a great story. I myself have written part of a book and it was on a computer that had a program I can’t even remember the name of. I had printed it out but for the life of me I can’t find it. Some day maybe. Thanks for your stories. They make my day better. Blessings to you.

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