School Daze?

My senior English teacher Miss Flanagan may have turned over in her grave when I recently returned to my high school decades after graduation to address a short story class about one of my literary creations.

Not that I wasn’t always interested in writing but I doubt even Miss Flanagan knew I was the “Mary Muckraker” writing an anonymous column for the school newspaper about such weighty topics as whether traffic on the stairways should be one-way between classes. Miss Flanagan terrified me and I suspect she considered my creative writing mediocre at best. Certainly, she never imagined I’d enjoy killing people in my free time.

Yes, I like to write murder mysteries and one of them won a regional mystery contest. That story, “Mercy 101” about someone killing tailgating drivers, had been studied in the elective class I was invited to visit. I had accepted with great trepidation.

But the initially shy students asked great questions, such as whether I would have developed a character further had I been allowed to expand the word count. I suspect they were gentle with me because I’m old enough to be their grandmother. Or perhaps they were afraid of me after reading my story where I killed 10 people in 5,000 words.

Meanwhile, they were curious about my experiences influence my mystery writing. I’ve always enjoyed Nancy Drew and the intellectual stimulation that comes with attempting to solve the puzzle of a fictional crime caper, but I told them there are snippets of my life in all of my mysteries and a real-life whodunit motivates me to write them.

I was a rookie police beat reporter at a newspaper in Lubbock, Texas, when 18-year-old newlywed Deborah Sue Williamson was brutally stabbed 17 times and left to die in the carport of her new home on Aug. 24, 1975. Her slaying, which remains unsolved, shocked the West Texas city of 225,000. When a crazy drifter later confessed to her slaying and over 500 more – crimes he later recanted – I knew it wasn’t him. Her parents did, too, and even sold their home to finance an investigation to prove it so police would continue looking for the real killer.

I consider it a grave injustice and an unspeakable tragedy that her murderer walks free today. I think about this whenever I write a mystery. Incorporating her story and those of others into fiction sometimes helps deal with such incomprehensible losses and to seek the justice that’s lacking in real life. As I told the students, fiction is a way to get revenge without going to jail.

But what I mostly wanted to convey is that there’s a little of the author in every story, which may provide a different perspective on writing that’s somewhat comforting.

Or it could be downright frightening -- although not nearly as scary as facing the memory of your imposing English teacher in a room full of teenagers in your old high school.

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