Award-winning author Judy Alter writes the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries, the Blue Plate Café Series, and the Oak Gove Mysteries. In 2016, she returned to her Chicago roots to write the historical novel, The Gilded Cage, which uses one unusual woman’s life to examine social structure and labor relations in the late nineteenth century. She has also written four other historical novels about women of the American West, several young adult novels, and four cookbooks. Learn more about Judy and her books at her website and at her Judy’s Stew and Gourmet Hot Plate blogs.
The inspiration for Skeleton in a Dead Space
Sometimes inspiration really does seem to strike randomly. One day almost ten years ago I was driving down one of my favorite shortcuts through a residential neighborhood when I came to a stop sign. As I looked at the house catty-corner from where I sat in my car, I heard a voice in my head say, “There’s a dead space in that house, and there’s a skeleton in it.” It was a house being renovated, and I’d been following the construction. But this thought was new.
It was not, however, without a back-story. I lived in a Craftsman-style house built in the 1920s, and there was indeed a dead space in my kitchen. A floor-to-ceiling cabinet almost two feet deep sat next to one barely four inches deep, with shelves only wide enough to hold two rows of spice jars or one row of canned goods. But on the other side of my spice cabinet were the microwave and oven, stacked on top of each other and again almost two feet deep. So “what’s in the dead space” was the family question for years. I think Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado” was always on my mind, because I thought of a skeleton hidden there. My oldest son begged me to let him drill through the back of the spice cabinet for a peek, but I was reluctant.
With more than a few novels already on my publication list, I burned to write a mystery. An avid reader of cozy mysteries, I’d tried my hand at several, but they never seemed to work. There was much about writing mysteries that I didn’t know and that I gradually learned from Sisters in Crime and the Guppies group. Still, I think part of writing anything, be it mystery, romance, literary fiction, whatever—is to follow your instincts. And that’s what I did.
That day I went home and wrote the opening scene. I started with the discovery of the skeleton by Kelly, a real estate agent specializing in renovation of Craftsman houses, and her carpenter/contractor Anthony. As I wrote, I was surprised at the way new details of the plot popped up, things that connected to each other, characters that I didn’t expect. I didn’t know at the outset who the skeleton was, though I knew it was female, and I didn’t know who killed her or when or why, let alone who would threaten Kelly, but it all came rolling out.
Of course, there were those six rewrites and about thirty rejections, including a publisher who kept it a year as an exclusive (I’ll never do that again!) and an agent who “marketed” it for a year to all the big houses, so when he gave it back to me, My options were either self-publishing or going with a small press. I’m delighted to say that the first small press I queried was enthusiastic about my once-again rewritten manuscript. I’m grateful to now-defunct Turquoise Morning Press for making my mystery a reality.
The dead space in my kitchen? No skeleton, just an old chimney. You can see the rest of it in the attic. I’m afraid it holds up the house, and if we removed it, the whole house would collapse like the one-hoss shay.
Kelly O’Connell never thought real estate was a dangerous profession. But while updating early-twentieth-century Craftsman houses in an older neighborhood in Fort Worth, Texas, she stumbles over a skeleton and begins unraveling an old murder. The police call it a cold case, but Kelly knows she must solve the murder if she is to finish the house and sell it. She and her two young daughters quickly become the target of threats and vandalism, and someone is telling her ex-husband in California what’s going on. Tim Spencer arrives to protect his daughters by taking them to California with him but is soon found shot to death. Then a new client barges into Kelly’s life, and she finds herself facing a gun, a deadly killer, and the solution to the mystery of the skeleton and of Tim’s death.