Carolyn J. Rose grew up in New York's Catskill Mountains, the setting for her Hemlock Lake mystery trilogy. She emerged from the University of Arizona with a degree and a tan, and joined Volunteers in Service to America where chance encounters led her to the land of TV news and 25 years as a researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She’s now a high school substitute teacher in Vancouver, Washington where she reads, swims, walks, gardens, and refrains from cooking. Today she joins us to discuss how a major change in her life led to the creation of a mystery series. Learn more about Carolyn and her books at her website.
Change, Chaos, and Conflict Build Characters
Confession: I’m not a full-blown control freak, but I am the kind of person who prefers to keep both hands on the wheel and my foot in the vicinity of the brake. If I’m heading for unfamiliar territory, I want a map, a GPS, or at least a solid set of directions describing landmarks, hazards, and possible alternate routes.
But if I hadn’t taken a leap beyond my comfort zone—not that TV news producing was all that comfortable a zone—I might never have created substitute teacher Barbara Reed. And without Barb, I wouldn’t have created her scruffy orange dog Cheese Puff, or the quirky residents of fictional Reckless River, Washington.
I didn’t leap by choice. Dreading a mind-numbing commute, I abandoned TV, dug out my teaching degree, and went back to high school. The landing from my leap wasn’t soft. More than thirty years had passed since I did my student teaching. Things had changed. A lot.
Sure, the basic elements were familiar—hallways, rooms, desks, books, principals, teachers, students—but that was about it. Rules had relaxed. Dress codes were a joke Boundaries were blurred. Expectations seemed lower. And conversations I would have had only in a whisper with a close friend were often held in outside voices.
My first day was nearly my last. I kept at it only by reminding myself that 1) I had a mortgage, 2) the old saying that what didn’t kill you made you stronger might actually be true, 3) if I took enough subbing jobs, I could afford to spend the summer writing, and 4) the experience would make me more aware of kids’ problems and more involved in the community.
I kept a journal, recording the outlandish, the humorous, and the heartbreaking. I jotted down details of successes (few) and failures (many). The notes were aimed at making sense of my experiences and finding my way toward better classroom control and less chaos. It wasn’t long, however, before I realized the chaos journal was a gold mine yielding idea nuggets for plot and character. So far I’ve mined ideas for ten books in the Subbing Isn’t for Sissies series, and have an eleventh releasing soon.
Of course, I had to hammer and melt and shape and polish the idea nuggets. I changed names and character details. Because the teen years are filled with drama, and because teens often blow things out of proportion, I did the same. The band at fictional Captain Meriwether High School is not just loud; it’s so loud Barb needs earplugs when she subs. A history teacher dresses as General Grant, complete with a cigar, and sets off the fire alarm. The cooking teacher specializes in bizarre recipes featuring eels.
Keeping chaos in mind, I populated Barb’s life outside of school with characters I’d like to know and others I’d drive miles to avoid. I gave her a wealthy and generous neighbor with a shady background. Mrs. Ballantine believes the bigger the problem, the more strings of pearls she’ll need to wear to deal with it. For a touch of romance with complications, I paired Barb with a drug cop raising a drama queen daughter. For conflict, I gave Barb a philandering ex-husband she can’t seem to shake, a domineering sister with definite ideas about life choices, and an arch enemy in the form of the woman who manages her condo complex.
When I wrote the first book in the series I had two small dogs. Both were cute and cuddly and full of personality. Both were also extremely stubborn and despite months of training, seldom obeyed. I rolled them into one entitled mutt and named him after my favorite snack.
To generate plots and provide crimes for my amateur sleuth to investigate, I populated Reckless River with characters ripped from the headlines—politicians without scruples, drug dealers, the wealthy and entitled, striking teachers, and even Bigfoot.
Why not? The Footster is a Pacific Northwest icon. And, once I went over the top in terms of character development, it was easy to keep going.
No Substitute for Murder
Subbing Isn’t for Sissies series, Book 1
Divorced from a philandering con man and downsized from her job as a talk radio show producer, Barbara Reed is desperate. She’s got a mortgage, a college loan, an aging car, and a ten-pound dog named Cheese Puff. But when she signs on as a high school substitute and finds a history teacher strangled with his own outdated tie, her stress level soars.
The list of suspects is a long one, but police put Barb at the top. When she discovers a second body, the noose of circumstantial evidence tightens. With help from the showgirl widow of a reputed mobster, a trash-scavenging derelict, and members of the Cheese Puff Care and Comfort Committee, Barb struggles to keep a grip on her job, her sanity, and her freedom.