The Sunday Magazine·POINT OF VIEW

A mystery writer follows her dream, then wonders whether it was the right one

From a young age, when she picked up her first Nancy Drew book, Deryn Collier of Nelson, B.C., knew she wanted to be a mystery writer. She stepped into that role — saw both success and failure — and, in this essay, muses about the wisdom of the path she chose.
Deryn Collier picked up her first Nancy Drew book at a young age. From that point on, she knew she wanted to be a mystery writer. (Submitted by Deryn Collier )

Special to CBC Radio 

In the summer between second and third grade, while lounging on a poolside deck chair, I read my first mystery novel. I lay sweating in the heat, so engrossed in the pages of Nancy Drew and The Hidden Staircase that I forgot to turn over every half hour. I ended the day, my back lobstered by the sun, but filled with a new purpose. 

At school, we played Nancy Drew until the recess bell rang. I was inevitably cast as George, because I too was a girl with a boy's name. But what I really wanted was to be the series' author, Carolyn Keene.

Of course, there were other things I wanted at seven. To be principal dancer in the National Ballet like Karen Kain, for example. I wanted my parents to get back together, even though my father's new wife told me I needed to stop talking about that. Those other fantasies faded over time.  But the dream of writing mysteries — maybe because it was something that was within my control — took hold in my very core.

Fast forward twenty-eight years. Married and living in a small B.C. town with two children under five, I worked in a brewery. I was paid to count beer. My salary just covered double day care and income taxes, and the futility of going to work each morning haunted me. 

After two years of counting beer, I quit my job- Deryn Collier

Who had I wanted to be before life led me down this road? As I walked alone through the fermentation cellars, counting hectolitres of beer in two-storey tall tanks, the answer came to me like a fresh breeze. I wanted to create for others that escape-to-a-new-world feeling I'd discovered myself at seven. I wanted to be a mystery writer.

After two years of counting beer, I quit my job. I started getting up each morning at 4:30am to work on my mystery novel for two hours before the kids woke up, two hours when I decided what would happen. Then I'd start my day shift as a full-time mom, where I'd make sure different types of food did not touch each other on the plate, where everyday I'd try once again to make a dent in laundry mountain, and where I would somehow manage to stay patient while explaining why we don't throw cat litter. I stuck with those early mornings though and, five years later, I signed a contract for my first novel, Confined Space, the story of an industrial accident in a brewery that turns out to be murder.

Deryn Collier achieved her dream, and has seen much success as a mystery writer. (Submitted by Deryn Collier )

The reviews were good, the sales merited a second book, and I got many notes from happy readers, eager for more. I even had the same publisher as Carolyn Keene. Success, I thought. This was the path seven-year-old me had imagined. 

I wish I could say that I'm still skipping along that path. But that's not how things have turned out. While the reviews of my second book were great, sales were low. As a result, book three didn't get picked up. That was five years ago and readers still get in touch, asking for the next in the series. I don't know what to tell them. It's right here, in my proverbial drawer, waiting.

Rejection never feels good. But this rejection spun me in circles until I was completely disoriented.

Despite the setback, I didn't really question whether I should keep writing. Obviously, I thought, I need to try again with something new, something that will sell better.

I decided to write a family saga with a mystery at its core. A fat, epic novel full of secrets and betrayals woven through generations. 

I threw myself at the task. After three years I came up for air, pleased that I'd created a world that readers could escape to. I'd also delivered yet another instalment on the contract I made with myself as a child, which was something of a comfort, since as time passed it looked like this manuscript might end up in the drawer too, right on top of the last one. 

And then I did start to question: Was it time to let go of this idea that I am a mystery writer? How long should I hang onto a dream that is so clearly not working out? But then, how could I  let go of something so key to my identity? 

Sometimes, the ache these questions opened up in me was hard to bear.

While the conventions of the mystery genre allow for infinite variations, every mystery relies on the same central tenets. The story starts with chaos — most often a murder — introduced into an otherwise well-organized world. Then our sleuth comes along, discovers clues, applies logic and reasoning, and restores order by solving the crime.

Could it be that my dream of writing mysteries was nothing more than my way of restoring order in my own life?- Deryn Collier

Could it be that my dream of writing mysteries was nothing more than my way of restoring order in my own life? Perhaps it was not a calling at all, but a rope I hung onto to guide me through the aftermath of my parents' chaotic divorce; an anchor I then returned to as an adult, when it seemed that motherhood would swallow me whole; and again later, as my publishing career crumbled at my feet.  

Was the dream ever valid to begin with? And if not, then is it time to stop writing? 

I've circled around this question for months now, trying to come to a resolution. And the truth is, I don't have an answer. The only way I know to smooth out the knots of futility and despair, of doubt and uncertainty, of chaos, is to write.

I've started on a new story now. It's a mystery, maybe the last one I will write. And as I write it, my doubts about the future are quiet for a while. Immersed in the world of my own creation, I get to decide what happens next.



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