Thursday, July 16, 2015

Where McLaren Comes to Life

Like many other writers, I’ve had a bunch of jobs outside the home before I attained my goal of writing full time. My first job as a clerk in a music store was a lot of fun. I got to tune and polish guitars, play them for beginners so they could hear the instruments’ tone, chat with musicians, etc. But my “office” was the checkout counter, and offered no chance of reflecting my personality or letting me create a place -- however small – that was tranquil. The counter was cluttered with boxes of guitar strings and cassette tapes, a glass jar of guitar picks, a stand-up sign advertising the deal of the week, a small rack of sheet music, musicians’ business cards (under the glass countertop), and the cash register.

I love music, so the job contained elements of Heaven, but I felt as though I were an afterthought -- someone to stand there and bag the merchandise.

After a handful of years there I became a secretary for various businesses. Depending on the job, the size of my desk varied greatly, but at least a framed photo, my coffee mug, and a plant claimed one of the desk corners. Having a bit of a comfort zone definitely improved my morale, especially when a day didn’t go very well.

Now that I write full time, my work environment is Unashamedly Jo. I write the McLaren mystery series (In case you don’t know, Michael McLaren is a former police detective who quit his job and now investigates cold cases on his own). My office reflects not only my protagonist but also my love of Britain. This may not seem like anything to write home about, but I live in St Louis, so perhaps my British décor is something you might not expect of an American author.

I attach a photo of my cozy nook so you can get the idea.

There’s a small book shelf on the wall. On it are two of my most prized possessions: an English bobby helmet and an English police inspector’s hat. I got them from two friends who happened to be in the job at the time. A length of McLaren tartan, on which is pinned the Clan badge, hang down. (Yes, I may legally wear them; I belong to the Clan.) More inspiration for my guy. A small framed photo of rocks and exuberant ferns sits at the end of the shelf. The spot’s in Beresford Dale in Staffordshire, which hugs the western border of Derbyshire, and is one of my favorite places. The red phone booth tin to the photo’s right had candy in it (verb tense is correct).

The painting on the wall is of Bolton Castle. Well, it's the building’s ruins, actually. It’s a pen-and-ink watercolor done by a friend of mine, Alan Bamford (if you google his name, you’ll get the ‘wrong one’). Alan lives in Bedfordshire, England, but when I met him in the early 1970s he lived in Bolton, Lancashire. Which was where I vacationed for a month, staying with a college friend. I went to a street art festival and Alan was one of the artists exhibiting his paintings. I bought two of them – this one and a rendition of Hall i’th’ Wood, a 16th century manor house in Bolton. When I returned to Bolton the next year, I bought another of Alan’s paintings. Through our forty-year friendship I’ve purchased eleven pieces. They’re all different (a coastal fishing village, a thatched-roof cottage, a water mill in winter, etc), but I keep Bolton Castle on the wall above my computer monitor. I love castles, so that’s a good reminder of my time in England. Plus, it provides inspiration for some place McLaren might investigate. Bad guys lurk everywhere!

On the desk top (with is an eight-foot long kitchen countertop sitting on three 2-drawer filing cabinets – the counter gives great, uninterrupted space) are two McLaren mugs filled with markers, letter opener, paper clips, etc. My Clan coffee mug usually holds hot tea. To the right of the computer monitor is a mug I got in Buxton, Derbyshire. The town is the headquarters for the B Section of the Derbyshire Constabulary, and McLaren’s sidekick, Jamie Kydd, works out of that office. Again, it’s another three-dimensional memory that helps connect me to the town and to Derbyshire, where McLaren works most of his cases.

I’ve got a pillow covered in McLaren tartan for my chair. It’s not in this photo but I wanted you to know that he and I support each other. I also have an area rug, the design of which is the British Union Jack.

Of course the desk is just one component of my office. There are other things among the research books and maps that mean a lot to me: a letter from Ngaio Marsh’s cousin (Ngaio is my favorite mystery writer); various photos of British police friends, my folk singing group, and the Scottish folk group I managed for a while; mementoes of my trip to New Zealand (I have a sneaking suspicion that McLaren may go there one day and get involved in a cold case); a sprig of dried heather; yards of British police crime scene tape; and a Write Spite voodoo doll (I used to stick pins in it whenever a publisher rejected me, but I haven’t used it since The Wild Rose Press accepted my manuscripts!)...

It’s a soothing, soul-embracing space. It also inspires me, and reminds me of incidents and places I can use in my mysteries. I can’t ask much more than that.

Jo A. Hiestand

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