From 1936 to 1940, John Steinbeck published Of Mice and Men, The Long Valley (a collection of short stories), Their Blood is Strong (a compilation of newspaper articles), and The Grapes of Wrath; he witnessed a long-running New York theater production of Of Mice and Men, as well as the Hollywood versions of that novel and The Grapes of Wrath; he traveled and did research for the nonfiction Sea of Cortez; and he scripted and helped produce a documentary film, The Forgotten Village (a story about a family in Mexico).
For those writers reading this, consider my efforts for my latest Mogi Franklin mystery.
I toured the Hotel Castaneda in Las Vegas, New Mexico, in December of 2014. The hotel was built by the AT&SF Railway in 1898 and was the first trackside Fred Harvey Hotel, managed by Fred Harvey, the famous restauranteur who established very successful hotels at 80 different locations in America, making them the first national hotel chain. The eateries at each hotel had excellent dishes, fresh coffee, and wonderful pies and cakes, all served by a bevy of young, single women known as Harvey Girls. There was a movie about them made in 1944, starring Judy Garland.
The hotel and restaurant in Las Vegas were very successful, but fell on hard times after the WWII, and have been closed for seventy years. It was purchased in 2014, remodeled beginning in 2018, and reopened in 2019. It is a fabulous commercial center that houses the restored Fred Harvey dining rooms, hotel rooms, a number of in-house condos for purchase, and commercial shops. It is a star attraction of New Mexico. Check out castanedahotel.org.
Seeing the hotel in its unimproved state, I thought of a story that had Jennifer Franklin as a high school summer intern with a college architectural assessment group, Mogi Franklin as a non-intern who shows up to help with databases, a bank robbery in 1943, troop trains, soldiers in WWII, a ghost that haunted the hotel, a locked trunk from 1943 in the attic, and a reunion of Harvey Girls. The story was centered around a Harvey Girl who had committed suicide.
I was working on other books, so I didn’t get around to writing a first draft until November of 2017. It was titled Death on the Tracks, and the manuscript was 60 pages and 23079 words long. It wasn’t very good and it was too short (the other Mogi books are about 90 pages and 40,000 words; when the books are converted to paperback size, they have about 180 pages).
The final draft was ready in May of 2018, was titled Death Train, and was 112 pages. I did not like it at all, could not see a way of revising it, so I shelved it in long term storage.
Given COVID 2020 last spring, I resurrected the story, changed a number of things, and produced a new draft in April of 2020. It was titled The Lady in Black, and had 112 pages. I thought I had improved it, but didn’t feel that it was comparable to the other Mogi books. I shelved it again.
In September, under the influence of Teddy’s War, which was published in June, I was inspired to rewrite the story. I added more WWII experiences and context, changed the characters, and changed the mystery, as well as the clues to solving it. I produced a revised draft in September that was titled The Lady in Black, and had 108 pages. It was definitely getting better, the WWII emphasis making the difference.
A couple of major iterations later, I produced a final draft and gave it to my editor on December 30th, 2020.
She made some great corrections and rewrites, had several suggestions, and then sent me her revisions last week. After doing what she told me, it is now titled War Train, and has 77 pages and 39916 words. I like it a lot and so does she. It will now be reviewed by the senior editor at my publishing house, Terra Nova Books, in Santa Fe. It will have a cover created, be converted to a book-appropriate format, be registered with the Library of Congress, and then be published in, maybe, three or four months. It is the tenth book in the Mogi Franklin Mystery Series, and my thirteenth novel.
Along this whole process, I put into the story and then took out: a murder; a torn piece of paper that had the ultimate clue to the mystery; a visit to the Harvey House Museum in Belen, New Mexico; an interview with a Harvey Girl; a ghost of a woman dressed in black; the surveillance of Mogi and Jennifer by a hidden internet camera planted by a bad guy from Ohio; a stolen bible; and a flashback to a soldier during WWII who was in Czechoslovakia.
I put into the story and kept: handwritten letters from two WWII soldiers while in Europe; the clues needed to solve the mystery (hidden in the letters); a story about the Combat Engineers during WWII; a Prisoner of War camp; a bad guy from Trenton, New Jersey; and secret tunnels under the hotel.
Having now sent in my final effort, it’s been about six or so years that I’ve had this book under some level of work.
I’m now taking time to read John Steinbeck’s notes that he kept while writing The Grapes of Wrath. It took him four months to write a book that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and led him to win a Nobel Prize in 1962. He wrote everything using a #2 pencil.
Maybe I should get a faster computer?
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.