Isabel Long, the protagonist of my mystery series, was a former long-time journalist before she became a private investigator. So was I and Friday, Feb. 4 is my last day as one. However, I don’t plan to become a P.I. I will continue writing about one.
Working the Beat is no. 5 in my Isabel Long mystery series. It was released Jan. 27.
The series is set in the small, rural hilltowns of Western Massachusetts, where I got my start in the newspaper biz. I was hired as a correspondent — paid by the inch — to cover the hilltown where I lived, Worthington, Massachusetts, population 1,200, for the Daily Hampshire Gazette. I had no previous experience, but that didn’t seem to matter to the editor who hired me.
That experience grew into a 35-year career working for newspapers including The Taos News in New Mexico. My most recent gig was the Pioneer Editor-in-Chief overseeing three daily newspapers in Western Massachusetts — Greenfield Recorder, Daily Hampshire Gazette and Athol Daily News.
But back to the start, I reported first on Worthington and eventually I covered several towns, plus did regional stories. I loved breaking a news story and getting to know what people did. I went to town meetings and reported what interested the community from truck pulls to school events to country fairs. I covered fires and what little crime there was. I did profiles. A few of my stories went national. I even went to the White House.
One of the greatest benefits was listening to the way people talked and writing it down. I believe it has paid off with realistic dialogue in my fiction.
It also gave me insight into how people behave, and certainly I had a total immersion into the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts, which I use as a setting for much of my fiction.
And as an aside, working as reporter broke a 25-year writers block.
Back to Isabel, who also covered the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts until, like me, she moved up to being an editor. She lost her job managing a newspaper when it went corporate. (To set the record straight, that didn’t happen to me.) In Chasing the Case, no. 1 in the series, Isabel decides to revisit her first big story as a rookie reporter — when a woman went missing 28 years earlier from the fictional town of Conwell.
She relies on the skills she used as a journalist for that case and the ones after. In Working the Beat, Isabel and her mother happened to be at the fair when they are approached by a woman who wants her to investigate the death of her grandson. Years ago, he supposedly fell into a ravine while everybody was watching the demotion derby.
By the way, since Isabel snagged a bunch of cold case files from her newspaper, it was an opportunity for me to write news stories again — although for made-up subjects.
Here’s the start of one with the headline: Death reported at Titus Country Fair
TITUS — A man’s body was found Sunday morning on the rocky hill behind where the demolition derby was held the previous night at the Titus Country Fair, police report.
State police have not released the man’s name, citing notification of next of kin. However, they said he was 21 and lived locally.
The cause of his death also was not released, pending the medical examiner’s report.
The hill overlooking the demolition derby was crowded with spectators Saturday night. The body was discovered the next morning when a crew went to pick up any trash left behind, according to Norman McLeod, the Titus Country Fair’s president.
“One of the guys happened to look over the hill and found him,” McLeod said. “Seems he had been there all night. Too bad. Maybe somebody could’ve helped him if they had found him sooner.”
McLeod said the man’s death is a first for the fair, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary next year. He noted the fair doesn’t allow alcohol to be served or fair-goers to bring it.
“Such a tragedy,” said McLeod, who declined to reveal the man’s name or any details.
The next story came the day after: Police rule death at Titus Country Fair an accident
TITUS — State police have identified the man whose body was found at the Titus Country Fair on Sunday morning as Lucas Page, 21, a Titus resident.
According to police, Page died of a brain injury when he fell down a ravine and his head hit rocky ledge.
Page was found dead Sunday morning when a crew came to clean the hill overlooking the arena, where a demolition derby was held the night before.
“This was an unfortunate case,” Titus Police Chief Byron Lively said. “My officers have been asking around, but we haven’t had any luck finding witnesses. It appears the young man had been drinking even though it’s not allowed and might have fallen to his death.”
Lively said it is unknown when Page fell. If it was during the derby, he said, the people in the crowd likely would have been concentrating on the action below. He cited the noise from the vehicles and the sizable crowd, who was focused on the event, the first year it was held at the fair, and the darkness.
Page is the grandson of Shirley Dawes, a Titus resident.
“He was a good person,” Dawes said in a phone interview. “Something isn’t right here. I’ve got to believe something else happened on that hill afterward.”
So what skills would Isabel find transferable? Certainly, breaking down the elements of a story and figuring out who to contact. Good interview skills are a must. Developing a network of sources for tips is another. And she’s got to be good kind of nosy.
And there are times when a journalist has to be a bit brave. For Isabel, that means talking with somebody who has something to hide — like maybe murdering another person. By the way, she’s really good at that.
IMAGE ABOVE: That’s my first press pass. By the way, I only had to use it twice to prove I was a journalist: at the White House and Cummington Fair.
LINK TO WORKING THE BEAT: mybook.to/workingthebeat