I love this month’s Tell Me Your Story entry from fellow Poisoned Pen author Tammy Kaehler. Every author I know will understand what she is talking about. Tammy is a writer, editor, project manager, and mystery author—as well as a racing fan and an appropriately enthusiastic cat lady. Mystery readers and racing insiders alike have praised the five books in her award-winning Kate Reilly Racing Mystery Series, which follows a young woman driver as she competes in races, advances in her career, and solves crimes in the racing world. One of Tammy’s recent creative endeavors is a series of micro stories: creative and fun backstories for a local rescue’s adoptable cats and kittens. She’s also working on turning those stories and her experience fostering kittens into a new cozy mystery series. Tammy and her husband live in Southern California and share their lives with Pepper and Daisy, two feline siblings adopted through the rescue.
My Mid-Life Renaissance
by Tammy Kaehler
I loved writing my first mystery novel. I was thrilled at this new endeavor I’d undertaken, as well as with my own audacity. After all, I was writing a mystery about Kate Reilly, a woman racecar driver, when I hardly knew anything about writing fiction or auto racing. I felt like Judy and Mickey in the barn deciding to put on a show to save the farm. You know, a “Gee whiz, I can do anything!” vibe.
At that point, the sum-total of my fiction-writing experience was a single, terrible, non-mystery manuscript. I was not a scribbler in grade or high school. I did not dream of writing the great (or even not-so-great) American novel. But I loved mysteries with every fiber of my being, and I had recently come across a fascinating world I wanted to tell people about. On a more mystical note, I felt at 35 that I had finally filled up my internal well enough with great fiction (mysteries and not) that I could make my own attempt. So I leapt into the adventure and had fun.
As any writer will tell you, the first book, in a series or pre-publication, is always different. There’s not a single ounce of pressure except for what you put on yourself. It’s a voyage of discovery. And like at the start of a car race, everyone was still a potential superstar and winner.
I was lucky. I got an agent indecently quickly after sending out queries. To balance that out, then there was a long, long wait to find a publisher. Which I did! And I loved them. And life was great, unless I was thinking about the second book. As my friend and fellow mystery writer Tina Whittle once said, “Writing the second book is like crawling over broken glass.” And she was right. But the problem was, I was still crawling over jagged shards for books three, four, and five. The bigger problem? I didn’t realize it was that awful at the time.
That’s because I was caught in a do-loop. Head down, do the things I’m supposed to, meet the deadlines, repeat. I had so much fun with researching—seeing friends and attending races—and took so much pride in being published, that I told myself I still wanted to write the mysteries. Even in the face of a very modest impact on the world (and on my wallet). No matter, I said to myself and questioners, it’s not about the money, it’s about wanting to do it. I told people all the time, “You’ve got to enjoy the process, because almost no one gets rich and famous doing this.” I just wasn’t listening to myself.
Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot that was great. I wrote five mystery novels in a series. I have ISBNs! I went to racing school. I worked in the pits at the Indianapolis 500 for ESPN three times. Mario Andretti drove me around a track. I became part of the wonderful mystery community. And I made some lifelong, soulmate friends. But after book five, when my husband and I decided to change a bunch of fundamentals in our lives, I just … stopped. Life handed me the moment to step back and evaluate how I felt. The answer? Writing hadn’t been fun in a long time. So I stopped.
At first, I blamed it on our life-upheaval. We did a lot of home improvement and painting and selling and buying real estate. We moved. Twice. We dealt with some serious health issues. We gained, medicated, and then lost our first cat. Then the pandemic happened. I felt a lot of grief in those years. The obvious causes were our health crises and our cat. The less obvious ones were relationships that collapsed under the weight of culture wars and no longer feeling like I had the right to call myself a mystery author.
But perhaps the biggest—and most deeply buried—reason for a large portion of grief was that I’d lost the joy of writing. And as hard as that was to admit, I felt free after I did so. Because I’d finally listened to what I’d been telling other people: “If you’re not enjoying the journey, there’s no point.”
When I joked to friends that this was my mid-life crisis, my former editor corrected me: “It’s your mid-life renaissance.” And so I tried to live that philosophy. To go with the flow, not pressure myself to do any of the “shoulds,” and not even ask myself if I wanted to write again. I allowed myself to see where my passions took me.
First they took me to meditation, a wellness coach, and a lot of soul searching. To a better approach to my health (it comes to all of us at some point). To adopting kittens and volunteering for the cat rescue we got them from. And finally, years later, back to writing.
It didn’t happen overnight. I started by writing fun, fictional biographies for the rescue’s adoptable cats, inventing backstories of feline astronauts, rock stars and supermeowdels, a feline psychic to the stars, and more. As I got more involved, I wrote web content, volunteered at adoption and promotion events, and even fostered my first litters of kittens. Finally, I thought, “I could write about this world.” Actually, it was more than that. I realized I was moved to write about it. But this time, I was going to do it differently—and that’s where my real renaissance happened.
I’d always been a pantser—writing by the seat of my pants. Sitting down each day with no idea what would happen next. Aka, sitting down in a panic every day until I got to the two-thirds point of the manuscript and had a complete freakout over how to finish it. Aka, misery. This time, I decided, I would experiment with other alternatives. So I took at least a month to write character profiles, to plan suspects and clues and motivations, and to make a rough outline of the novel. I’m still not sure the process was fun, exactly, but I was proud of it and it wasn’t awful. That was good enough to keep going.
I started writing. Then I stopped because we moved (again, and we’re done now). Six months later, I picked it back up and finished it in a NaNoWriMo blitz plus a couple extra weeks. I’m still editing and battling the panic-demons that arrive each time I sit down to work on it. But I’ve learned a few things.
First of all, I don’t hate writing fiction, but I have to be passionate about the topic—and it’s all right if my passions change over the years. I don’t have to write in spite of hating the process, because I can change the process anytime I damn well want to. I need to let go of the “shoulds,” as well as anything else that doesn’t serve me. And I like starting a writing session with three minutes of meditation about how I’m going to feel when I’m done with that day’s work.
I still don’t have all the answers. Will this book be good? Will I be able to sell it? Will anyone want to read it? (OK, it’s about cats, so I figure that answer is yes.) Will I write another one? I don’t know. But what I do know is that I’ve found my joy again through writing this manuscript and the cat bios. And that’s worth the struggle.
Find out more at www.tammykaehler.com