Reddick Mansion and Me
I was a guest speaker Saturday night at the Galena Library’s Lit Fest. It was a lovely online program. An annual event, it had previously been held live. I’d been invited because I won the Illinois Author Project Soon-to-be-Famous Award for my thriller, The Bone Shroud. Tasked with talking a minimum of fifteen minutes, I actually wrote a speech. I didn’t want to screw up, so I figured it was safer. Below is what I had to say about my journey to being a writer via the Reddick Mansion in Ottawa, Illinois. It used to be a library.
They say the Reddick Mansion, on the corner of Washington Square in Ottawa, the site of the first Lincoln Douglas Debate, was the most expensive private home built in Illinois before the Civil War. Three stories, twenty-two rooms, Italianate style, finished in 1855. It had sweeping staircases that creaked when you walked up them, bannisters that were worn and gleaming because so many hands had touched them. Wooden floors that also creaked … not worrisome noise, it was sort of like music.
Venerable building, certainly. Impressive, definitely.
But to me, it was my first library, and I was far more interested in what it held than the historic structure itself.
Reddick Mansion served as the town’s library from 1888 to 1975, and in the early decades steam heat, electricity, and indoor plumbing were added. And book shelves. Lots of book shelves. Beautiful dark wood shelves rich in detail and stretching more than eight feet high … at least they seemed that tall to me when I was a kid.
The children’s library was downstairs, which was where I was supposed to go with my orange library card. The shelves downstairs were not so magnificent, and I could reach the top shelf. The shelves were rather plain, actually, simply serviceable, and many of the books that lined them were illustrated. The books thin, the print on the large side, the words inside easy to understand.
Back in that proverbial day, kids got orange cards; adults got yellow, and in the early sixties if you had an orange card you were relegated to checking out books from the children’s library. Only from that library.
Problem was I didn’t want those books. Certainly not illustrated books; I wanted to envision the characters and scenes myself.
My mother had taught me to read when I was four. I devoured Tarzan and Jack London when I was five and was reading my father’s cast-off Western paperbacks when I hit first grade. I wasn’t a genius, and I wasn’t gifted. I just loved stories and couldn’t get enough of them. And the ones in the children’s library downstairs weren’t suitable for my appetite.
So mom took me upstairs with her yellow library card. It was a magic thing, that yellow piece of cardstock. It opened a world for me. Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison … the great sci-fi masters were on the second floor. I fell in love with science fiction. Oh, I still read Westerns, and I discovered mysteries, too … Ross Macdonald, Roy Vickers, Josephine Tey, Charlotte Armstrong, Agatha Christie, and Ed McBain … who in later years I had the great pleasure of corresponding with.
My mom used her magic card to check out four books every other week during the school year, and for me that was usually two science fiction, one Western, and one mystery. In the summer she’d check out more. Every once in a while a biography would catch my attention. I remember reading a beat-to-heck book called Satchmo. My dad’s favorite musician was Louis Armstrong. We listened to Armstrong’s jazz albums, and so I made it through his autobiography.
While I’d peruse the shelves on the second floor my mom would sit in a comfy chair and read magazines. She had great patience, as it took me a long while to make my selections. Her presence was always required, as she had that magic yellow library card. And she never questioned what I picked out, never approved or disapproved of my reading choices. I don’t think she paid attention to them. She was just happy I read. I tackled To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye when I was in the fifth grade … my dad said I should. I didn’t wholly appreciate them until I reread them many years later when they were required in English courses, but I was engrossed both times.
Books have always been a big part of my life.
And the library was an especially big deal because we were poor, and we certainly could not have afforded enough books to sate my reading addiction.
My dad treated himself to a paperback Western once in a while. There was a shop in town that had a rack of used Westerns at the back, ranging in cost from a quarter to a dollar; I think they were the owners’ “I’m finished with this” cast-off assortment. I remember wondering why the owner hadn’t read science fiction too; that would have pleased me. But he had Zane Grey books. Shadow on the Trail was one of my favorites. Still have my dad’s dog-eared copy of that.
In any event, the library was my downtown destination. Babysitter, teacher, and my inspiration. The Reddick Library is probably why I’m a writer.
I was in Miss Burleson’s second grade class at McKinley Elementary School, and one day she asked each of us what we wanted to be when we grew up. There were some policemen and firemen in the mix. My friend Tommy wanted to be an astronaut … he ended up being a park ranger. Me? I told her I was going to write books, preferably science fiction. My books were going to be on a shelf where you could check them out of the Reddick Library.
Miss Burleson suggested I consider being a teacher or a nurse. I never liked Miss Burleson. And I think I would have made a rotten nurse.
But a teacher? I am sometimes that. I’ve mentored graduate-level writing students, taught genre writing courses, and ran a writer’s workshop for seventeen years at one of the largest conventions in this country. An occasional teacher, you could call me one of those.
Back to libraries … they were my greatest research tool. Sometimes I’m grateful that I was born long enough ago that I couldn’t use the internet for research starting out. Instead, I had to use the library. I think it made me a better digger, discovering various reference materials, becoming a pro at using a card catalog, spending hours in rare books rooms, operating microfiche readers, and more. I honed my detective skills, and there was something rewarding about physically ferreting out facts and clues and being forced to write notes rather than cut and paste off web articles. I use the internet now, certainly, awesome especially in the time of Covid and when I’m in a hurry. But using the library opened my mind and senses and taught me how to research.
Handy thing for a writer, research. And some of that research led to me loving news reports and pointed me toward a career.
I majored in Journalism in college and worked for various newspapers and ran a news bureau before shifting gears and working for a game manufacturer, where among other things I edited a magazine. The company also produced a line of game-related fantasy fiction.
I started reading the books they put out … dragons, giants, sword & sorcery. I decided I wanted to try my hand at that. After all, I’d told Mrs. Burleson back in second grade that I wanted to write books that would show up on the shelves at the Reddick Library … which had since closed down, was turned into a museum, and the city’s new library was in a sleek one-level building that had just as many books, though not the squeaky-floor charm.
It took me a couple of years and submissions before I managed to sell my first fantasy novel to the company, Red Magic … it came out in 1991. When I went back to Ottawa to visit my mom I had a book signing at the library. Sort of a full-circle thing. Big write-up in the newspaper; they devoted an entire page about a hometown girl who’d followed her dream.
I’ve written more than one hundred short stories and more than forty-some novels since, many of my books fantasy and edgy urban fantasy, a science fiction tale I co-authored with a New York Times Bestselling Star Trek author, pulp adventure, a couple of thrillers, and now mysteries. My claim to fame is hitting the USA Today Bestseller list several times, winning the Illinois Author Project’s Soon-to-be-Famous Award, three Silver Falchion mystery-writing awards, and now being named a Grandmaster by the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers. I call it an awesome career.
It also makes me a mutt of an author … someone who appears on various library shelves, not all in one department because I can’t stick to one genre. Maybe that goes back to my kid days when I’d check out science fiction, mysteries, and Westerns from the Reddick Library. I loved to read various genres, so why couldn’t I write in them?
I had a few literary agents tell me I needed to stick to one genre, and that it should be fantasy, as that was where I was best known. They weren’t interested in representing a mutt who hopped from fantasy to mystery to whatever the heck I was going to write next. I suppose it would have been more responsible or proper of me to do that.
But life is so short. And in the time of Covid we’re reminded more of that fact. My life is too short to be relegated to one shelf in a library. I love writing fantasy—my latest came out six days ago—Black Heart of the Dragon God. But I also love writing mysteries and am plotting my next Piper Blackwell book. My readers cross genres, and if I can win awards for thrillers, mysteries, and fantasy novels … why can’t I write them all?
I can. Life is too short not to do what makes you happy.
I have three dogs. People who follow me on Facebook and read my monthly newsletter are often bombarded with pictures of my rescue family. I frequently have them wrapped around me as I write. Fable the Labrador lays across my feet under my desk. My one-eyed Boston Terrier squeezes behind me in my office chair…it’s a good-sized chair. And my one-eyed Pug (is there a theme here?) is a wee doggie and wedges herself between me and my keyboard. And somehow I can produce a few thousand words a day with this arrangement. Anyway, my dogs have taught me to “live in the now,” which means write what I want because life is too short not to.
I’m currently at work on a sequel to The Love-Haight Case Files, a supernatural mystery, while I’m outlining my next traditional mystery, and getting ready to start another fantasy novel. I always juggle projects because there are so many stories bumping around in my brain. I edit novels for other authors on the side … just because.
I still use libraries from time to time for research. In my latest Piper Blackwell, libraries in tiny towns in Kentucky helped me find maps from the 1800s … they copied and mailed them to me, and the librarians pointed me to lifelong residents and historians in backroad burghs that I could chat with to make my fictional setting authentic.
With all the wonders of the internet, I mostly use my computers for my explorations, but my early years in libraries taught me that old-school research can sometimes yield better, or at least more interesting, results. And my newspaper years taught me to talk to people for hands-on information, so I have coroners, police detectives, district attorneys, and the like that I actually pick up the phone and chat with so I can make sure my mysteries use accurate methods and procedures.
Libraries, though, have always been the heart of my research and the springboard for ideas. Oh look, there’s a book on underwater archaeology. I must check that out and have a character go scuba-diving for something. Hmmmm … and there’s a book on the zeppelins of World War I … I was looking for a topic for a short story.
Beyond serving as fodder for my fiction, I’ve used libraries to populate some of my books … well, I did before Covid. When I’d visit my tiny town library to attend one of the many history, craft, or wildlife programs they offered, I’d bring my notebook and jot down descriptions of the attendees, what they wore, the way they spoke, the gestures they used … and I’d sprinkle them in my books. I also collected people descriptions at my tiny town library’s marvelous used book sale. Twice a year I’d come away with so many books I had to make multiple trips to my car.
Science fiction, mysteries, and Westerns.
Hmmmmmm. I’ve not written a Western. But I know I could. Maybe I can squeeze one in sometime.
I am traditionally published by Tor Books, Daw Books, and TSR/Wizards/Hasbro. I think one of my paperbacks was published by Roc. But since I’ve switched to mysteries … or, rather, switched to writing what I want, I publish indie now under Boone Street Press. I pay for editors, copyeditors, a cover artist, layout guru … everything a traditional publisher does. But it’s indie.
Indie fits me, it’s where I want to be. And I’m happy that through the Illinois Author Project and other programs like it throughout the country, libraries have started carrying my books and books by other indie authors.
And while I don’t have books available for checkout in the old Reddick Library—which is now a museum and on the National Register of Historic Places and charges admission—I am on the shelves of the one-level library in town.
I was right back in the second grade when I told Miss Burleson I was going to grow up to be a writer.
Really, there was nothing I wanted more.