Imagine Me As A Little Old Lady
by Parnell Hall
Dropped. Desperate. Never going to write again.
Been there. Done that.
The scariest thing for a writer is to be dropped by your publisher. There you are, on top of the world, one of the chosen few, and suddenly it’s snatched out from under you, and you find yourself in a Road Runner cartoon realizing you’re standing on thin air.
When your publisher drops you, no one wants you. It’s not a good job recommendation. “Why did I leave my publisher? They looked at my royalty statements.”
When Warner Books dropped my Stanley Hastings series I was devastated. There I was, thirteen books into the series, with Edgar and Shamus nominations, getting reviewed regularly by the New York Times. Suddenly no one would touch me. I huddled with my agent to see what we could do.
No one wanted a private eye series by Parnell Hall. The problem was to get a publisher to publish something else. We decided to get as far away from Parnell Hall territory as possible.
Stanley Hastings was a New York City P.I. So, how about a little old lady who lived in a small New England town and solves crime? Fine, but it sounds like Jessica Fletcher. What would make it different?
Enter the gimmick.
My little old lady needed something that set her apart, made her special, made her someone people would want to read about.
We hit on crossword puzzles. It seemed a natural. A crime is a puzzle, so if you threw a crossword puzzle in it you’d have puzzles within puzzles. It was perfect.
I still wasn’t happy. I would be writing about a sweet, little old lady with a nationally syndicated crossword column who solves crime on the side. The whole idea was so sugary sweet it made me sick.
So I twisted it. While Cora Felton looks like your favorite grandmother and even does breakfast cereal ads on TV for schoolchildren, she is actually a loopy old hellion who’s been married so many times she’s not sure exactly how many husbands she’s had, only recently gave up drinking and can’t remember much of the seventies and eighties, smokes like a chimney and swears like a sailor.
She is also the Milli Vanilli of the crossword puzzle community and couldn’t solve a crossword with a gun to her head. Her niece Sherry constructs the puzzles, and Cora Felton is just the name on the column. This arrangement was initially to allow Sherry to hide from an abusive ex-husband. Now Cora can’t admit to being a fraud without destroying her commercial career.
With those few tweaks, I liked the character a lot. I started in on the manuscript.
I had one problem.
I didn’t know much more about crossword puzzles than Cora did. Sure, I’d done them as a kid, but not for over twenty years, and I wasn’t good then. My Stanley Hastings books were based on my two years working as a private eye in New York City. I had never been a little old lady presumed to have an unusual talent for crosswords.
So I entered the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, the national tournament held in Stamford, Connecticut. I practiced for it by doing the daily puzzles in the New York Times, and by the time of the tournament I felt pretty good about it.
The first puzzle was easy. I flew right through it. I got about halfway done, I looked up, and the room was empty. Everyone had finished and left. Out of 254 contestants, I finished 250th, just ahead of the four people who failed to turn in a paper.
With this practical experience, I wrote the manuscript and gave it to my agent.
He liked it a lot, but we were still worried. Would an editor read a manuscript with the name Parnell Hall on it? The odds were not great.
So we put the name Alice Hastings on the manuscript and sent it around.
Bantam immediately snapped up this book by an unknown woman for more money than anyone had ever paid me. I did not take that as an insult. I took the check to the bank and cashed it.
Of course, we had to tell them I wrote it. That didn’t worry them. They were happy to publish the book under the name Alice Hastings. They even asked me for her bio. I wrote, as I recall, “Alice Hastings was raised in a small New England town by English lit teachers with a fondness for Agatha Christie and the Sunday Times crossword. When not writing, Alice enjoys tennis, swimming, and co-ed softball.”
Bantam was all set to go. Then they heard I was planning to take the author photo. At that point, they chickened out. They decided to put my name on the book.
I argued against it. Alice, I thought, would sell better. But we went with my name and the book did all right.
Still, I wonder what I might have made as a woman.
Parnell Hall is the author of the Puzzle Lady, crossword puzzle mysteries, the Stanley Hastings private eye novels, and the Steve Winslow courtroom dramas. With Stuart Woods, he is the co-author of the New York Times bestselling Teddy Fay series. His latest Puzzle Lady book is The Purloined Puzzle. His next, Lights! Camera! Puzzles!, will be out in April.