Mystery writer Joan Livingston of Shelburne Falls has found her calling.
Actually, she has found several callings over the years, and she has enjoyed every one of them.
Livingston was born in Fairhaven. She and her husband, Hank, raised six children in Worthington.
“That’s where all my energy went when I was bringing them up, and I don’t regret that at all,” she told me when I interviewed her recently.
While in Worthington, she began writing for the Daily Hampshire Gazette. She rose to an editorial position before she and her husband moved to Taos, New Mexico. There she ran the Taos Daily News and taught writing.
She also wrote novels. (I have a feeling ella she does n’t need a lot of sleep!) She has written for young people, has penned women’s fiction, and has even put together a bilingual book in Spanish and English.
She had already begun her Isabel Long mystery series when she and her husband returned to western Massachusetts to be near several of their children … and she was lured back into newspaper work, first as editor of this paper and eventually as Pioneer Valley editor-in- chief.
She oversaw the Daily Hampshire Gazette and the Athol Daily News as well as the Greenfield Recorder until her retirement a few months ago, a retirement she insists is permanent. Even while editing, she continued to write, getting up at 5 am to put in a couple of hours on her fiction de ella before setting into the newspaper grind.
I asked Livingston whether she missed journalism.
“I miss the people. I don’t miss the work,” she told me. “I like the camaraderie of the newsroom. I like the role of a community newspaper, letting people have the information they need to make good decisions and be entertained.”
Still, she added, “I’m having a really good time. I feel like right now I can live the writer’s life that I want.”
She decided to try writing mysteries, she explained, after a friend and mentor in Taos recommended them.
“I said, ‘Why not? I love mysteries,’” she recalled. “I know when I read or watch a mystery I want to be fooled until the end. I just seem to have knack for it.”
She clearly does have that knack. Livingston’s fifth Isabel Long novel, “Working the Beat,” was just published by darkstroke books.
Like the other books I have read in the series, “Working the Beat” is a good yarn. Its scenery may feel familiar to local readers. Isabel lives in a fictional western Massachusetts town, Conwell, which can boast of about 1,000 people, one general store and one bar.
“I feel like the hilltowns are in my DNA,” Livingston told me. “Most of the characters aren’t based on anybody. I just know what I like. I want my characters to be authentic, and I feel that they are.”
Some of the characters recur from book to book. Others are specific to one mystery. “They just pop into my head,” she says of her colorful dramatic personae.
Livingston admits that Isabel shares some of her own characteristics. Both are former journalists. Livingston notes that journalists have “transferable skills,” being good at research and adept at following through on leads.
Livingston and her heroine also both have spirited 90-something-year-old mothers. “I would say there’s a lot of me in Isabel. She’s kind of snarky, and she’s nosy,” Livingston said with a laugh.
One key difference between the two is that, unlike Livingston, Isabel Long is a widow. Over the course of the novels, the sleuth has become increasingly romantically involved with the proprietor of the local bar.
I asked about Livingston’s writing process.
“I like my writing to have a great daydream and then going back and revisiting it,” she stated. “I just sit down and I write. I don’t plan ahead, and I don’t do outlines.
“The best book I ever read on writing is Stephen King’s ‘On Writing.’ He says writing is telepathic, and that’s what it is for me.”
She added, “I don’t know whodunit when I start. I solved the mystery with Isabel. I’ll be writing, and then I get to the end of a chapter, and I say, ‘OK, what’s next?’ I want to keep people guessing.”
Although she is technically retired, Livingston is far from idle. She is busy revising an older novel for publication. It’s called “The Swanson Shuffle” and it is based on her own experiences of her living and working in a psychiatric halfway house years ago.
She is busy promoting “Working the Beat.” She posts blogs and videos, and she recently spoke about her writing of her to the Shelburne Falls Area Women’s Club. She has also written much of Isabel Long’s next story about her, which is introduced in a teaser in the current novel.
“Working the Beat” is available at Boswell’s Books, at the World Eye Bookshop, and at Floodwater Brewing Co. in Shelburne Falls, which is owned by Livingston’s son, Zack. It may also be purchased in paperback and kindle formats on Amazon.com.
For more information about Joan Livingston, visit https://www.joanlivingston.net/
Tinky Weisblat is the award-winning author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook,” “Pulling Taffy,” and “Love, Laughter, and Rhubarb.” Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.