Women of Mystery
How two U of L alumnae became top 'whodunits'

Sue Grafton has written 18 novels--16 of those in a wildly popular detective series--and her work appears in 26 languages around the world. Barbara Taylor McCafferty has written 14 mystery novels under three pseudonyms, including five co-written with her twin sister.

How did these two U of L graduates become successful writers? It's no mystery.

'A' is for Aspiring

Sue Grafton grew up in Louisville's Highlands neighborhood. Her father, municipal bond attorney C.W. Grafton, was himself a writer whose first mystery, "The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope," won the Mary Roberts Reinhart Award of 1943.

A 1961 graduate of U of L, Sue Grafton majored in English with minors in fine arts and humanities. Although she was a member of the Pi Beta Phi sorority, she was not active in extracurricular activities or student life, preferring the company of a good book to people.

"I was interested in reading and writing, but not a lot else," Grafton admits.

By the time Grafton had dropped out of her first semester of graduate school, Barbara Taylor McCafferty was preparing to attend U of L. After graduating from Valley High School, she came to U of L on a President's Scholarship from 1964­1966.

"I had a full scholarship for my junior year too, but I gave it up to marry a man I would divorce 12 years later," McCafferty recalls. "My whole life can be summed up in two words: poor planning."

Suddenly a single mom of three, she returned to U of L and graduated magna cum laude in 1980 with a degree in fine art.

It was during McCafferty's first stint at U of L that she started her literary career, supplementing her scholarship money by writing "confessions" for magazines like True Romance, Modern Romance and True Confessions.

"These were fun to write; they paid as much per word as Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and because they were supposed to be true they were published anonymously," she says. "In one, as I recall, I confessed to owning a massage parlor. Very risqué."

Looking back at her early struggles, Grafton has simple advice for aspiring writers: There are no shortcuts.

"Give the art of writing fiction the same investment in time, attention and respect that you'd give any highly technical field or profession," she advises.

"It took me four full-length manuscripts before I found someone willing to represent my work," Grafton says of the humble beginnings of her prolific writing career. "That novel was published, but the first three still languish somewhere in my files ... the equivalent of early junior high school homework assignments."

Grafton's fifth novel also was published, but her sixth and seventh never saw the light of day.

Her eighth, "A is for Alibi," took five years to finish. But it set off her international best-selling series featuring the character Kinsey Millhone.

Living in Santa Teresa, Calif., Millhone is a former police officer who turned to private investigation, and her work takes her all over the West.

Image: Sue Grafton
The eigth time was charm for author Sue Grafton, who had completed seven novels before writing "A is for Alibi," the book that launched her hit series of alphabet mysteries.

"When I first started writing this series, I came up with some basic facts about Kinsey's life," Grafton says. "But there are many things about her I still don't know. It's always fun to write a book in which I'm learning things myself while I'm in the process of telling you.

"One of the most important decisions I make once I have a story laid out is to figure out where and how to cut into the narrative. I'm always playing around with the question of who hires Kinsey Millhone and what she's hired to do."

Story lines can start with a vague idea but are always based on the next letter of the alphabet.

"For instance, with 'C is for Corpse,' all I knew in the beginning was that I wanted Kinsey to work for a dead man," Grafton says. "With 'D' ('D is for Deadbeat'), I thought it would be interesting if Kinsey did some work for a man who paid with a check that bounced.

"She had to track the guy down to get the check made good, and by the time she finds him he's dead."

Grafton continues, "I'd also intended to write 'F is for Forgery,' but when I started doing the research I decided forgery was too boring a crime. The word 'fugitive' came to mind, and that helped me shape the story."

The Ringmaster

In some ways McCafferty's job is like that of the ringmaster at a three-ring circus, keeping her characters running smoothly in the three different series she writes under three different names.

Under her full name, McCafferty and her twin sister, Beverly Taylor Herald, write the popular Tatum Twins mysteries about crime-solving twins. The characters are based in Louisville; in fact, their backgrounds closely mirror those of their creators.

"The Tatum Twins and Beverly and I could possibly be quadruplets," McCafferty says.

Under the pen name Taylor McCafferty, she writes the Haskell Blevins mysteries about an ex-police detective from Louisville who moves to Pigeon Fork to work as a part-time private investigator and part-time clerk in his brother's pharmacy.

And as Tierney McClellan, McCafferty writes the Schuyler Ridgeway mysteries about a divorced, 40-year-old Louisville woman who supports herself as a realtor-cum-detective.

"It's pretty easy to keep them separate," she says of her cast ensemble. "Haskell is nothing like Schuyler, and he is certainly nothing like the Tatum twins. Schuyler and the twins have some things in common, but they are still very different people."

No matter what series McCafferty is working on, there is a consistent element: humor.

"For the Haskell Blevins series, I tried to think of funny mysteries--like what if a man found money deposited into his bank account only he wasn't making the deposits?" she says. "It would be sort of a robbery in reverse.

"And what if he never reports to the police all of the deposits that were mysteriously showing up until whoever was doing it suddenly made a withdrawal? This turned out to be 'Funny Money.'

"Other ideas I've gotten from the newspaper, from television, even from a front page article in the National Enquirer about spontaneous human combustion. This last turned out to be a short story, 'Old Flame.' "

"It Was a Dark and Stormy Town ..."

And what of the hometown roots these authors share?

"I love Louisville for the people, who seem genuinely warm and down-to-earth," Grafton says. "But my greatest passion is for the thunder and lightning storms which we don't get on the West Coast," she says. "I've never understood how anyone could complain about the rain."

Although based in California, Grafton maintains a second home in Louisville and often writes while there.

Although Barbara McCafferty now lives in Florida year-round, many of her books are still set in her hometown of Louisville.

"I'm productive when visiting Louisville, in part because no one can figure out that I'm back in town and my phone seldom rings," she laughs.

While many of McCafferty's books are set in Louisville--even those that are not still have ties to the area--she now lives in Florida where "it is lovely and sunny nearly all the time," she says.

"But I still miss Louisville. I miss all the wonderful old trees lining the streets, the elegance of the Victorian houses in Old Louisville, the charm of the Highlands neighborhood, the abundant thrift stores, the cool autumn evenings and the way the city gets all dressed up for the Derby."

She fondly recalls a Louisville book signing when their publisher gave away free copies of Tatum Twin books to any pair of twins who showed up.

"We ended up with a room full of twins," she says. "It was so much fun. Beverly and I found out that we look at other twins with the same curiosity that other people look at us."

Likewise, readers will continue to be curious about where these writers will take their characters--and their audiences. Regardless of where they go, there is likely to be some connection to U of L and to Louisville--to home.

Jeff Dodd '85A and Brian Heckel are Louisville-based freelance writers. Dodd serves on several committees and boards at U of L.

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