Yesterday, the mailman brought me my contributor’s copies of the October issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I’d already had an email from AHMM telling me my entry would be the cover story, but I didn’t realize how great that would feel until I opened the package and saw the cover. “Variable Winds” draws on some of my experiences as a sailor years and years ago.
I rarely mine my early years for fiction, or so I like to think, so when I set out to write this story, I was surprised at how much I remembered. (The idea for the story came from a particular experience, which I recount in Trace Evidence, the AHMM blog.) The memory is a tricky creature, serving up tantalizing tidbits that any sane person would ignore but every writer is more likely to think would be just the thing. I could feel the smooth wood of the tiller in my hands, the winding threads of the metal stays, the resistance as I pulled on the downhaul, and the sudden snap and tug on the sheets for the genoa. I could hear the sound of the mainsail luffing, and the click of the winch as I brought in the sheet. I could smell the water, the marsh at low tide, and the change in the direction of the wind. And I will always remember how the boat shuddered when the bow crashed into a trough as a wave traveled beneath us.
We used to take our dog on some outings and he sat upright on the deck. I always wondered why he didn’t slide off into the water, but the pads of his feet seemed to have the same qualities as the suction cups of lizards. He tilted as the boat listed, his nose into the wind. He had to return to the cockpit when we came about or raised the jib, his one concession to gravity.
I thought I’d put sailing off the coast of Massachusetts behind me, but a few memories seem to have stuck. When I shared the story with a colleague, she launched into tales of her own years on the water, sailing off New Jersey. We learned in different boats and had different experiences, but shared the same sense of what it meant to be on the water.
The boats I sailed in are long gone, but the memories seem to have lingered. Writing the story got me hooked, and I began to explore my earliest lessons, and that became the subject of the newest Mellingham mystery. In Come About for Murder, Chief Joe Silva teaches his stepson, Philip, to sail. It turns out Philip is a natural, which is a good thing because he’s sailing for his life before the story ends.