Never too late: A novelist who broke into mysteries in her 80s offers advice for writers young and old

Some people strike early—after all, Christopher Paolini published his bestseller Eragon when he was a mere 19 years old. But Eugenia Lovett West waited a bit longer—in 2007, West released her first mystery, Without Warning … at the age of 84.

While West had published a historical novel in 1979, she flirted with different genres before finding her rhythm and closing a near 30-year gap. At 87, she released her most recent book, Overkill, a tale about a global network that sells stolen viruses.

On this WD Mag Wednesday, she riffs on how publishing has changed and how age impacts a writer, and offers a few tips to scribes of all ages. (Of course, a regular Promptly prompt follows.)

Also, tomorrow Guide to Literary Agents Editor/freelancer Chuck Sambuchino and I will be teaching a live Writer’s Digest webinar on selling freelance articles, exploring everything from generating article ideas to queries to the specifics of how you place your pieces in newspapers, magazines and websites. Every attendee also gets an article query critiqued. Find out more here — hope to see you there!

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How did you get into writing, and when did you first publish?
It all began by freelance reporting for local papers. Great training. Then, after churning out 300-word stories, there was a compulsion to try for 300 pages. A historical/suspense novel, The Ancestors Cry Out, was published in 1979 by Doubleday and Ballantine.

What caused the gap between your first book and your second, Without Warning?
I spent too much time trying my hand at several genres: heavy historical, romance, and then mystery.

How did Without Warning come to be?
This story should give hope to writers of all ages. I struggled to learn the rules of the mystery genre—dropping red herrings and clues and producing a surprising villain. The ms gathered rejections. I self-published it as a Christmas present for family and friends and entered the St. Martin’s Press contest for first mysteries. It was too international for the contest, but their renowned editor, Ruth Cavin, liked it and offered me a contract for two books.

How has the publishing world changed since the publication of your first book?
Enormously. A new mindset is required. E-mail has taken the place of phone calls. I work on a computer and have a website, Blogs and Q&As are exciting new areas of promotion—but given the recession, it’s harder than ever to break out of the pack. 

What did you find most surprising about the process nowadays?
It still surprises me that many publishers still go through the expense of buying and producing a long list of books, then send them out into the world with a minimum of marketing and publicity. 

How does age impact a writer?

In much the same way age impacts everyone. It takes more maintenance to keep the chassis on the road. There’s a stronger sense that every day must count. I haven’t run across any unique challenges. (Note: my editor Ruth Cavin is even older than I am. So is P.D. James.)

Does a wealth of experiences lead to a wealth of source material?

Absolutely. Racking up high mileage translates into meeting more people and gaining deeper insights. Through trial and error, a style evolves. I compare writing to cooking a big stew. Throw in different ingredients and stir well.

What advice do you have for younger writers?

I wish I had done my genre experiments in my 20s. Learn not to be discouraged by rejection. In my view, there are no shortcuts to applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. 

And your advice for older writers?
Just keep writing. Close as few doors as possible.

So what’s next for you?
I’m working on the third Emma Streat mystery, so pictures are running through my head like a film. And I’m revising a historical suspense novel, applying whatever skills I learned in writing mysteries.

Is there anything you would like to add?
Writers are lucky people. It’s a blessing to wake up every morning with people to invent, stories to tell.

* * *

WRITING PROMPT: American Graffiti
free to take the following prompt home or post a response (500 words or
fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below. By
posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our around-the-office swag
drawings. If you’re having trouble with the captcha code sticking,
e-mail your piece and the prompt to me at,
with “Promptly” in the subject line, and I’ll make sure it gets up.

You’re downtown, and see graffiti in an unlikely place—graffiti like you’ve never seen before, concerning someone you know.



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3 thoughts on “Never too late: A novelist who broke into mysteries in her 80s offers advice for writers young and old

  1. Dare Gaither

    The real test for a pair of jeans is the rear view.
    I had come downtown in search of the elusive “perfect fit.”
    Three stores and a dozen try-ons later, I was still searching.
    I now stood barefoot and breathless in a dressing room,
    strategically positioned between two opposing mirrors.

    I pulled on my latest prospect and looked up,
    prepared to face the image of unbiased truth.
    Before I could focus on the bottom line, I noticed
    something written on the front mirror. I moved closer
    to read the ornate letters painted in bright red nail polish.


    I gave an ironic laugh.
    As I glanced at my reflection from the rear,
    I had to admit this was the ideal place for such advice.
    A different perspective offered new vistas of
    knowledge and enlightenment.
    The perfect fit is not always flattering.

    I paid for my selection and returned to the
    bustle of traffic and crowds. Amid the chaos
    of the street, the bright red letters still burned
    in my brain.

    Knowledge poses the eternal question:
    What to accept and what to change?

  2. Mark James

    “And all our yesterdays have lighted fools, the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle.” I didn’t move my lips when I read the words, but it was so weird seeing Shakespeare carved into a dead man’s belly, I could have.

    “Someone you know?” That was Vic, my boss, behind me.

    “Not personally,” I said.


    I stood up, leaned against the wall of the narrow alley. The street light made my shadow long and pointy behind me. I felt for my ball of rubber bands in my jacket pocket, twisted one around my finger. “It’s Shakespeare.”

    Vic looked at the dead man’s face. I don’t know why. His skin had been harvested, cut away clean, leaving just a mass of muscle and bone. “Doesn’t look like his pictures,” Vic said.

    “It’s a message.” I twisted the rubber band between my fingers, my eyes on the darkness at the mouth of the alley. “For someone we both know.”

    Kneeling by the body, tracing his fingers over the neat block letters, not touching the skin, Vic said, “I don’t know anyone who has a nut job after him.”

    “Remember Candlestick?” I said.

    “The flamer idiot?” My boss was leaning over the dead guy’s face close enough to kiss. “Burned down a house a night for thirteen weeks. Left a note saying how the devil made him do it. Jumped into the Hudson, didn’t he?”

    “He called me last night.” The rubber band I was twisting around my thumb snapped. “Said he didn’t drown. But he wished he had. He’s been getting calls. A guy saying he’ll blow him out like a burned down candle.”

    Vic bounced up so fast, he nearly slipped in the man’s congealing blood. “When was this?”

    “I told you, last night.”

    “Why didn’t I hear about it?”

    “I don’t think he did it.”

    “Don’t start, Kalen.”

    I slid both hands into the deep pockets of my leather jacket, leaned my head against the wall, closed my eyes. “All right. I won’t.”

    “Did he tell you where to find him so you can help out with his death wish?”

    My eyes still closed, I said, “Yeah.”

    “But you’re not telling me, right?”

    “Forty three people burned in those fires.” The numbers flowed through my mind and down my bloodless spine like ice water. “Thirteen women, sixteen men, fourteen children.” I cracked my eyes open, stared at Vic till he turned to face me. “Aren’t you a little curious about who lit the match?”

    “I already know.” Vic closed the distance between us, grabbed my jacket in both hands and hauled me close. “Tell me where to find him.”

    I let Vic hold onto me long enough for him to know he was pissing me off before I said, “Let go.”

    He threw me into the wall. I didn’t mind. Vampires don’t bruise easy. “He’s one of you, isn’t he?” Vic said. “That’s why you’re protecting him.”

    “We don’t eat meat. But you know who does.”

    I let him turn away, gave him time to think about it. Zombies weren’t particular about their meat; they ate it raw or well done. Not everyone knew we nicknamed the house burner Candlestick. We’d kept that out of the papers. But Vic’s brother was a zombie, and cops talk; especially to their families.

  3. Nathan Honore

    I decided to walk home, as I usually do on those days that aren’t quite rainy, but are far from sunny. The air felt so fresh on my skin. My car stayed at work. It didn’t seem to mind. The slight breeze made me thankful for my olive corduroy sports jacket. It always protected me from cold and visible pit-stains.
    The usual graffiti was on display: a lot of bubble letters that were impossible to decipher, but lovely to look at. I walked at a leisurely pace, smiling whilst looking them over. I thought to myself,” Thank God for graffiti. This warehouse would be so ugly without it.” I ventured on. As I passed the police station, I saw it. My smile erased from my face like an etch-a-sketch.
    “When the hell did this get here?” I thought. “I walk this path almost every week, yet this mural looks so old and aged.”
    It was my girlfriend’s face with the words “Mi Amor,” etched in beautiful blue and white letters. The graffiti had her eyebrows, nose, smile, even her eyes. It had to be her. Was she cheating on me with some talented Hispanic dude? My hand turned inwards as all my digits got well acquainted. I prepared to punch the wall but thought better of it. Looking into the wall version of her eyes I said, “How do you accuse someone of cheating based on graffiti?” It seemed so nonsensical, but I sure as hell didn’t paint that.
    Finally, I went inside the police station to report the graffiti. It was pretty dead, only one frumpy looking officer on dispatch. I wondered if he had misbehaved, but my mind quickly jumped back to the task at hand.
    “There’s graffiti on the police station wall,” I said.
    “Oh yeah. It’s been up there a few days now. Pretty nice, huh?”
    “But it’s illegal…isn’t it?”
    “Well, yes and no,” he breathed at me. His eyes told me that I was bothering him during his solitaire time. I turned from Officer McFrumpy and had a sudden burst of artistic inspiration. I would cover it up! The police clearly didn’t care if there was paint on their building. The hardware store had what I needed. I briefly considered getting primer, but an employee talked me out of it. I returned and peeled the lid off the can. It nearly flew out of my hands as I hurled the paint at the wall. Success! The only visible letters were “i or.” I felt good with myself as I started to walk home as I was tapped on the shoulder.
    “That’s defacement of public property son,” McFrumpy said rather frumpily.
    “But there was already paint there, I merely added to it.”
    “Nice try pal, I’m taking you in.”
    Five hundred bucks and a night in jail later and I still don’t know if she’s cheating on me. She dumped me when she heard what I did. What a waste of a phone call.