When Salem author Margaret Press was helping settle her deceased grandmother’s estate, she discovered something strange: paperwork for two burial plots the woman had purchased decades ago and seemingly since forgotten. Faced with the question of what to do with these two plots, Press did what any good mystery writer would do. After posting them under the Craigslist.com classifieds, she then planted them inside a short story.
When Salem author Margaret Press was helping settle her deceased grandmother’s estate, she discovered something strange: paperwork for two burial plots the woman had purchased decades ago and seemingly since forgotten.
Faced with the question of what to do with these two plots, Press did what any good mystery writer would do. After posting them under the Craigslist.com classifieds, she then planted them inside a short story. The story, “Family Plot,” begins with a for-sale ad for cemetery plots and follows a woman’s struggle with the man who answers the ad, a greedy family member she didn’t know she had.
“Family Plot” has garnered praise in mystery writing circles, winning the Al Blanchard Short Fiction Award, named after the former head of the New England chapter of the group Mystery Writers of America, and has been published in “Deadfall: Crime Stories by New England Writers,” which was released earlier this month.
In a recent phone interview, Press shared her thoughts on inspiration and writing with the Gazette.
“As a writer, you carry a basket around with you every day,” she said. “You collect odd things like picking things up off a beach; things you overhear, things other people say. … You take home your collection of interesting shells and play around with how to weave different story elements together.”
For Press, another big “shell” collected for “Family Plot” was a newspaper story she had read years ago about “DNA stalkers,” people who get so carried away trying to track their family lineage they’re willing to bribe, cheat or coerce relatives into being DNA tested.
“One woman followed her cousin to McDonald’s and swiped his coffee cup when he was done,” Press said, chuckling. Press ended up weaving this idea into “Family Plot” by making the antagonist a DNA stalker.
Press’s appetite for the strange and macabre has led her to some interesting places over the course of her 20-year writing career. The California native spent time hobnobbing with Salem police in the 1990s after a crime case in which Willows resident Thomas Maimoni murdered his neighbor, a young artist named Martha Brailsford.
Press, also a Willows resident, was intrigued by the story and began researching it, ultimately publishing her first true crime novel, “Scream on the Water: A True Story of Murder in Salem.” In building characters for the story, Press spent many Friday nights hanging out at the Salem police station, “finding out how detectives talked.”
These days Press, as manager of a software company, has less time for research and writing novels. She says she’s focusing her creative energy on short stories, though she hopes one day to finish her grand work-in-progress: a second true-crime novel. Though she enjoys writing fiction, she said, the best treasures are found in real life.
“Every true character in real life has some gem that they come out with that you have to get. When I talked to [Salem police], interviewing them in the first hour I’d get stuff I knew already, but in the second hour would come these incredible illuminations. … You’d want to weep or laugh.”The crime anthology “Deadfall: Crime Stories by New England Writers” can be found at several local businesses including Cornerstone Books in Salem, The Book Store in Gloucester the book kiosk at Henry’s Market in Beverly, and The Book Shop in Beverly Farms. Or, for $15 plus $2 shipping, it can be ordered from the publisher at www.levelbestbooks.com. Contact Kristin D'Agostino at firstname.lastname@example.org.