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A Capitola Whodunit

ACapitolaWhodunit1Why it’s pageturning time for five local women

They hover around a spacious, wooden table. They’re dressed nicely as if they were attending afternoon tea. They giggle like schoolgirls, but a mature sense of accomplishment and pride permeates the air. They are a quintet of local women, aged 58 to 80 and they are a curious minority: they’ve co-written a mystery novel and self-published it.

The mystery behind how that happened unfolds at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 18, when these five members of a local mystery book club present their crime caper, “The Jewel Box,” at the Capitola Book Café.

The name of the book may sound familiar. Think Capitola, above the Esplanade, near the DMV—up in that niche of the county is a cozy neighborhood whose streets are lined with the names of various gems. It’s in this area that a key player in “The Jewel Box” resides. And it’s Capitola as a whole that becomes the backdrop in this new pageturner.

Capitola, in fact, is where these ladies have gathered to dish about how they managed to collaborate on creating a novel; what prompted them to take on such an enormous adventure; and why a good mystery is as scrumptious as a pastry at Gayle’s Bakery.

It all begins with Gayle Ortiz, co-owner of said bakery, one of the most popular eateries in the county. In 1993, Ortiz and a friend decided to strike up their own two-person book club. As the years went on, the women branched out—they expanded to include reading non-mystery books from time to time, and the club expanded as well. (Nowadays it boasts about 17 members.) In time, Judy Feinman came on board, as did Pat Pease, Tomi Newman and Marybeth Varcados (among others). But these key five readers would hold tight when a literary challenge arose.

At one particular meeting, the women were reading a very blasé mystery, and someone spoke up that maybe, just maybe, they could write a book better than the one they were reading. The idea was an interesting one, but it took a few more meetings before it was taken seriously. Thirteen members of the club expressed interest and the women began the lengthy process of writing a novel together. Soon, the writers on board for this project began to dwindle, eventually leaving the five aforementioned women.

“One lady ran, fled, saying, ‘Meetings, meetings, I’ve been in meetings all my life,’” Ortiz says, reflecting on the beginnings of the writing group. “You have no idea how much work it’s going to be. It sounded like a good idea.”

And it was both those things—a good idea and a lot of work. Over the course of three years (with one year off somewhere in between) the women were somehow able to write “The Jewel Box.” (They wrote it under the pen name Mysty W. Moonfree, and if you’re an anagram junkie, you’ll see that there’s a puzzle in that name.)

Fortunately, they all had a fondness for language, as each woman clocked in numerous hours of reading as well. Also a perk was the brush with writing that nearly each woman was privy to. There’s the English major graduate, the woman who wrote articles for a weekly paper, the writer of cookbooks and a former writer/editor from the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Together, combining their talents, they began the arduous process, which included among other things, compiling a “prop box.”

Varcados plunks it on the bountiful table and opens it up. She pulls out piles of papers, newspaper clippings, photos of models in ads, a story about another book club that wrote its own book and most importantly (and the thing that gets the most laughs) a yellow “caution” tape—the type used to cordon off a crime scene. Each ‘prop’ in the box was used in an inspirational manner to help the women, in essence, get into character as writers, and also get into the minds of the characters they were writing about.

It could seem to outsiders that trying to get the ideas and thoughts of five women on paper could be a mystery unto itself. But they had their own successful style, with Varcados serving as the chief transcriber. Chapters were doled out, and the work moved forward in a collaborative fashion. Somehow, it coalesced and a novel began to take shape. The story? A delightful romp of a read—lighthearted, fun, fiction, pure mystery, with a dollop of chick lit on top. Frankly, the book might be more appealing to women, but then again, what do you expect from a book written by five women who belong to a women’s mystery book club?

“The Jewel Box” tells the story of Karin Blake. She lives in the Venice beach area in balmy, Southern California, and she works for a catering company. Her boyfriend/colleague/fiancé, Mark, is found murdered. From there, things become curious. Blake is sent to Capitola to work a catering gig where she meets a cadre of fascinating characters. Somehow, the towns of Capitola and Venice connect and lead us toward discovering the mystery behind Mark’s murder. It’s a charming and cool read. You can tear into it and finish the book in no time.

But why the self-publishing route for such a catchy story? The women chime in: They didn’t want to wait. The Jewel Box Gang, as they call themselves, was simply eager to move forward with their project. But don’t think the story ends there. A search for an agent and publisher could definitely still be in the works, as well as a sequel and maybe even a screenplay. And yes, they’re going to pursue the Oprah route as well.

“We printed 700 copies,” Ortiz says, “and I think we’d be just as happy if it never prints again, or if it printed another 7 million. Well … maybe not.”

They roar with laughter. Hey, 7 million copies and J.K. Rowling status? Not too shabby. So keep your eyes out for Mysty W. Moonfree—who knows what mysterious adventure she’ll reveal next.

The authors of “The Jewel Box,” all from the local Women of Mystery Book Club, will be presenting their book at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 18 at the Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola. The book sells for $10.95 at the bookstore. For more information, call 462-4415.
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