An author whose star is rising credits her experience at Pokagon State Park with helping to launch her career. Chicago resident Lori Rader-Day had her first novel, “The Black Hour,” published by Seventh Street Books last year. Her second book, “Little Pretty Things,” was released in July.
But in the spring of 2008, getting a publishing contract was only a dream. Then Rader-Day garnered a fellowship with Midwest Writers Workshop and attended their two-day writers retreat at the Potawatomi Inn.
“I can honestly say that the MWW retreat there changed my life,” Rader-Day said. “That’s where I found out I was writing a mystery, that I was a mystery writer. And that designation changed everything.”
MWW held retreats for seven years, ending in 2011 when they stopped receiving grant money to cover the expenses. Each year, nine writers were chosen to receive one-on-one feedback on their manuscripts.
“When I arrived, I realized they had put me into the ‘mystery’ group,” Rader-Day said. “I looked longingly toward the ‘fiction’ group and wondered what had happened. My assigned mentor was Terence Faherty, who realized the issue I was having, and said, ‘You have a crime in the first 15 pages of this project. Are you going to solve it? Because if you solve it, you’re probably writing a mystery.’ This was eye-opening and life-changing to me. I’d always read mystery, from an early age, but I didn’t know I was writing it. Terry gave me so much help in that short span of the retreat. He set me on a path that gave me direction and a community. As soon as I discovered that I was writing mystery, things started to come together for that manuscript and for my writing life. Since then I’ve been nominated for two major mystery novel awards, the Mary Higgins Clark Award and the Anthony Award for Best First Novel, and others. Terry was right. I wanted to solve that crime.”
Rader-Day grew up in Indiana and earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in journalism from Ball State University. She has a master of fine arts in creative writing from Roosevelt. But that weekend in Pokagon is what pulled everything together for her.
“I remember the space and grounds being so cozy and welcoming,” she said. “We had beautiful weather, but of course we were there for inside reasons — writing. I loved the building. It’s been a while, but I remember sitting by the fireplace and working urgently on my pages so I would have fresh prose to show Terry. I felt like a real working writer, for the first time.”
Rader-Day’s latest release, “Little Pretty Things,” is her first published novel that is set in Indiana. A woman working in a one-star motel becomes reacquainted with her high school classmate, and when the classmate turns up dead, the hotel worker is the chief suspect.
Jama Kehoe Bigger, director of MWW, said that although the fellowships have ended, the three-day workshop which fostered the fellowships is going strong. In July, the 42nd annual workshop took place in Muncie and for the first time, Rader-Day was on the faculty. Her books were also on sale in the conference bookstore.
“Our workshops and the fellows retreats at Pokagon have helped hundreds of writers work on their craft and draw closer to their publishing goals,” Bigger said. “We couldn’t be more proud of Lori and the many, many others we have come to know and have supported in their writing endeavors.”
Rader-Day said that the instruction she received and the writing she did at Pokagon continue to impact her career.
“The manuscript I was working on at Pokagon was fully drafted within a year and then set aside for my own reasons — but I have been working on it and now it’s going to be published by Seventh Street Books next summer. The date and title are to-be-announced,” Rader-Day said.
Cathy Shouse is an independent writing and editing professional who lives in Fairmount.