For most people, getting up and starting work at 4 a.m. on the first official day of retirement would be a nightmare-come-true.
But after 30 years as clerk of the Springfield City Commission — a job she said “I was born to do” and did longer than any of her predecessors — Connie Chappell rose in the dark on Monday to start working full time on her second dream job: writing mysteries.
For years, “I didn’t think I would retire when my 30 years came up because I (thought) I would be bored,” Chappell said. “Now I know I will not be bored.”
The ambitious 1974 graduate of Springfield South High School had been laid off from a job with Dictaphone for about nine months in 1987 when a friend saw the opening for the clerk’s position, called Chappell and said, “This is perfect for you.”
“I applied because I needed a job” said Chappell, who is now 61. “But the odd thing was I saw the job posted wherever I went.”
Years with the Springfield law firm of Martin, Browne, Hull and Harper provided her the legal background for handling city ordinances and other documents. A knack for computer programming developed before Dictaphone changed directions equipped her with the skills to move the city records from paper to digital just as computers were revolutionizing the workplace.
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Chappell couldn’t wait.
In the process of reorganizing, “I knew I wanted to have a tracking system for ordinances” because “it made research easier,” she said. “And that turned out to be part of the job I really loved.”
Once they had been all reorganized, “I got to search records.”
What excited her about trolling old records?
For one, an interest in history — especially Springfield history — that began in elementary school when a teacher showed her a book that had the picture of Mayor William Burnett.
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“I knew I went down Burnett Road to get to grandma’s house,” she said.
There also was the same essential challenge of the genre of fiction she would learn to write.
“It’s a puzzle. It’s a mystery,” Chappell said — largely because people who create indexing and filing systems think and organize material in different ways.
When someone comes looking for a document, “Am I able to find it and pull it out?” she said. “There was always a little bit of doubt.”
Although she found that she could, the seed of doubt she felt also led her to create a cross-referencing system. Knowing she’d thought in a different way from previous clerks, she assumed future clerks might think differently than she does.
In that spirit, she always paid attention to the way people who came to her described what they were looking for, and Chappell included those thoughts in her cross-referencing.
“I’ve always said my work will be judged by the clerks in the future,” she said. “And I always wrote (minutes) with that in mind,” as well, including “a little bit extra background” to provide the historical setting for the ordinance.
Doing so wasn’t a struggle.
“I always enjoyed writing all the way through school,” she said, “and I remember saying to myself before I was clerk, I think I’ve got a book in me.”
When her work as clerk strengthened Chappell’s organizational skills, the woman who had always enjoyed mysteries reasoned that her organizational skills would help her plot them out — to decide when to drop clues and to keep the story line from wandering off a cliff.
A doubt remained: “I didn’t know if I could teach myself to write.”
A class at the Antioch Writers Workshop encouraged her to do so.
“Once I knew I could write, I would deconstruct mysteries (to) find how a writer did it.”
Then it came time to put in the work.
“For 10 years, I’ve gotten up at 4 in the morning (to write for two hours) before coming in to City Hall,” said Chappell, who now wakes up at 4 a.m. habitually without the need of an alarm.
“I’m not going to force it to change,” she said. “I can tell you I love (writing) so much. I never miss a day.”
Her first two books of early bird fiction were “Wild Raspberries” and what’s called its stand-alone sequel, “Proper Goodbye.”
Chappell thanks writing coach Kathie Giorgi for sharpening her writing and her publisher, Black Rose Writing, for propelling Chappell into Amazon’s best-selling category by doing what was needed to get 70,000 downloads of “Wild Raspberries” over a single weekend.
She is at work now finishing “Lily White Lie,” the third in a series of her mysteries featuring Wrenn Grayson, a female historian and sleuth. The first, “Deadly Homecoming at Rosemont” is available on Amazon and the second, “Designs on Ivy’s Locket” is scheduled for release Nov. 1.
All are set in the town of Havens, Ohio, for which Chappell has created a map so that as the series goes on, buildings like City Hall remain in the same place. True to her clerkish roots, she also cross references all the characters on spreadsheets to keep track of who is related to whom, which character performed what action in which book.
After learning to make the map, Chappell, following her modus operandi, used the same skills to create her own promotional materials, working with art created by her books’ graphic designer.
Although she’ll be taking that material to the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books next month when she sits on a mystery writers panel, Chappell’s local readers will always have reason to look for a little of Springfield and its history in her writing.
One nugget she unearthed not long ago in an ordinance from 1880s Springfield referred to the “outdoor poor.” It took a moment for Chappell to have the “aha” moment when she recognized it as the term for people we now call homeless.
She plans to give her readers that same “aha” moment — that feeling of discovery that comes with solving a mystery — when a copy of the ordinance is found in the stuck bottom desk drawer in the town of Springfield, Mich.
The book will include a doctored photocopy of the original in the handwriting of the Springfield, Ohio, city clerk of the time.
Look for it in an upcoming Wrenn Grayson mystery.