For decades, the characters and plot of a murder mystery related to Greek mythology were swimming around Joan Maze's head. Though she'd published other books, she couldn't make the pieces of this particular story fit together, no matter how often she tried.
In 2008, she had a breakthrough: She set the novel in Inver Grove Heights, where she lives.
"I felt that it would help if I set it in a real place rather than a fictional one," Maze said.
Suddenly, the story took shape. But there was another problem: Maze had set much of the mystery in a police department — and she had no experience with police work.
"I wanted it to be authentic and reflect the feel of a police station," Maze said. "I was a little bit nervous, because who's going to think that a senior citizen in her 70s who has never worked in a police department is going to be able to write a police procedural novel?"
She decided to call the Inver Grove Heights police department for help and was "surprised and very tongue-tied" when then-lieutenant Larry Stanger returned her call.
The phone call was one of dozens the two would exchange while Maze finished "The Hierophant: A Novel of the Inver Grove Heights Police Department." Stanger also took Maze on several tours of the station and critiqued a draft of the novel's first five chapters.
Stanger, now chief of police, said he enjoyed advising Maze.
"I found it to be interesting, just because she was using factual information about areas of Inver Grove Heights. That was intriguing to me. Her characters are fictional but the setting is factual," Stanger said.
'A writer first'
Maze, 79, describes "The Hierophant" as a mystery with "a little bit of romance thrown in." The novel centers on a detective who is investigating a woman's murder. Her body was found with a thunderbolt carved on her chest, and the detective soon connects the symbol to Greek mythology.
As more women die, he realizes the killer is somehow linked to his own past. Simultaneously, he must protect the department's newest investigator from becoming a victim.
Though she's written 10 other novels and published three of them, "This was the most interesting project I've ever undertaken," she said.
Maze (pen name J.K. Maze) has been writing for more than 25 years. In 2007, she retired to pursue writing full time. To hone her craft, she takes classes and participates in several online critique groups through the Romance Writers of America's mystery division. She also reviews books and serves as chairwoman for the organization's "Romance Through the Ages" contest.
Her son, Jonathan Maze, is also a writer. He said that no matter what job his mother has done over the years, she's "always been a writer first." She began talking about the idea for "The Hierophant" back when he was in elementary school. "We're talking about 30 years here," he said.
Maze decided to self-publish "The Hierophant" first as an e-book in December 2012 and several weeks ago as a paperback. One advantage of self-publishing is that "you don't have to wait for it to come out. It's almost instant," she said.
She's also been busy writing the book's sequel, completed last November. And she has no shortage of other book ideas in the works, including a young adult novel featuring time travel to the 19th century.
"One problem is I get too many ideas and I can't keep up with myself," she said. "I like creating the characters. They become very important to me."
Because she often writes murder mysteries or thrillers, working with Stanger was valuable, she said. With "The Hierophant," Stanger clarified procedural questions, such as exactly what happens after a person is arrested, as well as details specific to Inver Grove Heights — for example, the department refers to its SWAT team as MAAG, she said.
Last fall, she joined the Inver Grove Heights Citizen's Police Academy, where she learned more about the department and talked with Stanger again.
"Chief Stanger has been absolutely wonderful," she said. "It's obvious that his people very much like him."
She said one reason she published the paperback version was so she could give a copy to Stanger and others at the station.
Stanger said he enjoyed the experience enough that he would help with another book — or have someone in his department do it if he couldn't.
"I can't wait for the book to come out in either paperback or hard copy so I can finish reading it," Stanger said.