St. Paul author William Kent Krueger knew he was taking a chance when he strayed from his beloved Cork O'Connor mystery series.
"About five years, a story idea came to me, and it was such a compelling story," he said. "I was fairly certain my publisher wouldn't be interested in it, because they told me a long time ago they only wanted Cork O'Connor novels from me. I knew it was going to be a risky proposition."
However, "I didn't have a choice. It was the story I had to write."
In his new standalone novel, "Ordinary Grace," Krueger describes the coming of age of 13-year-old Frank Drum, son of a Methodist minister, during a tumultuous Minnesota summer in 1961.
Krueger will discuss the novel June 1 at Pleasant Hill Library in Hastings, along with "Tamarack County," No. 13 in the bestselling Cork O'Connor series, due out this fall.
Instead of the Northern Minnesota woods of the Cork O'Connor series, the action in "Ordinary Grace" occurs in New Bremen, Minn., a small town in the Minnesota River Valley. Krueger pulled up memories of the small towns of his youth when creating the fictional southern Minnesota community.
"Very early on, Frank's voice came to me," he said. "I loved the honesty of his voice. In the end, it was one of the easiest pieces of writing I've ever done, and I think that's because the voice was so real to me, and because I tapped the deep roots of my own experience to create the novel."
He based the narrator's parents on his own, though his father worked as a high school English teacher instead of a minister.
"Those are professions that in small towns are put up on a pedestal," he said, "and their families are scrutinized and expected to behave in certain ways, so that was definitely out of my experiences.
"In the novel, Ruth Drum is a frustrated musician. And that was certainly my mother. She was a frustrated musician, felt stifled in the small towns we lived in, so it was easy for me to put a lot of my mother into Ruth Drum and a lot of my father into Nathan Drum."
Krueger abandons the standard mystery novel structure. "In a typical mystery, something happens right away, and we spend the rest of the book trying to figure out why it happened and who did it. But since this wasn't a traditional mystery, I went about it in an entirely different way. The true mystery doesn't begin to develop until halfway through."
Instead, Krueger spends the first half developing characters — Frank's musically brilliant sister, his stuttering and doting younger brother, the town's eccentric genius, the kind-hearted drunk who lives in the church basement — and their relationships. He then explores "how the tragedy of what occurs affects the Drum family, affects the faith of Nathan Drum, and eventually has an effect on the entire fabric of the small town of New Bremen."
"I certainly think it's the best piece of writing that I've done," Krueger said. "I love writing the Cork O'Connor stories, but because this one really came much out of my own experience and my own memories… it captured my heart, absolutely captured my heart."
Krueger recently signed a contract for two Cork O'Connor novels and a sister novel to "Ordinary Grace," also set in southern Minnesota, but with a different cast of characters. Titled "This Tender Land," it will explore the lingering effects of World War II on a community.
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.