by Paula Bernstein
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It was a sunny Sunday in April 1990. My husband, my visiting brother-in-law, our four-year-old daughter, and my husband’s favorite cousin Stephanie, our only LA relative, were having brunch on the patio of a charming restaurant on Main Street in Santa Monica. Stephanie had recently divorced her abusive husband and was trying to get her life back in order.
After lunch, she invited us to see her new apartment, only a few blocks away. While the boys took a quick walk to the beach, she and I talked about interior decorating, planned a furniture shopping trip, and ate home-baked cookies. When we hugged goodbye, later that afternoon, I never imagined it would be the last time I saw her alive.
We got the horrible news the next afternoon, when her father called from New York to tell us she’d been killed that night by a man who broke into her apartment and stabbed her to death. We were devastated. It was the most awful thing that had ever happened in our family.
I was so traumatized and frightened, I insisted on upgrading our security system, and even purchased a gun from a police officer who was upgrading. Its presence in my safe gave me a sense of security.
Stephanie’s death wasn’t a mystery to be solved. Her neighbors heard her scream, called the police, who were half a block away, and they caught the killer in her apartment. The bloody knife was in his hand. He is now in prison for the rest of his life.
For many years I had been taking writing courses at UCLA Extension, and had recently published a book on obstetrics for patients. I even had an agent, who had sold it to a major publisher.
I became obsessed with the idea of writing about Stephanie, as if I could bring her back to life by capturing who she was on the page. I interviewed all her closest friends and colleagues, recording the interviews on my tape recorder. I spent an afternoon with her most significant former lover, learning all about their relationship from his perspective. No, I didn’t talk to her ex-husband. When my interviews were completed, I began to write a psychological novel about what it felt like to have a family member murdered.
As my narrator, I created a character who was a prosecuting attorney. That didn’t work out too well. I was an obstetrician/gynecologist with absolutely no knowledge of law or court procedure. So, I rewrote the first draft, changing her occupation to something I knew about.
Thus, was born, Hannah Kline MD, the heroine of my mystery series. After the second draft was done, I sent it to my agent. She said she couldn’t sell it, because it didn’t fit into any genre. It wasn’t true crime, and it wasn’t a mystery. I put the manuscript in my file cabinet.
Ten years later, I tried again. I turned the novel into a mystery, Murder in the Family, creating a great many fictional events and characters that weren’t part of Stephanie’s real life. It was a more interesting book, but I felt unsatisfied. It wasn’t a substitute for telling her true story. I did however like the characters I’d created, so I started a new novel Murder by Lethal Injection. I was always good at finishing my first drafts, but my practice was still very demanding, and I knew I needed to do more to make my books publishable.
In 2010, thirty years after Stephanie’s murder, I finally retired from my full time medical practice. Letting go was difficult. Who would I be if I wasn’t Dr. Bernstein? Medicine had been the foundation of my self esteem, the energy that fueled my intellect. What would I do if I couldn’t practice?
One answer seemed obvious. I would take my writing seriously. I decided to start by publishing a collection of my short stories, and writing a few more. I began work on Joanna’s Tale, the true story of Stephanie’s murder, told from the point of view of her ghost. I decided, after finishing the first draft, that I wanted the help of a professional editor. A friend introduced me to Linda Schreyer, and the rest is history. She has edited all my work ever since.
Once the short story was finished and published in the collection Potpourri, I felt free to finally publish Murder in the Family. Over the next ten years, I completed six more books in my Hannah Kline Mystery Series.
At first, I thought of writing as my entertaining retirement hobby, but now, I’m proud to say that I truly consider myself a writer.
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