In the middle of Illinois, on a long return trip from visiting family in Canada, Elisabeth Lee plucked a heroine from a couple of road signs.
The billboards - more than 100 miles apart - announced exits for the small towns of Carlyle and Hudson. As she drove and her husband slept, Lee's wheels began to turn.
Carlyle Hudson, she thought. What a great name. What if she were a woman? Maybe everyone would call her Lyle.
"My husband eventually woke up and said, 'So, what have you been thinking about?'" says Lee, assistant head of school at Bishop Seabury Academy and author of the mystery novel "For Glory," recently published by BookSurge. "I told him, and he said, 'I can't go to sleep a minute with you.'"
Lee spent the next few weeks developing this new character and ended up with a 50-year-old woman who makes a living playing high-stakes poker and knows enough self-defense to take down a purse snatcher in a grocery store parking lot. She's smart, sexy and simultaneously confident and beset by self-doubt.
And, as far as Lee's concerned, Lyle Hudson fills a void in the mystery genre.
"It seemed to me that there was nothing between Stephanie Plum and Miss Marple," she says of the central figures in books by Janet Evanovich and Agatha Christie. "You might have an occasional woman detective or someone who is in her 40s, but there's no one in this particular 50ish niche."
Hudson's age and spunk have drawn the attention of baby boomer women in Lawrence, where Lee has been giving readings and talks in a network of friends' homes since "For Glory" was released in October. The book also has endeared itself to local readers because it's set here.
"I think what's interesting is the dynamism of the main character and the fact that she tools around Lawrence and Baldwin and we just feel right at home because we know the area," says Beverly Mack, a professor of African and African-American studies at Kansas University whose two children attend Seabury. "I'm hoping she will type faster and get the next book done."
A good gamble
Lee always figured herself for a poet. So she was as surprised as anyone when she finished her first novel.
She knows her way around the mystery genre, though, having spent hours reading the style. Still, she admits "For Glory" doesn't contain a lot of suspense.
Elisabeth Lee reading an excerpt from her mystery novel
"You will feel very smart reading my book," she says, laughing.
But there is some intrigue here. Lyle, who has been living in San Francisco, comes back to Lawrence for her mother's funeral and discovers a secret in her mother's past. Soon, she starts receiving threats to "pay up," and the mysterious demands lead her down a path to danger.
Along the way she encounters unexpected romance; maintains a love-hate relationship with her mom's dog, Glory, who has been left in her care; and struggles to find her place in a hometown that doesn't feel quite like home.
Readers won't actually see Lyle in action at a poker table until the second book (Lee has finished more than a dozen chapters already), but Lee says she tried to be attentive in her writing to the language of poker, making it a natural part of Lyle's speech and worldview.
That has taken some research for Lee, who knows nothing about gambling.
"But when you're writing, you get two or three good poker books," says Lee, 59. "I can borrow a hand from a game that somebody won back in the '60s and put those cards in the hands of my characters and have Lyle walk away a winner."
Familiar faces, places
Lawrence residents who read "For Glory" will recognize local haunts in its pages. One scene plays out in a bookstore clearly based on The Dusty Bookshelf. Also familiar are the characters that populate the story, such as the dreadlocked college boy who takes a shine to Lyle (he's named after a former Seabury student), or the black-garbed goth girl who frequents the bridal shop Lyle is tending for her late mother.
What: Reading and book signing by Elisabeth Lee, author of "For Glory"When: 7 p.m. todayWhere: Trinity Episcopal Church, 1011 Vt.
So familiar, in fact, are the people and places in Lee's book that she finds herself continually reminding readers who think, for instance, that Lyle's love interest, MacDonald George, is based on Lee's own husband, Marc, that there's a difference between reality and fiction.
"What it tells me is that people feel it as real, that there is a verisimilitude there and they want to believe that these people are walking around," Lee says. "It's very charming."
For Werner Anderson, dean of students at Seabury, there's more to it than that.
"Carlyle Hudson has kind of the same wry outlook on life that Dr. Lee does," he says. "There are lines that her character says that are not her exact words but are Ã la Dr. Lee. It's that witty, dry, subtle humor. And both of them have it."
Lee guesses she'll write five or six mysteries before Lyle's story runs its course. Then she foresees moving on to a new project.
For now - beyond the excitement of finding a new calling so far into life - Lee is deriving pleasure from the newfound kinship her novel has kindled with other women her age.
"I've been giving readings to groups of women who are in their 40s, 50s and 60s," she says. "I just feel really connected for the first time to a whole body of people that I am really a part of.
"I've been very gratified with the response."