Frank Martorana a retired veterinarian-turned-author pens suspense-filled mysteries — he published his fourth book recently
By John Addyman
Park the truck under a tree in the cemetery.
Ease your back against a tombstone.
Unwrap the lunch in your lap.
Pour yourself a cup of the wine you bottled last summer.
Look around at the squirrels running through the grass, listen as the birds chirp at you and feel the gentle sunshine.
…and get ready for a story.
That’s the way Frank Martorana sees it, feels it, hears it…and does it.
He’ll weave a tale for you, about a country veterinarian and his four-legged sidekick, Lucinda, a redbone coonhound. He’ll take time to describe what it feels like to spend a good portion of your life in barns, taking care of sick animals.
If you’ve never been in a barn, that’s OK — he’ll make it vivid, right down to the night sounds and earthy smells of a place where all are asleep.
He’s written four books about a middle-aged, comfortable, confident vet, Kent Stephenson, who’s earned the trust of the people and animals in his sphere. Stephenson is a problem-solver, an amateur detective and Martorana, 72, builds a complete picture of him, drawing heavily from personal experience.
“I was worried about retiring and what would I do because my life had been veterinary medicine since the time I was in seventh grade,” Martorana said, sitting at his kitchen table in Nelson, near Cazenovia.
“I knew I needed something to keep me going because there would be a big hole when I retired. With that I mind, I started to think about doing something.
“My kids were in school. I wanted to be an example for them. We had a rule in our house that there would be no TV during the week. The kids were working on homework and I wanted the kids to see their dad working, too. At the time I was reading a lot of mysteries. I said to myself, ‘I think I can write one of those.’ So I started writing. It just became a book and eventually became four books over time.”
The first book, “Taking On Lucinda,” took about three years to write, start to finish.
“I started writing, finished it and put it away,” he said. “Then I got it out, polished it up a little and decided to publish it myself.”
Retirement helped put more structure in the writing process.
“When I get up in the morning, I write first thing. I go from the bed to the coffee pot to the desk. I do not check email or look at anything else and I write for a couple of hours,” he explained.
“He keeps a little pad by the bed,” said wife Ann Marie. “Something will come into his head in the middle of the night and he has to write it down and then he goes back to sleep.”
Martorana said it takes more than just a couple of hours in the morning to turn out a mystery novel.
“In my first books, I’d also write at lunchtime. I’d pull off into cemeteries — they are great little parks. They’re isolated and quiet. I find a bed of myrtle and a tilted headstone that’s just right to lean on and I sit with my back against it and I write through lunch. There are no restaurants out here in the country. My veterinary mobile unit truck is very noticeable. So every time I would stop along the side of a road, people would stop and ask me if I were OK.
“In a cemetery, I find a sunny spot and get 20 minutes or an hour to write. I turn the radio off. I write and eat lunch. I have great memories. I had students traveling with me all the time who wanted to be veterinarians — Cazenovia College students — and they still to this day talk about me stopping at the cemetery for lunch. This cemetery or that cemetery — they were wonderful places.”
The inspiration doesn’t fall far from the headstone: in the fourth chapter of “Simpatico’s Gift,” Martorana’s second book, Doc Stephenson is having lunch in the cemetery with daughter, Emily, while Lucinda is chasing squirrels.
It’s no surprise that the character Doc Stephenson is an Upstate New York vet, has a daughter, that he has a practice in a large-animal veterinary hospital, that his range is deep into the country.
“You write what you know — that’s what they say, right?” Martorana said.
“When I was in seventh grade in Colonie, New York, I was pretty sure I wanted to be a veterinarian. At that time, there was a ’farm practice’ requirement in order to go to veterinary school: you had to have worked on a farm. So, I started looking into it and ended up writing a letter, as a seventh grader, to the admissions department in the school of agriculture at Cornell University, asking ‘How do I get farm practice?’
“I got a nice letter back that said, ‘You’re in luck. There’s a fellow in Burnt Hills, Stan Garrison, he’s a veterinarian, a Cornell graduate and he has a dairy farm. If you contact him, he might give you a job, and then you would get a minimum of two summers’ experience.’ I wrote this letter to Stan, in my seventh-grade penmanship, about how I am in seventh grade and I am 110 pounds and very strong for my age and would like to work on your farm. He saved that letter for years. He got the biggest laugh out of it.”
The summer job working for Garrison was life-changing.
“He was a wonderful man. He just took me under his wing. I worked in the summer on his dairy farm with a number of other young men and made friends I still have today. He wrote a letter of reference for me for veterinary school and sure enough, I got in. Then he hired me while I was a student in veterinary school, at his Burnt Hills Veterinary Hospital. Doc Garrison had a great reputation. Everybody loved him,” he said.
Martorana and Ann Marie met in his first year at Cornell med school.
“Some guys in my fraternity were going bar-hopping in Cortland. Ann Marie, an RN, was visiting a friend there,” he started.
Ann Marie took it from there.
“On Friday night,” she explained, “I went partying and my friend watched out for me. On Saturday night, she was partying and I was watching out for her. Frank asked her to dance and I told him, ‘You can’t take her home: she’s had too much to drink. I’m sorry – that’s the way it is.’
“So he said, ‘Well how about you? Can I get you a drink?’ I told him, ‘Yes. I’m drinking Coca-Cola.’ We started talking about his life and his family and we started dating. I come from a very strict Irish family and my father said, even though I was 20 years old, ‘I have to meet the boy or you can’t go out with him.’ Poor Frank drove down to meet my father and we proceeded to get a speeding ticket as we left Cortland. He looked at me and said, ‘I hope you’re worth all this.’”
They were married in 1975.
“It was a good investment,” Frank said.
Retirement at 68 didn’t mean Ann Marie had a husband hanging around with nothing to do. Frank started making wine and that got serious. Now he bottles 200-400 bottles each year, part of a collective of amateur oenologists who buy red-wine grapes in bulk from California, Chile and Italy, and white-wine grapes from the Finger Lakes. He has a wine cellar along one wall of his house in Nelson and looks absolutely happy and engaged while in it.
He’s also an engaged reader and belongs to a serious men’s book club that has met each Tuesday for years, now on Zoom because so many members have such varied schedules. He takes a Spanish class.
And he has four books in print now. “Taking on Lucinda,” was published in 2018. “Simpatico’s Gift” came out a year later, then “The Color of Wounds” in 2020 and most recently, “Where Waters Run North,” in 2022.
“I wrote each one, start to finish, in about a year,” he said.
Martorana also discovered self-publishing through Amazon (where books are offered for sale) and Book Baby (which actually prints the books on demand). His books are available through all major online retailers and sold worldwide.
He’s done book signings in Syracuse, Liverpool, Jamesville, Hamilton and Woodstock, staying pretty close to home. He’s been able to tap extended family members for social media, design and promotion help. And he’s loving it.
“It’s keeping my head on straight,” he said. “Writing gives me something to do and keeps me out of Ann Marie’s hair.”
And he’s been surprised by one reaction to his books.
“Lucinda the dog was just a little minor thing on the side in my first book. I knew a seasoned vet in Cazenovia who always had a hound dog that rode with him everywhere — that’s how Lucinda came about,” he said. “Over the four books she has become a major character (she’s on the cover of each one). You don’t want to hurt her — I’d get death threats if I did that.”