Chris Rosenblum | State College antiques dealer turns page, writes novel about characters, events of business

Peggy Hartman met her share of characters during her more than 20 years in the antiques business.

So she turned some into characters.

She also heard stories about captivating hunts, thrilling finds and exasperating auctions.

So she wrote a story of her own.

As P.L. Hartman, the State College resident concocted a mystery, “Antiques to Die For,” that celebrates history, antiques dealers and collectors, and central Pennsylvania, all bound together by a murder.

Hartman’s book had been brewing for more than two decades after she and her husband, Bill, moved from the West Coast and she became a dealer at Apple Hill Antiques in College Township.

Living in “antiques central,” as she calls the region, Hartman interacted with so many dealers, collectors, customers and auctioneers that one question finally gnawed at her: How could she not write about the life?

“How could you not write about standing in the pouring rain under a leaky tent or dripping trees because you had to get that one piece of Fiestaware, that one coffee pot from 1938?” she said.

She has been a social worker, but that side of her life wasn’t her muse.

She knows how to craft sentences from years of technical writing, but her first novel didn’t stem from practical prose.

It drew from the sight of an Appalachian ridge, “just a jewel box of colors,” standing behind an auction, the backdrop to bidding on century-old white ironstone dishes pulled from their resting place in a farmhouse attic for 50 years.

“Those kinds of experiences just wove themselves around my imagination, and I had to write about it,” she said.

A year of writing led to 150,000 words and a delay as publishers, while enthusiastic, urged her to trim it by a third. She resisted but, in the end, made the cut, leading to Strategic Book Publishing and Rights printing her tale in March.

She remembers hefting the final 527 pages and feeling something other than triumph.

“You hold it in your hands, the first proof copy, and you think: If I find a typo, I’m going to kill myself,” she said.

She instead bumped off an unfortunate soul — no spoilers here — on the first page.

“Everything was going so well at popular and picturesque Cider Run Antiques until one rainy night in May,” spins the mystery’s news release. “Then the unthinkable happened.”

Marv, a retired university history professor, owns Cider Run Antiques, a multidealer shop in a historic stone building tucked away in the country. His fellow 16 dealers are a lively bunch, as witty with their banter as they are knowledgeable about their trade.

But darkness soon disrupts their lives.

“Two years after the shop’s founding, someone is insidiously murdered, the weapon an antique from the shop, and the body hidden in a blanket chest,” the release says.

The locked shop door points to a dealer. A police detective investigates. The suspects gather to talk.

What follows is a yarn spiced with intrigue and romance. But the meat of it concerns antiques: the conversations about them, the discoveries, the business of “aiding and abetting” customers hopelessly addicted to enjoying the everyday objects of yesteryear.

“Every time you pick up one, you’re holding history,” Hartman said. “It’s a tangible connection to the past, like nothing else.”

Her antique tips, facts and lore are real, based on her expertise and experience — as genuine as the items from her shop that grace the cover.

Her characters, however, are loosely based on reality, “fictionalized shamelessly,” with just enough truth for their real-life inspirations to recognize.

“They saw themselves in it, but truly, I made everything up,” she said. “It’s a work of fiction.”

Everything — the people and the plot, the history and skullduggery, the scenes and suspense — will be available June 22 at Apple Hill Antiques, 169 Gerald St.

From 2 to 5 p.m., Hartman will have a book signing while Roger Snyder, the shop’s owner, will offer antique appraisals.

WPSU-FM will also feature Hartman’s novel Thursday on the “BookMark book review” portion of the “All Things Considered” show.

At the shop, as on the radio, listeners might hear some stories for free.

Maybe Hartman will describe the pleasure of eating rhubarb pie at an auction, or a bowl of Lion’s Club ham and bean soup, each bite or spoonful downed to the sound of an auctioneer’s patter.

She could tell about going down a country lane past Amish buggies, spotting a quilt on a line and winding up with a treasure.

The memories might turn humorous, like the contest in the book among the dealers to determine the best bargain, worst auction and oddest spot for a purchase.

She herself will never forget the infamous “dead cow auction.”

“There was a dead cow there, and the place just reeked,” she said. “It was the worst sale.”

She’s already halfway through a sequel mystery, “Antiques from Hell,” set in another fictional central Pennsylvania county against the backdrop of natural gas fracking.

Perhaps there’s room for a cameo by the “cookie cutter lady,” a real customer just waiting to be immortalized in future pages.

Hartman can picture her in the shop, searching for that one special cutter, sleuthing a mystery and sometimes solving it.

“Then you see her eyes light up when she finds it,” Hartman said. “Because that was it. She brings it up to the counter and says, ‘I found it.’ ”