At 91, Joseph Terrell keeps writing OBX mysteries 

By on July 18, 2021

For Joseph Terrell, the secret to writing is just to keep writing. (Photo credit: Shauneen Miranda)

By Shauneen Miranda | Outer Banks Voice

Sitting in his tenth grade English class one day, Joseph Terrell read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay, “Self-Reliance.” From that point on, Terrell realized he wanted to be a writer.

“That was the only thing I’ve ever really wanted to be since that day,” said Terrell, a Raleigh native and OBX transplant who, at 91 years old, has written 15 books and received numerous national awards, including two first place awards for his fiction at the National Press Club’s Short Fiction Contest and the Silver Falchion Award for Best Mystery.

Terrell’s most popular writing, his Harrison Weaver mystery series, currently spans nine books and in them, true crime detective Harrison Weaver tries to solve murder mysteries throughout the Outer Banks.

Terrell’s contagious smile and good humor permeated the room as he shared laughs and anecdotes with family, friends and fans at his book signing for “The Souvenir Keeper,” his ninth book in the Harrison Weaver series, on Friday, July 16, at Downtown Books in Manteo.

After graduating from UNC Chapel Hill with an English degree, he set out for the Midwest on a full scholarship to the prestigious University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Although Terrell’s writing pursuits halted when he was drafted to serve in the Korean War, his time in the Army Counterintelligence Corps required many of the skills he would later use for writing.

Terrell headed back to UNC Chapel Hill for graduate school, but this time, for a different degree –– journalism.

“You get to do things and see things in journalism that you just wouldn’t get to do otherwise,” said Terrell, who spent over 50 years in the industry at organizations such as United Press International and the Wall Street Journal. Terrell also worked in media relations and served as press secretary for the Senate agriculture committee.

Despite an extensive journalism career, Terrell still felt a calling to fiction writing. “I’ve done a lot of journalism, but fiction has been my real love. It was, is, and forever will be,” he said.

One seemingly average workday in the mid-1960s at The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Virginia’s daily newspaper, proved fateful for the rest of Terrell’s career.  A radio reporter from The Free Lance-Star came riding up and asked Terrell to hop in the car and tag along to cover the brutal murder of two police officers in a Fredericksburg shopping center.

The two set out to the crime scene to see one of the officers, who was shot in the chest, slumped at the wheel with a pool of black blood on the floorboard behind him. “And then the other officer, his partner, started getting out of the car, and he was shot in the back and then fell down,” Terrell recalled.

A crime writer from upstate New York soon reached out to Terrell, requesting stories and pictures from the horrific event.

Terrell’s journalistic work then blossomed into a new specialty –– true detective stories. He worked for multiple crime magazines and dedicated his time to reporting on some of America’s most gruesome crimes, one of which took place in the Outer Banks in 1967.

While still living in the Washington, D.C., area, Terrell drove out to the Outer Banks to cover the death of 19-year-old Brenda Joyce Holland, a makeup supervisor in the drama, “The Lost Colony,” whose body was discovered in the Albemarle Sound after a five-day disappearance in a case that captured national attention.

Joesph Terrell (Photo credit: Shauneen Miranda)

But Terrell’s time reporting on the Holland story ignited a curiosity for the Outer Banks, one that led him to have a residence here since the mid-1970s and eventually make it his permanent home in 2004.

With more books in the works, Terrell’s decades-long career is far from over. “If you want to do it, go ahead and do it,” Terrell advised at his recent Manteo book signing. “Keep a journal of the actual writing you’re doing. Don’t just think about it. Put some words down, even if they’re not the best words,” Terrell added.

“Stick with it.”




See what people are saying:

  • hightider

    I recall the 1967 murder and the later gossip about the killer being a prominent local who later died. I was in high school but it was a cautionary tale back then.

    Sunday, Jul 18 @ 6:59 pm