09 April 2014

Cold Case

by David Edgerley Gates

This is a Where Do You Get Your Ideas? post. Generally speaking, I think this is a dumb question, and demonstrates that somebody knows next to nothing about the actual process of writing. Ideas, in fact, are floating around in the zeitgeist, and we pluck them out of the air.

The movie critic Robert Warshow once famously remarked that there were only half a dozen basic plots to the Western. You might not entirely agree, but can tell where he's headed. The stranger rides into town, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, say, and trouble follows. You can ring a lot of changes from that set-up, even if the conventions are pretty rigorous. In other words, it's not the what, where, or when that matters, but the how.

In this particular instance, I saw an article in my local newspaper, the Santa Fe NEW MEXICAN, about a cold case that had gotten new legs. Sixty years ago, a woman disappears. Everything points to murder. The cops like her husband for it, but they can't pin it on him. For openers, there's no body, and the guy doesn't crack, under interrogation. Some time later, he dies. End of story. Unsolved. Cut to the present day. All these years later, somebody else owns the house where these people lived, and they're remodeling the garage. Digging up the floor, they find human remains. Is it possible, using modern forensics, DNA from her kids, to identify Inez Garcia? Could you finally lay the crime to rest, and give the dead woman, and her family, both justice and closure?

Photo Credit Luis Sanchez Saturno SFNM

It's not the case itself, so much, that caught my attention. It was the gap. Sixty years is a long time. And it occurred to me, what if you framed two parallel narrative lines, the original investigation, and the new one? I've already got the characters waiting in the wings. Benny Salvador, sheriff of Rio Arriba county, back in the day, and Pete Montoya, the New Mexico state cop, in the here and now. Pete could be looking at Benny's old notes, the murder book, the physical evidence, which might even point to a different suspect. That's as far as my thinking takes me, at this point. It's in my peripheral vision.

You probably see where I'm going. The newspaper article didn't give me an original idea. What it did was suggest a way to tell the story, which is half the battle. Not just P.O.V., but voice. A way in, and a way out. Something you can hang your hat on, a shape that casts a shadow.

Ideas are easy. Execution is hard.


  1. I refer to what's going on with how to tell the story, POV and voice, as the spin-off. After the idea originates, no matter where it's conceived, given a bit of time to hatch, the rest will spin off. "Cold Case" sounds like an interesting story. I look forward to reading it.

  2. Good piece. I always say that the public works overtime for crime writers.

  3. You said it all in the last two lines! Good post. Now let me try to execute something.

  4. Oh, yes! It is, indeed, all about the voice. I gave a talk about writing to some students a while back, and I told them that I wrote a story "Sophistication" (AHMM July/Aug. 2007) which used a 3,000+ year old plot. Now, I need to go read the newspaper...

  5. I agree: Ideas are easy. Execution is hard.

    However, I'm not so sure the question is dumb. One of the smartest guys I know, my old college roommate, asked me how he might get ideas, but he's an engineer, not a writer. I promised him he had a story in him. In about ten minutes, I helped him whip up a story plot. But like David says: Ideas are easy. Execution is hard.

  6. Something you can hang your hat on, a shape that casts a shadow.

    Great turn of phrase, buddy.

  7. Ideas are everywhere, but the trick is teaching your brain to catch them. Lookig forward to te story...


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