a piece for us not long ago and I wasn't expecting to have her back so quickly but when I read her novel THE ONLY WITNESS I loved it so much I invited her to write about it ASAP. And here she is. I think you will see why this unique idea appealed to me so much. - Robert Lopresti
When the Gorilla Takes Over
by Pamela Beason
When I began to write my novel The Only
Witness, I didn’t plan for it to be a series. Nor did I plan for Neema
the gorilla to be the protagonist of the book.
I was working as a
private investigator at the time, and I’d worked on several cases where
small children testified as witnesses. Now anyone who has worked with
young children, especially in a legal context, knows that they often
have limited understanding of the reality of what is happening to them
or around them, and we also know how easily they can be persuaded to say
the things that the adults want them to say. So, I had done a lot of
thinking about who can be a credible witness.
I digress… Getting back to the point, I’ve read all the books and
articles about teaching apes American sign language so we humans can
communicate in the only language we understand: The Education of Koko
and the films and National Geographic articles about the famous
gorillas, Roger Fouts’ Next of Kin, and some others.
So naturally my investigator brain got together with my animal-loving
side and cooked up the idea of having a gorilla, who supposedly has the
IQ of a five-year-old, be the only witness to a baby’s kidnapping. Cool
idea, right? But I resolved to keep the whole story plausible, so I had
to work with an ape’s limitations. A gorilla is never going to say, “You
know, when we were in town at 3 p.m. yesterday, I saw the most curious
incident when a shaggy-haired man…” So Neema’s clues had to be more
along the line of “Snake arm make baby cry. Give banana now.”
fell in love with Neema the gorilla and wanted more of her. I’m not
sure anyone even remembered my poor detective’s name, nor that of the
scientist (Grace McKenna) who teaches Neema, or even of the teen mom
(Brittany Morgan) whose infant was kidnapped. So then pressure from
readers forced me to write a sequel with gorillas—The Only Clue, in
which Neema, her mate Gumu, and her baby Kanoni all disappear after a
public event. And then, because any author knows that two books do not a
“series” make, I had to rack my brains to come up with a third. But
just how long can an author invent realistic mysteries involving signing
apes? It’s a challenge, let me tell you.
Gorilla mysteries are also a marketing
challenge. When asked for other mysteries that are similar to my Neema
series, my response is generally, “Uh…” Likewise, when asked what the
next Neema mystery will be about, I’m clueless as to whether there could
even be another.
So, if anyone has any ideas on either of those
subjects, please send them to me right away. In the meantime, I’ll be
working on the next novel in my Sam Westin wilderness series. It’s so
much easier to solve crimes on public lands than to determine what the
heck three gorillas might be up to these days.
28 June 2019
14 April 2019
Pam was born in Kansas but, like any sensible person, headed to the Pacific Northwest at the first opportunity. She is an outdoors enthusiast - as her list of novels will make clear - and her list of jobs is amazing, ranging from work in a geological research lab, to managing a multimedia group at Microsoft, to the work described below. You can read more about her writing at http://pamelabeason.com.
How My Experience as a Private Investigator Affects My Writing
by Pamela Beason
Although I am now retired from the job, I worked as a private investigator for more than ten years, and that experience definitely impacts how I write my mysteries. Here are a few of the most important points I’ve learned from being a PI and a bit about how they affect my writing:
There’s More Than One Side to Any Story. As a matter of fact, there are as many “sides” as there are people involved. Take a bar brawl, for example. Each combatant will have his or her own story, but everyone in the bar will have one, too. And the cops arriving on the scene might have a completely different idea about what is going on, because they’ve been told by the dispatcher, who was told by whomever called 911, what to expect when they arrive. Each person’s life experiences color his or her opinion of who might be at fault; none of us is completely objective. It’s fascinating to interview all the different parties and try to separate perception from reality. This really helps me concentrate on characterization and point of view in my novels. If you are a writer, you can do this, too–just pretend you’re interviewing each character in a scene, and you may be amazed at what you discover.
Criminals Are People, Too. Like most upstanding citizens, I’d love to be able to identify a criminal on sight. In a few cases, we can, but that’s often because those individuals are severely mentally ill as well as being criminals. The scary fact is that many criminals are charming individuals whose company we would enjoy until they do something unethical. I’ve interviewed their victims, whose stories inevitably start out like this: “I liked WhatsHisFace right off the bat, and I liked him right up until he robbed me/stole my car/stabbed me with a kitchen knife.” And when I talk to these criminals (usually in jail, thank goodness), I find them charming, too, although they have really screwy logic. One such fellow told me he shouldn’t be charged with illegal possession of a weapon (he was already a felon) because he really, really, really needed all his guns to protect himself from the bad guys who wanted to steal the drugs he was selling. And, he added, he’d turned his life over to Jesus (again), so everyone really could trust him now. Really.
Sometimes it’s hard to keep a straight face when talking to these folks. But my point is that criminals can be loyal to their families and friends, love their dogs, be fine musicians or artists or accountants, whatever–they are people. So whenever I create a villain for my book, I try to make him or her as “human” as possible, too, because this is actually much more frightening than making them seem evil at first glance.
I have sympathy for former criminals who have just gotten out of prison. Most of us don’t want them living next to us or working for us, but how are they supposed to become responsible, productive citizens if nobody will give them a chance? So, in my stories, I have sometimes made parolees the victims of as-yet-unidentified criminals, because who is likely to believe that a parolee is being framed for a crime he or she did not commit?
Law Enforcement Officers Are People, Too. Police/FBI/Border Patrol, etc–all LE personnel are just as individual as you and I. They can be good or bad at their jobs, well educated or not educated at all (that varies tremendously across the country), prejudiced against groups of people or political or religious affiliations. So I always try to make my law enforcement characters real, too, by giving them flaws and families and individual belief systems.
The U.S. Legal System Is Unequal. As a matter of fact, it’s so unfair that it was shocking to me when I first became an investigator. Why is it so hard to be a defendant in our system? First of all, if you are ever accused of a crime, no matter how frivolous the accusation, most people will automatically believe you are guilty. Then, the prosecution has a legal team that generally has adequate funding, established offices, modern equipment, and so forth, while the defense team, depending on the situation and locale, could be anyone. I’ve worked with dedicated but exhausted public defenders and investigators who received virtually no pay, had no offices, and had to bring their own pens and paper to the job. How could that possibly be a fair fight?
I’ve heard many average citizens say that they’d never need a public defender. Have you looked at the average hourly rate of attorneys recently? It’s $150-$300/hour, and they charge for every minute. Believe me, if we were charged with a felony, most of us would need a public defender. These people and their investigators are saints. Exhausted, often poverty-stricken saints.
So, in summary, when I write a mystery novel, all these elements come into play in developing my characters and building my plots. These bullet points are branded into my brain. And now I hope they’re romping around your brain, too.