Showing posts with label T.S. Hottle. Show all posts
Showing posts with label T.S. Hottle. Show all posts

30 August 2019

"Hi, this is Jim from Uber..."


A couple of years back, I got into rideshare as a side hustle. Since 2017, I've gotten married, bought a house, a new car, and had my wife stop working for health reasons. So life's gotten expensive (but so worth it.)

Uber logo
A couple of people have asked me if driving for Uber (or Lyft, for that matter) provides me with any fodder for crime stories.

Like the man once said, "Boy, howdy!" Let me tell ya, brudda!

A frequent conversation I have with passengers is what the job is like. Most of the time, it's fun. But they ask me about problem passengers, which actually only make up about 5% of my business. I tell them that 5% can serve as entertainment for the other 95%. Even then, Uber drivers rate their passengers as well as getting rated by them. I've only 1-starred maybe 5 people out of nearly 2000 rides in two years.

There are certain things you just don't do in my car. Most of them could go sideways into a crime story, and I may just spin a few of those out. Why don't you play along and consider these story prompts if you're so inclined.

The first thing you don't want to do in my car is hurl racist insults at… Well… Anyone. As a majority of my passengers after 8 PM on a Saturday night are drunk, I cut just a little slack, which four college girls came close to using up one night in Cincinnati's Banks district. I picked them up on Freedom Way, the main drag through the Banks to take them all to the Hilton up in the Business District. A couple was pushing a baby stroller across the street as we started to move.

The one girl, clearly approaching the pass-out stage of drunkenness, said, "Oh, my God! Who does that in this neighborhood?" (Incidentally, the Banks is considered rather safe compared to even my neighborhood, and I live in the suburbs.) "Oh, my God. They're black people. Black people are so stupid."

The knee-jerk reaction, which I would not fault any other driver for going with, is to slam on the brakes, kick them out of the car, and reset for the next passenger(s). I took a different tact. I simply said, "One!"

The girl missed the hint and continued. "No, seriously. Black people always…"

Lyft logo
"Two!"

Ladies and gentlemen, we do not get to three. Instead, I pull the car over, inform everyone that the ride has ended, and report the occupants to Uber. (Yes, Uber and Lyft allow us to do that.) Pray we are not in the wilds of Clermont County or on the Brent Spence Bridge (which has no berm. You would be left on I-75 in traffic) if this is you, because the ride ends now.

Instead, one of the other girls said, "Dude, shut up. You're pissing him off."

We enjoyed the rest of the ride in silence. They got a one-star for being disrespectful.

Other things that will get you kicked out that may not be good story fodder: messing with my dashboard while I'm driving (A teenager did this to me last weekend), give me bad directions (after midnight, I just ignore them anyway as I assume people are drunk), backseat driving, and being abusive to other people in the car or, if you're calling ahead to get an ETA, being abusive after I clearly inform you that (1) I'm with a passenger and (2) you're on speaker because I'm still driving. I have a 2% cancel rate from my end, so this is not usually a problem.

But one thing the rideshare services want us to be on the lookout for is whether someone is in the car of their own free will. I've had a couple of gentlemen get in the car with their girlfriends and start talking smack (to me) about them. As you can imagine, Uber Support got an earful. I'm not shy about that. It's also a story I generally don't regale passengers with. Drunken stupidity is funny, even when you're the drunk. Abuse is not. I'll shame a racist. I don't think a woman with a bad boyfriend needs that story spread for the entertainment of strangers.

But what is the absolute worst thing you can do in my car that might get turned into a crime story?

Go ahead. Yell at the cops, as one passenger did one night. Already, as you can imagine, there are probably a dozen or so stories you can spin from that. After this incident, it's an automatic end to the ride and an invitation to the friendly (well, friendly before the passenger opens his mouth) officer to whip out the handcuffs.

ride share car sketch
The incident that spawned this policy began with a pickup at my stepsons' favorite bar. (Bad move. Everyone there knows the twins, and I talk to the twins often.) These boys wanted to hit Waffle House for some after-hours grub. I'm all for that. I very nearly went there myself. However…

We drove by a really bad accident with at least four vehicles in various states of disrepair parked on the grass, three cruisers surrounding them keeping traffic out of the way. One of the passengers rolls his window down and starts screaming obscenities at the officers. I pull the car over.

"You do that again," I said, "and I turn around and let you pull them out of the car. I'm not going to jail for you. If anything, I'll drive you there myself."

They shut up. But from that point on, the ride ends automatically.

"So, Jim," you ask, "why do it if you have to put up with these people? Or people getting sick in your car?"

They're memorable because they are rare. And as for getting sick, there are ways to manage that if you know what to look for. Most of my passengers and I forget each other after we part ways. A lot of the rides are fun. On Saturday nights, many of them bring the party to my car. Others just want to ride in silence. One couple…

Well, this is a crime blog. Maybe I'll send that story over to an erotica blog.

It's not as gross as you think. But very, very strange.

Besides, you get to see humanity at their best and their worst and everywhere in between. It's a writer's dream job.

11 June 2015

Is Cincinnati Reenacting The Wire?


Police and politics have been in the news here in Cincinnati in recent weeks. We've been spared the latest round of shootings followed by riots that seems to have overtaken other cities. (Twice in the case of Cleveland, just four hours north of here.) But other problems have arisen.

Our police chief is a man named Jeffery Blackwell, who came to the Queen City from Columbus. Blackwell was named near the end of the previous mayor's term. Three weeks ago, it became news that the Chief would resign after two years on the job, then changed his mind. Despite denials from Blackwell, Mayor John Cranley, and other officials, stories of discord between city hall and the police department are rampant. Then this week, in the wake of a rash of shootings in the Avondale neighborhood, the city demanded Blackwell come up with a 90-day plan to reduce violence. I've seen this before.

It was a recurring theme on The Wire.

To recap, David Simon's Baltimore had a police department hamstrung by senior officers jockeying for position to become the next commissioner. Division captains and lieutenants found themselves terrorized by promotion-minded assistant chiefs at "comstat" meetings, where they had to explain why the crime rate was so high and what they planned to do about it. Never mind that the criminals causing all the trouble had to cooperate. Many of the plans and the personnel moves were tied to politics. Watching the news, I can't help but notice that so are the real-life moves in Cincinnati.

For starters, the increased crime in Avondale, while horrifying, belies a crime rate lower than in past years. There have been increased shootings on the West Side as well, but they make the news as individual incidents, not as a sudden spike in gun crime in one part of the city. But Avondale is two neighborhoods away from downtown and Over-the-Rhine, far enough out to spare the business district and the gentrifying neighborhood to the north of it, but close enough to the stadium to spook city leaders. Why are they spooked?

The All Star Game is coming in a couple of weeks. And so, with the local stations harping on Avondale's rise in shootings, city leaders have turned to that time-tested means of looking like they're on the job: Tell the police to do something, dammit. So Chief Blackwell was given a week to solve a problem that has been building since last year.

Sound like The Wire?

Then we have the hostility between city hall and the CPD. Chief Blackwell replaced James Craig, who left to take over the police department in his native Detroit. However, Blackwell started shortly before the last mayoral election, which means Mayor Cranley did not have a hand in choosing the chief. The current city manager also did not have a hand in the decision. One has to wonder if the administration's need to put its stamp on the police department is outweighing the need for stable leadership in the CPD.

That is speculation, of course, but every time Chief Blackwell, Mayor Cranley, or some council member opens their mouth now, I can't help but think back to Mayors Royce and Carcetti ripping some hapless commissioner a new one on The Wire. Cincinnati does not have all of Baltimore 's problems. If anything, we manage our police-race relation issues better than cities that looked at us funny during the 2001 riots. But when politicians fall all over themselves on the eve of a major sporting event, I can't help but wonder if life is imitating art. It wouldn't surprise me. Some of the cops and criminals depicted on The Wire were also writers and actors on the show.

17 February 2015

Who Are These People In Our Heads?


When Northcoast Shakedown originally came out, I got accused by a coworker of basing most of my characters on people in the company where we worked. We worked at an insurance company. Nick Kepler scored free office space from an insurance company, and both were big property/casualty companies. However, I would be a little disturbed if the executives at TTG Insurance bore any resemblance to the ones at the company I discreetly refer to as BigHugeCo. The truth is the two executives who make Nick's life difficult in that story started out as stock bad bosses. That's how they got into trouble. Elaine, the secretary? She started out as someone for Nick to vent to while having a beer next door to TTG's offices.
The trouble with basing a character on an actual person too closely is that the writer then starts trying to bend a character to the real person, which makes for stilted, dull writing and poor dialog. A person may inspire a character, but if a writer is skilled or, at least, has good instincts, the character will take on a life of its own.

Sometimes, a central character is the author himself or herself. Sue Grafton has admitted as much about Kinsey Milhonne. She has stated that Kinsey is her if her life had taken another turn. Ditto for Spenser and Robert B. Parker. The darker tone of the earlier novels reflect a lot of the personal struggles Parker himself spoke of in that period of his life while later, when he was in a better place, the novels took on a lighter, clearly amused tone.

(Incidentally, I am not Nick Kepler. He's not as technically savvy, and I never had as many girlfriends as Nick. Though I think I had better luck with them.)

A clich├ęd piece of advice I used to get when I first started was to base a character on an actor. (Early on, I envisioned John Cusack as Kepler, though that faded away after a couple of stories.) Sometimes, that works as long as it's not someone over the top like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Vin Diesel. The trick here is to use the actor's persona as a jumping off point. Let's say you love Kaley Cuoco Sweeting from Big Bang Theory and want to drop her into your novel. Well, I'm sure Kaley will be flattered, but most likely, you really like how she plays Penny on the show. But if that combination of appearance and personality works for you in a tough-as-nail lady sheriff in rural Wisconsin, knock yourself out. Just know that a woman who has managed to get elected or appointed sheriff of a Midwestern county is going to already have a different background from an aspiring actress and waitress at a California Cheesecake Factory, particularly if there are no nerdy scientists around to color her life. (You might get away with a Sheldonesque coroner, but that's pushing it.)

Often, for me, characters just arise. They are functions of the story. Take a guy, put him in a situation, and ask yourself who he is and why he's there. More often than not, that's the first scene of a story as well as the birth of a story. It's not creating a role and then building a story around him. It's all about finding this imaginary person and creating a story to find out who he is. Nick Kepler is a function of a rainy night and having walked down at least two or three semi-rural highways in my time.

Sometimes, it really is a real person who inspires a character. Sherlock Holmes, probably the ultimate crime fiction protagonist in the English language, came from a rather quirky and highly intelligent doctor Sir Arthur Conan Doyle knew or knew about. A more extreme example comes from the 1990's. Mike Judge, the mind behind Office Space and King of the Hill, actually based the dimwitted, gravel-voiced Beavis on a guy he used to know (though I'm assuming the real Beavis was nowhere near as... um... intellectually challenged.  Heh-heh. Heh hmm heh. Fire!)

And sometimes, a character just demands to be written. You get a character like Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones whose personality is so clear that one has to write a story or three about him.

02 December 2014

Early Christmas Present: A Short Story


Hey, all. Jim here. On my blog, I have a feature called Get Into Jim's Shorts, where I run a new short story every month. This being Christmas, I went with a seasonal theme. As an early present, I'm going to share this month's story here as well. So without further ado…


SUNNY ACRES CHRISTMAS

Frank knew he had exactly four hours to clean out Sunny Acres Trailer Park on Christmas Eve. He figured an hour for people to grab dinner and make their way to Willowbrook Methodist Church, an hour for the first act of the annual Christmas pageant, half an hour for intermission (cake and punch in the church basement during a meet-in-greet with Joseph, Mary, and the Angel of the Lord), one hour for the second act, and half an hour before the faithful returned home. In the meantime, his name was not Frank.
He was Santa Claus. The idea came from seeing Jim Carrey in How the Grinch Stole Christmas a couple of weeks earlier. Only Frank’s idea was better. The Grinch had a dog. Frank had a 1998 Crown Victoria with a huge trunk and only minor engine problems.
The job, of course, could not begin until Amon Yoder, the police chief, left with his wife and kids piled up in their aging minivan. On Christmas Eve, the Willowbrook Police Department shut down, leaving the Sheriff’s Department to patrol the town. That meant the deputy who drew the short straw would park his cruiser downtown and keep an eye on the storefronts until about midnight, when his overnight relief would simply make a few passes on their way through town. But until Yoder and his family drove out to the Cracker Barrel on Route 20, Frank had to stay hunched down out of sight, eyes peering through the steering wheel with endless Christmas music playing on WJLB.
By 6 PM, half the trailer park had emptied. The other half – the heathen half, Frank had come to call them – were getting blissfully drunk on Big Muskie beer and watching whatever movies they’d seen a dozen times before on Christmas Eves past. No one would notice Frank trudging about Sunny Acres in the dark.
They would notice Santa.
To Frank’s surprise, the Santa suit did not keep him warm. Willowbrook, along with the rest of Musgrave County, lay under two feet of snow. While Sunny Acres did a good job plowing and salting the lot, it did not keep Frank from freezing his nuts off in the get-up. No worries. He planned to knock off about ten trailers, all double-wides, before the Virgin Mary gave birth over at the Methodist church.
He picked the locks easily enough. Had it not been for a four-year stretch in Mansfield, he might have made a decent living as a locksmith. More than one cop had given him a pass if he promised to use his powers for good instead of evil, but one day, that luck ran out.
“Yeah,” said Frank, muttering as he worked a particularly stubborn lock, “you try to make a good living without that badge, motherfuckers. Fucking Nissan moving, switching their brake supplier to Mexico.”
As the door swung open, he stepped inside, turned on the lights, and bellowed “Ho! Ho! Ho!” in as deep a voice as he could muster. He’d been practicing all week as a shopping mall Santa in Milan since Thanksgiving. When no one responded “Who’s there?”, he opened his sack, swept as many of the presents from under the tree as could fit, and headed back out, locking the door behind him. Frank, after all, was a thief, not an asshole.
On his third house, he almost did not get the door locked. Whoever lived there kept a huge Doberman. In the dark, the dobie looked like a beast from Hell. As he ran from the double-wide, the dog still barking loud enough for anyone in the neighboring trailers to hear, he wondered what idiot kept a dog that big in a home that small?
He moved onto the fourth trailer, a single-wide going to seed in this otherwise neatly kept trailer park. The old lady who lived here was the church organist. He knew her husband had left her a bundle, which she stretched by living in a dump like this. Nonetheless, she had lots of grandchildren who would want lots of presents. Frank could pawn those presents for hundreds if he were discreet enough. He filled his sack, locked the door, and headed back to the Crown Vic across the road. Six more trailers, he told himself. Empty the sack, hit six more trailers, and he could go have a beer at Mort’s out on Ashland Pike.
As he trudged back out of the park, his feet freezing, he heard a small voice call out to him. “Hi, Santa!”
The girl, no more than six, wore pink feetie pajamas and had her blonde hair in pig tails. She stood on the tiny porch of her family’s single-wide under a naked bulb.
Frank slowly raised his hand. “Uh… Hi?”
“Whatchu doin’, Santa?”
“Um…” He realized he needed to go into Santa mode or this kid would think something was wrong. “Ho! Ho! Ho! I’m taking these presents out to the sleigh to be inspected. Ho! Ho! Ho!”
The little girl jumped up and down, clapping her hands. “Is Rudolph out there?”
“Why, no, little girl. Rudolph retired. He trains the newer reindeer now.” He’d made that story up on the spot one Saturday as some brat sat in his lap telling him Rudolph wasn’t real. “What’s your name, little girl?”
“Taylor,” she said. “Taylor Mills. You know that, Santa.”
“Well, I don’t have my crystal ball with me.”
“Crystal ball?”
“How do you think I see you when you’re sleeping and know when you’re awake? Ho! Ho! Ho!” He needed to get this kid back in the house or three trailers would be all he hit tonight. The dog had already cost him one place. “You should be inside, Taylor. It’s coooooolllllld out here. Ho! Ho! Ho!”
“Taylor,” said a woman from inside the trailer, “what are you doing out there?”
“I’m talking to Santa!”
“Well, come in the house. You’ll catch pneumonia out there.”
You ain’t kidding, lady, Frank thought. “Well, Taylor, you head off to bed, and I’ll be back later with your presents. But remember, you have to be asleep. Ho! Ho! Ho!”
Taylor ran back into the trailer, slamming the door behind her. “Mommy! I saw Santa!”
Frank hurried across the street to his car. He still had a lot of work to do.
Popping the trunk of the Crown Vic, he dumped his latest haul inside. Slamming it shut, he patted the deck lid and said, “Thanks, Donner.”
Dashing back across the road, he made a bee line toward the most expensive home in the park. He had seen this one towed in halves through downtown Willowbrook. The man who lived there was a church deacon, and his wife sang in the chorus. If he could hit this one, he could count this as a good night. He wouldn’t have the haul he wanted, but he’d have a respectable amount.
About halfway back to the double-wide…
“Hey, Santa!”
Frank looked up. His heart sank when he saw an adult version of little Taylor Mills standing on the same porch. She wore black yoga pants and a Cleveland Browns jersey.
“Um…” Ho-ho-ho would not work, he knew. “Hi?”
“You playing Santa for the neighbors tonight?” she asked, cradling a mug in her hands.
“Yeah,” said Frank. “Just picking up a few bucks and doing something nice for the kids.”
“That’s sweet,” she said. “I’m Denise. Denise Mills. You talked to my daughter earlier.”
Okay, lady, I talked to your kid. Ho ho ho. Tell her Santa will be back later. “My pleasure.”
“Listen,” she said, “it’s just me and Taylor tonight. Her daddy’s gone.”
“He left?”
“Afghanistan. His chopper went down in the mountains six months ago.”
Oh, boy. “That’s rough, Mrs. Mills.”
“Please. Denise. Look, could I ask you to come in for a few minutes and give my daughter a special visit from Santa? It’d mean a lot. I could give you some hot chocolate with something a little extra in it.” She made a drinking motion with one hand, then mimicked pouring something into her own hot chocolate.
Well, it was freezing tonight. He wasn’t sure if he had much energy left to go beyond the next trailer.
“Please?” said Denise, her lips threatening to pout.
All Frank’s defenses melted. “All right. One cup of cocoa. Is the girl still up?”
“Yes. Come on in.”
Frank climbed the steps and followed Denise into her single-wide. It was cramped like any other single-wide trailer, but neatly kept. Places like this made Frank think of a submarine, everything smaller and either stacked or recessed. Denise dumped a packet of Swiss Miss into a mug and poured hot water onto it. She then reached into the cupboard and produced a half-full bottle of peppermint schnapps.
She held it up with a playful smile. “Merry Christmas, Santa.”
“Well, that’ll make for a warmer sleigh ride.” He accepted the mug as soon as she put a shot of schnapps into it.
“Taylor,” she hollered, “Santa’s here!”
For a six-year-old girl, Taylor certainly thundered down the trailer’s narrow hallway like an elephant charging. She stopped when she emerged into the kitchen. Seeing Frank in his Santa suit, she barely gave him time to put down his hot chocolate before she leapt into his lap. “Santa!”
“Well, ho ho ho, Taylor,” said Frank, adopting his mall Santa voice. “Your mommy thought I should pay you a visit since you’re all alone on Christmas Eve.”
Denise raised her phone and snapped a picture of Taylor on Frank’s lap. “Her grandmothers will love this.”
Frank said a silent prayer of thanks that he’d done a reasonable job on his beard. “Well,” he said in his best Santa voice, “maybe you could send a copy north for Mrs. Claus.”
“Please, mom,” said Taylor. “Please.”
“You just want an edge over all the other boys and girls,” said Denise. “Listen, can you watch her for a second? I gotta hit the little girls’ room.”
“Mommy’s gotta tinkle!” Taylor giggled at her own joke as her mother blushed.
“Taylor Anne Mills,” said Denise, “you behave in front of Santa.” That only made Taylor laugh more loudly. “I’ll be right back.”
Brave woman, thought Frank. Unless she recognizes me from the mall. If she does, I am royally screwed. “So, Taylor, have you been a good little girl this year?”
“Don’t you know, Santa?”
“Well, I have my list that I check twice, but it’s in the sleigh.”
“Can I see your sleigh?”
“Oh, I wish I could show it to you.” Because that’s what every little boy and girl wants to see, Santa tooling around in a 16-year-old Ford. “But I have new reindeer this year, and they spook so easily.”
“What about Rudolph?”
He had to admit he was enjoying this, making up new pieces of the Santa myth on the spot. “Ho ho ho, well, Rudolph’s been with me a long, long time. He’s retired now and trains all the new reindeer.”
“Why does he have a red nose?”
Vodka, thought Frank, who would need a couple extra shots of the stuff when this was over. “Magic. Rudolph’s nose is magic.”
“Magic?”
“How do you think they fly and pull a sleigh behind them without it falling. Christmas is magic, Taylor. Wonderful magic.” Wherein an unemployed factory worker spirits your stuff away to fence after the New Year. But let her figure that out when she grows up.
“The man on the news said the North Pole might melt,” said Taylor. “What will you do then?”
“Why move to Antarctica. Do you know where that is?” And is your mommy pissing a whole two-liter back there?
“The South Pole.”
“Yes. And just like the North Pole, I can get to anywhere in the world from there. Only the South Pole is on land.”
“Are there reindeer?”
“I have them brought in from Finland, which is waaaaay up north.”
The front door opened and in walked a sheriff’s deputy. “Honey, I’m… Oh, hi. Who are you?”
Frank tried very hard not to crap his pants. Gently, he put Taylor down before standing. “Why I’m Santa Claus! And who are you, Officer?”
“‘Deputy,’” said the cop. His phone buzzed, and he looked down at it.
“Is it cold out, Daddy?”
Daddy? Oh, shit. “Well, I must get back to my sleigh,” said Frank, trying to make it to the door.
The deputy blocked his path and had his hand on his weapon. He held up the phone, which displayed a picture of Taylor on Santa’s lap. “Cute. You work out at the Edison Plains Mall, don’t you?”
“Er…”
“And do you drive a 1998 Crown Victoria with a primered fender and a bad set of rocker panels?”
“Daddy, what’s wrong?”
“That’s not Santa, Taylor.”
Denise emerged from the bathroom. “You got here quick.”
“Well, someone called in about an abandoned car across the street, and someone else said the Mrs. Perkins’s Doberman was going berserk. Then I got your text.” He looked at Frank and said, “I’m going to assume that was you, wasn’t it?”
“Er…”
“What happened to ‘Ho ho ho’?”
“I thought you went down in Afghanistan.”
The deputy smiled. “I did. They gave me a discharge as soon as they rescued me. Who told you?”
“I never said he was dead,” said Denise. “I just said he was gone and that he went down in Afghanistan. He was gone; now he’s here.”
Frank looked at the gun on the Deputy Mills’s hip. He could charge. He could grab the gun, threaten his way out, and run for it. But then how far could he go running away in a Santa suit that did not even warm him? He looked down at Taylor, who looked confused. “So, Deputy, are my reindeer all right?”
Deputy Mills hand now rested on his weapon. “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to…”
“Because if there’s a problem,” he continued, “we should go. I have some very special presents for Taylor.” He winked at Mills. “So… Shall we go?”
Mills’s hand relaxed on his gun. “I think Rudolph might have sprained his ankle landing on one of the trailers.”
“Daddy!” said Taylor. “Rudolph retired.”
Frank needed a story fast, or both he and Taylor’s Christmas would be ruined. “I believe you mean his son. Adolf. Ho, ho, ho.”
“Um… Yeah. Adolf. Anyway, he looks like he hurt himself. Could you come with me?” Deputy Mills had his hand his gun once more and gestured for the front door. “Shall we?”
Frank turned and knelt before Taylor. “No matter what happens, Taylor, you be a good girl. Listen to your parents. And have a merry Christmas.”
Taylor threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. “Bye, Santa!”
Frank got up and said, “Let’s go, Deputy. I’ve got a lot of houses to visit tonight.”
“Including the big one in Norwalk,” said Mills with a smirk. To Denise, he said, “I’ll be off about three, maybe sooner since I’ll just have to do paperwork on…” He looked over at Frank. “…Adolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
“Be careful, honey. Try not to hit any reindeer out there.”
Outside Frank gave one last “Ho! Ho! Ho!” for Taylor’s benefit, then held out his wrists. “Let’s get this overwith before your daughter realizes I’m the mall Santa.”
“Save it,” said Mills. “You could have run, you know. Told my wife you were busy, hopped in your car, and made off with your take. Why’d you do it?”
“Why does a burglar ever…?”
“I mean my daughter. Why did you come in to talk to her? You know you blew your cover the moment my wife invited you in for hot chocolate.”
Frank thought about his own childhood. He remembered that scene from The Breakfast Club where Judd Nelson rants about getting a carton of cigarettes for Christmas. That was his childhood. Broken toys from Goodwill when he was a child, cartons of Camels from the age of 12 onward. Things did improve when Frank got his driver’s license. His old man would give him whiskey.
“I’ve never had a good Christmas,” said Frank as he got into Mills’s cruiser. “And this Christmas, I’m going to jail. At least your daughter would have a happy memory.”
Mills shut the door on him. Climbing in the front of the cruiser, he said, “Well, ‘Santa,’ I thank you for that. Seems you did some good tonight after all.”
As they pulled out of Sunny Acres, Frank saw the tow truck backed up to his Crown Vic, another Sheriff’s Department cruiser parked alongside.
He began to cry.

13 November 2014

My Worst Case Of Writers Block


About four years ago, I got laid off from the job I held for fourteen years. I had severance, so this actually turned out to be good. After about four months, though, I'd started to lose interest in everything. Especially writing.
It had been a few years since my original publisher imploded, and my then agent failed to sell Road Rules, the Leonardesque road trip caper I'd written on a dare. I had no clue what to do next, and I didn't really care. I fired my agent and decided to just give up writing.

Fast forward about six months. New job doing what I'd trained for instead of being stuck doing only what my old employer wanted me to do. I started to get an interest in writing again, but what to write. A new Nick Kepler novel? A follow-up to Road Rules? A pre-9/11 thriller I'd been toying with? None of these really captured my interest. But I wanted to write.

Finally, I just sat down and wrote the autobiography of a rock musician character a friend and I used to kick around when we were in our late teens. The beginning was interesting, reminding me of one of those Stephen King novels that flash back to the characters' childhood days. The real challenge was writing the character in the late fifties and early sixties as a kid and giving him time in Vietnam. And then one weekend, with nothing scheduled or planned, I sat down to write about his adventures in late sixties London.

When I stopped on Sunday evening that weekend, I'd written 17,000 words. Not 17,000 words total in the manuscript. 17,000 words from Friday evening all the way to Sunday.

Very rarely does anyone write that much, and I wouldn't submit these pages for any publication. Besides, I borrow liberally several historical figures, some of whom are still alive.

Since that time, the book or mock autobiography or whatever you want to call it has served to give me time writing original work when I'm between projects. It also had an interesting side benefit. I soon was rereading the next novel I wanted to submit for publication (for which I now owe an agent revisions). I started writing almost constantly.

I've always heard that one should write through writers block. That's actually the easy part. The hard part is finding what to write.

30 September 2014

Fast Eddie


Once upon a time, a man named "Fast Eddie" Watkins could get in and out of banks quickly, relieving them of cash, and usually not harming anyone. He became one of Cleveland's most notorious criminals, and that says a lot in my hometown. Cleveland had the Torso Killer. Its suburbs produced Jeffrey Dahmer while the Tremont neighborhood spawned notorious kidnapper Ariel Castro. A branch of the Genovese crime family ran the underworld for years, and Irish mobster Danny Green met a fiery end when his car exploded leaving a union hall in the late 1970's. So, yeah. The Northcoast has hosted its share of thugs and monsters.
But we always had a soft spot for Fast Eddie. Sure, he robbed banks. But he was a gentleman thief. In and out, and he loved the publicity. The Plain Dealer, The Press (infamous for its shoddy reporting of the Sam Sheppard murder case), and the local TV stations faithfully recounted his exploits. In a city more famous for its burning river and its serial killers, Watkins developed a Robin Hood reputation.

The one time Fast Eddie's robbery didn't go so well, he took 9 hostages. After 21 hours, though, he let everyone go and surrendered. The feds sent him to prison in Atlanta. He escaped, and therein is where Fast Eddie crossed a very young Jim Winter's path.

South of the exurb where I grew up, there is, to this day, a stretch of potato fields called The Muck, a handful of rock quarries, and cornfields all sandwiched between the CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads. We used to ride our bikes out through there, headed for the tiny little freeway burg of Burbank. Only one day, the local police stopped us.

"Why can't we ride out to Burbank?" I asked the Lodi cop at the roadblock.

"We got a bank robber cornered out past the rock quarry."

I went home. At 6:00, WEWS led their news broadcast with the standoff between Fast Eddie Watkins and the Medina County Sheriff. By 7, Fast Eddie was in custody and headed back to prison.

Watkins never hid the fact that he was a bank robber. He said he enjoyed it. "I wanted to be a big shot," he confessed. His illegal withdrawals helped finance his lavish lifestyle. So where did he keep his money?

"I trust banks with my money. They're insured. It's the best place in the world to put your money."

But was it the money? Watkins wife once said no. Mrs. Watkins said that Fast Eddie ogled banks the way most men ogled girls.

But even in prison with his criminal career over, Watkins remained a character. The Cleveland papers occasionally reported that Fast Eddie had taken up painting while behind bars, favoring landscapes.

Fast Eddie died in 2002 at the age of 82 after a long battle with heart and lung disease. Unlike the bank robbers of an earlier era, going out in a blaze of glory wasn't for him.

09 September 2014

The Places You've Never Been


I will be revising a novel I'd been working on forever soon. Which is going to be fun. It takes place in a city in Ohio called Monticello. Monticello came about as an exercise in world building. I can tell you the history of the place, who all the landmarks are named for, and that, if you own a Passat or a Jetta, it wasn't built there.

If the name sounds familiar beyond the reference to Thomas Jefferson's estate, I admit I lifted it. Once upon a time, when I was much shorter, there was a soap opera called Edge of Night. Like Dark Shadows, Edge was genre-based rather than hospital melodrama like most other soaps. Unlike Dark Shadows, it was a crime show. Set in a city called Monticello, the series existed in a Midwestern state so generic that it's capital was Capital City. The skyline in the opening credits was actually Cincinnati, home of Procter & Gamble which produced the show. (Except for its final two seasons, when LA was used.) But it's not the only fictional city that crime aficionados have adopted.

Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhonne lives in Santa Teresa, which looks suspiciously like Santa Barbara. While Santa Teresa does not exist, Kinsey shares the town with another PI, Lew Archer. That should be no surprise. Archer's creator Ross McDonald also used the name for a fictionalized Santa Barbara. And Grafton did know McDonald in his later years. Santa Teresa is so real, thanks to Grafton, that many people look for it while driving down Highway 101. Read enough of the novels, and you can see downtown and the seedy Hungarian restaurant where Kinsey would be treated to goulash.

Take it a step further. Hill Street Blues, the classic police show from the 1980's, took place in a city even more generic than Edge of Night's fictional state. It had a Major League baseball team, but even the team was never named. Still, the city was quintessentially Midwest without looking like a thinly disguised LA or Chicago (or Toronto, which has doubled for several American cities.) It's amazing how Hill Street made its city look so real without giving any clue as to where it was.

But the mack daddy of fictional towns?

That would be Ed McBain's Isola. Many people assume Isola is the name of McBain's fictitious city, but actually, it's a borough (a word McBain never uses) roughly analogous to Manhattan. The City is and yet is not New York. Indeed, many 87th Precinct movies have been shot in, and sometimes set in, New York. Yet the precinct, even the other boroughs, have distinct characters all their own. One wonders if the City is sandwiched between Metropolis and Gotham City.

What makes a fictional city real to a reader? A sense of place. When neighborhoods and landmarks are described as though the author might have lived there, it makes the setting a character unto itself. Similarly, giving a fictional place a history gives it a life of its own. There's a reason certain names pop up on streets, schools, and landmarks. The reader may never know why, but if the writer does, it creates a sort of randomness that's hard to duplicate otherwise.

So where is your favorite place you've never been?

19 August 2014

Don Quixote, PI


When people talk about the PI, they always trace the character back to three writers: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross MacDonald. Most people think the modern PI is based on Hammett's Continental Op. But you have to go farther back than that. Sherlock Holmes?
Well, yes, Holmes's fingerprints are all over the modern PI. He even has an erudite, if seemingly less intelligent, sidekick, the brainier forerunner of the psycho sidekick popularized in the Spenser and Dennis Lehane novels. But you have to go farther back. And I mean farther back than Poe's August Dupin, considered the first modern detective character.

No, the PI is a knight-errant, righting wrongs, defending the weak, and dispensing justice. The knight-errant was around for centuries, springing from stories of Siegfried the dragon-slayer, of Roland and Charlemagne, of the various knights of Camelot. But the archetype wasn't truly solidified until Miguel de Cervantes's comic novel, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (which I plan to review this Friday.)

[Cue needle across vinyl.] "Duh... What? Don Quixote was nuts! And his sidekick was equal parts wise and ignorant."

Yes, well...

The comic aspect of that dynamic did not really repeat on a grand scale until the classic 1980's sitcom, Blackadder. In the beginning, Prince Edmund, the Black Adder, is more bungling than mad, and sidekick Baldric is much smarter than he appears, frequently saving the hapless prince from himself. Later, the roles were flipped, and Blackadder became an evil version of Holmes - arrogant, clever, and just as sarcastic - while Baldric became the embarrassingly dimwitted sidekick who always had "a cunning plan" (that always ended in disaster.)

So what's this have to do with the PI?

Think about Holmes, particularly as portrayed at present by Messrs. Downey, Cummerbatch, and Miller. The modern depictions of Holmes have more in common with Blackadder than in prior decades, while Watson is portrayed as long-suffering and sometimes the source of Holmes' brilliance. This was Doyle's original vision of the pair, and you can draw a direct line back to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. But whereas the don was off his rocker and Sancho had a simple view of the world, the impulses were the same: Quixote, like Holmes and like every PI character who followed him, loathes injustice and wants to see things set right. Panza, like Watson and the later stock psycho sidekicks, sees Quixote's (or Holmes's or Spenser's or Patrick and Angie's) mission as noble, though often has to show great patience standing in his brilliant partner's shadow.

The motivations and the levels of intelligence change. Even the personal missions change. Spenser, never mind Holmes, could not have thrived in the time of King Arthur or Charlemagne. And the whole thrust of Don Quixote's story is that the knight-errant was already part of a fictional past.

The PI is not the only evolution of Don Quixote, but it's the most obvious. Fans of Doctor Who can pick up on Quixote's madness in the Doctor, but it's darker and more bizarre. And more intentional.

So Don Quixote is still alive. When the PI is done right, the character taps into that zeitgeist. When it's not, he or she is simply parroting the Op and Marlowe.

10 June 2014

A Place In History


I was telling my son a few months back about a story idea that had occurred to me.  It would draw from my days in the army when I was stationed in what was then known as West Germany, or the Federal Republic.  He listened politely, then observed with a snort, that I was writing a "historical."  With that single word I suddenly realized that my earlier life had entered the slipstream of history.  It was a sobering thought that carried with it undertones of pending mortality--my pending mortality.
"Smartass," I replied, my ancient and inflexible brain unable to come up with a pithier rejoinder.  This was the same son who had been born in Germany, though he recalls very little of our time there.  And since this piece concerns itself with history, it is worth noting that Robin gave birth to him at Landstuhl Military Hospital while survivors of the Marine Barracks bombing in Beirut were being cared for there.  Two hundred and forty one marines died in that attack, an incident I would later be moved to write about in a story titled, "Ibrahim's Eyes." 

Later that evening, I unearthed some photographs from that time and place.  They were pre-digital and had acquired a yellowish patina.  The people captured in these snapshots bore a strange resemblance to my own family and myself.  I was relieved to note that other than the deep lines in my face, my hair having gone completely gray, and a sagging neckline, that I had hardly changed since these pictures were taken.  I was about the same age then as my son is now.  The time was the early 1980's. 

In one photo, my family and I stand beneath a sign for the town, or stadt, of St. Julian, holding an infant of the same name, the male heir and aforementioned future smartass.  We look healthy and happy even though we are in a strange land through no desire of our own.  The assignment was for three years--the army would involuntarily extend it by six months (I was that necessary to the effort).  We knew no one and were a very long way from our families.  Letters took a long time to transit the mighty ocean, and phone calls to friends and loved ones were hideously expensive for a G.I. supporting a family of five.  I would spend weeks away on training maneuvers.  Still, we managed to make a great time of it, for which I mostly credit my imaginative and indefatigable wife.

My father had also been to Germany courtesy of the U.S. Army (more history), having arrived on Normandy Beach on D-Day and fighting his way into the Fatherland.  Naturally, he had some assistance in this--I believe a cook accompanied him.  It was funny to think of myself there so many years later.  The barracks my unit was assigned to had been formerly occupied by Nazi troops; our artillery range established by the same.  Even so, there were many, many differences between our visits--the most obvious being that no one was actively shooting at us.  The main threat was now the Soviets and their allies.  Both the East Germans and the Czechoslovakians manned the borders between the American and Soviet spheres, while the West Germans, and us, manned our side.  I'm not sure that the Germans loved us exactly, but they liked us a lot better than the alternative.

That being said, there were radical groups within the Federal Republic that were dedicated to the expansion of communism throughout the west, and by any means possible.  Two of these, the Baader-Meinhof Gang (they called themselves the Red Army Faction), and the RZ, or Revolutionary Cells, could be extremely violent.  Throughout the late sixties, seventies, and eighties, they were responsible for a number of bombings, murders, kidnappings, bank robberies, and airline hijackings.  They trained and networked with several middle-eastern terrorist groups; their ideological brethren in Italy and France, and received money and logistical support from the East German Secret Police, the feared Stasi.  They succeeded on several occasions in bombing American military bases; killing and wounding both soldiers and civilians.  They were no less savage with their fellow Germans.  We were cautioned to examine our cars, if we owned one, before putting a key in the ignition.  That seemed good advice to me.

Meanwhile, I functioned as an intelligence analyst assigned to the 8th Infantry Division Artillery.  Not very glamorous or exciting.  My vast knowledge of Soviet tactics, equipment, weapons, and training, however, were largely responsible for discouraging the Russians from doing anything foolish.  They realized early on that they were simply outclassed.  You may recall that the Iron Curtain would crumble altogether within a few years of my arrival in Europe.
My Soviet Counter-Part

Now, a few decades later, I contemplate fashioning a novel out of that distant time and faraway place.  Even to me, it now seems as if this were another world altogether--quaint, if somewhat dangerous.  The Soviet Union no longer exists, and its demise led to the birth (or rebirth) of dozens of nations.  Germany has been reunited.  Czechoslovakia has been disjointed; the face of Europe made completely foreign to my time there.  Yet, I was there and an actual participant.  And though it did not appear unique to me as I was living it, it became history even so.

Shortly after I wrote this, the Russian Bear reentered the world stage in the Crimea and is growling at the Ukraine.  Perhaps my experiences are not so remote in time as they seemed.  History keeps happening and I'm expecting a call from Washington any minute now, "Dean...we need you...we need you now!"



Switching focus here: As most of you know, Dale Andrews was injured in the line of duty, so to speak, and is now on hiatus.  We have discovered that to replace him required the talents of not one, but two, able-bodied writers: Stephen Ross and Jim Winter, both of whom have graced us with their talents of late.  They have graciously consented to share the yoke on a semi-permanent basis.

Next Tuesday, June 17th, Stephen, through the miracle of the internet, will appear among us all the way from New Zealand.  Or at least his blog will.  Stephen will probably remain in his native land.  But I don't know, as I have heard that his people have harnessed powers that the rest of us can only dream of.  Jim, who is an Ohioan, and speaks a dialect of our language, will share his thoughts with us on the following Tuesday, June the 24th.  From there on out, Tuesdays will rotate between the three of us.  Please give our new co-conspirators a round of virtual applause, and tune in on Tuesdays for exceptional, and once again international, entertainment!

21 March 2013

Setting as Character


Setting. Everyone knows about it. Few people actively think about it.
And that's a shame, because for writers, your setting is like a pair of shoes: if it's good, it's a sound foundation for your journey. If it's not, it'll give you and your readers pains that no orthotics will remedy.

Nowhere is this more true than with crime fiction. In fact strong descriptions of settings is such a deeply embedded trope of the genre that it's frequently overdone, used in parodies both intentional and unintentional as often as fedoras and trenchcoats.

Used correctly a proper setting can transcend even this role–can become a character in its own right, and can help drive your story, making your fiction evocative, engaging, and (most importantly for your readers) compelling.

Think for a moment about your favorite crime fiction writers. No matter who they are, odds are good that one of the reasons, perhaps one you've not considered before, is their compelling settings.

Just a few contemporary ones that come to mind for me: the Los Angeles of Michael Connelly and Robert Crais. The Chicago of  Sara Paretsky, Sean Chercover and Marcus Sakey. Boston seen through the eyes of Robert B. Parker. Ken Bruen's Ireland. Al Guthrie's Scotland. Carl Hiassen's Miami. Bill Cameron's Portland.

And of course there are the long gone settings highlighted in the gems of the old masters. These and others read like lexical snapshots from the past.Who can forget passages like:

The city wasn't pretty. Most of its builders had gone in for gaudiness. Maybe they had been successful at first. Since then the smelters whose brick stacks stuck up tall against a gloomy mountain to the south had yellow-smoked everything into uniform dinginess. The result was an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelters' stacks.
—Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest

Or this one from Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely:

1644 West 54th Place was a dried-out brown house with a dried-out brown lawn in front of it. There was a large bare patch around a tough-looking palm tree. On the porch stood one lonely wooden rocker, and the afternoon breeze made the unpruned shoots of last year's poisettias tap-tap against the cracked stucco wall. A line of stiff yellowish half-washed clothes jittered on a rusty wire in the side yard.

And no one did it better than Ross Macdonald:

The city of Santa Teresa is built on a slope which begins at the edge of the sea and rises more and more steeply toward the coastal mountains in a series of ascending ridges. Padre Ridge is the first and lowest of these, and the only one inside the city limits.

It was fairly expensive territory, an established neighborhood of well-maintained older houses, many of them with brilliant hanging gardens. The grounds of 1427 were the only ones in the block that looked unkempt. The privet hedge needed clipping. Crabgrass was running rampant in the steep lawn.

Even the house, pink stucco under red tile, had a disused air about it. The drapes were drawn across the front windows. The only sign of life was a house wren which contested my approach to the veranda.
— Ross Macdonald, Black Money

In each of the passages excerpted above the author has used a description of the setting as a tip-off to the reader as to what manner of characters would inhabit such places. Even hints at what lies ahead for both protagonist and reader.

With Hammett it's the stink of the corruption that always follows on the heels of a rich mineral strike. With Chandler, it's a life worn-out by too much living. And with Macdonald, it's a world and its inhabitants as out of sorts as those hedges that need clipping.

Brilliant thumbnail sketches each. If you haven't read them, you owe it to yourself to do so. And each of them was giving the reader a glimpse of a world they had experienced first-hand, if not a contemporary view, then at least one they could dredge up and flesh out from memory.

With the stuff I write it's not that simple.

In his kind note introducing me to the readers of this blog, our man Lopresti mentioned that when it comes to fiction, my particular bailiwick is historical mystery. In my time mining this particular vein of fiction I've experienced first-hand the challenge of delivering to readers strong settings for stories set in a past well before my time.

How to accomplish this?

It's tricky. Here's what I do.

I try to combine exhaustive research with my own experiences and leaven it all with a hefty dose of the writer's greatest tool: imagination.

"Counting Coup," the first historical mystery story I ever wrote, is about a group of people trapped in a remote southwest Montana railway station by hostile Cheyenne warriors during the Cheyenne Uprising of 1873. I used the three-part formula laid out above.
  1. While pursuing my Master's in history, I'd done a ton of research on the western railroads, their expansion, and its impact on Native American tribes in the region, including the Cheyenne.
  2. I've visited southwestern Montana many times, and the country is largely unchanged, so I had a good visual image to work from.
  3. Imagination!
An example of the end result:

Wash and Chance made it over the rise and and into the valley of the Gallatin just ahead of that storm. It had taken three days of hard riding to get to the railhead, and the horses were all but played out.

The entire last day finished setting their nerves on edge. What with the smoke signals and the tracks of all the unshod ponies they'd seen, there was enough sign to make a body think he was riding right through the heart of the Cheyenne Nation.

Stretching away to north and south below them lay the broad flood plain of the Gallatin. The river itself meandered along the valley floor, with the more slender, silver ribbon of rail line mirroring it, running off forever in either direction. The reds of the tamarack and the golds of the aspen and the greens of the fir created a burst of color on the hills that flanked the river on either side, their hues all the more vivid when set against the white of the previous evening's uncharacteristically early snowfall. 

"Suicide Blonde," another of my historical mystery stories, is set in 1962 Las Vegas. Again, the formula.
  1. I did plenty of research on Vegas up to and including this time when Sinatra and his buddies strutted around like they owned the place.
  2. I lived and worked in Vegas for a couple of years and have been back a few times since. I am here to tell you, Vegas is one of those places that, as much as it changes, doesn't really change.
  3. Imagination!
Which gets you:

Because the Hoover boys had started tapping phones left and right since the big fuss at Apalachin a few years back, Howard and I had a system we used when we needed to see each other outside of the normal routine. If one of us suggested we meet at the Four Queens, we met at Caesar's. If the California, then we'd go to the Aladdin, and so on. We also agreed to double our elapsed time till we met, so when I said twenty minutes, that meant I'd be there in ten. We figured he had a permanent tail anyway, but it was fun messing with the feds, regardless.

The Strip flashed and winked and beckoned to me off in the distance down Desert Inn as I drove to Caesar's. It never ceases to amaze me what a difference the combination of black desert night, millions of lights, and all that wattage from Hoover Dam made, because Las Vegas looked so small and ugly and shabby in the day time. She used the night and all those bright lights like an over-age working girl uses a dimply lit cocktail lounge and a heavy coat of makeup to ply her trade.

Howard liked Caesar's. We didn't do any of the regular business there, and Howard liked that, too. Most of all, Howard liked the way the place was always hopping in the months since Sinatra took that angry walk across the street from the Sands and offered to move his act to Caesar's. Howard didn't really care to run elbows with the Chairman and his pack, he just liked talking in places where the type of noise generated by their mere presence could cover our conversations.

You may have noticed that in both examples used above I've interspersed description of the setting with action, historical references and plot points. That's partly stylistic and partly a necessity. I rarely find straight description engaging when I'm reading fiction (in the hands of a master such as Hemingway, Chandler or Macdonald that's another story, but they tend to be the exception), so I try to seamlessly integrate it into the narrative. Also, since I'm attempting to evoke a setting that is lost to the modern reader in anything but received images, I try to get into a few well-placed historical references that help establish the setting as, say, not just Las Vegas, but early 1960s Las Vegas. Doing so in this manner can save a writer of historical mysteries a whole lot of trying to tease out these sorts of details in dialogue (and boy, can that sort of exposition come across as clunky if not handled exactly right!).

So there you have it: an extended rumination on the importance of one of the most overlooked and powerful tools in your writer's toolbox: setting. The stronger you build it, the more your readers will thank you for it, regardless of genre, regardless of time period.

Because setting is both ubiquitous and timeless. Easy to overdo and certainly easy to get wrong. But when you get it right, your story is all the stronger for it!