Sunday, August 27, 2017

Character Profile: Pappy Cantrell

There's been some grumbling in the squad room. Apparently not everyone is pleased with the attention Jefferson Chene has been receiving.  So it seemed only appropriate that another primary character from "Why 319?" get his turn.   Here's your chance to learn about Captain Prescott "Pappy" Cantrell, the man in charge of Squad Six.

Tell us a little about yourself.

 (takes a drag on his ever present cigarette) Ah’m from the deep south of Tennessee.  After my hitch in the army, Ah moved to Michigan. Ah met a girl from Detroit when on leave. So Ah came here and started workin’ as a policeman for the state.  Ain’t never been married.  Ah’m too restless for it.

How did your background get you involved in this novel?  

More than twenty-five years chasin’ crooks mayhap somethin’ to do with it.  Me and my squad close cases. Keeps da Governor happy.

Who came first, you or the author?

(chuckles loudly) Well, he is ol’ as dirt, so probably was him.  Seems to me he was buyin’ drinks one night and we got to talkin’.  He liked hearin’ bout sum of our cases. He’s awright … for a Yankee.

What’s your greatest strength?   And of course, we want to know the opposite, your greatest weakness.  

(another puff on the cigarette) Ah’m good at pickin’ the best cops for my squad. They all different. But they git it done.  And it bothers me to admit, but Ah’m good at politics. Ah know how the systems works.  My biggest weakness?  Southern cookin’ and pretty women. Though not always in that order.

What is it about this mystery that sets it apart from the others?

Damn killings don’t make no sense. Ain’t no connection ‘tween the three girls. There’s more’n 2,000 square miles in them three counties we cover. And the killer leaves that message on the mirror ‘Why 319?’ The hell is that supposed ta mean?  But don’t y’all worry. We gonna find that sumbitch!

Tell us something about your background that may or may not be revealed in the book?

(chuckles) Y'all sure Chene ain’t gonna see this?  Ah read a lot of legal stuff. Court cases, lawsuits, government shit, stuff y’all might find borin’. And Ah won a boxin’ tourney back in the Army. It weren’t pretty, but it was a win. Ah’m also a pretty good dancer, if it’s real music.

Are you the type of person who always seeks out the company of others?

Ah do enjoy bein’ around a pretty woman or two. It’s hard work bein’ in charge of the squad. We works together to close them cases. But when the day’s over, y’all need some distance.

What do you do to relax after a day of fighting crime?

A thick steak, cooked rare, some fine Tennessee whiskey and… (chuckles) well, y’all figger out the rest.

What’s it like working with Jefferson Chene?

(hesitates and exhales a plume of cigarette smoke, watching it drift toward the ceiling) Chene’s awright. He’s stubborn.  But my daddy learned me long ago, y’all do better havin’ good people doin’ the heavy liftin’.  Chene’s smart. He kinda sees around the corners, diggin’ out the answers. He’s awright…for a Yankee.

Which do you prefer, music or television?
Ah don’t even own a television.  Music works just fine.   Like this one.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

How You Say It

An old creative writing professor once said, ‘it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.’   At the time I didn’t give this tidbit of advice much consideration. But over the years, it’s come back around time and again. This week I got a perfect reminder of that adage.

If you’re familiar with my writing, you probably know that I’m originally from Detroit. The city is famous for so many different things, from cars to music to industry and more.  If you’re from the area, you grow up hearing certain names and sounds that you just assume everyone understands.  But a little history helps.

Detroit was founded by French settlers in 1701 and named by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. 

The name itself means the straits, connecting Lake Erie with Lake Huron. As such, there are many streets around the area whose names have a French pronunciation.  Fascinating, right?  And what does that have to do with this week’s column?

Well, if everything goes right, “Why 319?” will be made into an audio book. I was pleasantly surprised to find out this was an option and even more surprised to have a couple of actors audition to be the narrator. I selected one a few weeks ago and have been trying not to think about how long this process could take. Now that it's a possibility, I'm anxious to have this option available.

Wednesday I received a demo of the first fifteen minutes of the book.  And that’s where my reminder about ‘how you say it’ came to play.   The protagonist in the book is Jefferson Chene.  Anybody familiar with Motown will recognize this as an intersection near downtown and they all know how to pronounce it. Chene sounds like Shane. 

But the actor didn’t know that. I made the mistake of assuming everyone would know how to pronounce such a simple name.  Fortunately, I had the opportunity to make the correction and share a few other bits before he got too far into the recording.  One of the silliest ones is Gratiot Avenue, a major road that rocks through the east side and is mentioned several times in the story.  Gratiot is pronounced grass shit. 

So like the old professor said, ‘it’s how you say it.’  

Here’s a little background music that’s close to the message. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

No Outline Required

Different people take different approaches. Doesn’t matter if you’re talking about life, career paths, culinary efforts or the route to the grocery store. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Imagine how boring it would be if we all did the same things in the very same way. 

Take writing.  There are some very talented authors who are meticulous when it comes to planning out their work. They take the time to diligently plot out each step along the way. Some use notecards, others use a spreadsheet on the computer or a large whiteboard or flip chart. Hey, whatever works.   

But that method is definitely not for me.

Even from an early age, I had difficulty working with an outline. It was too restrictive and made writing almost painful. I remember a nun at the elementary school who required an outline to be written and turned in before we wrote the paper. I cringed. I struggled. Nothing came to light. Images of getting my knuckles cracked by the good sister’s ruler for my ineptitude didn’t help matters. Then inspiration struck.

I wrote the paper first. Got it where it worked and covered all the topics. Then I went back and wrote the outline. That was turned in on schedule and I already had the big project done.  The nun was pleased with both the paper and the outline. So in the long run, everything worked out just fine.
But I still can’t write with an outline.

I find it confining. For me, it’s more natural to come up with an idea for the overall story and maybe a key character or two.  Once I’ve got them settled in, it’s my job to turn them loose. Forget micromanaging. I just trot along beside them and see what happens. And when I write, it’s rare that the story is shaped in chronological order. Very often I’ll have an idea for a scene or some dialogue that will just keep the neurons firing in my brain until the only recourse is to write it. When it’s down on the computer, then I can go back to the story. That’s one of the beauties of technology. I can move paragraphs or pages anywhere, all at the click of a button. Write it in sequence?  No thanks!

Here’s an example from “Why 319?” In this scene, Captain Pappy Cantrell grudgingly reveals his strategy for the three homicide investigations to Sergeant Jefferson Chene. The story is told from Chene’s perspective.

I waited until everyone else filed out of the room. Cantrell let his eyes close as if he were meditating. With the smoke curling up around his head, he looked like something out of a Tennessee monastery. The Art of Zen, courtesy of Jack Daniels.

“Well?” he muttered without opening his eyes.

“When were you going to clue me in on this plan, Pappy?”

“Y’all weren’t ready.”

I didn’t try to keep the anger from my voice. “Bullshit. I’ve been the lead on ninety percent of the investigations we’ve handled for the last three years. You know it. I know it. The whole freaking squad knows it.”

He took a long drag and pulled the cigarette from his lips. “But not everybody likes it.”

I didn’t even have to think about it. “You mean Barksdale. The guy’s a dinosaur.”

“Would that be a triceratops?”

I was surprised he was able to name one, but then, Cantrell could be full of surprises. Like this new plan. “So how do you see this?”

“We split into three teams, just like Ah said. We put Koz with the new girl, Laura. Give them the oldest case, the Wayne County. You and Megan take the Macomb one. Bloomfield will want their girlie working their crime. We stick her with Barksdale.”

“So why didn’t you tell me before?”

“You all right, Chene, but you ain’t no actor. Ah wanted everyone to know this was a surprise, even you. It made your reaction real. You gettin’ pissy ’cause Ah didn’t tell you about it first.”

I considered it for a moment. The old bastard had it down cold. Barksdale would have pitched a holy fit if I’d made the decision to split the team by case and assign him the outsider. He and Megan could barely stand each other. Laura was too new to stick with him. That left the Bloomfield detective. Since the orders were coming down from Cantrell, there was no way he’d argue it. Especially when it appeared that Cantrell did not trust me to make the call. It was a stroke of genius, pure logistical genius. I told him as much.

“’Tweren’t nothin. You might have figured it out in a couple of days.”

“Don’t be so modest, Pappy. You know how to manipulate him.”

“Uh huh.”

It took me a moment to admit the rest. “And me too.”

He nodded slowly. “Hell, Chene, if Ah can’t ever manipulate ya, y’all ain’t no good to me.”

Yes, even though it's been decades since I graced the halls of the Catholic schools, the sight of a nun in a traditional habit can still creep me out. 

For today's musical interlude, here's a classic. Don't try to analyze the lyrics, just enjoy the ride.