Saturday, March 31, 2018

Riding with the King

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
Stephen King

That's good advice.   

And I’ve heard it from many wise folks for years. Before I ever considered trying my hand at writing, I was a frequent reader. Mostly mysteries and thrillers, but years ago I became hooked on the fantastic novels by Stephen King.  “Carrie” was good. So was “Salem’s Lot”. But the one that really closed the deal was “The Stand”.

It’s still as clear as if I’d read it this morning. King’s story about germ warfare and the fight between good and evil was fantastic. Early in the book, there was a warning sign that someone was infected with the disease. They would sneeze rapidly three times.  Wrapped up in the story, I read it until the wee hours of the morning, foregoing sleep on a workday.  Later that day, I walked into a fast food joint to grab some lunch. The person in line behind me sneezed three times in a row. Next thing I knew, I was back in my car, shaking and thinking. ‘It’s too late. I’ve caught the bug!’

How’s that for getting into your reader’s head?

Recently I picked up a copy of King’s epic “11-22-63” novel, which blends time travel, JFK conspiracies, the butterfly effect, small town life and history so smoothly that it’s easy to feel like you’re along for the ride.  He doesn’t disappoint with this one, even with more than 800 pages.
When someone asked what I’ve been up to lately, all I could do was shrug. ‘Riding with the King’.  Didn’t have to say more.

Here’s your chance to take a ride with Jamie Richmond.  In this scene from “Fleeing Beauty”, Jamie and her young friend Ian, are checking out the files that were found in her late father’s art studio. Jamie hopes to learn more about her father through his work.

“Did you go through the whole desk?”

I spun around. Ian was at the worktable with the laptop in front of him. I’d been so engrossed in my thoughts I hadn’t noticed him there. He drew a stack of files from the cabinet and began putting them in order.

I swept my hand toward the old oak desk. “Every drawer has been examined.”

“Yeah, but did you look in those little cupboard things?”  He gestured toward the back of the desk where the lid rolled up.

“I’m guessing he stored paper clips and stamps there.”

“Boy, some detective you are. Those could be perfect hiding places for clues.”

I flipped a pencil at him. Ian laughed and caught it. He turned his attention back to the files. With a shrug I began to open the small cupboards.

“Rubber bands in this one, and oh, what a surprise, paper clips. This one has plain white envelopes with his logo on the left corner. And this one here…”

The cupboard was about six inches high and six inches across. When the door popped open, I froze.

“What is it, Jamie?”

I didn’t answer. My voice left me.

Ian appeared beside me. Gently he reached into the cupboard and drew out its contents.  Turning slightly to the side, Ian blew on it, sending a little cloud of dust toward the floor. He wiped the edges with his fingers, then wiped his fingers on his T-shirt. With great care he set it on the desk between my hands.

It was a square box, wrapped in the type of paper you’d use for a child’s party. The paper was faded, yet you could still see the images of colorful balloons floating around a white script that read “Happy Birthday”. With trembling fingers, I picked it up and turned it around, looking at each side as if expecting a clue to the contents.

“Aren’t you going to open it?”

I gulped to get my voice back. “It might not be for me.”

He reached into the cupboard and pulled out a small envelope that had been beneath the package. My name was written across the front of it. I set the box down and worked a fingernail beneath the flap of the envelope.  The front of the card was an explosion of colors, like a fireworks display. Inside was a simple message. “May all your birthday wishes come true. You are the sparkle in my eye, the warmth of my smile, the glow in my heart. Love always, Daddy.”

Ian had stepped back to let me read the message in private. I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand and passed him the note. From the center drawer I pulled a letter opener. Carefully I slit the tape around the wrapping paper.  Inside was a cardboard box. I pried open the lid and slid the contents out.

“It’s a wooden box,” Ian said, peering over my shoulder.

“Not just any box. This is a puzzle box. I used to love to put puzzles together when I was small. Peter would sometimes help me.”  I handed it to him.

He tried to open it without success. He shook the box lightly and we could hear something rattle inside. “So how do you open it?”

“That’s the trick. Some of these boxes require a number of pieces being moved in the right order before the lid slides off. This may take some time.”

“I’m curious what will be inside.”

“Yeah, I’m wondering too.”

 Sometimes it all comes together. I don't know whether the song inspired this column or the other way around, but here's Eric Clapton with this week's tune.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Like Old Friends

Sometimes if you’re lucky, you’ll discover a character in a book who becomes so memorable, you don’t want the story to end.  Yet when it does, if you’re like me, you’ll be scanning the shelves at the bookstore or the local library, looking for other adventures with the same character. If they’re really good, they become like old friends. You can relate to their quirks, their background, their conflicts and challenges just getting through a day. The occasional nod of recognition might happen, with ‘yep, been there, done that’ running through your mind.

These characters can be like old friends.

A few of my favorites include Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers, both from John Sandford’s novels. Add in Penn Cage from Greg Iles, Grayson Pierce from James Rollins, Harry Bosch from Michael Connolly, Spencer from Robert B. Parker and Travis McGee from John D. MacDonald and you’ve got a quick list of go-to guys.

There are times when I create a character and they are just too good to stay on the sidelines. That’s probably what led me to develop a series for Jamie Richmond and another one for Jefferson Chene. They are not satisfied sitting on the sidelines. They want in. Often I’d swear there was an elbow prodding me in the ribs from Chene, or a subtle, whispered ‘don’t forget about me’ from Jamie. Laugh all you want. It happens.

Writing the new story for Jamie recently was reconnecting with an old friend. Part of this was triggered by an idea that crossed my mind while working on the Chene sequel.  So I wrote one scene where Jamie provides information about the victim that could prove helpful to the investigation. One scene led to another. And another. Jamie appears in at least half a dozen scenes throughout the book. It worked well.  

Like an old friend. When you need them, they will always be there for you.

Here’s a scene from “Vanishing Act” where Chene and Jamie cross paths for the first time.

Malone was leaning against a desk, quietly talking with two other people. I hesitated in the background until I caught his eye. He smiled and waved me over and introduced me.

“Jamie, this is Sergeant Jefferson Chene and Detective Megan McDonald. They work with the multi-jurisdictional investigative squad.”

Chene gave me a thin smile and shook my hand. “We prefer Squad Six. It’s a lot less glorified, but it gets the job done.” His voice was low and deep.

“I’ve heard about you,” Megan McDonald said. “You’re the one who cracked the Kleinschmidt shooting. That was good work.”

I smiled at the compliment. “According to Malone, it was just a stubborn redhead with an active imagination. Hope I’m not interrupting anything.”

Chene easily shook his head. “No, we were just on our way across town from Ann Arbor. Thought I’d stop by and pick up the fifty bucks Malone owes me from the Patriots and Broncos game.”

“I told him not to bet against New England, but he wouldn’t listen,” I said.

Malone shrugged. “Hey, I’m a Denver fan. What can I say?”

While the cops bantered, I took a moment to study them. Chene was a light skinned black man, close to six feet in height, with a solid build. His black hair was clipped short. He was clean-shaven, with piercing, dark eyes. He had a short, jagged scar on his left cheek. McDonald was almost looked too pretty to be a cop. She had shoulder length blonde hair and hazel eyes. She was about my height. Her frame was muscular, but she still looked feminine. I had no doubt she could hold her own with the male officers.

“So what does a multi-jurisdictional investigative squad do?” I asked.

Megan gave me a wink. “We catch the bad guys. We can’t leave all the work to the civilians.”

“Most of our cases span different communities,” Chene said. “Sometimes they are in the same county, other times, it can involve several counties.”

“Do you collaborate with the different communities in your investigations?” I asked.

“Well, in some cases we do,” Megan said, “but usually they turn to us to take over the case. Sometimes it’s a matter of manpower or experience. Our boss kind of likes it when we’re left to work on our own.”

“Without the help of any nosy civilians,” I said.

“That goes without saying,” Chene said with another thin smile.

 I looked at him closely. He reminded me of someone, but I couldn’t make the connection. “Your name is Jefferson Chene. Isn’t that an intersection in Detroit?”

Chene nodded once. “Yes, that’s right.”

I waited for him to elaborate, but there was nothing else coming.

Okay, I admit that this song was not on my playlist. But when you're talking about fictional characters who are like old friends, it was a perfect fit.  A tip of the hat to the great Robin Williams.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Editing and Favorite Dates

Any author will tell you that crafting the story is only part of the process. Even after multiple readings and your own attempts to polish the manuscript, that doesn’t mean you’re done. Not by any stretch of the imagination.  

A few weeks ago I submitted “Stealing Haven” the new short story featuring Jamie Richmond to the publisher.  She liked it and a week later I got it back with her comments and edits. Now it was my turn to read over the suggestions, make a few changes and send it back. Done. Yeah, right!

We went back and forth a few times. She had many great ideas, a little addition here, cut this part there. Nothing major. Just a few touches. Like adding spices to a recipe, it makes it that much better.

Working together, we got it done. And just in time too. Because last week I received the contract for “Your Turn to Die” the second book in the Jefferson Chene series.  Excellent news. Now I need to take a deep breath and get ready to work on the editing for that story. The good news is, I’ll be working with the same editors who helped shape “Why 319?”

Here’s an example of editing from “Why 319?”  In the original draft, this was written from the point of view of a third person. Ally, the editor, encouraged me to revise it and use first person. At first I thought she was wrong. But after making the change, I realized how well it worked.

It was almost becoming too easy. They were everywhere. One plain Jane after another kept crossing my radar screen. Some nights it was like shopping for bananas, and they were visible in bunches.

Tonight was one of those nights. It was as if someone were holding up a sign, steering them in my direction. Like right now. Off to the left at one of those elevated stations, where you had to sit on a bar-stool in order to reach the table, were two perfect physical examples of the ideal target. Four women, each in their early to mid-twenties were crowded around the postage stamp-sized table. I ruled two out immediately. They were chunky, flashing lots of cleavage with large breasts. For a nanosecond, I wondered if the flesh was real or the results of surgical enhancement. It didn’t matter. They were unworthy of any further consideration.

But it was the other two who caught my eye. The one on the right was a bottle blonde, which was obvious by the dark roots showing and the dark eyebrows. The other was a brassy redhead. She was tiny, almost doll like. I was in a perfect position to observe her. She was wearing high-heeled red boots that came up over her knee, sassy-looking things that accentuated her legs. Her black skirt barely touched the middle of her thighs, but it might have been longer if she was standing up. She wore a heavy ivory-colored wool sweater that covered her from the throat to the waist. It was loose enough to keep the goodies beneath it a well-guarded secret. With the boots and the short skirt, she was almost too good to be true. And upon reflection, I realized she was.

Her attitude was a turn off. This was a girl who flaunted the little bits she had. As she sat on the stool, swaying to the background music, she kept crossing and uncrossing her legs, putting on a floor-show of her own. Her hands were constantly in motion. Now they were slowly, seductively sliding down her arms, dropping below the table into her lap. They lingered for a moment, then skittered down her legs to tug at the bottom of the skirt. This was no timid child. She was well aware of her body. By the way she was moving, she knew how to use it.

My focus returned to the bottle blonde. This one had potential. Her wardrobe was the polar opposite of the redhead. Loose-fitting slacks, with low heeled shoes that would have been rejected by a nun with an orthopedic condition, she wore a blouse buttoned to the neck and a jacket to help conceal her. The only thing that broke the mold for this plain Jane was the hair color. Upon a closer look, it was blonde highlights swirled in with the natural brown, a shade best described as mousy brown. Perhaps she was letting it grow out after getting it dyed for the holidays. What would she look like, sprawled naked on a bed, unable to resist, unable to stop, unable to do anything at all?

My body began to respond.

My heart rate kicked up a notch. A warm glow started in the pit of my stomach and eased out in every direction. I basked in the tremors of anticipation. My cheeks flushed with beads of perspiration.

Yes, she could very easily be the next one.

But first the stage had to be set. And it was a time for patience. The plans were perfection, which was evident by the lack of awareness of the public or any progress by the police. Those bumblers in blue would never put it together because of the meticulous planning. If by chance they somehow managed to get a clue, the misdirection was already in place. So there could be no deviation from the plan. It had taken weeks of study, of strategizing each and every move. Every step was plotted out. Every move was a smooth, choreographed motion. Every action triggered the next in a series of reactions. Just reflecting on the past efforts was enough to make me smile. The memory of my last victim, her limp body slowly cooling as the life force ebbed away was enough to bring a smile of triumph to my lips.

“What the hell are you grinning at?” Malcolm asked as he stepped up.

“Just thinking about how good a night this will be,” I said.

“I don’t want a bumpy ride tonight.”

I turned and looked him right in the eye. “You got nothing to worry about, man. Everything will be smooth.”

Malcolm hesitated a moment as he studied me, then nodded in agreement. “We can’t ever be too smooth.”

My smile widened. “That’s me, man, I’m too smooth.”

Monday is March 19. In addition to birthdays and anniversaries, that’s one that has special meaning to me. I look at it as ‘three nineteen’ which is part of the title of the first Jefferson Chene mystery.  Since it ties in with Chene so well, I’ll consider that his birthday.   Tell me what’s the best way to celebrate it and you might just win a free copy of the e-book.

This tune is perfect for the task at hand.