Sunday, November 24, 2019

Ah-ha Moments

A friend asked me recently how I know when something in a story is going to work. She was searching for that kind of ‘ah-ha’ moment, as if I would recognize it the minute it appeared on my computer screen. She explained that her process is to plot everything out long before she begins to write a scene.

I pointed out that she is writing, by setting up these steps in her outline. She brushed my comments aside.  “But you don’t do that. So how do you know?”

“I can’t tell you.”

“Can’t or won’t?”

“Can’t. It not something I can explain. It just happens.”

I went on to say that it could be inspiration or a subconscious feeling that the characters may point me in the direction it should take. She asked for an example and I shared a bit from the book that’s under development.

The original idea was for Leo Agonasti, the retired gangster who appears in the second Chene book, to be charged with a murder that happened almost twenty years ago. In the first pass, Agonasti is taken into custody by the FBI and tells his attorney ‘Get Chene’.  That’s where it starts.

But the more I kicked this around, the less I liked it.  The idea that he would just willingly turn himself into the feds, who had always been trying to find some reason to arrest him and pump him for information about illegal activities, didn’t feel right. Agonasti is a smart guy, one who understands how law enforcement works. He didn’t survive a career in organized crime and orchestrate a clean separation when he wanted to retire by following the rules. So why should he go quietly when they come knocking?  That realization was enough of an ‘ah-ha’ moment to take the story in a brand new direction. 

And so far, it’s working.

But there’s a long way to go with that story. As it goes, I’ll keep watching for those ah-ha moments.

(If I were casting the role for the movie, Pierce Brosnan would be a great fit for Agonasti)


Here’s an excerpt from “Your Turn to Die”.  In this scene, Chene and Suarez, one of the new additions to the detective squad, are visiting with Leo Agonasti and his associate, Maximo Aurelio.  Chene is hopeful these two can shed some light on their investigation into the murder of businessman Kyle Morrissey.

Leo Agonasti liked to say he was a student of life. He had a love of history, particularly anything to do with the Detroit area since the city was settled by the French. But he was most knowledgeable about the twentieth century. If it happened in Motown, he knew about it. From crooked labor unions to shady politicians, Leo could tell you stories. He was leaning against the cabin door, watching our approach. Max must have called him as we were on the way. Agonasti was not the type to sit placidly waiting for anyone’s arrival. He looked fit, with the solid upper body of someone who had done his share of manual labor. He squeezed my hand firmly and looked me straight in the eye.

“It’s been too long, Jeff. Far too long.”

“Nice to see you, Mr. Agonasti. You’re looking well.”

He clapped me on the shoulder. “When are you going to call me Leo? After all these years, there’s no need for formalities.”

“Old habits die hard.”

Agonasti waved me into the salon on the rear of the yacht. Max followed. I hesitated, watching Suarez step aboard. Agonasti was about to have some fun.

“You must be Ramon Suarez. Welcome aboard, Detective. You had a good track record with the Detroit P.D. How do you like working with the State?”

“It has its moments,” Suarez said. Instinctively he grabbed the door frame for support. I wondered if this was the first time Suarez had been on a boat of any kind.

“Come, sit down. How about a drink?” Agonasti gestured at Max, who was bringing a pitcher of iced tea out of a small refrigerator. “Unless you’d like a beer, Ramon?”

“Tea’s cool. I’ll pretend its tequila.”

“Quite a yacht, Leo,” I said. “This one new?”

Max handed me a glass. “We picked it up a few weeks back. Haven’t had the chance to really break it in yet. The captain I hired isn’t very reliable.”

“A damn shame,” Agonasti said. “It’s a perfect day for a ride.” He hesitated briefly. “What do you say, Jeff? Want to take it for a shakedown cruise?”

“Why not?”

I moved to the wheelhouse and checked the switches. After activating the blower to air out the engine room, I kicked in the twin diesels and the generator. Max quickly walked to the bow and unhooked the connector to the shore power. Once he’d secured it to a wooden piling, he released to bow line from a shiny chrome cleat. He draped this over the same spot, making it easy to reattach upon our return. A glance over my shoulder confirmed Agonasti had done the same thing with the stern line. Max released the spring line, which secured the boat at its midpoint.

Suarez appeared at my elbow, looking a bit green. “You have any idea what the hell you’re doing?”

“Trust me.”

“Last time somebody said ‘trust me’, I found out it means ‘fuck you’ in Yiddish. And I got shot in the ass.”

I eased the engines into reverse. Once clear of the dock, I spun the boat on its heel by putting the right engine, known as the starboard side, into forward and leaving the left or port engine in reverse. When I had the right angle, I flipped the left engine into forward and we pulled out of the marina and eased toward the lake. Beyond the marina’s break wall, I gave the throttles a little more kick and pointed her out toward the middle of the lake.

“Care to try it from the bridge?” Agonasti jerked his thumb above us.

“It would be a shame not to.”

I stepped aside and Max took the wheel. Agonasti led me to a chrome ladder at the rear of the salon that took us up to the fly-bridge. From there we had an unobstructed view of the lake. We settled into a pair of captain’s chairs behind an identical set of controls. Agonasti tapped the horn once. I felt the wheel wiggle beneath my hands, a signal that Max was relinquishing the controls. I nudged the throttles and felt the wind tug at my clothes. This far out on the lake, no remote microphones would be effective. Although he was retired, I was sure Agonasti was still under the surveillance of some kind of a task force.

“What do you think, Jeff?”

“Hell of a ride. Why don’t you run it?”

He shrugged his thick shoulders. “Never learned how. Figured it was easier to have someone else who feels comfortable at the helm. I wouldn’t have been able to back her out of the dock.”

“Just takes practice.”

“It wouldn’t be right if I had trouble handling it. May give people the wrong impression. And I certainly don’t want that.”

I thought about that. Pity the fool who joked about Agonasti’s inability to dock a boat. If the old rumors were true, he’d find a dozen painful ways to make the person regret their comments.

“So how’s the homicide investigation coming?” Agonasti had carried the tea up with him and was twirling his glass slowly, watching the ice cubes roll around the rim.

“Typical. Chasing down leads, talking to his contacts. Same old song and dance.” I shifted my eyes from the water to him. “You ever meet?”

Agonasti merely shook his head.

“Then why the interest?”

“I’m interested in many things, especially when someone is brutally murdered. A family man, too.”

“Are you referring to that in the traditional sense?”

His face split into a wide grin. “That’s what I like about you, Jeff. Always straight to the point. No pulling punches.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

             Again the grin. “See what I mean. No, Morrissey was not connected with any organized crime syndicate.”

“So there must be some reason his death peaks your interest?”

“I like old movies. Kick it up a notch.”

I increased the throttles to three-quarter speed. He’d tell me what was on his mind when he was ready. I leaned back in the chair and sipped my tea, one hand loosely on the wheel. I wondered how Suarez was fairing down below. A glance over my shoulder proved we were alone. Max was probably watching him get his sea legs.

We continued running northeast, across Lake St. Clair in the general direction of Port Huron. Agonasti gestured toward the right and I fell into the wake of an ore freighter that was headed in the same direction.

“Morrissey’s murder appeared to be an execution,” Leo said. “It made me curious. I’ve asked around. No one had any dealings with him. Whoever killed him might have been attempting to steer the investigation away and focus it on the family.”

I shrugged. “Makes sense. Shot at close range. Not as messy as through the ear, but just as effective.”

“Killers today don’t have the stomach for a signature hit. They don’t want to get their Guccis dirty. Most hits nowadays are as subtle as a drive-by shooting.”

“So you wanted to make sure we don’t waste our time searching for any organized crime connections?”

Agonasti’s head bobbed slowly on his shoulders. “Trail’s getting cold, Jeff. Whoever did this to Morrissey shouldn’t get away with it. Guy was a straight arrow. Wife and kids and all that jazz.”

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Music this week comes from Paul Simon.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

The Unexpected

In books as well as in life, there are times when something totally unexpected happens. It can be when a past relationship between two main characters is revealed, which helps explain their interactions and attitudes. Or the discovery of new evidence in a mystery that can help narrow down the suspects.  Or the arrival of a new character who has always been on the periphery of the story.

Last week a conversation brought to mind my time facilitating a writer’s workshop a few years ago.  Occasionally I would create a prompt for the group, giving them a particular component to focus on and writing a few paragraphs of a scene to get them started. It was always a blast to see the results when they returned for the next session. Some were so well done they left us begging for more. 

One of my favorites was about the unexpected.  In that prompt, I set it up where a guy has prepared dinner, getting everything ready to woo his new girlfriend. The mood is set with candlelight and romantic music when there is a knock at the door. Expecting his lady friend, he is dismayed to discover his ex-girlfriend on the landing, demanding his attention.  There were a number of great scenes that stemmed from that. 

When working on my stories, it’s always in the back of my mind that a little twist is needed. Sometimes I plot it out well in advance. Often, it’s a spur of the moment inspiration. But whatever the method, it always helps to keep the story going.

Here’s an example of the unexpected from “Fleeing Beauty”.  In this scene, Jamie and her friend Ian are just finishing up a day’s work at her late father’s studio, when there is a knock at the door.

It was after four o’clock when I decided we’d done enough for one day. All told twelve crates had been opened, their precious cargo revealed to the light of day for the first time in over two decades. Ian was sweeping up the last of the straw. I had just sent the video files to my home computer and to Lincoln Banning when someone knocked on the outer door. Quickly we turned off the lights in the storeroom and swung the secret door shut. Ian was closing up the roll top desk as I went to open the door. Releasing the lock, I pulled the door open partway, letting it rest against my shoulder. It’s a good thing I did that, because what greeted me was so stunning that I almost fell over.

She was standing there with a gentle smile on her face. Wearing modest heels, she was still an inch shorter than me. Her hair was the color of sand, with a few blonde highlights sprinkled in for good effect. She was wearing a linen suit in an ivory color, the skirt not quite reaching her knees. The silk blouse shimmered in the light, giving me the impression she was sparkling with energy. Her face was free of wrinkles or shadows. Her makeup was perfect. Even from three feet away, I caught a whiff of her delicate perfume.


“Well, Jamie, are you just going to stand there or are you going to invite us in?” Her voice was strong, with just a hint of annoyance.

I hadn’t noticed there were other people behind her. Lincoln Banning and Helen Gaines flanked her.  Drawing a breath, I pushed the door open and stepped back. Vera reached up and put her hands on my shoulders. She leaned close, but not near enough for an embrace and did the air kiss routine toward each cheek. Then she swept past me into the room, trailing the attorneys. She canted her head in Ian’s direction.

“And who is this handsome young man?” she cooed.

Ian wiped his palms on the back of his shorts and came forward. I introduced him to everyone. Vera was sizing him up like a pony at the rodeo.

“I didn’t think you were coming to town for a week or more.”

Vera fluttered a hand at me as if she were shooing away a pigeon. “Well, once my friends heard about the discovery, they insisted on expediting our trip. We flew to Hawaii. Another friend suggested I use his private jet to come to the mainland. I’d forgotten how tedious international travel can be.”

“We did try and call you, Jamie,” Lincoln Banning said, “as soon as I knew Vera was in town. I left several messages on your phone.”

“It must be in my bag. We’ve been busy.”

Vera walked around the studio, stopping in front of the worktable with the lone sculpture on it. Slowly she brought one hand up to her mouth. No one said a word as she stared at it. Vera reached out and delicately ran her fingers over the figures.

“I remember this one. The lines were giving him fits. He just couldn’t seem to get it right. Peter was such a perfectionist.”

“That he was,” Lincoln said. “Even after all these years under wraps, this is an amazing piece of art.”

Vera spun to face me. “Linc said there are many more. I’d like to see them.”

“They are in the storeroom.” While we’d been talking, Ian moved over by the hidden switch. I nodded and he unlocked the door and swung the panel open. 

Vera led the way. I followed with Lincoln right beside me. Helen Gaines walked a few steps further back.  Ian stayed by the doorway. 

“Linc said you are making a catalog,” Vera said, speaking softly.

“We are.”

I explained the process and the videos we had taken so far. The group slowly made its way down the aisle, taking the time to examine each piece. Helen remained out of the way. I glanced over my shoulder in her direction. Her face was etched in wonder. I could relate. 

“There are so many,” Vera said breathlessly. “I had no idea.”

“We’ve opened nineteen so far. We’ll resume work on Monday. If we can stay on schedule, we should have them all open and ready for the experts in two more weeks.”

“Once we have everything documented, I can have the videos professionally edited and we can make a very detailed catalog,” Lincoln said. 

We moved back out to the studio. Ian switched off the storeroom lights and secured the door.  Once again we gathered around the worktable. I was studying Vera. It looked like her energy was fading. 

“I’m afraid jet lag is catching up with me,” Vera said. “I’ll have Benjamin drive me out to the hotel.”

“Who’s Benjamin?” I asked.

Vera gave me a gentle smile. “He’s the limousine driver. My friend insisted that I use his private car and driver while I am in town. I’m staying at the Hotel Baronette in Novi. Come for dinner. Eight o’clock. The hotel has an excellent restaurant.”

All I could do was nod. With the two attorneys flanking her, Vera made her exit. Ian appeared alongside me.

“Are we all done, Jamie?”

“Yes, I think we’ve just been dismissed.”

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Music this week comes from Bruce Springsteen.