Lessons from a Bad Neighbor

He’s long gone. In fact, I wrote the first draft of this post back in September and just now rediscovered it in my files. Some of these lessons I learned from enduring a bad neighbor for six weeks were things I already knew conceptually, but experiencing them emotionally last summer was enlightening for me as a writer.

Shortly after Bad Neighbor’s arrival in our lovely old adobe apartment building, which is entirely non-smoking, even the courtyard, I began to smell tobacco smoke leaking through the gaps around the kitchen and bathroom pipes. Second-hand smoke causes low-level carbon monoxide poisoning, and opening windows and running fans isn’t enough to clear it out. He smoked so much, I got headaches and dizzy spells and had trouble concentrating, and the stink often woke me up in the middle of the night. To make it worse, he seemed to be a drug dealer. People stopped by for five to ten minutes at all hours. He left his outdoor light on all night for them. When one of my good neighbors confronted him (“Are you selling dope?”), Bad Neighbor threatened to knock his head off. Bad Neighbor accused me of harassing him when I complained, and he was furious with me for getting him evicted by telling our landlord about the smoking. Not that Bad Neighbor let the eviction notice cramp his style. After a month, instead of leaving, he moved his equally hostile, smoking girlfriend in with him. They had no lease. They paid no rent. They didn’t move out until a few days before he had to appear in court. Meanwhile, I acquired some insights.

One: How con artists work. This squatter took advantage of my kind, soft-hearted landlord with a sob story about why he couldn’t get a place to rent or afford a deposit and why he could only pay for one week at a time. My landlord was new in town. If he’d been in the rental business here longer, he might have heard about this guy’s history as a serial evictee, sort of a professional squatter. Bad Neighbor found a perfect mark. I suspect he knows the law as well as anyone and exploits it to make sure he can live rent free, utilities included, as long as possible.

Two: Why people could get the urge to be amateur sleuths. My good neighbors and I were convinced there were drug sales going on, and so was the gentleman next door. But we couldn’t prove anything. The temptation to ask each of the five-minute visitors what they were doing was strong. So was the desire to find a way to prove Bad Neighbor was not just a squatter but a criminal. I could see it especially in the old soldiers—a Korean War vet and a Vietnam vet. They wanted to be brave and see justice done.

Three: How frustration could drive people to act on their own when the law can’t move swiftly enough to suit them. In my best moments, I sent positive intentions toward Bad Neighbor, visualizing him quitting smoking, acquiring a conscience, and paying what he owed, but at other times I fantasized having superpowers that would make him wander off in the desert and fall into a canyon, never to be seen again. Not that I would actually have hurt him, but … I got it. How a peaceful person—I’m a yoga teacher, for Pete’s sake!—could wish harm on an enemy.

One of my good neighbors suggested I might break with my “no murder, just mystery” approach and write a story in which Bad Neighbor dies. Good idea, but I plan to write it without murder. I’m thinking of giving one of my recurring characters such a neighbor. In keeping with an ongoing theme in my series, she could recruit help from someone with paranormal powers, taking justice into her own hands. Actions like that have a way of biting back. I like this plot idea, but I have two books to revise before I can get to it.

5 thoughts on “Lessons from a Bad Neighbor

  1. Great post, Amber! And I believe it is these encounters that help mystery or murder mystery authors get into the minds of the characters we write. I had something happen in my life that caused me to write my first two murder mystery books way back. I killed the same person-figuratively- twice and it felt sooooo good! And seeing people who do push the limits of the law do help to write characters.

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    1. Thanks. I wrote the first paragraph and have a lot of ideas, but it’s going to be book nine in my series. Books seven and eight both need a lot of revision before I can let myself get wrapped up in it.

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