Putting Flesh on the Bones

My work-in-progress is a Jeri Howard novel, titled The Things We Keep. In this case, the things that have been kept are bones.

Jeri, my Oakland-based private investigator, is off-duty on a Saturday in October. She’s helping friends inventory the contents of an old house in Alameda. Up in the attic, she pries open an old footlocker to see what’s inside. She finds herself looking down at a skull and a jumble of bones.

Whose bones? How did they wind up in that attic? And why?

It’s my job as a writer to put flesh on those bones.

Each book gets off to a similar start. I have an idea and I go from there, butt in chair and fingers on keyboard. A structure emerges, with a timeline that gets revised over and over before I reach the end.

With each new project there are familiar characters—Jeri, of course, and her family, friends and associates. And there are new ones that give life to the story and setting. At the start, those characters are stick figures—bones, if you will.

Right now, I’m working on a section of the book where Jeri is looking for information on a musician from the 1960s who went missing decades ago. She’s talked to his ex-girlfriend, who seems to be an unreliable source, so much so that Jeri feels the need to get another perspective. She searches out his friend from the old days, when the two men were playing guitar in a rock band. He gives Jeri another version of the missing man’s past and disappearance. Then the old guitarist tells Jeri she really should talk with HIS former girlfriend.

That’s the scene I’m working on now.

What do I know about HIS former girlfriend? Well, not much, at first. I hadn’t even been planning on her as a character, until her ex the guitarist brought her up in conversation. Once she appeared on the scene, I couldn’t even decide on a name I liked, but finally chose one—Anita—that works for now.

I had the bones and gradually I’ve been adding flesh.

Let’s see. Anita is the former girlfriend of a guy who was a musician in San Francisco in 1969, when they all hung out together in the Haight. Probably a hippie, back in the day. Now she’s an old hippie. In years, anyway. I know she left San Francisco and lived in Mendocino for a while. Married? No, never did. But she has a daughter.

She doesn’t live in Mendocino now. She migrated back down the coast to . . . Bodega Bay? No. Point Reyes Station? Yes, that works. It’s one of my favorite places and I’ve been there plenty of times, walking the streets and exploring the shops and restaurants. I can see the storefronts on the main drag even now. And taste the morning buns from the Bovine Bakery.

Besides, it’s really easier—and more interesting—if Jeri Howard can go interview people face-to-face, and that small town in western Marin County is an easy drive.

Aha! She makes jewelry. In a gallery? No, a workspace created from the detached garage at her cottage. It’s a small but comfortable space where Anita brews herbal tea. And she has apples in a ceramic bowl. I can smell them.

Anita sells the jewelry at a local gallery. What kind of jewelry? What does it look like? I’m thinking lots of colorful ceramic and silver beads are involved.

What does she look like? I decided she a mane of curly gray hair. In the past, she may have worn hippie clothes that recall the Summer of Love. But not at her current age. As I just discovered, she’s a grandmother now.

Meet Anita, who now has flesh on her bones—and provides Jeri with vital information she needs if she’s ever going to solve this case.

Unsolved Crimes and Cold Cases

For a writer, there’s something compelling about a crime that’s never been solved, a case that’s still out there waiting for a solution. Since I write fiction, I can resolve the plot myself. Or at least use those old crimes to add mystery to my own writing.

Take the case of the Zodiac Killer. I’m working on a Jeri Howard book, called The Things We Keep. As things are wont to do when you write mystery fiction, a real-life case collides with Jeri’s fictional investigation.

Type “Zodiac Killer” into your search engine and you’ll get millions of hits.

Zodiac Killer Wanted Poster and Cryptograms

Seven known victims, two of whom survived, are attributed to the Zodiac. The murders occurred between December 1968 and October, 1969. Surviving witnesses described the killer as a man in his 30s.

I say known victims, because there are other murders and disappearances attributed to Zodiac, some going back as far as the early 1960s, others in the early 1970s. However, evidence of his involvement in these murders is sketchy and inconclusive.

The killer sent letters to Bay Area newspaper, taunting the police. Some of the letters included cryptograms. One was solved in 1969. One was solved just last year, after 51 years.

After December 1969, communications from Zodiac were sporadic and sometimes considered spurious. Did the killer stop killing, go somewhere else, or die? The police had a suspect but not enough evidence to charge anyone. That person died in 1992.

The case is still open in San Francisco, as well as the other locations where the Zodiac struck. And the California Department of Justice file is also open.

Robert Graysmith’s book Zodiac, the source of the 2007 movie of the same name, is considered the definitive account of the investigations into the murders.

I’m not going to solve this particular puzzle in my novel, but the Zodiac Killer is certainly a looming presence in Jeri’s fictional case.

There’s another unsolved mystery that has fascinated me for decades. From the same era, as it happens.

On March 18, 1969, Thomas Riha vanished. An immigrant from Czechoslovakia, he was an associate professor of Russian history at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He and his wife Hana were in the process of divorcing. She had recently fled their home, claiming that someone was trying to kill her. When Riha disappeared, the house was full of furniture and the table was set for breakfast.

Thomas Riha

The authorities supposedly received assurances that Riha was alive and that he’d left of his own accord. Some people claimed to have seen him in the early 1970s, in Czechoslovakia.

But no one really knows what happened to Thomas Riha, with the possible exception of the CIA, the FBI. And maybe a woman who called herself Galya Tannenbaum.

Galya spun many yarns, claiming to be a secret service agent. She also claimed to know where Riha was. She disposed of his house, car and statuary collection. She was also the beneficiary in the wills of two Denver residents. Both the decedents had died of potassium cyanide poisoning.

District attorneys in Denver and Boulder filed criminal charges against her for forgery. When they searched her Denver house, they found a pound of potassium cyanide—and Thomas Riha’s driver’s license and passport.

Galya had several other names, a prior criminal record for forgery and theft, and a long record of mental instability. In June 1970 a judge found her incompetent to stand trial. She was sent to the state hospital in Pueblo, Colorado.

Eight months later, on March 7, 1971, Galya Tannenbaum committed suicide, using potassium cyanide.

For a mystery writer, this is catnip.

I used a variation of the Riha case in my second Jeri Howard novel, Till The Old Men Die. In that book, a professor at Cal State is definitely dead and Jeri gets involved in finding out who killed him.

Of course, I had to have a mystery woman.

Writing that book scratched the itch, but not entirely. It wasn’t the Riha case, with its echoes of Cold War intrigue and the strange woman who used potassium cyanide. It wasn’t the novel I wanted to write at the time. Real life is messy and sometimes it doesn’t have endings, as a good mystery novel should.

The itch is still there. Thomas Riha and the case of the vanishing professor will figure into a novel sometime in my writing future. I’ve already got a plot in mind!

Revising the Landscape

Real places. For the most part, that’s where I set my novels. When I began writing the first Jeri Howard book, Kindred Crimes, I used Oakland, Alameda, and San Leandro as settings. I’ve lived in the Bay Area of California for decades, and at various times have called those cities home. In that book, Jeri travels to the town of Cibola in the Mother Lode, the old gold mining area along Highway 49. Cibola is fictional but it’s modeled on the towns I encountered there when I took a vacation in that area.

I also write about real places in the California Zephyr books, the places my protagonist Jill McLeod goes when she steps off the train. Alameda, of course, since Jill lives there with her parents. Also San Francisco and Oakland. In the most recent book, Death Above the Line, Jill is Niles, which was at that time (1953) a separate township soon to merge with four other townships to form the city of Fremont.

Downtown Niles

Writing about real places means I pay attention to the landscape as it exists and make every effort to portray it accurately. Although I will exercise the writer’s prerogative. That means if I want to put a café on that corner, I will.

I take field trips from time to time. Most recently, that involved going to the Niles District and walking around to check out what various fictional characters could see from real sidewalks and corners.

The Sacrificial Daughter will be published in mid-February. Protagonist Kay Dexter, a geriatric care manager, is an advocate for elderly clients and their families. The book is set in Rocoso, a city in a county also called Rocoso, located in the Northern Sierra Nevada. It’s the county seat and has a four-year college where Kay’s significant other, Sam, teaches history. There’s a historic narrow gauge railroad that goes up a scenic river canyon to an old mining town called Jermyn. The river itself is known for its Class Five rapids and is popular with rafting enthusiasts. At a midway point are the abandoned ruins of a resort hotel where people still go to soak in the hot springs along Lost Woman Creek.

None of these places exist, except in my imagination. And now, in the pages of my book.

To be sure, anyone who has ever been to Durango, in southwest Colorado, or who has ridden the Durango & Silverton Railroad will recognize their counterparts in Rocoso and the Rocoso & Jermyn Railroad. The landscape and hot springs at Princeton in the Colorado Rockies might strike a familiar chord. The river could be the American or Yuba in Northern California, the Animas or Arkansas in Colorado, or any rugged river where rafters challenge the rapids.

Train above Animas River

The advantage of creating a fictional setting is that I can arrange the streets to suit me, as well as the topography. And most important of all, the history and culture of the place. Kay’s office is located in the former stables behind Rocoso’s historical society and museum, a building that once housed a bordello. That derelict hot springs resort at Los Woman Creek plays a role in the plot. So does the river and the rapids.

That’s what writers do. We revise the landscape to suit our needs, whether it’s putting a nonexistent café on a corner in a real town, or making up a whole county full of towns and populating them with characters.

What a Difference a Lockdown Makes

I’ve been sheltering in place, more or less, since mid-March, when I got back from Left Coast Crime, which turned out to be about 24 hours long instead of the usual long weekend. I flew to San Diego on Thursday morning and the San Diego County Health Department cancelled the convention that afternoon. After rescheduling my flight to Friday morning, I adjourned to the bar. Me and a lot of other attendees. Prosecco helps!

A few days later, the governor issued the first stay-at-home order for California. Aside from my weekly jaunts to do errands and buy groceries, I’ve been—no surprise—staying at home. I did venture as far as Sonoma County at the start of the summer. From time to time, I get together for lunch with fellow authors Marcia Muller and Margaret Lucke, at a nice restaurant where we sit and talk as we eat delicious food. Not happening in 2020. We brought our own lunches and ate while socially distanced on a sunny back deck.

That’s the farthest I’ve traveled, including that jaunt to Berkeley to see my dentist after his office finally reopened. The good doctor wore a face shield and one of those paper suits. He ruefully informed me this was the “new normal.” Right now, normal is my collection of masks in a container near the front door, ready to grab and wear whenever I leave the house.

The lockdown of 2020, which has now spilled over into 2021, did not propel me into cleaning house or decluttering the closets. You know, those things I said I would do if only I had more time. Well, I had more time, but I can put that stuff off another year or so, just watch me.

More time to write, yes. And I used it. I finally finished a book called The Sacrificial Daughter.

I started the book over five years ago, in 2015. It took me a long time to write it because I was also writing books for Perseverance Press.

During that time, I wrote two books each in the Jeri Howard series (Water Signs and The Devil Close Behind) plus two books in the California Zephyr historical series (The Ghost in Roomette Four and Death Above the Line). I was under contract to finish those books by a certain date, so they took precedence.

Once I finished each book, I went back to The Sacrificial Daughter, reading through what I’d already written to get the creative juices flowing again, making decisions about characters, settings and point of view.

When the lockdown came in mid-March, Death Above the Line was on its way through the publication process. Suddenly I had time. My 2020 calendar, full of dates to go to the theater, the symphony, museums, now had page after page of cross-outs. Not going anywhere. At that point, I was already well into The Sacrificial Daughter, about three-quarters of the way, with a good idea of how it was going to end—and how to get there.

I got there. I finished the first complete draft. Then I read and tweaked and polished my way through revisions, with an assist from several readers.

I plan to publish the book myself, in my role as one-half of a publishing company called Bodie Blue Books. Back in the day, my publisher handled all that stuff. Now it’s me, shepherding my new book through formatting, cover design, and copyright.

Come February, I hope, The Sacrificial Daughter will be published, by me, in my role as publisher for Bodie Blue Books.

So I did get something done during lockdown, even if it wasn’t cleaning out my closet.

There’s A Cat in the Christmas Tree!

There are two cats in the Christmas tree photo above.

One is easy to spot. You’ll have to look for the other one. But he’s there.

I love my holiday rituals. That includes decorating my home and putting up a Christmas tree, usually the day after Thanksgiving.

Of course, when one has cats, and I do— Well, if you have cats, you know what I mean. If you don’t, I’ll tell you.

Bodie, an adventurous kitten.

Some cats don’t pay any attention to the Christmas tree. That has never been the case at my house. As soon as I start decorating, my feline companions gather, eagerly twitching their whiskers, as they happily contemplate that big cat toy that appears once a year.

Pearl, who went to the Rainbow Bridge decades ago, would carefully remove the shiny tinsel balls and bat them around the living room. She rarely broke one, unless she batted it into a chair leg.

Then there was Gus, also long departed, but still remembered fondly, especially for this story. One morning as I was getting ready for work, Gus was under the Christmas tree, checking out the presents and making the ornaments jingle and jangle. In a loud voice, I told him to get away from the tree.

To be fair, he did. But he was tangled in a string of lights, so he took the tree with him. He dragged it several feet across the living room, accompanied by the tinkle of broken ornaments.

The following year, I tied the tree to a sturdy piece of furniture.

I love the smell of a real pine Christmas tree. But disposing of the dried-out corpse at the end of the holiday season gives me the blues. The remedy for that was to go with an artificial tree. I bought a seven-footer at a local store’s after-Christmas sale. When I got it home, I put it up, just to see how it looked.

That’s when I discovered it would hold a full-grown cat. The cat in question, Dexter, was midway up the tree, resting comfortably on a branch.

Clio the kitten, perched midway up the tree.

The climbing-the-Christmas-tree baton was passed to Bodie and Clio, brother and sister, who appeared on my patio ten years ago with their mother, Lottie. That year as I put up the tree, the kittens enthusiastically climbed it.

The following year, I set up the tree and was getting ornaments out of the box when I glanced up and saw Clio precariously balancing at the very top. She stayed up there long enough for me to snap a photo.

Yes, that really is Clio at the top of the tree!

She doesn’t do that any more. The tree is smaller and she’s much fatter.

These days the Christmas tree tradition is mostly playing with the ornaments on the bottom and sleeping under the tree. Lottie likes to make a nest out of the Christmas tree skirt and snooze underneath. So do Bodie and Clio, both too big to climb the tree now. At least I hope so!

Bodie sits under the tree.

Happy holidays!

If you put up a Christmas tree, I hope it stays upright.