Gumshoeing

Last month, I wrote about the tools of the trade that I use to create my fiction. That got me thinking. What tools do my fictional characters use?

When I was writing Kindred Crimes, the first in my series featuring Oakland private eye Jeri Howard, I wasn’t using a cell phone, and neither was Jeri. I was using a computer, a clunky dual disk drive model, and I thought it was a major step up from the electric typewriter.

Jeri and I have made our way into the 21st century. She uses her cell phone for everything from directions to looking up information, and for talking with people, of course. As for computers, like many real-life private investigators, she uses them for research. In addition to news archives, there are many paid databases that one can access by purchasing a subscription. Jeri also uses government records that are available online.

For example, in the book I’m writing now, The Things We Keep, Jeri goes onto the California Department of Justice website to check the missing persons database. I did this myself, so I could describe it accurately. And it certainly gives flavor to the narrative.

But it isn’t all Jeri at the keyboard, looking at the screen, or Jeri on the phone, interviewing someone. That would be boring for the reader and the writer. At one point in Water Signs, Jeri says:

I could just as easily interview Rachel Leverson over the phone, but whenever possible, I prefer to do so in person. That allows me to gauge reactions, facial expressions and body language. It also gets me out of the office.

Interviewing people face-to-face gives Jeri more information than pixels on a screen. In the world of my fictional private eye, there’s no substitute for shoe leather. But it really does help that Jeri can make a call without looking for a phone booth.

Kay Dexter is the protagonist of my novel The Sacrificial Daughter. She is a geriatric care manager and has access to all the tools that software and the Internet can provide. Her clients are mostly elderly people and their families.

Once again, there is no substitute for face-to-face contact. A client might be minimizing problems or feelings and Kay might not pick up on that over the phone, but she can usually read people when she’s with them. As for those online tools, there’s a scene in the book when Kay is doing research in the library at the local historical museum. She’s looking at files and photocopies, because not all the information the museum has is digitized. Those online records frequently go back only so far.

Kay uses her powers of observation as well. Some valuable items have gone missing from a client’s home. While doing an errand for another client, she visits a local antique mall:

I turned and glanced at the glass display case on the booth’s back wall. What was that? I moved closer to the case. On the top shelf, I saw a sterling silver sugar and creamer. They looked exactly like the ones I’d seen in the china cabinet at Betty’s house, right down to the floral detail on the handles.

I also write a series of historical mysteries set in the early 1950s, featuring Zephyrette Jill McLeod. Computers? Not happening there. For Jill to solve mysteries onboard the train, and off, it’s strictly person-to-person sleuthing. Jill’s job, when she’s aboard the California Zephyr, is to observe the passengers and help with their needs. Jill notices things and she files them away in her mind, ready to access the information. Along with her ability to talk with people and tease out information, these are her biggest assets as a detective.

And that’s gumshoeing, on the ever-changing streets of the Bay Area where Jeri sleuths, to the fictional mountain town where Kay oversees clients, to Jill’s shiny train as it streaks across the west.

Tools of the Trade

Back in the ancient times when I was first published, a question I frequently got at author events was whether I did my writing on a computer. Something about that query hinted that the person asking the question hoped that, if one somehow picked the right gizmo, it would function as the magic wand and one would be a successful writer.

I was always quick to disabuse aspiring writers of that notion. My answer was usually along these lines:

Hey, it doesn’t matter what tools you use. What matters is that you write. Get those ideas out of your head and onto paper, computer screen, whatever.

An aside – best advice I ever heard came from Edgar-award-winning author Julie Smith: Don’t get it right, get it written.

Still, it’s great to have the tools of the trade. Updated tools, if that’s what you want.

I’ve always used pen, pencil, and paper. Still do. Though more about that later. I am old enough that for me, graduating from a manual typewriter to a correcting electric typewriter was a big honking deal. And when I finally got a computer, well! Dual disk drive and those big five-inch floppy disks. That was an even bigger deal. No more retyping pages over and over and over again when I made changes to the manuscript.

Then there was that dot matrix printer, the one that had strips and sprockets on both sides of the page. The pages had to be separated and the strips torn off. Those were the days!

At the time, I had a rotund gray cat named Gus. He thought it was great fun to raid the wastebasket and festoon the apartment with all those strips. I mean, the whole apartment. Out of the office, down the hall, and all over the living room.

Getting the laser printer was a step up, even if it did take up a lot of space and I could barely lift the damn thing.

How things changed over the years. The huge desktop and monitor gave way to the smaller desktop and the flatscreen monitor. Eventually came the leap to the laptop. Which certainly freed up more space on my desk.

When the laser printer died of old age, I replaced it with an inkjet. Much smaller, and I could lift it without straining my back. Even the inkjet that I replaced a couple of years back was much heavier than the one I have now.

Those big floppies became smaller disks. Then came the hard drive, with lots of space. Flash drives! Nowadays, there’s the cloud – iCloud, Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive.

Back in July 2019, I was walking down a sidewalk in front of the Oakland Main Library. Uneven sidewalk, and next thing I knew, I was face down on the pavement. I drove myself to Kaiser, more concerned about the skin scraped off the palms of both hands than I was about the increasing pain in my left arm. Sure enough, I’d fractured my wrist. Six weeks in a cast and two of those in a sling. I had a book due in September.

I’d never learned the Dragon software, where one speaks into a mike and the voice translates into words on the computer. Microsoft Word has a similar function but it needs training and I don’t have the patience for that, particularly when I’m on deadline. I wound up dictating lots of notes into my iPhone, finding the voice recognition to be much better. Hello, Siri! But I found out that dictating a work of fiction doesn’t work very well for me. I am definitely a fingers-on-keyboard writer.

These days, I’m writing away from home, more than I used to. Even at home, I frequently get away from my desk in the office to camp out on the sofa, with my laptop, lap desk, and my black cat Clio, who doesn’t understand why she can’t get on my lap.

I also have two terrific tools that work at home or away. The Microsoft Surface Go is my baby computer. It’s a small tablet with a cover that’s also a keyboard. The only problem is that I use a separate ergonomic keyboard at home and on my Go, I’m forever hitting that Caps Lock key.

My other favorite tool is a ReMarkable 2. It’s a tablet with a stylus. I can write in longhand on the screen and can even erase what I’ve written. I can send something from the big computer to the ReM2 and edit in longhand. I can sketch out the street map of my fictional town and draw a chart or diagram to show how characters, plot points, and settings are linked.

It’s a 21st-century update of my trusty lined notebook and pen. I love it and find it quite useful, using it at home and when traveling.

It’s always about the writing, of course. But the tools of the trade can really make it so much better.


The rights to the four most recent Jeri Howard books (Bit Player, Cold Trail, Water Signs and The Devil Close Behind) reverted to me when Perseverance Press closed its doors in the summer of 2021. As a tool of the trade to increase sales, I’ve have just republished those four ebooks with new covers that mesh with the nine previous books. Plus a box set, The Jeri Howard Anthology, Books 10-13.

Now if I can just get cracking and finish Jeri Howard #14, The Things We Keep!

Let’s Begin

January. The beginning of the new year seems an appropriate time to talk about beginnings. Such as, how to begin a novel, or story.

Where is the beginning? Is it where the protagonist enters the action? Or at a point deep in the back story, a place that can be glimpsed in a prologue?

The decision of how best to start a writing project is a personal one that varies from writer to writer.

Kindred Crimes, the first Jeri Howard novel, introduces my Oakland-based private investigator. I toyed with several different beginnings and wound up with the traditional private eye opening scene: Jeri meets with her new client in her Oakland office. The man is looking for his missing wife. Seems like a straightforward case. Or is it? All is not as it seems. That much is revealed in the first two paragraphs. And as Jeri delves deeper into the case, she discovers much more.

Man, woman, and child posed in front of a thick green Christmas tree, its branches laden with silver tinsel and gold balls. He stood behind her chair, hands resting lightly on her shoulders. Her blond hair fell in waves past the collar of her red dress. In her lap she held a cherubic toddler. They smiled at the camera, the image of a perfect middle-class nuclear family, caught forever in a five-by-seven glossy.

“When did she leave?” I asked.

The second Jeri Howard book, Till the Old Men Die, took me in a different direction. An earlier version began with a scene in which a woman with a shady past shows up at the history department office at the California State University branch in Hayward, California. The shady woman wants the papers belonging to a professor who was murdered some months ago in what appears to be a random mugging. Upon reading that version, a fellow writer commented that it was a shame reader didn’t get a glimpse of the murdered man while he’s still alive. I obliged, in a brief prologue that gave readers a look at how the man was killed.

I also included a prologue in Take a Number. It wasn’t back story. Instead, it was the only time Jeri meets the man she’s investigating, Sam Raynor. Jeri’s client is in the process of divorcing this abusive man. As he talks with Jeri, he tries to charm her. When she calls him on his bullshit, he reveals his nasty, manipulative personality. The next chapter backtracks, describing how Jeri got involved in the investigation. We meet her client and get some background on the case. The husband has money but known that California is a community property state, but he’s hiding it from his wife.

Then, of course, he winds up dead. His wife is the most immediate suspect, but Jeri discovers a long list of people with motives to kill him. As Jeri says:

Sam Raynor was the biggest slug who ever oozed across my path. Anyone who wanted to kill him would have to take a number and get in line.

With the Jill McLeod series, featuring my traveling Zephyrette in the early 1950s, the first two books, Death Rides the Zephyr and Death Deals a Hand, start out in a chronological fashion, with Jill on one of her train runs aboard the train. The third book, The Ghost in Roomette Four, starts with the ghost. How could I have a ghost and start any other way? It’s late at night and Jill sees something she can’t explain. A spectral presence, or maybe she’s just tired.

I am not seeing this, Jill McLeod told herself. But she was.

Light shimmered at eye level, about ten feet in front of her. The apparition seems to have no source. None, anyway, that Jill could discern. What’s more, she could see through it.

Jill took a step toward the light. It brightened, then dimmed. She took another step. The light flickered and moved into roomette four.

For my recent Kay Dexter mystery, The Sacrificial Daughter, I went back to the client-in-the-office beginning. Kay is a geriatric care manager who helps people care for elderly family members. As the book starts, she’s meeting with a prospective client who is having a difficult time with her mother. This first chapter introduces Kay and her profession and gives the reader an idea of why someone would hire a care manager.

“I’m at my wit’s end,” Sheryl Garvin said.

I could see that.

She had the stretched-too-thin aura of someone who wasn’t getting enough sleep. Her voice sounded tired.

Beginnings. One hopes that they lead to endings. I’ve got a good start on the book I’m working on. Now that January is here, it’s time to get to work and finish it.

Writing the Season

Suddenly it’s December. Holidays. I celebrate, and so do my characters.

Death Rides the Zephyr, the first in the series featuring Zephyrette Jill McLeod, takes place in late December 1952. Jill is leaving Oakland on December 22. The eastbound run of the sleek train known as the California Zephyr is heading for Chicago, due to arrive Christmas Eve. Jill will have a layover in the Windy City, spending Christmas in a hotel rather than with her family. Before Jill leaves, her parents and siblings give her presents, including the latest Agatha Christie book (a Christie for Christmas!).

Her father tucks money in her new wallet. “So you can have a nice Christmas dinner while you’re in Chicago,” he said. “Go to the Pump Room. Your mother and I ate there once, before the war, and it was a real treat.”

When I researched the book, I learned that the Zephyrettes—train hostesses—would have parties for children traveling on the trains, especially during holidays. In keeping with that real life tradition, my fictional Zephyrette Jill hosts a mid-afternoon Christmas party in the train’s dining car. She’s picked up Christmas stockings and candy at Woolworth’s. Now she enlists the help of passenger Mike Scolari, a WWII veteran, to stuff the stockings.

Mike roots around in the bag of goodies and finds:

“Hey, Hershey’s Kisses. My favorite. Did you know there was a shortage of Hershey’s Kisses during the war?”

“Yes, and I really missed them.” Jill loved Hershey’s Kisses, and the little chocolate candies had been in short supply during and just after the war. Rationing of raw materials during that time meant no aluminum foil for the wrappers.

I discovered that tidbit during my research into what brands of candy were popular in the early 1950s. I had to use it!

It’s a great party, by the way. Even the conductor shows up to lead the kids in a chorus of “Jingle Bells.”

But it’s a mystery. It’s winter, the train is traveling through canyons next to a frozen river and rugged mountains covered with snow. A passenger disappears and then Jill finds a body in a sleeper car. We’re into murder-on-the-train territory. Even though Jill’s favorite Christie sleuth is Miss Marple, she will have to use her little gray cells to catch the killer.

One of my Jeri Howard novels features a different take on the holidays. Jeri is an Oakland private investigator. In Nobody’s Child, she looks into a young woman’s death and a child’s disappearance. Jeri feels grumpy, her holiday spirit missing, though she and family members have tickets to a theatrical version of A Christmas Carol. And she winds up seeing the Oakland Ballet version of The Nutcracker twice, which is one time too many. As she puts it, “I’m Nutcrackered out.”

I particularly like a scene where Jeri is in the lower-level lounge of the Paramount Theater in Oakland, where The Nutcracker performances take place: “There seemed to be a large contingent of little girls in frilly dresses and patent leather shoes, pirouetting over the black carpet. One of them grande jettéed right into my shin.”

Jeri searches for information on the dead woman’s past among the East Bay’s homeless community. When she sees A Christmas Carol, the juxtaposition of the homeless people on the streets outside the theater and Dickens’ words ring true—and close to home.

Then there’s this scene, where Jeri visits a house decorated for Christmas:

In the corner at the other end of the sofa, a small pine tree had been festooned with a couple of strands of lights, a meager collection of glass balls, and some homemade decorations, colorful construction paper loops, and popcorn chains made of popped kernels strung on thread. I saw a gray-and-brown striped tomcat sitting on the sofa arm, a blissed-out expression on his face as he gnawed at the popcorn. He’d already managed to pick clean several strands of the chain.

Toward the end of the book, Jeri tracks down Terry Lampert, looking for information on a homeless man who calls himself Rio. Lampert, who knows Rio from their shared past, says he gave Rio a ride. Why? Jeri asks.

“You ever see White Christmas?” he asked. Then he smiled. “Of course you have. Everybody’s seen White Christmas. You remember that scene early on when Danny Kaye asks Bing Crosby why they’re gonna see the sister act? Ol’ Bing says, ‘Let’s just say we’re doing it for a pal in the Army.’”

“And Danny Kaye says, ‘It’s a reason. It’s not a good one, but it’s a reason.’” I smiled back at Lampert. “Is that the only reason?”

The man opposite me shrugged. “It’s a little bit of, there for the grace of God. If I hadn’t met my wife, that could be me, living on the streets.”

It’s a mystery, right? And Jeri’s going to get to the bottom of things. She finds the people she’s looking for, solves a murder, celebrates Christmas with her father, and spends New Year’s Eve with a new fella.

Whatever holidays you celebrate during this time of year, whether it’s winter solstice, Hannukah or Christmas, may you have companionship, wonderful things to eat, and hopes for the future.

Decluttering

My condominium is small. When I first looked at the place nearly 30 years ago, it seemed quite large. Well, it was empty when my real estate agent and I unlocked the door. I remember thinking, wow, all that closet space!

Of course, all the rooms, and the closets, are now full. As my cousin says, stuff expands to fit the space available, plus two boxes.

So, stuff. Too much stuff.

I’ve been cleaning my office as long as I’ve lived here. At least that’s what it feels like. I have a lifetime accumulation of books, paper, and assorted dustcatchers. Some of these have sentimental value, such as books that have been signed and personalized to me. As for the knick-knacks, they too have sentimental value. Then there are those files of newspaper clippings, saved because they that might possibly find their way into a book. They sometimes do. I once clipped a small article from the San Francisco Chronicle and kept it for several years, vowing that I would use it, some day. And I did. It wound up as an important plot point in Bit Player.

I’m such a paper magnet. Through the years I’ve written down story ideas and notes for plots. I still have all those pieces of paper. If I ever get writer’s block, I’ll know which file folders to mine for material.

These days, of course, I can copy the URL of a pertinent article and paste it into the work in progress.

I’ve rid myself of old bank statements and old contracts for books that are no longer in print. Making an effort not to keep anything past a year, unless it’s tax stuff.

Letters, remember those? Missives written before the advent of email? I save letters. The ones from my grandmother are tucked away in a folder, and they are important to me.

What do I save? And what do I throw away? That’s a question Jeri Howard asks in Bit Player, as she sorts through old letters written by her grandmother to solve a decades-old mystery.

Clothes? Since I retired from my day job some years ago, my wardrobe is decidedly casual. I start a donation box and when it gets full, I take it somewhere. Most recently, a local thrift shop. Books go to the Friends of the Library for their book sale.

However, getting rid of stuff is not a matter of opening a large garbage bag and sweeping the offending stuff into the bag. Clearing away clutter is a very personal thing. It involves decisions about what to keep and what to throw away. Sometimes the answer to that conundrum varies, depending on the mood I’m in at the time. Lately, the refrain of, “Maybe I’ll need this something,” is giving way to, “Why am I keeping this?” And that’s a good thing.

I’m not at the “Hoarder” stage yet but sometimes I wonder. At least I got a short story out of the subject. It’s a cautionary tale, called “Pack Rat.”