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.

Bad Actors

Mysteries, even the lighter ones, touch on the darker side of human nature. There is a wrong to be righted, not just a puzzle to solve. Since I don’t write about murder, I alternate between what I think of crimes of the spirit and actual crimes. The antagonist is usually based on someone who made me angry, created a sense of outrage, or gave me the creeps. In The Calling, Mae Martin encounters a professor who appears to be unethical in his relationships with female students and colleagues, and there’s a dark spiritual power around him as well. Shaman’s Blues starts with missing people, one who may be connected with a ghost, and one who claims to read auras and gives strange advice. She was inspired by someone I met many years ago in Santa Fe and never forgot—because people seemed to believe her, despite the dubious nature of her guidance. The exploitation of others’ spiritual longings and desire for healing is a theme I explore often. Living in New Mexico, where alternative medicine and spiritual seekers are a big part of the scene, I’ll never run out of material. There are many excellent practitioners here, but there are some questionable ones as well.

Because of the hot springs, the land where my home town, Truth or Consequences, is situated was a healing place for the Apaches long before Europeans arrived. Visitors come here now for retreats and to recover their health and peace of mind. I set my most recent book, Death Omen, here, for that reason. Some of it takes place in Santa Fe and on the road, but much of the third act takes place in one of Truth or Consequences’ hot springs spas. The antagonist claims to be a healer and a visionary who can see past incarnations. If she’s not what she says she is, her followers may be risking their lives.

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Shaman’s Blues, book two in the Mae Martin series, is currently on sale for 99 cents.

A Letter from the Antagonist

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For one weekend this past fall, my personal antagonist was Amber in tree finaltechnology. I’ll spare you the whole story. The short version is this: I couldn’t access my work in progress due to various computer issues and I was having severe withdrawal symptoms from not writing all day. It’s as bad as not exercising—I feel strange and incomplete if I go without either for a full day. I had to write by hand.

Fortunately, there’s one thing I always do by hand for each book, and I was at exactly the right point in the work in progress to do it. Before the final version of the plot is set, but after I can see where it’s going, I write the story in the first person from the antagonist’s point of view. No scenes, no dialog, just that character’s voice telling what happened and why. This exercise gives me insight into the complexity of the oppositional characters’ feelings about their actions. It also helps me keep track of events offstage, so I can weave in all the loose ends. Since I never include scenes from the antagonist’s point of view in a book, this process doesn’t have to be polished. All it needs to do is flow.

My mysteries aren’t about murder, so my antagonist characters aren’t villains or killers, though the opposition character in Snake Face comes close. Sometimes they commit crimes; sometimes they manipulate people without being criminal. I noticed, after reading Princeton professor Harry Frankfurt’s concise, humorously titled but serious work of philosophy, On Bullshit, that I tend to cast bullshitters in the antagonist’s role—Charlie in The Calling and Jill in Soul Loss. Maybe, after years in academia, I’ve come to think bullshit is a crime.

During my weekend without a computer, I invited a puzzling and deeply secretive character to tell his story as if he were sitting down and confiding in me. Or I might say, since I ended up with his hand-written narrative, he wrote me a letter. From that document I discovered which clues would need to come next in gradually revealing his story, and what would need to be saved for the end. He told me things I didn’t know about the people who helped him, and surprised me with a revelation of his deepest motive. I’ve recently wrapped up the book, Ghost Sickness, which is coming out in August, and I’m looking forward to doing this exercise with the new work in progress, even without enforced separation from my computer.ghost sickness ebook

*****

 Yesterday, inspired by a power outage, I posted on my other blog about an additional writing-by-hand creative process, the story mandala. https://amberfoxxmysteries.com/2016/07/20/monsoon-moon-and-mandala