Tuesday, February 27, 2018


 Erica, my amateur sleuth, is a historian – and there is a case to be made for historian resembling detectives, too. All of my books have a contemporary mystery and also a story line about the history of the setting. It might be a direct plot connection, a reflection of the modern story, or a geographical connection that Erica happens to stumble across an old and a new mystery in the same place.

            All the books begin with a neighborhood and they all begin with some research. I actually love doing research and there is a tiny bit of truth to the idea that the mystery series is an excuse for me to indulge my inner history geek. I head over to the Brooklyn Collection at the public library and ask to see everything they have on the setting of the new book. 

 I know that if I browse through the relevant section of the shelves, and through a mountain of newspaper clippings, I will come across something that says, "Here!  Here is a story." Lights go on in my imagination.

There is a pitfall, though, beyond the obvious one of using research to procrastinate on actually, you know, writing a real book.  Sometimes I have a tough time corralling all those delightful oddball bits into a solid story. Too many lights go on. This not a small problem.

            For the work in progress, the place is Brooklyn Heights, a quaint and scenic neighborhood which is the original suburb of Manhattan, right across the river from Wall Street. Yes, the views are spectacular. When it was developed the crossing was done by ferry; there were no bridges yet.      

It was also the site of part of the Battle of Brooklyn (yes, G. Washington was there), the home of the Brooklyn Bridge (yes, and people who “sold” it), the very first historic district in New York (yes, the fearsome Robert Moses was there), probably the beginning of the urban renovation movement (all those lovely townhouses). Shall I go on? 

  Walt Whitman worked there.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses owned large chunks of property, now worth many millions.  Truman Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s and part of In Cold Blood there. WH Auden, Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten – and famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee! – shared a house there.

            Famous and colorful characters?  Check. A genteel surface with heated conflicts lurking below? Check that too.  Death defying engineering? Check tragic history of bridge building. Real estate battles? But of course.  Always, in Brooklyn. 

            Though a surprising conflict jumped out at me early on, finding a way to turn it into a coherent plot has taken a lot of wrong paths. Research, which usually gives me what I need to start a book, this time just kept giving me everything I didn’t need.  I even used some of it for a story that appeared in the recent anthology Where Crime Never Sleeps; Murder New York Style #4. Suitably enough, it’s called “Legends of Brooklyn.”

            I think I’m there now. The answer is one any experienced writer should have known but the delightful oddball information kept distracting me.  The key question is – it always is - what does it all mean to the characters?   Erica and the interesting people she has met in the course of her own research?

  Some time next year there should be a new book about Erica and a neighborhood with an excess of stories.

1 comment:

Jilly said...

Thanks Truss. I love hearing how writer develop their stories.