All posts by Dale E. Lehman

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Clarksville, Maryland: A Wealthy Crossroads

The unincorporated community of Clarksville, Maryland figures in my Howard County Mysteries largely as a crossroads through which characters pass and once or twice meet for lunch.  This mirrors my own experience of it. I’ve occasionally stopped at the McDonald’s on Clarksville Pike (state route 108), and my bonsai club has sometimes held meetings at the River Hill Garden Center.

Those establishments are north of state route 32, much of which is now part of Columbia. Clarksville proper is largely south of route 32 and harbors some of the most expensive homes on the east coast. It’s among the wealthier parts of Howard County, which is itself the second wealthiest county in the United States.

According to the Trulia real estate heat map I sometimes consult when researching story elements, the highest concentration of high-priced homes in Maryland border Washington, D.C.: Bethesda, Potomac, and nearby areas. But Howard County has its share of pricey homes, too. The same heat map shows Clarksville in the midst of a great swath of fairly expensive real estate that arcs from West Friendship near Interstate 70 all the way down to the banks of the Patuxent River. If you browse satellite photos of the area or check real estate listings, you will readily spot multi-million dollar houses.

Yet this rolling land is something of a contradiction. In the midst of expensive housing developments, you’ll find undeveloped stands of woodland and fields actively being farmed. In fact, upscale housing mixes rather freely with nature. In 2004, a local resident even captured a coyote on camera!

All this hearkens back to Clarksville’s beginnings. Today a community of over 50,000, it is named for farmer William Clark, who originally owned much of the land here. His ancestor John R. Clark had immigrated from Ireland in 1790 and purchased John Howard’s blacksmith shop which had been one of the few African American operated blacksmith businesses in the country.

In 1869 the town was connected to Ellicott City by a ten mile privately owned turnpike, which later became part of route 108. Yet by the 1930’s, the population of Clarksville was still only 65, with its key industries being agriculture and limestone mining.

With the creation of Columbia and swelling population in the Interstate 95 corridor, things have changed markedly. Today, retail businesses sprawl near the junction of routes 108 and 32 and considerable farmland has fallen to development, making Clarksville a busy place in spite of its semi-rural setting. You will still find long roads meandering through hills and valleys, flanked by agricultural land and woods, but come around a bend and suddenly you’ll be passing great houses that most of us can’t afford.

And if you happen to stop for a bite at a fast food joint on the north side of route 32, you just might catch a glimpse of Rick Peller and Eric Dumas discussing a case over lunch.

Introducing Laura Koerber

Recently I’ve been reading novels by newer, largely unknown indie writers. By way of helping them along, I’ll be introducing some of them here. These authors are up-and-coming, at varying stages in their development as writers. They may not all have the polish of traditionally published authors, but I think they all have potential and deserve encouragement.

Laura Koerber wrote her remarkable literary debut, The Dog Thief and other Stories under the pen name Jill Kearney.  Dogs and sometimes cats meander through this collection of twelve beautifully told stories. Populated by the infirm, the destitute, and the desperate, these are not pretty tales, but they are riveting. I was hooked right from the start with the bold rescue of abused animals in “The Dog Thief,” and I stayed hooked until, like the little fish in “Circles,” Kearney finally let me go. Her character sketches are drawn with bold lines, bringing to life a collection of pathetic, courageous, beaten, and triumphant human beings living on the fringes of society.

You might find your own life reflected here in some way. Strangely, the dog introduced in the first sentence, Lucky the three-legged pit bull, reminded me of one of my granddogs, who has a bum leg and usually doesn’t put any weight on it. The female protagonist in the final story is 59 years old, like me, and some of her reflections mirror some of mine at this time of life. Koerber has us pegged, it seems. Her stories are more than worth every penny.

I recently asked Laura Koerber a few questions about her writing:

What inspired you to write Echowake?

I was inspired to write the first story, “The Dog Thief” by a series of events involving the rescue of five dogs from a situation much like the one in the book: a backwoods neighborhood of eccentric, hardscrabble people, neglect and abuse of animals, and various efforts, legal and extralegal, to help the animals. That kind of opened a door and out poured more stories. I had not previously thought of myself as a writer. I have a degree in art, and I paint.

Had you published anything previously or since?

I have published three books under my real name and am working on a fourth.

I Once Was Lost, But Now I’m Found is a non-fiction account of the rescue of 124 dogs from a hoarder in Washington state, an amazing story that involves lawsuits, assaults, arrests, protests, and an attempt by the hoarder to run away with the dogs packed in a semi-truck.

I just published Limbo, which is a fantasy about life after death. Actually it’s about souls in Limbo who decide to have a neighborhood block party.

I also published The Listener’s Tale, which is a light, cheerful escapist story for people who want something relaxing to read.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a novel about a mother/daughter relationship.

Where can readers find you?

On my Amazon author pages (Jill Kearney and Laura Kroeber), Goodreads, and Facebook.

Columbia, Maryland: A Man, a Plan, and Detectives

One might say that the heart of modern-day Howard County is the city of Columbia. Before the late 1960’s, it wasn’t. Now it’s the second largest city in Maryland after Baltimore, but then it was wooded country and farmland dotted with a few small crossroad communities. Then came Jim Rouse and his ideas for a planned city based not just on economic factors but on human values.

An unincorporated city and home to my characters Detective Sergeants Corina Montufar and Eric Dumas, Columbia consists of ten “villages” intended to provide a small-town atmosphere. Each village in turn consists of several neighborhoods built around a shopping center (the “village center”). Recreational facilities, a community center, and hiking and biking trails are also found in each.  Many street and place names are taken from art and literature, so when you run across the moniker “Hobbit’s Glen,” yes, that is indeed a tip of the hat to J. R. R. Tolkien.

The central village is the Town Center area, which includes the Columbia Mall and significant business presence. Next door to the mall, the Merriweather Post Pavilion amphitheater plays host to a wide variety of concerts by big-name performers. Three manmade lakes and a variety of parks offer recreational opportunities. The Columbia Association, a citywide homeowners’ association, manages common-use facilities. It also dictates certain details of construction and the overall look and feel of the place. As a former colleagues who lived there once told me, “Yeah, it’s the taste police.”

A curious aspect of Columbia is how hidden many commercial venues are. The idea was to avoid the unsightly clutter of businesses that so often overtakes main thoroughfares in other cities. You can sometimes pass right by a store or restaurant without knowing it’s there. The Chinese restaurant frequented by Montufar and Dumas in my Howard County mysteries is loosely based on a real Chinese restaurant I once visited with some coworkers. The real place was larger and more elegant than the fictional one, which is basically a little storefront eatery, but they were both tucked away out of view.

Columbia is not a cheap place to live. The closer you get to Washington, D.C., the higher the prices rise. That’s why, when we moved to the area in 1995, we didn’t buy a house there. We had five school-age children at the time and needed a house big enough to corral them all. Nevertheless, from the get-go the idea behind Columbia was to provide a community where people of all socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic stripes could live and work and play in close proximity. To some degree, it did achieve that. You’ll find areas of larger and smaller homes, townhouses, and apartments in close proximity to each other, and people of all backgrounds rubbing elbows in the same shopping areas.

I don’t think of Columbia as a city, though. It has the suburban feel of the areas in which I grew up and have lived all my life. Rouse may have wanted to reinvent the city, but in many ways I think he more reinvented the suburbs, sometimes in good ways and sometimes in more questionable ways. I suspect most of the people who live there like it. I’ve only encountered one person who didn’t. Shortly before I moved there someone told me in an online conversation that he hated the place. Its development, he said, destroyed some of the best hunting lands in central Maryland.

But given its proximity to both Baltimore and Washington, development was probably the area’s fate anyway.