Tag Archives: true death

Welcome to Howard County

Fun fact: with over 600 million residents, Baltimore is the largest independent city in the nation. Does that make you scratch your head? When I first moved into the area, it did me. Fortunately, the explanation is simple.

An “independent city” is one that doesn’t exist within the borders of any county. Baltimore County bends all around Baltimore City, enclosing it like a cocoon, except for at its southern tip, where the city abuts Anne Arundel County. The city of Baltimore is entirely independent of any county entanglements, although it’s police department is very much entangled with the state government due to an anti-corruption take-over of the BPD by the state in 1860. Those entanglements persist to this day.

Anyway. The Baltimore metropolitan area now hosts a population of 2.8 million, making it the 21st largest metro area in the United States. The metro area includes the city and six surrounding counties: Baltimore County (the cocoon around the city), Harford County (east), Carroll County (west), Anne Arundel County (south), Queen Anne’s County (east of Anne Arundel across the bay),  and Howard County (southwest). Howard County is, amazingly enough, the setting for my Howard County Mystery series.

Why did I pick that locale? For over 20 years, I’ve lived on the eastern side of Baltimore County. But I’ve worked in Howard County several times, and know the area reasonably well, probably better than I know Baltimore County. Howard County affords me a range of localized settings from the suburban to the rural.  It’s far more rural than Baltimore County, but with areas of reasonably concentrated population. Plus, unlike Baltimore County, it doesn’t wrap itself around a city, so Rick Peller and his associates can move pretty quickly from one area of the county to another as needed.

Then again, there’s rural and there’s rural. I don’t actually think of Maryland as incredibly rural. Although one of the smallest states in the U.S., it’s the fifth most densely populated. While most of that population is concentrated in the Baltimore-Washington D.C. corridor, even most of the state’s rural areas are more heavily populated than the rural areas from which my family hails.

Allow me to demonstrate. Here’s a population density map for Howard County and surrounding areas:

Howard County Population Map

The thicker white lines are the county borders. Howard County is the large area stretching northwest to southeast, with Columbia and Ellicott City as its main population centers. The more rural areas of the county, the lighter orange, have a population density ranging from 101 to 1000 people per square mile.

Now let’s look at Rick Peller’s birthplace, Lockport, New York:

Lockport Population Map

Peller would find the population levels in Howard County familiar, but notice the light pink areas to the east, particularly the location named Dysinger, which is about where Sandra Peller came from. Those areas have a population density of 100 people per square mile or less. That, to me, is what rural is all about. That’s because my grandparents hailed from northwest Ohio. My maternal grandparents lived in the “big city” of Van Wert, while my paternal grandparents had a farm near Scott:

Van Wert Population Map

Rural is in the eye of the beholder, I guess. I consider my Howard County novels to be suburban crime novels, not rural crime novels, even though farms and fields do pop up in them from time to time. The county has some nice open spaces. But you can’t throw a rock too terribly far without hitting someone.

(Maps clipped from the ArcGIS 2012 population map.)

In the Beginning…

Have you ever read a story that completely failed to engage your attention? Probably so. How long did you stick with it? Fifty pages? Ten? Five? My personal low was two pages when reading an old science fiction novel my dad owned. I think I started that book three times over the course of several years and never made it past the second page.

Why does this happen? Basically, it’s a structural failing. You see, every story needs a structure, and that structure can be stated very simply: beginning, middle, end. As straightforward as that may seem, writers don’t always figure it out. When they don’t, the result can be a story in which nothing seems to happen, and when nothing happens, readers quickly get fed up.

So what is this beginning, middle, end thing, anyway? Well . . .

The beginning is where main characters are introduced, the setting is established, and the principal conflict is set up.

The middle is where most of the events play out. Lesser characters may be introduced and additional conflicts may arise. Throughout, the tension increases, the stakes get higher, the challenges become tougher. Even if the characters meet with small successes, things generally get worse for them.

The end is where the main conflict is resolved and loose ends are tied up. Compared to the rest of the work, this part is relatively short for one very good reason: resolution of the main conflict removes the tension and, thus, most of the interest.

Reread that last bit. No tension equals no interest. Books that fail to engage your attention are likely books lacking tension, or at least books with tension well-hidden. Maybe the writer spent the first ten pages providing background before presenting the main conflict. Maybe the initial conflict wasn’t much of a conflict. Or maybe it’s just you. After all, different people have different tastes and interests. Decades back my wife recommended a novel to me that, upon reading, I found stultifying. She couldn’t believe it. One of the main characters had suffered a serious injury and spent most of the novel at death’s door! How could I not be interested? Unfortunately, I didn’t care much about that character for whatever reason, and nothing much else seemed to be happening while he was busy almost dying. Oh, well.

Personal tastes aside, a story’s beginning has an important job to do: it must draw the reader in. To that end, writers employ what is called a hook. The hook is simply something interesting or unusual or dramatic that makes readers want to find out what’s going on. It’s what carries the reader past the first paragraph of a short story or the first page of a novel. It isn’t necessarily the main conflict, although it could be. It provides the vital infusion of tension without which readers won’t become engaged.

If I may, I’ll use my own writing as an example, since I know it so well. The Fibonacci Murders opens with a statement from a key character, mathematician Tomio Kaneko, about why he was involved in a murder investigation. In the course of this short passage, he states that had he not become involved, he would have been spared injury. The main conflict (a sequence of murders that take on a serial killer aspect) doesn’t start immediately and Kaneko’s involvement comes well into the novel. But I needed to get him onto the scene early because of the key role he plays. So I decided to introduce each chapter which a personal statement by him. The opening statement injects some menace because the reader knows that he’s going to get hurt. That point only happens near the end (technically, in the late part of the story’s middle), but its foreshadowing creates an element of tension that (I hope!) draws the reader in.

In True Death, I handled it a bit differently. We first meet a guy sitting alone on the porch of a run-down cabin out in the mountains and through his musings find out that he regards himself as dead. Clearly something tragic has happened to him, but just what will only become clear late in the novel. At the outset, we don’t even know his name. Ice on the Bay opens with an actual crime being committed, a botched robbery at a veterinary clinic. You’ll read that something has gone horribly wrong, but you won’t immediately find out what.

These three examples, different as they are, share a common theme. You meet someone to whom something bad happens, but you don’t get any details about what it was. With any luck you want to know the details, and that’s what pulls you into the story. As the old writer’s addage puts it, “Shoot the sheriff on the first page.” To which I might add, “But don’t reveal who shot him. Or if you do, don’t let on why they shot him.” Give the reader something to worry about, then keep them worried. That’s tension. That’s what keeps them reading. That’s a good beginning.

But, of course, that’s only the start . . .

The Girl With No Pants

On Saturday, August 13th, I held a True Death book signing at the Barnes & Noble store in Ellicott City, Maryland. For a relatively unknown author, signings largely consist of waiting for people to notice you. A few will, and if you’re lucky you’ll sell a few books. Even so, I find that time passes quickly, and the handful of conversations and sales make it worthwhile. But will it make for an interesting blog post?

Nah.

Instead, let’s talk book covers. One customer, looking at True Death‘s cover, remarked, “That doesn’t look like Howard County.” And he was right. It doesn’t.

The cover (it’s at the top of the right margin of this page) features a roughed-up woman in tattered clothing carrying a briefcase and walking into the distance. Some think the image is designed to attract male readers. A friend of one of my daughters jokingly asked, “What’s the next book called, The Girl With No Pants?”  But no, that’s not it, any more than the landscape is Howard County.

The book deals with the death of Sandra Peller, Detective Lieutenant Rick Peller’s wife, in a hit-and-run accident four years earlier. Because she is central to the novel, I wanted Sandra on the cover. Because she died on a road, I wanted her on a road. Besides, an image of her walking down a road would symbolize her departure from earthly life.

So my wife Kathleen and I searched Dreamstime, an online image library where we have an account for our publishing company. Dreamstime and other libraries license images for commercial use royalty-free, charging a relatively small fee: tens of dollars as opposed to the hundreds or thousands an artist can cost.

We looked for women walking down country roads and found several possibilities, but none of them were quite right. And then Kathleen discovered exactly the right one: the roughed up woman trekking down a desolate road that stretches into the unknown. The stark landscape emphasizes the feeling of desolation.

No, it’s not Howard County, and maybe the lady appears pantless, but one couldn’t ask for a better image to introduce the story. And even though I can’t see her face, I’ve become convinced that, yes, that really is Sandra Peller.