Latest Title: Courtin' Murder in West Wheeling
Publisher: Diversion Books
Release Date: May 17, 2016
Courtin' Murder in West Wheeling is by no means my first novel. My first, The Man Who Understood Cats, won the Malice Domestic Award, which guarantees publication and a generous advance. That was followed by four sequels, two stand-alones, and the first story in the West Wheeling series. Death in West Wheeling literally came to me in a dream. I woke up one morning with the opening scene playing in my head, featuring my dad as Grandpa Ross. The room described by protagonist and narrator Homer Deters was the kitchen of the house I grew up in, which my dad had designed and built. Homer's voice was the remembered voice of Festus Hagen from the old Gunsmoke series. Nina was the cut-on-the-bias woman I'd become.
But an opening scene isn't a novel, and I had to come up with a title and work out what kind of story it would be. The situation pointed the direction. A strong, independent, slightly zany woman. Two good friends vying for her hand. A missing teacher, and an old man over-reacting to the disturbance of his peace all suggested crime and comedy. Homer's determination to find a missing school teacher set the investigation in motion. His later encounter with a city-feller detective insured that I'd have to keep coming up with offbeat situations as I advanced the plot and provided red herrings.
Homer's name was a given. He's a storyteller. And his tendency to camouflage his crime-solving acuity with a good-old country boy presentation was inspired by an instructor I had in college who was a terrific story-teller.
Having dreamed up my protagonist, I advanced the story by the process of asking: "Then what would happen?" and "What else could possibly go wrong?" Police procedurals are fairly easy to write if you know how police proceed. Procedure becomes the roadmap for the plot from which you can deviate to complicate or obfuscate the story. That's pretty much how the series developed. I'd spent a few weeks on a hardscrabble farm, so I threw in farmers. My truck-driver brother told me about a catastrophe that occurred when a semi hauling chickens overturned on the interstate.
When one of the mechanics at the company I worked for brought his shot gun to work, I didn't worry - he was a perfect gentleman who never so much as said, "Damn!" - though I did have to ask him what was with the gun? He explained that there were pheasants in the field behind the barn and he was from Tennessee. "Tennessee's a beautiful place, but you can't eat scenery. So you gotta eat what you can get." Of course I put him and his brother in West Wheeling, though I changed their names in case there's no statute of limitations on poaching.
Other people, events, organizations and situations presented themselves once I got into a West Wheeling state of mind. Nina's church, the Evangelical Congregational, is patterned after one such in my neck of the woods that had a message board posting ideas like "The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement," and "If the truth is in your way, you are on the wrong road." Father Ernie is modeled after a couple of great priests I've known. And just for the hell of it, I put all the nasty people I've encountered in one family - the Jacksons. The local geniuses of West Wheeling are likewise related to one another. Whenever I need an expert in a West Wheeling tale, I introduce another member of the clan.
My current novel, Courtin' Murder in West Wheeling, takes up where the first left off. There's a proposal interrupted by the discovery of a dead body, and an investigation complicated by a series of apparently unrelated, sometimes farcical events. Homer has to call on his friends and local experts to help him solve all the problems hindering his progress and to bring the culprits to West Wheeling justice.
Visiting West Wheeling gives me a break from my more serious scribblings and the chance to share things that make me laugh. I also get to satirize individuals and groups I think are way outta' line. And it's great fun to have some of my more outrageous characters behave in ways I'd never have the nerve to.