Truly Like Going Home
It was about a year ago Joe Clifford was here to write about how his Jay Porter series affects him. About how he switches from wine (Joe’s usual) to beer (Jay’s) when writing Porter, and has developed a nervous tic similar to the character’s. How his wife compared Joe to Porter during an argument. I know exactly what he means. When I was writing Wild Bill, it wasn’t uncommon for The Beloved Spouse to be able to guess from our conversation which point of view character I’d been working on. (“You wrote Junior today, didn’t you?”) Joe compared it to method acting and I can’t disagree.
Joe also mentioned how writing Jay Porter is like going home for him. I know exactly what he means there. The aforementioned Wild Bill is my sole standalone. The rest of my books belong to two series, and even those share a universe. Chicago private eye Nick Forte is the first cousin of Penns River detective Ben “Doc” Dougherty. Nick even made a dramatic guest appearance in the second Penns River book, Grind Joint.
For me, the Penns River books, of which Resurrection Mall is the third, truly are like going home: Penns River is fictional, but closely based on three small cities in Western Pennsylvania where I grew up. I left home in 1980 when I joined the Army and have never moved back, but we talk about it once in a while. My parents still live in the house I grew up in, and I go back to visit several times a year. Each trip has a little driving around to scout for locations. Just about every place described in a Penns River book exists in more than my imagination.
The best example is the house where the climactic action scene from Grind Joint takes place. That’s where Doc’s parents live, and mine, too, right down to where the doors and windows are, and where my dad keeps the .22 for shooting varmints. Every time I write a page that takes place in Penns River I go home again, for better or for worse.
That’s part of why I like to write—and read—series novels. I’m so into the Penns River mindset most of the ideas I get for stories grow from that universe. Most that don’t start there often find me wondering how they would fit into a Penns River book. It’s more real to me now than many actual places I’ve been, largely because I spend so much time there in my head.
It makes trips home hyper-realistic. I drive past a townhouse and think, “That’s where Doc lives.” A turnout on a rural road where cars pull over to fill jugs with spring water is where a private detective was set up for murder. The Beloved Spouse and I no longer refer to the abandoned shopping center where Wards and Penney’s used to be as anything but “The Casino.” The Arby’s Dumpster where a killer ditched his clothes. Doc’s favorite watering hole. All are real places, and their use means I don’t have to worry any more about giving the reader a sense of place than I worry about proper grammar. (Not that my grammar is always proper. I just don’t worry about it.)
This bonding of fact and fiction works in the other direction, too. I read the local paper online and save bits that might come in handy. Not just crimes. Not even usually crimes. New lights at the Little League fields. A bad winter going through the road salt budget too quickly. A lockout at one of the few remaining local mills. How an altercation over cookies led to a shooting.
The Tri-Cities are fertile ground for my imagination, but I never want anyone to think I’ve been exploitative. I worried after I wrote Grind Joint that I’d been too hard on the casino location until about three weeks before the book came out, when an article in the local paper described the situation as even worse than I had. Just about everything I am today is either the result of, or a reaction to, things that happened to me in my first 24 years. Most of the frequently ethnic names are those of people I knew as a kid. Napierkowski. Neuschwander. Wierzbicki. Grabek. (Charlie Stella once asked if anyone named “Smith” lived in that town, so I changed a name for him. In the work in progress I married her off and changed it back to Gaydac.) I made Doc a returning veteran to help describe the town through the local boy who sees it with an outsider’s eyes, the way I do, with a mix of affection and realism.
I understand the appeal his series has for Joe Clifford better than most. All authors “live” in the locations they create. I get to go home.