After getting four books published dealing with the often-quirky ventures of a retired Air Force investigator and his wife, PIs in their mid-sixties, I decided to try something more gritty. I had started my mystery-writing career with post-Cold War spy stories, a gritty species if there ever was one. They didn’t sell, however, so I turned to private investigators.
The Surest Poison is a lot more hard-boiled than my previous series. After a bit of debate, I put PI Sid Chance in Madison, the northeast suburb of Nashville where I live. That eliminated the necessity for a lot of research. On that phase of the project, anyway. Turned out I had to do much more digging as the story unfolded.
To keep things interesting, I gave Sid a female associate. The popular term is sidekick, but Jasmine (Jaz) LeMieux is more than the normal sidekick. For one thing she’s rich, majority owner and chairman of the board of a lucrative chain of truck stops. And she’s had a rather checkered career, including Air Force Security Police, professional boxer, and Metro Nashville policewoman. She was responsible for getting Sid into the PI business. He had been a National Park ranger for 19 years and a small town police chief for 10. He left that job after false accusations of bribery.
Okay, now I had two characters, so what to do with them? Thinking about newsworthy areas they might get involved with, I considered the topic of environmental pollution. While splashing that idea around in my gray matter, I happened to mention it to a friend who is fairly well known as a private investigator specializing in locating missing persons. She once tracked down a bunch of people for Oprah and appeared on her show. She has done other network shows and written a couple of books.
“I had a case involving trichloroethylene down around Jackson a few years ago,” Norma Mott Tillman told me. That was in West Tennessee, a fair distance outside my territory.
She was hired by the attorney for a company that faced a huge cleanup cost resulting from the toxic chemical being dumped on its property by a previous owner. (For another look at a similar situation by an attorney check Murderous Musings). The guilty party was no longer around and her job was to track him down. It sounded like the perfect plot for a mystery, after a bit of tweaking.
I wanted it set around Nashville but away from the considerable resources of the Metro Police Department. We’re surrounded by five counties, three with well over 100,000 populations. Of the other two, one has less than 40,000 people. So I had my location, a small plant near the small county seat, Ashland City.
Norma Tillman’s case lacked the ingredient of mayhem. I had to give my PIs plenty of trouble to deal with. That meant dropping a few bodies along the way. I also arranged for the company responsible for the pollution and its owner to virtually vanish from the scene.
All well and good, but no self-respecting mystery would be caught without a tantalizing sub-plot to preoccupy the sleuths. Jaz came to the rescue. She lives in a mansion on the more classy side of town, as opposed to where Sid and I live among the middlin’ folks. She has a live-in couple named Wallace, family employees since Jaz was a girl. When the Wallaces’ grandson disappears, then reappears frightened out of his wits, Jaz enlists Sid’s aid to ferret out the problem.
All set, right? Not quite. The popular term among readers is “murder mystery.” So I needed a little murder to get things going. You’ve heard the argument over where the murder should come. On page one? The first chapter? I’m a believer in put it where it belongs. In this case, it fit in the opening chapter of the book.
I started with murder on page one. Hit ‘em right between the eyes. Then I segued to my protagonist who, at the same time, was waking up in his hillside cabin 50 miles away. My editor thought it would be more effective to switch the scenes. After a bit of reflection, I agreed. You can see how it turned out by reading the opening chapter at my website.
Now you know the hoops I jumped through in putting the story together, at least in getting it started. Since I’m a seat-of-the-pants plotter, at that point the characters and I took off running. It was a fun run.
Starting Wednesday, April 15, I’ll be doing a Blog Book Tour, making 15 guest spots by May 1. I’ll give away several books during the tour. Scroll down to my April 6 post to see where I’ll be and how to win books.