D. Z. Church
Life is just a Future Plot
In the beginning, I ran wild on my grandparents’ farm, finding a story in every knothole and animal den. I wasn’t planning on writing mysteries or thrillers then. I intended a life of mystery and adventure like the heroine of my new Wanee Mysteries, Cora Countryman.
The family farm got in my blood, and I sometimes wonder if it isn’t in my actual genes. My family farmed in northwestern Illinois from the 1830s and before that in Alsace-Lorraine. Uncertain if they were German or French, they cling to German to this day. On the other hand, I have the Ancestry DNA report that begs to differ. The wonderful thing about experiences, memories, and apocrypha is that each becomes part of your creation myth and possibly a plot or plot point.
If you are lucky, as I was, to spend your earliest days:
- With assigned chores (collecting eggs, bringing the milk cows in, or feeding the pigs).
- Surrounded by chickens, pigs, Guinea fowl, pea fowl, moles, garden snakes, cattle, milk cows, dogs, cats, and hogs.
- Playing in cornfields (field, sweet, and pop), the hayloft, a corncrib, an acre vegetable garden, virgin timber, sandhills, and a century farmhouse.
- With your older sister and aunt and uncle your age as a member of The African Safari Club meeting in the garage and adventuring into the unknown.
If that is the case, you start out with a wealth of possible stories. I am a farmgirl at heart. I believe chickens are born to be eaten. They peck, smell, and aren’t very bright. I’m sure all the vegetarians out there just gasped, but trust me, small children who collect eggs should be given combat pay. I have laughed uproariously over cow poop, run with a bull snorting, feet behind me which I remember as inches. I have been chased by an angry sow of gigantic proportions intent on my demise. Had I known that sixteen hogs could devour me, I might have leaped more quickly over the fence.
At the same time, my parents, grandmother, sister, and I lived in a prairie town about twenty miles south of the farm. The Sauk Indians were there first and were first gone. The town center was at the confluence of the railroad to Chicago, San Francisco, and points south. Manufacturing roared into the sleepy little town on the tracks. It burgeoned, complete with growing pains after the Civil War, then died the same way after the Cold War. In between, it hosted an international boiler-making factory and the largest U.S. producer of valves and fittings, shipped coal around the country, and hogs to slaughter in Chicago. It had a city park with a pond and winding stream that coursed through town where people gathered to picnic, rest, and party under a canopy of broadleaved, stately trees.
The town was still vibrant when I was a kid with its hog festival and holiday celebrations. It had a nifty little downtown with the same footprint as the original prairie town, some on the right side of the tracks and some on the wrong. So how does this all fit into my books?
Chickens are featured in Saving Calypso, as are many skills I learned subsistence farming. The Coopers of the Cooper Quartet live in our farmhouse which I migrated to Michigan (where I also lived). Instead of hog and grain farmers, they are fruit growers. I worked as a fruit picker one year as a teen — who knew? I was born in the burgeoning prairie town where Cora Countryman is stuck operating a boarding house on the corner of the city park and Main Street in the coming Wanee Mysteries. Her brother Jesse lives in Awan, a farm town about twenty miles up the main road. I know these places, the stories and apocrypha about the area, and the town has a wonderful, oft visited website dedicated to the history of the area, if I need more inspiration.
All proving that a life lived fully is a veritable garden of plots.
Translating Real Life Experiences Into Fiction
Write what you know, the saying goes. I’ve always amended that to, if you don’t know, find out.
Finding out is definitely useful, as I learned when I was writing Death Rides the Zephyr, the first in the Jill McLeod series. The book takes place on the historic train known as the California Zephyr, which from 1949 to 1970 traveled between Chicago and the Bay Area. Jill is a Zephyrette, a train hostess who has assigned duties, among those seeing to the needs of the passengers. In Jill’s case, that includes solving mysteries.
The old California Zephyr is no more and I can’t time travel back to the early 1950s, the era in which the books are set. Fortunately, I was able to experience a few things in real life that enriched the novels.
Back in 2010, I took a special excursion train up the Feather River Canyon in Northern California, along the route of the old train. I stayed in a roomette in a Pullman car, so chalk that up to a real-life experience that found its way into the book. The special train spent two nights parked at the Western Pacific Railroad Museum in Portola, California, which has several old California Zephyr cars, as well as locomotives that were used in that era.
I discovered that for a donation, they would let me drive a locomotive for an hour, under the watchful eye of a docent. A couple of years later, I did just that. It was an eye-opener to make that locomotive go, even if it was just a short distance.
I hadn’t originally planned to use a locomotive scene in the book but after experiencing the overpowering noise and smelling all that diesel and climbing around in the dark, greasy cab, of course, I had to use that in the book.
As for making Jill a fully realized character, there are retired Zephyrettes out there. I was fortunate enough to talk with two of them, and many of their stories made it into the four Jill McLeod books. I recently had a definite real-life experience that will find its way into a book.
The Sacrificial Daughter is the first in my Kay Dexter series. Kay is a geriatric care manager, someone who manages care for clients, whether it’s arranging for in-home health care or transportation to medical appointments. Often, a care manager deals with clients who have concerned family members in other cities or states, who find themselves doing long-distance caregiving for elderly parents.
I’ve never been a professional geriatric care manager, but I have lots of informal experience. Elderly parents, yes, I’m there. My father passed away several years ago, but my mother is still living. I know what it’s like to deal with situations over the phone or via email, and that feeling I get when it looks like I’ll have to drop everything and get on a plane.
In writing the book, I drew on my own experiences, as well as those of family members and friends. One such incident takes place in a nursing home, often called a skilled nursing facility (SNF), where the character is recuperating from a broken hip and needs my protagonist Kay to advocate for her.
I had already decided that SNFs would be an important plot element in the next Kay Dexter book. As life plays out, I recently found out what it’s like to be a patient in such a facility. It is certainly a case of real-life experience that goes straight into the important research basket.
In September, I had a bilateral knee replacement—yes, both knees at once. I went from the hospital to rehab, a two-week stay in the SNF. I got plenty of material. Did I ever. I was the patient and my experiences during my stay were eye-opening.
My room was right outside the nurses’ station and the area where two corridors came together. I could hear everything, all night long, from the constant ringing of the call bells, to the conversations between staff and at times patients. Yes, first-hand research for the next Kay Dexter book.
And I am so glad to be home, where my cat Lottie is the perfect accessory for my walker!
D. Z. Church
The final book in the Cooper Quartet, Don’t Tell, will be published on November 11. So now is a great time to read or reread the Cooper family’s odyssey through the Vietnam War. The gripping third Cooper thriller, Pay Back, takes place over a week and a half in 1975 in the waning days of the Vietnam War. Critics remark that the book delivers a heady mix of intrigue and history, keeping readers on the edge of their seats.
When two acquaintances from opposite worlds call in their markers, Laury Cooper dives back into Saigon to make good on promises he may or may not be able to keep. His brother, CDR Byron Cooper, has one last chance to redeem himself aboard an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea. As Saigon falls, both brothers must balance their own interests against those of the U.S., or there is no way out.
The brothers aren’t the only ones whose pasts have caught up with them. In Michigan, Laury’s new wife, Kate, has a history she hasn’t divulged. And his daughters, Jolie and Emélie aren’t telling all they know about friends and foes.
I am awaiting reviews of Don’t Tell. It will be available November 11 in eBook and paperback. Lots to do between now and then.
Now that I’m home, still recuperating from surgery, I am back to work on The Things We Keep, the next book in the Jeri Howard series. The book takes place in October and it’s October now, so I hope these crisp fall days will spur me to make progress writing.
D. Z. Church
What I Recommend:
I am deep into binge-watching Reign on Netflix, a highly charged, semi-soapy version of the story of Mary, Queen of Scots. And rip-roaring. The actress who plays Catherine de Medici is wonderful and leaves little scenery unchewed. And, though the story creeps to the very edge, the writers always manage a plot twist that wangs it back to historical fact.
As for books, if you have never read the Lew Archer series by Ross Macdonald, start now, it is one of the greats. Begin with The Moving Target, then the Drowning Pool, then you will be hooked. The Moving Target “introduces the detective (Lew Archer) who redefined the role of the American private eye and gave the crime novel a psychological depth and moral complexity only hinted at before” (from Amazon). You owe it to yourself to start reading or rereading these books today. If for no other reason than to be reminded that “only cream and bastards rise to the top.” One of my all-time favorite, oft quoted lines. And one we should all, perhaps, keep in mind right now.
What I Recommend:
What I’m watching—the recent death of actor Michael K. Williams has me revisiting David Simon’s grim yet fascinating series, The Wire. Williams created an unforgettable character in Omar Little, the stick-up man who only robs drug dealers and has his own code of justice. Picture him walking down the mean streets of Baltimore, carrying a sawed-off shotgun and wearing a duster, whistling his signature tune, “The Farmer in the Dell.” As the locals scatter, they call out, “Omar coming.” He certainly was.
What I’m reading—Dick Francis, again, over and over, always. Nerve was the first Dick Francis novel I ever read. I encountered the novel in one of my mother’s Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. I was hooked. Nerve is still my all-time favorite book by Francis, the renowned jockey-turned-writer who had a long career and wrote some terrific books. In addition to Nerve, several others—For Kicks, Odds Against, Enquiry, High Stakes, Forfeit—also rank high on my list.
I recently downloaded a treasure trove of Dick Francis books onto my Kindle, the older books that were published in the 1960s and 1970s. I am enjoying the heck out of these books. Dick Francis was the best, and I’m thrilled that I met him a few times at various mystery events. And we shared a birthday, Halloween.
As for Nerve, if you haven’t read this one, do. Immediately. The protagonist is jockey Rob Finn, a fish out of water who comes from a family of musicians. He’s an up-and-comer who is doing very well until he has an accident that leads to rumors that he’s losing races because he’s lost his nerve. He hasn’t, of course, and he’s determined to find out who is sabotaging his career, a move that nearly costs him his life.