It Can’t Already Be April

I’ve been absent from this blog for quite a while and that can only mean one thing: I’ve been writing!

All authors have their own process. For me, it means hammering out a rough draft in a very short time, then spending a lot of time pouring over it, correcting, adding, deleting. Some prefer to painstakingly pour over the manuscript, working on each sentence in progression until it is perfect. That never worked for me. I get a few sentences in and something else attracts my attention and those few pages I managed to complete languish forever in some kind of writer’s purgatory.

No, I like to dash it off, working from a plan, to be sure, but for the most part I let the story tell me where it wants to go. Make that: let the story tell me where it needs to go. The plot develops from the outline, but strays if it needs to. Writing fast is creative and when a writer is on a productive streak new ideas just pop up out of thin air. What I end up with is a complete draft, the story exists from beginning to end. The editing and revision process is tedious, but then again, these actions should be tedious. I call it crafting the novel and it is a lot easier for me to continue to work on a the thing. It’s like building a house. One doesn’t erect the door and get it perfect and painted, then start adding walls in successive building sessions, then flooring, then ceiling and roof. One gets the framework in place as quickly as possible and the roof in place, and only then will they concentrate on the interior, gradually adding and improving until it is complete.

Anyway, my latest work in progress, a crime novel I call HARMON CREEK, is in the late stages of that process. It is based on a true crime. Well, sort of. It’s about my wife’s great uncle, who mysteriously died in 1930. He was a candidate for District Attorney in a mostly rural area of Texas. She’d told me about it several times. The family contended it had been murder, pure and simple, but whoever perpetrated it was never caught. I researched quite a number of newspaper articles about it. Various local papers reported on the case for several days. He died in a one-car accident at the site of a new bridge construction at Harmon Creek in Walker County Texas. Details were sparse, but one interesting detail emerged: stab wounds. There was also a statement from a woman who had purportedly accepted a ride from the man, but exited the car prior to the accident and procured a ride from a friend she had noticed following them. It seemed quite innocent but they never quite tied in any detail that explained how they found her and she and the “friend” were never identified. That was how the first article presented things.

The next day it was reported that she’d added to her story, but to a Dateline aficionado like me it sounds more like she changed her story, which is always an indicator that a lie is involved. The Sheriff also floated a new theory: the puncture stab wounds were likely caused by nails from the nearby railing when his car crashed through it. I thought, puncture wounds on a moving victim from a stationary object. Hmmmmm. Within thirty-six hours of the wreck, he pushed the local authorities to declare it an accident, albeit with weak protests from the justice of the peace and medical officer.

That’s pretty much the gist of the story. There were follow-up stories for several days. The governor dispatched a Texas Ranger to aid in the investigation and the woman changed her story yet again, this time adding a contention of inappropriateness to her story. She was still unnamed. None of this was part of the family lore but the guy was obviously a straight shooter good guy. He’d formerly been county attorney and was now going up against the incumbent for the next step up the ladder. The family contended the incumbent was quite dirty. The most troubling aspect of this story for me was the fact that the progression of news stories simply stopped cold. After about a week there was no more mention of his death, of the investigation, of anything. Gone. Kaput. Nada.

So I compiled the limited facts and anecdotes and used a mystery writer’s eye (and like I said before, a long association with Dateline and 20/20 programs), and pieced together a progression of possibilities. With an incumbent district attorney involved, it seemed too easy to think the guy had simply been bumped off. It is rarely that simple. So I built a progression of cascading events using what I thought to be plausible actions and counter actions. I don’t want to offer spoilers, but I think I explain all of the questions raised in my mind by the various news articles quite nicely. To me there was an obvious reason the case simply disappeared.

And, of course, the country was in the beginnings of the great depression, and the election followed in two weeks. After that, basically life went on.

I have to admit, there was some fun involved in writing this too. I introduce a glimpse into lower echelon criminality, and had a bit of fun digging up criminal slang of the 1920s/early 30s. Here we see the mysterious unnamed “woman” and her “friend” concocting the beginnings of a plot at the behest of the DA’s underling.


“I got a special deal, a sort of blackmail deal.”

“Branching out, are you?”

“McIntyre wants me to frame a john.”

“Not me, I hope,” he quipped.

Betty laughed deeply, “I already have the goods on you.”

“So let me see if I can guess. He wants a Sheba who’s known to skate around to be seen in public with some weak sister.”

“That’s the crop. I’ve got the goods to play the end game, but I’m not much with the planning.”

“Which is why you want me in on the deal. What’s my end?”

“I figure maybe a yard, but I might be needing more help than just a plan.”

“A cool C note? Tell me more.”


Another side story involves Claude. I had to include Claude. One of the most intriguing parts of my wife’s family stories involved her great aunt, the victim’s widow, and her … well I don’t quite know how to categorize him … her friendship with a black man named Claude. Think Driving Miss Daisy’s Hoke Colburn (Morgan Freeman’s character), except Claude wasn’t exactly an employee. Nothing romantic, nothing like that. To hear my wife describe him, he was oddly devoted to her great aunt, almost like a compulsion or a duty. That’s how it seemed to me. So, Claude has a big piece of this story, which I ultimately use to explain his later devotion to the great aunt, even thirty years later.

I’m still smoothing out the kinks, but I think this will be my best book yet. HARMON CREEK, look for it.

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Thomas Fenske is a writer living in central North Carolina.

Look for more information about his current works at http://thefensk.com

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