A writer is motivated by many things—life experiences, family, friends, things heard on the radio or read in a newspaper. Even an especially moving piece of music can seed a story within a writer’s soul.
As a mystery writer, I am often asked what motivates me to write the stories that I do. It is a complicated question that spans a lifetime as many variables have come together to produce the person that I am today. However, there were five incidents in my life that I can pinpoint and say—these are things I write about; these incidents have seeded many stories and grown many characters over the years.
- My grandfather’s death
At nine years old you don’t give much thought to death. Not until it jumps out at you in broad daylight in the form of a dead body flopping at your mother’s feet. On that day, I saw Death clearly. In the beaten and battered body of a young woman whose corpse plopped at my mother’s feet when the police opened my grandfather’s garage door. The young woman had been leaning against, obviously struggling to claw her way free of the carbon monoxide poisoning that built up inside and stole her life.
My grandfather sat in upright pose behind the wheel of his old, green Chevy, head flopped back against the leather seat. The police claimed it was a murder-suicide and laid the case to rest on the unoccupied passenger’s seat of my dead grandfather’s car, the car with a half a tank of gas and the engine shut off inside a concrete block garage with no entry save the big double doors that the police had to cut the heavy duty padlock off in order to open.
Death frightened me as it would any nine year old; but what frightened me more was the police. How easily they wrote my grandfather’s life off. Being poor and living in our part of town didn’t rate much investigation when you died, however violently and under whatever suspicious circumstances.
When I was in my late teens I lived in Columbus, Ohio. I’ve always enjoyed walking at night whether in the city or the country. That night I decided to take a shortcut through the alley on my way home to my apartment—I worked and lived on my own. Halfway down the alley, a man walked out of a ramshackle garage without its door, and around the tail end of the car parked there.
But I had walked through this particular alley many times at all hours and had encountered others heading home from a late night out, just like me. I didn’t pay particular attention to this man. That is until he started past me going in the opposite direction. He suddenly grabbed my upper arm and jerked me close, pulling me off-balance both mentally and physically. His sour breath wafted in my face as he said, “Men are stronger than women and can take what they want.”
In spite of a pounding heart, I narrowed my eyes at him. “Ain’t happening.”
A fight ensued with arms and elbows and fists flying. I bounced back off the ground and faced my assailant, lip bleeding, breath heaving and wondering how the hell I was going to get out of this predictament.
He lunged and something gleamed in the dim light of the street lamp as he slashed toward me. I threw up my arm. Something hot sliced through my hand. Blood well and dripped from my fingers to the gravelly ground.
He would have followed up on his attack if a man hadn’t come out on a third floor balcony overlooking the alley and yelled, “What the fuck’s goin’ on down there?”
My attacker looked from me to the man not that far above us, spun on his heel and just strolled away like nothing had happened. I staggered to the nearest lit house and banged on the door, smearing it with blood. An elderly woman let me in and tended my hand as we waited for the cops.
I was treated to a third degree that had nothing to do with the attacker and everything to do with “what made me think I should be out walking around at night alone”.
My Mother’s Abrupt Leaving
In January, 1973, a few months before my twentieth birthday, my mother left work a little early, went home and ate a fried pork chop dinner. As she sipped her coffee after dinner, a migraine headache pounced her. No stranger to migraines, she went off to bed. Within an hour, she was being driven to the emergency room as the migraine engulfed her in agony. By the time, she arrived in the parking lot, she had already slipped into a coma.
Four days later, my mother, having never regained consciousness, was dead.
Ever since I was fourteen, I wanted to travel to San Francisco, California. I finally arrived in that crazy city in the 1970s. At one point I lived in a building that had a coffee shop on the ground floor and rooms for rent on the second floor. It was a nice arrangement, and mostly all of us renting rooms and sharing the kitchen got along well, often planning and eating meals together.
Unfortunately, a young white couple with a seven-year old son moved into one of the rooms. The couple was into heavy drugs. Now, we weren’t saints, but none of us thought shooting up was the best way to live life. However, we weren’t ones to sit in judgment, so we mostly ignored what this man and woman did. Oftentimes, the boy would be without food, so we took turns making sure he got fed at least a couple of times a day. At least, the kid was safe among us and that, somehow, made it easier to ignore his parents.
That was until the day the kid’s father called one of the roomers a nigger. Johnny pulled his .38 and marched toward the man who stood swaying in his room’s doorway. As Johnny stormed toward the idiot, the man sneered and decided to dig his grave deeper. “Fuckin’ monkey don’t scare me. Bring it on, boy.”
Personally, the way the man treated his kid, I couldn’t care less if Johnny blew him away, except the boy chose that moment to come to the doorway of their room. He stood wide-eyed as he watched the two men face off in the hall, just a couple of feet apart.
Somehow my moronic feet raced down the hall and stepped between Johnny and his potential victim. “Hey, man, don’t blow him away here. The kid’s standing there, man.” I tipped my head toward the room’s doorway.
“Get outta my way. I don’t take nobody callin’ me a nigger.”
“Hey, man, if you want to kill him, fine, but not in front of his kid. Come on, man, I know you don’t want to fuck up a kid for life.”
Johnny snarled, lunged past me and grabbed the man behind me. He dragged the sorry piece of human flesh down the hall, gun in one hand, a grip on the dirty tee shirt in the other hand. Meanwhile, I shooed the kid into my room and shut the door.
Johnny flung the man down the stairs. The drugged out drunk rolled. When he hit bottom, he moaned, so I knew he wasn’t dead.
Johnny stormed over to me, standing in front of my closed door. He shoved the muzzle of the .38 up under my chin. “I like you, but don’t ever get in front of my piece again.” With that said, he stomped up the hall and slammed into his room.
The Fun Times of Being a Lesbian—not so much.
–I returned to Seattle in 1989 and landed a job with a medical facility. A number of months into the job, when I insisted that my life partner needed the coverage afforded to married couples as I was working in a section of the facility with a high risk to carry home a contagion, I was told homosexual couples did not rate the coverage. Unable to afford the medical costs if I did drag a contagion home, I refused to work in that part of the facility. I was fired.
–Capitol Hill in Seattle felt like a haven to me after having been in the Deep South–a place where my life partner and I could walk together without fear. Until the night that a woman was waylaid outside of a lesbian bar and three men began beating her with clubs. If the women inside the bar had not heard the commotion and rushed into the fight, the woman would have been beaten to death.
–Being an out lesbian among one’s colleagues isn’t always easy or acceptable. I confronted a homophobe white male about making an inappropriate joke in the lunch room, by simply telling him that his joke was not funny.
He brushed aside my concerns with, “It’s just a joke.”
When I wouldn’t accept that excuse and insisted ‘just a joke’ or not, it wasn’t funny and it wasn’t appropriate, silence dropped among my lunchroom colleagues so hard it nearly gave me a concussion.
The situation escalated to the point that my colleagues avoided me with the excuse that they didn’t want to take sides; and the management told me I was ‘half the problem’ until I threatened upper management with involving civil rights and LGBT organizations in the problem.
The man was fired, but not for his homophobic and inappropriate behavior.
I never felt ‘part of’ the team after that, and eventually left. I had learned a hard and painful lesson.
These scenarios continue to occur with frightening regularity. Poor people are murdered with little or no investigation launched into their deaths; rapists freely walk streets while women have to be ever-vigilant; loved ones die without warning; a person can suddenly wind up on the wrong side of violence; and civil rights for LGBTQ people sometimes seem like a far off dream to me.
Words have power, incredible power. With words we can destroy people or build up people; we can paint injustice with a whitewash brush or we can shine a stark light upon it. It is my hope that the words I write will encourage people to become better than they are; that my words will shine that stark light into very dark corners.
Old Woman Gone, A Special Crimes Team novel: Who would kidnap an 85-year-old witch?