Back story blues…

Finding the right approach to revealing a character’s back story is one of the bigger challenges in fiction writing, at least for me. What’s too much? Too little? I learned a lot introducing private eye Andy Hayes’s painful relationship with his parents in The Hunt, as I explain in a guest post in The Rap Sheet, reproduced in its entirely below…

One of the most important tasks when creating a mystery series from scratch is developing your protagonist’s back story. It’s safe to say you should have the basics down first: a straight, male ex-military police officer running a one-person investigative agency; a married gay cop overseeing a cold-case squad; a divorced female private eye with a background in insurance fraud and a black belt in Tae Kwan Do, etc. But where do you go from there? How much should you know about your character’s personal life when starting out? Maybe part of what makes her tick is that she’s widowed and averse to long-term relationships. But is that the whole story? And if there’s more, how do you provide the information without dragging down the narrative?

When I started writing about Andy Hayes, my fictional private eye in Columbus, Ohio, I knew three things for certain: he was an ex-Ohio State quarterback with a sullied reputation from his playing days; he was twice divorced with a son from each marriage; and he lived in German Village, a trendy neighborhood south of downtown, with his Labrador, Hopalong (named for the 1955 Ohio State Heisman Trophy winner, Howard Albert “Hopalong” Cassady).

Beyond these bare-bone details, there was a lot I didn’t know about Hayes. The fun has been in discovering new things as I went along, many of them unknown to me until the day they popped up on the screen as I wrote. For instance, at the end of the first Hayes book, Fourth Down and Out (2014), we learn exactly what led to my protagonist’s downfall as a player. In Slow Burn (2015), I explored the years Hayes spent battling his demons after his football burnout through the back story of an ex-fiancée whose help he must enlist to solve a triple-arson homicide. In both Slow Burn and Capitol Punishment (2016) I reveal more about Hayes’ life growing up in Homer, Ohio (a real town), including an episode with his pig-farming uncle who takes Hayes in after he hits rock bottom and clears his head by forcing him to work with the hogs over one long, hot summer.

By the time I started work on The Hunt (Swallow Press), I knew I was ready to parse out Hayes’ fractured relationship with his father. The early attempts didn’t go well, as I tried to chronicle their troubled relationship in flashback form with several overly long passages. Details about childhood, parents, and traumatic events of yore can paint a richer portrait of your character, but I knew that the line between explication and overload is razor thin. Less is almost always more. Here are examples of the right way to do it, from some of the best in the business:

“Dropping my ashes in my empty teacup, I noticed the arrangement of the leaves. My grandmother would have said it meant money and a dark stranger.” That’s Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, talking about his relative in The Way Some People Die (1951), one of many subtle references to a formative person in Archer’s life—his uncle being another—that Macdonald sprinkled through his short stories and novels. Consider how much it tells us is so few words: his grandmother drank tea and read the leaves afterward, with all that connotes about superstition and prognostication. She also had an eye for things that could mean trouble.

“[Harry] Bosch watched the squadron of helicopters, like dragonflies from this distance, dodging in and out of the smoke, dropping their payloads of water and pink fire retardant on burning homes and trees. It reminded him of the dustoffs in Vietnam. The noise …” So writes Michael Connelly in the opening of The Black Ice (1993). As Connelly observed in an essay for the 2002 book Writing Mysteries, “In a short eight-word sentence, I was able to deliver characterization through the past without disturbing the forward progress of the story.”

Or consider this snippet of dialogue from Bright Futures (2009), the sixth and final book in the late Stuart M. Kaminsky’s series about Sarasota, Florida, process server Lew Fonesca:

“Mind my asking who that is?” asked Greg.

“Victor Woo.”

“And what’s he doing sleeping on the floor of your office?”

“He walked in one afternoon,” I said.

“Why?”

“He killed my wife in Chicago. He feels guilty and depressed.”

“You’re kidding, right?” asked Greg.

“No,” I said.

After re-reading such examples (and more), I went back to the drawing board. I deleted several long flashback passages from The Hunt and with them hundreds of words that, in hindsight, were not just dragging down the narrative but grinding it to a halt at points. For instance: I shrank a three-paragraph-long description of the Parthenon, the bar in fictional Mount Alexandria, Ohio, where Hayes’ father used to drink, down to these four sentences: “I nodded. I knew it. A bar just off the main square. I’d pulled my father out of there more than once, back in the day.”

Relieved of the burden of writing history as opposed to hinting at it, I was free to focus on Hayes’ task at hand—finding a missing prostitute as a serial killer stalks human-trafficking victims. The result, I hope, is a faster-moving story with less baggage and more bang. As Laura Lippman, a genius at the slow unspooling of back story, put it in her 2007 standalone, What the Dead Know:

“A good liar survives by using as little truth as possible, because the truth trips you up far more often.”

 

What’s the deal with Andy Hayes?? (3 questions from Lori Rader-Day…)

I got to meet Lori Rader-Day at Magna Cum Murder mystery writers conference last fall, which was exciting enough. Even more thrilling, I’ll be appearing with her on April 19 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Cincinnati as she promotes her wonderful new book, The Day I Died. Please mark your calendars for what should be a great event. (To quote Lori, “We are going to have some fun, promise.”) In the meantime, here’s a Q&A I did with her (reproduced below) about private eye Andy Hayes and The Hunt, which arrives in stores and e-book readers this month from Ohio University Press. And as long as you’re taking Sharpie to calendar, remember that the Ohioana Book Festival is this Saturday, April 8, in downtown Columbus. In addition, I’ll be talking mystery writing and signing books at Main Street Books in Mansfield on April 14…

My interview with Lori:

Andrew’s new book is The Hunt, featuring private investigator Andy Hayes. It’s out April 15, just in time for that refund from Uncle Sam. Here’s what Booklist had to say about The Hunt: “The author has crafted a fine procedural based on human trafficking, and it’s a pleasure to watch his PI, Columbus, Ohio–based Andy Hayes, go to work. …Welsh-Huggins has a way with language…[He] is an Associated Press reporter, and the urge to bring the news is an unkillable one.”

Not too shabby, Andrew.

Tell us a bit about The Hunt and how Andy has grown or changed over the series so far.

The Hunt opens with a man hiring Andy to find his sister, a prostitute who’s missing just as a serial killer is stalking human trafficking victims on the streets of Columbus, Ohio. Andy soon realizes he’s not the only one looking for the woman, and the search becomes a race against time as he tries to unravel why so many people have taken an interest in finding her, not to mention doing her harm.

Andy has changed as I’ve gotten to know more about him and added to his back story. I’ve previously established that he’s an ex-Ohio State quarterback with a lot of baggage, which happens when you blow your team’s shot at a national championship by going to jail the week before the Michigan game. Now we’re seeing more of his relationship with his parents and his two sons by two different ex-wives, as well as his ongoing efforts to have positive romantic encounters given a history of not treating women very well.

What do you and Columbus private investigator Andy Hayes have in common?

Hopefully not our approach to relationships! Andy has had a string of women in his life, whereas I’ve been married to my college sweetheart for almost 33 years. That said, he is my alter ego in many ways. We’re both skeptical (but not cynical), we both want answers to the questions we’re posing, we both have a snarky sense of humor, we both like to read nonfiction and work out, and we both have an aversion to guns. I would never recommend naming a series character after yourself, but in this case, probably because we do think alike at times, he just had to be an Andy. Fittingly, I suppose, that’s a nickname I never go by, just as he never goes by Andrew—unless his mom is really mad at him.

How did you come to crime fiction and who are your influences today?

 The short answer is three series of books I read as a child: Encyclopedia Brown by Donald Sobol, the Happy Hollister mysteries by Andrew Svenson (published by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which also published the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy series), and my mom’s Erle Stanley Gardner Perry Mason books, which I snuck off the top shelf beginning when I was about eight. Those books inspired a lifelong love of mysteries that continued through high school, college, and beyond. These days, I try never to miss new books from Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin and Laura Lippman as well as J.K. Rowling in her new guise as private eye novelist, to mention a very few. Going back in time, I was heavily influenced by Rex Stout (the Nero Wolfe mysteries), Robert B. Parker and Spenser, several of Stuart Kaminsky’s series and Ohio’s own Les Roberts, with his Milan Jacovich books set in Cleveland. If I had to describe where Andy Hayes comes from, I’d say he’s a combination of Nero Wolfe’s sidekick, Archie Goodwin (who, at least fictionally, was from Ohio), and Spenser, with a dollop of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee thrown in for good measure. Ultimately, though, I have to credit my mom, Mary Anne, and my late father, Richard, for raising me in a house full of books where reading was encouraged, and for always championing my dream of being a writer.

Picture This: Using Images to Make Your Scenes Come Alive

A picture worth a thousand words? Sometimes more than that, especially on deadline. Taking pictures of real places that may end up in one of my mysteries has helped me along the way, as I explain here in a guest blog for D.P. Lyle‘s The Crime Fiction Writer’s Forensics Blog, and reproduced in full below.

I’m sure I stood out on that sunny Sunday afternoon, standing in the parking lot of a shuttered convenience store, still dressed in church clothes, as I used my phone to take pictures of the park across the street. It’s not a part of Columbus, Ohio, I’d be comfortable spending much time in, and I wasn’t sure what interest my presence might attract. But I needed pictures of that park. A police officer had identified the green space as a prime location for prostitutes and their customers. I wanted to know what it looked like when it came time to describe such a corner in my latest mystery.

With reporting as my day job, I’m accustomed to relying on notes and observations to describe a scene or landscape. I try to do the same when writing my private eye series set in Columbus (the latest installment, The Hunt, arrives in April). Increasingly, though, and thanks to the ease of smart phones, I’ve added photographs to my descriptive tool bag.

I learned the value of pictures researching a pivotal scene near the end of my first mystery, Fourth Down And Out (2014). In the climactic chapter, my private eye protagonist, an ex-Ohio State quarterback, returns to Ohio Stadium for the first time in two decades. Once a popular and successful player, Andy Hayes fell into the gutter of public opinion after a point shaving scandal his senior year that cost him his college career and his team the national championship. For many fans, the sight of Hayes stepping foot on the stadium’s hallowed grounds would be the equivalent of watching Benedict Arnold strut down the streets of Philadelphia after the Revolution. For the purposes of my fiction, I wanted to get the facts right about his return visit. Given the outsized nature of Ohio State fandom, I also had to be sure I didn’t commit any flagrant fouls when it came to describing the stadium and its environs.

Thanks to the generosity of the university athletic department, I toured the inside of the stadium for an hour one day, taking pictures of the views Hayes would see as he made his approach, from Gate 18, where he’d show his ticket, to the walk along the inside concourse, to the entrance into the stadium itself—all the way to the particular luxury box Hayes was headed to for a culminating show-down with the man who’d helped facilitate his fall from grace. These pictures, combined with my notes, came in handy many an early morning as I put the finishing touches on my manuscript. They also reminded me that while the Internet and its many eyes are a wonderful thing, there’s still no substitute for being there and recording the exact images you need.

I took a similar approach with my second book, Slow Burn (2015), in which Hayes tries to solve an arson fire in an off-campus neighborhood that killed three Ohio State students. I walked the streets in question many times, during the day and at night, to get a feel for the houses and their architecture. I took plenty of notes. But there’s no way what I jotted down could have captured in full the elements I was able to get with a few snapshots of some of the archetypal houses, with their dark brick porch pillars, second-story window filigree and multiple chimneys sprouting from roofs like something out of the Mary Poppins chimney sweep scene.

Ironically, the most pictures I took were for the third book in the series, Capitol Punishment (2016), set in the Ohio Statehouse. It’s a place I should be able to describe in my sleep after reporting there for many years. And for some of the scenes, those set in committee rooms or the windowless first floor known as the Crypt, that was largely true. But once again, photos were crucial as I explored some of the lesser known nooks of the building, including the Cupola, the Greek revival structure at the top where the book’s finale plays out. The pictures captured details like the rough wooden bench circling the room and some of its carved signatures dating back to the 1870s—such as “J. Cook,” whoever that was.

That leads me back to The Hunt, in which Hayes searches for a missing prostitute at a time a serial killer is stalking and killing street women across the city. I didn’t try anything so crass as sneaking pictures of such women, though, sadly, it wasn’t all that hard to see them, sometimes in full morning light, driving to work through a depressed neighborhood not far from downtown. Aside from those visual observations, the pictures that helped the most were street scenes of the type I captured across from the park; abandoned houses on the city’s east side which Hayes and his assistant visit during their investigation; and photos of derelict grain silos—including interior pictures, thanks to a helpful engineer who’d been inside—that come into play during the novel.

IMG_2752
Grain Silos

Of course, verisimilitude has its limits. “This book is a work of fiction. That means I make things up,” Harlan Coben says at the end of Darkest Fear. Photos help me get descriptions correct where they count, but they should be signposts, not traffic barriers. If a plot point requires a shifting of the time-space continuum in the form of a fake in a real neighborhood or a building never erected on an otherwise familiar corner, so be it. In researching Capitol Punishment, I took pictures of a glass Statehouse cabinet filled with mementoes of the building’s earliest days. That helped me describe a scene in which characters pass by the cabinet, turn the corner and come across a commemorative gavel “fashioned from a two-hundred-year-old oak tree that got hit with lightning last summer in southern Ohio.” If you visit the Statehouse, you’ll find that cabinet without a problem, but you’ll look in vain for the gavel. No matter: the plot needed both. Despite the advantages that pictures provide, sometimes images must reside forever in the imagination.

Andrew Welsh-Huggins works for The Associated Press in Columbus and writes the Andy Hayes mystery series for Swallow Press, featuring an ex-Ohio State quarterback turned private eye.

https://andrewwelshhuggins.com/

The Hunt-Cover

A few thoughts on Writing Mysteries and Living in Columbus …

Check out my interview with David Weaver, executive director of the Ohioana Library, out today on CiTYpulse, and reproduced below in full. And don’t forget to mark your calendars for the Ohioana Book Festival on April 8 in downtown Columbus!

David: You’ve had a very successful career as a reporter for the Associated Press in Columbus, covering everything from politics to the drug trade. What made you decide to turn to fiction, and particularly mystery?
Andrew:
I’ve been a mystery fan my entire life, dating back to the day when I was eight years old and pulled one of my mom’s Erle Stanley Gardner Perry Mason paperbacks off the top shelf. It had always been a goal of mine to write some of my own. It just took a lot of living, including getting married and becoming a parent, moving several times and establishing myself professionally, to reach a point where I was ready.

David: How did Andy Hayes come in to being? Was there a particular book or writer that served as an inspiration?
Andrew:
I’ve always been attracted to the private eye novel, and as a younger man inhaled the works of Rex Stout, Robert B. Parker, Loren Estleman, Stuart Kaminsky and Ohio’s own Les Roberts, all of whom created iconic fictional private eyes. More recently, I’ve been delving into the classic trio of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, with some of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee thrown in for fun. I knew I wanted my private eye to follow in that tradition: the wounded warrior with the world on his shoulders, trying against the odds to do his best. Since I was writing about Columbus, there was no question my character’s backstory would involve Ohio State. That’s why I made him an ex-OSU quarterback who disgraced himself and his team his senior year, and now two decades later is still trying to live that episode down in-between his investigative adventures.

David: Has your training and experience as a journalist been a help in writing fiction?
Andrew:
The discipline of writing for a living has helped enormously: there’s no such thing as writer’s block when your family’s depending on you. I also rip many plotlines from my own headlines, since much of what I cover involves criminal justice. The types of writing, though, are very different; the analogy I use is that working for the AP is like running track, with constant sprinting and stopping and starting, whereas writing novels is like training for a marathon.

David: When you’re not busy working, what do you do to relax? If Andy Hayes was taking you and your wife out for a night on the town – or vice versa – where would you go?
Andrew:
We relax by bike riding, seeing movies or plays, listening to jazz at Brothers Drake or just having a night of Netflix. We love places like Land-Grant in Franklinton or the Thurber Bar downtown, and any food truck festival. If Andy was buying it would probably be beers and sauerkraut balls at the Hey Hey Bar & Grille on Whittier, which is fine by us.

David: You’ve appeared at many of the past Ohioana Book Festivals and will do so again on April 8. What do you enjoy about this event? And what’s in it for the young professionals who may be interested in attending?
Andrew:
Ohioana is special because of what ties it together: writers who make Ohio their home or write about it, or both. That, plus the diversity of authors and genres, from poetry to literary fiction to cooking to sports to mysteries and beyond. It’s a wonderful place to meet and greet authors, with all of us happy to talk to visitors about their own interests, personal and professional.

David: What advice would you give someone thinking about writing her first mystery novel?
Andrew:
The most important thing you can do is develop a strategy for how you’re going to write, and then focus on what you’re writing. In other words, first commit to writing daily at a specific time—before work, on your lunch hour, after the kids are in bed—and stick to it as closely as possible. This is especially important if you’re also working full-time, but it’s true regardless of your schedule. Once you’ve given yourself permission to write every day, then you can start focusing on your characters and plot.

David: Finally, you’ve written so much about Columbus. How long have you lived here? What do you like most about the city? And what, if anything, would you change?
Andrew:
I’ve been visiting Columbus since my wife, Pam, and I attended Kenyon College in the early 1980s. After living elsewhere for several years, we moved here permanently in 1998. We like the city’s vibrancy, cultural diversity, affordability and growing reputation as a cool American city as demonstrated by Columbus’ appearance on just about every Top 10 list you can think of, from food to fashion to music to sports. As Pam says, Columbus now is “the edge of the middle.” If I could change anything it would be to put light rail back on the table; add some more independent bookstores (Ann Arbor clobbers us in this regard, though The Book Loft in German Village is great and Gramercy Books in Bexley is a fantastic newcomer); and bring in another pro sports franchise: a WNBA team, anyone?

Meet Andrew Welsh-Huggins at the The 2017 Ohioana Book Festival, taking place Saturday, April 8, from 10:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. at the Sheraton Columbus at Capitol Square, 75 E. State St., in downtown Columbus. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.ohioana.org

Talking “Capitol Punishment” with @TheOhioChannel #mysteries #andyhayes #crimefiction

It’s always a treat to talk about one’s craft with a well-prepared, witty and gracious interviewer, and even more so on a program dedicated to the promotion of books, reading and ideas. I hit the mother lode speaking with The Ohio Channel‘s Dan Shellenbarger about my latest novel, Capitol Punishment, my writing process and juggling different projects while trying to maintain work-life balance. Here’s how it turned out . . .

 

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