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.

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.


The Hunt-Cover

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 . . .


“…this fine example of political noir…” #mysteries #andyhayes #TGIM

Capitol Punishment, “…this fine example of political noir, for which aficionados of smart crime fiction will vote with enthusiasm.” That’s the conclusion of the Richmond Times-Dispatch about the latest outing of a certain Columbus-based private investigator. It’s just in time for presidential political convention season, which gets underway today in Cleveland. It’s also today’s extended, get-up-and-go quote. Thank God It’s Monday!

To wit:

At the intersection of politics and reporting, relationships can be marked by friendliness and respect, tension and disdain, on both sides and within each.

But murder seems a bit extreme.

That’s what private investigator Andy Hayes faces, though, in “Capitol Punishment” (304 pages, Swallow Press, $27.95), the third thriller in Andrew Welsh-Huggins’ series featuring the Columbus, Ohio, resident, a disgraced former quarterback for Ohio State.

When freelance reporter Lee Hershey contacts Hayes to request bodyguard duty, Hayes reluctantly agrees and witnesses encounters between the journalist and several people connected with Ohio government.

One night, Hershey asks Hayes to meet him, but the investigator doesn’t show up, someone having slipped a tranquilizer into his beer at a bar. And when Hershey is found dead in the Rotunda of the Ohio Statehouse, Hayes feels guilty.

State Sen. Ed Tillman is soon charged with the murder, and defense attorney Burke Cunningham calls on Hayes, who sometimes does jobs for him, to help investigate.

All of this takes place against the backdrop of the presidential campaign, in which Ohio Gov. Thomas Hubbard is auditioning for the vice-presidential slot on the Democratic ticket while trying to shepherd a school-funding plan through the state Legislature, in which Democrats control the Senate and Republicans the House.

Welsh-Huggins, who covers legal affairs for The Associated Press in Columbus, excels at plot, characterization and setting — Columbus itself becomes a primary character. His snappy dialogue and wry prose add to the fun, and his take on the sausage-making process that passes for governance reflects reality.

But don’t let the laughs fool you.  Darkness, complexity and a slew of suspects fill “Capitol Punishment” as more people die, threats fly and corruption and crimes that make Watergate look almost paltry are exposed.

Hayes’ beer isn’t the sole heady brew in this fine example of political noir, for which aficionados of smart crime fiction will vote with enthusiasm.

From the Crypt to the Cupola–the May 21, 2016 “Capitol Punishment” Statehouse Tour

With poster created by Statehouse gift shop

Book display (with Ohio wines) at Statehouse gift shop

Reading from “Capitol Punishment” in the Atrium at the Ohio Statehouse

With my cousin, Amanda, at the book signing table in the Statehouse map room

Chatting with Gillian Berchowitz, director of Ohio University Press

Chatting with Gillian Berchowitz, director of Ohio University Press

A mystery in the Ohio Statehouse? Capital idea. Even better? “Capitol Punishment” is out TODAY from @ohiounivpress #mysteries

“I think there is only one thing in the world I can’t understand, and that is Ohio politics.” So spake Teddy Roosevelt, and it appears to be as true today as a century ago. The comment is also a central theme in Capitol Punishment, the third in my Andy Hayes private eye series, whose official publication date is today! The book revolves around a murder in the Ohio Statehouse during a presidential election year with all eyes on the perennial swing state. What a bargain: you can pay your taxes by midnight, then read a mystery about the people who levy those charming obligations. Want to know more about mystery writing, murder and maybe even taxes? Stop by one of the upcoming events associated with the series and the new book . . .

_ Westerville Library, April 21, 7 to 8:30 p.m. I’ll be appearing with fellow Columbus mystery writer Yolonda Tonette Sanders to talk about the process of writing mysteries.

_ Ohioana Book Festival, April 23, Sheraton Columbus on Capitol Square, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Stop by Table 1 to see me, and don’t miss the “Mystery, Thrills, and Suspense” panel at I0:15 a.m. in Legislative Room B (is that perfect for Capitol Punishment or what?) where I’ll discuss mystery writing along with Dan Andriacco, Shelley Costa, Yolonda Tonette Sanders and Sam Thomas.

_ Statehouse tour, May 21, 11:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., beginning in the Statehouse map room. A tour of sites in the Statehouse that play a role in Capitol Punishment, followed by a signing at the museum shop.

It’s no joke–“Capitol Punishment” is out THIS month from @ohiounivpress #mysteries #crimefiction #andyhayes

I’ve attempted some so-so April Fool’s jokes in my day, such as purporting that our very male and very fixed dog Mikey had puppies, which I’m proud to say fooled a couple of people for a couple of seconds. I’ve also witnessed some amazing pranks, like the time a college classmate called home from London (this was 1984, when that meant something) and told his father he’d been arrested for smoking marijuana. I’m pretty sure his father forgave him eventually.

But this is no trick: the official release date of Capitol Punishment, the third in my Andy Hayes private eye series, is this month, on April 15. Here’s some of my upcoming events associated with the series and the new book:

_ Westerville Library, April 21, 7 to 8:30 p.m., appearing with fellow Columbus mystery writer Yolonda Tonette Sanders to talk about the process of writing mysteries.

_ Ohioana Book Festival, April 23, Sheraton Columbus on Capitol Square, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. This is a must visit event for book lovers with dozens of authors available for conversation and book signings. Added bonus: in addition to being the day we celebrate Shakespeare’s birth, it’s also Sant Jordi day in Catalonia, when lovers traditionally give each other books and roses.

_ Statehouse tour, May 21, 11:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., beginning in the Statehouse map room. A tour of sites in the Statehouse that play a role in Capitol Punishment, followed by a signing at the museum shop. More details soon!


Electing to tell the truth . . . or fiction. Inside “Capitol Punishment” via @rapsheetmag @ohiounivpress #mysteries #crimefiction

“You can’t write that in your novel. No one would believe it.” You hear that, you wonder if it’s really true, and then the 2016 presidential election breaks out. Capitol Punishment, the third in my series about Columbus private eye Andy Hayes (coming April 15 from Ohio University Press), focuses on a murder at the Ohio Statehouse in the midst of a presidential election year. Since its completion, I’ve been wondering how much farther I could have pushed the envelope given the acrobatics on the real campaign trail this season. In the meantime, here’s a look at how I tackled my own menagerie of politicians, courtesy of the “Story Behind the Story” feature in The Rap Sheet, available here and reproduced below.


If only I’d waited a few months.

I’ve had that feeling a lot lately, anticipating the publication ofCapitol Punishment, my third mystery about Columbus, Ohio, private eye Andy Hayes. In his latest outing, Andy gets an up-close and deadly view of Ohio’s quadrennial starring role in presidential politics. Assigned to protect a hard-charging reporter covering a school-funding bill during an election year, Andy finds himself wondering how far a governor with his eyes on the White House might go to keep certain truths from coming to light. It felt like a pretty good plot, if I do say so myself. Then this year’s real election got underway.

I guess the fictionalization of a sharp-tongued Ohio governor facing off against a potty-mouthed billionaire for the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will have to wait. In the meantime, I’m taking comfort from the current Keystone Cops campaign that my own tale isn’t that far-fetched. “I think there is only one thing in the world I can’t understand, and that is Ohio politics,” Teddy Roosevelt once said. Adopting this adage, it was easy to create characters a bit over the top: a pig-farming state Supreme Court justice with a dark secret; a bowtie-wearing chief of staff labeled the “Prince of Dorkness”; and a police detective who bears more than a little resemblance to Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry of War of 1812 fame. If only I’d thrown in a celebrated brain surgeon who equated universal health care to something worse than slavery. But no, there are limits to suspending one’s disbelief, even in fiction.

In some ways writing a mystery is like building a fire—small flames grow to a climactic blaze, which then diminishes into a denouement of coal and ashes. Achieving this sequence of events requires the proper location, kindling, and of course a spark to get things started. Composing a book with politics at its heart, I had all three in spades. Let’s start with location: Ohio, the best known of the bellwether states. As even casual political junkies know, no Republican has ever won the White House without taking the state, and only two Democrats have done so in more than a century (Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 and John F. Kennedy in 1960). Ohio plays kingmaker every four years—maybe “queen maker” this year—because of its purple state attributes: it’s a hodgepodge of cities, farms, and suburbs populated by liberals, moderates, and conservatives with every stripe of pro-union, anti-labor, and libertarian-leaning resident in-between. With eight presidents under its belt, the state is known for a gaze particular to politicians within its borders, what James Thurber dubbed the “Ohio Look”: “The dreamy, far-away expression of a man richly meditating on cheer­ing audiences, landslides, and high office.”

Next, my kindling. For this I focused on two cohorts whose reputation couldn’t be much lower at the moment: politicians and reporters. We’re used to politicians as punching bags. But as a long-time journalist, I’m happy to report that my industry isn’t far behind: we now sit below lumberjacks and enlisted military personnel in rankings of the worst jobs, according to CareerCast’s annual list. Just a few rungs up the ladder, corrections officers and taxi drivers edged out photojournalists and broadcasters. (No word yet about Uber drivers.)

When it came to portraying politicians, in the form of state lawmakers and a governor, I tried to present individuals aiming to do good—in this case, pass a fictional school-funding bill—while engaging in questionable personal and political behavior. I had for my guide a comment attributed to 19th-century New York lawyer Gideon Tucker, an enlarged copy of which hangs in the Ohio Statehouse pressroom, to wit: “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session.” The observation was one of the first things I saw when I joined the press corps in1999 as an Associated Press newsman and was often on my mind during the year Capitol Punishment took shape. My fictional Statehouse bears a strong resemblance to the real thing, with a major exception: I put Democrats in charge of the Ohio Senate, which in reality they haven’t controlled for more than two decades. Although Republicans run everything in the Ohio Legislature these days, split governance isn’t that far-fetched: Democrats made up the House majority as recently as 2009. The partisan split I created through literary license provided the tension that makes murder plausible. As one of my characters notes, “Nothing changes hands at the Statehouse with­out an IOU attached. Don’t ever forget that.”

(Right) Author Andrew Welsh-Huggins

The reporter that my investigator protects, Lee Hershey, is an amalgam of several people I’ve known over the years, and reflects both the old and new elements of journalism. Once a dyed-in-the-wool newspaperman, he now runs an online investigative journalism blog that doesn’t have a print product. Like me, he’s as apt to get his news from an app as an actual paper. In early drafts Hershey was an unlikable cynic, and it was thanks to my editor that I painted him with a more realistic brush: a professional skeptic with a patriotic streak who pursues the truth because he loves his state and wants politicians to do the right thing by it. (His womanizing is another matter, and suffice it to say that Hershey’s zipper problem isn’t based on any of my colleagues’ conduct—at least, not that I’m aware of.)

I was getting close to starting the fire. The only thing missing was the spark. Although the fictional legislation up for debate funds schools, the real fireworks involve charter schools, those publicly funded, privately run institutions adored by Republicans and despised by most Democrats. Here was one area where the truth didn’t need much embellishment. Outside of abortion and guns, almost no issue in Ohio has led to more political arguments than these schools, whether the topic is their academic performance, their impact on traditional public schools, or their use (and misuse) of taxpayer dollars. Voila: we have ignition.

Little did I know that, had I waited just a little bit longer, I could have borrowed liberally, so to speak, from even more combustible source material. All I had to do was turn on the presidential debates.