Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Greatest Criminal Mind Ever

By Frank Cook

Invariably when I go to writer conferences like the New England Crime Bake (Nov. 13-15 in Dedham, MA, with Sue Grafton as this year's guest of honor) one of the most frequently asked questions is “where do you get your ideas?”

And invariably the author’s answer almost always has something to do with some soaring experience or the depth of their soul. Some build their stories around a character they conjure, others fashion them after a recent event.

Those aren’t the answers I’m looking for. When I ask, “Where do you get your ideas,” I literally mean “where are you when you get your ideas?” Are you at the grocery store? In the shower? At the gym?

Whenever I write fiction, I start with the scene. I don’t start with “the character” or “the event.” I start with the surroundings.

The idea for my short story “Liberty” (Seasmoke anthology, Level Best Books) came to me while I walked my dog around my neighborhood. The triggering thoughts were, “What kind of crime could be committed here?” “If a criminal was doing exactly what I’m doing, what kind of crime would he commit?”

Since then, I’ve found that approach has worked time and again. After attending a few author readings at my favorite book store (RiverRun in Portsmouth), I started mulling, “what kind of crime could be committed here?” That question led to “The Greatest Criminal Mind Ever” (recently selected for "Quarry: Crime Stories by New England Writers" being published in November).

Likewise, a spring morning and the annual ritual of cleaning out the basement led to frequent trips to the local recycling center. Those trips ultimately led to the story, “The dump at the Dump.”

My wife Pat Remick’s award-winning story “Mercy 101” (Still Waters anthology, Level Best Books), came from her commute on Highway 101 from Portsmouth to the state capital in Concord.

Again, first came the scene. Second, came the crime. After that, it’s matter populating the plot with the right characters.

The point here is that story ideas need not come from some grand place or exotic situation. Entertaining ideas come from the most mundane places. And let’s face it, we’ve all considered writing, “Murder at the DMV.”

But, awkwardly transitioning back to where I started, one of the great things about going to Crime Bake is listening to other authors talk about where they get their ideas and, of course, listening to experts suggest how to carry them out.

I have listened to Jeremiah Healy discuss the best way to stab people without getting blood on yourself, and I have learned as Chuck Hogan (Prince of Thieves) taught me how to rob banks. And I have been relieved to hear poison lady Luci Zahray assure, “Don’t worry, coroners almost never test for these things.”

It occurred to me then that the greatest criminal minds in New England aren’t in prison. They’re at Crime Bake.

It also occurred to me that the local SWAT team probably had the building surrounded.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A noise in the dark

When I heard the noise coming from outside at 1 a.m. Sunday, I thought perhaps we had fallen victim to thieves who have been rummaging through neighborhood cars. I rushed downstairs, flicked on the outdoor lights and looked out the window to see an adult white-tailed deer less than 3 feet of way.

The animal glanced toward me, flicked its tail and slowly ambled off. I suspect it had been grazing on the bushes near our house and clearly, it was unafraid of the human occupant peering through the window.

The experience makes me wonder what other animal behavior is going on while we sleep, though I am particularly intrigued by the deer I often spot walking through the woods behind our house or appearing on the lawn early in the morning. They are beautiful animals, even if their fondness for our Hosta and shrubs ruins the plants.

Apparently I am not the only one fascinated by these creatures. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, a 78-year-old anthropologist from Peterborough, NH, has just written "The Hidden Life of Deer" and tells us:

"Deer families are run by their mothers. Local families arrange into a hierarchy. They adopt orphans; they occasionally reject a child; they use complex warnings to signal danger; they mark their territories; they master local microclimates to choose their beds; and they send countless coded messages that we can read, if only we know what to look for."

Thomas, who's also written about the hidden lives of elephants, dogs and cats, penned her latest book after a year of observing more than 30 deer that took advantage of the piles of food she left near her farmhouse when they faced starvation following the 2007 failure of the acorn crop. She wondered how the animals knew went to come as a group and why sometimes they cooperated, and sometimes they competed.

I hope the answers, along with ways to decode the deer messages, are revealed in her book, which I intend to read because I want to know more about these animals who are living -- and eating -- so close to my door. According to some statistics, there are an estimated 20 million to 25 million deer in the USA and the number is growing because of the decline in natural predators and hunting. Experts estimate that there be now be as many as 100 deer per square mile, especially in eastern metropolitan areas.

Doesn't it make you wonder how many might be walking around outside your home tonight?

According to the HarperCollins web site, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas will discuss her new book on Friday, October 16, at Water Street Bookstore in Exeter.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Life in 3-D

There was a moment last week when I truly feared someone might have to peel me off the walls and push me through the opening of the hallway where Husband No. 1 and I waited our turn to pin a D.C. Metropolitan Police Department badge on No. 1 son's dress blue uniform. My eyes were welling, my breathing was rushing toward hyperventilation and panic was racing through my body.

This would not have been a surprise to No. 1 son, who earlier had half-jokingly noted he'd considered the possibility that I might grab his badge and go running off the stage in front of his 19 fellow rookie officers, their families, the Police Chief and the Mayor.

The thought did cross my mind. But then he advised me he'd actually been formally commissioned as an officer the day before this Police Academy graduation and issued the gun that is his until he retires or it's taken away. It was far too late to stop him from becoming a police officer. In fact, it was too late nine months earlier when he left NH to begin this adventure. And when I think about it now, it probably was already too late all those years ago when everything he touched became a weapon to use as a cowboy, a soldier or a superhero.

Nonetheless, I could see our younger son closely watching from the graduation audience, camera in hand and a grin on his face that signaled he was ready to capture the moment if I decided to bolt when the announcer called my policeman son, my husband and I forward for the badge-pinning part of the ceremony. It was an excruciatingly long walk across that stage.

But I was walking toward a young man who looked so sure, so proud and yes, so ready for his new life. It's difficult to tell from this photograph of him handing me his badge whether I'm smiling or gritting my teeth. I suspect it was a combination of both. I do know, though, that I was incredibly relieved because I'd just learned his district assignment and it wasn't the very toughest in the city (though I've since discovered it averages about 20 murders and 6,000 other major crimes annually, and is home to members of one of the nation's most dangerous gangs).

Then it was time to go through the receiving line of Police Department dignitaries. "We'll keep him safe," the Chief, an amazing and imposing woman named Cathy Lanier, told me. (To read her fascinating story, click here.) I suspect she makes that promise to all the mothers whose smiling faces cannot hide the deep fear in their hearts. Nonetheless, it was an assurance from one mother to another, which gave me comfort.

Intellectually, I know my son's career choice should not feel quite so unnerving. As a journalist, I spent years covering crime. I write about it as a mystery author. I've been on police ride-a-longs and interacted with police officers on a not-infrequent professional basis over the years. For many years, my great-uncle was in charge of the Police Department where I now live. But when I first held my son's bulletproof vest, I thought I might pass out from the realization of what it signified. Lifting his duty belt that holds his gun, flashlight, handcuffs, chemical spray, etc., nearly gave me a lump in my stomach, literally and figuratively. This is not a job for the weak or faint of heart (or their mothers).

It also is a job with its own foreign vocabulary and alphabet soup of acronyms, most of which his parents probably will never fully understand. When he talked about showing up the next day in 3-D, it took a while to realize he was referring to his assignment to DC's Police District 3 and not a movie requiring special glasses to view. His first arrest, which came his first day on the streets, was a POCA, he informed us -- involving a prohibited open container of alcohol. He advised us the demonstrations on the national mall are handled by SOD (Special Operations Division), not beat cops, and so forth. When he told us he took a report of a woman beaten in broad daylight when she wouldn't give up her diamond ring to a couple of bandits, I asked what he knew about that gang.

"Bandits are not a gang," he patiently informed me. "That's what we call the bad guys." Oh.

Even if I do learn all the terms, I'm not sure I'll ever become used to the metal lump under his shirt when I hug him. Or the idea that he's made a commitment to risk his life every day for others. But this is not about me. It's about my child finding his passion. I just pray it will add welcome dimensions far beyond the challenging realities of this new life in 3-D.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Living in "Idiot America"....

Let's see if I've got this right: parents upset over the idea that President Obama is going to address the schoolchildren of America Tuesday to urge them to study hard and stay IN school are threatening to keep their kids OUT of school so they won't hear that message.

This proves it: We are living in "Idiot America" (see definition below).

Not only do we have a major brouhaha going on over whether the president can address the nation's schoolchildren, but we've got school administrators caving in to objections that I believe are actually generated by extreme right-wing conservatives flooding e-mailboxes with incendiary messages designed to do whatever it takes to gain control of our country.

I guess we're living in spineless America, too.

Maybe those of us who believe schoolchildren ought to hear the "study hard, stay in school" message should also be calling our local school administrators. The White House is going to release the text of the president's speech on Monday, but I suspect there will still be those raising a stink that he could divert from his prepared remarks and politicize the message. If "study hard and stay in school" is a political agenda, I'm for it.

But back to "Idiot America." I went to hear Charles Pierce (who also appears on the wonderful NPR news quiz show "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me") talk about his new book "Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free" at a local bookstore last week. This is what he says are the principles of Idiot America:

1) A theory need only sell books or elevate ratings in order to be deemed valid. (This explains how someone like Ann Coulter gets TV airtime on legitimate news programs to continue to spread blatant lies and distortions, such as calling John Edwards a "fag.")

2) "Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough." (This explains the nut jobs screaming at the health care forums being held during the congressional recess and Sarah Palin's claims about death panels.)

3) A fact is defined as “that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.” (This may explain why otherwise reasonably intelligent people still believe the Internet smear campaign that Obama was not born in the United States.)

OK, I know this rant is overly political but for heaven's sakes, what is happening in our country when Idiot America gets the bully pulpit and people are no longer able to engage in civil discourse? Does anyone consider people screaming epithets at health care forums to be "civil discourse"? Disagree, sure. Disagree fervently, OK. But we've got people screaming about socialism and fascism who couldn't even define those words if their lives depended on it. And yet, they're getting the publicity instead of the millions of Americans who believe there's a problem with our health care system.

I think Charles Pierce may be correct. The people who used to be considered "cranks" that everyone else tolerated or ignored, now seem to be allowed into the mainstream and get shows on Fox.

But I'll go one step further: I believe those cranks are being manipulated by a rabid, far-right conservative movement that will go to any lengths, and that includes loudly spreading bold-faced lies, to take over our government.

If we let that happen, we're the idiots.

So, I say, it's time for a liberal Ann Coulter. I'm willing to take on the job. I just have to lose a few more pounds and make my hair a whole lot blonder. Then I'll start spouting ridiculous (but liberal) lies and use the Internet to spread my propaganda. If I stay on message long enough and loud enough, people will start to believe me and someone will want me to appear on TV. Then there will be an extremely lucrative book deal and six-figure speaking fees.

Maybe it's not so idiotic after all.