Joey Getchie may be 16 years old, but he’s been with me more than three decades. He first appeared on a manuscript page—and in 1983 it was an actual sheet of paper rolled into a typewriter—as one of the protagonists in an epic fantasy called Alexander’s Web. That early Joey differed from the Joey who would eventually arrive in Property of the State in 2016. He was younger, and could do magic—it was a fantasy, after all.
But the core of who Joey would eventually become was there from the beginning: his resourcefulness, his quick, if occasionally self-destructive wit, and his determination to make his own way. And, perhaps most importantly, his big heart.
[Editor’s Note: Property of the State has been named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2016.]
Alexander’s Web had its strengths, but even more it had its weaknesses. In time, I realized it was a lost cause, so I set it aside. I started writing mysteries—my first love as a reader—and eventually found my way into print as a mystery writer. But bits and pieces of Alexander’s Web stuck with me. One of those pieces was Joey Getchie. Though I’ve never regretted moving on from a novel that had grown unwieldy and likely unfixable, I did miss Joey.
It seemed a little sad and unfair I’d stuck him in a novel I would never finish. Still, almost every writer I know has a novel or three (or ten) they’ve left behind for various reasons. You can love these old unfinished works-in-regress while also recognizing they’re holding you back. Sometimes you gotta let go.
Fast-forward a couple of decades. In 2011, I reread one of my childhood favorites, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Like all great books, the story of Claudia and Jamie Kincaid’s decision to run away to New York City and live in secret in the Metropolitan Museum of Art holds up and continues to inspire. In my case, it brought back a memory from my senior year in high school. Way back then, I got into an argument with my mom and left the house, and didn’t return for three weeks.
I wasn’t arrested for TRESPASSING
Of course, I didn’t hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But I did hide out—in the home of a family I worked for. In retrospect, I realize how lucky I am I wasn’t arrested for trespassing, but secretly squatting seemed like a good idea at the time.
It was easier than it might sound at first. The house was huge. My duties included cleaning, a job that took me a full week, two hours a day after school, to finish. (And I didn’t even have to do personal areas like bedrooms or bathrooms.) I had a key, and knew which parts of the house were rarely used. For three weeks, I slept in the rec room before I finally got tired of sneaking around and went home again. My mom thought I’d been staying with a friend—which wasn’t exactly untrue. (A few years later, I did come clean to the couple who owned the house. They said, “We would have been happy to let you stay a while. You didn’t have to sneak, you just had to ask.”)
Remembering this, it occurred to me I’d been kind of like Claudia and Jamie, except they were organized and investigated a mystery while I ate a lot of cold cereal and worried someone would notice I was wearing the same clothes to school every day. I tried to imagine what kind of mystery I might have investigated in that giant house, and laughed at the idea my kind, soft-spoken employers might have had some dark secret. They were the nicest people you’d ever be likely to meet.
Discovers a dark secret
But, because I’m a writer I asked myself, what if they weren’t? What if I had stumbled across something sinister, a secret that wouldn’t have been evident when I was dusting, mopping, and waxing but I’d discovered while lurking secretly through the house in the dark? And there it was, the foundation of Property of the State. A kid runs away from home and, while hiding in an acquaintance’s house, discovers a dark secret. Think From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler meets Rear Window.
Of course, that’s not a story, it’s a premise. I needed a character, and since I’m a mystery writer, I needed a mystery. Claudia and Jamie were trying to discover the origin of a lovely statue on display at the museum. My story needed something darker.
The main character, I knew, would need to be resourceful and determined to make his own way. And, I wanted him to be acerbic and witty, often to his detriment. And, of course, I wanted him to have a big heart.
It did not immediately occur to me that Joey Getchie was this character, even though he was this character. Remember, the original Joey was younger and did magic. He lived in a very different world. Unconsciously, I may have been channeling the Joey who’d been with me for decades, but consciously I thought I was creating someone new. My character, I decided, would be an orphan on the run from a bad foster placement. The house where he’d hide would be in Portland, where I lived, and based loosely on the place where I once worked. I even drew floor plans. Since this was to be an edgy mystery, the family he’d work for wouldn’t be the nicest people ever, though it wouldn’t be immediately obvious they had something to hide.
Why not raid it again?
It took a friend to indirectly remind me of Joey. I’d mentioned how I was struggling with my new project, and he said, “You know what I think. I think you should go back and rewrite Alexander’s Web.”
Well, that ship had sailed. Heck, I’d even raided Alexander’s Web for another character a couple of books earlier, though mostly just the name and physical description—a decision that mentally helped me leave the old novel behind for good. But then it hit me. Why not raid it again, but this time take more than a name and appearance. Why not take everything I liked best about my favorite character? I’d have to drop the magic, age Joey a few years, and move him cross country. But everything else would work. Joey was a loner. He was driven. He had a tragic history but hadn’t let it beat him down. (He had a clearer awareness of the moral and legal implications of his trespassing.) And he was a blast to write. Joey Getchie lives!
That decision was a breakthrough moment. Once you know who a character is, all sorts of things open up. Plot points develop out of the character’s strengths and weaknesses, their needs and choices. You can see where to apply pressure and advance the narrative through the way the character responds. Your premise starts to become a story.
Sure, there was still a lot to be done, world building and the development of the rest of the character. I didn’t just have to design the house where Joey would hide out, I had to work out where he went to school, who he was running from and why, and a lot more. But with Joey on board, the work went quickly. With Joey Getchie as its heart and soul, Property of the State came to life.
Ultimately, Joey himself changed and grew from the little boy who cast spells back in the 80s to the millennial teen who refuses to let the system grind him down. But the essence of his character has been with me from the beginning. I’m happy I was finally able to share him with the world.