A Thief in Cleveland: Writing My Debut Novel

Where do I get my ideas? I steal them.

One of the metric ton of things I’m fussing about with the release of my first novel, Too Lucky to Live, is: What sort of questions am I likely to get asked when I give talks at libraries and bookstores? Let’s assume there will be at least a few people in attendance, but that’s not important now. I am, of course, freaked out about the talks themselves, but what preys on my mind at 3:14 a.m.—as the clock replaces an old minute with a new minute, digitally, in red—is The Q&A.

In particular, the Qs.

I know where those questions will come from. Out of left field, that’s where. People will ask me things about my plot, my characters, the in-depth character of my characters. The squeamish will inquire about the appallingly plentiful number of murders in the story. The bloodthirsty will interrogate me about why there are so disappointingly few. I fully expect somebody to rise up out of my past and ask how my dear mother would feel about the multiple…er…romantic elements in the plot. About those questions I’m merely guessing, but one I surely can count on is the ever popular, “Where do you get your ideas?” So I’m focusing on that. It’s a fair question that deserves a straight answer. Fine. Where do I get my ideas? That’s easy. I steal them from the City of Cleveland.

A Quick Little Snatch and Grab

Don’t let’s get all up in arms. I’m not talking plagiarism here. I’m talking simple swiping, a touch of pilfering, a quick little snatch and grab. Nothing I take will ever be missed. None of it is tangible, traceable, or even fence-worthy. No one will suffer for the lack of it. I’m stealing ideas from my city as fast, as frequently, and as thoroughly as I can. And I’ll tell you what: The City of Cleveland is loaded up to here with ‘em.

I’m from a small town (Pop. 1300) in West Virginia, and although there were terrific story ideas leaping out all around me for the years I was growing up there, I couldn’t see them because everything seemed commonplace to me then. Cleveland, though? That’s at least a couple hundred thousand stories, and not all of them are about our World-Class Orchestra or our World-Catastrophic football team.

For example, before we moved from the burbs to the city, I’d never realized a single storefront could house “Christian Book Store & Exterminator.” Choir robes and rat bait are available right there under one roof. When I drove by one snowy morning, something in my heart purely leapt for the insouciant exuberance of it. I had to pull over and blink for a while. Cleveland is not tame. It’s not impeccably manicured. Sometimes it’s not even survivable. But it sure is alive.

For an idea-thieving writer of mysteries like me, Cleveland—gritty, funky, cool old town, loaded up with history and hardship, magnificence and malfeasance—keeps whispering, “Look! No. Really. Look!”

She’s her own girl

These days when I stumble over something I’d call “uniquely Cleveland,” I’ve got my protagonist Allie Harper with me. I’m seeing the things that grab, horrify, delight, and inspire me through her eyes, too. Allie is not me. We share some points of view and some common experiences but she’s her own girl. I let her tell me how I should think about what we see.

Of the ideas Allie and I have lifted from my general neighborhood, here are some I’ve squirreled away. They come in all shapes and sizes. Only one of them is in the first book in the series. Some will never see the light of day. Except here. And in Cleveland.

From an email alerting my neighbors and me to a clumsily attempted break-in on 151st : “The suspect, who was not apprehended, is a chubby white woman in a silver Ford Focus.” Seriously? A memory of the junker car we met down on MLK Drive sporting a mustache of rust stretched across its dented hood. A look so…um… distinctive that Allie believes she’d recognize that car anywhere. I’m pretty sure she’s going to see it again.

Where is the elephant-truck headed?

How about a big, gray garbage truck, inexplicably out on the street at 8 a.m. on a Sunday, hulking through the fog like an elephant? Out of Africa and onto 156th at the corner where it intersects with Grovewood. I have a general idea about where the elephant-truck is headed. I’m pretty sure it’s going to turn left and then we’ll see.

Or a mural splashed across the side of a building over on Waterloo featuring a giant orange KABOOM! in honor of Cleveland gangster, Danny Greene. He survived an attempt to blow him up there a couple of years before he was killed by a car bomb outside his dentist’s office.

A woman talking on the phone with one of her kids, overheard through her car window as she waited for the light to change, “No. He had a Pop-Tart and you had a Pop-Tart. We’re done.” Does that belong in a story? Probably not. For Allie and me, it was its own sweet reward.

I was waiting to pull onto Lake Shore Boulevard one morning when I saw a guy with a white cane step into the crosswalk. A horn blared. Allie Harper appeared for the very first time anywhere, and muttered right in my ear, “You know you live in a rough neighborhood when somebody honks at a blind man in the crosswalk.” That one ended up as the first line of Too Lucky to Live.

Thank you very much, Ms. Cleveland. I owe you. Big time.