Tag Archives: howard county

Under Water

On July 30, 2016 a thousand-year rainfall event triggered flash flooding in Ellicott City, Maryland, demolishing businesses, wrecking cars, and killing two people. A historic strip situated along the bottom of a valley, the town is no stranger to flooding. Major floods occurred in 1868, 1923, 1952, 1972, and 2006 before this latest event.

Rising waters in the nearby Patapsco River produced most of these floods, although the culprit behind the 1972 flood was the remnants of hurricane Agnes, and this most recent flood came top-down rather than bottom-up, due to runoff from higher ground that had nowhere to go but into the historic district.

Flooding being a tragic but inevitable part of the Ellicott City’s history, sooner or later it probably has to figure into some kind of story set in the area. So I say to myself, “Self, it might as well figure into your next Howard County mystery.”

Thus,  the plot wheels are turning in my head. Please bear in mind that this is all very preliminary.

It occurs to me that the flood waters, which gouged out the sidewalks in front of area businesses, exposing the undersides of buildings, might simultaneously reveal something more sinister. The remains of a murder victim? A valuable artifact stolen in the past and never recovered? Documents testifying to some dark and hitherto unrevealed event?

It further occurs to me that a flood might provide cover for a crime. If someone goes missing just then, it might be assumed they fell victim to the deluge.

And finally, it occurs to me that given the number of times Ellicott City has faced down floods, a crime committed and obscured in one flood event could be uncovered as a result of another. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

These being preliminary ruminations, nothing here counts as a spoiler. But I’m pretty sure Rick Peller and crew will find themselves wading into treacherous waters before too long.

An “Ice on the Bay” Milestone

A couple of days ago, I completed the first draft of Ice on the Bay, my third Howard County mystery. Its completion coincides with another change in my life: a job change. For the past 10 months I’ve been making a two hour commute by car, train, light rail, and foot from my home in Baltimore County to northern Virginia. Today is my last day there. On Monday, I assume a new position much closer to home.

Both changes impact my writing. The completion of a first draft is a time to sit back, relax, and recharge. Not that I don’t continue writing. I currently have two other projects in the works: my SF/humor novel Space Operatic, which is about two thirds complete, and the rewrite of a manuscript my father left behind. But now I need to get some distance from Ice on the Bay, so that I can evaluate and revise it.

The job change means I won’t have writing time on board the commuter train anymore. Much of Ice on the Bay was written while riding the rails. I won’t know how my writing life will be arranged until I see what the new position is like in terms of schedule, commute, and work load. In previous positions, I often wrote on my lunch break. That may or may not be possible this time.

Either way, change provides new inputs for writing: new people, new experiences, new settings. All parts of life are interconnected, even if only in subtle ways, and any of it could be fodder for the next story.


Writing What You Don’t Know

Here’s a well-worn adage for writers: “Write what you know.” Problem is, I don’t know anything.

That’s not strictly true. I’m an expert software developer. I’m an amateur astronomer and have a long-standing interest in physics.  Although not an expert yet, I’ve learned a bit about the art of bonsai. But most of my skills and interests have little to do with anything I write.

Some regard “write what you know” as cliche rather than solid writing advice, but there is a point in it. When you’re a writer, your knowledge and life experiences worm their way into your stories. Fragments of personalities you’ve encountered in real life show up in your characters, and their lives will mirror aspects of your own.

Here’s a small example. In True Death, one of my characters vents his rage by taking an axe to a downed tree. That tree was, in a sense, a real downed tree, one that fell into my swimming pool during a storm a few years before the story was written, although I didn’t hack it to bits while thinking murderous thoughts.

Regardless, fiction writers of necessity write about what they don’t know, too. I’m writing a detective series, yet I’ve never been a detective or a police officer. Indeed, I’ve only known two police officers, and I’ve talked very little with either about their work. Unlike Rick Peller, my main character, I don’t know what it’s like to learn that my wife has been killed. (That’s an experience I don’t want to have, either.) Unlike Eric Dumas, another of my detectives, I don’t know what it’s like to suffer massive rejection. Indeed, I’ve never lived in Howard County, although I’ve worked there a couple of times.

So how do you write what you don’t know? Research, for one thing. Primarily, I research online to learn about places and things, processes and procedures. But not everything can be readily researched that way. What about characters’ backgrounds and experiences and thoughts and emotions?

Easy! I make it up as I go along.

That may sound dicey, but it works. Maybe I get lucky. Or maybe I actually do know more than I think.