Simon Wood

Posts Tagged: back stories


This month’s Back Story piece centers on my recent release, CRESTFALLEN.

When I decided to write, I wanted to write PI novels like Raymond Chandler.  There were two problems with that plan—one, I didn’t know what a Private eye did and two, Raymond Chandler is a bloody good writer.  So I tended to steer clear of PI fiction, mainly for the latter reason.  The problem was I wasn’t Chandler.  I didn’t have his experiences or his world view.  I had my own and it was more in line with Hitchcock’s movies—ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.  It was me in a nutshell—and I’m happy with my nutshell. 

However, I still wanted to write pulpy PI stories and I wanted to create my “Marlowe” character.  I came up with Peter Crestfallen about a decade ago.  I tested the waters with a short story.  It sold very quickly and I wanted to keep going but I needed to do my research.  I signed up for a couple of classes in Sacramento—“How to become a PI” and “How to find out anything about anyone.” Even if I never wrote another PI story, I thought the classes would be good research for other novels and stories.

Both classes were run by a woman who was a PI in the greater Sacramento area for a couple of decades—and she was awesome.  Just like Marlowe, Spade, Archer, Hammer, etc., she ran a lone wolf PI agency, but if you’re imagining a leggy redhead with cleavage to drown a football team in, then think again.  In appearance, she had more in common with Miss Marple than VI Warshawski.   

She taught us the mechanics of what you had to do to become a licensed PI in California and how to build investigation hours and credits.  The “How to find out anything about anyone” was essentially a public records class.  She detailed how to track people and find them through public records and how to protect yourself against being traced.  This was all very interesting stuff and useful to me in my other books.  I’ve used several nuggets of information in a number of them over the years.  However, her personal experiences were worth the price of admission.  She talked about her career and how it wasn’t like the movies.  I liked how she was the “go to” person when it came to serving papers on the unserveables. She got to people that other process servers couldn’t reach.  She had some nice tricks for catching people out. Her story about tailing a client’s husband to strip clubs became the inspiration for CRESTFALLEN’S KINK.  A number of her other tales made their way into the stories in some form or another. 

I took the classes for story purposes, not knowing that Julie and I would become PIs ourselves a few years later, but not in the traditional sense.  We worked for an agency and started off as mystery shoppers before ending up going undercover in casinos in Nevada and California trying to unearth staff who were stealing from their employers.  This work is very different from the modern PI who tends to work on the behalf of defense lawyers—read David Corbett’s books for an idea.

Having done some PI work and talked to a few modern day PIs, I was a little worried that the classic PI we know and love ($50 a day plus expenses) doesn’t really exist, so I took comfort that there was someone out there gumshoeing it like Marlowe.  So I hope you’ll give the CRESTFALLEN stories a shot and if you buy a copy, let me know and I’ll send you an audio edition of CRESTFALLEN’S WIDOW just to ensure I pick you up as a client.  J

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Relationships with our coworkers are a vital part of life. Considering that we spend a third of our day in the workplace, they have to be. No wonder we build friendships with workmates. That’s great. Unfortunately, the flipside of personal relationships in the workplace is that they can turn sour–and violent.

I’ve seen workplace violence up close. At my last job, my employer took out a temporary restraining order against an employee after he threatened to harm a number of staff members (myself included). Let’s just say that’s a tad awkward when you bump into that person in a mall. Oddly enough, a restraining order has little power in that situation, but running does. Back in the UK, a firm I used to work next to had a problem with one of their people. When they let him go, he tendered his resignation by throwing an office chair through a second floor window. A few days later, he came back at night and drove a car through the main entrance.

According to government statistics, twenty people are murdered at their place of work every week in the US. Retail jobs top the list as the most dangerous profession and women are the most likely to be killed. Now, the majority of these deaths aren’t committed by one coworker upon another, but it gives you an idea of how dangerous the modern workplace is. By the by, if you want to know which profession suffers the least from workplace violence, its mineworkers.

But it wasn’t incidents like these that became the inspiration for my latest thriller, Terminated, but what companies are doing to combat workplace violence. Workplace violence isn’t good for business. Not only is it disruptive, upsetting and frightening, it’s also expensive. And in the world of commerce, money talks. It’s the expense which is forcing companies to employ some interesting tactics. Some companies in high profile industries are hiring private security firms to handle claims against violent and potentially violent employees. The security firms provide protection for those threatened and their families, but that’s not the intriguing part. The security firms also investigate and run background checks on the accused. If the investigators find any dirt, indiscretions or infractions, this is used to build a case against the violent employee. The evidence is then used as part of a criminal case or it’s just dangled in front of the troublemaker to force that person leave of their own accord, unless they want their dirty laundry aired to the world. The whole notion blew me away. I was amazed at what a company has to do to prevent a potentially volatile situation.

This situation became the inspiration for Terminated. The book chronicles a personal grievance at work that takes on a life of its own. In the book, Gwen Farris has the unenviable task of managing Stephen Tarbell. Tarbell is already bent out of shape because he believes he should be manager, not Gwen. The ignition source for the conflict is an annual performance evaluation. When Gwen issues Tarbell a poor evaluation, he tells her to change it–or else. Gwen goes to her bosses, this only serves to inflame the situation, and it all goes downhill from there.

Now the book’s scenario may come over as extreme, but it isn’t. Looking through reports of real life incidences of workplace violence, the flame that has ignited a firestorm in the workplace have been as simple as an off color joke, a remark about someone’s girlfriend/wife/daughter, a humiliating prank, and an interoffice romance gone wrong, just to name a few. If you can name it, it’s been a source of conflict in the workplace. I came across the most astounding incident by pure luck after I finished the book, which surrounded Marta Bradley and Alan Chmurny. Chmurny was Marta’s boss and they enjoyed a friendship for a number of years. An incident occurred to change that which resulted in Chmurny stalking Marta’s every move for four years. His crimes against her escalated from vandalism to breaking and entering and ended in a failed murder attempt. Chmurny ended up committing suicide in the courtroom after a guilty verdict. What was the reason for all the emotional wreckage? Marta had said publicly that she hadn’t liked Chmurny’s deviled eggs at a company picnic.

Writing this book has been quite sobering. The workplace seems like a safe environment where we feel we know our colleagues, but how well do we really know them? It’s a dangerous world out there and the greatest threat you face might not be from a hostile nation abroad, but the other side of your cubicle wall.

Categories: book of the month shelf life

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“How could I kidnap a child and get away with it?”

This was probably the wrong question to ask an FBI agent right out of the gate. The agent’s expression turned grim and his answer was clipped and a tad aggressive. “You couldn’t. We’d catch you.”

“Yeah, but,” I said before he interrupted me.

“No buts. We’d catch you. When a kid gets snatched, we drop everything. It becomes top priority. You wouldn’t stand a chance.”

I’ll admit it was at this point I started to panic. Not because I thought the Feds weren’t going to let me leave the building, but because I saw my novel falling apart around me. A child kidnapping is a key factor in Paying the Piper. A kidnapper with a grudge comes after the family of a newspaper reporter. I thought it was a good idea. So did the publisher. They’d paid me an advance on this very storyline. In the space of five minutes, my book was in tatters before it was written because the FBI knew better.

I thought the storyline was going to be tough to pull off, but not this tough. I quickly outlined the scenario for the book to demonstrate my master plan for counteracting law enforcement procedure. I waited for him to applaud me for my criminal genius. He didn’t.

“We’d still catch you,” he said.

I wasn’t too downhearted as I didn’t care if my antagonist got caught, as long as he got caught on page 347 and not page 10. I put my frayed plotline to one side and we talked kidnappings-procedures, old cases, likely outcomes, etc. As I listened a single thought rose to the surface. It’s bloody hard to get away with a high profile crime. As far as I can see it, as soon as the cops get a hold of the case, you (the criminal) are toast.

The problem is, it is impossible not to leave a trail. It doesn’t matter if you go hi-tech or lo-tech. There’s a trail. As I listened, I could envisage a snail-like physical trail left behind by my fictional kidnapper and the cops following it all the way to his lair.

I couldn’t see a way around the problem. A kidnapper, being a kidnapper, needs to make contact with the kidnap family. Phones are a nightmare these days. Landline or wireless, they’re easy to trace. Digital seems to be the criminal’s worst enemy. The technology’s strength is its weakness. As easy as it is to use, it’s just as easy to locate.

Going old school doesn’t help matters either. If the kidnapper sends a letter, he’s going to need a return address for return correspondence. That doesn’t even cover the issues of how easy it would be to trace the sorting offices the letter went through to narrow down the sender’s location. Document specialists can lift all sorts of forensic evidence off paper.

The only thing left open to the kidnapper is face-to-face meets and that’s fish-in-a-barrel time for law enforcement.

It doesn’t matter how you slice it, if you kidnap a kid for ransom, you’re going to get caught.

Eventually, with a little a devious ingenuity plot-wise and some character flaws, I built a plotline that worked, but the Q&A with the FBI was a tipping point. I’m a good guy, but it made me question myself and whether I would ever cross a legal line. I can’t say I won’t, but I can’t rule it out. Circumstance may dictate otherwise. However, the more I write and the more I research crimes for my stories, the more honest it makes me. In spite of how smart I think I am, I’d get caught. I’ve seen the inside of police stations, courtrooms and a prison and I quite honestly can say I don’t want to be arrested, I don’t want to go to court, and I definitely don’t want to go jail. I wouldn’t last a day in the big house. This smart mouth would get me into all sorts of trouble.

So a simple question about kidnapping helped turn me into a more law abiding person. It’s my fiction that’s just plain criminal…

Categories: book of the month

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