A Writer’s Journey: In the Beginning

Monkey typingLast week, I announced I was retiring from crime fiction. I wish that was after a ton of sales, movie deals, and a series based on my work. I’d love to retire for real in my forties, though something tells me I’d just go find something else to do.

But retire from the genre I am, and I thought I’d go back to when I started this journey way back in 1999. New Year’s Eve, specifically.

Author Jennette Marie Powell, back when she was “that girl who introduced me to my (now-ex) wife,” announced she had written her first novel and signed with one of the first ebook publishers. “So when do you finish yours?”

Um…

I’d written a lot in the 1990s, but I was stealing Gene Roddenberry’s characters and situations. Call it fanfic. Call it plagiarism. Call it slacking off (which is probably the most appropriate description), it was wasting my talents. At the time, I had some scraps of notes and some scenes written for a Cleveland-based private detective named Nick Kepler. In the mid-1990s, I’d discovered Sue Grafton’s Alphabet series and found an arrangement for Kinsey Millhonne in her early adventures that would work well for Kepler as well. Nick would not lease an office. He would do claims investigations for his former employer in exchange for help from a secretary and free office space. And then one afternoon, as a contractor did work on the balconies of the apartment complex where I lived back then, Eddie Murphy popped up on Comedy Central doing his “Kill my landlord, kill my landlord” bit. And I thought, “How do you do that and get away with it? At least long enough for a private detective to figure it out before the cops?” So a story started to form. In fact, somewhere downstairs is a 14-page outline of the original story to Northcoast Shakedown.

But I had one problem. I didn’t know the character. Who was he? And what tropes did I want to avoid? Well, for starters, every writer and his first cousin were doing the psycho sidekick bit made famous in the Spenser novels. It worked for me in Spenser, even when Spenser did not, because it was Hawk. And Hawk was his own character, not an archetype. At least not in the beginning. But I didn’t think it’d be very original if I recycled what was now a cliche one more time.

I had a couple of ideas for shorts, both coming from real life incidents. In one, a deputy sheriff who worked out at the same gym as me at the time came in angry about an altercation he had with a motorist. The deputy was white (and generally a quiet guy). The motorist had been black. Race had, as it so often does, entered into it, and my fellow gym rat dropped an ‘N’ bomb while we sat at the smoothie bar. That pissed me off, but it was the genesis of “Race Card” and the character of Wolf (who might have made a decent psycho sidekick.)

The second involved reconnecting with a high school friend who was making a run at a recording career. My friend had married an abusive man while in the service and ditched him one night after one too many beatings. It was either that or kill him. My friend married her high school sweetheart (another old friend) and had a nice life at the time. But what if she’d killed him? And the childhood friend wasn’t some computer nerd now living in Cincinnati but a freelance insurance investigator?  Thus “A Walk in the Rain” was born. That one took one rainy evening in April of 2001. It landed in the second or third Plots With Guns, back when Neil Smith and Victor Gischler were still geeky grad students with delusions of noir godhood on their minds. (Neil’s always been a sound friend and a good writer. Vic has emerged as an off-beat fantasy/scifi writer and respected comic book writer.)

So I was ready to become a bestselling author. Right?

Well, that’s what I thought. And that led to one of many decisions I probably should not have made, but I’ll tell you about that at the end of the farewell tour this summer.

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Gypsy’s Kiss: Silky

Gypsy's KissA prominent figure in Gypsy’s life is Silky, the shady strip club owner who was a largely unseen presence in “Roofies.” Once upon a time, Silky paid Gypsy to get naked for his customers, She could, of course, earn a little more by doing more for said customers in the private rooms. Being a high-priced call girl during this phase of her career as a sex worker, she didn’t need the money from servicing some sweaty strip club patron in a backroom, particularly since it’s too easy to get busted.

But the events of “Roofies,” where Gypsy uses herself as bait to take out a more predatory club patron, cost Silky a lot of money. Kepler comes out and tells him that he and Gypsy probably saved his business by getting a couple of bartenders arrested for selling roofies and getting rid of someone who could harm his girls. His workers, thinks Kepler. His product, thinks Silky.

But it’s pretty obvious from his first interacting with Kepler in Gypsy’s Kiss that Silky is a narcissist. To him, the bust that sent sexual predator Harry Long to prison was a slap in the face. Ever the paternalist, Silky thinks he was doing Gypsy a favor by hiring her. How, he asks, could Gypsy betray him like that. And never mind that he fired her. He was there for her?

Of course, it looks silly from any sane person’s point of view. What happens to Gypsy, to one of the suspects, and eventually to Kepler is not the work of a stable mind. Of all those with a motive to harm Gypsy, Silky may be the least stable of them all.

Buy Gypsy’s Kiss now at Amazon!

Gypsy’s Kiss: Elaine

Gypsy's KissElaine Haskell started out as Nick’s inside link to TTG Insurance. As originally portrayed, she was a loud, brassy middle-aged mom who started out as a cheerleader for the Cleveland Cavaliers. On a sitcom, she would be that larger-than-life female neighbor who likes to stir things up. And that’s where I left her in Northcoast Shakedown. Then in Second Hand Goods, I decided to expand the relationship a bit. Nick working out of TTG as an independent operator was Elaine’s idea, as giving him secretarial support. So as Nick tries to sort out who, exactly, he’s working for, we find he’s come to view Elaine as a partner in his business and a voice for his conscience. So it comes as no surprise when both Nick and Elaine believe he will be dead that the married Elaine sleeps with him. This relationship only gets more complicated in Bad Religion as Elaine’s marriage crumbles while they try to find out who is defrauding a large suburban church. Which brings us to Gypsy’s Kiss.

It’s pretty clear that Elaine is scared. Changes are coming, and she is the one who has to make them. Her marriage is all but over. Her continued employment at TTG is bleeding the business dry. And then there’s Nick Kepler. He is there for her, but he’s not sure how much longer he can wait for her to make the hard decisions. Enter Gypsy. Elaine hates Gypsy, not just because she is a sex worker but because she sees what Nick cannot see. Gypsy wants Nick for herself.

In a way, Elaine is why this story has to be where Nick’s saga ends. The sexual and emotional tension between Nick and Elaine is there from the moment she first appears. By the time Bad Religion concludes, that tension is so intense that it requires some sort of resolution. But the tension has become central to Nick’s story. Resolving it or changing it would mean the story is over. And so Elaine’s final role in the tale is to give Nick Kepler some long-missing closure, the change in his life he’s been seeking since long before she even appeared in the series.

Buy Gypsy’s Kiss now at Amazon!

Gypsy’s Kiss: Gypsy

Gypsy's KissThe central character in Gypsy’s Kiss is one Geri Lincoln, aka Gypsy, a former hooker and stripper and now a high-priced call girl. We first met her in “Roofies,” where she helps Nick Kepler entrap a sexual predator stalking strippers along Cleveland’s seedy Brook Park Road. Frustrated with all the obstacles preventing Nick from taking the man down, she sets a trap and offers herself up as bait to catch him in the act. She as just as tough as, or perhaps even tougher than, Nick himself.

I originally conceived of Gypsy as a supporting character in “Roofies,” when the story was called “Harry Long.” I made her black to hearken back to Nick’s original girlfriend in the series, Margo, letting her tease Nick a little bit without any real meaning. As the story went through several iterations, including some hard edits by Thrilling Detective editor Kevin Burton Smith, Gypsy moved to the center of the story.

Given that Gypsy was already a high-priced call girl when we first meet her, she automatically brings a requisite amount of sexual tension. Nick knows he could have her for a price, though he suspects he could have her simply by dropping by her place.

Over time, I started to suspect Gypsy had more feelings for Nick than a sense of loyalty for protecting her and helping her chart a path out of her life of sexual servitude. When I decided to explore this, I wrote a short story called “Gypsy’s Kiss,” where the idea was clear. The execution came off as a poorly written sex fantasy. In reality, there had to be a reason Gypsy not only felt loyal enough to Nick to want him as her last client but a reason she would risk her own life to help him. So I went in a bit deeper than a 4000 word short story could explore.

As I began to write, it became clear that Nick and Gypsy’s history was much more complex than I’d depicted. When they meet, she’s clearly a crack whore while Nick is a suburban police officer. They get into a physical confrontation wherein she pulls a knife and he disarms her. Where the relationship truly begins is when Nick simply tosses the weapon aside, walks away, and says, “You dropped your knife..” Rather than attacking him, she gets into his cruiser and tells him all about a suspect he’s looking for.

She takes a bullet for him. He puts her in touch with a friend running a sober house and gets her off heroin. She sacrifices her very body to catch a predator, and Nick beats said predator into submission before he can do much harm. Nick appreciates loyalty, but either ignores any feelings he might have developed for her or is oblivious to her attraction to him

So there is enough there already for Nick to risk life and limb to help her make that final move out of the sex trade forever. But Gypsy sees Nick as something more than a man who treated her as something other than a disposable plaything. Taking a bullet for him has made him protective of her. He asks little in return beyond their previous arrangement. It’s not hard for a girl to fall in love with someone who protects her and helps her without demanding anything back.

But in many ways, Gypsy is so much stronger than Nick. She’s been hurt and abused more than he has, and her trust is not easily earned.

Gypsy’s Kiss: Nick Kepler

Gypsy's KissSo Gypsy’s Kiss is the last Nick Kepler story ever. Right?

Well, a wise man once said, “Never say never.” (It was Sean Connery, but that was a really bad Bond movie.) Still, this almost was literally the end of Nick.

Right after I finished Bad Religion, when I thought Second Hand Goods might still be published, I sketched out an outline for a new Kepler novel called Suicide Solution, one that saw Nick investigating the wrong doings around an abandoned amusement park. It’s a premise I really want to revisit, but it may end up being something more along the lines of Road Rules if I do it. But the publisher folded. I went off to do other things, and the outline sat on the hard drive ignored and neglected.

Then all the Kepler novels and existing short stories came out via Kindle and CreateSpace. Boom. Done. Could we please get back to trad pubbing where a crime writer belongs? (Note: YMMV.) Well…

I had just redrafted Holland Bay and sent it off to a pal for editing. I finished Dick’s science fiction novel. I wanted to do something else long. So I pulled out the outline to Suicide Solution and…

Nick wasn’t talking to me. He barely talked to me in a short story entitled “Gypsy’s Kiss,” which I’d felt was a bit rushed. And I looked at the outline. It opened with a scene where Nick and his best friend from high school, a girl named Janine, had sneaked into the abandoned amusement park on their prom night. They had a “virgin suicide” pact in that, if neither of them had lost their virginity by the end of their last year at high school, they would do what sexually compatible friends could to solve that problem. These are teenagers. I did not say they were smart. In any event, they are about to do the deed when an arsonist sets the building on fire with them in the basement. They barely escape and avoid getting questioned by a deputy by faking the deed in the backseat of the car. “What? Us? No, officer. Please don’t tell our parents we were too busy deflowering each other to see anything.” Again, I did not say they were smart.

Well, this ended up being another story where Nick mopes about his life, ends up sleeping with his client, and Elaine has trouble deciding if she wants to stay married or be with Nick. I had no interest in writing that.

But “Gypsy’s Kiss”?

I liked the premise, but the execution made it come off as male wish fulfillment. Instead, I wanted it to be a struggle for Nick to actively avoid realizing that this call girl who’d saved his life might have genuine feelings for him. He’s in a weird place following Bad Religion. He’s lost his office. Elaine’s marriage is crumbling, but she seems to only want Nick to be available, not committed. And the business is dying. And here is Gypsy, who is escaping her life of being a plaything for hire. She is free of heroin and ready to start a new life with the money she’s invested. She is also very grateful to Nick.

Nick needs closure. He needs to do something about his agency. He needs to tell Elaine to make up her mind already. And he needs to get out of his rut. For all his problems, it seems like Nick doesn’t even care about his work anymore. He only gets worked up when Gypsy is attacked, and then he does the job for free. Less than free. He rents a friend’s summer cottage out in Lake Erie for a month, pays to go out to that island when access is difficult and expensive. He drives all over Northern Ohio without thinking about mileage or fuel or time. All he cares about is the woman who once took a bullet for him.

But this story defines Nick in a way the short stories and the novels do not. It happens in a scene recounting how he and Gypsy met. Nick was a suburban police officer and sees her come out of an apartment after he fails to find a suspect at home. They have a confrontation where she tries to stab him. Nick decides to try kindness instead of handcuffs after disarming her. He tells her if she wants to talk to him about the suspect, she can stroll over to his car where he’ll be doing paperwork. Dropping her weapon, he tells her, “You dropped your knife.” Gypsy still has that knife, though now it’s in a frame over her mantle.

I almost killed Nick off in this one. Then Jennette Marie Powell convinced me that would be telling the readers “Screw you.” Instead, I leave Nick’s future open-ended. One never knows when the muse – or a publisher – might whisper in my ear to write another one.

Gypsy’s Kiss Arrives

Gypsy's KissAnd so it begins.

And ends.

After 14 years, Nick Kepler is taking a bow. In a novella that revisits the events of “Roofies” and Bad Religion, Nick finds himself embattled on two fronts. First, his business is dying. After getting kicked out of his digs at TTG Insurance, the agency is bleeding cash. Worse, he can’t get Elaine to make a decision about devoting herself full-time to their business.

Or even if she and Nick will be together.

But Nick is busy fighting another fight. Gypsy, the stripper turned high-price call girl, is leaving the sex trade for good. Only someone has a big problem with that and sends her a violent message. While stashing her on an island in Lake Erie, where the tourists won’t arrive for another month, he hunts down her attacker, digging into her past and find he has old scores to settle with many of Gypsy’s enemies. Because, as he reminds Gypsy, he can never repay someone for taking a bullet for him. She has the scar on her shoulder in case he ever forgets it.

The decision to end the Kepler series and how to do it was a difficult one. A fourth Kepler novel stood ready in outline form, but when I began to write, I found Nick was not talking to me anymore. His tale was told. It needed only a coda. I had thought of killing him off, which is tricky in a first-person series. In the end, I decided to up-end Nick’s world and let him decide his own fate.

So now, the story that began in 2001 with “A Walk in the Rain” now ends with Gypsy’s Kiss. And like “Walk,” it’s a tale of loyalty and sometimes crossing a line for someone Nick cares about. Gypsy is the ultimate survivor, a woman who, by all rights, should not have lived past her mid-twenties were it not for a suburban cop named Kepler telling her “You dropped your knife” and present her with a big target for that knife. Elaine is Nick’s best friend, wants to be his lover, but wants to reboot her life. And Nick? Like Gypsy and Elaine, he’s just trying to put the past to rest and live in the present.

Gypsy’s Kiss is exclusively on Amazon for the next 90 days. Get it now, and say goodbye to Nick Kepler.

Less Than A Week Away…

Gypsy's KissIt’s coming. And in less than a week. Gypsy’s Kiss will draw the saga of Cleveland PI Nick Kepler to a close.

What happens? Where does he go? Does Elaine finally leave her philandering husband for him? And what is going on with Nick’s favorite informant, Gypsy?

Gypsy’s Kiss builds on the events of “Roofies” and not only brings Nick’s story to a close, but Gypsy’s as well.

High-priced call girl and former stripper Gypsy is leaving the sex trade for good. She’s saved and invested wisely and is moving on to more legitimate endeavors. And she wants Nick to be her final client. The fee? One dollar.

Nick agrees to this, arranging for a quiet evening of watching old movies and splitting a bottle of wine, a token trick that need not be turned. But someone is upset with Gypsy’s move to a better life and lets her know it violently. Nick stashes her on an island in Lake Erie, abandoned during the cold weather, and searches her past for someone looking for revenge. In the meantime, Nick’s business is dying. Leaving the insurance company digs has turned out to be costly for him and partner Elaine. They have a way to salvage the business, but if Nick wants to go that route, Elaine wants something from Nick she herself has not been able to give back: commitment.

Aside from The Kepler Omnibus and a box set later this year, Gypsy’s Kiss will be my final independent long-form story. You can pre-order Gypsy’s Kiss here before it’s February 1 debut.