by Dave Lager

On writing…

“Drawing characters from life does not mean transferring real people into fiction exactly as you saw them. So, I use parts of real people — a gesture here, a mannerism there, a certain kind of jawline, and put them together to make something new and interesting.”

– Margaret (Meg) Chittenden (1935-  ) Retired mystery and romance author

As I said in the introduction to “Ro’s Handle,” Ro’s hometown, Lee’s Landing, and Fort Armstrong County, which she patrols each night as a deputy, are loosely based on a real place: “loosely” meaning I have taken lots of liberties with local history, geography and place names.

How Grand Island got its name


In the locale for the Ro Delahanty novels, Grand Island is on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River channel between the cities of Lee’s Landing in Iowa and Stevenson and Grand Island in Illinois. The island serves as the anchor for one of several major bridges between the two states and for one of the locks that facilitates towboat navigation on the river. Here’s how it got its name:

In 1673, the explorers Marquette and Jolliet were the first documented white men to visit what would soon acquire the translated version of what they thought was the Native American “name” for the river, Mississippi,

However, what the explorers, and for that matter many subsequent white men, failed to realize is that Native Americans didn’t “name” things in the same sense we do, that is, by assigning a proper noun to designate that specific thing. The Native American word “Misizubii,” which thanks to the French interpretation became “Mississippi,” is actually a descriptive term that means “large water.” When any Native American mentioned “large water,” every other Native American within a hundred or more miles knew they were referring to the very large river that flowed more or less from north to south through their hunting grounds, since there was no other “large water” it could be referring to.

Marquette and Jolliet kept both a journal and a rough map of their travels on the river and recorded a variety of names and/or descriptive phrases for noteworthy landmarks along the way. They passed by literally hundreds of islands on their journey downriver, most of which they hardly bothered to note because they weren’t much more than tree-covered mudbanks.

However, there were a few that did warrant special attention. One of those was a long and noticeably rocky island on the south side of the river – yes, they did note on their map that the river had made a rather spectacular turn to the southwest – beside an unusually rough section of river, characterized by lots of rapids that were very difficult to navigate.

They called it “grande ile,” which in French means “big island,” and which later got anglicized simply as Grand Island.

Not only did Grand Island “stick” as the name of the river landmark, but it was later adopted as the name of the settlement (eventually both a city and county) that grew up on the mainland shore in what would eventually become the State of Illinois.

(C) 2017 Dave Lager

Early Ro (eleven): Year Twelve – Illowa Symphony

This is the third in a series of background posts about Ro’s twelfth year.

It is the end of June, 1994, and since Mike and Ro both liked breakfast foods, and since they were eating alone tonight, for dinner Mike had made them from-scratch waffles.

“Where’s mom this trip?” Ro had asked as they sat down at the dining room table and started their meal.

Kate, the founder and president of Kate Delahanty Design (KDD), a commercial interior design firm, had over the last couple of years been going out of town more and more frequently checking on the progress of current projects and/or making contacts for new projects: With almost half the year yet to go she had proudly shared with the family they were on track to bill out more than a million dollars.

Her not quite two-year old red Ford Explorer – which in a few years Ro would be given as her first car − already had nearly forty thousand miles on it.

“Peoria,” Mike said. “She just landed a new client, the Wynd Brothers from Des Moines. They’re building a big apartment complex in Peoria and her firm is doing the central clubhouse and office building.”

What none of them knew at the time was that over the years the Wynds would build major apartment complexes in Madison, Wisconsin; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; several in the Chicago area; and one on the west edge of Lee’s Landing, all of which KDD would do the clubhouses for, and the latter one being where Ro would eventually have her own apartment.

“Is Patrick dating Kendra?” Mike asked, changing the subject. Patrick, Ro’s older brother by two years, had called earlier to say he wouldn’t be home for dinner as he was out on the river water skiing with the Nolans, family friends of the Delahanties. Kendra Nolan was a ninth grade classmate of Patrick’s.

“No, they’re just friends. I think Kendra’s sort of dating Clay Holt. He’s a wrestler and she kind of goes for the jocks.”

“Ah. Just wondering. It’s sometimes hard to keep track of Patrick’s friends and girlfriends,” Mike said. Patrick took after his mother; he was very social and very charming and had lots of friends (and girlfriends).

Ro just rolled her eyes in agreement. She was the opposite side of the coin from her brother; she had just a couple of close friends and never even considered the idea of starting to date.

With one of his typically devilish Irish grins, Mike reached across the table to a pile of mail, pulled out a colorful oversize brochure and slid it toward Ro. She recognized the Illowa Symphony Orchestra’s stylized G clef logo on the front below a large headline; “1994-’95: Our Eighty-First Season.”

The Illowa Symphony Orchestra gave six concerts a year, in October. November, December, February, March and April, with performances on Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon. Mike had been going to an occasional Sunday afternoon concert, depending on the program, for almost ten years. Ro had been accompanying him for the last two years.

Flipping open the brochure, he started reading the highlights of the season’s programs: “Look, they’re doing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ and the Ninth.” He didn’t have to specify he was talking about Beethoven’s great Ninth Symphony; while there were lots of various composer’s ninth symphonies, there was only one “the Ninth.”

Thinking they were still in the “one or two concerts a year” mode, Ro said, “It’s hard to choose between Gershwin, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven.”

Mike smiled mysteriously. “What if you didn’t have to? Maybe we could go to all of them.”

Ro frowned, not quite understanding yet.

Then Mike explained: “They’re having a special promotion. If you buy a season ticket for Sunday, you can get a second one for half price. How would you feel about going on a regular date with your old man?”

His daughter’s huge grin was all the answer Mike needed. And that was the beginning of a regular father-daughter “date” tradition that would endure for a dozen years.

(C) 2017 Dave Lager

Thanks Sheila!

Thanks Sheila Hargrave at The BookWorm in Bellevue, Iowa, for hosting a very successful book signing Saturday afternoon. I signed a bunch of copies of “Ro’s Handle” for her customers – even including one for my grand-daughter, Bella Penniston.

The perfect amount of sparkle

Yes, I know most authors tend to think every keystroke they execute is Perfect, Carved in Stone, Beyond Reproach, just Downright Great. Not…

I have two editors, and I have no doubt they are making me be a better writer.

One of them I DO get to have dinner with all the time: That’s because we live together and happen to be married. Nancy is my first “editor.”

As I’ve mentioned before, she is my go-to person when I’m agonizing about some plot situation or some character aspect in what I’m currently writing. She patiently listens to my “well maybe this, but on the other hand that” dithering. Sometimes just by talking it out to her I will have an “aha moment” and it’ll become clear which direction I want to go. But just as often she has to smack me up alongside of the head: “No, no, no… Ro would never do that because…” And I have to admit that most of the time she’s right.

She is also my first reader. She will go through my drafts and, of course, find all those left out words – which I KNOW were there; the computer must have eaten them! – to say nothing of pulling me up short when I start to overwrite – I mean, after all, if two descriptive words and good, how come four or five aren’t better?

My second editor is Maxine Ringenberg, who works for World Castle, my publisher. I don’t get to have dinner with her, in fact, have never met her. World Castle is based in Pensacola, Florida, but in today’s digital age that means very little; Maxime could just as easily live in Perth, Australia, or Paris, France − hmm, dinner at a sidewalk café in Paris doesn’t seem like too bad an idea.

Maxine is my grammar and punctuation Nazi, which I intend as a compliment. In case you haven’t noticed, I tend to overuse the em dash, this wonderfully versatile little punctuation mark: −. That’s the problem, though: Too much “dash matter” tends to make for overly convoluted paragraphs – like trying to cram ten pounds of stuff into a five-pound bag. And while I may be enamored with the em dash, I also tend to be comma averse, that is, I leave out commas where they are, in fact, needed.

So, I will get my manuscripts back from Maxine with various phrases or whole paragraphs underlined in various colors – thank heaven she doesn’t use red; remember how we hated getting our school papers back with the teacher’s red scribbles all over them? − that says, “I think you need some punctuation here,” or, “Hey, Dave, you may want to take another look at this turgid paragraph.”

The title for this post is taken from a quote about the role of editors by the novelist Bobbi Romans: “A good editor is like tinsel to a Christmas Tree…they add the perfect amount of sparkle without being gaudy.”

I agree.

Early Ro (ten): Year Twelve – Runner

This is the second in a series of posts about Ro’s twelfth year.

It is after school late in May, 1994, just a few days following Ro’s twelfth birthday, and she is riding her bike on the Shadowbrook Bike Path on her way to visit her friend Atti, except about halfway there she has to pull over to the side because there are a dozen teenage girls running towards her, essentially taking up the whole path.

Most are wearing red T-shirts with the silver silhouette of a horse-mounted knight, clearly identifying them as being some sort of sports team from Lee’s Landing’s Neufeld High School.

Even from some twenty yards away Ro can hear the chatter and laughter among the pack of girls as they ran.

Except for one…

While there is nothing at all exceptional about her physical appearance – she is roughly the same height and build as most of the girls, she is wearing the same T-shirt, she is pleasant looking, but not noticeably pretty – Ro is nonetheless captivated.

She is running alone, maybe ten yards ahead of the pack, her strides long and effortless; where the other girls all seem to be bobbing up and down, she seems to be gliding across the landscape.

But it is her expression, or really, lack thereof, that beguiles Ro. It seems like she is both staring at everything and nothing; while she certainly seems conscious of her surroundings, at the same time she seems to be entirely lost in herself, or rather in her running. Years later Ro would learn this was what hard core runners refer to as The Runner’s Zen, their Nirvana.

It took only a few seconds for the girl to come up on and then pass by Ro standing next to the bike path, but it was a few seconds that would have a profound impact on her. The only other time she had ever seen that kind of total concentration was when she and Mike would watch a classical music concert on the public TV station and the violin or piano soloist would seem to totally lose themselves in their music − there was no orchestra, no audience, just the music.

Perhaps it should have, but it had never occurred to Ro you could find that state of inner harmony through an athletic endeavor; it was a revelation.

As the other girls passed, most continued their chatter; a few even nodded to her, acknowledging her presence. Ro smiled to herself, thinking, “I could have been standing here stark naked and she wouldn’t haven’t noticed me.”

It was at that moment that Ro knew she wanted to experience that kind of totality of purpose for herself… And decided to be a runner, too.

It was to become an integral part of her life. It didn’t take more than a few weeks for her to get her legs under her, that is, to be able to run a mile without becoming breathless, and then a second mile, and then a third…

For several years the bike path, and to a lesser extent her surrounding neighborhood, was where she ran three, sometimes four times a week. But when she turned sixteen and could drive on her own, she “discovered” that the wooded trails in the state park and the adjacent forest preserve in the southwestern part of the county that she had so enjoyed hiking on with her father were for her an even more rewarding running venue – the “tree thing” again − and she was truly hooked.

(C) 2017 Dave Lager

Early Ro (nine): Year 12 – The Thinking Chair

I recently completed a series of posts with some background about how Ro’s tenth year would be a prophetic one for her. This is the first in a new series that will talk about her twelfth year, which will prove to be equally telling for what the grown-up Ro would turn out to be.

On Ro’s twelfth birthday – May 15, 1994 − she “inherited,” her father’s old recliner, or, perhaps more accurately, she saved it from the dumpster.

Mike and Kate were married in 1979 and moved into their new house on York Ridge Lane, a classic 70s-era split-level on a cul de sac, in 1980. On the lowest level were a pair of adjoining rooms, one of which Kate converted into a home office – even then she was thinking about starting her own business − while Mike adopted the other as his den, where he set-up his stereo and built some shelves to hold his large collection of classical CDs and albums.

One of the first purchases he made for the den was a comfortable recliner. It was curled-up in Mike’s arms in that recliner that an infant Ro would regularly fall asleep listening to her father’s music. So, almost fifteen years later, when Mike talked about replacing the aging chair Ro instantly claimed “dibs” on it. She had far too much of an emotional connection to it to let it get away.

However, fitting it into Ro’s eleven-by-thirteen bedroom became a major logistical puzzle that involved Mike and Tuck having to completely re-arrange the room’s existing furniture – Ro’s bed, dresser and small desk – because Ro insisted that the chair had to face the windows that looked across their backyard at a grove of trees bordering the adjacent Meadows on Shadowbook Golf Course behind them. Even then Ro’s “tree thing” was noticeable.

When Ro moved into her own apartment seven years later the chair went into the second bedroom she used as her study and was similarly positioned, looking out of a sliding glass door toward yet another grove of trees − the grove being one of the major reasons she’d chosen that particular apartment.

Throughout her pre-teen, teen and adult years Ro would spend many hours in the chair, not, as might be expected, listening to music, watching TV or even reading a book, but just thinking: In fact, that’s how she would come to think of it, as her “thinking chair.”

The Thinking Chair is a minor, but significant “character” in “Ro’s Handle.”

(C) 2017 Dave Lager

How Shadowbrook got its name

In the years right around 1800 the frontier wilderness along the Mississippi River that would eventually become Fort Armstrong County, Iowa, and Grand Island County, Illinois, − the settings for my Ro Delahanty novels − was being regularly visited by white men, mostly hunters and trappers, with a smattering of traders, friars who wanted to convert the savages and military people checking out the lay of the land. Farmers, settlers and town-builders wouldn’t show-up for several more decades.

These folks diligently “explored” the area, not for the specific purpose of exploration, but rather simply as a necessity as they searched for better hunting or trapping grounds, for Indian camps and villages where they might trade or preach, and for trails that could be converted into roads that might facilitate troop movements if needed. And they regularly “bumped into” one another, maybe at some primitive settlement that included a make-shift tavern and inn, or maybe just along some regularly traveled Indian path where they camped together.

And they traded stories… Stories of where they could find deer or buffalo or beaver… Stories of geographic features that facilitated their journeys, like natural draws that made it easier to get up and down the bluff that delineated the broad Mississippi River valley.

Somewhere along the way someone – no one knows who because it was never documented – talked about a natural draw that followed an old Indian trail up the side of the river bluff.

And somewhere along the way someone – perhaps, but not likely the same person – described a small stream that was just a couple of miles from the edge of the bluff as a “shadowy brook,” probably because the section where that old Indian trail crossed it had lots of old trees overshadowing the creek and probably because the originator was of English ancestry, which meant a “small stream” to him was a brook…

And so “shadowy brook” eventually got shortened and simplified to just Shadowbrook.

That old Indian trail eventually became Old Post Road in Lee’s Landing, Iowa, which ran alongside the Westwynd Apartment complex where Ro Delahanty lives. And eventually a bike / running trail was developed alongside the creek. So, what’s quite possibly ironic is that he might well have been describing the area around Ro’s apartment that nearly two centuries later would become known as The Bottoms and that was one of her favorite places to run.

And that would turn out to be a crucial element in a future Ro novel I’m thinking about…

(C) 2017 Dave Lager

Early Ro (nine): Year 10 – “Be a cop”

This post recalls when Ro was in fifth grade, just a few months before her eleventh birthday, and first announced she wanted to become a cop when she grew up. Readers might recognize it as a verbatim excerpt from Chapter Two of “Ro’s Handle.” I am including it here to place the story in its proper historical context with the other prophetic incidents from Ro’s tenth year. In this scene Ro is in her apartment’s bedroom about to dress for the first time in her new Fort Armstrong County deputy sheriff’s uniform, but is recalling what happened in Mr. Singer’s fifth grade language arts class a little over ten years ago:

The class was about to read Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” and Mr. Singer was introducing to the class the concept of symbols in literature. As examples, he showed overheads of the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of opportunity to millions of immigrants, and of a cross, a Star of David, and a crescent and star as symbols for three of the world’s major religions.

Then he’d asked the class if they could think of any other kinds of everyday symbols.

After a few seconds of silence, somebody tentatively mumbled, “A stop sign?”

“Yes,” Mr. Singer had said with enthusiasm, hoping to encourage more responses. “That’s definitely a symbol for traffic laws. But you’re missing a really big one right here in this room.” After another few seconds of silence, he added, “I’ll give you a hint: It’s known around the world as a symbol of freedom.”

“The flag!” came several overlapping responses, everyone glancing up at the American flag hanging from a short pole in a back corner of the classroom.

“Right!” he affirmed. “But come on, I’ve given you some easy ones. There are lots more if you just use your imaginations a little.”

After another short silence, Ro raised her hand and Mr. Singer nodded, “Ro?”

“A police car,” she’d said. She was picturing in her mind the black and white Lee’s Landing squad cars she frequently saw around town.

“Cops! All they do is hassle people,” someone muttered sarcastically from the back of the room. There were several snickers of agreement.

“No, no…,” Mr. Singer said, gesturing with his hand to quell any further snarky remarks. “Why do you say that, Ro?”

“Whenever I see a police car it makes me feel better, like someone’s there to…to….” She frowned, struggling for the right words. “To be there when there’s trouble…like stopping bad people, or helping in a disaster.”

Mr. Singer looked at her for a second or two and just nodded, like he understood completely but didn’t have to say it.

And then, without ever having consciously thought about it before, Ro straightened up in her chair, squared her shoulders, and added with a self-assurance that surprised even her, “I’m going to be a cop someday.”

And over the ten years since then she had never once strayed from that aspiration.

(C) 2017 Dave Lager

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