Why I love writing

“I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.”

– James A. Michener (1907-1997)

Nothing more needs to be said…

Settings #2 – Fort Armstrong County, Iowa

The central character in my books, Ro Delahanty, is a deputy sheriff in a fictional county, and, of course, spends a lot of time cruising its roads and byways. So here is some basic background on Fort Armstrong County.

It is located in east central Iowa, adjacent to the Mississippi River − on a big map it would be roughly 160 miles due west of Chicago. It is right where the Mississippi makes a marked turn to the southwest at the top of western Illinois’ big bulge, so the Mississippi borders the county on both the east and the south. It is source of much confusion for visitors that the Mississippi River literally runs east to west between the Iowa and Illinois communities that make-up the region.

The county’s northern border is the shallow and meandering Pincatauwee River − known locally as “the Pinky” − that runs mostly west to east and empties into the Mississippi. On the other side of the Pinky, north of Fort Armstrong County, is Clayton County. To the west of Fort Armstrong County is Makuakeeta County.

Fort Armstrong County covers about 550 square miles; it is trapezoidal shaped, measuring roughly 25 miles east to west, about 15 miles north to south on the east and a little over 20 miles north to south on the west.

The county is rolling farmland and timber crisscrossed by a more or less grid-like network of several hundred miles of mostly paved county roads. In the early Ro novels her primary patrol area is roughly the western third of the county, which is noticeably more rugged than the rest of the county.

Interstate 82 crosses the Mississippi River from Illinois and runs virtually due east to west, roughly dividing the county into one-third on the south, two-thirds to the north.

Fort Armstrong County’s total population is just over 170,000. Lee’s Landing is the principal city with a population of just over 100,000; it is also the county seat. It sits roughly mid-county along the Mississippi River.

Other populous cities and towns include:

– Gilbert, with a population of just over 38,000, is a suburb adjacent to Lee’s Landing on the east; it also fronts on the river.
– Jayne’s Port, population 5,000, is located on the Mississippi River north and east of Lee’s Landing.
– Aldridge, about 4,000, is a suburb of Lee’s Landing on the north. I-82 mainly serves as the northern border of Lee’s Landing and the southern border of Aldridge.
– Montgomery, not quite 2,500, is in the northwest corner of the county.

Besides I-82, there are several main highways or county roads:

– Iowa Rt. 20 essentially follows the Mississippi River through the county, entering in the northeast corner, then passing through Jayne’s Port, Gilbert and Lee’s Landing before leaving the county in the southwest corner into Makuakeeta County.
– U.S. 68 crosses the Mississippi from Illinois into Lee’s Landing, then goes straight north toward Dubuque.
– Old Post Road (Iowa Rt. 40) starts in downtown Lee’s Landing and angles northwest before eventually turning west toward Iowa City.
– County Line Road is a north-south road running the entire length of the county; it literally straddles the border with Makuakeeta County.
– Bluff Road is a straight east-west county road that runs along the edge of the bluff above the Pincatauwee River valley for the entire width of the county.

Next: The many creeks that shape Fort Armstrong County’s topography

© 2018 Dave Lager

Ro’s Rage – Chapter Eleven: The Red Menace Monday, May 15, 1995

Ro couldn’t help but laugh at the total incongruity of her father being someone called The Red Menace. The man she’d known all her life would have to be called something more like Mr. Steady, never flustered, never angry, even drivers who cut him off didn’t elicit a curse word from Mike. So, she was absolutely fascinated to learn more about this “other guy” that her father had been.

Mike rolled his eyes and shook his head, “My first few bouts I really got my butt kicked. I went down for the count several times and generally ended up losing on points because I was a ‘flailer.’ I’m not even sure there is such a word, but that’s what the coach used to yell at me.

“‘All you’re doing out there is flailing your arms around like a windmill,’ he’d shout. I’d throw a lot of punches, except most of them were blocked, or if they landed, they weren’t very effective.

“Understand, when I was in the ring I wasn’t out of control with rage, like I’d been with the guy who hurt my friend. But what the coach taught me was that that negative energy was still there inside of me, all bottled up, just waiting to explode. What the coach taught me was you can’t change who you are, but with patience and practice you can learn to focus that energy and release it as you need to with discipline, so I was never out of control. I got better and better at channeling that energy and ended up winning more fights than I lost.”

Reaching out, Mike took his daughter’s hands in his, “Anyway, now that you understand the reason behind my question, I’m asking you: What would have happened last Thursday if Coach Forester hadn’t stepped in front of you?”

Ro gave him a rueful smile, “You’re right, I probably would have lost control.”

“Ro, in so many ways I’m really proud you’re your father’s daughter, but I’m maybe not so proud I seem to have also passed on to you my Irish temper,” Mike said. “But I think you know where we’ve been going with this…”

“I should sign-up for those judo classes, like Coach Forester suggested.”

“Exactly. As he said, first, you seem to have a flair for it. And yes, it will teach you a specific skill that can come in handy when you become a cop.” It was interesting there was no question of an “if” implied, only the certainty of a “when.” “But more importantly, the real value of working on mastering any competitive sport, whether it’s boxing or judo, is the discipline and self-control you learn.”

Mike knew his daughter and knew full what he was asking of her. He knew if Ro committed to an endeavor it was never halfway, she went at it full throttle. He had seen her first learn to skeet shoot with his old Stevens .410 out at Witness Tree Rod and Gun Club when she was just eleven years old and go on win her first junior division trophy a little over a year later. He had seen her start running just a year ago and knew she was now logging five mile runs with ease.

They found that most martial arts studios offered a trial period where you could attend several classes to get a feel for the style they taught. Ro finally settled on a school specializing in aikido, partly because of its emphasis on using your opponent’s strength against him and partly because she thought its techniques would be most useful as a cop.

Of course, Mike was not wrong in his assessment of his daughter’s dedication. She attended a class once a week and sparred at least once, often twice a week. She steadily progressed through the belts, finally earning her black belt when she was sixteen. Like most dedicated martial arts students, Ro also experimented with other styles − she liked the no-nonsense approach of krav maga and the aggressiveness of karate, but was especially drawn to wing chun, with its emphasis on the entire body, on balance and centeredness.

And yes, they turned out to be skills she would often have to call on after becoming a Fort Armstrong County Deputy Sheriff eight years later.

© 2018 Dave Lager

Please join me…

…and more than a dozen other Quad-City area authors at the second annual Indie Authors Fair this Saturday, September 29, from ten until noon at the Davenport Public Library’s EASTERN AVENUE BRANCH (note the location change from last year).

We love meeting our readers and talking about our books.

In other words, go for it…

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face…You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

– Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)

…including getting your novel done.

Settings #1 – “Where” is important

Like a fish that doesn’t know it’s in water, geography – where we live and work on a day-to-day basis – can be a compelling, yet hardly ever recognized influence on our lives.

So, in that same sense, then, geography – settings – are an important but often unnoticed character in a novel.

Ro Delahanty is very much a creature of the lush and verdant east central Iowa locale where she grew up and where she patrols daily as a deputy sheriff. I’m sure she would be a different person if she were from the deserts of Arizona, the palm groves of Florida or the mountains of Wyoming.

In my novels I try to walk the tightrope between providing enough descriptive material to give my reader a sense of being there but not so much detail that it bogs down the plot.

So, in a new series of blog posts I want to focus on some of the specific settings that are important to Ro’s world; and yes, go into all of the particulars that would be too much for the flow of a regular story.

#1 – This first post is just a kind of introductory overview
#2 – In the next post I’m going to look at Fort Armstrong County itself, where she patrols day after day
#3 – The third post will focus on the many creeks that pretty much define the county’s geography, or at least the part she regularly drives over
#4 – Then I want to focus on one specific creek; Shadowbook and its adjacent bike path, because both play significant parts in Ro’s life
#5 – In a later post I’ll talk about a geographic anomaly called The Bottoms that is a recurring locale in the Ro books, but will become a major character in its own right in the fourth Ro novel I’m currently working on called “Twists and Turns”
#6 – Then I’ll explore the many connections Ro has to Five Falls State Park…
#7 – …and to the county’s adjacent Great River Forest Preserve
#8 – Witness Tree Rod and Gun Club is where Ro learned to become a championship shooter alongside Big Mike, first with a shotgun, later with a handgun
#9 – I’ll talk about Rickett’s Ridge, to most folks just another hill on a county road, but for Ro one of her favorite spots on her patrol routes
#10 – And finally, we’ll pay a visit to Trader’s Island

Next: Fort Armstrong County in a nutshell

© 2018 Dave Lager

You get chosen

“Becoming a writer is not a ‘career decision’ like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don’t choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accept the fact that you’re not fit for anything else, you have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days.”

– Paul Auster (1947- )

Wait a minute, as a writer I kind of liked being the odd man out most of the time.

Ro’s Rage – Chapter Ten: The Navy, Monday, May 15, 1995

Ro gazed at her father for several moments, trying to sort through a welter of feelings. She still recognized Big Mike sitting there, with his same bushy red hair and the ever-present hint of merriment around the eyes. But now he was someone different, like he had somehow transformed from Father to Friend. Fathers are…fathers. Strong and indestructible and incorruptible. They don’t make mistakes. Friends do dumb stuff and have faults; you forgive them for theirs, they forgive you for yours.

There was a part of her that knew she was supposed to feel…what? Anger? Grief? Deceived? Disappointed?

But in an odd way Ro now actually felt closer to Mike than she ever had. He had just confessed to being a flawed human being. She understood he’d trusted her by making himself entirely vulnerable to her judgement. He knew the risk; she could easily have suddenly hated him for not being the Perfect Dad she’d always thought he was, for disappointing her, for deceiving her all those years.

They had always been emotionally bonded as Father-Daughter, it was no secret in the family Ro was “her daddy’s girl.” But now that truth had taken on an entirely new meaning.

“Thank you,” Ro said simply.

Mike’s mouth twitched into a small smile, like he understood she was thanking him on several levels.

“Let’s see,” Ro said, holding up her hand and counting off points on her fingers. “I got my red hair from you. I got my height from you. I got my Irish looks from you. And now you tell me I’m this potential rage-filled psychopath thanks to you.”

But she had said it with a mischievous grin, so Mike went with it. “Yep. You know, that’s why I keep all my guns locked up over there,” he said, jerking his head toward the gun safe in the corner.

“But I’ve got my own key.”

“Oh, that’s right, you do,” he said, scratching his head like he’d forgotten. “You aren’t gonna go bonkers on me, are you?”

“Not this week.”

“That’s good to know,” Mike said with a nod. But then the serious look returned, “Ro, the Navy did for me exactly what that judge hoped it would, so I will always be grateful for that. My job on the aircraft carrier was to load and unload ordinance – bombs, rockets, machine gun ammunition – onto jets making flights over Vietnam. It’s where I learned how to use loading equipment, like forklifts. It’s because of that experience I got my job at Daring.”

Mike was coming up on his twentieth year at Jacob Daring’s sprawling national parts warehouse and distribution center on the north edge of Lee’s Landing; he had been a team lead for almost ten of those years.

“An aircraft carrier is like a small city of several thousand people. Even though it seems to be a very large boat when you look at it from the outside, it’s so jammed packed with equipment and instruments and aircraft and storage, to say nothing of bunks and mess halls, there’s limited space for recreational activities. Onboard ship you work six hours on and have six hours off, which means everyone has lots of time on their hands.

“The other thing the Navy taught me was how to box. I’ll bet you didn’t know your dad was the heavyweight champion of his carrier group. My ring name was The Red Menace,” Mike said.

For Ro Delahanty this was a day for surprises when it came to her father!

Next: The Red Menace

© 2018 Dave Lager

The awkward wisdom of youth

“Anyone who is going to be a writer knows enough at 15 to write several novels.”

May Sarton (1912-1995)

Ouch! I remember being fifteen; I didn’t like it very much. But maybe that’s because at the time I didn’t really know what I already knew… Although, by then I had tried my hand at several short stories, a couple of essays and I think a poem or two, all horribly amateurish… But I guess that means I was at least making an effort to get at what I already knew.

Ro’s Rage – Chapter Nine: Mike’s secret Monday, May 15, 1995

Ro was all set to tell her father how sorry she was for letting her anger get ahead of her but was puzzled when the laugh lines returned. “I’ll bet you’re wondering how I know so much about rage…”

Actually, she hadn’t, assuming as most young people do that their parents just know everything.

Mike sighed and leaned back in his recliner, “Ro there’s a part of me that wants you to curl up in my arms and for us to choose one of your new records to listen to… Of course, I know which one it would be…” He paused to let her fill it in…

“The Dvorak,” she said.

“The Dvorak,” Mike confirmed. Dvorak’s sublime cello concerto was probably second only to Beethoven’s Ninth as their favorite classical work. “But you’re not that little girl anymore… You’re growing up, and I’m afraid you’re going to have to do some more growing up tonight.” He paused as if to gather his thoughts, “Ro, there’s no reason for you to apologize for what you were feeling because, unfortunately, you come by it quite naturally.”

Ro knew her dad, she knew he always needed to share the background, the “why” behind, a serious topic; it was a “curse” he’d passed on to her. But this was confusing… Where was he going with this?

“You know I was in the Navy when I was a young man, that I served on an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War.” It wasn’t really a question.

Ro nodded.

“But what you don’t know, what very few people know − your Aunt Ellie and Cousin Pres know; so does your mother – is the real reason I joined the Navy. I think it’s important that you know now because I hope it will help you understand yourself better and maybe keep you from making the same mistake I did.”

Mistake? Ro felt like she’d been kicked in the stomach. How could you make a mistake? You’re my dad, you don’t make mistakes.

“The short version is, it was join the Navy or go to jail.”

Jail! Jail! Criminals do jail… What in the world are you talking about?

“I was seventeen. We had just gotten our high school diploma and were at a graduation party. Of course, there was lots of beer and cheap wine… I didn’t bring anyone, but there were plenty of girls there, including one I had known since kindergarten. We’d never dated, she was just a good friend. Anyway, she had this boyfriend I thought was a jerk, but, you know,” he said with a shrug, “he was her choice.

“Anyway, at the party he was pretty drunk and being really nasty to her, shouting at her, calling her names, which I didn’t like. At one point he grabbed her by her arm, hard, and she was struggling and telling him, ‘You’re hurting me!’

“When I saw him slap her, I lost it…” He stopped, like he was a little reluctant to continue. “I don’t mean just got mad, Ro, I mean I was enraged that this jerk had slapped my friend. I’ll save you the gory details… Let’s just say I was so out of control angry I beat him up, badly… I didn’t stop when he was down, I kept punching him because he’d hurt my friend… I wanted to hurt him. I wanted to teach him a lesson he’d never forget.

“His father filed aggravated assault charges, which I’m sure you know is way past a simple fight. If I was found guilty, it could have meant jail. Anyway, through the summer there were lots of meetings between the county prosecutor, my attorney, the judge, my father and the kid’s father.

“What it finally came down to was a meeting in the judge’s chambers. I was to plead guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge and agree to go into the service – the judge said he hoped it would help me get my life together – or I could go to court and likely end up in jail… Since I was seventeen and it was an aggravated assault charge, it could have meant an adult prison.

“Of course, I took the plea bargain.”

Next: What the Navy taught Mike

© 2018 Dave Lager

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