By James Craig Atchison
I’m armed the first day of the 501 residency with only a note pad and pen. Nancy McKinley sends me out and tells me to write everything I can about downtown Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, for two hours. This first step in me becoming a published author (under my blessed mother’s maiden name) didn’t take that long.
One note in the exercise took me to a big red church on River Street. It featured a broken walkway I navigated to read front-door signage promising, “Always Open for Prayer and Forgiveness,” only to find it locked. Another note described the shallow Susquehanna River impersonating a rock wall climbing exhibit that was horizontal for the summer and decorated with Ronald McDonald escape pods.
The best note of all was the giant Chamber of Commerce-sponsored word cloud on the window of an empty store front at the corner of Main and Northampton – “DO OR DO NOT, THERE IS NO TRY (signed) … YODA.” Within days of these notes spilling from pen to paper, Wavy Ray Beck, a NHL veteran hockey player sent down to the AHL-level Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, and his naughty, fun-romping detective Monica Reedy were born.
Two fire trucks with full lights. Monica soon learned the ambulance carting the victim had just left. She could only question Brubaker and Horton, the first uniforms responding to the call of yet another downtown Wilkes-Barre empty-store window being broken. The first one where the bad guys had used a bomb and claimed an innocent life.
“Who was he?” Monica had been on the case for over a week and had zip.
“One of our Penguin hockey players. A guy Pittsburgh just sent down yesterday named Ray Beck.” Horton handed her today’s Sports section.
Monica spread the newspaper and there he was, below the fold. In ten seconds she learned he was here to rehab from groin surgery and that he was gorgeous. His long blonde hair framed high cheekbones supporting eyes of mischief. She looked forward to seeing more of that face and hoped it was still intact.
The book flap reads:
“Detective Monica Reedy’s search for a downtown window smasher, and the reason behind a gruesome calling card, expands to the smashing of both a technologically enterprising car-theft ring and an old-fashioned gambling ring, both orchestrated by a decades-old crime family rooted in the former USSR state of Georgia.”
“A romantic caper with real mystery, history, danger, and chaos, Monica’s pursuits also include her personal chase for Ray, the witty man-child pro athlete with both untamed courage plus uncanny detective skills shrouded in hockey talk.”
“Damn you, Ray Beck, you’re an auxiliary policeman. You can only do crowd control for chrissake! Put the gun down.”
Wavy Ray Beck and his cop doll were born for real when Blue Lines Up In Arms joined literary history via Sunbury Press on October 13, 2015. This event should give every MA Creative Writing grad hope.
I spent the fall 2008 semester learning playwriting and how to write dialogue from beloved Jean Klein—and teaching ancient history to 7th grade weasers at Ephrata Middle School. (I’m teaching you “ancient man” because I am one! Don’t argue with me, I was there!) Jean decreed that I had the ability to make characters sound different from each other. Because of Jean’s encouragement, I continue to be an active playwright with the Lancaster, PA, Dramatists Platform.
Equally beloved Nina Soloman undertook the task of channeling my sarcastic wit into readable prose while I tried to share in her success by reminding her we were both writing hockey-flavored fiction.
She was followed by John Bowers, a treasure, who tried to understand why I was going to author Blue Lines and Old Money as my capstone project. I explained it was a sequel to the first book I had already penned. My plan: I could easily revise that maiden effort based on all I would learn from him and end up with a two-book query to agents waiting in line to rep them both. (Yeah, right!). I cherish John’s continued encouragement, “There’s just something about Monica and Ray,” even though agents did not line up to share both his and my enthusiasm for this unusual and engaging pair of crime fighters.
During my exit interview in 2010, I told Dr. Culver, “This program is so damn good I can’t believe you let me in it!” We’ve since shared knee-replacement memories as I consistently attended residency after-parties to “breathe the air” and renew my writing spirit. Wilkes had taught me everything I needed to know and I was humbled every year to visit and deliver the mea culpa to Dr. Lennon, “I haven’t yet made you proud.”
I had to take heart that I was at least being rejected by a better class of agents and that so many of my Wilkes cohorts were still both Facebook friends and actively on my side. Eventually I started to inquire directly to indie publishers.
My 0-for-5-years were also spent working with a slew of beta readers and listening to them. And revising. And revising. And revising. Sort of like taking out your own appendix. My novel was too long, had too many characters, and needed more hard-boiled action. And I HAD to be better at past imperfect verb tense.
Eventually I befriended an indie-published crime fiction writer who told me to revise the beginning by starting on page 10 (see above), which turned my main characters completely around and made Detective Monica Reedy the lead and Ray the acquired partner in love and war.
And it made my work better, even though that indie finally passed on it.
At end, the secret is not a secret at all. Keep believing in what you write and how you write… your ‘voice.’ Writing fiction is a fun adventure each time I call upon the muse and should be for you, too, or please stop. I kept the faith that someone would find me as fun a read as I find me. You should keep that faith, too.
And now someone has.
Sunbury Press introduced Blue Lines Up In Arms October 13, 2015.
Jim Craig/James Craig Atchison
James Craig Atchison is a recovering advertising man who found the giver within while teaching English and Social Studies in public school, and earning both M.Ed. and M.A. Creative Writing degrees from Wilkes. Combining his love for crime fiction as well as the sport of ice hockey, Blue Lines Up In Arms represents his maiden effort in a planned Blue Lines series. He lives in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.