Where do a writer’s ideas come from? The genesis of my new novel, Getting Lucky, is very much the location: the mill city of Lowell, Massachusetts. There is an old map of the city from circa 1907 dividing it up by ethnic neighborhoods: English, Irish, German, Jewish, Polish, Greek, and French Canadian are the ones I recall. It was a city designed to be a modern 19th-century industrial center, with a spider web of canals linking a series of mills to the Merrimack River. Barges brought raw cotton from the South and returned with bolts of cloth for much of the country.
In the 20th century Lowell fell on hard times and developed just the grittiness and the edge to make it a good setting for a noir detective novel. Then for various reasons in the 1980s refugees from Cambodia flocked there by the thousands. My wife and I lived in a nearby town and sponsored one of the families, which gave us a heightened awareness of the Cambodians’ impact on the region. I had been a technical writer, and I remember waking up in the middle of the night thinking I had to write a novel about the Cambodians coming to America.
Freedom Country was my first try at writing fiction, and the best I can say is that I learned a lot about writing, about Cambodians, and about Lowell. That novel will never be published, because I could never gain a deep enough understanding of the Cambodian culture to make the story compelling. But I used much of the research for other projects.
A couple of novels later came Getting Lucky. I named my hero Mack Durgin after Mike Durgin, a real kid who had bullied me in my childhood. Mack bears no resemblance to the bully; I just happened to like the name. My wife insists that Mack’s personality and my own are not similar, but I like to think that he and I would be very much alike given similar circumstances. He has a sense of humor that he uses as a defense against life’s brickbats.
In Getting Lucky I try to establish a strong sense of place and character. Lowell has a shop called Tower News that sells newspapers and tobacco up front and hard-core pornography in back. In my novel it becomes a pure (well, impure) porn shop called A Touch of Love. My writer’s group loved to tease me about my research and about all the “field trips” I supposedly had to make to Tower News. One of my friends, a proper and devout Christian woman if I ever knew one, playfully pouted that I never invited her along on any of these excursions. One outing we did take together was to the county medical examiner’s office. On the M.E.’s wall hung a satin painting of a crying clown sticking a revolver into his mouth.
Despite all the research a writer does, it’s still easy to get things wrong. In one of my writer’s group meetings I read a scene set on one of the city’s streets in a tough neighborhood called The Acre. Mystery writer David Daniel, who knows the city cold, listened patiently and then told me that street slopes gradually uphill. It wasn’t critical to the story, but it was important to get details right when you’re dealing with a real place.
In writing Getting Lucky I learned that you can use facts, details, and observations that come from anywhere and find a home for them in your fiction.