First things first: the proceeds from Bouchercon’s Murder Under the Oaks go to the Wake Country Public Libraries. And folks, reading is cool.
In November 2013, thieves broke into a Modesto, CA orchard and made off with 140,000 pounds–70 tons–of in-shell walnuts. In February 2012, a shade to the north, 40,000ish tons of walnuts went missing from a Butte County processing plant. In October 2012, twin thefts near Sacramento, shall we say, bagged 82,000 pounds of walnuts. Investigators were hunting for suspects with Russian accents.
Grinning a bit? Me too when I stumbled on the headlines. But the reason why? The root of all evil: an across-the-nut spike to record prices. That 70-ton walnut job? The take had a wholesale value of $400,000.
I said to myself, “I must write this.”
And you know what? I didn’t. Couldn’t. Not for a year. All I had was a premise. It’d be a heist, no question. I’d light a candle to Donald E. Westlake and let it rip. A cracking good heist, though, isn’t about what gets stolen. It’s about who wants to steal it and why.
Gangsters! Nope, too hard to make fresh, too shallow to make resonant. A super thief! Nope again. Pros like that, 400 large is–cough–peanuts. An insider? Bingo. Someone hopelessly overambitious.
Over time this employee guy seeped into my head, hell-bent to break into his boss’ farm and swipe some nuts. Or drupes at this point. For a Southern twist I’d moved on to pecans, technically a fruit. Oh, and another learning: if you’re set on writing agriculture, be ready, ahem, to plow into the research. Growing seasons, when and how harvested, how processed and stored, how moved to market and–gah!
An idea waited. Blossomed. Grew.
And dropped: I wasted creative energy crafting an outrageous break-in. The California thieves just clipped the fence. No, this story was a journey, and it belonged on the road. I’d make my crooks nab a tractor-trailer on the move. Nut-jacking. It’s a thing.
Then don’t let them nab it, make a couple non-thinkers have to think, try everything, watch it fail and think again. Mission No-Pecan-Do.
In the early drafts a proto-narrator, voiceless and nameless, stewed over a crap bonus and craved revenge. His straight-up bitterness kept him back-of-mind, and of course, nut theft. It’s a thing. The first character to emerge was the boss, Mrs. Whitlock. Old, cold and bold. Honest, but not a clue her people at the plant were actually people. The narrator could only moan about her getting rich on his sweat, but his buddy, Deke, this guy had pecan oil for blood. Always instinctively on-point, whether beer or botany, even found our narrator a name: Brayden.
Sometimes I have to toss words by the thousands, more than once, whole drafts zapped until a POV’s voice takes over. Ditto here. Dammit. But once Bray swaggered in, man, did the dude not shut up. A cock-eyed schemer, funny in an arrogant but ignorant way. His big plan: jack fifty tons of raw pecans and flip the cash into, yes, seed money for his own orchard empire–Kings of Georgia, Deke and Bray. Mostly Bray. Somehow he worked, though I didn’t think much of him as a POV. After much critique and corralling, though, something funny happened. The test readers loved him as a relatable kind of stupid. I mean, here’s a guy who thinks beers make for a long night’s sustenance, arena rock is what you need for chase music, nobody will recognize him in his uncle’s Ford, and a promotion to Quality Control stamped his ticket as mastermind.
Yep. Let’s jack us some drupes.
Next problem: geography. I do not remember this fondly. Seriously, the heist parts flowed pure and natural, but the nature parts came muddy as swamp water. The Georgia backcountry vibe had to read true, and accurate. A backcountry chase takes mapping out the backcountry, and that takes hours checking out road atlases and Google Earth. Eventually Mrs. Whitlock’s base came: Mitchell County, a lower ventricle in the heart of Pecan Country. From that stake in the ground, where would a trailer head, hauling all those pecans? Well, to Asia. But first a port, Savannah or Jacksonville. I lined up highways and towns in between, started writing, started changing the route, started rewriting, and started noticing a pattern: in that part of Georgia, all roads ran through Waycross. Big rail hump yard there. Rather a literary name, Southern, apropos. Waycross. Where Brayden’s grasp at fortune, er, surely must crack up.
Nut theft. It’s a thing. In 2015, it’s a Bouchercon thing.
- To Bouchercon for the market and more so for the cause, and to the volunteer readers for their time and sifting “Waycross” out from many other great choices.
- To the brilliant Art Taylor, for deft editing that rooted–nope, not done yet–“Crack-Up” in deeper clarity and fun. Sir, the pecantinis are forever on me.
- To my writer buddies for making me better and sharper, and to my family for hanging in on This Whole Writing Thing. To my Pomeranian writing wingman, there for the writing but not for the reading. Miss you, buddy.