“The Story I’m About to Tell You Is (Mostly) a Lie” (by Con Lehane)

Con Lehane’s first short story for EQMM will appear in the Black Mask department of our September/October 2017 issue (on sale August 22). The author is a well-reviewed crime novelist whose work includes a series starring bartender sleuth Brian McNulty and another set at New York’s 42nd Street Library. The latest in the latter series is Murder in the Manuscript Room (Minotaur, November 2017). The author has also written short stories for our sister publication, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and he teaches fiction writing and mystery writing at the Bethesda Writer’s Center. Today’s post gives us a look at how he came up with elements of his upcoming EQMM story, and provides his answer to a perennial question asked of writers.—Janet Hutchings

Readers often ask writers where the ideas for their books come from. Some writers don’t like the question or they find it silly. One of my writer friends tells people he gets his ideas from a post office box in Albany. I think writers shy away from the question because ideas for your stories have to come from you. Knowing where I get my ideas, or what those ideas are, isn’t going to help you. Neither is you telling me the idea you have for a story I might write going to help you or me.

Despite this, I’ve discovered in my fiction writing and mystery writing classes (at the Bethesda Writer’s Center) that a lot of beginning writers aren’t sure where ideas for stories come from or how they should find their own ideas. Because of this, I usually do a couple of exercises that have to do with hooking up incidents from one’s memory with imagined incidents to make a story. I won’t go into the mechanics of the exercise here. But I’ll give an example.

In an interview in The Writer’s Chapbook, novelist John Irving (The World According to Garp and many others) says, “I begin by telling the truth, by remembering real people, relatives, and friends. The landscape detail is pretty good, but the people aren’t quite interesting enough—they don’t have quite enough to do with one another; of course, what unsettles me and bores me is the absence of plot. . . . And so I find a little something that I exaggerate a little; gradually, I have an autobiography on its way to becoming a lie. The lie, of course, is more interesting. I become more interested in the part of the story I’m making up, in the ‘relative’ I never had. And then I begin to think of a novel.”

Now, John Irving isn’t a crime fiction writer. But I’m one of those people who doesn’t see crime fiction as a lesser breed of literature. I don’t think of it as inferior and I do think of it, or much of it, as not so different in how it is imagined and written as any other fiction. Doesn’t it all come from the same place—memory and imagination?

My upcoming EQMM story “Come Back Paddy Reilly” didn’t come about in quite the way John Irving describes, but there are similarities. I wrote the initial version of the story a long time ago. It got its start with a girl I knew when I was a teenager. Despite the setting of the story, and the setting of all of my novels, I didn’t grow up in New York City. I grew up in a couple of different towns in Connecticut. The girl who inspired the “Paddy Reilly” story, I met when I was thirteen, and that meeting took place against the backdrop of my father’s weekly pinochle game in Stamford, Connecticut, not the Bronx where those scenes are set in the story. Stamford is in large part a wealthy suburb of New York, but the part of Stamford I knew growing up was an Irish working-class town. Almost all of my parents friends were from Ireland; they worked in factories, drove buses, or were gardeners, like my father, or worked as domestics, like my mother. Most of the kids I knew had Irish parents.

The girl who inspired Nancy in real life wasn’t of Irish descent. I don’t remember what nationality she was. Still, a lot of the young love loved-and-lost part of the story was pretty much from my memory, except that none of it took place in the Bronx. How the Bronx got into the story has to do with another memory.

The Kingsbridge section of the Bronx in the far northern reaches of the city, below Riverdale and bordering Yonkers, was an Irish neighborhood when I was in my late teens. There were a dozen or more Irish bars along Broadway under the el and hundreds, if not thousands, of immigrant Irish families in the apartment buildings on either side of Broadway. Near the end of the el, the Broadway local, there was Gaelic Park, at one time named Croke Park after the Irish football and hurling stadium in Dublin. For a number of reasons, I spent almost every weekend as a young man in that area, going to the football and hurling matches in Gaelic Park and drinking beer afterward with many of the players in the bars along Broadway.

A good friend from those days, a few years older than me, lived with his wife and kids in an apartment building on Naples Terrace. I visited him often and was always fascinated by the stairs that led from the end of Naples Terrace down to Broadway. Why this hooked up with the young girl from Connecticut in my memory and became a central part of the setting of the story I have no idea.

The next piece of memory was when I tended bar on the Upper West Side of Manhattan at 108th Street, also on Broadway but a different Broadway indeed from the Kingsbridge section 130 blocks or so north. The bar at 108th Street was a true neighborhood bar, the kind that stayed open until 4:00 a.m., and often, with the lights turned down, quite a bit later. Among the patrons, there were “lots of sad faces and lots of bad cases of folks with their backs to the wall,” as George Jones has sung. It was that kind of joint.

One night, two guys came in pretty late, both broad shouldered, streetwise, and tough looking; one guy was white, the other guy black. I knew as soon as they came through the door they were undercover cops. They came up to the bar. The white guy ordered a double shot of vodka and another double after that. They weren’t his first of the night. The guy beside him shook his head when I asked if he wanted anything. He watched his partner drink with the pained expression of a man watching his wife dance much too closely with another man. They came back, just like that, four or five time over the next week or two. No conversation, the same double vodkas, sometimes two, sometimes three, the same pained expression on the partner’s face. Then they were gone. I never saw either of them again. Never knew what went on with the guy drinking the vodka. But, like his partner, I knew he was in big trouble.

There were other times and places in the story that came from my memory. The Dublin House—I think still on 79th Street, though probably spruced up a bit—served as a setting for the final scene with Nancy and Paddy Reilly. There was a cafe—and another woman and another time—where I sat across the street from Lincoln Center, on a still different stretch of Broadway, in awe of the stunningly beautiful Chagall murals hanging in the lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House. That was it for memory. Pretty much everything else that happened in the story would be what John Irving would call “the lie.”

The first version of the story had some of the elements of the version coming up in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. But not the crime and not the cop. I took another shot at it not so long ago. By then, I knew I was writing crime fiction. I think knowing that helped me understand what the story was really about and tie it together.

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