Rachel Howzell Hall: Five Things I Learned Writing Land Of Shadows

Los Angeles Homicide Detective Elouise ‘Lou’ Norton catches a case: a seventeen-year old girl is found hanged at a construction site. Lou’s partner, Colin Taggert, fresh from the Colorado Springs police department, assumes it’s a teenage suicide. But Lou doesn’t buy the easy explanation. For one thing, the condo site is owned by Napoleon Crase, a self-made millionaire… and the man who may have murdered Lou’s missing sister thirty years ago.

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As Lou investigates the girl’s death, she discovers links between the two cases. She’s convinced that when she solves the teenage girl’s case she will finally bring her lost sister home. But as she gets closer to the truth, she also gets closer the killer.

I learned many things while writing this story, but here are the most important:

JUST CUZ IT’S INTERESTING, I DON’T GOTTA TELL YOU EVERYTHING.

‘Damn, will you just SHUT UP?’ I’ve thought that any time That Guy/That Girl cornered me and proceeded to tell me everything he learned about a newly-discovered millipede in the forests of Peru and goes on and on about I-don’t-even-know-what-the-HELL-he-or-she-is-talking-about. And it started all because I asked ONE question about the ant creeping across the slice of cantaloupe.

We writers can be That Guy/That Girl. Because murder and forensics and cops… Interesting! And so, as I learn stuff like how blood changes over the course of a week or the psychological profile of the typical serial killer, it’s all so cool and my first reaction is: This will be great in Chapters 6, 15, 26, 33 and 70!

But I’ve learned to grab the imaginary spray bottle, give myself a spritz and a firm, ‘No!” Cuz talking about everything is boring. Get in. Get out. Skip the parts people skip.

WHEN IN THE PRESENCE OF REAL-LIFE POLICE, AND I ONLY HAVE TEN MINUTES TO ASK QUESTIONS, DON’T BE DUMB ABOUT IT.

Cops are busy. And they don’t like spending time talking about their day-to-day to us twee writing assholes. So, if a cop is sitting there, not chasing nuts and felons, and is willing to talk to me, I’ve learned not to ask them about the type of gun they carry or what a radio code means or what’s in their patrol car. Those details can be found on the Inter-webs or learned by watching good television shows.

I learned to ask good questions, especially of female cops. And since Lou is a girl, I asked those lady cops very nosy questions. Un-Google-able questions, like, ‘If you’re at a crime scene, and it’s going on the third hour, what do you do when you’re on your period?’ Un-Google-able. Or, ‘Your partner Bruno is a man. You’re married. But you’re with Bruno all day. He’s watching your back, and you’re watching his back, and umm… Is it natural that you wanna, you know, stop sometimes at the Travelodge over on Century Boulevard, the one near the airport, and umm… you know?’

Un-Google-able.

IT’S EASIER TO WRITE A COP WITH NO LIFE OUTSIDE OF DEAD BODIES AND GLOCKS.

I read stories involving these cops a lot. And these stories have many readers. Good reviews. TV series, even. But I discovered that I didn’t want to write that cop. Nor did I want her to be explained simply by the type of music she listens to or what she pours over ice. I set out to create a character that reflects my friends, women, me. Yes, music and liquor, but also religion, politics, family relationships, boxers or briefs, M.A.C. or Estee Lauder, Foxxy Brown or L’il Kim.

Lou is more than murder police. She’s married, is a daughter, has lost her sister, has BFFs, reads bad romances, and loves BBQ ribs and wine. How do I incorporate all that without going overboard? Yeah, that’s the rub. But Lou is worth the trouble, and she’s more interesting now—kind of like leather bags getting better as they’re scraped and battered by life.

READING CHANDLER, DASHETT, CONNELLY, MOSLEY AND LEHANE HELPED – BUT ONLY HELPED A LITTLE WHEN CREATING A FULLY-REALIZED FEMALE DETECTIVE.

I didn’t want Lou to be John Rebus with ovaries nor did I want her to be Bridget Jones with a Glock. I wanted her to be a contradiction wrapped in a riddle trapped in a conundrum of steel and puff pastry. Crime: it’s a man’s world. And fictional men, just like men in real life, have more privilege than women. Don’t make that face. It’s true. And white men definitely have more privilege than black women (psst – Lou’s a black woman, if you didn’t know that by now). Unlike Harry Bosch, she can’t go off the grid, curse out her superiors, smoke in the no-smoking zone—not if she wants to keep her job. Because they physics of her world and our real-life world are the same. She has to show up and take deep breaths and constantly prove to the Bosches and Spillanes of the crime-fighting world that she belongs, that she won’t faint at the sight of blood, that her boobs won’t keep her from hammer-fisting a nut with a knife.

THERE’S SOME SCARY CRAP OUT THERE.

As a crime writer, I lift the city’s skirts to see the ugly so that I can then write about it. And boy, oh, boy, what the city has under her skirts.

However!

Just because I’ve come across horrid, wicked shit doesn’t mean that I have to write it. In my humble opinion, too many writers engage in torture porn, stories that get off on cruelty against the females in their stories. Some writers would argue, ‘Hey, it happened in real life. And you have dead females in your books!’ True dat—and I’ve read that same article in the newspaper about that monster who did those awful things to those women. And yeah, the victims in my novel are female. But I aim to report, not glorify their deaths. Reflect and not bask in the ways they’ve died. Sometimes, I’ve learned, you gotta just say, ‘Hell naw, I’m not writing that.’

But that’s me. You do you… you sick f#&%.

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Rachel Howzell Hall lives in Los Angeles. Her new mystery LAND OF SHADOWS (Forge) featuring Detective Elouise ‘Lou’ Norton is available everywhere!

Rachel Howzell Hall: Website | Twitter

Land of Shadows: Amazon | B&N