After I finished writing the third book in the Steve Cline Mystery Series, COLD BURN, which is set on a thoroughbred breeding farm in Warrenton, Virginia, and the manuscript went off to the typesetters, it was time for me to come up with a story idea for the next book in the series. I have to admit, a novel set at the Kentucky Derby was not my first choice.
After wrapping up COLD BURN, I spent three months plotting and researching the fourth book, only to have it rejected on synopsis. So, I had to come up with something, and fast, especially if I wanted to maintain a book-a-year schedule. A schedule I’ve since demolished, I might add.
Anyway, while casting around for a story idea, I considered all the people in Steve’s life, and my focus settled on his father, racehorse trainer Chris Kessler. I decided that Kessler finally had a horse capable enough and talented enough to run in the Kentucky Derby. I pitched the idea to my editor. She loved it, so Steve and I were off to Churchill Downs!
View from the Backside
After getting permission from the powers that be at the storied track, I set about researching Louisville and the Derby Festival Events and the backside of Churchill Downs.
A Gallopalooza Horse on Main Street
I came up with the “horse mystery” quickly, but it didn’t feel substantial enough to carry an entire novel; plus, I generally like to layer a second mystery into the story when possible, anyway, so I came up with another mystery that would complicate the plot in a big way. I started my research online, amassing hundreds of pages of detailed notes that would later filter into the story itself. Then, it was time to visit Louisville and Churchill for onsite research.
Afternoon sun winking off Humana Building
Meanwhile, I had to think of a way to get Steve involved in the mystery I’d designed for him, and it had to be believable. So, I turned to real life. I had taken a Private Investigations course a while back, and one of the topics that we studied dealt with the Public Information Act. Essentially, we learned about the amazing amount of information that is available to the public. And we were given a final assignment: to learn everything that we could about a person unknown to us. Our instructor’s parting words were: “Whatever you do, don’t follow your subject.”
He didn’t want to be called by the police when we screwed up.
Well, those words have stuck with me over the years. I had it in the back of my mind that I could use his sentiment somewhere down the line in a story. So, I decided that Steve would take the same PI course. (He loves working with horses, but he’s interested in investigations, as well.) Steve’s course is wrapping up just as he heads to Louisville. While there, he decides to complete the assignment so he can turn it in when he returns to Maryland.
Unfortunately for Steve, the person he chooses to investigate winds up missing under mysterious circumstances, and the race is on . . .
Here’s the opening to TRIPLE CROSS:
The assignment was simple enough. Pick a random subject and learn as much as you can about him. Name, address, phone number. DOB, mortgages and property taxes. Car description and plate number. VIN if you didn’t mind being obvious. A simple assignment if I’d been in Maryland. But I was six-hundred miles from home, standing within eyeshot of the famed Twin Spires of Churchill Downs. Logistics would be complicated, but nothing I couldn’t overcome.
First and foremost, I needed to select a subject. But on the backside, with all the “Slims” and “Ricos” and “Willies,” figuring out someone’s real name was a tricky proposition at best. Track employees were supposed to keep their photo IDs displayed at all times, either dangling from straps around their necks or clipped to their shirts, but most backsiders found the practice cumbersome and ended up slipping them under T-shirts or stuffing them in back pockets. And whomever I chose needed to have at least a tenuous tie to the community. On the backside, that could be a problem, too. Of course, I could have picked a jockey or a trainer or a local celebrity, but I wanted someone who wasn’t in the news. Someone ordinary. Normal.
Yet I suspected there was nothing ordinary or normal about this place or time. Not in the town of Louisville, and certainly not in the barn area at Churchill Downs. Not fifteen days before the running of the Kentucky Derby.
Even before the sky had brightened, and the lights illuminating the Twin Spires lost their brilliance to the new day, traffic on Fourth Street had increased until the whine of tires on asphalt pushed through the chain-link fence that separated the backside from the rest of the world.
Today, it seemed like that fence wasn’t doing any damned good.
Also, don’t forget the Kentucky Derby documentary that I mentioned in an earlier post. If you’re interested in viewing it, and it’s playing near you, please try to catch it early because twenty-five percent of the box office from the opening week will be donated to the worldwide leader in equine research – The Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation. If you can, please support the film the week of April 18th. To learn more, visit: http://www.thefirstsaturdayinmay.com/