Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Book

GC Smith

Making WHITE LIGHTNING takes a couple of bushels of corn, a hundred pounds or so of refined sugar, yeast, good spring water, a big old galvanized tub, an old car radiator, and fire.

No, seriously folks, the White :ightning that I'm talking about is a novel. A murder mystery set in the world of the National Association of Stock Car Racers (NASCAR). Better yet a murder mystery tied to big time competition, NASCAR's premiere racing.

NASCAR racing goes back to the late nineteen forties and booze looms large in NASCAR's history. Running illegal whiskey (white lightning) in souped up automobiles is at the root of American stock car racing, thus the title, WHITE LIGHTNING.

How does one come to write a novel about murder and stock car racing?

Well, first one beats his head against the wall writing two private eye novels that never sold. The books THE CARBON STEEL CARESS and IN GOOD FAITH got beaucoup reads and beaucoup rejections. Finally, a literary agent wrote to me and said -these are solid pieces of work and you know the craft, but.... Hmmm, another but. Another rejection. This time the agent said the problem was that an indescribable something that he couldn't put his finger on wasn't there.

Wow! What a rejection. Indescribable. Couldn't put his finger on it. It wasn't there. The guy had no idea what he was talking about and at the time neither did I. So I tossed the books in a drawer and did other things. Diversions. Designed a house and had it built for one. Subcontracted with the builder and did the trim carpentry and the painting myself. Bought a boat and went fishing and shrimping. Took my golf game to new levels of competence. Went into home remodeling. It was all fun. It all became boring. I wasn't writing a novel. I wanted to write. I believed I could write.

But what the agent said nagged.

“That indescribable something that wasn't there.“

I thought about it a lot and decided he was talking about the hook; the difference that makes the reader exclaim, viva la. The little thing that makes the protagonist, in my case the P.I. of my already written novels, stand out from those penned by other writers.

I started thinking about and looking for that hook. The more I thought the more frustrated I became. There were P.I. stories all over the place. Parker's guy Spencer was a body builder and a gourmet cook; Hillerman's heroes were American Indians, McDonald's Modesty Blaise was a lady (well sort of), and the other Macdonald's (John D.) Travis McGee was a beach bum. There was even a writer whos protagonist Nudger (How's that for a handle) had a perennially runny nose. Appetizing creature. There were homosexual protagonists, psychoanalyst protagonists, protagonists with one leg, cerebral protagonists, bumbling protagonists. You get the idea. There were so many protagonist "hooks". Hooks that had become so commonplace they no longer "hooked".

All manner of writers were scratching for something that would set their stuff above the run of the mill. The quest for the difference had become ridiculous. I was about to give up. But, something kept nagging; bringing me back to the agents indescribable something that he couldn't put his finger on that wasn't there.

I'm a writer. Addicted. A damn fool. I couldn't just put down the pen. So, I decided that I was going to write that book that had that "couldn't put a finger on indescribable something that wasn't there."

This book would have "it". "It" would be there. If a silent screen star could be the "it" girl then by damn my book would be the "it's there" book. The book would have the hook.

I harked back to trite old admonition -Write what you know. And since I don't know much of anything, finding the subject with that hook became easy. I'm an Economist by training and trade but, hell, the dismal science bores even me. I wasn't about to inflict my readers with that dreck. I'm an amateur carpenter but I have a friend who's written a series of successful mystery novels whose hook is a carpenter cum amateur detective. So, carpenter was out.

I kept scratching my head.


I once helped build and fix racecars. Dragged hulks out of junkyards, patched them up, and put them on the Saturday night racetracks in small town Pennsylvania.
Race cars. Yeah. That was it. Stockcar racing mixed with skullduggery and murder. That was the ticket. There was my hook. That indescribable something that the agent couldn't put his finger on. Yep, there it was.
I had my subject. Skullduggery and murder. I had my setting. The world of NASCAR.

NASCAR racing as a setting for the story made sense to me because it was virgin territory. There were no contemporary murder mysteries written around stock car racing. And the fan base. It's enormous. Major race tracks seat several hundred thousand fans and the seats are always filled. What's more every town and city in the U.S.of A. has a bush league track feeding the fan base. What a hook! What a potential readership! Can any of them read?

All I needed were some characters to carry the story. And, hell, they were inventable. So I set about inventing.

Ezekiel Zechariah "E.Z." Carter. Protagonist. Ex-con. WHITE LIGHTNING race team manager. Wiseguy. Lover. Reluctant detective.

Adele "Addie' Southern. Blonde cutie pie. Owner of WHITE LIGHTNING INDUSTRIES. E.Z.'s boss. Mercurial (a woman). E.Z.'s love interest.

Fairman Slinger. WHITE Lightning's Winston Cup driver. Not the first black driver on the Winston Cup circuit but the pushiest, the most successful, and the biggest pain in the ass.

Robyn Slinger & Jessie Slinger. Wife and three year old child of Fairman Slinger. Murder victims.

Clayton Gidrey. Raceteam owner. Auto dealer. Badguy.

Sheriff Tyree Pye. Gidrey's partner in nefarious doings. Badguy number two.

Randall "Rabbit" Jenks, Lester "Weasel" Harral, The Christian twins, Martin and Maxwell. Supporting bad guys.

Wylie "the Coyote" Patterson. Drives for the Gidrey Winston Cup team. He's the racecar driver most competitive with Fairman Slinger and another murder victim. Patterson and Slinger have bad blood between them both on and off the racetrack.

And an assortment of other color characters, some fairly important to the story, others bit players.

Now, with a bunch of characters I needed more than the simple plot skeleton of skullduggery and murder. So I decided on a story with three sections (or books). I set the stage. E.Z is forced into a bar-fight, kills a guy in self defense and is railroaded into prison through incompetent counsel. Book one opens with E.Z. free of parole supervision and resuming a career in NASCAR racing. Book two deals with racing and murder. Book three with investigation, closure, and getting back to championship racing.

The guts of the story are that just as the WHITE LIGHTNING team becomes competitive, Slinger's wife is murdered as is the Winston Cup driver, Wylie Patterson. Suspicion falls on Slinger and, secondarily, on E.Z. for a number of reasons. A big one is that E.Z. has previously served time. Another reason may be that with Patterson out of the way the WHITE LIGHTNING team has possibly eliminated their prime competition. And, since E.Z. is an ex-con the cops are more interested in railroading him (and/or Slinger) than in solving the murders. Either way the WINSTON CUP dream would die.

So, to reiterate, here are the plot elements.

1. E.Z., a minor league raceteam manager, gets a shot at the bigtime.

2. Murder and suspicion that is beamed at E.Z. threaten to kill the dream. E.Z. is forced to become the detective.

3. All manner of obstacles thwart E.Z.'s investigation.

4. Perseverance and tenacity prevail. E.Z. brings the bad guys to the bar of justice.

5. We care, I hope, because it's a classic story of good prevailing. And, the characters are, again I hope, engaging.

The book bounces from the South Carolina Lowcountry to the NASCAR race circuit to the Bahamas and back to the race circuit. It's got intrigue. It's got suspense. It's got flirty girls. And it's got redemption.

I used racing history. I used racing technology. And I used the murder mystery plot line. And 322 pages later I had a book. It's published Buy it.

I believe that the book has that certain indescribable something that is there and that that anyone can put their finger on. The hook. Big time stock car racing. It's a fun read that was a fun write.

That's my recipe for making WHITE LIGHTNING

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