Nick Kepler: The Origin

Northcoast Shakedown by Jim Winter

So Nick Kepler popped into my head the moment I watched the Eddie Murphy “Kill My Landlord” skit. Right? I had a 14-page outline, and started spinning out short stories to flesh him out. Right?

Actually, no.

Nick Kepler’s origins go all the way back to high school, when my Creative Writing teacher had us start journals to track our ideas. I actually journaled regularly until I was 25 or so. That ended when I moved to Cincinnati and started a new life. But in my junior year of high school, I sketched out three characters, all of whom were unusually crime fiction for a scifi nerd. The first was a cop named Ginelli, written for an early short best left in the trashcan. The second was a PI named Ray Stoner who might have been a decent character had I been writing professionally in the 1970s. The third was a Sherlock Holmes-like character. I needed to give him an extremely brainy name. So I took the names of two famous astronomers, Nicholas Copernicus and Johannes Kepler. Nicholas Kepler. So that was his origin. Right?

Actually, my modern-day Holmes never went anywhere. I read a few Sherlock Holmes stories back in the day, and the mythology always intrigued me. Yet I had already read Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series by the time I revisited writing a detective novel. So I scrapped the brainy guy and came up with a Cleveland-based private detective. Well, former private detective. He was a writer. (Oh, how original. A writer writes about a writer. Who the hell do you think you are? Stephen King?) Nick was always getting lured into working cases by Frank Windsor, a homicide detective while his girlfriend Janine kept him balanced. In a novel that made it to about 60 pages, Nick wound up working with a deputy sheriff in a neighboring county named Rick Reese, whom I based on a friend of mine whose father also worked as a deputy.

I made several stabs at it. Nick was always a writer, always had his girlfriend, and was forever getting snared back into the PI game by Windsor. There are three or so aborted manuscripts in my file cabinet, their typing as bad as my prose. I gave it up after I moved to Cincinnati and decided to play in someone else’s sandbox for a while.

Maybe I spent a little too much time doing that, but it gave me time to rethink the character. Gone was Janine (who almost returned in an aborted fourth novel a few years back), but Windsor remained. Reese became a Cleveland-area deputy. And Nick?

I’d made it through L in Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhonne series. Kinsey started out scoring free office space from an insurance company in exchange for reduced rates on investigative work. I opted to give Nick the same arrangement, having him downsized from his own benefactors into his own agency. I made him a suburban cop from the same town where half my King Crimson albums. When all this came together, I thought, “What do I do with him now?”

The then-spousal unit and I had a roommate who believed she was a writing expert. (I’ve met several such “experts” since, and usually shut them down with, “And you know this how…?”) She gave me the usual bad advice: Write what you know, base your character on an actor, and, most confusingly, “Do you have a paradigm?” That last made me roll my eyes. It might have referred to the hero’s journey, but I can’t tell. And later, screenwriter Lee Goldberg told me it came from a book most writers generally threw in the trash. It might have been along the lines of Save the Cat, but Save the Cat I found useful for a lot of its examples. (I came up with a character “Mr. Pope” for my scifi after reading its Pope in the Pool chapter.) We kicked out the roommate, and I just wrote the damn story.

In fact, I wrote several. “Race Card,” “A Walk in the Rain,” and “Valentine’s Day” were my opening salvo. I even came up with a 9/11 story called “Flight of the Rat” that explains why Nick’s girlfriend Margo is not in Northcoast Shakedown.

I eventually came up with what I thought would be Nick’s demise. I may yet write it if I’m able to move beyond the planned Kepler #4. But that’s another story.