I first published Nick Kepler in 2001 when I sent a short story called “A Walk in the Rain” to the late, lamented Plots With Guns. By that point, Nick had actually been with me since about 1984 or so. But he was radically different from what I’d originally imagined. In the beginning, I came up with a character who would be a modern Sherlock Holmes. A brainy detective needed a brainy name. So I combined two astronomers, Nicholas Copernicus and Johannes Kepler. Copernicus, of course, was the one who realized the Earth revolved around the sun rather than the other way around. Kepler, among other things, mapped the moon.
Brainy Kepler never made it into a short story. Just as well. I couldn’t write my way out of a wet paper sack. And anyway, I had just binge read the first ten or so Spenser novels. Before Spenser became Robert B. Parker’s means of amusing himself for fun and profit, he was a groundbreaking character in the PI genre. I wanted to write one of those.
So Nick became an ex-PI turned writer. He lived in Cleveland, had a girlfriend named Janine, and often found himself dragged back into his old line of work by Homicide Detective Frank Windsor. Unfortunately, there were a lot of flaws with this premise. I knew nothing about being a novelist. And in 1987, there was not much of an Internet to access for information. Besides, I didn’t own a computer until 1994. (Now I earn my living from them.) I knew nothing about crime, law enforcement, or private investigation. The PI was riding high as a genre, but I was not the guy to write it. Besides, Nick’s tastes were my tastes. He listened to a limited number of hair bands and a lot of classic rock. His cars resembled mine, and I’m sorry, but no one wants to see their hero tooling around the city in a 1973 Buick LeSabre no matter how big the engine is.
So I put Nick away for a while. I wrote other stuff, playing in sandboxes and sharpening my skills. Besides, a 33-year-old computer technician knows a lot more about life than a 22-year-old factory worker. So Nick lay dormant, whispering in my ear but never quite coming out with a full blown story.
One day, at the tail end of the 1990s, I was laying on my couch watching old reruns of Saturday Night Live with Eddie Murphy. Comedy Central ran the sketch about prison poets with Murphy performing “‘Images’ by Tyrone Green.” Or, as you might remember it, “Kill my landlord, kill my landlord.” Outside, a contractor worked on the second-floor balconies in our apartment complex. As Murphy asked about the “Watch dog barking. Do he bite?” I looked at the contractor and thought, “Be a damn shame if someone shoved him off that ladder. But how would you know it was murder?” By the next day, I had a 14-page outline. I started writing short stories. The first two I wrote, “Race Card” and “Valentine’s Day,” had trouble finding homes but the third one landed effortlessly. I wrote “A Walk in the Rain” after a friend from high school told me about her abusive first husband. Her solution was to pack up her daughter and move back to Ohio. My solution was to stuff the sonofabitch into his own trunk and send the car through the crusher. Since Nick is a “good guy,” I made sure said abusive boyfriend was already dead by the time he arrived on the scene. It was a dreary April night, and story practically wrote itself.
Soon, I had several stories fleshing out Nick, and I was working on my first novel. It went through several titles – Three-way Split, Coincidental Murder (from an Aerosmith song) – but I finally settled on Northcoast Shakedown. I began shopping it.
And that, kids, it how the series began. Of course, it took 21 years from a daydream in a high school English class to actual paperback.
I might actually be successful at this by the time I’m 70.