Saturday, August 09, 2014

Out of Order: A guest essay by Ken Kuhlken on writing his Tom Hickey series

In reading historical fiction, it greatly interests me to see how characters act and react within their settings, and I also enjoy learning how authors choose what to write about.  The following essay by Ken Kuhlken, whose historical mystery The Good Know Nothing is out this week from Poisoned Pen Press, provides insight into the thought process behind writing his series and developing his characters within that series. Please read on to learn more.


Out of Order
Ken Kuhlken
People ask, "Why the heck didn't your Tom Hickey novels get published in chronological order?"

It's a fair question. From first to last, the books are set in 1943, 1942, 1950, 1971, 1979, 1926, and 1936. When asked why this nonsensical strategy, up to now, I've answered, "Beats me" or, if I felt expansive, "Beats me, it just happened that way."

But the invitation to write this post prompted some deeper thinking, and I've concluded that the reason for the peculiar order comes from the way my mind works, from my priorities. What intrigues me most about stories is characters, people. Settings, especially from the past, I also find intriguing. But people are what most puzzle me and excite my curiosity.

While thinking about this, something I hadn't recognized before came clear: The order in which I wrote the books in my series was simply a product of the same mind that chose my college subjects, a major in literature and a minor in history.

Most of my college reading was novels. And novels, at least the ones called literature, are most often character studies. No doubt those of us drawn to literature are trying to fill some gaps in our understanding of people, especially ourselves. We're like those who choose psychology except we prefer imagination over analysis.

Mary Pickford, mentioned in the series
as the employer of Tom Hickey's mother
On account of the way my mind works, my Tom Hickey series got created and grew like this: The Loud Adios (set in 1943) actually began with the setting, inspired by my fascination with Tijuana and with the WW II period. I can see Tijuana from my backyard and use to spend more than my share of time there. And my high school best friend's mother, who resembled Tom Hickey's antagonist Cynthia Jones, told us dozens of stories about the war years on both sides of the San Diego-Tijuana border.

As soon as I sat down to write about Tijuana during WW II, Tom Hickey came to mind, as an MP at the border. He didn't become a (in civilian life) private investigator until I decided to enter him into the St. Martin's Best First Private Eye novel contest.

Not long after I won that contest, I took my teenaged kids and two of their friends to Lake Tahoe, and one afternoon the antics of four teenagers caused me to ditch them, for the sake of what sanity remained. I left them in the motel and walked on the beach. At first I worried about what they would break and how much I'd get billed. Then I wondered how did Tom Hickey land in the fix he finds himself in during The Loud Adios.

William Randolph Hearst, who appears
in The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles
and The Good Know Nothing

Lake Tahoe is a magical place. About a trip to Tahoe, Mark Twain commented, "This is the air the angels breathe." Well, out of the heavenly air came a fairly complete version of The Venus Deal (1942). And by the time I returned to the motel, I had wondered about, and gotten the answer to, what became of a romance The Loud Adios introduces. The answer is in The Angel Gang (1950), of which the primary setting is on the shore of Lake Tahoe.

Quite a while after those books came out, I got to dreaming about the Hickeys again, and especially about the fate of a new character who enters the world during The Angel Gang. So I wrote that story, The Do-Re-Mi (1971) and during the process discovered Tom's older son, who charmed me so completely, I needed to write a whole book about him: The Vagabond Virgins (1979).

Next, because Tom Hickey played only supporting character roles in the last two books and I had learned to appreciate him more than ever, I found myself asking what in his parentage and youth had played into his development. Out of those questions came The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles (1926) and The Good Know Nothing (1936).

Marion Davies, who appears
in The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles
and The Good Know Nothing
And while working on these latest two books, I have fallen for Florence, Tom's bright, lovely, and wild-spirited sister. So I'm considering a book that centers on her. Maybe I'll set it in San Francisco's North Beach during the 1950s Beat era, another time and place I'd love to return to and explore.

All the times and places of the novels are ones I'm fascinated by. 1920s Los Angeles; 1930s all over the southwest; the WWII years along the border; Lake Tahoe when the gambling mobs were moving in; the hippie years in Northern California; and Baja California when the party that had tyrannized Mexico since their revolution began to implode.

So, it appears my stories, and the order in which I write them, come from an obsession with following characters to places and times I want to live in, learn about, and resurrect for my readers.

Now I'm especially glad that The Good Know Nothing is available, because it fills a gap in Tom's story. Now people can read in an orderly chronological fashion about Tom and a cast of dozens throughout the transformation of California from a frontier into the world's trendsetter.

Finally, from a wandering mind comes sensible order.


Ken Kuhlken's short stories, features, essays and columns have appeared in Esquire and dozens of other magazines and anthologies, been honorably mentioned in Best American Short Stories, and earned a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.

His novels have been widely praised and honored by awards such as the Ernest Hemingway Best First Novel, the St. Martin's/Private Eye Writers of America Best First Novel, and the Shamus Best Novel. His latest, The Good Know Nothing, a Tom Hickey California crime novel, was released on August 5.

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