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Building a Detective by Valerie Nieman

Today we’re excited to welcome Valerie Nieman to Ink Heist with a guest post titled “Building a Detective”. Valerie talks about her experience working the “cops and courts” beat as a reporter in West Virginia and how those experiences helped shape the characters in her upcoming new book In the Lonely Backwater and her previous novels as well. This is a fascinating article that not only gives readers a glimpse into newsroom, but also the importance of how personal experiences can inspire our writing. And now, we turn things over to Valerie so she can tell you about the inspiration for In the Lonely Backwater and her experiences as a reporter.


“Bulding a Detective”

A Guest Post By Valerie Nieman

I worked the “cops and courts” beat for many years in a West Virginia city, covering everything from a triple murder within a high-profile family to the Moundsville prison break trials. My daily walk route took me to the city PD to check the overnight reports, and write down most of them—our “Daily Log” included minutiae such as stolen flower pots, vandalism, and fender-benders. I’d talk with the dispatcher, check in with the detectives. I’d stop by the neighboring fire station, then circle back to the magistrates, jail, judges’ offices, prosecutor, county clerk.

I got to know the detectives best—city, county, and state—because major cases demanded regular updates. Each had his own style (they were all men, at that time). Just as in the television dramas, some had outsize personalities, but I remember one for being just the opposite—low-key, persistent, with a sense of humor. He was my favorite detective, and one who helped inspire the character of Detective Drexel Vann in my new YA/adult mystery, In the Lonely Backwater.

In the tradition of such detectives (Columbo, for instance), Detective Vann is often underestimated. He seems to be moving too slowly, asking obvious questions or veering into seemingly unrelated fields of inquiry such as the names of stars, but there’s method to his misdirection.

Maggie, the narrator of In the Lonely Backwater, is a 17-year-old sailor, solo woods-wanderer, and de facto manager of a North Carolina marina. Her mother has abandoned the family, her father’s plunged into alcoholism, and Maggie just doesn’t fit in at school. She’s also a prime suspect in the lurid murder of her beautiful cousin, whose body is found on a disused houseboat.

In her first meeting with Detective Vann, Maggie doesn’t think too much of him. She describes him as a “classic nerd,” and in her unique strategy of putting everything around her into categories, decides he’s “a fishing boat. A small one, from Sears, not on a slip but parked on the monthly lot. Plain aluminum johnboat with a little outboard.” But she’ll gradually change her views, becoming wary of the detective’s analytical mind yet drawn to him as a reliable figure in a world very much in flux.

“Vann always seemed so interested in my life, and I thought it was not just because he was doing his job. I’d told Nat to watch out for him, but it was because of what he did for a living, not who he was. I thought Drexel Vann was essentially a good person. But Detective Vann was not here on a social call, and he spilled all that stuff to maybe get me to spill too.”

Near the end of the book, she’ll settle on where to place him in her taxonomies.

“I looked at Drexel Vann, calm and quiet and sure, and I knew that, in spirit, he wasn’t some beat-up johnboat or even a fast bass boat, but a sailboat. A classic daysailer, clean-lined and reliable, moving through tacks like an eagle riding the wind. He was the surest thing I knew in the world.”

As writers, we cannibalize our own lives, those of our friends and families, our careers: the best material is our closest material. As soon as Maggie sat down for her interview with Detective Vann in the principal’s office, he started taking on some characteristics of that long-ago source, along with bits of other police officers, teachers, and friends in that way we Frankenstein together a compelling character.

Despite TV shows that pitch police and reporters as enemies, always engaged in cat-and-mouse games, the reality is that they need each other. It’s both a symbiotic and an adversarial relationship, ideally based on respect and a good understanding of boundaries. As in any relationship, you develop trust over time, and learn which individuals, and which agencies, are more helpful than others.

While I developed my share of reporter moves such as becoming adept at reading documents upside down, I did not “burn” my sources. In response, they were as candid as possible and allowed access in ways I believe honored that good-faith relationship, such as beckoning me aside for an interview because they knew I’d not blunder into the active scene. Sometimes things happen. I was responding to a shooting call under a sky threatening to drop a tornado, running up the street toward the cluster of first responders. I slipped, looked down, and was standing in a pool of blood from the victim. The event was so recent that no one had yet erected barriers.

My police sources didn’t leak confidential items that were vital to building a case. I didn’t speculate and insinuate. This was still in the day of fact-based journalism.

As I went about my beat, I was “gathering string” that someday would work its way into novels, stories, even a poem about a midwinter drowning that appeared in West Branch. I thought that bit of newspaper parlance, gathering string, might have gone the way of too many newspapers, but I came across an article by a college president who cited it, saying, “It’s the sense that we are on to something, but not sure of what it is or where it might take us. Gathering string begins with a willingness to patiently observe and ask great questions.”

A reporter gathers string all the time. So does a detective. Such daily dribs and drabs may mostly fade away—but when writers are in the midst of creation, those bits come floating back from wherever they’ve been stashed in the cerebral filing system. Working out a plot or solving a case both involve a fair amount of serendipity.

The thousands, make that millions, of quotes and details I recorded in a library’s worth of Reporter’s Notebooks aren’t around any longer, but I still have deep and intimate sensory memories. Thunderous press rooms (where I once slammed the button to stop the presses), a shattered Corvette, the slow process of dragging a lake, the stench of a multi-fatal arson. Although I later returned to school to get an MFA, I believe that journalism was the best training I could have had as a writer, for the stories, the people, the rigor of reporting, the discipline of putting out “the daily miracle.”

Vann is a positive force in this book, but police are a mixed bag in my earlier crime-oriented novels. To the Bones is a paranormal mystery that centers on corruption (of various sorts) in a coal country city much like the one where I worked. The sheriff’s department is unpleasantly deep in the pocket of the coal barons, but a former detective becomes part of a ragtag band of troublemakers who want to find out just whose bodies are down there in the mine crack. Demoted and then dismissed for asking too many questions, Marco DeLucca struggles with his disgrace as well as traumatic memories from military service, but comes through when it’s crucial. He is loosely based on a couple of patrolmen I knew.

Blood Clay, a crime novel set in North Carolina, features less of the police and more of the courthouse personnel, as a case involving a dog-mauling death divides a rural community. The building I haunted for many years is refigured as the Saul County Courthouse in that book, from the massive dark wooden benches for those waiting on court to the yellowing legal notices tacked up by the county clerk’s office.

I get back there now and again, to the city on the Monongahela River where I covered cops and later became editor for the daily newspaper. I drive streets that wear new names in my stories, see what’s changed and what (mostly) hasn’t.

The police and fire departments now inhabit a remodeled discount store right up the street from the newspaper office. I had occasion to visit on my last trip, when I managed to get a parking ticket outside a coffee shop. Everything was different, of course, but it still felt the same. It was like going back to a house where you once lived.

I know if I’d hung around that police station for a little while, I’d have found a story waiting.


Valerie Nieman has been a reporter, farmer, sailor, teacher, and always a walker. She is the author of five novels, as well as books of short fiction and poetry. A graduate of West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte, she has held state and NEA fellowships. Her latest, In the Lonely Backwater, comes out May 10 from Regal House/Fitzroy Books. You can find out more at linktr.ee/ValNieman

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