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Where Did Columbo 2.0 Come From?

Where Did Columbo 2.0 Come From?

Where did Columbo 2.0 come from and why is he part of the West River Mystery Series? That was the question I asked myself while developing a backstory for a new character who debuts in See Jane Dig! (That’s Book 4 if you’re keeping track.) The new character is the Tipperary County Deputy Sheriff. He was mentioned in both See Jane Run! and See Jane Sing! but remained nameless and never made an appearance. The same thing is true of See Jane Dance!, which will be released in the fall of 2023.

More on that in an upcoming post.

During the planning session for See Jane Dig!, my editor and I decided the time had come to rectify the situation. The elusive deputy deserved to show up and be named. My good intention went no further until April of 2023 when Hiram and I were on the road. We stopped for lunch at the Zapp Thai restaurant in Greenfield, Indiana. The place was crowded and while we waited for the server, who was being run off her feet, to take our order I opened my composition notebook and began brainstorming names.

My only criteria for the deputy was that his surname was Italian.

Mainly because two homesteaders who came to northwest South Dakota in the early 1900s were Italian. They had a big family, and many of their descendants remain in the area to this day. I wanted the series to reflect their presence. After the server took our order I did an internet search for and found the Italian derivative of a certain English name. It’s a bit of a spoiler, so you’ll have to wait until Book 4 to learn what it is. Next I searched for popular Italian surnames and Columbo popped up.

What could be better than naming Tipperary County’s lawman after television’s most rumpled detective?

Once Deputy Columbo had a name, the details for his backstory began to flow. Some are riffs on the original:

  • My guy wears a western duster instead of a trench coat.
  • He chews tobacco instead of a cigar.
  • His appearance is rumpled.
  • He is underwhelming at first glance.

Other details are unique to Columbo 2.0:

  • He loves animals and takes his dog everywhere.
  • He’s lazy, except when it comes to hunting and fishing.
  • He has a family and is a devoted father.
  • He’s late to everything.

So where did Columbo 2.0 come from?

I guess you could say he began at the very busy Zapp Thai restaurant in Greenfield, Indiana. Hiram and I encourage you to eat there if you’re ever in the area. The food was some of the best we’ve ever had, and the prices were reasonable. After you pay the bill and tip the overworked server generously, look around someone who resembles Columbo 2.0.

I found him there. Maybe you will too.

Photo Credit: Created by Prawny for Pixabay

My Character Information Spreadsheet Saved my Writing Life

My Character Information Spreadsheet Saved my Writing Life

My character information spreadsheet saved my writing life today. Some of you may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. The innocuous character information spreadsheet pictured above truly saved my life this week.

The events that necessitated this dramatic action began yesterday when my Midwestern Books editor sent the continuity and proofreading edits for See Jane Dance!. (It’s Book 3 in the West River Mystery Series in case you’re counting.) Soon I was reading through and approving the changes suggested by the proofreader. Who is amazing. Seriously amazing. All was going swimmingly until the proofreader’s note about second grader Cora Barkley. In a nutshell, the editor cited passages in See Jane Run! and See Jane Sing! that said Cora was a first grader.

Gasp! This is bad news for a fiction writer. (Yes, that would be me.)

I consider creating a consistent story world to be essential. How in the world was I going to reconcile this discrepancy and put Cora in the grade where she belongs? And how was I going to explain the shift to her teacher Jane who won’t have enough copies of first grade worksheets if that’s where Cora lands.

Oh wait. Jane is a fictional character. But still.

So what I did instead of freaking out, which I was my first reaction? First I opened my character information spreadsheet. I started this document before beginning See Jane Run! and have been updating and expanding it as new characters are added. The sheet includes basic information that helps me keep each character’s story consistent.* Not everything on the sheet ends up in the books, and that’s okay. It’s there just in case. Also, the picture above is of the beginning of the spreadsheet. It goes on for pages and pages.

A quick glance at Cora’s entry confirmed that she is supposed to be in second grade.

I also checked my composition notebook where I brainstormed character names and student grade levels long ago. Those notes also listed Cora as a second grader. Finally, I read the chapters in Run! and Sing! that were concerning to the proofreader. I used printed rather than electronic copies and discovered that those consistency errors had been caught and corrected before the books went to the printer and upheld Cora’s status as a second grader.*

Thus, thanks in part to my character information spreadsheet, I am breathing once again. My writing life has been saved, and Jane does not need to make a flying trip to Tipperary to copy more first grade worksheets for Cora. Whew!

*My character information sheet is only the tip of the character development iceberg. For each character, I have created a much longer document about their parents, immediate and extended families (very important in Little Missouri as everyone is related to everyone else), their education and employment, quirky habits and mannerisms, their homes and ranches, vehicles, motivations, faults, strengths, and more. Perhaps one day I’ll write a post about that.

**My guess is the proofreader had referred a document that hadn’t been updated to show those changes.

Adding Flesh to the Bones of See Jane Dig!

Adding Flesh to the Bones of See Jane Dig!

Adding flesh to the bones of See Jane Dig! has been keeping me busy. For those of you who are wondering what bones I’m talking about, you may want to read this post to get your bearings. What comes next in this post will make much more sense once you do.

Here’s what is involved in adding flesh to the bones of See Jane Dig!

  • Creating a new project for See Jane Dig! using Scrivener software, making a folder for each anticipated chapter, and writing summaries from the notecards mentioned in the previous post.
  • Filling in calendars from the year the story takes place with the progression of the chapters along with very brief notes of the action. This may seem redundant, since the chapter summaries contain the same information. However, I’m very linear and function best when the action of the entire plot is accessible without having to click back and forth between folders.
  • Studying the map of the county which is the model for Tipperary County and counting the miles between “Little Missouri” and the dig site, as well as between “Tipperary” and the dig site.
  • Opening to a fresh page in the trusty composition notebook where I scribble ideas and notes about each book in the West River Series and sketching a map of the dig crew’s camp and the dig site. Since it’s fiction, the details can be changed, but the map helps me envision the action and keep descriptions consistent.

The next step in adding flesh to the bones of See Jane Dig! is creating characters and writing their backstories. I’ll describe that process in a future post. In the meantime, I’ll be thinking up names for the professor and five college students who make up the dig team. If you want to suggest possible names for 3 women and 2 men born between 1957 and 1960, as well as their professor born in 1945 leave them in the comment box!

See Jane Dance! and See Jane Dig! Are Trucking Along

See Jane Dance! and See Jane Dig! Are Trucking Along

See Jane Dance! and See Jane Dig! are trucking along, and it’s time for an update on both. Let’s start with See Jane Dance! The last post about that book was clear back in December when I was still revising the first draft. So much has happened since then, and it’s all good.

The completed manuscript of Dance! is being scrutinized by the Midwestern Books concept editor. Her preliminary feedback assured me that the manuscript is not a worthless heap of trash. (BTW, this is every author’s worst fear regardless of the success of previously published books.) She’ll probably send her suggestions for improvement in the next month or so. When she does, it will be drop-everything-and-work-on-revisions time. The faster those are completed and returned to the publisher, the sooner the manuscript gets into the publication pipeline and the sooner it will be scheduled for release. Those details may be available this spring, so stay tuned.

Now on to the fourth book in the series, See Jane Dig! In previous posts, I described my dinosaur dig research and an interview with a real life paleontologist who lives in the area where the series is set. In the first of those posts, I mentioned that the plot for See Jane Dig! was a tad thin. As in almost non-existent. Today I am happy to report that is no longer the case. Can you hear me shouting “Yahoo!”?

This development began with a few sessions of me brainstorming plot points for See Jane Dig! I also printed a calendar of the months when the story will take place––it begins the last week of April 1978 and concludes near the end of May. I jotted down a few of the brainstormed plot points, the ones that had to occur on certain dates, on the calendar. Last Friday afternoon, I got together with the concept editor to add meat to the bones of what I’d come up with.

I spread out the calendar. She wrote down the results of my brainstorming session on notecards as I read them out loud. Next, we divided the table into 5 columns, corresponding to the book’s five acts, and laid out the notecards where I thought they belonged. For the next few hours we filled in the blank spots (and there were many) with more events, and moved cards from here to there until we were satisfied. Finally we assigned dates to the events and grouped notecards into chapters, with some cards being single chapters. That’s when you heard me shout “Yahoo!”

Now for a peek into See Jane Dig!:

  • The action begins during a field trip.
  • Jane’s rattlesnake shovel, first seen in See Jane Run!, reappears and is put to good use.
  • Another of Jane’s primary grade students, whose age has not reached double digits, drives a vehicle.
  • Velma discovers a substance worthy of greater hatred than glitter.
  • The action ends on the last day of school.

I hope that whets your West River Mystery appetite for the time being. Between now and the next update rest assured that See Jane Dance! and See Jane Dig! are trucking along.

I’m Digging this See Jane Dig! Research

I’m Digging this See Jane Dig! Research

I'm digging this See Jane Dig! research more than I believed possible. In the process, I made a new Harding County paleontologist friend.

Hiram standing beside a casting of the head of Stan, a T-Rex found in Harding County. The casting is housed in the Buffalo, South Dakota Schoolhouse Museum. Stan is one of the most complete T-Rex skeletons found to date.

I’m digging this See Jane Dig! research more than I thought possible. Maybe you caught that in previous posts here and here. But last week, my excitement rose to new heights during a phone call with an honest-to-goodness paleontologist. Not just any paleontologist, but one who lives in Harding County, the model for the setting of the West River Mysteries.

I found him by emailing the younger sister of a former student. Had we not moved back to Iowa in 1985, she would have been my student the next fall. She still lives in the area, and I asked her who could pinpoint where the dinosaur remains mentioned in different newspaper clippings had been found. She pointed me toward the paleontologist.


My next step was to make a list of the digs in question based on the information in the clippings. The step after that was to study the county map the parent of another former student sent a while back. I wanted to get my bearings about where the digs might have been located before picking up the phone. The final step was to screw up the courage to pick up the phone and call.

That was the hardest part. It was also the coolest part.

After I introduced myself as a former Harding County resident and dropped the names of kids I’d taught (Who knew being a school teacher could be such a door opener?), he answered my questions. He also told story after story while I circled things on the map and scribbled notes. One of his stories confirmed the plausibility of what I hope will be the major conflict in See Jane Dig!

Now there was a true-to-life reasons for the book’s bad guys to do bad guy things.

Before our call ended, he told me where his office is in Buffalo. I said my husband and I might visit him next summer when we go to Harding County. He didn’t say no. In fact, he said he’d like that. Which is the ultimate reason I’m digging this See Jane Dig! research.

I have a new Harding County friend.