al pennyback

Where Story Ideas Come From – 2

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When I started writing the Al Pennyback mystery series, I didn’t have a specific sub-genre in mind.  It’s not a hardboiled mystery with a hero who is always battling bad guys; nor is it a procedural mystery – I go light on the technical aspects of crimes, criminals, or police procedures.  I was just going for a good story that had a crime as a central element, which the hero, Al Pennyback, would then set about solving.

"Al's Angels"
Al Pennyback, with the main ladies in this series, (l to r) Lucy Mendez, Heather Bunche, and Sandra Winter.

My main motivation for writing this particular series was the fact that I live in the Washington, DC area, and have for more than 30 years, and most of the stories set in this locale are about politicians, spies, or high-powered lobbyists.  I know that the average Joe and Jane who happens to call the Washington metro area home lives a life that can be just as exciting as the K Street crowd, or the boys across the river in McLean, so, about ten years ago I started drafting.

My first, Color Me Dead, went through more than six years of rewriting; the title changed, the central plot changed, and most importantly, the name and background of the main character changed.  I no longer remember what I called him at first, but, one day as I was sweating over the tenth or twentieth draft, Al Pennyback was born.  He’s an African-American; after all, the area is predominantly African-American; he’s retired military; being retired military, I can relate to that, and the area also has loads of retired military people; and he’s a sucker for puzzles and unsolved mysteries.  Despite, or because of, his military background, he hates guns, preferring to use his wits or his martial arts ability to get out of tight spots.  He’s a widower; gives him an air of sympathy; but, has a girl friend.  The sex scenes are only hinted at.  I think too many modern mysteries go overboard on the sex.  And, the language is mostly mild. On occasion, Al or one of the characters lets fly with an earthy expletive, because that’s the way people talk after all, but you won’t find curse words on every page.

That’s sort of the definition of a cozy mystery; cosy in British English; but, I didn’t set out to write cozies.  Despite that, one of my British readers has decided that’s the sub-genre of at least one of the stories in the series, Dead Man’s Cove.  He gave it such a good review, I don’t have the heart to argue the point."Dead Man's Cove"

5.0 out of 5 stars Well-written cosy crime mystery, November 2, 2012


C. M. Donaldson (UK) – See all my reviews

This review is from: Dead Man’s Cove (Al Pennyback Mysteries) (Kindle Edition)

I’ve never read an Al Pennyback mystery before and I’m pleased there are others since this one set the benchmark. It was a laidback cosy read and thoroughly enjoyable.

Al, a private eye, gets to spend the weekend with his girlfriend Sandra on a small island, Dead Man’s Cove at the invitation of his good friend Quincy (who had previously encouraged him to open up his detective agency) on a client’s yacht with a few other friends including two married couples. Al suspects these couples are putting on a front (as many unhappy couples do) but it has nothing to do with him as he’s more than content with Sandra and while he’s a bit of wimp when it comes to sailing, he goes along for her benefit if it makes her happy. It transpires that his wife and young son died some years ago and it’s been a long trawl to get back to some form of normality, and he is grateful for his good fortune at getting a second chance at love. However, what should have been a leisurely relaxing weekend soon turns into a busman’s holiday for Al.

It’s hard not to give too much away, but as the story progresses, the drinks are poured, the sun beats down and all seems right with the world, the unexpected happens – one of the party is murdered. All of a sudden all central characters are put under scrutiny and all kinds of secrets and lies are unearthed as Al tries to find the truth and, out of the unlikely bunch, a cold-blooded killer.

I liken this to the male version of Murder She Wrote (sleuth encounters murder while minding his own business), and I’m happy to say I’ll be purchasing every Al Pennyback thriller/mystery I can get my hands on if Dead Man’s Cove is anything to go by. It well deserved my five star rating.

Now, this is the type of review you want to get.

I tend to write stories in scenes, a lot like a movie, so that the reader can ‘see’ what’s happening.  A few readers have taken notice of this.  Here’s what one reader had to say about Till Death Do Us Part:"Till Death Do Us Part

5.0 out of 5 stars First Review, July 17, 2012


L.I. LINDA (LI NY) – See all my reviews

This review is from: Till Death Do Us Part (Al Pennyback Mysteries) (Kindle Edition)

This book reads like a T.V. episode of a crime/adventure show.The author developed his plot slowly and effectively.His characters were interesting and well defined.It was a good read.


Following the advice given in most books on writing, I try to show, not tell.  I let the characters’ dialogue and action move the story rather than filling page after page with exposition or descriptions.

Now, the question one might well ask is; where do the ideas for this series come from?  The answer is – everywhere.  I read newspapers, print and online, and every edition has at least one story idea.  Till Death Do Us Part, for instance, came from an article I read in a South African newspaper on a flight from Capetown to Copenhagen a few years ago about a couple who’d come to Johannesburg on vacation and been victims of a carjacking.  The wife was killed, but the husband escaped unharmed.  It turned out later that he’d arranged the incident in order to get rid of his wife.  I changed the setting to Jamaica and was off to the races.

I’ve done two books about radical militias, Dead, White, and Blue and Deadly Intentions.  The proliferation of militias and other hate groups in the U.S. over the past several decades has always concerned me, so this was a natural.

Deadline started out as a story about scams against lonely women, but about one-third into the first draft I decided to throw a ghost in just for the heck of it.  I’m a bit agnostic about ghosts – I don’t know that they are real, but I don’t know that they’re not, so there you are.

Whatever motivates the story idea, my main objective is to write a story that keeps the reader wanting to turn the page to see what happens next.  According to two readers, I’ve succeeded:

5.0 out of 5 stars Great, July 30, 2012


lisa repak – See all my reviews

Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)

This review is from: Till Death Do Us Part (Al Pennyback Mysteries) (Kindle Edition)

This was a great book. Fast paced, I couldn’t put it down. You really want to read this book. I loved it.


5.0 out of 5 stars My new hero….Al Pennyback!, October 23, 2012


Kathleen Boston McCune “Kathleen Boston McCune” (Prairie Village, Kansas) – See all my reviews

Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)

This review is from: Till Death Do Us Part (Al Pennyback Mysteries) (Kindle Edition)

Just finished “Til Death Do Us Part” and really enjoyed Charles Ray’s Suspense novel….completing it in just two sessions. His characters ring true and I felt as though I too were fighting for “right vs wrong” along with Pennyback. Ray has the vernacular down pat for all walks of life and proves that having more experience with life and humanity has its’ advantages.

Well done you, Charles Ray!! Keep them coming.


There you have it; that’s where story ideas come from.