Someone’s Callin’, Lord

How I’ve incorporated digital technology into my writing

I finished my first Grace Church mystery, Death in the Memorial Garden, in 2111, just before smart phones reached the masses.  But I enjoyed inserting email exchanges into the manuscript.  The memo format nicely separated long blocks of text and allowed me to exaggerate the sender’s quirks.

For instance, a character named Daniel, the church’s organist, tends to talk in fits, starts, and circles, and so do his emails.  Fortunately, he had to focus when titling the message.  This is how he lets his employer, Father Robert, know what he thinks of using the folk song Kumbaya in the church service: he titles the email Kumbay-ug!  He doesn’t hate folk music. In the body of the message he explains in exhaustive detail how the hymn was originally named Come by Here, sung by former slaves living on Georgia’s Sea Islands.  He goes on to proclaim that the evocative phrases ‘Someone’s callin’, cryin’, dyin’ Lord were a petition for balm and righteousness, not a campfire entreaty for brotherhood.

My readers love Daniel, and when writing my third novel, Death on Sacred Ground, I realized he was threatening to dominate the story, at the expense of Father Robert, the protagonist.  What to do?  My inspiration came from the online practice of ‘ghosting’, meaning failing to respond to online messages from someone who is taking up too much of one’s psychic time. I didn’t want to ghost Daniel altogether, but I ended up confining his presence to a few key scenes while giving him the honor of  explaining how a homeless encampment, the site of two murders, qualified as ‘Sacred Ground’.

On to phones: Many of us are now referring to the fit-in-your-hand cell phone and multi-tasking smart phone as “my phone.”  The old-fashioned device wired into the wall is being demoted to ‘landline’.

 A character in my first mystery is prosperous enough to own one of the first smartphones. To confirm a meeting date, he whips it out and checks his online calendar, to the envy of all present. In my second mystery, Death in the Old Rectory, published in 2016, everyone has one.  It probably saves my character Adele’s life because it is by her side when she begins to suffer a stroke.

Those of us who read pre-1980 mystery fiction remember when the police detective or amateur sleuth had three choices when it came to communication: face to face, land line, or phone booth.  Then the car phone and two-way radio partially cut the tether between user and device. 

These days, the first person to arrive at a crime scene can phone it in, take photos from all angles, and, God forbid, pose for a selfie with the corpse.  For all I know, there’s an app that will record the victim’s body temperature and blood type eliminating the need of scene of crime officers. 

In my upcoming book, Death on Sacred Ground, most everyone is sending text messages.  I’m intrigued by the sounds people choose to announce an incoming text. My choice is a discreet click, but I chose the sound of a siren to enliven a tense meeting between Father Robert and one of the suspects.

I don’t use Twitter, but Canadian superstar author Louise Penny peppers her latest Inspector Gamache mystery with tweets. I enjoy the hashtags more that the messages.  For instance, an artist’s latest exhibition is panned with something along the lines of #You are a hack.  Even the series hero is labeled by his enemies as #Killer inside the Surete.

For Death on Sacred Ground I had fun creating an online bulletin board named Central Seattle.  The time-dated but anonymous comments aggressively disagree with each other, allowing me to introduce background information, and an anonymous threat or two keeps the plot jumping, I hope.

Central Seattle’s main contributor, named Bill, is based on Roger, the real life “Scanner Guy” of my hometown Santa Barbara’s bulletin board called Edhat.  Bill and Roger monitor police and fire frequencies and when not in emergency mode, contribute commentary worthy of the New Yorker.

Writers younger than I can’t seem to stop flicking to Twitter while working on a serious piece.  One commenter reports that Twitter and friends help her address the pace and confusion of modern-day life.  My #OK Boomer generation isn’t so harried, and I can easily decompress by adding family pictures to Facebook.  My aging brain is intrigued, not obsessed, by what is being called the ‘digital psyche’.

I banned all digital references from ‘Sacred Ground’s last chapter.  What remains is description, face to face dialogue, and a final scene in which the characters walk away from the church in the newly fallen snow.

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