Technology and The Modern Novel

My next novel, The Sacrifice of Lester Yates, will be released April 27, 2021. However, its foundation is firmly ensconced in the 1980s.

In those days, I was the senior reporter on the investigative team for the Columbus Dispatch and working on a series about wrongful convictions. During the exploratory phase of the project, I approached then-Ohio Public Defender Randy Dana for assistance. Being the wise guy that every teacher I ever had believed me to be, I said, “I realize, of course, that every single guy in prison is not guilty, but do you have anyone you believe is more not guilty than everyone else.”

The guy’s name was Johnny Spirko, a career criminal and death-row inmate housed at the Southern Ohio Correctional Center in Lucasville. Spirko had been sentenced to death for the abduction and murder of Betty Jane Mottinger, the postmaster in tiny Elgin, Ohio. I spent hundreds of hours investigating the case against Spirko. He was certainly no angel and had an extensive rap sheet that included a previous murder, which made him an unsympathetic character and an easy target. However, there is no doubt in my mind that he was convicted of a crime he couldn’t possibly have committed. (Spirko’s sentence was later commuted to life without chance of parole. His conviction, I continue to believe, was a miscarriage of justice, but that’s a story for another time.)

After my first visit to Lucasville to interview Spirko, one of the guards gave me a tour of the death house. Ohio was still using the electric chair, nicknamed Old Sparky or Old Thunderbolt, depending on who you were talking to. The chair sat in the middle of a small room. One of the doorways led out of the room into a closet-sized space in which there was a panel, on which there were three buttons – red, green, and white. On execution days, each button was manned by a prison guard. It was voluntary duty, but extra pay. On the warden’s signal, each guard would press their button, but only one was hooked to the juice, so no one knew who sent the fatal jolt into the condemned.

(Side note: Readers might remember the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility as the location of the longest siege in U.S. prison history. For 11 days in April 1993, 450 prisoners rioted, resulting in the death of prison guard Robert Vallandingham and nine inmates.)

I thought about the panel and the three buttons a lot and wondered who volunteered for that job and what did his life look like? I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. I simply wondered who he was. Did he like the idea of executing someone? Did he feel it was his duty? Did he just need the extra money? How did the circumstances in his life lead to him becoming a volunteer executioner?

Eventually, I created a mental image of this prison guard and began writing a novel centered on him. The story was to be about a gruff guard who befriends a death-row inmate, a Johnny Spirko-type, who the guard ultimately believes is innocent and begins working to right the injustice and overturn the wrongful conviction.

The first thing I did when I started the then-untitled novel was to create the crime for which the inmate would be wrongfully convicted. Four boys were hunting for arrowheads on Chestnut Ridge above the Ohio River town of Crystalton, when one of them threw an Indian maul he had found into the forehead of a psychologically damaged boy named Petey Sanchez. Petey died on the spot. The boys then conspired to keep their involvement in Petey’s death a secret.

Once I completed these chapters, I became more interested in the four boys and the long-term impact of concealing such a secret. I put the prison guard and the death-row inmate on the back burner and began writing a totally different novel. The result was my 2011 release, Favorite Sons, which was the USA Book News Book of the Year for Mystery/Suspense.

At the conclusion of Favorite Sons, narrator Hutch Van Buren, who was one of the four boys on Chestnut Ridge, is running for Ohio attorney general when the crime of his youth is exposed. The book ends before the election and the reader doesn’t know the election results.

Not long after the release of Favorite Sons, I began work on a sequel, reviving my prison guard and inmate. Even though I liked the story line I had created for the sequel, I couldn’t get any traction. If you’re working on a novel and you’re not excited about it, do yourself a favor and shelve it.

I did.

However, as I continued to work on other books, my prison guard and the wrongfully convicted inmate continued to reside in my head.

A few years back, I pulled it out of mothballs and began rereading the manuscript. This time, the traction problem was immediately obvious to me. It was my setting of Columbus, Ohio.

Now, before you start firing off nastygrams to me for slighting Columbus, let me explain. I’ve lived in and around Columbus for more than forty years. I love Columbus. With that said, it is a rather sterile environment. It is home to state government, universities, and many white-collar jobs. Most of my books are set in the industrial, blue-collar Ohio River Valley, where steel mills belched fire and smoke along the river banks and trains carried coal out of the hills by the millions of tons. The grit-and-the-grind of my native valley has served as a solid backdrop for my novels. In fact, the setting has emerged as something of a character.

Moving much of the action back to banks of the Ohio River breathed new life into the manuscript. I went back to my original premise of looking at a wrongful conviction. I incorporated a prison guard as a secondary character who believes that death-row inmate Lester Yates was wrongfully convicted.

Hutch, as you’ve probably figured out by this point, won the election and is the Ohio attorney general. He also is miserable in his new job, which he equates to being little more than a ceremonial paper-pusher. When Hutch meets the prison guard and begins investigating the case against Lester Yates, it breathes new life into his character as sure as moving the story to the Ohio Valley breathed new life into the manuscript.

Modern technology also played a key role in completing this novel. I have a public relations and marketing consulting business and spend a lot of time on the road. I live in central Ohio and my three children live in western Michigan, South Carolina, and western Tennessee. That makes for some long road trips.

I took advantage of that by using the voice-to-text app on my cell phone to write the entire first draft of The Sacrifice of Lester Yates. When I got on the road, I would put in my ear buds and start talking. I would then email the passages to myself. When I got back to my office, I would cut-and-paste the dictated passages into my Word document and start editing. When I’m working on a book, I usually set a goal of writing at least 500 words a day. It was an easy mark to eclipse as I cruised down the road and conversed with the voices in my head.