Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Fond Obsession by Lee Killough

      Every story happens somewhere. Sometimes we hunt a stage for our characters, and sometimes we design one. Other times a place calls out to be that stage. To paraphrase Tony Bennett, I lost my heart to San Francisco. From the first time my late husband and I puffed our way to the top of a hill and looked out over the stair-stepped buildings to the bay it’s been my all time favorite city. So when, in 1978, I began plotting my supernatural mystery Blood Hunt, San Francisco whispered: Here I am. Use me.
Oh, yeah. Memories cried out to become scenes in a story. The little greasy chopsticks eatery in Chinatown with grey smoke boiling out of the kitchen to coat the all-Chinese signs on the wall, but serving the best fried rice and egg rolls I’ve ever eaten. The exotic dancer who, while writhing in “passion” on a giant pillow, looked look down on a man at the bar surrounding the stage and said in a bored monotone: “Hi, honey. What’s your day been like?” With the villain of the book being a vampire, she belonged somewhere foggy. It didn’t matter that her hunting ground ended up being brightly lit...because where better than Broadway’s garish blocks of clubs for her to pick up vulnerable visiting businessmen. And after my detective tracked her through those same clubs...and came too close for comfort...the little dead-end alleys provided a perfect site for her to trap and try to kill him.
Try, but fail...turning him into a vampire, too. 
Yeah, a vampire cop. But it was a new idea a decade before Nick Knight came along.
The whole idea for the book grew out of a “what if” moment watching one of those B movies in which some poor schmuck is turned into a vampire and starts dragging around at night in a blood-hungry frenzy. I started wondering what it might really be like for someone to become a vampire. Does a vampire have to be evil? Aren’t good and evil choices? Would he have to sleep in a coffin? Would he have to drink human blood? Because my x-ray tech job at a veterinary school and volunteer stints at blood drives had shown me that student vets and even experienced nurses struggling to hit veins, I had to wonder: wouldn’t there be a learning curve for finding one with teeth? I considered how to explain why some vampires like poor Miss Lucy are almost zombies while other Undead, like Dracula, retain full mental faculties. A retro virus suggested itself as a practical solution. Receive a little vampire virus in saliva from a single bite and a healthy immune system disposes of it. Get drained or receive multiple doses and when the body’s defenses crash the virus takes over, but is potent enough only to reanimate the body. A big slug of virus, though, say received by drinking vampire blood, restores higher brain functions, too. Which explains why Dracula made Mina drink some of his blood when he wanted to make her his bride.
Because I love mysteries, and cop protagonists in particular, a police procedural seemed the idea structure for exploring “what if.” So were born Inspector Garreth Mikaelian and the beautiful but deadly Lane Barber.
After being brought across, Mikaelian not only had to carry on the investigation. He had to deal with what he had become, all the while hiding it from everyone else. He had to answer the above questions regarding good and evil and choices. San Francisco gave me a terrific landscape for it. The first despairing hours of self-realization drove Mikaelian to try killing himself by sitting at the foot of the cross on Mt. Davidson at dawn. Only to find that while oppressively miserable for him, daylight was not fatal. Bram Stoker’s Dracula sometimes went out in daylight, so my vampires can too. I discarded a few vampire “rules,” such as not reflecting in mirrors, but made sure to keep the prohibition against entering a dwelling uninvited because it is a huge handicap for a vampire cop. Which Mikaelian unfortunately discovered trying go in the back door of a suspect’s place while his partner went in the front...with tragic consequences. In a semi-comic scene he discovers there is a learning curve for biting accuracy...and his clumsy failure makes him resolve to never prey on another human.
Writing Blood Hunt and its sequel Bloodlinks — where Mikaelian becomes the quarry of a Van Helsing type — presented one problem, though: I live halfway across the country in Kansas, and my day job and budget didn’t allow for a research trip. So in those days before home computers and the Internet became ubiquitous, I turned to memory and the original search engine: books. I read everything in the library on San Francisco. Current travel guides proved especially helpful. They had not only city info but maps and pictures. Being a huge fan of Streets of San Francisco I had taped a number of episodes. I re-watched them, studying the background details when the background was clearly San Francisco and not a studio set. A fellow author lived in San Francisco at the time and when I ran into him at a convention I pumped him for city details. It all went into a background book that ended up as thick as a manuscript. But then, I’m a compulsive list maker and even work from a checklist in constructing story backgrounds.
That helped me preserve continuity twenty years later when I wrote Blood Games, the third in the series...where through no fault of his own Mikaelian may have created his own vampire offspring. And for further research, wow what a difference the Internet made! Guide books still remained a great resource, but the Internet was almost as good as a visit, and let me search out information any time of the day or night without leaving home. I discovered that most cities have web sites, and so do many police departments, all loaded with useful data. The SFPD’s site has maps showing its city divisions, pictures of the division station houses, lists of its bureaus, pictures of command personnel.
These days the Internet is definitely my research buddy. Killer Karma, another supernatural mystery, has the ghost of a murdered SFPD Burglary detective solving his own death. For it I turned up San Francisco web sites with pictures of many locations I wanted to use as Cole Dunavan learned how being a ghost worked — it unfortunately didn’t come with an instruction book — hunted his killer, and sorted out other personal and professional problems that kept his spirit on earth. Embarcadero Center, where he finds himself in the parking garage with no memory at first except of his murder. The Hall of Justice of course, Noe Valley, the Richmond, Union Square. Some sites carried satellite photos. Some had live cam shots...the next best thing to being there. Consulting the Chronicle/Examiner web site gave me weather patterns and timely news articles. And of course I was back checking the SFPD’s web site.
Google maps are almost as good as traveling to a location. Almost. They don’t take you inside buildings, though, or let you experience touching and hearing the location. I was lucky enough to have serendipity provide what the budget had not previously. In the midst of planning Killer Karma, I attended a science fiction convention in San Jose. While we were there, Denny and I rented a car and visited the cemetery town Colma, one of the locations appearing in the book. That was quite an experience...acres of cemeteries surrounding a town geared to a single purpose: serving the dead. And when Alan Beatts of San Francisco’s Borderlands Books kindly ferried some fellow writers and me up to his store for a signing, I spent the half day before the signing walking the hills and riding buses around the city and being given a tour of the Hall of Justice. Which Alan also arranged for me. Later when I had questions about other locations that the Internet couldn’t answer, Alan, bless him, went out, took pictures, and e-mailed them to me. He was an angel and I love digital technology.
A TV show from my childhood, Naked City, used the line: “There are a million stories in the naked city.” What’s true for New York is no less so for San Francisco, so it’s likely the city will keep waving its hand when I need a story background. And I’ll keep using it.


Lee Killough has been storytelling since the age of four or five, when she started making up her own bedtime stories, then later, her own episodes of her favorite radio and TV shows. So of course when she discovered science fiction and mysteries about age eleven, she began writing her own science fiction and mysteries. It took a husband, though, years later, to convince her to try selling her work. Her first published stories were science fiction and one short story, "Symphony For a Lost Traveler", was nominated for a Hugo Award in 1985.

She used to joke that she wrote SF because she dealt with non-humans every day...spending twenty-seven years as chief technologist in the Radiology Department at Kansas State University's Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. At the same time, she also used to train horses. She has lived most of her life in Kansas, but when her late husband was in the Air Force at the end of the sixties, they lived two unforgettable years in Washington D.C. During which she witnessed the hippie invasion of Georgetown, the Poor People's march on D.C., urban riots that set fires in neighborhoods close to theirs, and their neighborhood crawling with police and FBI for a day while law enforcement tracked two men who gunned down an FBI agent a few blocks from their home.

Because she loves both SF and mysteries, her work combines the two genres. Although published as SF, most of her novels are actually mysteries with SF or fantasy elements...with a preference--thanks to a childhood hooked on TV cop shows--for cop protagonists. She has set her procedurals in the future, on alien words, and in the country of dark fantasy. Her best known detective is vampire cop Garreth Mikaelian, of Blood Hunt and Bloodlinks, reprinted together in an omnibus edition BloodWalk. She is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, and Sisters In Crime.