Posts Tagged: Darkness on the Edge of Town

When I wrote Darkness on the Edge of Town, I incorporated some of my own childhood and young adulthood years in the story. I tapped into the memory of the somnolent farms along the Rillito River. (Now gone, replaced by a complex of medical buildings, banks, and shops.)

Speedway Boulevard, Tucson Arizona. The Ugliest Street in America.

Speedway Boulevard in Tucson–“The Ugliest Street in America”–as featured in Life magazine, 1970.

I tapped into another time and brought it into the present.

I also resurrected a homegrown loser named Charles Schmid—the boogeyman of Tucson.

Schmid might as well have been born with the word LOSER stamped on his forehead. He thought he was hell with the ladies, but he was insecure, too. He slipped smashed-flat beer cans into his caballero boots to make him seem taller.

Schmid decided he wanted to kill girls to see what it was like. And stupid is as stupid does: he targeted girls he knew.

He killed three teenaged girls.

A few years later, I met the surviving family of two of the victims and their youngest girl. This was at Cottonwood Farm where we both had riding lessons. And there they were, this family that had lost two daughters, carrying on, moving forward, loving and appreciating the daughter they had.

Charles Schmid

Charles Schmid

My mother wrote. She kept clippings on Schmid’s tragic crime spree and prepared to write about it, but ultimately, she couldn’t. I remember the chill it gave all parents, who kept their kids indoors or watched us with an eagle eye in the aftermath of the murders.

As I was preparing to write Darkness on the Edge of Town, I took a look at my mom’s clippings—and another puzzle piece clicked in to the story I was writing.

Old stories, unearthed and dusted off. And changed.

I was, and still am, haunted by the yellowed clippings about Charles Schmid, the preening loser who managed to destroy the lives of good people. I have always felt that homicide cops—the good ones—try to make some sense of the death if they can for the families. People are meaning-making machines and they need something to hang their hat on, no matter how tenuous. Some comfort, no matter how inadequate, for the stunned and bleeding families.

Like DPS detective Laura Cardinal in Darkness on the Edge of Town, they can’t fix the insult to injury, the deep injury. All they can do is catch the guy—

And make him pay.

Categories: Darkness on the Edge of Town Laura Cardinal Writing

One day when I was fourteen, two of my friends and I walked to a riding stable. On the way back, we got into a fight. I huffed off and shall we say, “went in another direction.” Literally. A friend of mine lived in a housing division near the desert along lonely Pima Street. Walking by myself, I didn’t notice the creepy old car until I heard it pull up on the side of the road behind me.

Here’s what I wrote:

“I was walking down Pima after turning off Wilmot. An orange (dull reddish orange) and white 1955 Ford pulled off the road directly behind me. Being in a venomous state of mind and rather nervous, I started running, because I didn’t care for the look of the occupant of the vehicle. I took to the desert, which I thought would give me more of a chance than the roadside, dodging brush, scrambling through gullies. I was very sure-footed when I needed to be.”

Note the English syntax. My mother came from England, and I must have adopted that somewhere along the line. I went on, “My heart collapsed.” “I’d thought I’d seen the last of the car…” “I starting running again, a wild animal in the desert.”

What happened: the car followed me as I ran into the subdivision. Every street I hit, the guy would turn the corner and I could see the front of the ugly old car creeping toward me. No one was outside. I didn’t have time to run up to the houses to ring doorbells. The car kept dogging me. The creepy guy looking… really creepy. I headed for a friend’s house in the neighborhood, and luckily, my friend and her mom were out front watering.

The car sped off.

creepy car, 1955 Chevy Bel Air

A creepy car, 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air

Fast-forward to the more recent past. When I started writing Darkness on the Edge of Town (having lost the English accent by then), the car came back, now a 1955 orange-over-white Chevy Bel Air. This was because I hadn’t yet found the creepy little story I’d written all those years ago, and that’s what I thought it was. And this time, the victim in the story wasn’t so lucky.

Here’s a short little bit of a small newspaper article I put in the story:


“A hiker named Jerry Lee noticed an old car that had rolled down an embankment into the brush and cactus. He bushwhacked down to the car, a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air, and was shocked by what he found. The backseat of the old car was covered with blood.”

What’s good about personal experience if you can’t use it?


(Photo:  Flickr – DVS1mn – “55 Chevrolet Bel Air (19)” by Greg Gjerdingen from Willmar, USA – 55 Chevrolet Bel Air. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Categories: Darkness on the Edge of Town Writing

In 2002, I’d sold a bunch of books, ranging from a ghost story (Darkscope, my first book) to suspense books to historical romance.

But I was starting to read the authors who did so much more with their books, and these books were in crime fiction and police procedural.

Their excellent work encouraged me to raise my game. I knew that I wanted to write books like that, and decided to write a police procedural. I called a friend of mine, former Tucson Police Department officer John Cheek—one of the smartest people I know. John introduced me to a friend of his who was on a TPD task force focused on Internet predators.

Darkness On The Edge Of Town by Thriller Author J. Carson Black

Darkness on the Edge of Town is the first book in The Laura Cardinal Series.

They sat me down and told me how important they thought it was that I could spread the word about the danger to kids on the Internet. I felt a bit queasy—it was not a subject I wanted to think about. Now this was 2002, and the Internet was very different thing from the way it is now. Now, it’s probably ten to fifteen times as dangerous for kids.

I thought about it. A story started to form. Maybe this would raise my game. They would give me all the help I’d need. It was important to them. And then it became important to me.

I started the book in one of my favorite places: Bisbee, Arizona. I looked and looked for a title and then one day I heard a passing reference to Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. It was the perfect title for this book.

And so I worked my way through it. I needed a detective, which was how I found my character Laura Cardinal. My friends suggested I put her not with the TPD, but make her a detective with the Arizona Department of Public Safety—the state police. One reason for this: she would have to deal with more adversity. The DPS can send their detectives anywhere in the state to “assist” local authorities who don’t have the resources themselves. And so Laura Cardinal hotfooted it down to Bisbee, Arizona.

A dead girl had been found propped up in the city park bandshell, dressed like a little girl instead of the teenager she was. And Laura had to find the killer before he killed again.

Darkness on the Edge of Town bandshell in Bisbee

City Park bandshell in Bisbee, Arizona

It was a hard book to write. I knew I had to walk a line. I had to stick to the truth and to the danger of these terrible things, but at the same time, I did not want to write such a horrible story people would be turned off—and rightfully so.

I think I was able to thread that needle. In 2004, Darkness on the Edge of Town was nominated for the Daphne Du Maurier Award.

That book changed a lot for me. I became a much better writer as I wrote it. Books are like children. You write them at a certain time in your life, and whatever is going on goes into the Salad Shooter that is a writer’s brain. You love all your children, but you relate to some more than others. I definitely played favorites. Darkness on the Edge of Town was my first big favorite. I believe it is because it moved me up as a writer. And because, despite the difficulties, it was a joy to write.

Categories: Darkness on the Edge of Town

I wrote stories all my life, but my two college degrees were in operatic voice. Which is funny, because as a kid from sunny Arizona, I wasn’t big on late nights, crowds of people, and big cities. Plus, even though my pipes were pretty good, I suffered off and on from stage fright all my musical life. I guess I got into singing by taking the path of least resistance. Everyone said I had such a good voice. I had some success (between bouts of terror) and talked myself into being an opera singer way longer than I should have.

After a summer in Austria, I finally realized it wasn’t for me. I wanted to be what I always was in my heart: a writer. At that point, I had no idea I was to become a thriller writer. I was going to write a book—a novel. Since I loved Stephen King, I wrote a ghost story. It took me three years to find an agent and sell it. I thought I would make millions (I’d bought the whole famous wealthy author story), but my first book garnered me 2500 bucks with Zebra Books, which I had to split with my agent.

So the book came out in mass market paperback. The cover was of a terrified woman with film tied around her neck. There was no “advertising budget.” But I got to do book signings in town and sold two more books to Zebra. A few more books followed, sporadically—as I went through five agents, one of whom died, and another who didn’t use email and sort of wandered away. But as I wrote, I got better. In between books, I received a ton of rejection. Every time I started a book, I tried to improve on the last one. I read the best in my genre, and studied a handful of authors who inspired me.

And I did get better. I was on my way to be a thriller writer.bookcover for Darkside of the Moon

Darkness on the Edge of Town was a huge step up, the first book in the Laura Cardinal series, and my agent sold that book for mid-five figures. Again, I thought: “This is It!” Made in the shade. The publisher bought the second book, Dark Side of the Moon.

The publisher declined more books.

Then Amazon came along. My husband got the rights back to all my books, and just in time. We put Darkness on the Edge of Town up on Amazon, and sold maybe one a month for five or six months. And then, one day, it exploded! The number of Kindle owners reached the tipping point. Just like that, I was selling ten thousand, then fifty thousand, then a hundred thousand books.Darkness on the edge of town by J. Carson Black

It was The Great Ebook Boom of 2011, and made a lot of authors household names. It made a lot of authors rich. People were filling their Kindles, and they went after the books that somehow rose above the babble. After that I sold five books to Thomas & Mercer, the publishing arm of Amazon.

They (who’s “they?”) always say “never give up.” The life of a writer–thriller writer, romance writer, science fiction writer, etc.–has a lot of ups and downs, but never count yourself out. Hone your craft and write a lot, and you WILL get better. And opportunities WILL come along. If you have a modicum of talent, if you write because you love writing, if you write because you can not NOT write, if you write a lot so you get better and better and better, if you find a genre you love, and keep at it consistently, you’re living in the best possible time to be successful.

Categories: Books Darkness on the Edge of Town The Writing Life

Laura Cardinal is a criminal investigator with the Arizona Department of Public Safety. Her job- to investigate and bring justice to murder victims and their killers in small towns with limited resources. J. Carson Black reveals answers on the plot and character development of the Laura Cardinal Series.

Q: Where did your inspiration for Laura’s character come from?

A: I have always been intrigued by people whose lives change, usually through tragedy. I’m fascinated by those whose lives become bigger than they were before. John Walsh is a perfect example of this. His son is murdered, and his whole life changes. He has been responsible for the capture of hundreds of criminals, and in the process, become larger than himself. I grew up with a friend whose life was altered by tragedy. Like Laura, she was middle-class, went to college, and she was artistic. But after the tragedy (a result of gun violence) she became something else: a black-belt, multiple-Rottweiler-owning, gun-toting cop. Perhaps this person always resided inside her, but the transformation was incredible and complete. She has become an urban legend among the cops at TPD; some of them think she uses her hallway for a shooting range. I’ve been in her hallway, and there’s no way.

Q: Why did you decide to go the route of a series as opposed to stand-alone type novels?

A: I think of a series as building equity. With every book you write, whoever comes late to the party realizes you have a book before that and a book before that, and they buy those, too, which is good for your backlist. So many stand-alone books are just plain lost. Now, with amazon, if someone really wants to buy your first three or four books in a series, they usually can. But the main thing for me is continuity. I want someone I can depend on and grow with.

j.-carson-black-laura-cardinal-series copy


Q: Where do you get your plot ideas?

A: From everywhere and anywhere. I’ll be honest and tell you I had a leg up on the first book in the series. Cops, again. Two of them approached me and asked if I had a premise for the first book in my series. They were seriously worried about internet predation on children and wanted to get the message out to parents. They thought fiction was a good way to do it. They even had a scenario which impressed the heck out of me. (These guys could have been screenwriters!) The premise was open-ended and could lead anywhere: what would happen if cops in a small town took things in their own hands and lured a sexual predator to their town—and it all went bad? And so I wrote DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN. The second book, DARK SIDE OF THE MOON, started with one idea (the dark side of love) but I realized that it needed another component. I read something on the truckloads of nuclear waste traversing our highways, going through the heart of two major cities: Flagstaff and Albuquerque. I wondered what would happen if someone got control of one of those trucks.

DARK SIDE OF THE MOON, at its heart, is about how we see ourselves, and how we want other people to see us. It’s about what happens when that image of self breaks down.

THE DEVIL’S HOUR is about a sociopath. I don’t want to give away the story line, but this, too, was inspired by an undercover detective who told me about that strangest case he had ever been involved with. (Another cop. Are you beginning to see a theme here?) And then one day I was sitting at a light and there was a purple PT Cruiser behind me. The man driving it was somewhere between forty and fifty, and he had a salt-and-pepper beard, wire-rimmed glasses, and hair parted in the middle that fell to his shoulders. Later that week I was finishing the last rewrite of DARK SIDE OF THE MOON in a cabin in the woods, throwing pages of hardcopy on the floor when I was done with them, when I suddenly thought of this guy. Now he had a name, a real white-bread monicker: Steve Lawson. And he had a dog, a black Labrador named Jake. The next morning I awoke at four in the morning and wrote what would happen to Steve Lawson and why. And what his connection to Laura Cardinal was.

Q: Do you usually know where your book is going and where it will all end when you start, or are you the type who makes it up as you go along?

A: With police procedural/thrillers, I think it’s good to know who the killer is. Although I’m sure there are some writers who don’t even know that. I try to outline some, and I try to just write my way in, too. It’s different with every book. I just sort of muddle through. Although with DARK SIDE OF THE MOON, I was asked for a detailed synopsis halfway through. If I didn’t deliver it, I wouldn’t get my next paycheck. So I ended up writing about 20 pages of outline, which is pretty detailed. I followed it, too, although there were plenty of differences. I believe the real changes and the real writing come in the second draft. The first draft–for me, anyway–is just somehow getting it down, even if it’s complete and utter crap

Q: Does any of your own personal background go into Laura’s stories? If so, how about some examples.

A: Laura grew up where I grew up, in the El Fuerte area of Tucson, Arizona. El Fuerte means “fort”. Fort Lowell was a cavalry fort outside Tucson in the late 1800s, and a neighborhood later grew up around the ruins. When I was growing up, there were lots of farms and ranches along the riverbed. And a little desert cemetery that gave me nightmares. j-carson-black-arizona

The orange and white 1955 Chevy Bel Air that was used in the murder of Julie Marr was the same car that chased me when I was fourteen. I had been walking down a road after getting into a fight with my friends and splitting up with them. Recently, I found a three-page description I wrote of the chase for English class. It was over-written; heavy on the heart-pounding, throat-closing, knees-shaking, but a nice effort nonetheless.

Laura had a horse, and so did I. When I was seventeen years old, I spent a goodly number of nights sitting on the ground waiting for a mare to foal; she never did—not until I had gone home to sleep. So I used this for an important event in DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN.

lauracardinalbutton copybookbutton copy



Categories: Laura Cardinal

Write to please yourself. It’s a daunting undertaking to write a book you think will reach thousands of readers, that will be called “one of the good books to read.” You want your story to be universal, to thrill and inspire people all over the country or the world, to write one of the good books to read. How do you go about doing that? I figured out the only way for me to write a really good book was to please myself, because I’m the only person I really know. If, when I read one of my thriller novels, I am completely taken away by it, then I’m guessing other people will feel the same way.

Of course, you have to be honest with yourself. Does it REALLY keep you reading?

There are ways to figure out if your book is working, or not working.

  1. Print it out and read what you have so far. It’s like a magic trick, but it works. If you FIND YOUR MIND WANDERING, if it’s hard for you to read the words on the page, your story is not effective. You need to go back to the drawing board and write it until it takes you out of where you are–and becomes a story.
  2. Read your story This is a lot like reading the printed version, but gets at the story in a slightly different way.
  3. Try to figure out where the story goes wrong. In other words—where YOU lose interest. The moment you lose interest, mark that spot.

On the other hand, if it feels right to you, if you find yourself following the story and getting involved in it, that’s a very good sign.

A word about critique groups. For some people, a mystery critique group is a very good thing. For others, it is not. How do you tell if it’s helping or hurting your writing?

If you’re writing up a storm and feel a ton of energy after a session with your critique group, that’s good. A critique group can keep you honest and keep you writing. You have to produce something for them, if it’s a weekly meeting.Darkness on the edge of town by J. Carson Black

I had that experience with my writers group while writing Darkness on the Edge of Town, the first in the Laura Cardinal series of crime thriller books. I had “gone back to the woodshed” to retool my writing and when I was ready, I tried out the new material with my group and got affirmation I was on the right track.

If, though, you feel that you’re losing hold of your book—that your book is now being engineered by committee—if you feel even a little bothered by that, you should trust your instincts.

Everybody is different. Some people profit greatly from a good, strong critique group. But don’t feel you should feel a certain way, pro or con.

There’s only one writer who matters when it comes to writing your thriller novels (or any other kind of story you choose to write): You.

You call the shots. You can take criticism, take advice, use that advice or discard it, benefit from the help you receive, embrace new and exciting ideas generated for your story by your group. But if it feels forced or you start to lose your confidence, my advice is to go off on your own. Either way, you’ve set yourself on the path to writing one of the good books to read.

Categories: The Writing Life

When my publisher Glenn McCreedy at Breakaway Media and I decided to put up my three Laura Cardinal crime fiction thrillers, the first thing we thought about was cover art.

Readers of crime fiction and thrillers would be our primary audience. So we asked ourselves these questions.

What should a thriller look like?

Should the books be unified in some way?

Should they have the traditional look of a big publishing house? And if we chose to go that route, what kind of product did we envision? (more…)

Categories: The Writing Life