Top 10 Reasons Why the Ohio Valley Makes a Great Backdrop for Mystery Novels
A while back, I started a sequel to one of my novels, and I was more than 20,000 words into the manuscript when I put it away. I liked the storyline, the characters, and the subplots, but something wasn’t resonating with me. I finally realized it was the setting. Much of the book took place in central Ohio, where I have lived since 1980, and that was the problem. It was too sterile.
My other books are set in eastern Ohio, in the heart of what was once the nation’s steel valley. While I enjoy living in central Ohio, it is very white collar, business professional, and dominated by state government and Ohio State University.
I missed the Ohio River Valley as my backdrop. My next book, A Welcome Murder, which will be released April 4th from Seventh Street Books, is set in Steubenville, once the hub of steel-making in the Ohio Valley.
Here are my Top 10 reasons why the Ohio Valley makes a great backdrop for books:
1) The grit and the grind. I like the visual of the hulking steel mills—molten steel being poured from ladles, fires in the furnaces, smoke spewing from the stacks. The Valley was a cacophony of industrial noises—the din of the mills, the vibrations of passing barges, the squeak and groan of coal trains—all echoing between the hills. It was a place where men could never quite wash the stain of the mills from their hands.
2) The people. The Ohio Valley of my youth was one that was heavily populated by Eastern European immigrants who came seeking work and a better life. This migration included my grandparents and great-grandparents. On weekend mornings, it was difficult to find an English-speaking radio program as local ethnic clubs bought 30-minute blocks of time to read newspapers in the native tongue. Babushkas were worn and kielbasa eaten. When we went to the A&P in Steubenville, I would watch across the railroad tracks as men at the Italian Club played bocce while drinking wine from tumblers and smoking cigars that looked like twisted twigs.
3) The blue collar work ethic. Growing up, I didn’t know an artist, or a writer, or a musician. Every man I knew left for work each morning with a hardhat in one hand and a tin lunch pail in the other. These were people of substance and made great characters.
4) Speaking of characters . . . The characters. The Ohio Valley was full of unusual types. My personal favorite was Bible Bill, who cleaned windows in downtown Steubenville while reciting Scripture and warning of the fires of hell. Another man in Steubenville would walk the streets, talking into his hand as though it were a microphone, occasionally extending an arm to get a comment from a passerby. This fellow was my inspiration for the jailhouse character Fritz Hirsch in A Welcome Murder.
5) The Ohio Valley of my youth was a slice of Americana. There were ethnic festivals, street carnivals, the Riverside Drive-in, Debo Motor Speedway, and sandlot baseball leagues. It was still a time of great innocence.
6) The eeriness of the Ohio River. Perhaps this was a personal thing. From my bedroom window I could see the river, and at night the tugs pushing barges would vibrate my window panes. It was wide and foreboding. If I ever dared wander into the river, my grandmother warned me of giant suck holes that would pull me under and never give up my body. “Your parents will never be able to give you a decent funeral,” she added. Apparently, scaring me with an eternity pinned to the bottom of that fetid river wasn’t good enough. On top of that, I was going to get a lousy funeral.
7) The beauty of The Green Wall. The Green Wall was a book of poetry by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Wright, who was born and raised in the eastern Ohio community of Martins Ferry. The title references the verdant hills that line both sides of the river. Despite the grit and grind, the Ohio Valley was a stark beauty.
8) The mob influence. When the steel mills were booming, the Youngstown mob controlled the prostitution and gambling in the Ohio Valley. Water Street in Steubenville was home to many whorehouses—not that I have personal knowledge of that, you understand. There were many places along the river where you could place a bet. In fact, you could get football spot sheets at my high school. The gambling and prostitution were readily available, and local authorities received regular payments not to pay much attention.
9) The chip-on-the-shoulder attitude of people in the Ohio Valley. People from around the state tended to look down on the immigrants and the men who worked amid the smoke and fires. This created an us-versus-everyone-else attitude. People in the Valley are not ones to take a lot of guff from anyone. These are great traits for characters.
10) The language. The Ohio Valley has a unique dialect. As I stated in A Welcome Murder: “. . . everyone spoke with a hillbilly twang and called us ‘yunz guys.’ It’s a place where they keep their chipped-chopped ham in the icebox, drive chivies, and every plant with a petal is a flahr, and every plant with a thorn is a jaggerbush. It was like living in the lyrics of a bad country song.”
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