Welcome Dr. Randy Overbeck for this week’s Tell Tale Tuesday with “The Strange is Right in Front of You”
At my author talks (pre-pandemic, of course) I often get the question: where do you get the ideas for your novels? I’m always glad to discuss the creative process but I find sometimes readers are a bit taken aback with my answers. To the uninitiated, I think the minds of mystery writers seem to work in some, well, weird ways. Because, when you’re a writer, sometimes the strange is right in front of you. A look at the origins of the story behind Blood on the Chesapeake may provide an interesting illustration.
A few years ago, I came upon a traditional, two-story, red-bricked school building with this perfect widow’s walk atop the second floor, complete with white railing around three sides. I happened upon the this very real school building, located in a shore town in Maine, where we were visiting, and it fired my imagination.
And, as I stared up at this historical architecture, admiring the two rows of white framed windows and the unusual building top, my mystery writer brain pictured a naked, dead body hanging from one cracked post of the ancient widow’s walk. Weird, huh?
Have you ever visited a place, been so captivated by everything about the area, you thought you might’ve just found your perfect place? That was my response to the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Here were charming, quaint resort towns nestled into coves along miles and miles of undulating shoreline, the quiet blue-green waters of the Bay stretching out in all directions and, when you take time to watch, breathtaking sunsets over a multi-colored canopy of trees.
Then, I learned of the unusual duality of the history and culture of the area and was hooked. The Eastern Shore is steeped in the hallmarks of a proud New England heritage like fishing and shipping, but also with roots still very much in the south. The area was also home to infamous slave plantations, where the freedom fighters Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman were both born. It is little wonder that the area’s loyalties were divided during the Civil War.
I thought it’d be interesting to explore this historical dichotomy in a work of fiction. I wondered, in this most peaceful and beautiful setting on the Chesapeake Bay, what if something happened in a small town, something so horrific and vile—like a student being lynched from the railing at a high school—it was buried deep in a town’s memory, an ugly secret festering below the surface? This germ of an idea became the intriguing (though entirely fictional) premise of my novel, Blood on the Chesapeake, a ghost story/mystery about a thirty-year-old murder and the newcomer who uncovers the secret—with a little help from the spirit world.
And, to think, all this started with an encounter with old high school building with a lonely widow’s walk atop the structure. I guess minds of mystery writers really are weird!
Wilshire, Maryland seems like the perfect shore town on the Chesapeake Bay—quiet, scenic, charming—and promises Darrell Henshaw a new start in life and a second chance at love. That is, until he learns the town hides an ugly secret. A thirty-year-old murder in the high school. And a frightening ghost stalking his new office. Burned by an earlier encounter with the spirit world—with the OCD scars to prove it—he does NOT want to get involved. But when the desperate ghost hounds him, Darrell concedes. Assisted by his new love, he follows a trail that leads to the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and even the Klu Klux Klan. Then, when two locals who try to help are murdered, Darrell is forced to decide if he’s willing to risk his life—and the life of the woman he loves—to expose the killers of a young man he never knew.
You see that widow’s walk up there, with the white railing and the cupola in the center? That’s where they say he died.”
The high school secretary, one Mrs. Harriet Sinclair, stood beside Darrell Henshaw on the cracked asphalt parking lot, her small, blue-veined hand pointing up to the third floor.
Darrell’s gaze crawled up the two floors of traditional red brick and landed on the white fencing of the widow’s walk. He’d noticed the unusual feature of the building when he arrived for the job interview two hours earlier.
Harriett’s high voice continued, “Years ago, a student, some poor young black kid took his life up there. Some history, huh?”
Surprised, Darrell looked at the secretary, who kept her gaze focused on the top floor. She was serious.
Then Darrell returned his glance to the widow’s walk. The brass-topped cupola shone green in the morning sun and below it, a bare-chested, young black man leaned against the fence, his hands dark smudges on the white railing. The youth stared down and met Darrell’s gaze. Even though Darrell couldn’t read the features on the face three floors up, he was mesmerized. Somehow, an overwhelming sense of sorrow and regret seemed to emanate from the young man and, for an instant, Darrell felt it pierce him. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on edge. He shivered and stared, unable to look away. As he peered up, the figure at the fence shimmered and then disappeared.
Oh, God, no, he thought, shaking his head, and turned to ask Harriet, but she changed the subject, rattling on about some of the less morbid history of the school. “That walk is famous, all right. There was the great piglet race up there and the famous protest streamers on the walk…”
But Darrell stopped listening. He shook his head. He hadn’t felt that…that sensation for years. Ten years. A decade earlier, he’d had a confrontation with another ghost and it had not gone well. It still haunted him and he was not anxious for another visit from the spirit world.
For the next forty minutes, she took Darrell on a non-stop, guided tour of the empty high school, leading him past dueling trophy cases—one for sports, one for band—through run down classrooms and into a dilapidated gym with collapsing bleachers. Twice he paused, seeing an award or painting hanging crooked, and reached out to straighten it. He stopped himself and then had to hurry to catch up.
Oblivious, Harriet charged ahead, short legs pumping like pistons, all the while regaling him with more stories about the old high school. Darrell was hardly able to catch his breath. At her pace, he felt like he’d done a 5K, zigzagging through hallways and up and down creaking stairs. They finished by climbing two flights of stairs to arrive at the Athletic Office.
Just as they reached the top step, a door in the hall slammed shut. Darrell jerked. He glanced over to his escort, who hadn’t even flinched. Instead, the school secretary asked, as if reminded of something, “Mr. Henshaw, uh, do you believe in…uh, ghosts?”
Dr. Randy Overbeck is an award-winning educator, author and speaker, capturing state and national accolades for his work. As an educator, he served children for more than three decades in a range of roles captured in his novels, from teacher and coach to principal and superintendent. His thriller, Leave No Child Behind (2012) and his recent mysteries, Blood on the Chesapeake (2019) and Crimson at Cape May (2020) have earned five star reviews and garnered top awards and recognition from sites such as Literary Titan, ReadersFavorite.com, ReaderViews.com and N. N. Lights Bookheaven.
As a member of the Mystery Writers of America, Dr. Overbeck is an active member of the literary community, contributing to a writers’ critique group, serving as a mentor to emerging writers and participating in writing conferences such as Sleuthfest, Killer Nashville and the Midwest Writers Workshop. When he’s not writing or researching his next exciting novel or sharing his presentation “Things That Go Bump in the Night,” he’s spending time with his incredible family of wife, three children (and their spouses) and seven wonderful grandchildren.