Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Kansas City Character

The crime scene is more than the chalk outline marking where the victim falls. It's the world surrounding that pale silhouette, spreading out in uneven ripples from the perimeter cordoned off with yellow tape to the metes and bounds of the jurisdiction that investigates and prosecutes the offense to the ill-defined society that wittingly or not harbors a killer in its midst.

The place where these overlapping scenes congeal and conspire is as alive and organic as any flesh and blood character. It makes and breaks promises, rewards strength and punishes weakness. It fills hearts with hope and drains them without a backward glance. Done right, place becomes a central character, casting heroes and villains against a geographic backdrop, driving the action as surely as any twitchy trigger finger.

My books take place in my hometown of Kansas City where my family has lived for a hundred years. One of my great-grandfathers left Poland in 1881 for the New World under cover of darkness rather than marry the girl his parents had chosen for him, settling in Kansas City for reasons lost to time. Another great-grandfather, also from Eastern Europe, ran a grocery store in Alaska during the gold rush, later deciding to move to Kansas City because it was in the center of the country. My grandfather and a friend, down on their luck during the Depression, asked Kansas City's legendary boss, Tom Pendergast, for permission to sell the scrap from the construction of Bagnel Dam at the Lake of the Ozarks, giving birth to a salvage business that lasted more than forty years.

Originally nothing more than a trading post at the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers, in 1838 the founders decided against naming it Possum Trot, settling for the more visionary Town of Kansas, later incorporating it as Kansas City in 1850. Once a wide-open town known for speakeasies, jazz and corrupt machine politics, everything has always been up to date in Kansas City. Mindful of its wooly past, Kansas City has a hard edge and soft heart. It's diversity and fascinating history make it a character with many faces.

One of the best sports columnists ever, Joe Posnanski, wrote for the KC Star for many years before moving on to Sports Illustrated. He wrote a piece published in today's Star talking about how Kansas City became his home and how hard it is for him to leave. Reading it made me feel good not only about making Kansas City a character in my books, it made me glad to call it home.

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