Where does a writer draw inspiration from? A good starting point is to look around right where you’re at and view things in a new light. For example, when I was invited to submit a story to the Seattle Noir mystery anthology I was advised by my editor, Curt Colbert, that one way to think of noir fiction is that the protagonist lives life “under a cloud.” He meant it figuratively of course, but I got to thinking about it literally — after all, every Seattleite lives under a cloud most of the time. But the mission to write “Blood Tide,” which was chosen as Seattle Noir’s lead-off story, was an exercise in learning to see my own environment in a new way. Take a good look at the picture. I snapped it just the other day. The place really does exist under one cloud or another most of the time, doesn’t it?
Still, born and bred Seattleites like me grow so used to clouds that we hardly notice them. But when one takes Seattle as a whole and asks what sorts of figurative clouds are floating overhead, then that new light begins to shine.
The destruction of Chief Seattle’s culture was not fully completed until city engineers diverted the Duwamish River headwaters and changed Tukwila from a river village to a barren wasteland. That happened in the early nineteen hundreds, barely a century ago, and the oral tradition of those times carries on among the displaced natives here to this day. A bit more than a half century ago, I was born and raised in a housing project on the banks of what remains of the Duwamish River, in what’s now the South Park neighborhood. So I feel an affinity for the people who lived there and drew sustenance there before me. Not many Seattleites can say they grew up on those banks, although in old times nearly all Duwamish people did.
The hardships of the Duwamish people continue today. Some still fish the muddy waters of what’s left of the Duwamish River although even Cecile Hansen, Chairwoman of the tribe says she wouldn’t eat a salmon caught in a Federal Superfund Cleanup Site, which is what the river has become. A few years back, Bill Clinton issued a decree establishing the Duwamish as a Federally Recognized Tribe, but George Bush immediately rescinded all Clinton’s orders, either without reading about the Duwamish, or at least not giving a damn about their fate.
What’s all this got to do with writing? Let’s just say I’ve found my place, and a voice, and a cause. I contributed cash to help the tribe build its first longhouse in West Seattle since their old “Herring’s House” was burnt by a mob of pioneers in the 1890s. I’m learning a bit of the almost-extinct Lushootseed language in classes at the longhouse. And I’m writing fiction that dramatizes conditions among Seattle’s native population.
By extension of my own experience, then, my lead character Peyton McKean is imbued with personal background and qualities of mind that derive as I did, out of the mud of the heavy metal contaminated Duwamish River, under a sky heavy with clouds that portend rain. Maybe that rain will wash away some of Seattle’s original sins. If not, then plenty more black days lie in store. No matter which, my stories will draw strength of character in the telling of old hurt, old calamity, old bigotry and hatred. Fertile wellsprings for hard-edged mystery fiction.
And that’s noir. It’s life under a cloud. It’s Seattle.