I Know That Town!

Two-time  EMMY award winning Marcos M. Villatoro is the author of six novels, two collections of poetry and a memoir. His Romilia Chacón crime fiction books have won national acclaim (named a Best Book of 2001 by the Los Angeles Times) and are published in Germany, Japan, Russia and Brazil.

Marcos holds the Fletcher Jones Endowed Chair in Writing at Mount St. Mary’s College. He is a commentator on PBS’s national television show “Need to Know.”

Recently he and his family returned from his other country of El Salvador, where they shot the documentary TAMALE ROAD, now in post-production.

Marcos teaches and lectures on poetry, fiction, nonfiction, the Latino and Appalachian worlds, and tamales. His books are taught in colleges and high schools across the country.

Marcos, his wife Michelle and their four kids live in Los Angeles.

“I’ve been to Potrero,” said the lovely woman at my book signing in Atlanta. “You describe the town with so much detail. You got it just right!”

I was confused. Potrero…Potrero…where was Potrero? I scrolled through the memory of all the towns where I’ve lived in Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador. But I remembered no Potrero.

“I’m sorry, but you’ve got to remind me where that town is.”

“Right on the border, between Mexico and California,” she said. “I was there about five years ago. You know, gringo-slumming. The garage where your character Jack parked the Mustang. The Border Patrol agents walking around. And that restaurant where Jack and Tony ate. My husband and I ate there too!”

I smiled, but said nothing. I hated to tell her that I have never been to Potrero. The town was but a figment of my imagination, one I made up in a previous novel. There is a border town named Potrero. But I just looked it up on the map, and decided to have my characters cross the border there.

I made it up. But not with a little research. I took all the small towns and villages I’ve lived in for the past twenty years in Central America. I know the general layouts: the plaza, the Catholic Church and the Municipality on opposite sides of the park. The small stores and kiosks and an auto mechanic garage somewhere nearby. I took a “generic town” and made it my own, creating details such as putting a name on the garage with a sign “Yo fixo anything” hanging on the front. I made it as real as possible, so that this woman would fuse her real experience of Potrero with my imagined Potrero.

Details, fast and furious. That’s what a story is. Details mean research, found both in books and the sensory experiences of your memory. You take facts and turn them into lies. That’s what a novel is all about. A novel is a dream; you don’t want your reader ever waking from your dream.

I do this with facts. I’ve interviewed FBI agents to make my FBI agent true. I’ve meandered through the Federal Courthouse in my hometown in order to get a sense of lawyers talking to one another, police officers eyeing you, making sure you have a nametag, and the four jail cells at the bottom of the building.

Books are my major source of information. Davis’s Drug Guide for Nurses. Techniques of Crime Scene Investigation. Forensic Pathology (Don’t let your kids read that one. It has photos of real murder victims. Painful to read, but necessary). A basic tome on human anatomy and physiology. Why They Kill (an in-depth study of murderers and what made them into killers). Amputations and Prosthetics. And one of my favorites, A fly for the Prosecution: How Insect Evidence Helps Solve Crimes.

I may read one entire book just to get a two-page scene in my novel complete and real. Verisimilitude, that’s the goal: the appearance of truth.

This sort of research will ruin your enjoyment of crime books and television shows such as CSI and Law and Order. A killer shoots a man with a nine-millimeter parabellum and the victim flies back seven feet and slams against a wall. No. A nine-millimeter’s bullet will slice through the body and the body will collapse right where it stands. Much less dramatic than the backwards flight against the wall. But wrong.

My advice to the beginning crime writer? Don’t read other crime novels while you’re writing. Read nonfiction. Find out how long it takes a man to bake in the desert between Arizona and Mexico (sweat will not collect on his body, as the heat sucks it away).  Watch the Science Channel. Talk with a police officer. Sometimes they’ll let you ride along with them on a night patrol.

My college office is right next to the Nursing Department. They are not squeamish. I can ask them, if you nicked deep the sternocleidomastoid muscle and the person lives, how will that affect her turning her head? The nurses are more than happy to help me out.

And what else will you learn from all this research? That most cases are never solved. Detectives are too busy handling three or five or seven cases at once. Rarely comes the luxury of a detective spending a week on one case. The killers get away—and that is the biggest lie of your book. We need for the chaos of a crime novel to come to order in the final pages. Otherwise you’ll have one angry reader on your hands. Murder is horror at its purest. We as writers must bring the horror to a close. We make up a story, and if done correctly, through our lies we will make it true.