By Sheldon Russell
Well, it’s true. Where do you get your ideas is the question most asked of writers and often the most difficult to answer. My own experience is that ideas arrive at unexpected times, like visits from the church deacons. They can come from parts unknown and turn up in all shapes and forms. They can be murky and changing like storm clouds, or, on rare occasion, announce themselves with absolute clarity.
My Hook Runyon mystery series is about a crusty one-armed railroad bull who lives in a caboose and travels the line with his dog Mixer. The setting is post World War II. Hook finds plenty of trouble, and a little romance, along the way as he solves crimes.
The idea for THE INSANE TRAIN, scheduled to be re-issued as a paperback in October with Harlequin’s Worldwide Mystery Series, was one of those uncommon moments when I knew that a great idea was staring right up at me.
While in the Oklahoma Historical Society Museum researching a different subject, I came across an old newspaper article about a mass grave, not far from where I sat actually, that had been identified as belonging to insane asylum inmates (yes, that’s what they called them back in the day) who had died when their asylum burned to the ground.
The surviving inmates, some four hundred or so, had no place to go. About that same time, the federal government had donated Fort Supply to Oklahoma to do with as they wished. The old fort had played a major role in the settlement of the Oklahoma Territory but was now defunct.
The decision was made to turn the fort into an asylum and to transfer the inmates there. Law enforcement was brought in from all over the country. The inmates were loaded onto a train and packed off to this old fort in the middle of nowhere and in the middle of winter. The train didn’t even reach the fort, and the journey was completed in open wagons.
So, a writer is always looking for a crucible in which to drop his characters, right? And what better crucible than a train load of mental patients who are headed into an impossible situation? And who better than my man Hook to be put in charge of the chaos? On top of that, being war time, help is not available, save for a few intrepid vets living under a bridge. You get the idea.
Of course, I had to change the time period, and a few other details about the journey, but the idea was there just glowing away. I had my crucible and plenty of heat to crank up along the way.
Writing THE INSANE TRAIN was a hoot for me, both funny and poignant. These were real folks in a hard situation, dealing with life as it was dealt them.
I’m glad the idea gods were shining down on me for this one. Publishers Weekly chose THE INSANE TRAIN as one of the six best mysteries of 2010. I’m damned proud they did and agree with them one hundred percent.
This edition can only be purchased through eHarlequin.
Can also be purchased in 11/10 eBook format from Minotaur