In the early 1980s I was the crime beat reporter for The Columbus Dispatch. I became interested in a case involving Johnny Spirko, who had been convicted of murdering Betty Jane Mottinger, the postmistress in Elgin, a speck of a town in northwestern Ohio, home to about 100 souls.
Spirko was no saint, and he had killed before, but I didn’t believe he was guilty of the Mottinger murder. Rather, he was convenient and easy to convict. I began working on a series of stories that I hoped would prove his innocence.* This involved a visit to Ohio’s Death Row, which was then housed at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville.
Following the interview, I took a tour of the Death Chamber, the focal point of which was “Old Thunderbolt,” the then nearly century-old electric chair that dominated the center of the room. (Yes, I sat in it.) Part of the tour included a visit to a small room connected to the Death Chamber. It was rectangular in shape and just big enough for a panel and three men to stand. On the panel were three buttons--red, green, and white, as I recall. On execution days, at the superintendent’s command, three guards would volunteer to push these buttons, only one of which delivered the lethal jolt.
The work was volunteer, but involved extra pay.
I wondered who would volunteer for such duty. When I sat down to write my novel, this singular act was at the center of the story. I pictured a book that would focus on the life of a prison guard, grizzled, perhaps an ex-cop whose temper had cost him his job on the force, who regularly volunteered for such duty. Perhaps he enjoyed his work. Perhaps he just did it for the extra money. I envisioned a friendship developing between the prison guard and one of the Death Row inmates. Over time, the guard slowly--grudgingly--begins to believe the inmate’s claims of innocence. I planned for the book to be titled The Button Man, which was also the prison guard’s nickname.
That is as far as I got before I starting putting words on paper.
My first step was to work out the crime--a murder--for which the Death Row inmate had been wrongfully convicted. I created the fictional Ohio River town of Crystalton, a thinly veiled version of my hometown, Brilliant, Ohio. I also created four central characters who would carry out that homicide, then remain silent while a local ne’er-do-well was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to die.
After four chapters, the crime was complete.
On a sunny June day in 1971, 15-year-old Hutch Van Buren, the book’s narrator, and three of his best friends are hiking the Appalachian foothills west of Crystalton in search for arrowheads, when they are confronted by Petey Sanchez.
Petey Sanchez was a troubled human being, a stewpot of mental, emotional and psychological problems manifested in the body of a wild-eyed seventeen-year-old, who cursed and made screeching bird noises as he rode around town on a lime-green spider bike with fluorescent pink streamers flying out from the handlebars.When the confrontation was over, Petey Sanchez lay dead in the bushes, a crater in his head where Hutch’s pal Adrian Nash had struck him down with a granite Indian maul. The four boys then conspired to keep their deed a secret and protect Adrian, their friend and the star quarterback of the Crystalton High Royals.
But that is when my plan for the book went astray.
I liked the characters I had created--Hutch, Deak, Adrian, and Adrian’s brother, Pepper. I found a comfortable voice in the narrator, Hutch, and I very much wanted to see what would happen to the boys in the months and years following the crime.
Thus, my novel had to be turned around to meet the new parameters.
Writing the first half of the book was not difficult. I needed to get the boys through high school, while they struggled morally to maintain their grim secret, even after a local ne’er-do-well known as One-Eyed Jack is arrested and sent to prison for Petey’s slaying. The boys are able to justify their silence because Jack is such a despicable character.
The second half of the book, though, takes place 33 years after those four friends graduate from high school. What impact would the lingering secret have on their lives?
Hutch continues to narrate the second half of my novel. However, I couldn’t visualize him as a prison guard, and decided instead to make him a county prosecutor. (I will admit that there is a lot of Robin Yocum in Hutch Van Buren. So maybe I could not visualize me as a prison guard, and therefore did not take Hutch down that path.) I liked the irony of a man with a dark secret--covering up a murder--being a prosecutor with a reputation for sending men to Death Row. In fact, I resurrected the nickname “Button Man” for Hutch Van Buren, because prisoners believe he enjoys seeing the button on the lethal-injection device being pushed. (Ohio had given up the electric chair for lethal injection by the time Hutch becomes prosecutor.) I kept The Button Man as the working title of the book. But I eventually realized it had little meaning with the new scenario, so I changed it to Favorite Sons, which aptly describes this tale’s four main characters--all favorite sons of Crystalton, Ohio.
(Right) Author Robin Yocum
One of the first things I did before I started writing the second half of the book was to create the ending. I struggled with this for several weeks, developing a variety of possible conclusions until I found one I liked. Once I knew how the story would end, I felt comfortable enough to start writing. I know that many authors say they don’t know how a story ends until their characters tell them. That doesn’t work for me. I tried that approach once. I started writing a manuscript with no idea how it would end. It’s about 300,000 words and the damn characters refuse to tell me how it ends! Right now, they’re all at a cocktail party and I’m thinking of having a tanker truck full of napalm crash through the wall of the house. The End.
But, I digress.
With an ending in mind, I felt confident that I could draw a road map to get there. It’s just the way I write. I like things in neat packages.
Although I knew how the book would end, when I finally got there I was still able to throw in a little twist to surprise the reader. In the second half of the novel, Hutch is running for Ohio attorney general, when the wrongfully convicted man from his youth is released from prison. When he shows up in Hutch’s office, the prosecutor learns that his deep, dark secret wasn’t nearly as secret as he believed.
In the long run, changing the direction of this book made it easier to write. I was very comfortable with Hutch’s voice. My years on the crime beat provided much fodder for the story, but so did growing up in little Brilliant, Ohio. There is something about the gritty, industrial towns of eastern Ohio that draws in readers. While Crystalton is fictional, I kept the landscape of the rest of the Upper Ohio Valley. Much of the action takes place in Steubenville, and I included a mention of one of my favorite restaurants, Naples Spaghetti House, and of Steubenville’s favorite son--Dean Martin. Many characters are composites of childhood friends, as well as individuals I knew from the crime beat--criminals and cops alike.
Would I ever return to my original premise for this book? Maybe. However, it would be more likely that I’d write a sequel to Favorite Sons. I like Hutch and believe he could carry another book.
(Author photo by Mike Munden)
* My Columbus Dispatch series on wrongful convictions featured a lengthy story on Johnny Spirko and the bizarre set of circumstances that placed him on Ohio’s Death Row for the August 1982 murder of Betty Jane Mottinger. Other newspapers eventually covered the story, too. In 2008, after he had spent 24 years on Death Row, Spirko’s sentence was commuted to life in prison without chance of parole by then-Ohio Governor Ted Strickland. Spirko is currently a prisoner at the Toledo Correctional Institution.