Friday, December 19, 2014

MP Cooley's New York

DEBORAH CROMBIE: We've been talking a lot this week about how we as readers and as writers connect with place. M.P. Cooley (Martha to us!) is a New Yorker who lives in California's Silicon Valley, but chose to set her debut novel, ICE SHEAR, in the fictional town of Hopewell Falls in upstate New York. This is our Julia Spencer Fleming's territory, but Hopewell Falls is not Miller's Kill. Here Martha tells us how--and why--she came to create Hopewell Falls.

But first, here's a little bit about ICE SHEAR: As a cop on the night shift in Hopewell Falls, New York, June Lyons drives drunks home and picks up the donuts. A former FBI agent, she left the Bureau when her husband died, and now she and her young daughter are back in upstate New York, living with her father, the town’s retired chief of police. When June discovers a young woman’s body impaled on an ice shear in the frozen Mohawk River, news of the murder spreads fast; the dead girl was the daughter of a powerful local Congreswoman, and her troubled youth kept the gossips busy.  Though June was born and raised in Hopewell Falls, the local police see her as an interloper—resentment that explodes in anger when the FBI arrive and deputize her to work on the murder investigation. But June may not find allies among the Feds. The agent heading the case is someone from her past—someone she isn’t sure she can trust.

As June digs deeper, her already tumultuous murder case turns red-hot when it leads to a notorious biker gang and a meth lab hidden in plain sight—and an unmistakable sign that the river murder won’t be the last. 

MARTHA COOLEY: I was talking with a college friend a few weeks ago, reminiscing about our time in New York City.  Our memories are colored by the fact that we were young and a little stupid
when we lived there:  paying a $1 student entrance fee for The Met and then sitting on the floor of The Temple of Dendur, pulling out our textbooks and studying biology; the Jewish bakery that wanted us to work there because “we could sell a lot of cookies”;  taking the Staten Island Ferry back and forth all night, standing on the deck and singing at the top of our lungs;  working at Penn Plaza 34th floor, watching rain clouds come in from the west while the building swayed in the storm.

“I miss it. Let’s go back,” I said.

“Only with a time machine,” she said. “Our New York City isn’t there anymore. I think that New York existed only for us.”

Ice Shear is set in the fictional town of Hopewell Falls, NY, but between the waterfall, the textile mill, the street names, and the mastodon, the town is easily identifiable as Cohoes, NY. I chose to change the name for a few reasons.  The first
reason has to do with the reader’s experience.  If I have June Lyons drive south on a street that locals know only goes north, it will throw readers out of the story. Second, I didn’t want the real city to get a bad reputation.  I’m killing people there!  A dangerous fate may lay down every dark alley in Hopewell Falls, but in Cohoes you will probably find a Laundromat.

But the biggest reason I changed the name is that my Cohoes might not be the Cohoes other readers have visited.  Some of the best writing wisdom is “write what you know”, and when I decided to write Ice Shear, I followed that advice.    My internal geography works best when I’m trying to figure out how far or close I am to the Hudson River, and I miss the people of upstate New York, who don’t take themselves as seriously as people in Silicon Valley.  In the book, I note the local landmarks, including the Purple Pub, a popular pizza place, and the local amusement park (RIP Hoffman’s Playland), and I am pleased that people from the area can identify it as home.  But do know that as real as I try to make it, the city, at least my version, exists only in my imagination.

And then there is June Lyons’s Hopewell Falls. My main character is recovering from several devastating events:  her husband has died, she was forced to give up her career, and she is dependent on her father to care for the one bright spot in her life, her daughter. To June, Hopewell Falls represents failure and loss, and at the beginning of the book all she can see is rot and decay in a frozen landscape. As she makes peace with her past and begins to develop some hope, that changes: She begins to see some beauty in the landscape and experience joy with the other people. She begins to fight for the town, trying to save the good as evil starts to encroach.  June’s Cohoes isn’t the Cohoes of a lot of people who live there, but it isn’t mine either.

I think place stamps itself on a person. But each stamp is a little different. Hopewell Falls is how upstate New York imprinted on me.

DEBS: I was captivated by June (bet you can't guess what June is short for!), her town, and the complicated lives of its inhabitants. And I love Martha's theory. I know my London, for instance, is colored by my own experiences and perceptions, and is different from anyone else's London.

Readers, do you think place is unique to each of us?



  1. I do think place is unique for each of us, colored and shaped by our own experiences.

    June's Hopewell Falls sounds like a place I'd like to visit; Ice Shear will be a perfect addition to my teetering to-be-read pile . . . .

  2. Funny, just before I clicked on this, I had been trying to formulate a description of a narrow beach on the shores of Lake Wingra nearly half a century ago. It is both a time and a place for me. Today, I needed to be there again. Luckily, as a writer, I can be.

  3. Martha your book sounds wonderful, and I'm looking forward to reading it. New York is a favorite setting of mine. My husband's family farm is up that way but further to the north and west. And the college where his mother taught. The places he swam. The chimney still there after the fire destroyed his great-grandparents house. These things I can't remember with him, but I can experience them and I understand him through my own feelings for the space and family history.

    I think that place is special for each of us because of what we bring to it. I do, yes. But we are similar enough in our experience to be able to recognize the traits of place that give an emotional picture of what we might expect. If Debs describes a place like Oxford I can project my perception and feelings into the story that has a familiar encounter with the world and experience her story—not the way she experienced it as she wrote nor the way any other readers experience it—but enough of the truth so the story lives in it. We must have that much in common about our experiences of place across time.

  4. Welcome, Martha! (And what is June short for?) I absolutely agree with you about time and place. Reine, your comment about "projecting your perception" is spot on and the wonderful magic of reader collaborating with author. More books to read! Yay!

  5. Sure--because it's all about point of view. How often have we said--oh, its not like I remembered?

    I was watching an interview with a person the other day who also said these days we're not really "there" wherever we are--becasue we're ll so distracted.

    ANd hey, darling Martha! (You all will see my big enthusiastic blurb on the cover of the amazing Ice Shear--I LOVE this book!) (And hmmm..what's next???)

  6. So very nice to see you here Martha. I was lucky enough to snag a copy of your novel at the Bouchercon opening ceremonies this year.

    I am looking forward to taking a journey to Hopewell Falls via its pages.

  7. I think exactly this, how place is different for each of us whenever I visit Manhattan where I lived for 10 years or Los Angeles where I grew up. It's called baggage, and we all have it buried in our virtual closets.

    Congratulations on the book, Martha! (There's meth labs in Julia's upstate NY, too... )

  8. Spectacular story. Sounds like the perfect read when I'm longing for cold nights and living in Florida. I am familiar with the area and definitely agree with the decision to go pseudonym for the town. I think each space and place is unique and colored by the time in which we visited. I know I've lived in a town too long when I remember not only what occupied the space before the current tenant, but for three tenants before that!

  9. Yes, I think each of us brings our experiences to a place. The same way that two people often remember a shared incident in slightly different ways, so to with locations.

  10. Hi Martha, welcome!

    It's not only the past that influences perception of place, but everything about the person.

    A cop looking at Duval Street sees something completely different than a tourist would.

    So interesting to hear about why you chose to make your town fictional. I have always gone the other direction, but there's an argument for each side!

  11. Definitely--place is an emotional and mental experience, both for inhabitants and for readers. The imaginative visits to London and around the English countryside were one of the chief reasons I began reading Agatha Christie regularly.
    Impaled on an ice shard...that must be one huge river! Looking forward to my mind.

  12. I wish I'd been half as lucid as Reine when I was writing Martha's intro last night.

    And Martha, I loved your description of your time in NYC. I felt I'd shared a little of your experience, and that's what it's all about, isn't it?

    Kait, if you are wanting to feel cold, this is definitely the book to read! Martha will have you pulling out your snow boots in Florida!

  13. I agree that our particular story and, as Lucy pointed out, person determine our view of a place. I see reasons for the fictional setting and the real life setting, too. I immensely enjoy the imaginary setting of Three Pines in Louise Penny's wonderful Gamache series, but I also love wandering down the streets of Key West, one of my favorite places, with Lucy's characters and recognizing places I've been. After the Albany Bouchercon in 2013, my friend and I made a special side trip to the Adirondacks and ate lunch next to Sacandaga Lake just because I'd read about it in Julia's books. The different areas of London (and a few outside of London) that Debs brings alive have me champing at the bit to go there and take in the places mentioned and make my own stamp on them. Hank's Boston and Hallie's New York draw me to those places, too. Rhys' and Susan's descriptions of past places in time make me want to see what's still standing and how it's changed. But, as you all have stated, any trip or memory of a place will forever be tied to your experience of it when you actually travel there. Martha, I'm looking forward to reading about your twist on the setting of Cohoes. Oh, and I love the cover!

  14. Hi all,

    Thanks for the warm welcome. Sorry for the late arrival, but I got to fight real crime today! My day job is at a nonprofit that serves children and seniors, and someone was trying to scam the child care sites. I threw the book at them! Not really, but I did track down the source and send e-mails to our site directors, letting them know to direct all these queries to me. Things are not usually so exciting.

    Reine, I love your line "enough of the truth so that the story lives in it." Sometimes a place resonates, even when it doesn't exist at all, (for example in Craig Johnson's Longmire series) and I think it is because it has a fundamental truth.

  15. Thanks for the welcome, Susan! A small hint about June's real name: her mother was a hippie (although June's dad was a cop, which is how June dodged "Moonbeam".)

  16. Yes, I think we all experience places differently, depending on the time we are there and who we are during that time. This is an issue for all novelists. If I write about a real place, will others recognize it or complain that that's not their real place?

  17. Hello Darling Hank, and the other wonderful Jungle Reds! Your blurb was the first feedback I got from the big world--it was so kind, and as a debut author I was thrilled. FLAME OUT, the sequel to ICE SHEAR, will be out in May (I didn't mean to use all the elements, I swear!) It starts with a big fire, and then, of course, things really get interesting . . .

  18. Hello Martha,

    It was so lovely meeting you at Bouchercon. Congratulations on ICE SHEAR! It sounds fabulous. Even though many of your readers will be unfamiliar with upstate NY they'll no doubt pick up on your emotional attachment to the location. I think of setting as another character, the more richly drawn the better. Because your basing Hopewell Falls on a town you know in love you'll take a great deal of care in getting it 'right'. You may change details to suit the narrative but the it's the spirit of the place that's really important. Well done. I can't wait to read!

    best wishes,


  19. Kristopher, it was great to meet you at Bouchercon as well. One of the best things about going to Long Beach was meeting so many writers and bloggers I had followed online. Hope you enjoy!

    Joan, I hope you enjoy visiting Hopewell Falls. There's murder and meyhem, but heroes, too.

  20. You do a wonderful job of brining Hopewell Falls to life. Ice Shear is one of the best books I read this year!

  21. Hallie, I think the sort of baggage you describe is something that we tend to haul from place to place, but it's not all bad, and sometimes it's fun to pull things out and reminisce.

    Through the Evil Days was a wonderful book--upstate New York has a bit of a dark streak running through it.

  22. Hi Martha! I love your explanation of why you created a fictional town.

    And I think this sums life up perfectly: “Our New York City isn’t there anymore. I think that New York existed only for us.”

  23. Martha! I cannot wait to read FLAME OUT. (You'll come back here and tell us about it, right?)

    And my pleasure--it is an exceptional treat to read an exceptional first novel.

  24. Rebecca, the picture of the waterfall included in the blog post is the waterfall the one in the book is based on. It doesn't freeze every year, but when it does you get giant spikes sticking up. And Kait, it will make you very grateful you live in Florida!

  25. Karin, my book twin (or maybe book first cousin), I think your town was fictional, right? You did a pretty wonderful job of creating Collier, capturing the harsh landscape and hard-bitten people.

  26. Why on earth did they think you would 'sell' a lot of cookies? Maybe they thought you would EAT a lot of cookies.

  27. I assumed it was thought they would sell a lot of cookies because they were cute:-)