Today, we have a guest post from Detective Jason Allison, NYPD retired. A New Yorker transplanted to New England, he’s writing today about developing a sense of place.
Bronx born and raised, Jason Allison spent two decades with the New York City Police Department. Twelve of those years were as a detective; four as part of a joint Federal Task Force. Primarily the murder police, his investigations took him across the country; from Brooklyn to Miami, Staten Island to Stockton. He retired in 2018 to write full time. In 2020, his short story Anosmia won Honorable Mention for the Al Blanchard award. He has presented to attendees of ThrillerFest and members of the Mystery Writers of America.
“You don’t ever really know a place till you’ve eaten its food.”
Those were a senior NYPD detective’s words to me, as we settled into a booth at a diner in Brighton Beach. I was new to the Detective Bureau, having finally escaped the ditch-digging that is Narcotics work, and he’d advised me to listen more than I spoke. So we sat there, on some weekday afternoon, a few blocks from Brooklyn’s southern shore. Gyros were served, heavy on the tzatziki sauce. A group of old men in a corner spoke emphatic Russian; our waiter tossed jokes to his bus boy in Spanish; two men in shiny suits and no ties discussed something in hushed Yiddish, or maybe Hebrew. I couldn’t tell.
We finished our meal, paid the check, and left. Before climbing into our Squad’s battered Crown Victoria, he looked over at me and said, “Every meal’s a chance to learn somethin’ new.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, but the junior half of a cop partnership does as he’s told. We practiced his policy with great discipline; meals were quiet affairs, and always took place near a window. Outside and in, New York City unfurled around us; its sights, sounds, and smells.
Over the next twelve years, I saw the wisdom in his words. New York is a city of neighborhoods, enclaves of peoples separated by an avenue, sometimes less. A ride through Queens takes one on a tour of Greece, Columbia, and Jamaica, along with a dozen other places. Each stretch has its own storefronts, restaurants, and—most importantly—energy. Google Maps can’t replicate a place’s feel. Not yet. You can only truly get a handle on a place by being in it. I look back fondly on those times.
I retired in 2018, moved to Massachusetts, and began writing in earnest. I had long written fiction strictly for my own amusement—supervisors hated my lengthy, detailed reports. The more I wrote, the more I realized my words came easier whenever I set my stories in places I’d actually been. The work seemed more authentic, more real than anything a writer of my skills could create from pure imagination. I soon began to see why.
The fiction I respond to most strongly has a powerful sense of place. Tana French’s Dublin; George Pelecanos’s Washington D.C.; Adrian McKinty’s Belfast; Stephen Mack Jones’s Detroit; and, of course, Richard Price’s New York. In hands as skilled as these, cities become characters. There’s a story down every street, if you’re willing to listen.
As a detective, listening was my job. As a writer, listening is my job.
My cases required extensive travel, and I saw both oceans while in the city’s employ. In my writing, I often fall back on those long nights parked on Ocean Drive in South Beach, or mornings watching the sun come up over fields in Onslow County, North Carolina. I write with more confidence about places I’ve been because I’ve chatted with their bartenders, cabbies, bell staff, and cops. Not to mention the countless conversations I’ve overheard. (Side note—I always carried two note pads; one for the case, another to memorialize distinctive characters and bits of potential dialogue. These days I’m down to one.)
I maintain the same open eyes and ears in New England, which, as a New Yorker (and a Jets fan), has occasionally required a thick skin. I’ve learned a little of how Hyannis differs from Kennebunkport, Portland from Portsmouth, Beacon Hill from Jamaica Plains. I’m not so naive as to think I’m a local, not like how I feel about the Bronx and Brooklyn, but I’m getting there.
I read once—I forget where—that setting begets character begets plot. I believe in this wholeheartedly. Since I root my stories in our world, it had better feel authentic. Wherever I go, I lean into the local scene as best I can. I seek out the restaurants, pubs, coffee shops, and have a seat. I order the fish and chips, or maybe a lobster roll, and take in the people around me, because I believe the world, even after having spent two decades investigating its horrors, is endlessly fascinating. If you’re a writer, you probably agree.
And, every now and then, I think back to that diner in Brooklyn, and wonder what those two guys in the suits were talking about.