Dr. Randy Overbeck

Interview

Dr. Randy Overbeck has over three decades worth of experience as a teacher and professor. He has donned many titles as an educator, which shows in his work. Overbeck has thus far had three books published—all by small presses—with a fourth on the way, Scarlet at Crystal River, scheduled for release this fall. Each of his stories centers around a protagonist who, like him, is an educator. Overbeck says, “I’ve worked with lots of incredible teachers, so I deliberately choose them to be the heroes in my stories.” He writes, keeping one foot rooted firmly in a familiar reality, rendering the story utterly authentic.

Blood on the Chesapeake, the first in Overbeck’s Haunted Shores Mysteries series, is a ghost story that begins at a high school in the sixties when interracial couples weren’t nearly as welcomed as they are today. A budding romance between Hank, a black male, and Kelly, a white female, ended when a group of their classmates decided to teach Hank a lesson for being intimate with a white girl. Their lesson took shape in the form of a noose. About thirty years pass, and Hank’s ghost seeks the justice he’s never been granted. His death was ruled a suicide, and his truth remains untold. He finds Darrell, the new teacher and football coach—and an outsider—to be a fair observer of the paranormal. From the beginning, Darrell asks too many questions in town about the ghost. Still, when a stranger gives Darrell a cryptic note, the questions come with greater ferocity, and his inquiries begin to attract the wrong attention. Sadly, Darrell is not the only one whose life can be threatened by asking too much. Overbeck portrays local color with craft, which he continues as a thread throughout the series.

Q: What was your initial inspiration for writing Blood on the Chesapeake?

A: The first bit of inspiration begins with my travels. The Chesapeake Bay is a place my wife and I’ve been visiting for a dozen years. Our travel agent found this incredible small town featured in the Blood on the Chesapeake (italics), Oxford, and this adorable inn that sits right on the water, and my wife and I fell in love with it. As the ideas for the story were developing in my head and I was becoming familiar with this gorgeous area, I discovered that the Chesapeake Bay, as described in the book, has kind of a split personality. Some aspects of the bay have a very New England feel, but there’s also this southern pull; you don’t have to drive more than ten miles from where I set my story to see confederate flags flying, even today. During the Civil War, this particular area sympathized with the south even though Maryland was technically a northern state. As I described in my book, this specific area has the plantations where Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman were enslaved. It has this dichotomy that I thought would be excellent fodder for the thread that I was trying to spin. Those pieces came together to showcase the narrative in a powerful way that tells a good story and attempts to make a real point. I tried to expose and examine social problems that are still with us today. People aren’t going around lynching people, but the undercurrent of racial injustice still exists.

The second piece was a building. The school building where Darrell gets hired is a real building, and it has the widow’s walk. When I first encountered this high school in another town in my travels, I stood there in the parking lot staring at that building, thinking, “That’s an interesting architectural feature. What could I do with that?” Later, I asked other teachers what kind of problems kids would get into with an architectural feature like that. They came up with a whole host of ideas, a few of which ended up making it into the book. I’m an educator. I’ve taught and run school districts for almost forty years, but I’d never seen a building anything like that. 

The third piece is that I am very committed to making my writing count. At a writing conference years ago, I learned a saying from the best-selling mystery writer S.J. Rozan that I’ve never forgotten. “Nonfiction is about reality. Fiction is about truth.” I work hard to include some element of truth within the context of the story, and I wanted to address racial injustice in this book. The underlying question of Blood on the Chesapeake is: “What’s a privileged white guy’s responsibility when he comes face to face with racial injustice?” That’s what Darrell is dealing with. These three pieces were how the book’s inspiration came together.

Q: In terms of research which topic was the most interesting to research for this book?

A: I had one topic that was the most interesting to research and one that was the most fun. The most interesting one was the history of lynching. I did not realize that lynchings were almost as common in northern cities as in the south. I was stunned to find out the number of lynchings that had occurred in northern towns. The other thing that surprised me was that most of the lynchings were not like they described in a number of history books, involving ten or twenty guys in white hoods in the middle of the night. Many of them were public spectacles. Their purpose was to humiliate and intimidate the black population. They were hung to set an example, and there were often hundreds of people in attendance. Without a doubt, as a privileged white guy, that was a real eye-opener in terms of research. 

The most fun topic to research was sailing. I had never sailed before traveling to the Chesapeake Bay. To prepare for the book, I took a couple of sailing lessons, and I got to take the wheel, which was wonderful. It’s just an incredible feeling, the quiet, the wind whipping the sails. It’s a great experience. 

Q: Did any ghost stories inspire your writing?

A: Yes, but it’s a little different. The earliest version of this tale did not include a ghost. About six years ago, I went to the Midwest Writing Conference. It’s a great conference in a small town in Indiana. At that conference, there were a couple of sessions with ghost hunters. They did a presentation about their work with all this equipment and talked about what they’ve documented. And that’s what really got me started. At that point, I had not read many ghost stories, but as I was writing this book, I started checking out a number of ghost stories. I chose to write this particular book because I couldn’t find anything like it. If you read a lot of ghost stories, they fall mostly into one of two categories. Some fall into the Stephen King category and are terrifying, or others land in what I call “Casper the friendly ghost” category, which is often humorous. I was trying to carve a new niche with something much closer to the reality of actual ghost appearances. Now, I did take some liberties, but most of what I have in there about how ghosts appear is documented in the scientific literature.  

Q: Have you ever had an encounter with a ghost?

A: I get that question all the time, and the answer is no, I have not. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in ghosts. I do believe in ghosts. I usually quote Shakespeare. In Hamlet, Shakespeare says, “There is more to heaven and earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy,” which is his poetic way of saying there are things that we don’t understand—and the existence of ghosts is just one of them. 

Q: Which character was your favorite to write?

A: The character I had the most fun creating was Natalia, the story’s medium, who also happens to be a sex worker. Natalia has been very popular with readers. She is so popular in Blood on the Chesapeake that I brought her back in the second book and again for a cameo role in the third book because people like Natalia a whole lot. I just had fun with that character and the conflict she creates between Al and Darrell first and then between Darrell and Erin. That conflict worsens in the second book between Darrell, Erin, and Natalia. He needs this woman’s help, but he’s terrified of how it will damage his relationship with Erin. But he has to go to her anyway. Creating that character and allowing her to have that place in the plot was a lot of fun. I had a great time doing it.

Q: Speaking of characters, you have a hilarious character in here; his name is Al. Did anyone inspire your character, Al?

A: Al is based on a real person, whose name is really Al. In fact, Al is the only character I can say that about. Not long before I started writing the first novel in the series, he died rather suddenly. He’d been a friend for forty years and was exactly like that character. Almost everything that character did, he had done. He was a jokester. Writing him was a tribute to my friend who couldn’t be here anymore. 

Q: What are some other themes you explore in your other books?

A: I keep each book limited to one primary social issue. I try to match the town and area’s culture with the issue, and I also make sure that I tie in the social issue organically. As I explained, the racial injustice aspect was a perfect fit for the Chesapeake Bay dichotomy. The second book, Crimson at Cape May, focuses on the crime of human trafficking. Cape May sits at the end of the New Jersey turnpike, and the New Jersey turnpike is part of the sex trafficking highway network on the east coast, so it became a logical connection between the story, the issue, and the area. The third book, Scarlet at Crystal River, takes place in Florida, focusing on the mistreatment of migrant workers. There’s an incident in the third book. A young Latino man helping Darrell and Erin in their investigation is seriously injured and is supposed to be treated by a local hospital. But the administrator there refuses to treat him because he suspects that the Latino is an illegal immigrant. These things actually happen. Darrell has a hard time understanding how something like this would occur. Those are the kinds of issues I try to explore. And the reason why I chose each of these is that they were important issues twenty years ago—at the time of the stories—and they’re pressing issues today. I work really hard to make sure all those pieces fit together.

Dr. Randy Overbeck’s website – https://www.authorrandyoverbeck.com/