Sharon Woods Hopkins’ Killerwatt

Sharon Woods Hopkins, author of Killerwatt, is a Panther.

She divides the world of writers into two camps: the Plodders, who work on a set schedule and approach writing as a slow, methodical slog; and the Panthers, who pounce on writing whenever they have something to say and the time to record it.

[I’d add a third P – the procrastinators, which is me.] Click on any photo to make it larger, by the way.


After I wrote this post, Sharon gently pointed out that it was time to get my hearing checked. She said she was a “pantser,” not a panther. It’s probably good I didn’t label her a “cougar.”

A pantser, Writer’s Digest clarified, “is a term most commonly applied to fiction writers, especially novelists, who write their stories “by the seat of their pants.” The opposite would be a plotter, or someone who uses outlines to help plot out their novels.

“I’m all Panther”

“I’m all Panther,” she said at her Painted Wren Gallery book signing on Nov. 4, 2010. “I sit down when I have time and when I know I can devote my time without interruption. I might write for five or six hours. I don’t plan it. I’m not by the clock.”

Cape area thriller

Sharon has written a mystery thriller with lots of Cape Girardeau area landmarks mentioned: Cape, downtown, Perryville, Scott City, Marble Hill and lots of familiar streets. (She did change a local hospital to St. Mark’s. “I didn’t want a lawsuit.”)

In fact, I told her after I had read the book that I had a minor quibble. I thought she might have been too explicit in her locations and directions. “Folks who don’t live here won’t care about the detail; folks like me get bogged down in following the chase by landmarks and say, ‘Wait a minute: Those streets don’t intersect.”

“You want an argument or a story?”

Sharon admitted that “some of the geography was tweaked to make the story work.” She mentions that in the acknowledgements: “As my dad would have said to anyone taking issue with that, ‘What do you want, an argument, or a story?'”

“It’s a ‘goal’ kind of novel” she explained. “The protagonist has a goal to get to (saving the country) and things happen to knock her back.”

That’s an understatement. People turning up dead, shot, nearly drowned and / or poisoned in the hospital go beyond the “knock her back” category in my book, but, of course, Sharon is a Canadian who ended up in Marble Hill married to my student body president campaign manager Bill Hopkins. She probably uses a different dictionary than most of us.

Rhetta isn’t Sharon per Sharon

Sharon denies that she modeled Rhetta McCarter after herself. I mean, they’re only both insurance/mortgage agents; only both drive hot old Cameros; only both have .38s, and only both got a mistaken voicemail message from a possible terrorist. Oh, yes, both of them got blown off by the authorities when they tried to report it.

“I’m not nearly as foolhardy as she [Rhetta] is. I wouldn’t have done the things she did to save the country.”

[I’m not sure if this is Rhetta or Sharon. I shot it at Sharon’s office party last year.]

“I draw upon real people”

If you are in Sharon’s orbit, you might find yourself in the book. “I draw upon real people. I took different pieces from real people I knew. I knew how the book was going to end and I had a beginning. In the middle, I would think that this might happen or that might happen and suddenly a character would appear. I’d think, ‘Oh, where did HE come from?’ He might become a central or a secondary character. When I’m in the middle of a book like this one or the one I’m writing now, these characters are real to me. I even talk to them. They’re real people.”

[Here are some real people from her office. I shot them at Halloween 2010. I don’t know if they are in the book. I don’t recognize their characters.]

Did I like the book?

So, did I like the book? I knocked it off in a couple of hours. When I was on the road, I’d pick a book that was interesting enough that I would keep reading it, but that wasn’t so interesting that I’d stay up all night to finish it. This would fall into the stay-up-all-night category.

In the interest of full disclosure, Sharon was kind enough to give me a copy of the book and to thank me (and others) for letting her pick our brains.

Bill said Sharon needed journalese translations

I got an email from Bill saying, “My wife is writing a novel where a bad guy gets killed in a car wreck.  I told her that her journalisticese needed to be honed by a professional (and that would be you).” She wanted a short news report about the first victim going into the Diversion Channel.

I complied with a Joe Friday, just-the-facts version that was more or less incorporated in Chapter One.

Then, not knowing when to leave well enough alone, I sent her this version. I’m not a fiction writer on purpose (if you discount some of the expense reports I submitted), so this was a stretch for me.

She made nice noises and refrained from saying that my narrative was longer than her novel. Since it’s never going to get published anywhere else, here it is. You have my permission to skip it. Nothing of value is going to happen after this paragraph.

Finding the vic in the Diversion Channel

Sheriff’s diver Frank James pulled himself out of the water by the tow cable attached to the Blue 2006 Toyota Celica. He opened the door and water, along with a two-pound catfish poured out.

“OK, haul away. It’ll be a lot lighter now,” he hollered at the tow truck driver.

He dropped his SCUBA tank on the ground, pulled off his gloves and mask and collapsed on the running board of Pumper 103 called in from Cape Girardeau for mutual aid.

“Not right now,” he said, shaking his head and giving a wave-off gesture. “I have to get my heart rate under control and get my thoughts straight.”

I had to rewind the movie

A few minutes later, he gave a head nod that indicated that it was OK to come over. “Man, I’ve never had that happen before,” he said. “I had to sort of rewind the movie in my head to make sense of it all.”

“Here’s the way it’s going to work,” he continued. “I only want to have to tell this story once. Shoot, I only want to have to THINK about this story once. The deal is that’s it’s off the record. I don’t want to see a tape recorder. I don’t want to see a notebook. If I ever hear that you’ve told anyone what I’m about to tell you, then you’ll never get anything from me again.

“When I’m done with this, I’ll give you a formal statement. I know you don’t like doing that and you’re on deadline, but that’s the way it’s gonna be.”

I’ve done tens of dives

Seeing a shrug that he accepted as agreement, he kept going. “I’ve done tens of these dives; scores if you count training. Normally they go the same way. Either the car is empty and you have to search around because the person was ejected or escaped and left the scene, or the person is still strapped in their seatbelt. That’s one of the good things about seatbelt laws. It makes it easier to find the vics.

“Anyway, I hooked up the tow cable so the car wouldn’t get away, then I deployed two floating air bags to keep the car from sinking any more. There was no rush. This was recovery, not rescue. The water pressure was equalized between the inside and outside, so opening the door was no sweat.

“This wasn’t one of the lucky ones where the poor stiff was belted in. I swept under the dash area, but no joy. When I was outside the car, the only way you could tell which way was up was by a dim glow above you. Inside the car you didn’t even have the glow. The water was so murky that my light wouldn’t penetrate more than about six inches.

“Someone was watching me”

“After searching the front part of the car, I stretched out to swim over the seats to get into the rear. I had the strangest sensation that someone was in there with me, watching me. Your mind plays tricks like that when you’re in the dark. It’s easy to get turned around.

“Suddenly, this hand came down from nowhere and started to grab my regulator. Jesus, it was like something out of a Grade B horror movie. I started thrashing around trying to get out of there and suddenly it had wrapped its arms around me. I was on the verge of panic. I was sucking air out of the tank like crazy. I had to get out before that thing either grabbed my mask or I ran out of air.

“Just then I realized that this thing wasn’t going to hurt me. It was just the vic who had floated to the ceiling of the car. I had pushed off between him and the car seats. My air bubbles must have displaced enough water to move him and cause his hand to drop down into my field of vision.

“Holy crap in a canvas bag!”

“Holy crap in a canvas bag! I had to stay in that car long enough that I didn’t look like some kind of wild-eyed freak show when I surfaced. The guys would never have let me live that down.

“After I settled down, I did a quick feel of the victim. I couldn’t detect any obvious signs of trauma that would account for his death. I can only speculate that the car went under quickly and he couldn’t figure out how to get out. He managed to get his nose into a tiny air pocket that must have kept him alive for quite a while. God, that must be a rough way to go. That poor bastard.

“OK,” he said.” I needed to tell that to someone. I didn’t want the guys I work with it to hear it because they’d always wonder if I’d freak out some day and get someone hurt. I don’t talk about stuff like that with my wife. Get your notepad out we’ll do this version for the world.”

He put on his official face and dictated,  “Deputy Frank James arrived on the scene of a one-car auto accident on the west side of the Diversion Channel bridge on I-55 north of the Scott City Exit…”

I should have been a reporter

After I threw this together, I realized why I never saw reporters with muddy shoes. They make all this stuff up. It’s us poor photographers who have to actually be there.

Shameless Plug: Buy MY Book

Carla Jordan, director of the Lutheran Heritage Center and Museum has agreed to sell my Tower Rock: A Demon that Devours Travelers photo book by mail if anyone doesn’t want to make the trek to Altenburg. Here’s the contact info. The price is $14 plus postage.

Lutheran Heritage Center & Museum
P.O. Box 53
75 Church Street
Altenburg, Missouri 63732






14 Replies to “Sharon Woods Hopkins’ Killerwatt”

    1. I’m doing a soft release on this one. My kid has access to a high-quality color printer, so we ran off a couple dozen copies just to see how they move. I have a couple other ones I’ll have printed in limited numbers to test the waters.

      My goal with the first couple of books is to give the Altenburg museum something they can sell for $15 or under as a colorful souvenir of the area. If that works, I’ve got some more serious works that will be larger and more historically significant, as opposed to just “pretty.”

      Thanks for the feedback.

    1. Give Carla a call or drop them an email. Operators are standing by, as they say. Order quickly, supplies are limited. The first two dozen buyers can get a personalized email from me that they can print out and glue on their computer screen.

  1. It’s a done deal. I called the museum and for those who wish to order Ken’s book entitled Tower Rock:A Demon that Devours Travelers:

    Send your check made out to the museum, address posted above, for $14.00 plus postage/handling $5.00 = $19.00.

    Judith Bader Jones

    1. Sadly, no. I removed her image from the photo, but didn’t notice that the description was still in the metadata that the blog picked up as a description.

      Photographer Bob Rogers and I stopped by Dolens Drive-In for the spaghetti and meatballs special when we got off work. Bob was the Young Eligible Bachelor of our combo, the kind of guy waitresses would flirt with, and our waitress that night was no exception.

      I spent a lot of time cultivating a good relationship with the highway patrol dispatchers, so they’d call me at home at night when they were working something they thought I’d be interested in.

      “They’re fishing a car out of the Hocking River and they think someone is in it,” Dispatcher Peg told me.

      I got there just as the wrecker pulled the car out. When the doors were opened and the water stopped gushing out, I saw a familiar face. It was our waitress, who was known to have a bit of a lead foot.

      That’s one of the problems with working in a small town. News ain’t anonymous when it’s served you the spaghetti and meatballs special hours before.

  2. Okay Ken, what do you want? Compliments don’t come free.

    I don’t think I was with you when you got the call. I would have remembered that one. There are a few car wrecks that surface once in awhile; the scent of blood and antifreeze. One such memory got me started on a short story; I could never finish it…

    Thanks for sharing. I can’t wait until we get together next spring and your wonderful memory gets going. Forty + years. You’re amazing. I do remember that spaghetti and meatballs special.

    1. I don’t remember the smells as much as the sound of the hot engines click and cracking as they cooled down after a crash, particularly if I got there before the cops and rescue arrived.

      There would be silence, except for the wind, broken only by the sound of that cooling metal. THAT’S when you were glad to hear the sirens in the distance.

      I used to joke that my job on the rescue squad if I was first on the scene was to radio in a situation report, then give aid and comfort to the victims by hollering, “I hear ’em comin’, I hear ’em comin’.”

      You WERE the heartthrob of our pair. I was the guy the waitress would give a quick look and, “The usual?”

  3. As you noticed, or as I read in the few comments made in this story, people are only commenting about your novel and not someone un-connected to CHS.
    I plan to order your book. Here I have been mentioning, reminding, nudging you to write a book with your pictures in it, and NOW, I found out you did–CONGRATS!

    1. It’s not MY novel. OK, my helpful contribution to Sharon’s novel was longer than her book, but …

      Thanks for the order. Of course, the intention was to get people to trek up to Altenburg to see the museum, but sales are sales.

      It’s a small book, but the pictures are pretty. It’s a real change of pace from what I used to shoot. I used to feel hurt when the paper’s reprint requests would come in for the pretty palm tree and pelican shots the other guys did and my stuff never sold.

      Of course, I specialized in gritty photos of farm workers and the denizens of the darker streets. Not many people wanted to hang those photos on their living room walls.

  4. Well, Ken, some of us avid readers of “good” books, essays, etc., do not necessarily fall for “pretty pictures,” especially when they are apropos of nada.
    Your pictures always relect what is going on at a specific time, and what is going on at a specific time may; indeed, be ugly, yet your writing explains objectively the situation as it is.
    All I meant is I didn’t know, and many CHS friends who wrote me didn’t know either, that we could contribute kudo-worth articles about our non-CENTRALITE spouses which appear in the Whitright CHS Tigers Newsletter. No one has done this before; that’s alll!
    Continued good luck with your TRAVELS WITH MOM STEINHOFF, and all else in the hopper!

    1. Thanks for the compliment, I think.

      Let me clear up one thing: the blog’s name is, but that’s because my kid grabbed that domain name before I had any idea of what I was going to do with it. He put it up as a place where I could dump photos from the past as I scanned them. It was going to be a photo site, with little text and with little expectation that anyone but me would ever look at it.

      To my surprise, the blog attracted more readers and subscribers than I even dreamed would care about my stuff. The circulation has grown to 15,000 to 21,000 pageviews a month. In the last two years, I’ve written 600 stories with 477,175 words and 5.092 pictures. What’s astounding has been reader response: the 600 posts have received 5,389 reader comments containing 370,396 words. What’s great is that these are almost all meaningful comments where readers share their personal histories and memories.

      In time, I found that readers were less interested in topics that were purely Central High School, and I broadened it to include all of Southeast Missouri. Sometimes I wander even further off the ranch to dredge up old pictures and memories from student protests in Ohio, a pro-war march in Washington, D.C., Pete Seeger putting on a concert in central Florida, or Nixon attending Billy Graham Day in North Carolina.

      That’s why non-Centralites show up from time to time. I don’t check IDs at the door. I care more about a good story than where they went to high school.

      I write about whatever interests me at the minute. Most of the time, I don’t even sit down to start writing until 10 or 10:30 at night. With distractions and procrastination, I generally hit the Publish button around 2 a.m. Some of the topics I care most about get a ho-hum response; ones that I tell Wife Lila are “throwaways” can attract dozens of comments. I can only take comfort in knowing that a batter who strikes out six out of ten times at the plate is considered a star worth millions.

      Eventually I hope to set up another blog that deals with my war stories from my Ohio, North Carolina and Florida days because the name doesn’t accurately reflect that content.

      I have no direct relationship with any of the email newsletters put out by the Whitrights and the Roussels. I’m just a subscriber like everybody else. Both of them are kind enough to send out links to my stories when they think their readers would be interested. I thank them for helping me reach a larger audience.

      Thanks for giving me an opportunity to clear that up.

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