Tempe, Arizona was cool the night Ernie Patino slipped on his black leather dancing shoes and left his hotel room to try out the dance floor in the largest studio in the vicinity, the Paragon Dance Center. It was a Friday night in mid-January and the night was clear. Ernie knew he might be gone for a couple of hours, a welcome break from the business that brought him to town.
Arriving at the ballroom, Ernie saw a room packed with strangers. Though he knew no one, he knew they shared a common passion – ballroom dancing. The rumba, the Salsa, the Cha Cha, the Waltz, the foxtrot, East and West Coast Swing and many more brought men and women together in tune to the music; some better dancers than others but all there to enjoy the night.
“Shall we dance?” asked Ernie, extending his hand to a smiling woman who caught his eye and the night began.
Years earlier, Ernie would never have gone to a dance hall to pass his evening. Imagine what his FBI friends would think! Then one day, he passed a dance studio in Tucson. He paused but didn’t stop. Passing it again, he paused again. Why would he stop? He had never actively danced before. He liked to dance but never felt very confident. Slow dances were easier. He was a published novelist and a private investigator who didn’t need a hobby. And yet, when he passed the studio yet again, he lingered even longer.
The studio reminded him of Richard Gere in “Shall We Dance?” who was intrigued when he, Gere, passed a dance studio one too many times also and decided to sign up for classes. Gere’s character learned to dance behind his wife’s back to surprise her. Only Ernie was a widower now so the parallel ended there. Ernie was still trying to breathe after his wife of twenty plus years died suddenly. It was all too fresh, too new, this single life alone.
Ernie did everything the books on mourning told him not to do when Diana had her fatal stroke. He thought about his life in Florida where he spent the last twenty years and knew it had no strings after she had gone. Diana’s parents had long passed away and he was retired from the FBI, the job that brought him to Florida in the first place. Working as a private investigator kept him busy but in his heart, he knew it was time to leave. Nothing familiar there anymore.
“You are too young for us,” said one widows and widowers group he tried to join. He wouldn’t be eligible for another decade to two. Time to go.
Within six months, Ernie quit his job, sold his house and moved away. After visiting a publisher in Arizona, he decided to try out Tucson. It was closer to family anyway.
With his free time, Ernie enjoyed traveling and seeing new sites. When he was home, he would work on his next novel but he didn’t feel it like he had with the previous novel. Diana’s death came as such a shock; he simply didn’t have it in him like before.
Surprising himself, one day Ernie stopped at the dance studio and picked up details on classes. Why not try something new?
Don’t tell a woman you know how to dance if you don’t, learn at least one Latin dance (such as the merengue, salsa or the rumba) and if you know how to dance and she doesn’t, make her feel she’s doing a great job.
Never one to stand out in a crowd, he spent the next couple of years learning but not dancing publicly. He wanted to feel confident before dancing in front of anyone. Practicing 4-5 hours a day, Ernie felt the therapy of dance sink into his soul and bring back the creative urges and instincts. He began to write again.
Resoling his favorite shoes over and over again, Ernie only needed the one pair to guide him through the intricate steps; and so he began to pack them on all his business trips. They were light and easy to carry. An evening once spent watching TV or walking around a strange town was now filled with fun nights and familiar moves. He might not know a soul in the room, but his feet knew the steps. It was great exercise too.
When the movie “Hitch” was released, the local paper interviewed Ernie about dance tips for single guys. In “Hitch,” Will Smith plays a dating consultant who tells men that women relate dancing to intimacy. Ernie’s real-life advice included “Don’t tell a woman you know how to dance if you don’t, learn at least one Latin dance (such as the merengue, salsa or the rumba) and if you know how to dance end she doesn’t, make her feel she’s doing a great job.”
Many people take dance lessons simply to build confidence, possibly preparing for a special occasion, or simply to find an activity that is uplifting and fun that lets you get to know people in the community.
“My wife, Diana, would probably be surprised that I chose dancing as my principal hobby, but she would be happy I am doing something that keeps me away from the “bar scene”, shares Ernie, adding, “If I had one more dance with my wife, it would be the Argentine Tango, very sensuous, very intimate.”
Ending the night at the Paragon Dance Center in Tempe, Ernie headed back to his room with a light spirit and a spring in his step. Any night that begins and ends with dancing is worth writing about and so he did as he later started his next novel writing about a gourmet cook who, by-the-way, loved to ballroom dance.
Because I am a former FBI agent-turned private investigator, the private eyes in my novels tend to reflect some of my own characteristics as a real life private investigator. I don’t do this intentionally, or maybe I do. What it boils down to is that I write about what I know, which is being a private investigator. My fictional private eyes usually work their cases the way I do--they investigate multiple cases while working on the main case. The main case is what drives the novel, and my private eye will either be the protagonist or a secondary character.
My private eyes all have law enforcement background--ex-cops or former federal agents. To me, this gives them the credibility that enables them to tackle almost any case, from a messy divorce matter to an unsolved murder.
Do readers really care whether a private eye in a novel was a former cop or federal agent? Probably not. But without some kind of explanation about how a private eye with little or no investigative experience is capable of solving a complex case, readers might not take him as seriously as they should.
So what makes a good private eye, one might ask. Well, to begin with, he should have reliable contacts at the local police department, the morgue, the court house and the county jail. He should also have informants among various street people—hookers, panhandlers, ex-cons, etc. And he must be a good researcher or have access to someone who can do the research for him. But research through technology can only go so far. A good private eye must also be a good communicator with people from all walks of life, from bartenders to bankers. Because he is not a police officer, people are not obligated to talk to him. Therefore, he must rely on his charm and ability to persuade individuals to answer difficult questions.
A private eye is an investigator, first and foremost, but as a character in a novel he must also be unique, maybe even flawed, but never boring. Above all, he must be believable enough that readers will accept without question the manner in which he is able to solve one tough case after another.