LAKE LUZERNE, N.Y. (NEWS10) – Every summer since 1992, thriller author Matthew Witten and his family have taken a trip across the country, from their west coast California residence to a summer home at the foot of the Adirondacks.
In that time, Witten has come to know the people of Lake Luzerne and their stories. And that’s how the road to his latest book got started.
“There’s a famous screenwriter named William Goldman, who said that oftentimes you get a great idea, for a book or a movie, but it’s not enough,” Willen said on Wednesday. “But then days later, or months later, or decades later, or weeks later, you’ll get a second idea, and realize those two ideas are connected.”
A connection like that spawned “The Necklace,” Witten’s new novel, which follows a woman’s journey from Lake Luzerne to North Dakota on a mission, and which draws from the town’s real-life locales along the way.
As the synopsis tells it: “Susan Lentigo, a waitress from Lake Luzerne fighting to prove that the man who’s about to be executed for killing her daughter is actually innocent – and the real killer is still free. As the clock ticks down, she takes on the FBI in a heart-pounding crusade for justice.”
From the nearby Stuart M. Townsend Elementary School to the nearby Long Horn Restaurant & Pub — where Witten regularly visits for bar trivia — many of the small town’s community staples have a second life in the early pages of the upcoming read.
Based on a true story
The story is based on a true one; the first of Witten’s two ideas.
In 2012, Witten read an article in the Glens Falls Post-Star newspaper telling a similar story. Tina Curl, a then-recent resident of Lake Luzerne, was raising money to travel 1,400 miles from the small Warren County town to South Dakota, to witness the execution of Donald Moeller, the man who killed her 9-year-old daughter.
Curl raised more than the $4,000 she needed, and the story of a small community coming together to get her a chance at closure stuck with Witten.
“I found that story moving on 100 levels.”
And so he remembered it, keeping the story clipped out and sitting to the left side of his desk for years. About two years ago, a friend and fellow writer, John Henry Davidson, made the final suggestion.
“And he said, ‘Oh, I know what happens in that story,'” Witten recounted. “And I said, ‘Please, tell me, I’ve been trying to figure it out for eight years.”
That suggestion was the revelation that the fictional victim’s killer may actually be innocent. In “The Necklace,” that’s the information that drives protagonist Susan Lentigo to face down the FBI in a crusade for justice as she travels the country.
Although much of the story is a high-stakes road trip, it starts off from Lake Luzerne. Lentigo works as a waitress in a fictional version of the former Molly’s Mason Jar — now 9 North Wood Fired Pizza — in nearby Hadley.
That’s just the start of it. A walk through Lake Luzerne’s quiet downtown will quickly reveal several more locations that show up in the book: Rockwell Falls Presbyterian Church, Cirillo Auto Services, Stone’s Pharmacy and Rockwell Public Library, just to name a few.
The Long Horn Restaurant & Pub, further up on Route 9N, is where Lentigo has her sending-off after the community raises the funds for her trip; a fictional version of the real-life celebration Curl received in Queensbury, before starting her own journey.
Those real places, tied as they are to the real story, bring Witten that much closer to his summertime home and the people there.
“Anytime you write about something or someone, it makes you think more deeply about that thing or that person,” Witten said. “So I guess it’s made me think more deeply about Lake Luzerne; more deeply about the lives people are living, and more deeply about the real-life characters who inspired Susan.”
Witten followed up that, often, people want to know if basing a crime thriller on a real place causes him to imagine a killer behind every hometown shadow.
“I think the answer is I’ve always done that,” he said with a laugh.
“The Necklace” is Witten’s fifth novel. His four previous thrillers are also locally-rooted, set in Saratoga Springs.
As for the journey itself, Witten is from Cincinnati, and some of his protagonist’s road trip is made of miles he already knows.
For the rest, Witten admits, there was some Google Maps searching to be done, combining real-life places he’s visited with the context the internet can provide.
At one point, Witten even realized he had gotten a stretch of highway wrong in the process, and spent most of a day rewriting to better capture an 8-mile stretch where Lentigo was traveling.
“I tried to get all the details accurate. I think I cheated a little bit with Galway — I cheated maybe about 10 miles — so I hope the Galwegians will forgive my messing with the geographic reality.”
Where to read
“The Necklace” is out digitally and releases physically on Sept. 7.
Those who want can get a copy early by visiting a different lake. At 2 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 5, Witten will be giving a book talk on his novel at The Book Cabin in Lake George.
There’s an audiobook coming, too, narrated by actor and author Harley Jane Kozak. Witten knows Kozak from a writing group he was in while writing “The Necklace,” making her involvement practically inevitable. Without knowing it at the time, Witten was sitting in on the rehearsals.
“So often, when I bring in a chapter of the book — which I did for like nine months while I was writing it — instead of me reading it, I would ask Harley to read it out loud, so I got to know the character through her speaking it.”
Witten plans to keep coming to Lake Luzerne in the summer. He sees its financial hardships, as the loss of a paper mill that once ran in nearby Corinth has been hard on its tight-knit community, but the people he’s spent nearly 30 years getting to know are as much part of his life as part of his latest book.
“I know the people well, and this book is about people that I know; people that I’ve met; a world that I know.”