So what if I wasn’t born in the 1960s? I can do research!
In 2020, I came across a call for submissions for mystery short stories to be included in an anthology. The anthology was to be called Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties. The editor, Michael Bracken, wanted stories set in the 1960s featuring private detectives, with bonus points given if the story included a major historical event.
The call caught my attention, but not having been born in the 1960s, I searched my brain for any specific event that I might use as starting point for a story. Two events for which I had a wealth of knowledge at my fingertips came to mind. One was the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. When you grow up in Dallas, this one comes to mind quickly. But I thought that event, given its extreme historical prominence, might be covered by too many other authors submitting stories.
So I selected the second event: the UT Tower Shooting.
The University of Texas Tower Shooting on August 1, 1966, is a dark shadow on Austin’s history. It was a mass shooting at a school that happened decades before such events became regular occurrences. The Tower Shooting, like the JFK assassination, is reviewed regularly by the local media on anniversaries of the event. And I am intimately familiar with the locale where the shooting occurred since I attended the University of Texas at Austin and walked in the shadow of the Tower daily for four years. Additionally, the shooting is well-documented. Video taken that day is even available online. I knew that finding background details for a short story set around the time of the shooting wouldn’t be hard.
However, none of that is why the Tower Shooting came immediately to mind.
It came to mind because I knew someone I could question about life in the 1960s in Austin, Texas, and about the Tower shooting in particular: my father.
My father, whose grandparents were all Czech immigrants who arrived in Texas after the Civil War, graduated from tiny Rogers High School in rural central Texas and set out be the first in his immediate family to graduate from college. He worked his way up: first attending a junior college, then transferring to a small private college, then transferring, finally, to the University of Texas at Austin. On the fateful morning of August 1, 1966, my father turned in the final paper for the final class he needed to graduate. He arrived on campus early in the morning and left to report to his job at an Austin grocery store.
He had a lot on his mind that day. With his upcoming graduation at the end of the summer term, my father should have been considering his improved employment prospects. But he wasn’t looking for jobs. He knew that his draft number was coming up in October. He had to make a decision: volunteer for the draft or wait to be drafted into the military in the midst of the Vietnam War. He volunteered for the draft in September 1966.
Twenty-seven years later, on my first day living in the dorms at UT, my father showed me where people had died near the balustrade on the South Mall. He pointed out the bullet holes marking the stone. He recounted his memory of leaving campus and listening to the shooting on the radio while at work. His story of that day, woven into the story of his life, became a piece of family lore, embedded in my memory.
And so, after picking my father’s brain and doing a ton of research, my short story “Nice Girls Don’t” came into being. The story features a private detective hired in September 1966 to investigate the death of a young woman, a UT student who died the day of the Tower Shooting. The girl’s parents believe their daughter’s case was ignored because the police were too busy dealing with the Tower Shooting to give her death the attention it deserved. The parents want the detective to find out what really happened.
After completing my story, I submitted it to the editor, hoping it might be selected for inclusion in the anthology… And the editor, Michael Bracken, chose my story to be included in Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties, coming from Down & Out Books in April 2022!
N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter and is a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Find out more at nmcedeno.com.