Saturday, July 16, 2016

Elmore Leonard Interview

“Dutch” Leonard’s overnight success began in 1951, when he flipped a mental coin to decide between writing crime novels and westerns. “Westerns won because I liked western movies a lot,” he said, “and because there was a wonderful market for western short stories. You could aim at the Saturday Evening Post or Colliers, and if you missed there, try Argosy, Blue Book, and on down to the lesser paying pulp magazines, the most prestigious being Dime Western and Zane Grey. Right behind them were Ten-Story Western and Fifteen Western Tales."

The late author had always been an avowed reader. “A bookworm, yes,” he said, “beginning with The Bobbsey Twins and The Book House volumes of abridged classics that included everything from Beowulf to Treasure Island. In the fifth grade I read most of All Quiet on the Western Front, serialized in the Detroit Times, and I wrote a World War I play that was staged in the classroom, my first piece of writing.”

His first nine years were spent south of the Mason-Dixon Line, the youngest of two children. He lived in Dallas, Oklahoma City, and Memphis before moving to Detroit in 1934 during the World Series. Raised a Catholic, he graduated from Detroit High School and the University of Detroit, both Jesuit institutions where he majored in English and philosophy.

A baseball player during high school, he acquired his nickname “Dutch” from teammates, who borrowed it from the Washington Senators knuckleball pitcher. The second Dutch Leonard served in the Navy during World War II with a Seabee unit in the South Pacific. Four years later, he acquired a bride and a new job with an advertising agency.

Leonard lusted for full-time writing, and remembered a letter from his agent in 1951, which attempted to discourage him from quitting his advertising copywriting job to freelance. He had concentrated on truck advertising for Chevrolet and, by that time, had a tank full of writing catchy ads. Rising at five o’clock, he wrote two pages of fiction before going to work “with the rule that I couldn’t put the water on for coffee until I’d started writing. I’ve been a disciplined writer ever since.”

While working for the ad agency, he supplemented his early morning writing by placing a pad of paper in his desk drawer. With the drawer partially open, he wrote fiction on the job. His first two short stories were rejected, so he decided to spend more time and effort on research. Although he had never set foot west of the Mississippi, he concentrated on the Southwest, Apaches, the cavalry and cowboys, while subscribing to Arizona Highways magazine to learn all he could about the arid terrain. His first sale the previous year was a novelette titled, “Trial of the Apache,” which sold to Argosy magazine for their December issue. His next story, “Tizwin,” earned him a rejection letter from Argosy and a sale to Ten Story Western, which eventually appeared in print in 1952 under the title, “Red Hell Hits Canyon Diablo.”

Thirty of his short stories sold during the 1950s, four of them to Argosy and the Saturday Evening Post, while the majority appeared in Dime Western and Zane Grey. Leonard sold everything he wrote with the exception of his first two short stories and several with contemporary settings. By the end of the 1950s, television had taken over. 

“The pulps faded away and the book advances didn’t compare to what was once offered. It took nearly two years to sell Hombre, for an advance of $1,250.” Multiple printings followed, with the book listed among the twenty-five all-time best westerns. Hombre more than made up for its meager beginning, along with a film version starring Paul Newman, which earned the writer a modest $10,000.
Gunsight was his last western novel, written at the request of Marc Jaffe in 1979 for Bantam Books.

Leonard then flipped his genre coin again and found that crime can pay quite well. Stick and LaBrava made him an overnight success, nicely padding his wallet along with the 1985 film version of Stick, starring Burt Reynolds, a production he prefers to ignore. The writer’s innate humor is deadpan, he said, not slapstick.
Glitz sparkled for eighteen weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, ensuring him top billing on the literary marquee, but although the film rights were optioned by Lorimar, production stalled for more than two years.

His sudden popularity cut deeply into his writing time. “It’s nice to get fan mail,” he said, “a few letters a week, and being recognized on the street, but the interviews are wearing me out. I’m asked questions about writing, and about my purpose in the way I write that I’ve never thought of before. And I have to take time to think on the spot and come up with an answer. I’m learning quite a bit about what I do from recent interviews, and getting a few answers.

Interviewers asked Leonard for advice for budding writers. He usually responded with: “The worst thing a novice can do is to try to sound like a writer. I guess the first thing you have to learn is how not to overwrite.” His advice was simply to write. “Don’t talk about it, do it. Read constantly, study the authors you like, pick one and imitate him, the way a painter learns fine art by copying the masters. I studied Hemingway, as several thousand other writers have done. I feel that I learned to write westerns by reading and rereading For Whom the Bells Toll.”

A portrait of Hemingway hung on the wall of his office, reminding him that he studied the revered novelist’s work for “construction, for what you leave out as well as what you put in. But I was not influenced by his attitude, thank God. My attitude is much less serious. I see absurdities in serious situations, influenced in this regard by Vonnegut, Richard Bissel, and Mark Harris, and this shows in my writing. It’s your attitude that determines your sound, not style.”

Leonard wrote for many years in longhand on specially-ordered yellow sheets, rewriting and revising until he was ready to type his final draft.

“I’ll do a few pages this way and then put it in my Olympia manual office-model typewriter,” he said. “I hate to change ribbons, but have no interest in electronic advances. How the words are eventually reproduced is not my concern. I revise as I type, aiming for five or six clean pages a day. Then I continue to go back and revise and the pages begin to pile up. Sometimes I’ll go back and add a scene or shift scenes around, but most of the revising has to do with simplifying, cutting out excess words, trimming to make it lean or to adjust the rhythm of the prose.”

(The interview was excerpted from my book, Maverick Writers).

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Writing a Series

by Rhys Bowen

The truth is that the choice is often not ours to make. Many writers, including myself, find out that we’re writing a series when the publisher accepts the first book and asks, “Do you already have an idea for the next one?”

In fact most mystery writers get their start writing a series, and this has many advantages: you have a chance to build a readership over several books. You develop a presence on the shelves of the chain stores. You have a chance to develop an ever deepening relationship with your main character, rather like an ongoing friendship in which he or she reveals more and more interesting details about themselves and their pasts.

In many ways it's more comfortable to write a series. Each book starts with known facts, familiar characters, setting, subsidiary characters.

Of course there are disadvantages to writing a series: The biggest one is that you are stuck with your sleuth. Make sure you like him and find him interesting at the beginning. Agatha Christie came to loathe Hercule Poirot. You’re stuck with the environment. If you aren’t really fascinated with llama breeding, don’t make your sleuth a llama breeder. You’ll get mail from llama fanciers every day . You’l l be expected to go to llama shows and knit llama sweaters.

Certain crimes will never happen in your environment.

You are not free to try new approaches—alternating points of view, darker approach etc. Make sure you start off with the kind of book you want. If you start with a cozy series you can’t go dark in the middle, as I have found out. Your readers expect a certain type of book and will be angry if you change. My first Evan was deemed a cozy series. As I’ve come to know Evan better the books have become darker and meatier but they are still designated as cozy. There are some places I could never go with the stories. Likewise the readers of my Royal Spyness series expect to laugh and be entertained. They would be shocked by anything too dark happening.

And the last disadvantage: if the series becomes popular, you’ll be expected to go on writing it forever, which takes from you the chance to try something new. Or, as in my case, you want to try a new idea and find yourself juggling several books a year.It’s hard. A writer should be free to write whatever wonderful ideas come into her head, but writing these days is a business. I expect it always was. I expect Mr. Dickens’s publisher said to him, “Charlie, I told you, no regency romances.”

Friday, July 1, 2016

Julie Garwood Revisted

     Julie Garwood is the author of more than three dozen historical and romantic suspense novels, and 40 million copies of her books are in print. At least twenty  of them have appeared on the New York Times Bestsellers list. She also writes YA novels as Emily Chase. 
   Julie, tell us about The Ideal Man.
   It's a story of  a young woman who is facing two threats.  The first one has been with her from her childhood, and the second one comes from an incident that she is thrown into by coincidental circumstance. 
    Despite the fear she's faced since she was young, she's managed to become a dedicated surgeon. She's successful and self assured; yet, there's always that vulnerability inside. She's never really allowed herself to let go . . . until the second threat appears. She accidentally becomes a witness to a crime, and the FBI agent on the case not only helps her resolve her fears but also opens her up to emotions she's never felt before.
   How did growing up in a large Irish family lend itself to storytelling?
  The Irish are by nature great storytellers I think. It seems to come with the genes. They bring out all the nuances of a situation, and I loved sitting around the dinner  table listening to my family talk. Also, growing up in a family of seven children taught me that self-expression had to be quick and forceful.

   Why did you begin your novel writing with YA books and historicals?

   I had young children when I began, so I was drawn to that genre, but I was also interested in historical novels. I had taken a medieval history class in college that I absolutely loved, so I was following that passion as well. My first book, A Girl Named Summer, was published by Scholastic, and shortly after that, Gentle Warrior was published by Pocket Books. The historical novels found a growing audience, and the publishers asked for more of them, so that's that direction my writing has taken.

    While I really enjoy writing the  adult books, I'm hoping to find the time to write a few more for young  readers someday.

    How have your books evolved over the years?

    I haven't changed my themes much. I still write about family and loyalty, and I try to insert some humor into my stories. There's always an element of intrigue or suspense and the romance between the hero and heroine is absolutely key. The setting has changed somewhat. I started with historical novels and I've moved into contemporary settings in the last few years. I enjoy each of them, so my goal is to find the time to write both.

   What's your writing schedule like?

   I like to begin writing early in the morning. It's a routine I started when my children were young. I'd get up early and work on my book before they were awake. I usually have the TV on, though I'm not watching it. It's just background noise. This is a habit that developed when I was a child doing my homework around a table with my siblings. In order to concentrate, I learned to block out the distractions.

    Do you outline your novels and do you aim for a certain amount of words each day?

    I know where the story is headed, but I don't follow a rigid outline. I find that if I let the story evolve, there will always be some surprises along the way that make it more fun. I can't predict how much I'll produce. There are times when the words just flow and I'll write one or two chapters in a day. Then there are times when I can't seem to get a scene right and I may spend two or three days on one page.

    In your opinion, why do some books make the bestseller lists while other equally well-written books fail?

    That's a million dollar question. If I had the answer to that, I'd be a genius. I do believe, though, that there are a great many elements involved. They include some marketing, some talent, and a great deal of luck.

   Advice to fledgling novelists?

   First, stay focused and set aside some time each and every day to work on your writing. It's important that you get into a rhythm and have the discipline to finish your manuscript.

   Second, let your voice be heard in your writing. If your reader can  hear you talking to them in your words, they're more likely to listen to what you have to say.

   Third, develop a network. Writers' organizations and conferences and conferences give you opportunities to meet agents and editor, and that will help you learn more about the publishing business and perhaps give you a leg up in getting published.

    How would you occupy your time if you weren't writing?

    Family would probably take up most of my time. I have a large extended family, so there's always something going on.

   Thank you for an enjoyable visit.

   You can visit Julie Garwood's website at:
    At Facebook:
    and at Twitter: @JulieGarwood


Monday, June 27, 2016

Award-winning Author Julie Kramer

Julie Kramer moved from fellow journalist to novelist. She writes a mystery series set in the desperate world of television news—a world she knows well from her career working as a freelance news producer for NBC and CBS, as well as running the WCCO-TV I-Team in Minneapolis, where she won numerous national investigative awards. Her thrillers take readers inside inside the newsrooms and demonstrate how decisions are made  amid the chaos. 

She's won the Daphne du Maurier Award for Mainstream Mystery/Suspense, Minnesota Book Award and the RT Book Review's Best First Mystery. She's also been a finalist for the Anthony, Barry, Shamus, Mary Higgins Clark, and RT Best Amateur Sleuth Awards.

Julie, tell us about Shunning Sarah.

Shunning Sarah pits two very different cultures against each other:  TV news vs. the Amish. I grew up on a family farm in rural Minnesota near some Amish and later spent a career in television news. Writing this book allowed me to incorporate both experiences and live my research. It is a very topical story dealing with real life issues amid the closed society of the Amish - including hair cutting by a rogue Amish sect.

Here’s the story basics:  A sketch of a homicide victim’s face is broadcast on the news, but when she is identified as Sarah Yoder, a local Amish woman, the police have difficulty investigating because her family believes in forgiveness rather than prosecution. Because of the biblical ban on graven imagines, they also object to her picture being used by the media. But when a TV reporter finds a clue the cops miss, she uncovers a dark web of fraud and deception - driven by motives as old as the Bible: sex and money.

How does this latest novel differ from the others in the series?

While each of my thrillers features the same protagonist - investigative TV reporter Riley Spartz - they are all self-contained, so new readers don’t have to start with my debut to make sense of the others. But each book delves into very different murders and news stories, so fans won’t feel they’ve read this before.  Besides incorporating Amish elements, SHUNNING SARAH also looks at how television newsrooms are changing - and not always for the better.

Why did you decide to use two word titles with the same letters for all your novels? 

While writing my debut, Stalking Susan was my working title. My editor loved it and didn’t want to hear any others. For my second book, my working title was Never Worn - after a wedding dress want ad. I thought it sounded mysterious and poignant. My editor thought it sounded dull and boring. In a smart-alecky moment, I asked, “So what do you want to call it?  MISSING MARK?” She said, yeah...and didn’t want to hear any other titles. That’s how my books became branded. The verb is actually more important than the name. Once I’ve locked in on the verb I figure out a title character name. For instance, I wanted to use “shunning” and I needed an Amish name, so I picked “Sarah.”

How did your protagonist  Riley Spartz come about? You gave your TV reporter an unusual name. How did it originate?

Her name didn’t seem unusual at the time. Spartz was my mother’s maiden name and I used it as a salute to her. I’ve always liked the name Riley, and had wanted to use it for one of my kids. But my husband didn’t. So they are named Alex and Andrew. But when the time came to name my heroine, I didn’t hesitate.  Neither my agent nor my editor ever suggested changing her name.

 Which character traits do you share with Riley Spartz?

I spent a career in television news, I like to think my protagonist and I are both smart, savvy and relish scooping the competition. But she is more ratings driven than I was....partly because it’s now become more of a necessity in TV news. I was always a news producer so my work was behind the scenes  - in the field and in the newsroom. I decided for storytelling purposes, my heroine needed the added pressure of being on camera.

You’ve had some great reviews. Which do you cherish most?

I’ve gotten fabulous national reviews from People Magazine, USA Today, and the Associated Press, but I cherish any positive review and especially enjoy hearing from readers.

Advice for fledgling novelists?

Don’t worry on page one whether or not your concept is believable or not. It’s your job as a writer to make it believable. That’s a better question to ask a hundred pages into your manuscript, otherwise you might talk yourself out of a cool premise. Remember truth is stranger than fiction. Sometimes a reader will ask me, “That couldn’t really happen, right?” I reply that nothing in my books is as crazy as what they’ll see on the news tonight. 

What’s the biggest difference between writing fiction and writing news?

In fiction, books always have resolution. In real life news events, that doesn’t always happen.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Choosing Characters for Choosing One Moment – A Time Travel Mystery

by Marja McGraw

Jean asked me what inspired the personalities in the book, and this is the short version.

One of my favorite authors, Dorothy Bodoin, and I discussed that we’d both like to try our skills on a time travel book. Further inspired by two songs, Time in a Bottle by Jim Croce, and That Sunday, That Summer as sung by Natalie Cole, I took a step out in faith. I could do this, or at least I’d try my best to write a time travel story.

I thought about people I know and how they might react to life if they lived in another time period; specifically, 1909. Honestly, I have no idea what led me to choose that year. I remembered older people I’ve known throughout my life. They loved to share stories about growing up in an earlier era. Somehow it all came together.

The main character in Choosing One Moment is Carrie McFerrin. I had to give her a lot of thought and determined she must be a mystery writer whose skills someone wanted to put to use. There had to be a purpose for her time travel. Is she based on me? Not at all. Well, she is a bit clumsy, and that’s a trait we share.

She traveled to 1909 as the request of her great-aunt Genny, who’d traveled before her. I might add that Carrie didn’t travel willingly. Genny reminds me a bit of my own aunt.

My husband inspired more than one character because of the many sides to his personality (the good guys). Inspired is the key word. The world needs good men, and he was one of them.

The book includes an aged woman called Mother Possum. When I was a child there was a woman in her nineties who was called Mother Possum, and I’ve never forgotten her. The name alone made her fodder for a character. And, yes, her surname was actually Possum.

I could go through character by character, but that would be too time-consuming. In my other mysteries, the people are purely fictional, for the most part. I can’t explain it, but this time travel story felt more personal. It begged for personalities that I’m familiar with and people who have played a role in my life.

Yes, the characters are fictional, but they’re inspired by the best, and the worst (don’t forget the bad guys). And remember, there’s a killer on the loose in the fictional town of Little Creek.

One last thought, and that’s that an old crank phone hangs in my guest room. It was begging to be in a story. I couldn’t resist. It’s a link to the past.

Jean also asked about research for the story. As I mentioned, I grew up hearing stories related by elderly people. Those led me to read old newspaper articles, books about the time period, research (and images) of clothing in and around 1909, and anything else I could lay my hands on. The fact that people from that time period didn’t have the amenities we have today played a large part, too. Can you imagine what they might think if they saw today’s appliances, cell phones, cars or jetliners? What about a microwave oven or a dishwasher? A man on the moon? They’d probably laugh at at that idea.

Ah, the differences are too many to think about. If we traveled in time, imagine what it would be like to suddenly have things that we take for granted disappear from our lives.

Thank you, Jean, for allowing me to give a little background on Choosing One Moment – A Time Travel Mystery. It was an experience I enjoyed, and I think readers will, too.

About the story:

Mystery writer Carrie McFerrin has inherited an old family house and all of its contents from her Great Aunt Genny.

While taking inventory of the attic contents, she comes across an old wooden crank telephone. Thinking the old phone would look perfect in her vintage kitchen, she hangs it on the wall by the back door, and an old, yellowed piece of paper asking for help falls to the floor.

The impossible happens when the disconnected old phone rings – three rings, a pause, and three more rings.

Carrie picks up the receiver, wondering what’s going on, and her life suddenly changes – forever.

Nothing will ever be the same.

Author Bio:

My friend Marja McGraw was born and raised in Southern California. She worked in both civil and criminal law, state transportation, and a city building department.  She has lived and worked in California, Nevada, Oregon, Alaska and Arizona.

She wrote a weekly column for a small town newspaper in Northern Nevada, and conducted a Writers’ Support Group in Northern Arizona. A past member of Sisters in Crime (SinC), she was also the Editor for the SinC-Internet Newsletter for a year and a half.

Marja writes two mystery series: The Sandi Webster Mysteries and The Bogey Man Mysteries, which are light reading with a touch of humor. She also occasionally writes stories that aren’t part of a series.

Marja says that each of her mysteries contains a little humor, a little romance and A Little Murder!

She now lives in Washington, where life is good.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Jeffrey Deaver Revisited

International bestselling novelist Jeffrey Deaver has had a varied background as a journalist, folk singer and lawyer. His first novel, Manhattan is My Beat, was published in 1988 and his books have appeared on bestseller lists around the world, including The New York Times and The Times of London. His books have sold in 150 countries and translated into 25 languages.

Jeff, have your past careers served you well as a novelist?

My other careers have always been ways to allow me to make a living while I went after my goal of becoming a full-time novelist. I began publishing various stories and poems in my teens and finally published my first novel in my thirties. Journalism taught me to research, and law, curiously, was helpful in organizing my books—I outline fanatically.

When and where did your writing begin and did your early environment influence your work?

I began writing when I was about 11. I wrote my first novel then (really a short story, though I called it a novel). I was a nerd when I was young and thus I was drawn to reading and writing. My parents were both creative and encouraged me. I was reading mainstream novels, thrillers and fantasy mostly, at a very young age.

How did Kathryn Dance come into being and why did you decide to write about a female California Bureau of Investigation agent and body language expert?

I realized that I had many ideas for what I thought would be compelling thrillers, but they weren't appropriate for my evidence-driven forensics novels (my Lincoln Rhyme series). So I decided to create a character who was the opposite of Lincoln: A woman, with children, who lives in California. She would have little interest in the science of crime solving, but rather focus on the human factor—body language, linguistics, interrogation and interviewing. The psychology of crime. I've been very pleased at how popular she's become. Even readers who love Lincoln Rhyme appreciate Kathryn's skills. After all, they are friends.

You’ve won or been nominated in a number of countries for too many writing awards to list here. Which one means the most to you and do awards translate into bigger sales?

I think I'm most pleased that my stand-alone, The Bodies Left Behind, was named the novel of the year by the prestigious International Thriller Writers organization. It was a book that I spent a great amount of time on and was challenging to write—it contains one of the best twists I've been able to work into my fiction. As far as sales go, certainly awards get readers' attention, but in the end it's a book quality that dictates high or low sales.

Which of your mystery thrillers required the most research and do you have CBI agents at the ready to call when you need information?

Garden of Beasts took the most research. It's set in Berlin in 1936, and I wanted the details and atmosphere to be 100% accurate. Apparently it was, since a fan who escaped Germany in the late '30s reported to me that it was the most accurate—and moving--novel about that time that he'd ever read. Regarding research, I tend not to use living, breathing sources much. I prefer book and internet research, since when you talk to practitioners, you tend to skew the story to tell theirs; I want to make sure to tell my story.

Your Roadside Crosses novel, third in your high tech trilogy, features a teenage boy bent on revenge for real or imagined abuse, and is chilling. Did your antagonist evolve from Columbine and the University of Virginia killings? And why the crosses along the highway foretelling his planned murders?

I was actually inspired to write Roadside Crosses by another tragic incident: the teenage girl in St. Louis who was "befriended" by the mother of her former friend, posing as a boyfriend. He then told her that the world would be better off without her—and she killed herself. I wanted to write about the responsibility of bloggers and the social networking phenomenon.

Were you pleased or disappointed in the screen adaptations of HBO’s A Maiden’s Grave starring James Gardner and/or Universal Studios’ adaptation of The Bone Collector starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie? Did you take part in any way in the filming?

My theory about movies is that I respect the process of filmmaking very much, but I don't want to have anything to do with it. My skill—and pleasure—is in writing thrillers, not scripts. I don't have a lot of patience for authors who complain about Hollywood's treatment of their books. How many of them have sent the check's back in protest? None that I know of.

What was it like to play a corrupt lawyer on your favorite soap opera, “As the World Turns?”

Exhausting! I've never worked so hard in my life. I have great respect for actors too, as I do for scriptwriters and directors, as I mentioned above. But, despite the fact I love to experience new things, I'll probably hang up my acting hat for the time being.

What’s your writing environment like and your schedule? 

I work eight to ten hours a day, six days a week. I do at least one book a year, and so I work even when I'm on book tour (which generally amounts to about three months every year). I outline. I spend eight months outlining each book. And the outlines end up being about 150-200 pages. Thrillers of the sort I write must be structured. It's a waste of time to start writing and hope for inspiration along the way. Pilots and surgeons don't wait for inspiration. Why should authors?

Advice to fledgling mystery/thriller writers?

Write the sort of book you enjoy reading. Outline the books of your favorite authors (the successful ones only!) and study how they create their fiction. Write your own outline. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite and rewrite. Ignore rejection. Keep writing; never stop!

Jeff's website is

Saturday, June 4, 2016

A visit with Axel Brand (aka Richard S. Wheeler)

Award-winning novelist Richard Wheeler has published more than 70 books, among them westerns, historicals, biographies and nonfiction. But few know that he's also Axel Brand, mystery writer. He kept his identity secret from critics since his debut mystery, Hotel Dick, hit the bookstores. That is until now. Next in his series is The Dead Genius.

Richard, why, after publishing 70 books of various genres, did you decide to write a mystery series?

 I love mysteries. These would be a change of pace for me. I'm always looking for new worlds to conquer.

Your pseudonym, Axel Brand, sounds more like a Western author. How did you come up with it?

It's at the top of the alphabet. That means the books will probably be shelved at eye level in any alpha-organized collection, which means they are more likely to be seen and read.

Why did you set your series in the 1940s as opposed to the present time?

There are few mysteries set in that period. Also, it allowed me to employ gumshoe detection without dealing with modern forensic sciences. The series is set in 1940s Milwaukee, where I grew up, a big industrial city I remember well, and one little resembling cities now. In my stories the cops sometimes catch streetcars to get where they're going.

How difficult was it to make the switch to the mystery genre? And did you read a lot of mystery novels before you began writing them?

It wasn't difficult at all. I had to begin with an apparent crime, and let my hero work on it. I've read mysteries much of my life, and have no idea how many. The thing is, mysteries are stories like other fiction, so one starts by spinning a story.

Briefly tell us about your protagonist, Lieutenant Joe Sonntag, and your debut novel, The Hotel Dick.

Well, I loved Jack Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday when I was growing up, so I wanted a low-key detective who used shoe-leather to get down to the facts. I proposed calling my guy Joe Sunday, and the publishers axed that idea, but they bought Joe Sonntag, which amused everyone, and fit Milwaukee perfectly.

What kind of predicament did you get Sonntag into in your forthcoming novel, due to be released in July?

The novel is called The Dead Genius, and the dilemma is whether there was a crime at all. The victim seems to have died a natural death, but Sonntag's superior, Captain Ackerman, has a hunch it was not natural, and sends Sonntag out on a fruitless, dumb investigation that consumes a lot of the resources of the police. Sonntag, meanwhile, is annoyed to be on a case based only on a lousy hunch.

You mention a number of former Hollywood stars in your debut mystery novel. Was that the result of your years in Hollywood as an aspiring actor and screenwriter?

Not really. One of the things that intrigued me about the forties was the look-alike contests that were popular then. People who looked like Shirley Temple or Alan Ladd or Dorothy Lamour could compete, and win prizes for looking the most like the star. Sometimes they would get a trip to Hollywood and a studio tour as the prize, and get a signed picture of the person they resembled. All that, transplanted to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was intriguing, and I built on it. The victim, the hotel detective J. Adam Bark, was involved in the look-alike contests.

Which of your varied genres do you enjoy researching and writing most?

I probably enjoy my biographical novels the most. These require that I remain true to history and true to the character I am depicting, so there is much more challenge to them, and it is also easier to slip up. And because lives are not continuously dramatic, it is harder to place real people in a story. But the mysteries are giving me new challenges. I have to decide on a crime, and work toward its solution, which is entertaining.

Advice to aspiring writers?

Give the stories meaning and make what happens consequential. I keep reading stories in which everything that happens is meaningless and has no impact, which makes a weak story. If it's a murder mystery, remember that death is consequential. People grieve. Families are upset. There are consequences in law, and upon society. I come across murder mysteries where no one cares, there are no funerals, it doesn't seem to matter, all of which undermine the story.

Which mystery writer's work most influenced your own?

Actually, none. There are many mystery writers I enjoy, including Tony Hillerman, Elmore Leonard, Craig Johnson, and Margaret Coel, but these didn't apply to 1940s. Milwaukee and the sort of cop story I had in mind, so I had to feel my way along on my own.

Thanks, Richard.

Thank you for including me in your thoughtful interviews.

You can visit Richard at his blog site:

A Visit with Ann Charles

Ann Charles is a technical software writer-editor by day and award-winning mystery novelist by night. Her books are filled with mayhem, fun, romance and humor. When not writing fiction she's busy working on articles about the craft of writing at  her blog site.

Ann, tell us about Dance of the Winnebagos that you wrote with C.S. Kunkle.

I’m actually the sole author of all of my fiction books. C.S. Kunkle is my illustrator (and my older brother). Dance of the Winnebagos is the story of Claire Morgan … When Claire's grandfather and his Army buddies converge in the Arizona desert to find new wives, it's her thankless job to keep them out of trouble with the opposite sex. But when she finds a human leg bone and partners with a reluctant geotechnician to dig up secrets from the past, trouble finds her. If she doesn't stop digging, she could end up dead. 
How did your Jackrabbit Mystery series come about?

Once upon a time, I was playing hangman at work with one of my coworkers. It was her turn to come up with a word, and she added a lot of spaces on the white board. After I landed two consonants and a vowel, the board looked like this:

T _ E    _ _ _ N _    _ _    T _ E    _ _ _ _ E _ _ _ _ _ E _

I was feeling pretty ambitious that day. I took one look at this puzzle and yelled, “The Dance of the Winnebagos!” (I know, the letters don’t match up—I’ve never done well in spelling bees.)
My coworker laughed and hung my poor stick man—the actual answer was The Hound of the Baskervilles. She then wondered what in the heck The Dance of the Winnebagos was.
I said, “I don’t know, but it would make a great book title, don’t you think?”

This game of hangman kick-started my brain. A weekend of plot storming with my critique group fleshed out the story even more. Before I knew it, I had a fun cast, an intriguing mystery, and a book that practically wrote itself. This book landed me my agent, who asked me when I’d have book 2 in the series finished. I hadn’t planned on a second book, but saw where I could tweak the story just a little and make it into a fun series, so I did. And that was all she wrote—well, not really, since I am still writing this series.
How has the ebook revolution affected your book sales?

I’ve sold over 17,000 ebooks this year, my first year of publication. In comparison, I’ve sold around 1,000 printed books. The ebook revolution has served me well, and I personally love reading ebooks on my e-reader. As the co-owner of Corvallis Press, I can also say that ebooks are much easier to publish, sell, and track.
Do you have a day job and what’s your writing schedule like? Also, do you outline?

I am a technical writer by day and a fiction writer by night. Both are full-time jobs and keep me hopping—but not as much as my two young kids. My schedule is crazy, and I carve out moments to write and promote whenever I can, which is mostly at night after my family goes to bed because I am soooo not a morning person.
I am more of a right-brained, write-by-the-seat-of-my-pants author (aka a “pantser”), so my outline is very high level. I rarely stick to it. I like to write a scene and learn what comes next as it fills the pages. It makes the story more fun to build and share.

What are the best and worst parts of writing for you?

Let’s start with the bad stuff. The worst part is just the constant struggle to find time to write, not to mention do all of the promotion and marketing needed to find new readers. It’s not a marathon—it’s more like a triathlon. Some days, I just want to hide under the covers.

As for the best part, it’s the peers, the friends, and the fans. I love meeting new people (even if it’s just online) and building new relationships.

Advice to fledgling mystery writers?

Treat everything as an experiment, which allows you to use failure as a learning device. Be patient and persevere. Remember, this is not a get-rich-quick business. The writing is just a piece of the whole endeavor—an important piece, mind you, but you will need to learn about all aspects of the business like any other entrepreneur.   

Who most influenced your own work?

The list is long, but to name a few of the authors: Stephen King, Rachel Gibson, Dean Koontz, Janet Evanovich, and Jane Austen. I also am greatly influenced by movies, which I use to learn more about elements like dialogue and pacing. 
In the event of a fire, which three inanimate objects would you save?

My husband has trained me to grab the hard drive that has all of our family pictures on it, so that’s the first thing. Next, I’d probably save the printed photos of old. Third, I’d take my laptop to save me a big headache later. 
Thanks, Ann.

You can learn more about Ann at her website:
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Saturday, May 14, 2016

A Conversation With James Scott Bell

Bestselling suspense author James Scott Bell has served as a trial lawyer and fiction columnist for Writers Digest Books as well as an adjunct professor of writing at Pepperdine University. His books on the craft of writing are among the most popular today.

James, your varied and successful career has included actor, lecturer, television and radio commentator. What brought you the most satisfaction and why?

Wow, that's quite a list. I hadn't thought about all that in a while. I can tell you I've been very blessed to be able to do a number of things I really enjoyed.

I loved going to court. All the workup before trial, and the 24/7 aspect of thinking about it, is stressful. But standing in front of a jury and arguing a case, cross-examining witnesses, all that was supremely enjoyable.

I loved acting. If it were a more secure profession, I'd probably still be living in New York doing Shakespeare and O'Neill and David Mamet.

But I love writing, too, and being able to make my living at it is tremendously satisfying. My office is wherever I can lug my computer or my AlphaSmart, and my subjects are whatever my imagination can conjure up.

Your Writers Digest craft books have been bestsellers. What’s the best advice you can offer aspiring writers in today’s market?

The best advice for today's market is the same advice I gave yesterday and would have given 100 years ago: produce the words. Set a weekly quota, one that is comfortable, and up it by 10%. Then go for it. You still have to show that you can write solid fiction book after book, no matter how it gets to market. And the way you show that is to actually produce.

Yes, study the market, but don't become a slave to it. Trends come and go. Write material that moves you and it will have a chance to move the reader.

 How did you manage to be mentored by Lawrence Block?

When I called him my first mentor, I meant by way of his columns in Writer's Digest. What made those so great is that he knows how a writer thinks. He got into my head and showed me what to do. And he did that for countless other writers.

When I started doing that column myself, I felt like Joshua taking over for Moses. I did finally get to meet and chat with Larry at a convention, and via email, and it felt good to talk as a colleague. But I still reverence those years he was teaching me so much.

Briefly tell us about atch Your Back and Writing Fiction For
All Your Worth? Are they still available in print or only on Kindle and Nook?

I released these two as e-books only. I wanted to supplement both my thriller print fiction and my writing books for Writer's Digest. I discussed this with my agent and the publisher beforehand. I see these as volumes to make new readers. And that's what publishers and agents keep telling writers to do. Build a platform. This is one way to build it.

Watch Your Back is suspense fiction, the title novella and three stories. I love the old pulp days when writers like Chandler and Cornell Woolrich were producing great short fiction. But the pulp market died. Now, with e-books, it's back, and I want to be part of that.

Writing Fiction for All You're Worth is a collection of my best blog posts, articles, interviews and reflections on writing. It covers the writing world today, the writing life, and the writing craft. I've also included a section of my "secret" writing notebook. No one but me has ever seen that material, until now.

How do you feel about the ebook revolution?

Of course it's here and it is a revolution. But will it turn out to be the United States in 1776 or France in 1789? Will it be order or chaos? Will it shake out into anarchy or some form of cooperation between traditional publishing and e-publishing? No one knows!

But it is definitely a heady time and even the professionals—authors, agents, publishers—are wondering how to act and react.

I'm a writer. I write. I write for readers. The readers are out there with e-devices. Why should I not give them material when I've got so much of it?

Suspense/thriller novels and Christian books seem almost polar opposites. How and when did you decide to write in the Christian market?

I began in the Inspirational Fiction market because I liked writing about people struggling with faith issues in a dark world. In a way, that's what great thrillers are about. It may not be religious faith, but it's faith in something—in the quest for justice, say—that makes a thriller worth reading on the character level.

So there is no inherent opposition in the thriller/Christian fiction genres. It's true the latter market is dominated by "softer" titles, such as Amish fiction. I have chosen to jump into the mainstream with my Try series and Watch Your Back. But no matter where you are, you still have produce page turning fiction.

Why do you set your novels in the Los Angeles area exclusively?

I just can't get away from it. It's my home, I love it, I know it and it's the greatest noir city in the world. There is a plot around every corner, a great character on every street. You can drive a mile and be in a completely different neighborhood. And I think there's something cool about being one of the bards of L.A. I love Cain and Chandler and Connelly and Crais and those guys. I like being part of that tradition.

What’s the worst thing that ever happened to you while researching a novel?

Oh, nothing major. I never got thrown in the clink or anything. I did have some uncomfortable moments when I was researching Skid Row for Try Darkness. There's nothing like walking around in a location, but this one is rather sketchy, to say the least. Having learned how to walk fast and with attitude when I lived in New York, I did fine.

Does an aspiring writer really need an agent, and are agents becoming the dinosaurs of the publishing industry?

A great agent is such an asset. And indispensable for getting published the traditional way. I have the best agent in the world, Donald Maass, and I am also friends with some terrific agents. I know it's a tough deal right now. If an aspiring writer gets with a good agent, that's fantastic. I know the search can be long and difficult. But the discipline of trying to write material good enough for an agent to take on is not wasted should the author eventually try another route.His blog site:

Twitter: Twitter/jamesscottbell and Facebook fan page:

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Using TV Techniques to Write a Killer Mystery

by Hank Phillipi Ryan, bestselling novelist and  award-winning journalist 

Here's what you need to produce a successful television story. Develop memorable characters. Build suspense. Show conflict. Tell a compelling story. Find justice. Change lives.

Here's what you need to become a successful television journalist. Never miss your deadline. Be fair. Get people to tell you things they wouldn't tell anyone else. Understand how the world works.Work with an editor. Create a brilliant and flawless product every time. Be completely devoted to your job.

As I began to write my first novel, I realized the number of parallels between writing for television and writing a mystery novel. Your primary focus is telling a great story, right? With compelling characters. And centering around an important problem. You dig for leads, track down documents, conduct intensive research, and see where the clues take you. You want the good guys to win, and bad guys to get what's coming to them. You want a satisfying and fair ending, and you want some justice. And if you're lucky, you get to change the world. 

Here's a new way of looking at your work as a journalist. And it doesn't matter if you've never written a news story in your life. 

You won't use every news story every day. Some you won't realize you need, until you do. On those days, there are journalism-based questions you can ask yourself to prod your brain into story telling--kind of a who-what-when-where-why and why-not that just might get you out of that pre-deadline panic.

Why do I Care?

If you're in a scene that seems to be flabby, or boring, or simply not compelling, there may be there's no reason to write it. Se your intention before you write the scene. What's the point of these next 200 words? Why do we care about these next 200 words? Why do we care about what's going to happen next? Figure that out. It may be that you're writing a scene that you don't need. You may be writing a scene that needs to move faster, or go a different direction, or wind up in a different place. 

Am I in the Right Place?

Not only the right place geographically, but the right place in time or space. If you've got two guys sitting around talking, or someone looking up a name on a computer, or talking on the phone, or if it's the fourth scene in a row that's taking place in an office--hmmm. Television is all about good video. Can you place your characters somewhere more cinematic? What would happen to your characters when you do?

Who said that?

Maybe you've got the wrong person talking, or using the wrong point of view. Placing the same scene in the point of view of a different person changes the perspective and as a result, shows you motivation in a different way. What's at stake in your scene? Who has the most to lose? Sometimes even thinking about a scene through a different character's eyes can open your own to different ideas.

What's the goal?

Are you at the beginning of the book where you need a big compelling hook? In the middle of the book where you need to twist and turn and keep the readers turning the pages? Or near the end, when you need to ratchet up the suspense and come up with the big finish or happy ever-after ending? Make sure you're clear on your goal. Think about what you should write to accomplish that.

(You can read more of Hank Phillipi Ryan's article as well as her  interview in The Mystery Writers.)

You can also learn more at her website: