Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Visit with Patricia Stoltey

Patricia Stoltey is great example of an older writer with a sense of adventure and no fear of computers. Her favorite pastime is reading anything from light YA novels to dark thrillers. Well traveled, the Colorado novelist writes her murder mysteries about familar places.

Patricia, you have interesting titles for your books. How did you come up with them and in which areas are they located?

I thought hard about that first title, because I wanted a format and rhythm that would work for future books. My goal, if the characters succeeded as a series, was to tie each plot to a different part of the country and use that reference in the title. The first part of The Prairie Grass Murders is set in central Illinois, and the plot revolves around land use disputes. The debate about setting aside good farmland as prairie grass preserves is an element in the dispute.

The Desert Hedge Murders is set in Laughlin, Nevada, and Oatman, Arizona, so that’s the desert part of the title. In this case, a hedge fund scam is the crime that triggers the murders. Is that too sneaky?

If I decide to write more books in this series, I’m thinking of titles like The Banyon Tree Murders (set in South Florida) or The Cache la Poudre Murders (set in Colorado), etc.

Tell us about your latest mystery and your series protagonists.

There are two 60ish main protagonists in this series, retired circuit court judge Sylvia Thorn and her brother Willie Grisseljon, a Vietnam veteran. They dominated the first book in the series, but in The Desert Hedge Murders, they’re upstaged by their parents and Mom’s travel club, The Florida Flippers.

Sylvia agrees to escort the group on a long weekend trip to Laughlin for gambling and sightseeing. When they check into the hotel in Laughlin and find a body in the bathtub of one of the rooms, the stage is set for serious senior sleuthing.

How did you come up with the Florida Flippers, your madcap senior travel  group? 

The idea for Mom’s travel club came after I’d selected the Laughlin/Oatman location for the second novel. I was thinking of reasons why Sylvia and Willie would go there, and escorting the senior group seemed like a great idea. As I wrote each one of the characters, I imagined them as older versions of my three cousins and my sister-in-law. That helped me keep the characters from looking and acting too much alike.

One of my blogger friends described the book as “Golden Girls meet Murder She Wrote.” I think that’s a great logline.

When did you begin writing and when was your first novel published?

In my 20s, I wrote bad poetry and bad short stories, attended conferences and writing classes over the years, and knew I wanted to try a book someday. Working full time and raising kids interfered, until the mid-80s when I had a two year break (in France). I focused on the action/adventure novel my brother and I wanted to write about his experiences in the transportation industry in the 70s. We finally got that manuscript published in 1999, but only as an audio book. I also wrote the first draft of a romantic suspense novel during that break, but it still sits on the shelf, unloved and unpublished. I finally made it into print in 2007 with The Prairie Grass Murders.

You’ve lived in France as well as various areas in this country. What prompted the long distance moves?

 A spirit of adventure, the desire to reinvent myself after major life changes including the death of a spouse, a longing to experience more before I get too old to travel—I think all those things played a part.

In 1998, just before my husband and I retired and moved from Florida to Colorado, I took a solo jaunt to Norway to check out my maternal grandfather’s birthplace and meet the Norwegian cousins. That was also an amazing experience.

What’s your writing schedule like? Do you outline your books or just have a vague idea of what’s going to happen when you sit down at the computer?

I’m a binge writer. I spend weeks and months thinking about a story while I’m working on other projects, pulling weeds, writing blog posts, etc. When I sit down to write, I write long and hard, for days at a time. I may have a few notes regarding timeline or plot twists, but I don’t outline until I’m several chapters into the story. Then I usually put together a chapter synopsis to keep the plot straight.

Do you have an agent? 

I do not have an agent, and I didn’t spend much time looking for one. I found Five Star/Gage through a conference workshop moderated by an editor from Tekno Books, the group that acquires books for this publisher.

I plan to search for an agent again as I finish up the two projects I have in the works. Neither one is well-suited to Five Star’s mystery line, but if I write another Sylvia and Willie novel, I’ll submit to Five Star without hesitation.

What's your current project?

I’m fine-tuning a novel set in frontier Illinois, circa 1830. I think of it not as a “Who done it?” but as a “Who’s gonna do it?” although it will probably be classified as women’s fiction. The title is Wishing Caswell Dead. I’ve also completed the first draft of a contemporary suspense novel, tentatively called Dead Wrong.

Advice to fledgling mystery writers.

Attend mystery conventions as a fan while you learn the craft so you can meet published authors and network, network, network. Establish an online presence and learn about blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media long before you publish. Buy a copy of Chris Roerden’s Don’t Murder Your Mystery and read it very carefully. Try your best to find a traditional publisher approved by Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. If you end up self-publishing or going with a small publisher that has no in-house editor, hire a topnotch editor to help you fine-tune your manuscript.

Thanks, Patricia.

Patricia's website: http://www.patriciastoltey.com/.

Her blog site: http://patriciastoltey.blogspot.com/.
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Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Visit with Bill Kirton


Bill Kirton began his career as an English actor, playwright and broadcast script writer. He now balances his police procedural novels with promotional work for North Sea oil companies at his home in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Bill,  Tell us about your latest book.

 My efforts recently have been going into writing three books for students in a series of ‘Brilliant’ books published by Pearson. They’re called Brilliant Study Skills, Brilliant Essays and Brilliant Dissertations. The titles (I hope) are self-explanatory. But the latest novel to appear was The Figurehead. It’s a historical crime novel set in Aberdeen in 1840. It came about because a friend said to me one day ‘You should write a book about a figurehead carver. I had no idea why he said that but, since my PhD was on the theatre of Victor Hugo and I love the whole revolutionary period of the 1830s and 1840s, I did some research and found I loved it. Readers of crime are very sophisticated and know all about DNA and other arcane forensic processes, so it’s good to set a crime novel at a time before we enjoyed such refinements.

My research involved lots of reading of contemporary newspapers and so on, but also I wanted to know how it felt to carve a figurehead so I joined a woodcarving class and that became a hobby of mine. I also signed on as part of the crew of the beautiful Norwegian square rigger Christian Radich and sailed from Oslo to Leith for the Tall Ships Festival. That was a very special experience.

The book itself proved to be interesting in terms of the characters. My carver, John Grant, is the amateur detective, driven by sheer curiosity really. But in the course of the story, Helen, the daughter of his patron, shoved herself to the fore and became at least as important as John. I suppose it helped that there was obviously some chemistry between them. But now, as I begin researching the sequel, I’m finding that Helen will probably become the central character and John may have to be satisfied with being her helper.

When did you know you were a writer? Did you receive any encouragement along the way?

I think there’s a difference between when I knew I was a writer and when I heard other people say I was. I knew it from very early days–probably when I was around 11 years old, because I used to enjoy writing things–mainly funny stories but also playlets (awful, awful things–I found one a few years back and while I suppose it was OK for someone of that age, it definitely didn’t show any early promise).

As for encouragement, I don’t remember that with specific reference to writing, but Dad was a great reader and my brothers, sisters and I were all encouraged to do all sorts of things. But I was in my mid-twenties when I was invited to the newly opened Northcott Theatre in Exeter because a BBC producer, on the strength of some scripts I’d sent him, had told the director, the late Tony Church, that I was a playwright. Tony showed me round the place and we met one of his production team. Tony introduced me with the words ‘This is Bill Kirton. He’s a writer.’ I’d never heard it said before and I haven’t forgotten the pleasure it gave me.

When did you sell your first piece and to whom?

I wrote parodies of poetry for the school magazine and a couple of articles for the university newspaper but I think the first piece I got paid for was a radio play ‘An Old Man and Some People’ which was broadcast on Radio 3 and Radio 4 by the BBC in 1971, so I was 32. I’ve had several more broadcast since but, strangely, I think that was probably my best one.

Do you write full-time or do you have a "day job?"

I write full-time because writing is also my day-job. I used to be a lecturer in the French department of Aberdeen University, but I also did some TV and radio work. This led to me writing scripts for safety programmes and documentaries and then on into brochures, promotional and educational material and more or less all types of commercial documents and programmes. I live in Aberdeen, remember, so the oil industry always needed scripts and press releases. I was getting so much of that to do that I eventually took early retirement to concentrate on my writing.

This balancing of writing fiction and hard commercial fact is interesting. I’m always aware that the commercial work is what earns the money but I’m always happier when I’m writing what I call my own stuff. The commercial material has its own rewards. Most companies want to say the same things about themselves (i.e. how brilliant, safe and environmentally responsible they are), so there’s a challenge in finding new ways of saying it.

The worst part of it is when the management of a company (and this has happened with the biggest oil majors as well as smaller outfits), can’t be bothered to give a specific briefing about what they want and instead, hand you a bunch of technical manuals or their last dozen brochures and say ‘It’s all in there’. This means I’m not only a writer, I have to second-guess which parts of the manual or brochures is still relevant, needs to be stressed, etc. It takes ages, costs them more money because of the extra time I have to spend on it, and almost always needs rewriting because they realise that they’d forgotten to tell me to include X or Y or something.
But still, the fact that I can sit at home and make a living that way is far preferable to most other jobs I can think of.

What attracted you to mystery writing (police procedurals) and which author most influenced your own writing?

It seems as if all my answers are indirect because I didn’t really have this mystical thing which whispered to me ‘you must write a police procedural’. It was much more prosaic than that. I’d written mainly stage and radio plays and the occasional short story and one day I read of a novel-writing competition. So I started writing a novel. And that in itself was interesting because, like most other people, I thought ‘Wow, a novel. That’s long. Quite an undertaking.’ But I soon realised the perhaps obvious truth–that you don’t ‘write a novel’, you write a few sentences, some paragraphs and, at the end of each day, the pile of pages is that much bigger.

And, if you’re enjoying it, you eventually see that it’s actually looking quite a substantial heap, so you’re determined to finish it. I did finish that one. It was a spoof crime novel and, in fact, I’m reworking it at present in the hope that a publisher might like it.

Having done that, I was ready to write another and that one (which eventually became The Darkness was triggered by a chance remark made by a waiter at a local restaurant. He had an English West Country accent. I said ‘You’re a long way from home’ and he told me he’d chosen to come as far away from his home as possible because his wife and two daughters had been killed by a drunk driver who’d spent just six months of his sentence in jail and was then released. ‘Two months for each life’, as the waiter said. It affected me very deeply and I retained it. It eventually grew into my second novel, which was a stand-alone thriller. My then agent sent it to Piatkus, an independent publisher in London, who said ‘we like it but we’re not doing thrillers at the moment. Has he got any police procedurals?’

I didn’t have but I immediately set about writing one, Material Evidence, which featured DCI Jack Carston. I actually invented a town for the setting. It’s called Cairnburgh and it’s not far from Aberdeen. My thinking was that I didn’t want to set it in Aberdeen in case I wanted to say nasty things about the police. As it happened, the year after it was published, some events in the Grampian force exceeded any fictional plots I could have imagined.

It was published in hardback, followed the next year by Rough Justice, also in hardback, and they’ve both now been published in paperback in the USA as part of the Bloody Brits series. I rewrote The Darkness to turn it into a Carston novel. It was published in December 2008, and there are two others completed and ready for final edits.


What's your writing schedule like? Would you rather write than watch a football game or other sporting event?

I work from about 8.30 am until 6 pm, with maybe fifteen minutes for lunch, and the time rarely drags. If I’m really into it, I go back for more in the evening, too.

Watching football is my relaxation from writing and, when it’s a good game, no, I’d rather watch the game. Because I’m basically lazy. But I do love writing. When I’m into a novel, I’m completely absorbed by it. I have no notion of the passage of time, or of self or surroundings or anything. It’s a great privilege to be able to lose oneself so completely in an activity.

What are the best and worst aspects of writing? And how long does a book take to finish?

The best part of writing is the loss of self in the process, the feeling of a reality (albeit fictional) unfolding as I write, the way the characters do what they want and often surprise me and the occasional feeling that a particular sentence–-even a simple, un-poetic one–-has exactly the right words and rhythms in it.

Another best part is when a reader tells me they’ve enjoyed one of my books and I know that they mean it. Often, it’s just a polite thing to say, of course, but sometimes their enthusiasm shows that they really have read it and thought about it. That’s very special.

The ‘How long’ question is hard. The idea for a book appears and disappears, then I remember it and think about how to treat it. The time all that takes is difficult to assess because it depends on so many variables. But when I’m ready to start writing, the process is fairly regular and I reckon an 80-90,000 word novel takes about six months. After that, it’ll get lots of tinkering, but the bulk of the work’s over in that time frame.

How do you feel about the current publishing market? Is it in the doldrums in the UK as well?

I know that, as a writer, I should be able to quote statistics and examples to show the state of publishing today, but I can’t. Not because I’m not interested but because I have no control over it all and I prefer to focus on my own writing and making sure it’s as good as I can make it. But I can’t help but know that publishing is in a pretty poor state. Scotland has been lucky in a way–no, not lucky, canny. Canongate, for example, in Edinburgh, published Barack Obama’s early works, and there’s a strong literary community in Scotland which is producing all sorts of interesting and powerful poetry, plays and novels.

But the market dictates to all, and it’s rather depressing to see best sellers chosen because they bear a celebrity name rather than the name of a real writer.

Are ebooks well accepted in the British Isles and do they sell well? Are there many publishers in Scotland who produce books in multi format?

I’m fascinated to know what’ll happen with e-books.You read a lot about them but I don’t think I know anyone yet who has a reader or who downloads e-serials. The arguments in favour of them are clear but equally the book as object is still doggedly admired and needed. Somehow, a book has a notion of permanence, endurance, whereas words on a screen are ephemeral, when you ‘turn the page’ they disappear. The big publishers are recognising the need to produce multi-format books, but the smaller ones either don’t have the expertise or perhaps the desire to branch out in that direction.

I also think that, for readers, the directness of the experience of reading a book in the conventional format is qualitatively different from reading from a screen. I don’t know what it is but, for example, when I edit, I often miss things on screen which I pick up when I print something out. I think for readers there’s an intimacy about ‘curling up with a good book’ that’s very special and can’t be replicated with an electronic version. I hope I’m wrong there and that the e-book will become as personal an object as a paperback, because I think e-publishing has helped to keep a decent market, especially for genre fiction.

Which American genres and authors are popular in Scotland? And which Scottish authors are bestsellers?

American crime writers are very popular here. I rarely look at the romance, fantasy or sci-fi shelves, so I’m not sure how well the USA is represented there. But crime, boosted even more perhaps by the popularity of TV series such as CSI and The Wire, has a strong presence on the shelves. As for authors, I think the ones we go for are the ones who are bestsellers for you, too–Lee Childs (who’s British, I know, but he writes distinctly American thrillers), Elmore Leonard, Jeffrey Deaver, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Ed McBain–well, you can fill in all the other names for yourself.

I think the same’s true for bestselling Scots too. Ian Rankin is obviously the top man, Val McDermid the top woman, and then there are many, many others writing good crime. One who deserves particular mention is Denise Mina. Her novels are full of compassion, humour, pain and the reality of life in today’s Glasgow.

Why do you write?

The simple answer is that I write because I can. I love words, what they do, how they sound, how they fit together. I consider myself lucky to have received, in my genetic make-up, an ability with words. That’s not a boast. In fact, I always quote something an artist friend of mine once said. We sometimes sat at meetings together and, by way of doodling, he’d draw wonderful pencil sketches of the people round the table. One day, I looked at one and said ‘Vic, I don’t know how you can do that.’ His reply was ‘Bill, I don’t know how you can’t.’ It’s such a simple way of saying that having a specific talent isn’t a cause for self-congratulation; it’s something that comes as naturally as breathing. And we’re lucky to have been dealt such a hand.

Anything else you'd like to discuss?

Not really. I think I’ve talked enough, don’t you? There are more ramblings on my website: www.bill-kirton.co.uk. Thanks for letting me blether on like this.

Bill’s website: www.bill-kirton.co.uk

His blogsite: http://livingwritingandotherstuff.blogspot.com/

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Visit with South African Crime Writer, Roger Smith

Photo by Shelley Christians

Roger Smith tells it like it is in his native South Africa. The brutality of his novels will shock most Americans but he writes about a way of life in the country of former apartheid.

Roger, you've been called the Elmore Leonard of South Africa and the shooting star of the crime scene. What sets your work apart from the other crime novels?

I’m very flattered to be compared to Elmore Leonard and I can only imagine it’s because Wake Up Dead is an ensemble piece like most of Leonard’s work, with the POV shifting between a number of different characters. And there’s something Leonardesque about the attraction/ repulsion hot American widow, Roxy Palmer, feels for conflicted ex-cop turned mercenary, Billy Afrika. But the body count in Wake Up Dead is way higher than in Leonard’s books – especially the later ones.

International readers tell me they are fascinated by the South African setting of my novels – which is new to most of them – and appalled by the brutally of the society I depict.

Why do you choose to write about violence, brutality, poverty, exploitation, gang and prison life?

I live in – and write about – an extremely violent country. When apartheid ended in the mid-90s South Africa went from being pariah of the world to everybody’s darling under Nelson Mandela, but the bubble burst when Mandela moved on: crime and corruption replaced apartheid as our number one social ill.

We now have the highest homicide statistics in the world. One in three South African women will be raped in her lifetime, and nearly 1,500 children were murdered in South Africa last year. Most of those children were also sexually violated. A few days ago South Africa’s ex-commissioner of police – head of Interpol at the time of his arrest – was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for racketeering.

So I don’t portray anything that doesn’t happen every day in South Africa. I loathe the comic book porno-violence of a lot of European and U.S. crime writing (and movies, TV and video games, for that matter) where bloodshed is used to titillate. People aren’t turned on by what I write – they’re shocked. As they should be.

What about your own background?

I grew up under apartheid in South Africa. As a teenager in Johannesburg, I watched white cops mow down black school kids my age during the 1976 youth uprising. A few years later I was drafted into a white army fighting a meaningless bush war against older versions of those black kids.

In the 1980s I was a founder member of a non-racial film co-operative that produced anti-apartheid films for foreign TV networks. As a screenwriter I have written for movies and TV in Africa – everything from sit-coms to drama series. No soaps, I’m pleased to say. I now write crime novels fulltime.

Tell us about your latest novel, Wake the Dead.

Wake Up Dead opens with this line: “The night they were highjacked, Roxy Palmer and her husband, Joe, ate dinner with an African cannibal and his Ukrainian whore.”

Cape Town, South Africa, is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Africa. Eurotrash rub shoulders with gangsters and hookers from the old USSR. Leaders of dubious African “liberation movements” live in lavish exile on the slopes of Table Mountain, while plotting coups in their home countries. And people of mixed race – two-thirds of the population – live on the flipside of the Cape Town picture postcard, the Cape Flats, which is about as violent a place as you’ll find outside of a war zone.

Each African summer a skinny tribe of botoxed and Brazilian-waxed beauties from around the world migrate to Cape Town, hustling for shoots in the ad industry. And looking for husbands. Rich ones. Women like Wake Up Dead’s flawed heroine, Roxy Palmer, whose first bad decision was marrying a man for all the wrong reasons. Her second bad decision leaves her fighting for her life.

Wake Up Dead begins with a car-jacking, a violent collision between privileged Cape Town and the Flats, an incident so commonplace that it barely makes the local news. What fascinates me is to look beyond the statistics, to get into the people who are flung together by these violent events, and the impact on their lives.
When Roxy’s gunrunner husband, Joe, is left dead after the car-jacking, the blame falls on Disco and Godwynn, the ghetto gangbangers who speed away in Joe’s convertible and Roxy becomes their target.

Billy Afrika, a mixed-race ex-cop turned mercenary, moves in on Roxy because Joe Palmer owed him a chunk of money – money he needs to protect the family of his dead partner who was butchered by the psychopath, Piper, who breaks out of prison to be with his prison “wife” Disco.

The result of these entanglements is, inevitably, bloody.

How important is humor in crime novels?

I’m not a great fan of comic crime novels – “capers” and whimsical cozies leave me cold. But all great crime writers like Chandler, Leonard, and one of my current favorites, Daniel Woodrell, weave humor into their novels, through dialogue or the dark and outrageous predicaments they contrive for their characters. The criminal world is rich with black comedy.

I think there’s a lot of humor in Wake Up Dead: albeit typically South African gallows humor. We do it well, because we’ve had so much practice.

How do you research your books?

Around ten years ago I moved down to Cape Town, and I fell in love with – and later married – a woman who grew up out on the Cape Flats, a sprawling ghetto outside the city, home to millions of people of mixed race, where the rape, murder and child abuse statistics are the highest in the world. The true stories she told me and the world she introduced me to changed my view of Cape Town forever and inspired me to write crime novels.

A few years ago, I went with her to prison to visit her brother. He’s in his thirties, a human canvas of prison artwork. Since the age of fourteen he has spent a total of two years out of jail. He knows if he ever goes out into the world again he won’t stand a chance, will end up where he always ends up: back in prison. I knew I wanted to write about men like him.

My wife is my greatest critic. She keeps my work honest and realistic.

Here’s the YouTube link to a short video interview I shot with an ex-convict from the Cape Flats who closely resembles Wake Up Dead’s psycho-killer, Piper. He tells of life in prison – including a bloody gang-murder. Not for the faint-hearted. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrHVCjpyJrg&feature=player_embedded

How important is an agent and how did you acquire one?

Getting published without an agent is nearly impossible, unless you go the vanity press route. I was determined to have an agent in New York and pursued Alice Martell. She read the manuscript of my first novel, Mixed Blood, agreed to represent me and got me a two-book deal in a matter of days.

Is there a difference in the reading tastes of South Africans and Americans?

Not really. If you visit a bookstore in South Africa you’ll find pretty much the same books you’d find in the U.S. or the U.K. But there is more of an appreciation of noir crime fiction in the U.S. and Europe; South Africans tend to favor more conventional mystery fare.

Advice to budding crime/noir novelists.

Read voraciously. Learn from good (and bad) writers. Finish that first novel even if it’s a mess. When you rewrite your work (and you should, many times) be ruthless in your editing. In the immortal words of Elmore Leonard: cut out all the bits that readers skip.

Thank you, Roger.

Roger's website: http://www.rogersmithbooks.com/