Saturday, October 31, 2015

Award-Winning Crime Novelist Bruce DeSilva Revisited

A journalist for more than 40 years, Bruce DeSilva retired to write crime novels. He served as the writing coach at the Associated Press and was responsible for training the wire service's reporters and editors worldwide. He also directed an elite AP department devoted to investigative reporting and other special projects. Earlier in his career, he worked as an investigative reporter and an editor at The Hartford Courant and The Providence Journal. Stories that he edited have won virtually every major journalism prize including the Polk Award, the Livingston, ASNE, and the Batten Medal. He also edited two Pulitzer finalists and helped edit a Pulitzer winner.

(The following interview was excerpted from The Mystery Writers, where you can read Bruce DeSilva's article, "A Writer's Unique Voice." Interviews and advice from 59 other mystery/crime novelists are also included.)

Bruce, Rogue Island has received rave reviews, including Publishers Weekly’s listing as one of the ten best debut novels of 2010. How long did the project take from concept to release?

The reviews were something of a surprise, not so much because they were all raves, but because there were so many of them – The Washington Post, Kirkus Reviews, The Associated Press, Library Journal, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, Booklist, and a whole bunch more. The Dallas Morning News review was perhaps the most extravagant, saying the novel “raised the bar for all books of its kind.” It’s usually hard for a first-time novelist to get noticed, so I’m very grateful. Reviews help sell books, of course, but they have also given me confidence as I work on Cliff Walk, the second book in the series.

Writing Rogue Island took six months or fifteen years, depending on how you count. Way back in 1994, when I was working for a newspaper in New England, I got a note from a reader praising “a nice little story” I’d written and suggesting that it could be “the outline for a novel.” The note was from literary novelist Evan Hunter, who also wrote great crime novels under the pen name Ed McBain. I taped the note to my home computer and started writing; but I was only a few chapters into the book when life intervened in the form of a demanding new job, a new marriage, and a child. In this busy new life, there was no time for novel writing; but each time I replaced my computer, I peeled the note from Hunter off the old one and taped it to the new one, hoping I’d return to the book someday. A couple of years ago, I finally did. Writing nights after work and on weekends, I finished the novel in six months. It was published about a year later.

What prompted you to write about Rhode Island’s seedier side?

I began my writing career as a reporter for The Providence Journal. I arrived in the middle of a New England-wide war between organized crime factions, the most powerful of them run out of a little vending machine office on Federal Hill in Providence, so I knew right away that this would be an interesting place to cover. Rhode Island, as one of my colleagues there liked to say, was “a theme park for investigative reporters.” I ended up staying for 13 years before moving on to bigger things, but journalism was never quite as much fun anywhere else. One reviewer called my portrayal of the state “jaundiced but affectionate,” and I think that’s exactly right. Rhode Island has a history of corruption that goes all the way back to a colonial governor dining with Captain Kidd, but it also has a history of integrity and decency that goes all the way back to its founder, Roger Williams. Those two threads are woven throughout the state’s history and are still present today. The tension between them is one of the things that make it such an interesting place. But that’s not all. Most crime novels are set in big, anonymous cities. There are also some very good ones set in rural areas. But Providence, where most of the action in Rogue Island takes place, is something different. It’s a claustrophobic little city where everybody on the street knows your name and where it’s very hard to keep a secret. But it’s still big enough to be both cosmopolitan and rife with urban problems. I strove to make the city and the state not just the setting for the book but something more akin to a main character. I never considered setting my story anywhere else.

Was Rogue Island’s plot based on stories you‘ve covered as a journalist?

Some of the minor incidents in the book are based on fact. For example, during the mayoralty of colorful and notorious Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr., city highway department employees really did steal manhole covers and sell them for scrap for a few dollars apiece. But the central plot of the book, the investigation of an arson spree that burned down much of the city’s Mount Hope neighborhood, is entirely made up.

Briefly tell us about your writing background.

I spent 13 years writing for The Providence Journal, where I specialized in investigative reporting, and 13 years working at The Hartford Courant, most of them as the writing coach. Then I moved on to The Associated Press’s national headquarters in New York. There, I ran the news service’s elite team of national enterprise writers for eleven years and served as the writing coach for another three. I retired from journalism in 2009 to write crime novels, and I also continue to review them for the AP.

What’s the most important ingredient in a crime novel?

If I must pick one thing, it’s the characters. If I start reading a book and don’t care deeply about the people in it after a few chapters, I toss it aside and read something else. Rogue Island is definitely a character-driven novel. But hey, everything matters—the plot, the quality of the prose, and don’t forget the setting. As one of my crime-writer friends, Thomas H. Cook, once said, “If you want to understand the importance of place in a novel, just imagine Heart of Darkness without the river.” For a book to be good, all of these elements must be handled well and fit together seamlessly.

Whose work influenced your own? Your most read novelist?

I discovered crime fiction by reading Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett in my teens, and they remain major influences. I reread their work every year or two. As for current crime novelists, I’m a great admirer of Daniel Woodrell and Thomas H. Cook, two brilliant writers who succeed at everything except making the best-seller lists. I find Dennis Lehane’s best work astounding. Laura Lippman, James Lee Burke, Kate Atkinson, and Ken Bruen often take my breath away. I love Ace Atkins’ remarkable historical crime novels and James Ellroy’s staccato, high-on-amphetamines prose. To name a few. But the fact is, I’m influenced by everything I read including the bad stuff that teaches me what NOT to do. That said, the opening passage of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row is my favorite in all of English.

How difficult was it to acquire an agent, and how did you find the right one?

It’s not easy for a first-time novelist to find an agent, but I was lucky. Otto Penzler, the dean of America’s crime fiction editors and the proprietor of Manhattan’s famous Mysterious Bookshop is a friend of mine. He read my manuscript, loved it, and recommended me to LJK Literary Management. There, Susanna Einstein, one of the top agents in the business, agreed to represent me. Otto calls himself “the godfather” of my first book.

For whom do you write?

It’s perilous for a writer to think too much about trends in public taste because it can be so fleeting. Right now, someone out there is working on a vampire novel that will be completed just as teenage girls everywhere lose interest in the subject. So I write for myself, telling the stories I want to tell in the way I want to tell them. The late Robert B. Parker, one of the most successful crime novelists of our time, once told me this: “You write what you can.”

How important is humor in crime/noir novels?

Some crime novelists, such as James Ellroy, write great books that are unrelentingly grim. Others, such as Tim Dorsey, write slapstick-noir novels that keep you laughing from beginning to end. Most crime writers, including me, fall somewhere in between, tempering dark stories with flashes of humor. Some writers try to accomplish this with a wise-cracking protagonist, but a smart mouth is not enough. Humor shouldn’t be tacked on. It should serve the story. Parker’s Spenser has a smart mouth, but his put-downs reveal character, showing us his attitudes toward pretentiousness, authority, and women. In Rogue Island, I tried something different. Each line of humor in this dark story is there to reveal the character’s world view. But a writer must beware of anything that falls flat. The trouble with humor is that it has to be funny.

Advice to aspiring crime writers?

A. Don’t quit your day job. For every best-selling author like Harlan Coben or Chelsea Cain, there are hundreds of writers whose books sell only a few thousand copies—or don’t get published at all. I know, I know. I said I quit MY job to write crime novels; but I worked in journalism long enough to have a decent pension; and my wife, an award-winning poet and college professor, makes more than enough to support our family.

B. Don’t even think about trying to write a crime novel without first reading at least a thousand of them. Each time you find something you admire, study it to figure out what the writer did. Read books the way teenage boys of my generation tinkered with cars, taking them apart and putting them back together again to see how they worked.

C. Don’t procrastinate. Put your butt in the chair and write. Ignore your e-mail, stay off Facebook and Twitter, forget that your favorite sports team is on TV, and don’t ever use writer’s block as an excuse. I spent 40 years working as a journalist. Journalists aren’t allowed to have writer’s block. They get paid to write every day, whether they feel like it or not. They know that writer’s block is for sissies.

D. Don't allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the thought of writing an entire book. It's not nearly as a momentous a task as you might think. If you write just 800 good words a day, which is damned little, you can finish an 80,000-word crime novel in as little as 100 days.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Becoming an Archaeologist

by Radine Trees Nehring

I dreamed of being an archaeologist.

Daddy insisted on secretarial school. (This was back in the dark ages.) The dream died.

Fast forward thirty-five years. My husband and I chucked city jobs in Tulsa, Oklahoma and moved to the hills of northern Arkansas. I discovered I was meant to be an Ozarks-dweller and began writing about the area I loved, eventually deciding to try my hand at mystery writing. The Something to Die For series was born.

Three books into the series, the Hot Springs National Park curator (A Treasure to Die For) mentioned she had been cataloging artifacts for Dr. Caven Clark, staff archaeologist at Arkansas's Buffalo National River.

Archaeologist? I knew the Buffalo as a three-county-long wild river offering canoeing, fishing, and hiking amid spectacular scenery, but...archeology?
I picked up the phone and called Dr. Clark. YES! He was willing to help me.

All of my books include Arkansas history, descriptions of real locations, and a touch of social consciousness. (Instruction given with a spoonful of sugar?) After repeated discovery trips to the Buffalo, after exploring bluff shelters with Caven Clark, after many questions and interviews, I now know the Buffalo National River area once rivaled the canyons of Arizona and New Mexico for archaeological wealth. Ten thousand or more years ago Paleo Indians hunted and camped along the river. Centuries passed, and families began accompanying their hunters. They spent more and more of the year here, learning to scratch soil and scatter seed gathered from wild food plants. They lived in dry bluff shelters and caves along the Buffalo.

The word dry is important because, just as in the American Southwest, even fiber objects like woven garments, nets, sandals, and cradle boards survived inside the dry shelters. More commonly preserved throughout were chipped stone hunting points and tools, as well as pottery. (Pottery making began about 500 BCE.) A cultural heritage was being saved.

Then Europeans came, beginning with Spaniards during the 16th century. By the early 1800s, white settlers were moving into valleys near the river. Children and adults enjoyed exploring the world around them, often picking up curious-looking objects they found in caves and shelters or dug up in their fields. Our cultural heritage began vanishing.

Laws have been passed to make archaeological looting a crime, but looting along the Buffalo and elsewhere is now big business. The park service hasn't the staff to protect 36,000 acres.

You see where I am going with this. Radine was on her way to creating a mystery novel about archaeological looting. Challenging? Yes. Fun? You bet! After one hike I sat in a well-known Buffalo destination, the Indian Rock House, imagining (as does Catherine King in my novel) what living there might have been like several thousand years ago. Then I returned to my office to dream like an archaeologist, and write A River to Die For.

I never worked as a secretary but, by golly, I have brushed the life of an archaeologist. I was right, it would have been a great career. But now I am a writer, I have the best of many worlds!

Let's see. What would I like to experience next?

Friday, October 16, 2015

Dysfunctional Family Circa 1740

by Beverle Graves Myers

I was on my second book in the Tito Amato Baroque Mystery series when I realized I was really writing a family saga. I’ve never been a fan of the lone wolf detective who moves through life avoiding all ties. I prefer stories that feature sprawling, messy families. Steven Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder mysteries and Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series are particular favorites. Since we tend to write what we like to read, each of my Tito novels presents my sleuth with an intriguing murder to solve, plus two important sub-plots. One has to do with family and personal relationships, the other a challenge to his singing career. Guess which bits turned out to be the most fun to create?

Tito is an amateur sleuth in an era that had little formal law enforcement. As a young boy, he was castrated to preserve his beautiful soprano voice and sent away from Venice to Naples to train for the opera stage. We first meet Tito in Interrupted Aria as he returns to Venice to make his professional debut. Besides feuding singers and a lecherous theater owner, Tito must reconnect with his troubled family. Some introductions are in order:

Alessandro: Tito’s older brother, a rough-and-ready merchant seaman who has no use for the opera. He remembers Tito as the little boy who used to follow him and his friends around Venice making a general pest of himself. He barely recognizes the elegant, polished young man who returns from the Naples conservatory. Despite his discomfort at having a singing eunuch in the family, Alessandro makes an effort to bond with Tito.

Annetta: Tito’s sister, just one year older, his closest confidant and staunchest supporter. Annetta eventually marries Englishman Augustus Rumbolt, who becomes Tito’s friend and sleuthing sidekick.

Grisella: Tito’s younger sister, just thirteen on his return. Highly emotional and a constant troublemaker, Grisella suffers from what we would call Tourette’s Syndrome. She shares Tito’s talent for singing, but not his high-minded ideals. I think of her as the fictitious love-child of Sarah Bernhardt and Rasputin.

Isidore Amato: Tito’s father, a cold loveless man, a widower since Tito’s mother died at Grisella’s birth. He is the organ master at the Ospedale Mendicanti, a girls’ school and orphanage. Isidore holds the secret to Tito’s most pressing personal question: Why did his father allow the surgery that made him into a castrato singer so many years ago?

Liya Del’Vecchio: A Jewess from the Venetian ghetto who makes masks and headdresses for the theater. The beautiful but opinionated Liya becomes the love of Tito’s life. His physical condition is only one of the barriers they must overcome.

Throughout the series, Tito’s loved ones become part and parcel of the mysteries he is called on to solve. Because he is an amateur sleuth, his reason for investigating a crime often hinges on his family’s involvement. Sometimes they provide assistance or turn up surprising clues. Often, one of them hampers his efforts though outright duplicity or misplaced concern. Besides providing plot points, Tito’s family helps to fill out his personality and bring him to life on the page. Tito would not be the man he is without Grisella, Alessandro, and the others making his life difficult.

Learn more about Tito and the rest of the Amato clan at my website

I also blog about Tito’s back story and other goodies at

(Excerpted from Mysterious Writers, where you can read Beverle's advice to fledgling writers.)

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Written in Blood, a Conversation With Diane Fanning

Diane Fanning is a true crime writer and crime novelist, whose book, Written in Blood, was an Edgar nominee featured on the TV program, 20/20. Her research led to the release of an innocent woman from prison who had been convicted of murder.

Diane, why did you decide to correspond with serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells? And how long was it before he confessed to you in a letter that he had murdered 10-year-old Joel Kirkpatrick, whose mother had been convicted of killing her son?

I sent my first letter to Tommy Lynn Sells after I acquired an agent and a contract to write about his crimes. In my first letter, I told him I was writing a book and requested a visit with him. At the time, he had been transferred from Death Row to the Bexar County Jail in connection with the murder of Mary Bea Perez. After that visit, at the end of September 2001, the correspondence continued.

I interviewed him face-to-face nearly twenty times at the jail and on Death Row before June 2002, when he wrote the first letter that indicated his possible involvement in the murder of Joel Kirkpatrick. He made additional remarks in another letter two weeks later. I visited him on Death Row that July and he provided additional information.

What did you say to Sells that prompted the confession? And did you believe the boy’s mother was innocent all along?

At the end of May, I stumbled across an ABC Prime time show about the Joel Kirkpatrick case. I heard Julie and her family and friends claiming innocence. I was highly skeptical. And then, the show presented comments from the prosecuting attorney. It was what he said that made me doubt Julie’s guilt.

Among other things, he said they knew there was no intruder because they found no stranger fingerprints at the scene and because an attacker would come with a weapon, not use a knife found in the kitchen. I knew the things the prosecutor was saying were not true. Many killers leave no fingerprints; many use a weapon found in the home—including Tommy Lynn Sells. It was after listening to the state’s attorney that I tended to believe that someone like Sells could have committed that crime.

I wrote to Sells about the ridiculousness of the prosecutor’s statements. I did not name the attorney, I did not name the victim, the city or the time frame or mention Julie Rea Harper. Sells wrote back asking if the murder occurred on the 13th of October, two days before he killed Stephanie Mahaney. It did.

That was the first moment that I thought that Sells might be involved. However, at that point in time, I only doubted Julie’s guilt and suspected the possibility of Sells’ involvement. I was not certain of either.

Three months after the release of the book in July 2003, Bill Clutter, an investigator for the Innocence Project at the University of Illinois at Springfield, found corroborating evidence—three witnesses who had seen Sells in the small town of Lawrenceville on the weekend of Joel’s murder. Revelations of botched crime scene processing—no one dusted for fingerprints, for example—along with overlooked and untested evidence and other information were then revealed. After learning more, I became totally convinced of Julie’s innocence and nearly certain of Sells’ responsibility for the murder of Joel.

When and why did you become interested in writing crime fiction?

I have been an avid reader of crime fiction for decades and have been interested in writing it since before I wrote my first true crime. My first success at obtaining a book contract was in non-fiction but I maintained my interest in fiction. At the time, I had a full time job as the Executive Director of a non-profit organization and struggled to handle just one genre. Once I was able to leave my day job, I had the time to also write my first love: crime fiction.

You majored in chemistry in college so why didn’t you become a chemist instead of a crime writer? Have your chemistry studies served you well when writing your crime series?

 I was a science major because that was what I was supposed to do. My real love was writing and I pursued that instead. Initially, I wrote commercials for radio, television and magazines along with free lance articles and personal essays.

A science background is definitely useful in writing about the increasing complexities of forensic investigation.

Tell us about the Lucinda Pierce crime novel series.

 Lucinda Pierce is a homicide detective in Virginia. She bears facial scars from a domestic violence incident that are a reflection of the childhood emotional scars that drove her into law enforcement. She feels isolated from the world because of her physical and psychological injuries but is fighting to overcome those obstacles in her life.

She is tough, but not invincible; demanding but empathetic—a strong female protagonist with flaws and feelings.

There are now four books in the series: The Trophy Exchange, Punish the Dead, Mistaken Identity, and Twisted Reason. You can read the first chapter of each of these books on the Reading Room page on my website.

For whom do you write?

Primarily, I write for my readers. But if you mean who are my publishers, the answer is that my true crime is through St. Martin’s Press, my fiction through Severn House.

Do you outline your novels as you do your true crime books?

 When I was seeking my first contract to write true crime, I had to do an outline within my proposal to the publisher. However, once I’d started writing the book, I essentially ignored the outline. I do not outline any of my books from start to finish. I do sometimes outline short portions of the book while the writing is in progress when I feel a need to arrange and solidify my thoughts.

How did you acquire an agent and how long did it take to find the right one?

I spent two years unsuccessfully looking for an agent. When I found the right one, at the right time with the right material, I had an agent within 24 hours of submission.

Advice to aspiring writers?

Read like a maniac. You can learn something new from every genre, no matter what you are writing. And keep writing—practice makes us all better at what we do. Most important of all, never, never, never give up. Approach each rejection as a challenge to overcome—the right material at the right time to the right person can happen if you write with passion and commitment.

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers where you can also read Diane Fanning's article, "Split Personality.")

Saturday, October 3, 2015

We Can All be Writers

by Jacqueline Seewald

I began writing short stories and poetry when I was in grade school. My mother bought me a typewriter when I was eleven, and by the time I was twelve, I had mastered the skill of touch-typing. That was when I started to submit work competitively.

As an adult, I wasn't particularly interested in learning to use a computer. I suppose I had become somewhat set in my ways, fearful of technology and resistant to change. But my two sons would not accept that. Insisting that my writing would greatly improve if I learned to use the word processing application of their Appleworks program, they refused to accept my cop-outs. At the time, we had purchased an Apple computer for them at their request. It proved to be indestructible.

The boys collected a tremendous number of programs both educational and recreational for their machine. But it was Appleworks that proved most useful for me. For the first time, I could really edit my writing with ease. And the boys were correct, my work did improve dramatically. I was a high school English teacher who also taught writing courses at Rutgers University, yet it was my children who acted as my teachers. And what terrific instructors they were!

Eventually, I obtained my MLS degree. I worked as an academic librarian and then as an educational media specialist (school librarian). I became thoroughly acquainted with PC's and doing Dialog searches for both teachers and students. As the Internet became available, I took courses to further my knowledge. But the Internet was not easily accessible at that time, and there was so much to learn regarding computer protocols and languages. The Internet was a vast ocean, a sea of difficult to obtain treasures.

It wasn't until the introduction of the World Wide Web that things changed. But change they did, and dramatically! I would compare this information explosion to the invention of Guttenberg's printing press. The average person could now have access to knowledge much more quickly and easily. Suddenly, there were search engines that could accept natural speech as search terms. Because of this intellectual revolution, we can all access knowledge with great convenience. Writers of non-fiction and fiction alike are able to benefit.

The word processing program I now use, Microsoft Word, makes it so much easier to improve the quality of writing. With Internet access available at a reasonable price, almost anyone can have use of the web. And those that truly cannot afford it can use it at most public libraries free of charge.

Today I can access all sort of writing markets via the net. I can also contact editors by using e-mail. This has become so much a part of my life that I use it everyday. My writing, which at one time was limited to print publication, now has a much more extensive audience.

When my husband, convinced me to take an early retirement so that I could start writing full-time, (and also spend more time with him, since he was already retired) I insisted on only one thing. The condition for me leaving my job was that we immediately buy a new computer with Internet capability for our home. My husband, who was not computer literate at the time, agreed, but with some reservation and reluctance.

"Pick out whatever you like," he said, "but don't expect that I'll ever be interested in using it."

I wouldn't accept his pronouncement. I kept cajoling him until he finally sat down with me and learned the basics. Having been a math teacher, he actually took to it easily. Since he follows the stock market, we used Yahoo as a search engine. He was soon into trading online.

The fact of the matter is that we reached a point where we needed a second computer in our house. My husband who claimed he would never have any interest or reason to use a computer or the Internet is totally addicted. He reads newspapers from around the country and the world each morning on the net and communicates with various people through e-mail and message boards.

Through writer's listservs, I can communicate with other writers and discuss common problems. There is no doubt in my mind that the Internet has the capacity to enrich all our lives and will continue to do so. As I grow older, I am more aware that retirement and aging often bring increased isolation. But because of the Internet, it doesn't have to be so. Even the homebound and the disabled now have access to communication. Modern technology has brought us a boundless sea of information and the ability to readily communicate with others. I for one feel greatly appreciative. Because of the information revolution and the easy availability of computers, anyone and everyone can be a reader and writer. We can communicate with people everywhere in the world. The computer has become an invaluable tool for writers and a true equalizer.