Saturday, November 28, 2015

Michael Orenhuff Talks About His Pot Thief Series

Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson wrote of Michael Orenhuff's mystery: "The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras has all the components of a great read – an intricate plot, quirky characters, crackling dialog, and a surprise ending. What’s more, Orenduff successfully captures the essence of New Mexico through humor, romance, and even a little philosophical musing. New Mexico’s rich history, people, food, and landscape come alive on its pages. . ." 

Mike, you’ve had some great reviews, but how did you manage the one from Governor Bill Richardson?

I served as president of New Mexico State University back in the nineties when he was one of our Congressional Representatives. He was very supportive of higher education, and I worked with him (mostly his staff) on several projects, including one for Hispanic-serving institutions that tied NMSU with the University of Puerto Rico and some other universities in a federal project. So when I retired and started writing books, I asked him for the review and he graciously consented. And it didn’t hurt that my books attract attention for the state.

Tell us about your award-winning Pot Thief Mystery series.

The protagonist was a “pot hunter” in his early days, digging up and selling ancient pottery. When that practice was outlawed, he was rebranded as a pot thief, but he rationalizes what he does. Unfortunately, his clandestine excavations often tie him to a murder which he must solve to clear himself. He’s somewhat clueless but often gets inspiration and assistance from his sidekick Susannah who acquired her mystery solving skills by reading murder mysteries.

How important is humor in a mystery series?

I think every mystery, no matter how noir, must have some humor if for no other reason than to break the tension. In my books, even the tension is funny. At least I hope it is.

Your series has been described as a “thinking man’s mystery.” How would you describe it?

The protagonist is part thief, part social critic who finds popular culture unfathomable. He cherishes the naïve belief that reason works.

What else have you written besides A Partially Truth-Functional Modal Calculus and Are Modal Contexts Referentially Opaque?

Dozens of other such papers. Were you to be stranded on an island with them as the only printed material, the chances are you would burn them for cooking fires rather than read them.

Why does someone with your advanced education decide to write mystery novels?

Because writing fiction is fun.

What are you working on now? And is there some project in the back of your mind you’d like to write about?

I also write plays. I have written two comedies, but now I am trying my hand at a serious play.

Who most influenced your own work?

Michael Bond, Lawrence Saunders, and Lawrence Block.

Advice to fledgling writers?

I wish I had some sage advice to pass along, but I don’t. One learns the craft of writing like one learns most skill – long hours of practice. Write, write, write. Take a break and read – you’ll see things in what you read that you wouldn’t have noticed before you started writing. Then repeat the cycle for a few years, always getting people to read your work and give you feedback. At some point you will look at your early attempts and shudder. That means you are making progress.

Friday, November 20, 2015

A Visit with D. P. Lyle, MD

Macavity Award winner D. P. Lyle not only writes crime thrillers and nonfiction forensics, he's a practicing cardiologist. He has also served as medical consultant for a number of television programs. His series protagonist, crime scene and evidence analyst Dub Walker, is a consultant to the FBI’s Behavioral Assessment Unit and a former homicide investigator.

Doug, you have a long list of unsolved murders on your medical and forensics blog site. Why do you find those particular cases most interesting?

I think everyone is interested when a bad guy gets away with his crime. Maybe they want to know what clever ruse he used to fool the police. Maybe they want to know how the system failed.

Regardless, I think we get uncomfortable when crimes go unsolved because we would like to think that the criminal justice system works. It makes us feel safer. So when someone like Jack the Ripper and the Zodiac killer are never identified, we squirm a bit. But then part of us likes to believe that sooner or later the perpetrator will be brought to justice. Remember that both the Green River Killer and the BTK killer remained in the shadows for many decades before they were finally captured.

Were you fascinated at a young age with murder? And why do you think people are intrigued with the crime?

As a child I was too involved in sports such as football and baseball to be concerned with murders. I didn’t even pay much attention to the news then. It was only later as an adult that my interest in these grew. I think everyone is fascinated with criminal activity and I think it has always been that way. The fascination with the Lindbergh kidnapping, the original Crime of the Century. The continued fascination with Jack the Ripper. And more recently, the national frenzy that accompanied the O.J. Simpson trial and the trial of Scott Peterson. It’s like a soap opera only real.

What’s your background in medicine and forensics and why did you decide to offer medical advice to writers?

I’ve practiced cardiology for over 30 years in California and so medicine has been my life for most of my life. I started medical school 42 years ago. Wow, has it really been that long? Regardless, I’ve always been intrigued with medicine and science and becoming fascinated with forensic science seems a natural follow-up. When I started writing fiction, I realized that forensic science would be a large part of the stories I was writing. It was also a large part of the stories I was reading. I began attending writers conferences as part of the learning process and once writers discover that you are a physician they began asking questions about how poisons work and what gunshot wounds look like and what happens when someone’s head is hit with a crowbar and things like that. I began a column for MWA in which I answered questions for writers and then I set up my website to do the same. From that I published two books of the best questions I have received. They are Murder & Mayhem and Forensics & Fiction and I just signed the contract for a third book in the series.

My reason for doing it is that I enjoy it and it also helps writers get their stories right. I think that knowledge is only worth something if it’s passed on. Otherwise it’s just stagnant information. But if it is passed to someone who can use it to bring the story to life then the information itself takes on a certain life. At least that’s the way I feel about it.

How did you come to work with the script writers for Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, and 1-800MISSING?

I met screenwriters such as Lee Goldberg, Matt Witten, Paul Guyot, and others and began working with them on the stories they were constructing. It’s no different than what I do for the novelists I help. Screenwriters and novelists have incredible imaginations and I’m always fascinated with how they construct stories and with the wild questions they ask. I’ve said many times that I learn as much from the questions as I hope they learn from my answers. I should also add one more show to the above list and I think it’s a show that’s going to do well. It’s called The Glades and is coming to A&E in July.

Which came first: nonfiction forensics books or novels? How did one genre evolve into the other?

I began writing novels first. I wrote my first a dozen or so years ago. It was 138,000 words of garbage and my agent told me so. I then wrote two more novels, my Samantha Cody series. After that came my four nonfiction books and then I went back to novel writing for the current Dub Walker series.

What are the most common questions you receive from writers?

The most common deal with poisons. Everyone is looking for a poison that can’t be traced. It doesn’t exist. If it’s looked for diligently enough it will be found. The key is to make the murder look like something other than what it was and hopefully keep the medical examiner and the forensic toxicologist out of the picture. Other questions deal with various traumas such as gunshot wounds and injuries from blunt objects. And then of course in the last couple years there have received many questions about vampires, zombies, and werewolves.

Tell us about your Dub Walker series. How did that come about?

It was a long evolution. The novel I mentioned earlier, the hundred and 138,000 word one? Stress Fracture is basically that novel after 23 rewrites along with four changes in title, three changes in location, and one change in protagonist. The only thing that remained the same was the bad guy and the basic storyline. It was a story I couldn't let go of, and as I became better at the craft, it became a better story. It is now around 85,000 words and moves very fast. The second in the series is titled Hot Lights, Cold Steel and deals with robotic surgery and it will be out in 2011. Just last week I finished the first draft of the third in the series, which at this time is titled Run To Ground.

What’s your writing schedule like? Are you still a practicing cardiologist?

Yes I still practice. I have no set writing schedule. Sometimes I write in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon, and sometimes late at night. It all depends on where my head is at. I always have a fiction and a nonfiction project going at the same time so that if I reach an impasse or get bored with one I can move to the other for a while. Right now I spend between 2 to 12 hours a day working on something related to writing. Either actually writing, editing, answering questions, working on various conferences, or creating posts for my blog. I also teach online courses at DeSales University in their Masters of Criminal Justice program. I’m starting a toxicology class in September.

Best advice you can give aspiring writers?

Write, write, write. And then write some more. And read. Read not only books in the genre that you write but also in other genres. You can learn from any good writer. I always advise people to outline their stories. Some writers do and others don’t so at the end of the day do what works for you but I find it helpful if you know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. Lastly, write the story fast. Get the story down on paper from beginning to end and then go back and fix it. Writing is an art and a craft and I think too often we let the craft get in the way of the art. Tell the story the way you want to tell it, which is the art, and then go back and fix it, which is the craft.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I think writers are an unusual and inquisitive lot. Never be afraid to ask questions about whatever you need to know to construct a believable story. Most people like to talk about what they know. If you need to know about stamp collecting, find someone who does that and ask them about it. Nine times out of 10 the person will bend over backwards to tell you what you need to know. You want to talk to someone at a police station or the FBI or someone in any field? Never underestimate the power of the word novelist. Some people tend to shy away from newspaper reporters but almost never from a fiction writer. They want to help you. They want to be a part of a world that they see as glamorous (If they only knew how unglamorous writing really is). And they want to share what they know with you. Just ask.

His blog is The Writer's Forensics Blog

Friday, November 6, 2015

A Conversation with Marja McGraw

A native southern Californian, Marja McGraw has worked in both criminal and civil law enforcement. As a divorced, single parent she lived in a number of locations, including Wasilla, Alaska, and northern Nevada, where she worked for the Department of Transportation. In Oregon, she worked for the Jackson County sheriff and owned her own antique store/tea room. She's the author of the Sandi Webster and The Bogey Man mystery series.

Marja, why do you write mysteries?

Games and puzzles have always fascinated me, and a good mystery embodies both of those and a bit more. Half the fun of reading a mystery is trying to figure out who did it, and why – basically figuring out the puzzle. Writing mysteries gives me the chance to create the games and puzzles. I have the opportunity to develop the one who committed the crime, and the challenge is to make the solution and the cause make sense, while keeping the characters interesting.

The simpler answer is that I love reading a good mystery, and I hope I can entertain someone else with my books.

In what capacity did you work in criminal and civil law enforcement? And have you incorporated that experience into your novels?

I was a Deputy Clerk with the Los Angeles County Marshal (now part of the Sheriff’s Office), which equated to clerical with some legal expertise. At that time there weren’t any female deputies, so when there was a need for one, we clerks had to take care of business. Our jobs were many faceted. I was also a legal secretary. I worked for a female attorney, and there were occasions when we used our feminine attributes to elicit information from various sources. You’d be surprised how well the fluttering eyelashes and short skirts worked on some people. (I was younger then.) I was also a clerk with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon until I opened my own business, a Tea Room/Antique Store.

As far as incorporating my experiences, I have just enough knowledge to make me dangerous, so I’m careful when researching. I also have friends who are police officers and retired police officers, and a few of them are homicide detectives, so I have resources to fall back on.

You’ve moved around a lot. What were you doing in Wasilla, Alaska, and are you acquainted with Wasilla’s best known resident?

I have done some moving around, and loved almost every minute of it. After some of the curves that life threw at me, I moved to Wasilla in the late 1990s and stayed with friends, but I didn’t know Sarah Palin. I lived there for less than a year, and because of the cold I really didn’t get out much, other than to go to work and return home. With the wind chill it was extremely cold. Some people just aren’t cut out for Alaska, and I’m one of them. Give me a warm day in the desert anytime.

How important is humor and romance in mystery novels?

For me, it’s very important. There’s so much drama in the world today that I enjoy reading something to lighten things up. Consequently, I try to write something that will brighten someone’s day. Realistically, there’s nothing funny about murder, but I’ve learned that you can find humor in the people and situations revolving around the crime.

While I’m not a romance writer, I believe that some romance is required because of the interactions between people. In the Sandi Webster series, she has a romance with her partner, but it’s not the main focus of the stories. The main thrust is the mystery, and the characters themselves. In the Bogey Man series, you have a husband and wife team. Since they’re married, it’s likely that they’d share some romance, especially since they’re practically newlyweds.

How have your novels evolved since you began writing mysteries? And how do you categorize your mysteries?

Since we each grow throughout our lives, I try to let my characters change, too. I don’t want them to stagnate. I think that each story is better than the last one for just that reason. I guess that as my characters grow and change, so do I and so does my writing.

For me, it’s difficult to categorize my books. On the one hand, the Sandi Webster stories are soft-boiled P.I. On the other hand, they’re something like a cozy but with more action. The Bogey Mysteries are most certainly amateur P.I. stories. Overall, I have to say they’re simply mysteries, lighter with a little humor.

Who most influenced your own work? And, who in your opinion, has been the most influential mystery novelist?

Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) has probably influenced my work the most; not because my books are like her story, but because she made the characters so real to me. I’ve had several readers say they wish they could know someone like my characters in real life. That’s high praise to me, and it tells me that Ms. Lee caused me to honestly look at the people I create and it’s made me try to keep them real, to a point – after all, this is fiction.

Most influential mystery novelist? I can’t pin it down to just one. Over the years I think authors like Edgar Allen Poe, Raymond Chandler, Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney, and more contemporary writers such as Mary Higgins Clark and Tony Hillerman have had a tremendous influence. I believe that each of us takes something different away from every book that we read and enjoy, and that no one author can be deemed the most influential.

Briefly tell us about your protagonists, Chris and Pamela Cross.

They’re amateur investigators who run a 1940s-themed restaurant and who were inadvertently involved in a crime at one time and earned a reputation for solving murders. Chris and Pamela have a seven-year-old son who would love nothing more than to solve a mystery with them. In addition, they have two yellow Labrador retrievers who have a penchant for finding bodies. This isn’t your typical, run-of-the-mill household, and yet in many ways it is.

Because of his resemblance to Bogart, Chris tends to walk the walk and talk the talk, wishing he could be a private eye like Bogey was in the movies.

Advice to aspiring mystery writers.

I can’t help it. When asked this, my first piece of advice is always the same; grow a thick skin. Not everyone is going to like what you write. However, be open to listening because sometimes you find a little pearl of wisdom hiding somewhere in the middle of the comments.

Remember that by becoming a writer, you’ve started a business. Leave emotions aside and handle your marketing and promoting as you would any out-of-the-ordinary business. Easier said than done, but still…
Strive to improve with every sentence you write, and when you feel you’ve done your very best work, persist. I’ve commented in the past that dreamers live forever. So do writers, so put your best foot forward and create something that will long be remembered.

Thank you, Marja, for taking part in the series.
Thank you, Jean, for allowing me to visit Mysteries Writers this week. I appreciate your time and effort. This is a fun place to be.

You can visit Marja at her website:

And her blog site: