From one JD to another . . . and from next door in Ohio, to boot.
Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?
I’m a fifty-five year-old grandfather from small-town Ohio. I’ve worked as a traveling photographer, a newspaper photog, a freelance writer, a cook, and a whole lot of retail. I write mysteries and crime thrillers mostly. I set most of my stories in the tri-state region of the upper-Ohio valley which is the stomping ground I call home.
Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.
My most recent release is called On the Side of the Angel. It’s intended as part of a multi-author project. I contacted several writers and together we brainstormed a character and back story with the intention of each using the character in a shared capacity in our assorted projects. The stories would have no other connection except that the same character would feature prominently in each. When we began the project we had no idea who or what the character would be. Eventually we settled on a young, multi-racial woman who has been forced to fake her own death and is working as a fixer for the mafia in an effort to farm information for her vendetta against the person who murdered her family and forced her into this new life.
The character uses a different assumed identity in each iteration of her freelance career, and as she cleans the messes she’s tasked to clean, she curries favors to call in as needed. Because of this habit she is known in the underground only as the Bartering Angel.
My story is set early in her career just after she has faked her death. She shows up in Pittsburgh and is asked to help the son of a local drug dealer to escape the country after he and his girlfriend accidentally killed a store clerk in a botched thrill robbery. The Angel devises a scheme to misdirect the FBI with a dupe who is trying to cash several dozen winning lottery tickets without paying any taxes.
I’m really intrigued by the project that led to the Bartering Angel. How did you get involved in that? How many authors were involved? How do you ensure that all the different stories don’t take the character in conflicting directions?
I was listening to Simon Whistler’s podcast, and he was interviewing a romance author who mentioned that she was involved with a multi-author project with a shared character. In their case, it was a matchmaker. I thought it was a great way to cross-promote, and wondered if a group of thriller and mystery writers could do something similar, so I wrote a bunch of writers I have had previous dealings with and composed a post about the idea on a popular writers’ forum. To be honest, I doubted many writers would be interested, and one suggested that the idea of keeping all of the writers interested would be like herding cats, but I was tenacious. Eventually we wound up with a core group of around seven authors, and two of us besides me have already outlined and partly written their own stories. The others in the group are waiting until those stories are all released to begin working on their own stories. My story is set in 2005. The third story will be present day. And a second story falls somewhere in the middle of that timeline. Once they are all released, I’ll create a wiki which we can use as a sort of story bible to keep consistency.
Meanwhile we are all working on the prequel story, so we are all familiar with the origin story. Beyond that, none of us is writing from her POV directly, so even if the stories have different voices, the character’s voice can be kept ambiguous enough. In a sense, it’s the same as when multiple authors write in – say – the Star Wars universe. Or when different directors make a Spiderman movie. We all know who the character is, and we all have our own spin on her, but the reader will still recognize her as the Angel just like they recognize Han Solo or Peter Parker.
Are there things about the Bartering Angel that would have changed if she was only “yours”? Might those things find their way into a future work of yours?
Frankly, I would never have thought to give her a fatal flaw. That was a suggestion by one of our writers, HN Wake. Then as a group we decided to give her agoraphobia, which she is struggling to overcome but which sometimes gets the best of her. So if she was just mine, she’d be less interesting in that regard. Also, I had originally suggested calling the character Betty Barter. Sometimes committee decisions are better.
As for whether I’d ever work my vision of the character into my own story; in my story about the angel set in 2005, On the Side of the Angel, I introduced a middle aged, gay, fixer with a stoic personality called “the painter” who gets involved on the case temporarily. He was how I envisioned the character before we began development. So in a way, I guess I did work my vision for the character into my story.
In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?
Most of my stories involve crime. Some are thrillers. Others are mysteries. I have also written a handful of time travel stories which also involve crime as a central focus. I have no idea why I am so drawn to crime stories. I’m the most honest, milquetoast dude I know. There must be a dark corner in my psyche that wishes I could seek vengeance and embrace anarchy and sociopathology.
What’s the difference between “mysteries” and “thrillers”? Isn’t there a mystery at the heart of any good thriller?
I think a thriller certainly can have a mystery at its heart, but so can a romance or a science fiction novel. And a mystery is thrilling, but so is a horror story. Genre lines are vague in some ways, but like Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography, when it comes to the distinction between mystery and thriller, I know it when I see it.
Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.
I get ideas for stories every day. Sometimes I have completely forgotten them by day’s end. If I haven’t forgotten an idea by the next morning, it begins to stick with me and I know I have a hold of something with a life of its own. I tend to let the idea fester and marinate for a while. Finally I’ll sit down and write out a rough synopsis. I then turn this into an outline, and then I flesh that out into beats.
By this time, I’m ready to write, so I draw in the chapter breaks and do whatever research the story requires, and they all require some research. Then I start writing. A 50,000 word novel usually takes about a month. A novella takes around a week. Then I let it sit for a month or so before going back in for rewrites. I like that break to give it freshness when I return to it. I find if I try to edit or rewrite just after I finish that I’m too close to what I’ve written. A month later though and I can read it like it’s something I’ve never seen, and it’s a lot less precious.
After the rewrites, I send it to my beta team. When I get it back, I make my corrections or rewrites. Then I’ll get one or two people who haven’t seen it yet to give the latest draft a read, then I do a final polish after they give their feedback. That’s it. I hit publish.
Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?
I’m pretty impressed with the Bartering Angel. She was raised in Alaska on a secluded homestead by her parents who homeschooled her and taught her survivalism until they were murdered. After that she lived with her scientist aunt in Anchorage who taught her chemistry before she joined the military where she learned spec ops techniques until a bout of agoraphobia (brought on by unresolved issues resulting from the murder of her parents) forced her to leave the military. She sought therapy and joined the police academy as she tried working through her issues, but when her aunt took ill she left the force and studied forensics and computer science on her own from home. Then, when her aunt passed and she learned that she was going to be charged as the killer when poison is found in her system, she fakes her death and goes underground.
All of this gave her all the necessary tools to be the perfect fixer for the mob, a job she never wanted, but was forced into due to circumstances. It’s such a rich and perfect back story. But…
The problem is I didn’t develop all of this by myself. As I said earlier, she was created as part of a group project.
Then there’s Lupa Schwartz, a genius detective who loathes religion and loves classic cars and women and good food, and came to America from the Balkans as a Jewish refugee after the fall of the Soviet Union. He’s a rich and interesting character too, wearing only green shirts and black pants, insisting on releasing the air from the tires of parking violators so they can’t flee before the police have a chance to ticket them, vigorously denouncing the beliefs of others while holding to what some would consider ludicrous conspiracy theories involving shadow governments and corporate conglomerates. But…
If I’m being honest, most of that came about because the character is pastiche of Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe. I just took existing tropes and twisted them into something recognizable and new but fully formed and informed by what came before.
What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?
One of my characters is a pedophile being brought to justice by a bounty hunter. On the trip they have a conversation, and I decided the child molester would try to make excuses for his behavior. I had to research countries with no age of consent or a very young one that he could use in his argument. I researched the history of consent in our country. It was a weird rabbit hole with a lot of very disturbing facts. And it left me with a very ugly Google cache I’m sure.
What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?
That’s a good question. I’d say I probably wasted way too much time trying to get an agent to shop my mystery series to traditional publishing houses. Of course this was long before the kindle revolution, but even so. Back in those days, an agent would ask for a query with a synopsis. If they liked that they’d ask for a manuscript. For this whole process they wanted non-simultaneous submissions, aka exclusivity on spec. This tied up the project for months and almost always ended in a rejection and they never even sent back the manuscript even though I sent a SASE. It was a giant time and money suck for no return.
Even today there are those who are still playing that game. Do not get sucked in. Even if you are one of the lucky chosen few, they own your labor’s fruit lock-stock-and-barrel. They decide after a month to pull it from shelves and take it out of print and it’s basically gone forever. You don’t own it anymore.
Be an indie publisher.
If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?
Well, for one thing, I’d invest it in a start-up ebook retailer idea I have to compete with the likes of Kobo, Nook, and Amazon. I’d take a smaller cut on each sale letting authors pocket 80%, set sales or free days as they see fit, and run a discovery tool similar to the Netflix model. “Based on your like of Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut, we recommend these indie authors.” Something like that.
Other than that, my own writing would be unaffected. I already write what I want when I want the way I want.
What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?
I really enjoyed The Coelho Medallion by Kevin Tumlinson and Revelation by Carter Wilson. They are two very different kinds of stories by very different authors, but each was enthralling and smart and fantastically researched.
What do you think you’re next project will be?
I have an idea for a science fiction series that I’m hoping to treat in a way similar to the Bartering Angel series in that it will involve several different authors writing in the same universe. I don’t have a name for the concept yet, but it involves an alternate version of our world where scientists in the 80s discovered a way to inject nanobots into our spinal columns that would create artificial stem cells that would replace all of our cells with improved robotic cells. What kind of world would we have today, 30 years later? There’d be luddites who refuse the operation, maybe some of them even working in an underground opposition. Some of the perfected people would figure out ways to use the technology to commit crimes. Each story would explore the universe from a different perspective. Some small and personal in scope, others more epic.
I’m working out the fine points before opening it to other writers.
Meanwhile I have a few more Lupa Schwartz mysteries to write and I’m putting out an audiobook of a noir collection I published last year.