Interview with James L. Thane, author of UNTIL DEATH

Why do you write?

THANE: Well to be honest (and I assume that I have to be honest here), I need the money and I’d rather write than have to go out and look for a real job. I’ve had several, most of which required getting up at a reasonable hour of the morning, keeping my boss happy and doing a lot of other such things that I’m really not very good at. Writing allows me to stay up until all hours of the night or early morning, sleep in as late as I like, and get into the office whenever I please. I also like the fact that the office is steps away from my bedroom and close to the refrigerator. I have no commute, no dress code and no boss. On top of all of that, I love to write and can’t imagine anything else that I’d rather do for a living.

When do you write?

THANE: I don’t have an absolutely fixed schedule. I like to get all the boring parts of my day out of the way first so that they aren’t hanging over my head while I’m trying to write. So I usually get up, exercise, read the papers, run any errands that need running and take care of any household chores that have to be done. By then it’s usually time for lunch, after which I can head into my study and write with a clear conscience. I usually get there around 1:00 or so and will work until around 6:00, if I’m eating dinner at home. Then I’ll go back to work for a while after dinner. My preference, though, is to work until 7:00 or 7:30, then go out for a light dinner, preferably someplace where I can have a couple of drinks and listen to some music. I’ll read for a while before I go to sleep and then start all over the next day.

Where do you write?

THANE: I live most of the year in Arizona, and when I’m there I write in my study at home. I’ve never been one of those people who could write in a coffee house or a café or some other place where there are a lot of distractions. I need the peace and quiet of a room where I can close the door, seal myself off and concentrate on the work. Unlike a lot of other authors, I can’t even listen to music when I write. I do spend three months a year on a lake in northwestern Montana. There I also have a room where I can write, but I also have a table in a gazebo in the woods overlooking the lake. I’ll often take my laptop down there and write, even though I know I’ll occasionally be distracted by the beautiful view or the occasional passing boat. This is the spot:

 

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What do you write?

THANE: I’ve written both fiction and non-fiction, but I’ve now settled into writing crime fiction almost exclusively. I’m currently doing a series set in Phoenix, Arizona, featuring a homicide detective named Sean Richardson. The first book in the series is No Place to Die, and the second, which has been out for six months now, is Until Death. I’ve just finished a stand-alone suspense novel, tentatively titled Picture Me Gone, and am now working on the third Sean Richardson book, which I hope to finish while in Montana this summer.

How do you write?

THANE: Pretty much on the fly. I start with a very vague idea and then write the story chapter by chapter with no idea where the book is going from one day to the next, at least early on. I’ve tried outlining but it simply doesn’t work for me; I have to let a story unfold at its own pace. Usually, by the time I’m about a third of the way in, I’ll suddenly realize how the book is going to end without really having consciously thought about it. Then the job at hand is to get from where I am at that point to the conclusion that’s presented itself. This may also involve a fair amount of re-writing to make what I’ve done already fit the conclusion I’ve decided upon.

Since I don’t know where the book is going, I can’t really do much research in advance, and so part of my process involves doing whatever research is necessary as I go along. Of course the downside to working this way is that occasionally a book will simply stall out and what seemed like an excellent idea winds up going nowhere. I have several efforts lying dormant on my hard drive that ran out of gas after about 15,000 words or so.

Tell me about your previous books and where they can be found.

THANE: I have a non-fiction book that is now out of print and can only be found in used bookstores and on the Internet. Occasionally a copy pops up on E-Bay with the seller asking what seems like a totally irrational price. I don’t know what these used copies actually sell for, but it does sometimes lead me to think about the fifteen or twenty pristine copies I still have in a box in my closet. Otherwise, the other two books are available in a variety of editions on Amazon and at other on-line sites. I know that copies are still available at a number of bookstores, but it’s always difficult knowing which ones will have them in stock at any given moment.

Tell me what you’re currently working on.

THANE: As I suggested above, I’m currently finishing up the third Sean Richardson novel which I’m calling Fatal Blow. It begins when a woman accidentally discovers evidence of her husband’s infidelity. Shortly thereafter, he reports her missing, and a few days later a female torso is discovered floating lazily down a Phoenix canal. When it’s identified as the missing woman, Richardson and his partner, Maggie McClinton, have to figure out who’s responsible for beheading the woman and pitching her into the canal. As is usual in a book like this, complications ensue.

Tell me something funny.

THANE: A couple of nights ago, I went to see Megan Abbot and Jeff Abbot, who are not related but who are touring together in support of their new books. It was a great event and later Harlan Coben was teasing Megan on Twitter about touring with Jeff. She responded as only Megan would by saying, “But first rule of book tour: Bring your own bail money,” which stuck me not only as very funny but also as excellent advice for any writer going on tour.

To learn more about this author, visit his website:

http://www.jameslthane.com

On Why Villains are Fun. . .

The world needs villains. Especially in Judeo-Christian America, we need villains in order to validate our own moral superiority; we need villains to be the living embodiment of Evil, to be out there committing the Big Crimes, so that the rest of us can shake our heads and keep right on cheating on our taxes and stealing our neighbor’s WIFI and parking in handicap spaces.

But philosophical and moral arguments aside, we need villains because well, they’re cool. And they have way more fun than most of us.  They allow us to watch (from a safe distance) as they not only succumb to their base desires, but really revel in them. Personally, I enjoy them for their unapologetic nature, for thumbing their collective noses at the world and saying, “I do whatever I want, whenever I want, and stop me. . . if you can.” Really, how fun does that sound?

Now think about this.  What would Superman be without Lex Luther?  Answer: just an uptight guy with glasses and a strong chin.  I mean, James Bond is just a womanizer without the likes of Auric Goldfinger and Dr. No;  without the many foes Bond has battled and defeated in those books and movies, he would be a cliche, a very one-dimensional character, who would have to find a rich widower to pay for his first-class air travel, gadgets, and dry martinis.  Hell, even my beloved Red Sox are much more fun to watch when they are pitted against the Evil Empire known as the New York Yankees.

Which brings me to an article on villains and villainy I found at a tumblr site called CleverGirlHelps. I linked to the entire article below, but I’ve excerpted some choice bits for those interested, as I am, in the dynamics of villains.

On the difference between a villain and an antagonist:

What makes a villain a villain is action. What makes an antagonist an antagonist is force against the protagonist. Again, these things can overlap, but do not always do so. I would like you to disregard the notion that villains and antagonists must be characters. They can be, but they do not always have to be.

On villainy as a reflection of the hero:

A villain can be a reflection or shadow of whatever the hero stands for and loves. A villain who is good at their job might be this because they represent whatever the hero fears, loathes, or is scared of. A reflective villain is more than not-the-hero, a villain is the essence of not-the-hero.

On villainy as conflict:

Conflict and villainy can easily coincide. Conflict is the basis of the story, the thing that drives the plot and spurs on the characters. Bear in mind, if your villain is a part of the conflict, I expect you to deal with the villain somehow before resolving the plot in its entirety.

Here’s the entire article, which is filled with smart observations on the subject as well as a variety of examples to back up her opinions. Check it out.

http://clevergirlhelps.tumblr.com/post/84565698794/hi-i-was-wondering-if-you-have-any-advice-on-writing-a

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10 Vital Novel Writing Tips from The Marshall Plan

I’m always looking for a way to simplify the process of writing novels, and again and again, I return to the Marshall Plan for Novel Writing. These ten key tips, I’ve found, to be extremely helpful. Click on the link below to read the full article.

http://themarshallplan.net/tenvitalnovelwritingtips.htm

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our story’s lead must be a sympathetic character. To achieve this end, build in four key characteristics: courage, virtue, likability, competence – See more at: http://themarshallplan.net/tenvitalnovelwritingtips.htm#sthash.wmgwkzPO.d
our story’s lead must be a sympathetic character. To achieve this end, build in four key characteristics: courage, virtue, likability, competence – See more at: http://themarshallplan.net/tenvitalnovelwritingtips.htm#sthash.wmgwkzPO.dpuf
our story’s lead must be a sympathetic character. To achieve this end, build in four key characteristics: courage, virtue, likability, competence – See more at: http://themarshallplan.net/tenvitalnovelwritingtips.htm#sthash.wmgwkzPO.dpuf
our story’s lead must be a sympathetic character. To achieve this end, build in four key characteristics: courage, virtue, likability, competence – See more at: http://themarshallplan.net/tenvitalnovelwritingtips.htm#sthash.wmgwkzPO.dpuf

Make Your Mystery Stand Out: Tips from the Marshall Plan for Novel Writing

True story: about a year ago, I received feedback on my mystery novel from a literary agent based out of Los Angeles. Along with a two-page critique, she also sent a multi-page checklist of items she and her agency require before signing a new client. The checklist included dozens and dozens of very specific items–too many to mention here–and while I studied the checklist carefully and gained some helpful insight on what agents are looking for, I was still a bit overwhelmed. . .which brought me back to The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing. Below are excerpts from an article entitled “Make Your Mystery Stand Out.” In it, Evan Marshall–literary agent and best-selling author–boils down the list to three essential elements.I found this incredibly helpful, especially when I was writing the first draft of my detective novel Go Go Gato.

Look for the Hook

In fiction, a hook is a way to promote a book through some aspect that has commercial appeal or provides publishers with a gimmick or “handle” that lends itself to publicity. Your detective might have an occupation that is of high interest in the current culture, is especially timely, is interesting for its very obscurity, or is the same as that of the author. For instance, Patricia Cornwell’s series of mysteries featuring Dr. Kay Scarpetta first became popular at a time when public interest in the world of medical examiners had been heightened by such nonfiction books as Coroner by Dr. Thomas Noguchi, L.A.’s coroner to the stars, not to mention the tremendous public fascination with true crime. That’s Ms. Cornwell’s hook.

 

Dig Into Your Characters

Today’s readers want richly textured characters, especially in the series detective. A clever puzzle for your mystery novel is important but not enough. We must know all of your major characters as people, just as we would know the characters in any well-written novel. For purposes of characterization, think of your book as a novel with mystery, not a mystery novel. Tell us about your characters’ pasts, their psychologies, their faults and weaknesses, their relationships to one another. Remember, it’s your characters who will bring your readers back for more.

 

Devise a Clever

Don’t settle for a plot device if you can recall seeing it in another book, in a movie, or on TV. Work hard to come up with something different. Granted, there are only so many ways to kill someone, but the canny mystery writer will give one of those ways a new twist. The same goes for motive. There’s no excuse for stale clichés; your plotting is truly your own and should bear your distinctive fingerprint.

See more at: http://themarshallplan.net/mysterystandout.htm#sthash.WDGd8jxA.dpuf

Book Review of And She Was by Alison Gaylin

I’ve been looking for a new series to obsess over, and well, the search is over. And She Was by Alison Gaylin stars Brenna Spector, a forty-something private detective who specializes in missing person cases. And here’s the intriguing bit about the protagonist: she is stricken (if that’s the right word) with Hyperthemesia.  (It means she has an incredibly detailed autobiographical memory…yeah, I had to look it up, too.) Spector recalls, with breathtakingly stunning clarity, practically every single moment of her life.

And She Was starts with the disappearance of Iris Neff, a little girl who suddenly walks off from a neighborhood barbecue, never to be heard from again. Cut to a decade later when one of those present at the barbecue–Carol Wentz, a mild-mannered wife with a seemingly boring husband–becomes obsessed with the case.  After years of secret investigations, Carol manages to get a beat on Iris, but before she can reach out to her Carol ends up in the trunk of a car, murdered. That’s when Nelson Wentz, the prime suspect in the murder, hires Brenna Spector, not to track down Iris Neff, but to figure out who killed his wife.  The tension mounts at every turn as Spector finds haunting parallels between the Iris Neff case and her own life.  And, naturally, Spector comes to the conclusion that the Iris Neff case and Carol Wentz’s murder are related.

Once again, I always return to the characters in a story, and Brenna Spector is downright fascinating.  Because of her Hyperthemesia, she is constantly being dragged into the past, revisiting every single detail of her life.  Now, on the surface, this might sound cool, but man, could it get annoying.  The strain of this affliction coupled with the stress of working what amounts to two cases simultaneously really make Spector a dynamic character.  The tension between Spector and Nelson Wentz, who is creepy in a vanilla kind of way, helps create an atmosphere of suspicion, and the love-hate dynamic between Spector and her metrosexual assistant Trent provides comic relief.

Bottom line, I want to read more books featuring Spector, a tough yet vulnerable detective.  I anxiously await the next installment in this series. In the meantime, read And She Was; you won’t be disappointed.

And She Was

Eat More Vienna Sausage, Listen to More Phish: Why Writers Should Go Back to Their Childhoods

Proust had his madeleines, but when I want to remember something from my childhood, I reach for a tin of Armour’s Vienna sausages. There is something about the taste of mechanically separated chicken, pork, salt, corn syrup and hydrolyzed soy that floods my brain with images from my misspent youth. . .me in my Little League uniform, looking out the bay window in my parent’s house, cursing the storm clouds on the horizon, knowing that the game would be canceled. I’d stomp my cleats on the wood floors and call Mother Nature horrible names and slam my head against the wood paneling in the living room until the anger subsided. (What can I say? I was an angry child, and I loved baseball.)

Now when I want to remember something from my so-called adolescent years, I queue up Phish on Spotify, and suddenly, I have bleached blonde hair and a face full of acne and a chip on both shoulders.  Suddenly, once again, I have a head full of dreams of becoming a granola-chewing, psychedelic-drug-taking guitar god a la Trey Anastasio, or Jerry Garcia before him. The songs–“Bouncing Around the Room”; “You Enjoy Myself”; or “Sample in a Jar” for any fans of the band–transport me back to how I felt dancing (horribly!) at their shows, how I felt driving around and around listening to live shows on my cassette deck and wondering if I could one day create music that made people feel the way I felt at that moment. The music was an escape from the (then) purposelessness of my existence. . .

Which brings me to my point: I love to write, to turn pain or pleasure into stories, and sometimes I need a tangible trigger to get me reacquainted with certain emotions from my past. Otherwise, how could I write convincingly about anything? I suggest that writers who might be stuck with a piece of writing try going back to their childhood and rediscovering a favorite food or favorite band.  Or, you could go the other way and revisit the sight of an embarrassing moment, the location of a cringe-worthy failure. (Believe me, I have enough of both of those to last three lifetimes).  In my opinion, writers need to be jarred out of their comfort zone from time to time, and what better way to do that than by eating over-processed foods that will cause hypertension and strokes, and listening to Hippie music with nonsensical lyrics and never-ending jam sessions.

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Creative Writing Exercise

So I’m teaching a creative writing class this semester, and one of my students, who is only twenty and already a talented writer, asked me two very astute questions about character development.  I recorded them here as well as my answers.

Question #1: I have an idea for a character, but he’s based on someone I actually know. What should I do?

Answer: Two things. One, write a brief character sketch that focuses on the physical attributes of the character. I find it is easiest to get to know a character from the outside in, not the other way around. Feel free to make up some details about this person; just remember to change the name to protect the unsuspecting. Here is a sample character sketch that I wrote for my student:

Coach David Lash was a short, stocky black man in his mid-seventies. Crowned the first ever African-American North Carolina State Tennis Champion in 1962, he wore a burgundy track suit, a black fishermen’s cap and black horn-rimmed glasses every day of his life.  His lower lip stuck out constantly, whether he was angry, which was rare, or happy, which was often.  During our tennis practices, he used to walk (actually, he hobbled as if one leg were slightly shorter than the other) onto the court in the middle of a point to give instruction, sometimes tennis instruction but more often it was life instruction. When he did this, his wife, a woman with iron-gray hair and perfect dentures, would yell at him to stop fussing, but he would stick his lip out farther and grab my racket and show me, for the one-hundredth time, the correct form for a crosscourt backhand.  As he repeated the proper backhand technique, racket back, shoulder turn, swing low to high, finish behind the ear, he would explain that if one refused to strive for perfection and grace on the tennis court, one would surely turn to drugs, meaningless sex, and petty crime. Up close, I could see Coach Lash’s mottled skin and dark bloodshot eyes. Up close, I could smell him: a mixture of Vasoline and stale coffee and some other scent I couldn’t place at the time, what with me being an upper-middle-class white teenager with my very own bedroom, car and ample allowance.  But later, after my acne faded and my voice changed and the world kicked me in the gut a few too many times, I came to realize that Coach David Lash, whose grandparents were freed slaves from Kentucky, had the smell of experience on him, experience and lessons harshly but wisely learned.

Two, answer all the questions in a character questionnaire. This will allow you to get to know the character’s quirks, habits, tastes, and, most importantly, his motivations.  Here’s a questionnaire that looks pretty good: http://www.writingclasses.com/InformationPages/index.php/PageID/106

Question #2: When writing a novel, should you load the opening chapter with the protagonist’s back story, or dole it out little by little throughout the narrative?

Answer: Dole it out little by little. Try to reveal character back story through bits of dialogue, or very brief flashbacks. Avoid long flashbacks and long monologues as these clog up the narrative, slow down the pace, and pull the reader out the story. But hey, don’t take my word for it: read what the late-great Elmore Leonard had to say about prologues and back story here: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/16/arts/writers-writing-easy-adverbs-exclamation-points-especially-hooptedoodle.html

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