Saturday, August 12, 2017

20, 40, 60 …

Here's something I submitted for the Permanent Press blog run by Martin Shepard. A few insights into turning into a mystery writer.

My professional/public life has tended to run in 20-year cycles.
In my early 20s, I became a sports writer because the idea of getting paid to go to ballgames and write about them seemed to me to be a pleasant way to spend my adult life. Maybe I wouldn’t change the world, but, like a diligent physician, I would do no harm.
Then, just before I turned 40, I started my first novel, because I had managed to get promoted away from using the main talent I thought I brought to journalism: writing.  I needed to write. That first novel, Littlejohn, was bought by The Permanent Press after a dozen large publishers had turned it down. Martin and Judith Shepard’s judgment was rewarded when the book got great reviews and word-of-mouth support from independent booksellers, and Random House purchased it from them/me and republished it the next year.
That made writing novels in my free time (I was still working as a newspaper editor) easier, because I was fairly confident someone would publish my work. Over the next 20 years, I wrote nine literary novels, some for The Permanent Press, some for Harper Collins and Random House.
Then about the time I turned 60, still working as a newspaper editor, another fork in the road appeared, and, like Yogi Berra advised, I took it.
A friend, Tom De Haven, an outstanding novelist who teaches creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University, asked me to write a detective noir short story for a collection that would become Richmond Noir, one of a series of noir collections published by Akashic Books.
I had never written a mystery anything. I didn’t even read that many mysteries, but I’m always game to write something that people might read, so I gave it a try. That short story, “The Thirteenth Floor,” was the birth of Willie Black, a night police reporter for the Richmond daily newspaper who drinks too much, smokes too much and marries too much, a man with a good heart and bad habits.
I knew right away that Willie’s first-person voice was something I could use in a novel or two. Even before Richmond Noir came out, I was working on the first Willie Black mystery. That first one, Oregon Hill, won the Dashiell Hammett Prize for best crime literature in the U.S. and Canada. The fifth one, Grace, is a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award for Best Fiction Adult Mystery. The sixth one, The Devil’s Triangle, with a starred Publishers Weekly review, came out in July. I’m polishing the seventh one now. The first six have all been published by The Permanent Press as will, I’m hoping, the seventh.
What have I learned? Basically, writing is writing. I found that the things that carried me in literary fiction—a good plot, intriguing characters, quality writing—worked just as well in mysteries. And when I needed professional advice (What kind of gun should the bad guy use? What’s it like at an execution? What’s the procedure between the arrest and the trial?), there was always an expert, either in person or online, who could tell me what I needed to know.
The important thing is simply to have a good story and write it well. Genre doesn’t matter. The bonus, with mysteries, is that you have a protagonist and a setting already. If you have a likeable, compelling protagonist, you can use him or her over and over. And the setting doesn’t usually change. All you need is another story, and the world is full of stories.
With literary fiction, I had to invent a new world every time out. With the mysteries, I always have Willie (he’s 10 years younger than me, so I can ride him for years to come), and I always have Richmond, a city with a history, with a wealth of nooks and crannies that you don’t find in most cities.
The down side, if there is one, is that the characters have to stay real and fresh. Willie can’t be fully redeemed, although he tries to be good. There’s not much of a market for Detective Blanc.
So, I’m seven novels into that third phase right now.
Twenty. Forty. Sixty. Can’t wait to see what 80 brings.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Devil's Triangle comes out this month

The pre-pub reviews for The Devil's Triangle, which will come out this month, have all been in the good-to-excellent range. The starred review in Publishers Weekly was especially gratifying. I'm doing a couple of events in Richmond so far, one at Chop Suey on July 12, 6 p.m. and one at Fountain Books on Aug. 3 at 6:30. I'm also going to be at the Killer Nashville mystery writers event in Nashville Aug. 25-27.
Meanwhile, I'm about two-thirds of the way through the first draft of the next Willie Black mystery, and Annie's Bones, a completed novel that only peripherally involves Willie, will come out in 2018.

Monday, April 17, 2017

A starred review in PW!

The sixth Willie Black mystery got a starred review in Publishers Weekly, which makes me very happy.

At the start of Owen’s superior sixth outing for Richmond, Va., reporter Willie Black (after 2016’s Grace), a twin-engine Beechcraft plane crashes into the Dark Star bar, killing 22, injuring 29, and fueling wild speculation about the cause of the crash. Was it a terrorist act, suicide, or an accident? The pilot is identified as David Biggio, a former Richmond resident who was once arrested for stalking his former wife; the plane belonged to James “Chopper” Ware, who owns a hardware store in a tiny town on the Chesapeake Bay. Black uses all his journalistic resources, including such strong supporting characters as Peachy Love, the police media relations person, and elderly Jumpin’ Jimmy Deacon, who gives him a lead to Biggio’s ex-wife. As usual, Black finds himself at odds with police chief Larry Doby Jones and with his newspaper’s publisher, Rita Dominick. An unexpected insurance policy, the discovery of a murder victim, and a man’s hidden past keep Black digging. Owen’s informed treatment of Richmond and its declining daily paper is perfect. (June) 

Friday, March 31, 2017

Lovin' Richmond


There's so much to do here, I don't know where to start. Yesterday, we went to the opening of the French Film Festival at the Byrd Theater, our fabulous 1920s era movie palace (it'll be even more fab when they replace the seats) to see Himalaya, a wonderful movie. Going back Sunday to catch another feature.
Tomorrow is the Monument Avenue 10K, with 30K runners. I'll just have time to shower afterwards before we go to the UR-UVA lacrosse match and tailgate picnic at the University of Richmond. After that, who knows?
Got the first review of The Devil's Triangle yesterday. Here's the kicker: ."Owen produces another grim, tightly woven, and resolutely professional piece of work with a memorably nightmarish payoff."



Sunday, January 22, 2017

Be a sore loser


I have heard a lot from gloating Donald Trump supporters since Nov. 8 about "sore losers." Bullshit. If you tiptoe around the enormity of Trump's election, afraid of being a poor sport, don't. This isn't a football game. It is way more than OK to oppose him. In fact, it is patriotic to be a sore loser when what you've just lost is the assurance that you won't be living in a Fascist state in the near future. They aren't handing sportsmanship trophies for graciously accepting the theft of the First Amendment (you know, the one that doesn't involve guns).  Be a good sport when your favorite team loses the big game. This is not a game, and Miss and Mister Congeniality will wake up one day and discover, as Leo Durocher once said, that nice guys (and women) finish last.
Good sportsmanship is a laudable thing––in sports. In real life, it doesn't always work, especially if the winner can't even avoid being a poor winner. Do not engage in magical thinking and believe that the strutting, lying, bullying, racist, sexist, xenophobic, pussy-grabbing Donald Trump, the guy who thinks it's fun to make fun of the disabled, was just kidding, that he'll turn into a sensible and responsible president. Face facts. He is who he is, and he is a threat to every one of us, from the basis of individual rights to the ability to cause World War III.
Make America Great? Hell, we ARE great. Our unemployment is half what it was when Obama started dealing with it. Tens of millions have health care who did not have it before. We are less dependent on foreign oil than we have been in decades. Home prices are soaring. We have the largest, greatest military in the world. Our recovery from the Great Recession greatly outstrips that of Europe. The rest of the planet envies us.
This isn't Clinton vs. George H.W. Bush, or George W. vs. Gore, or Obama vs. McCain or Romney. This is new and dangerous ground.
Trump is the president, but he is not our emperor (yet). Oppose the tyranny he wants to impose. Work for justice.


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

I've just finished editing changes to The Devil's Triangle (June 2017, The Permanent Press) and am about to tweak one after that, Annie's Bones (2018). Then, it'll be on to another Willie Black project. Retirement has afford me more writing time than I ever had before, but I still only spend a couple of hours a day actually writing, if that. After 44 years of newspapering, I find that I have to have self-imposed deadlines--a certain time of day to write.  Journalism might not teach you to write well, but it teaches you to write something, and do it in a timely fashion.
The Devil's Triangle is my 15th novel. This stuns me sometimes. When I sat down to try to write a novel in 1989 right before I turned 40, carving out an hour a day from my newspaper job, my dream was to write just one book worth publishing, eventually. Sometimes I sit back and think what my life would be like right now if I hadn't taken that step off the cliff almost 30 years ago and tried to do what I wasn't sure at all was possible.
As with our outgoing president, whom I would miss even if he weren't being succeeded by a demented joke, I am a big  believer in hope.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Many thanks to the lovely and talented Jane Nardone for the poster of the first five Willie Black books, including Grace, which comes out in October. Number six should be out next year. Willie and I are working away.