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.