Tuesday, May 3, 2016

On Series Writing and Small Presses

I've done lots of interviews over the past decade-plus, but one I particularly like appeared in Poe's Deadly Daughters, which has since been discontinued. The interview was done about the time I started my second PI series with The Surest Poison. It includes some views on series writing and the pros and cons of small presses. The interview was done by Sharon Wildwind; "PPD" stands for Poe's Deadly Daughters.

You now have four books in your Greg McKenzie series. Why did you decide to write another PI series with a different type of protagonist?

I enjoyed writing about Greg and Jill McKenzie, a pair of sleuths in their late sixties. Writing their snappy banter was particularly enjoyable. Several reviewers referred to them as cozies. I didn’t think of the books that way, but they’re certainly not hard-boiled, and I felt I’d reached the place where I wanted to strike out on a bit edgier path.

The Surest Poison deals with the dumping of a large amount of a toxic chemical behind a small plant in a rural community west of Nashville. When the state comes after the plant’s current owner, PI Sid Chance is hired to find the real responsible party. He soon finds himself, and his associate, Jaz LeMieux, beset by three seemingly unrelated murders, an explosion, and shadows from Sid’s past.

I gather Sid has—what’s the current term—issues?

He was formerly a National Park ranger, then spent ten years as a small town police chief. After he was disgraced and forced to resign, he spent three years roughing it in a hillside cabin in the woods fifty miles from the city. Jaz got him out of that cabin, back to Nashville and into the PI business.

Jaz is sharp, sexy, and fourteen years younger than Sid. Do we see romance ahead?

A. Sid has never been married, or even had a serious relationship. He and Jaz clash now and then, but they’re obviously coming closer. Who knows what may lie ahead?

Where did the plot for The Surest Poison come from?

I have a friend in Nashville named Norma Mott Tillman who is a private investigator specializing in finding missing persons. She’s pretty well known, being on Oprah and several other shows. She told me about a case she had investigated in West Tennessee a few years ago that involved a similar scenario. I saw the possibilities, moved it closer to Nashville, and the story took off.

I should have given Ralph Waldo Emerson credit for the title, but I don’t guess he’ll complain. He wrote an essay in The Atlantic back in 1862 in which he said substances like prussic acid and strychnine “are weak dilutions: the surest poison is time.” I thought it fit the story. The actual poison took years to affect the community, while time took its toll on the characters.

The Surest Poison is published by Night Shadows Press, your second small publisher. What are the pluses and minuses of going with a small publisher?

I’ve heard a lot of New York editors are only concerned with acquiring manuscripts. With a small press, I got to work closely with my editors. I learned an awful lot from my first editor.

I’ve also been fortunate that my editors have stuck with my suggested titles. The only change in mine was with the first book, which I called The Secret of the Scroll. I was rightfully told to leave off the first “The.” Covers involve another plus. I have had total input on all my covers. An additional favorable aspect is production time. From the time I sent the manuscript to the editor, it was no more than nine months until the release date.

On the minus side, the chief problem is distribution. The books are available through Ingram and Baker & Taylor and can be ordered through any bookstore. However, the stores do not routinely stock them. They will only be on the shelf at places where I have done signings. Also, the major review sites mostly ignore small publishers. Library Journal is the only one that has reviewed some of my books. However, respected review sites like Midwest Book Review and Crimespree Magazine always come through.

I’m not telling secrets to say that loads of us in the mystery community envy your ability to do top-notch book signings. Got tips for the rest of us?

I’m always looking for any kind of venue where I can sell. One of my grandsons’ school has a Market Place. I went there and to a street fair in a small town not far from here. My book launch for The Surest Poison will be at my church. Church members are always asking, “When will your next book be ready?” So I know I’ll sell a bunch of books there. I do some signings in larger chain bookstores as well, and we have a small mystery bookstore in Nashville that pushes my books and has ordered several copies of the new one.

I’m pulling out all the stops for this new release, primarily on-line. With the economy as it is, I’m cutting back on travel this year, spending more on venues where I can sell books. I’ve recently done the Southern Kentucky Book Fest, and will do the Kentucky Book Fair in November. I’ve always done well at book fairs.

So I guess my tips are get on the road, do bookstore signings when you can, and constantly keep your eye out for other places to sell. Build a team. I’m very fortunate that my wife plays such a big part in all of my appearances. She’s my shill: she passes out small promo folders and directs people to where I’m signing. If you’re not as lucky as I am, with a ready-made co-conspirator, build a team to help you sell.

It sounds like retiring to write books has been very rewarding.

I’d say there are several rewards. The first is that I simply enjoy writing mysteries. I wrote eight before the first one sold, and I guess I’d still be writing away if none of them had. Another is the satisfaction I get when readers tell me how much they enjoy reading my books. And being a bit vain as we all are, I get a charge out of reading a good review, like the one Jon Jordan wrote in the current Crimespree Magazine that ended, “A top rate mystery by a gem of a writer.”

Website: http://www.chesterdcampbell.com

Monday, April 18, 2016

Wrtiing the Private Eye

The Private Eye Novel has been a favorite of American reading audiences since back in the thirties. Its early popularity grew out of such characters as Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon has become an American fiction classic. There is no shortage of definitions for the detectives who populate these stories. Probably the most definitive is the one used by the Private Eye Writers of America in picking winners for its annual Shamus Awards.

They define a “private eye” as any mystery protagonist who is a professional investigator, but not a police officer or government agent.

I had no idea of creating a PI when I started writing about Greg McKenzie, a retired Air Force OSI agent, the protagonist of my first four mystery novels (plus a later fifth). In fact, I wasn’t even thinking series. The first book involved a hostage taking, and I wanted a character with investigative experience who would have all the tools he needed to compete with the bad guys and rescue his wife. While working on that story, I consulted with the Special Agent in Charge of the Office of Special Investigations at Arnold Air Force Base.

It wasn’t until the end of the second book that I realized Greg and his wife were perfectly suited to get into the private investigation business. The last three books have dealt with cases they took on with unexpected results. A few reviewers referred to the books as cozies, though I didn’t see them that way.

If you’ve never been in law enforcement, how do you learn the basics of writing about private investigators? It helps if you’ve been a newspaper reporter. They use some of the same techniques as detectives. Also you read a lot about PIs, both in fiction and fact. I have two books about private investigation written by two working pros I know personally.

I was surprised when I got a review of the third Greg McKenzie book that started out, “If you’re interested in seeing how a real private detective works try Chester Campbell’s Deadly Illusions.”

That was only topped by a review of the fourth book that began, "The Marathon Murders is a skillfully woven tale that shows detective fiction wannabes how it’s supposed to be done.”

Although I enjoyed penning the exploits of Greg and Jill McKenzie, I wanted to try my hand at a more gritty private eye story. So I conjured up Sidney Lanier (Sid) Chance, a Green Beret in Vietnam, a National Parks ranger for 19 years, and a small town police chief for another 10. He left the NPS after being shot and quit his police job over false accusations of bribery.

Sid is the protagonist in The Surest Poison and The Good, The Bad and The Murderous, the two books in the series. Apparently I succeeded in telling a more hard-boiled tale since one reviewer said I was channeling my love for the written word “into the kind of fiction writing that those with a penchant for Lawrence Block can enjoy.” If you don’t know Larry Block, he writes really hard-boiled stuff and is one of Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Masters.

So what’s the secret to writing believable private eyes? In my view it’s keeping your detective’s eyes and ears tuned to pick up any lead, whether it be a phone call, a scrap of paper found at a crime scene, a casual observation by a witness, and following it wherever the trail takes him. And you’d better obstruct the trail with plenty of boulders and booby traps.

The early PIs were strictly loners, but as the twentieth century wound down, it became popular to give private investigators sidekicks. Jasmine (Jaz) LeMieux fills the spot for Sid Chance, though she’s not like any sidekick I’ve encountered before. She’s rich, being majority owner and board chairman of a chain of truck stops, but followed a pretty weird path in getting there. After quitting college over a disagreement with her basketball coach, she served in the Air Force Security Police, was a professional boxer, and worked as a Metro Nashville policewoman.

Barbara Norville, in her book Writing the Modern Mystery, says “the primary attribute of the private eye is his unique sense of justice, and this is the theme of all private eye novels.” I agree, and it’s the raison d’etre for my PIs. As we learn about Sid Chance, “the possibility of taking a twisted situation and making things right was the lure that kept him in the business.”

Check out my books on the website HERE or on Amazon HERE.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Surest Poison's Jaz LeMieux Talks

The Surest Poison, first book in the Sid Chance PI series, involves Sid’s efforts to locate the man responsible for a toxic chemical dump behind a plant near a small town west of Nashville. I wrote this for another blog shortly after the book came out. I think it's still just as relevant now, particularly if you're new to the series. In The Surest Poison, the current owner of the toxic dump area faces the costly cleanup of the mess caused by a previous occupant years ago. Three seemingly unrelated murders occur as Sid is tailed and threatened. When his part-time associate, Jasmine LeMieux, offers her help, she is awakened by an explosion behind her mansion. A lot of readers tell me they like Jaz better than Sid. She's quite a character. I hope you enjoy the interview.

Chester: Would you state your full name and occupation?
Jaz: What is this? Are you trying to play detective?

Chester: Just answer the question, please.
Jaz: Oh, all right. I’ll play along. My name is Jasmine LeMieux, a.k.a. Jaz, and I’m chairman of the board for Welcome Home Stores, a chain of truck stops headquartered in Nashville. I’m also a newly-minted—licensed, that is—private investigator.

Chester: And a very attractive one at age forty-five.
Jaz: Thanks, I guess, but you didn’t have to go into that age business. A lady needs to keep a few secrets.

Chester: Sorry about that. I hear you’re working with another local PI named Sid Chance. Is that correct?
Jaz: I wouldn’t call it working, exactly. It’s more like a lark to me. It’s a chance to play cop.

Chester: Weren’t you a Metro Nashville policewoman at one point?
Jaz: Until my mother died and my father was nearly killed in a car wreck. I quit the force to help nurse him back to health.

Chester: Your career choices up to that point caused a bit of consternation with your family, didn’t they?
Jaz: You’re being kind. Actually, I was kicked out of the family. My mother was a snobbish Southern Belle. She went ballistic when I dropped out of college and joined the Air Force. I was young at the time and quite determined. I had been a star point guard on the basketball team. When they brought in a new coach who berated my style of play, I got mad and quit. In the Air Force I was assigned to the Security Police under a sergeant who was a former Golden Gloves champion. He worked out regularly with me in the gym. When I left the service, he offered to train me as a boxer. I went professional, and my mother erased my name from the family ledger.

Chester: Didn’t you become a lightweight champion?
Jaz: I did, but it didn’t pay enough to live on. That’s why I became a cop.

Chester: From the looks of this French Colonial mansion you live in, I’d say you weren’t hurting for money now.
Jaz: I’m doing okay. My dad came to Nashville as an ambitious young French Canadian. He built Welcome Home Stores into a lucrative business. When he regained his health after the accident, he asked me to come to work for him. I went back to school and got a computer science degree, plus an MBA. He left me controlling interest in the business when he died.

Chester: How do you find time to play cop, as you call it?
Jaz: I keep close tabs on the company, but I’m not involved in day-to-day operations.

Chester: Weren’t you responsible for getting Sid Chance in the PI business?
Jaz: I was looking for somebody to run an investigation for Welcome Home Stores, and a mutual friend told me about Sid. He had a wealth of experience in law enforcement but got shafted by small town politics. He’d run off to a cabin the woods and was playing hermit. I looked him up, talked him into coming back to take my company’s case. He did such a great job with it that I offered to help him get into the PI business.

Chester: Did you have anything to do with Sid’s taking on this toxic chemical pollution case?
Jaz: I recommended him to a lawyer who does work for my company.

Chester: It sounds like you think pretty highly of Mr. Sidney Chance. True?
Jaz: If you mean do I think he’s one very sharp detective, quite true. He’s also one gorgeous hunk of a man, a little rough around the edges, but honest as the day is long. He’s totally devoid of pretense, someone you can always count on to come through for you.

Chester: In addition to your helping with Sid’s case, he got pretty heavily involved with your problem at home, didn’t he?
Jaz: Yes, there’s a dear couple who lives with me. They’ve been family employees since I was a kid. When their grandson got into trouble, Sid came to the rescue.

Chester: Do I detect something a little more than a purely business relationship?
Jaz: We’ve become very close friends. And this part is off the record. I wouldn’t object to pushing the relationship to a new level, but I think Sid needs to find some inner peace before he’s ready to break out of his shell. He needs to come to terms with his past.

Chester: Didn’t you introduce him to some good law enforcement contacts?
Jaz: You refer to the Miss Demeanor and Five Felons Poker Club. We meet irregularly with a Metro homicide detective, a patrol sergeant, a retired newspaper police reporter, and a former Criminal Court Judge. They’re great friends, and Sid has found they can be quite helpful.

Chester: And what’s in store for Jasmine LeMieux as a private investigator?
Jaz: That depends on Sid. I’m only interested in working cases where he needs my help. I have resources he doesn’t possess, including computer savvy to dig out information not easily accessible.

Chester: I’m sure he’ll find ample opportunity to use your services in the future. Thanks for talking with us, Miss LeMieux. I wish you much success.
Jaz: Hey, speaking of which, you won’t mind if I succeeded in selling a few books, would you?

I guess I could use her help as well as anybody else's. Anyway, that's all for now.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Using Personal Experience in Plot Locations

Fiction is bound to be somewhat biographical. Any of the author's experiences and beliefs are subject to ending up in the story. One area particularly likely to figure in the mix is location. Places familiar to the author will probably find their way into his or her stories. It's certainly true for me.

My Greg McKenzie and Sid Chance mysteries are mostly set around the Nashville area, which is where I have lived for most of my 90 years. But the first book, Secret of the Scroll, is set about half in Nashville and half in Jordan and Israel. Describing the Middle East part was no problem as I had made a similar trek through the area on a Holy Land tour. To back up my recollections, I had three hours of videotape I had shot along the way.

  The second McKenzie mystery, Designed to Kill, takes place in large part around Pensacola, Florida. I had no trouble with descriptions there since my wife and I had spent two weeks in spring and fall for the past few years at my brother's condo (photo at right) on the stretch of sand called Perdido Key, just southwest of Pensacola. I gave Greg and Jill McKenzie a similar condo for their vacation getaway.

When it came to writing the Post Cold War Political Thriller Trilogy, my travels about the world really came into play. The first book, Beware the Jabberwock, opened in Vienna, Austria, a city I had visited on one of my European jaunts. One important locale in the story is Washington, D.C. I made annual trips there during my years as an association executive, visiting House and Senate office buildings, plus other areas in the District. Another key spot is the Great Smoky Mountains, where the major character lived when he was recruited into a clandestine role. I have driven and roamed about most parts of the Smokies. Important to the story is a small island I invented off the Gulf Coast near Apalachicola, Florida, another area I have visited.

Other foreign sites in the story where I have spent time are Tel Aviv, Israel, Hong Kong, Acapulco, Mexico and Toronto. U.S. cities include New Orleans, San Francisco and Atlanta, places I have visited multiple times. Others I have only passed through include Baltimore, the I-75 corridor through Detroit and Niagara Falls. One place I only used research to depict is the island of Cyprus.

In book two, The Poksu Conspiracy, a major portion of the story takes place in South Korea. I was stationed in Seoul during the Korean War and visited modern Seoul during a Far East tour in 1987 with my late wife, Alma, our son Mark and his Korean wife I Pun. But when personal experience doesn't stretch far enough, I have to depend on research.To cover cities such as Berlin, Budapest and Pyongyang, North Korea, I turned to tourist guidebooks and memoirs by people who've lived there.

The last book of the trilogy is Overture to Disaster. I had followed Russia and its satellites closely during the Cold War, so I had no problem finding sources for what I needed about Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. I had visited several parts of Mexico, including Mexico City, which provided a lot of help with the Mexican angle. I depended on research for the Peru part but had visited Zurich, one of the other cities involved in the story.

After 90 years of roaming around the U.S., plus many other areas of the world, I've found personal experience a handy entree to the task of locating physical action. There are still lots of places I'd like to visit, but, unfortunately, my wife, Sarah, isn't up to the journey, and we've always worked as a team.

Friday, March 25, 2016

New Look at an Old Blog...or Is It?

Since I haven't been accomplishing much in the way of writing a new book, I decided to revive this old blog. I say "old"  because its debut came with the dawning of 2009. My first effort appeared here on January 1 of that year. Reading it now, the context could fit the current scene. So let's take a ride down Memory Lane:

It has been a quiet New Year's Day around here. Everybody but me slept till noon. I've been banging around on the computer most of the day, cleaning up this and that. Finally got around to setting up my new blog. Welcome aboard.

So why should you read mine in addition to the 99 million others out there? Will I have anything worthwhile to expound upon? There's the mystery. You'll need to check in now and then to find out.

In a world where the economy is sliding down a greased pole, where people like me have a granddaughter-in-law in Iraq and a grandson in Afghanistan, hopefully not getting shot at today, where legislators seem more adept at arguing than accomplishing, where food on the table is a luxury in many places, is this a a great time to be alive or not? You bet it is.

This is my eighty-third winter, and I've seen a lot of crazy goings-on in this topsy-turvy world. I've managed to survive it all by being an incurable optimist. Things are going to get better. You can count on it. And I plan to take part in the good times ahead. That's why I like mystery writing. The good guys may take a beating along the way, but they're gonna win in the end.

I hope you'll come along for the ride.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

It's Great When Readers 'Get It'

It's always a pleasure when readers "get it," that is, when they totally understand what the author is trying to say in a story. That doesn't always happen. In the case of Hellbound, my latest crime novel and first standalone, the reviews on Amazon indicate that it happened this time. There aren't many, only seven, three 5-star reviews and four with four stars. Most of the reviewers are identified as VINE VOICE, which indicates they are among Amazon's most experienced reviewers.

One of them, Susannah St Clair, top Amazon reviewer, captured the essence of Hellbound in the following three paragraphs:

Who would have thought a trip with a bunch of oldies (us folk who want to hear all that 50’s music) on a big Greyhound bus would be entertaining? I certainly wasn’t too sure about it but I am glad I took the time to read Mr. C.D. Campbell’s “Hellbound”. Entertaining it is with a nice bit of humor and a touch of romance thrown in. Mr. Campbell definitely knows his way around the English language and writes a very good narrative along the way. His characters are nicely drawn and fun to “meet”.

Pulling a hurricane into the story along with the Mafia chasing their unknown quarry through New Orleans was a nice touch making things more scary to all aboard the bus and you the reader. Mr. Campbell has written several other books and it shows in the crafting of this one. Only saw one editing mistake, at least that I noticed. (But then I am a senior too..;<) )

If you're looking for a cute,  fast read, then this book is for you. Even more so if you're over 60. You may see yourself in one of these well etched characters!

My thanks to Ms. St. Clair for her comments. Those who have read my PI series know I attempt to portray older people in a favorable manner. As one who has been in those ranks for many years now, I know most "senior citizens" are just normal people who have passed the age of retirement. Many of them haven't retired but continue to perform valuable service to their communities.

Hellbound was a fun book to write because most of the colorful details of the scenes came from an identical bus trip my wife and I made with our church group back in the late nineties. Fortunately, we were not hounded by a gang of thugs as were the characters in the story, but the places they visit are as we saw them. Right up to the hurricane, that is. The trip we took went from New Orleans to Bellingrath Gardens near Mobile, then up I-65 home to Madison (Nashville).

You can read more about Hellbound on it's Amazon page or my website.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Digging into the Past

There's no telling what you'll turn up if you go shuffling through files you haven't delved into in years. I discovered the  results the other day while cleaning out a filing cabinet. What I came across was a sheet of background information on my first two published novels. I had forgotten about compiling the data.

The first interesting fact I came across was when I started working on Secret of the Scroll and when the book finally made it into print. I began the writing process in January of 1999. The end came three years and nine months later when I received my first copies—October 2002. I typically do a dab of research before starting to write but complete the bulk of it along the way.

Checking my notes, I read numerous books on biblical archaeology, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Bible Codes. My interviews included one with a professor at Emory University, the Special Agent in Charge of the OSI detachment at Arnold Air Force Base, Tullahoma, Tennessee, and a United Methodist preacher I had known from my church in Madison. I dug through lots of internet articles on such subjects as the Bible Codes and Shin Bet, the Israeli Secret Service. I  consulted Israeli tour books and the Royal Jordanian Airlines inflight magazine from which I gleaned the idea for the book.

With all the research along the way, I finished the writing part in eighteen months. Then I sent out query letters to thirty agents. I got one request to see the manuscript and mailed it to the agent in  December 2000. On her advice I sent Secret of the Scroll to a professional editor, received some valuable feedback, revised the manuscript, getting the final edit in June 2001. I sent it back to the agent and heard nothing until December when I received a call from her husband, who headed a small press. He offered me a three-book contract.

I started book two in  the Greg McKenzie Mystery series, Designed to Kill, in October 2000 after completion of the first book. Most of the research and part of the writing took place while my wife and I stayed at my brother's condo at Perdido Key, Florida, site of most of the action. I didn't have anything published at the time, but I didn't hesitate to interview people like a law enforcement ranger at the Gulf Islands National Seashore, a sergeant and an investigator with the Escambia County Sheriff's office, an official in the Building Inspections Department, and a forensic investigator and an Associate Medical Examiner with Florida's First District.

I did research at the Pensacola Historical Society archives, a Biloxi, Mississippi casino (that's fun research), and with several engineering friends. The book was released in March 2004.

I've had eight more novels published since then, and there are many more stories connected to them. I don't know what else I might find in the files, but I'll glean a few more thoughts to use in future blogs. Stay tuned.

Incidentally, I've just redone my website. Take a look at chesterdcampbell.com.