Mark Langley – Talks About his Approach to Writing
My latest book, Death Waits in the Dark, is the second in a series concerning Arthur Nakai, a former Marine, ex-Shadow Wolf for the CBP. He has left that life and runs his own outfitting business in Northwest New Mexico. His wife, Sharon, a local KZRV news reporter and sometimes anchor, is still struggling with the loss of their first child, and the two of them are trying to move forward in their marriage. This is stressed in my first book, Path of the Dead, and begins to reshape them in Death Waits in the Dark.
I have always wanted to tell stories. After a terrifying car crash in my thirties, I sat in the hospital wondering what if I hadn’t made it? What if I was alive only with the help of machinery? What had I done with my life? From that moment on, I decided to live and go where I always wanted to go: the American Southwest. My parents took me there on a vacation when I was twelve, and the land had been a part of my soul ever since. I had to go back. I had to go back to what I felt was my home. Upon doing so, the urge to write of characters that inhabited that land grew evermore present inside me. I took a two-week trip and dictated everything I saw, felt, smelled, and heard into an old Panasonic tape recorder. That trip became Path of the Dead.
I’ve been told I do things a little backward. I normally think of a title and then create a story around it. Then I sit down and create characters along with backstories and begin to work out the plotline. I may go through several drafts, but I sit down at my laptop and let the Characters take over when I have all I need.
The third book in my Arthur Nakai series, When Silence Screams, is about a missing nineteen-year-old from Santa Fe. When Arthur is visited by the girl’s mother and her brother, she has been missing for six months. The family believes she has been sold into sex-trafficking. While Arthur is searching for her, he learns of a fifteen-year-old girl that has vanished, leaving only her bicycle behind. Then a young woman in her early twenties is fished out of a lake on the Navajo reservation with a ghastly revelation. Are the three connected? Arthur will have to find out.
After reading about the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls on the reservations in both the US and Canada, I created this story. Like Shirley, Becenti tells Arthur, “When a white girl goes missing from a golf course, the world hears about it. Let it be an Indian, and no one cares.” When I read that in 2016 alone, 5,712 girls and women went missing, I had to tell a story that would make people aware and think. I don’t tell the reader how to think but encourage them to form their own opinions.
Currently, I am reading Craig Johnson’s Longmire series as well as Anne Hillerman’s continuations of her father’s works. I confess I don’t get a lot of time to read, but I have read my author idols: Robert B. Parker, Mickey Spillane, and Ernest Hemingway, along with Ian Fleming and John D. MacDonald (whom I share a birthday with).
Path of the Dead took me about 20 years to write. I have a favorite saying John Lennon said years ago: “Life is What Happens To You While You’re Busy Making Other Plans.” I began Path of the Dead under the title Navajo Wind, then met the woman who became my wife, worked hard, took her adolescent daughter as my own, and life took over. Other things became more important. For the next 20 years, it was an on-again-off-again romance with writing. Then, at the end of 2016, after retiring, I decided to take my one chance at making my dream come true. And thank God, it did. A few months later, I had an agent and a two-book deal with Blackstone Publishing.
Character names seem to fall into place as I develop the persona of each character. If the name flows, I use it. If it doesn’t, I keep searching. The names have to feel real, not contrived, for me to create a character around them.
As most writers can attest to, you can think all you want about how they would react. Still, whether they are having a conversation, involved in some action, they tend to have a mind and will of their own and do things you hadn’t thought of. Their own “humanity” comes to the surface.
I don’t believe that a man can’t write from a woman’s perspective or vice versa. A lot of Sharon’s actions and words are my wife’s. I think that adds to the reality of their marriage. And my readers have told me they love the characters because they are believable. In Death Waits, I deal with PTSD and Arthur’s military past. Having never had that experience, I turned to my friends that had joined after high school and had been in Afghanistan. I sat and listened and learned a great deal. Then I did a lot of research, and that made me able for Arthur to convey that bond of brotherhood and talk of his past truthfully.
I love having subplots. In Path of the Dead and Death Waits in the Dark, I use them. I find that even if they are little things that actually have happened in the area Arthur calls home, not only will the readers that live in that area remember them, but other readers will see the subplot as an interesting little detour.
Arthur’s looks are based on a Native actor. Sharon is based on a TV reporter I got to know. Jake Bilagody resembles my grandfather in stature. In When Silence Screams, a few characters are based on friends I had in high school and my first job.
I always outline. I find it is much better to have a road map than to wing it. I outline the story as a whole, then each chapter. That always seems to change, however, when the characters take over the narrative.
I compile folders, if not binders, of research concerning what the story will be involving. That is both the hardest part and the most enticing part of being a writer—learning about things of which you had no idea.
I tell my readers that 98% of the locations are real. I have been there, driven the hard-packed roads, and tried to bring those places to life. Then, the other 2% are fictional because there is so much more leeway to accomplish what a writer needs to.
When Silence Screams will be out next August, but right now, I am researching book four, “GLASS.” It concerns the terrible grip crystal meth has on the reservations. In this age of Covid, I cannot visit the area as I have in the past. I rely on doctors near me and the internet to explore this scourge. Glass will be set for release in 2022.
The best advice I have for other writers is to never give up. Perseverance is the key. Never give up on your dream and goal, and NEVER give up on yourself. If you do, then you have lost. No matter how many naysayers there are, they do not understand your dream or goal. That cannot even imagine it. Only you do. Live your truth.
Here is my contact information:
Shannon Brown is the author of Parlor Tricked, a funny psychic novel.
Parlor Tricked – A reluctant psychic, a dead rock star, and a cursed linen outlet. It’s just another day in suburban Ohio. Victoria Maldene is convinced she is the only non-psychic born into a family of mediums until the day she gets a visit from the town’s most famous resident. Victoria doesn’t want to follow in the family business. Her mom and her sister may have psychic visions, but Victoria doesn’t. She’s too busy going to school and working part-time at the local linen outlet to worry about the paranormal. What Vicki doesn’t know is the linen outlet now stands where a cursed theater used to be.
When Victoria starts to see unexplainable things and people no one else can, she brushes it off. Then she meets a famous rock star who grew up in her part of Ohio. Meeting Johnny Billingsley is quite a conversation starter, especially since he died thirty years ago. Johnny wants to pass along a message to his family, and the only one who can help him is Victoria. Will she be able to help, or will Johnny’s secret remain hidden forever? Find out in the hilarious Parlor Tricked.
Beyond the Music – Ellen Daniels was all alone until love showed up at her door. Too bad her new boyfriend’s not all he seems. In the summer of 1966, 21-year-old Ellen Daniels moved to Canada to help out her family’s business. Now the business is failing, and she’s miles away from everything she knows and loves. Then one day, an enigmatic stranger shows up. Ellen finds herself falling in love even though her mysterious new boyfriend has something to hide. Can she trust him, or will she get sucked back into the rhythms of the life she left behind in Indiana?
Rock’n’Roll in Locker Seventeen. An ordinary teen has just discovered the fate of the world’s most famous missing rock star. What happens next will blow your mind. In 1964 Ricky Stevenson had it all, then he mysteriously vanished. Thirty years later, the truth is revealed and turns 17-year-old Steven’s life inside out. So, where has Ricky been, and why? All will be revealed once you read Rock’n’Roll in Locker Seventeen.
Pete’s Potato Problem – Pete has a problem. A new restaurant has opened up in town and taken away all his business. Then Pete gets an idea. The annual Pingleton Potato Festival is coming up. Pete knows if he enters his recipe in the big contest, people will fall in love with his food once again. Then Pete discovers someone is buying up all of his secret ingredients. What will Pete do? Will, he closes up shop, or will Pete find an unexpected way to solve his potato problem?
Do you write in more than one genre? Yes. Whatever genre strikes me. I’ve done Young Adult, New Adult, Light Paranormal, and a picture book.
What brought you to writing? I had an idea that I always thought might make an interesting book. Years ago, I worked a holiday job at a mall bookstore. They also ran a temporary kiosk. After the holidays ended, the booth had nothing on sale. No one was interested any more, so it was completely dead. Anyway, I got assigned to this dead kiosk, and the first day I brought a few magazines. I read through them all and was so bored, so the next day I brought a notebook. The manager asked me what it was for. I said to keep track of my schedule. While at the kiosk, I started writing my first book and didn’t stop.
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? In my home office. I sometimes listen to music. I sometimes get distracted by the internet, but I try not to let that happen when I am in the zone.
Tell us about your writing process: I sit at my computer and try to get into the zone where ideas flow. Sometimes it happens, other times not as much. Sometimes that zone will hit me other places, and I will write freehand. Some people call it the muse.
What are you currently working on? A novel about a woman who feels like she can no longer relate to the present time, so she slides back into the 80s/90s state of living.
How long did it take you to write your first book? I don’t remember. Rewrites and edits took forever. I wrote the first draft of the third book in the trilogy in a month for NaNoWriMo one year. I need to finish prepping it and release it soon.
How long to get it published? I tried to do it the old-fashioned way initially with query letters. That is achingly slow. It takes months for people to get back to you and some people want you to query them exclusively. When I was trying, the book world was changing, and traditional publishers were not keeping up. Eventually, I got with the times and added it to Amazon and other online booksellers.
We hear of strong-willed characters. Do yours behave, or do they run the show? I let them do what they seem to want to do. I don’t know if strong-willed is the right word for them, however. I guess it depends on the character and situation they find themselves in.
What’s the most challenging thing about writing characters from the opposite sex? Trying to gauge how they would view the opposite sex without making them unlikable.
Do you try to make the antagonist into a more human character? Often my antagonists are not necessarily human in the first place. They are in a struggle the characters must face.
How do you raise the stakes for your protagonist—for the antagonist? It depends on the story; I don’t have a formula. I wish I did.
Do you base any of your characters on real people? Not really, though people assume I do. I’ve heard it is so and so based on me, more than once. I’ve added single characteristics from people to characters but never a whole character.
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? Pretty much a pantser, though I may do smaller sub-outlines if I get stuck.
Where do you place your settings—real or fictional locations? Fictional locations that seem like they could be real places. Often the towns or parts of the cities are loosely based on real places.
What is the first book you ever read? I’m not sure. The first book I ever bought myself was a funny spin on the Bremen Town Musicians’ German fairy tale. I bought it at Long’s Drugs in a rack by the check stand, after my dad gave me some money and told me to pick something out. I don’t know what attracted me to that book, but it was a good one. I read it a lot.
Looking to the future, what’s in store for you? Publishing the third book in my trilogy. It’s almost ready to go. Writing more and trying to get back into promoting my stuff.
How do our readers contact you? Your website, blog links, any links you want to be posted?
The Birth of The Mona Lisa Sisters
Ten years ago, I was managing Safety and Security for Palm, Inc. A few months later, Hewlett-Packard acquired Palm in what is often referred to as a disastrous acquisition. Not long after, H-P began the layoffs. I got a weekly list of those to be laid off the following week. When the notice came for my team, I gave them the week off to start on a job hunt. A few weeks later, I learned I would be terminated the following Monday. I cleaned out my office but hung around in case there were any problems.
Then began my introduction to how rampant age-discrimination had become. After three months, it was so obvious; I started a spreadsheet. I recorded 140 applications after that. Often, I could swear the hiring company had used my resume as the requirements for the position. My mistake was being honest. I included that I was a Vietnam War Veteran. Any H/R person in the world would spot that and know I was at least sixty years old. I got one interview. I walked in, business suit, tie, and white hair. The two people I talked with were wide-eyed twenty-somethings. They were polite in their T-Shirts, torn pants, and sandals . . .for about five minutes. Then, “Thank you for coming in, George. Have a good day.”
Early 2012, I saw that the local senior center was offering a writing class. I figured it might help with a new resume—wrong. It was a fiction writing class. I was learning creative writing, and I loved it. After a month or so, the instructor passed out random pictures to each student. The assignment: “Study the image, taken fifteen minutes, and describe the scene.”
I took one look at my picture, two girls looking up at the Mona Lisa, and ignored the assignment. In those fifteen minutes, I knew I would write a novel. I had notes on paper, the story in my mind, and the title. And it all came together to form the genesis for The Mona Lisa Sisters.
That began an eight-year journey.
I enrolled at Las Positas College and took writing classes. Unlike my earlier college years, it was no longer drudgery. I earned straight As. The assignments lead to multiple revisions of my novel.
In a class taught by Karin Spirn, I read about a fantastic instructor at UC Berkeley who did not have a doctorate. Instead, he held an MFA. In another class, I was introduced to the work of Native American poet Joy Harjo. She was recently appointed to a third term as the U.S. Poet Laureate. I began following her on social media. I saw that Harjo was a guest lecturer at the Institute of American Indian Arts, MFA Program. An enrolled descendant of the Karuk Tribe of California, I called IAIA and applied. Five days later, I received an acceptance notice for the Low-Residency MFA Program. IAIA, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
For the next two years, my manuscript was my thesis paper, The Mona Lisa Sisters. I rewrote, revised, and learned. My mentors were terrific and have, over time, become much more to me. One area that I got dinged on was when I brought my characters to the dinner table. The settings often lacked enough detail to draw the reader into the scene. Ismet “Izzy” Prcic, roared “People don’t go to dinner and leave. They eat. What the “F” are they eating—saying?”
Mona Lisa is set in the early 1890s. So, I had much research to do before bringing food to the table. I did it—overdid it—added several thousand words. Izzy, “I don’t need to know every single effen thing they ate and how it was prepared.” I subtracted words to please him.
Each addition or subtraction required rewrites.
The program required a great deal more than working on my manuscript. I attended lectures, readings, workshops, and read and wrote critical reviews of over forty books. Two authors I had held extreme distaste for became favorites—Albert Camus and Joyce Carol Oates. Most of those forty books are full of underlining, highlighting, and writing in the margins. My mentors and I collaborated on the selection of books. Native Americans wrote at least half our choices. I was introduced to the work of such great authors as,
- Debra Magpie Earling (Bitterroot Salish) – Perma Red
- Louise Erdrich (Chippewa) – The Round House
- David Treuer (Ojibwe) – Little
- Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo) – Ceremony
I met many who shared their world and writing. I met Joy Harjo and chatted over cafeteria dinner. Tommy Orange, There There, was a contemporary, as was Angela Trudell Vasquez. Angie is the Poet Laureate of Madison, Wisconsin.
When I faced the challenge of my thesis/manuscript, one of the questions came from another, fantastic teacher and author, Pam Houston. Her first question had to do with the scenes set in . . . the dining room. I shouldn’t have, but I laughed. I know Izzy put her up to it.
This year, I finished the twenty-third revision of The Mona Lisa Sisters. Agent queries had been returned with polite rejections. I sat back, told the manuscript, “I’m starting to hate you. I’m finished.”
I reached out to Paula Chinick of Russian Hill Press and told her I was done and wanted her to publish the bloody thing. She agreed. I figured my work was done—wrong.
The cover design took months. Getting back-cover reviews became urgent. I was stuck until I recalled a talk where a young author mentioned he sent out requests to known authors and asked them to read and write reviews. “What have I got to lose?” I asked myself and sent out four requests. Three agreed to write reviews. I even had one person, out of the blue, offer to write one.
I used two. Ramona Ausubel wrote one. I love her novel No One is Here Except All of Us. The other, by playwright, editor, and UCLA instructor Victoria Zackheim. I also used a Kirkus review.
Violet (Vi) Moore came on board as the editor. She forced me to pick up the manuscript and read it line by line and make corrections before she would touch it. I’m glad she did. Over two months, we made more corrections and changes than I will ever admit.
Then the galleys came, and Paula made me do it all over again. The editor is usually done by then, but Vi called me and ordered me to reread it. I know we missed at least one typo. One of my readers sent me a note informing me of it.
Paula, Vi, and the cover design team were all very reasonable in the charges to bring the project to fruition.
Amazon released The Mona Lisa Sisters on August 14, 2020. A little over eight years after the instructor handed me a picture of two young girls looking at the Mona Lisa.
I met and have become friends with so many fine people as the result of my diving into the world of fiction writing. I have been and will ever be blessed for having started the journey when I couldn’t find a job.
History must be what it is. There is no need for excuses or blame.
My first book remains a large, fractured manuscript, still a work in progress, titled Ranching in the Heart of Arizona. From a conversation with a coworker about 14 years ago about the fact that many old ranchers in our area were passing away and my comment, “Someone should get their history before it’s too late.” She said, “Why don’t you do it?” Expecting to be dealing with a score or so ranches, research has turned up more than three hundred old ranch-families in my home Gila County; and started me on my never-ending personal story.
In fact, it was the act of researching that history that I first happened on the very interesting 1889 robbery of US Army Paymaster Major Wham and his escort at Cottonwood Canyon in Arizona. My first fiction novel, The Wham Curse, set in two different centuries relates the story of the robbery and creates a fictional answer to what if the Wham loot were found in modern times?
I became friends with my lead characters and needed to keep them alive. I am the author of a four-book series of mysteries set in rural Arizona and the greater Southwest. I am also an Arizona Historian, with several papers for the Historical Society, museums, on-line history pages, articles in print magazines and newspapers, and an editor and contributor to a history book. My interest in the Southwest’s natural and human history and my love for mystery stories are combined in my fiction stories. A sense of place and history plays out in my stories as a natural part of the setting.
Each of my books has a primary murder plot, three or four subplots, and character backstories. In The Wham Curse, the primary plot is solving the inexplicable killing of a young Apache boy, which makes no sense until connected with the old robbery. Secondary plots deal with historic preservation, environmentalism, and crime on the Indian Reservation.
Saints & Sinners has the main plot of protecting a Mexican girl from cartel assassins. Secondary themes resolve around border issues, a romance blooming for Deputy Sanchez, international crime, and Mexican culture.
Archaeological theft and international illegal marketing and murder are the primary plots of The Baleful Owl. Subplots include dealing with differing views among different tribes, acceptance of the mentally disadvantaged, and the place of preservation in the rapidly changing Southwest.
Set in two fictional mine developments in Arizona, Murder in Copper, deals with a murder and both industrial and international espionage, justice on the reservation, international relationships with former Soviet republics, alcoholism, and grief.
I do a lot of research, even for my fiction. The Apache, O’odham, Mexican, Mormon, and rural culture will be as accurately depicted as I can make it. The geography, natural environment, and history of each setting will be very accurate. I research the legality of situations and law enforcement jurisdictions, and the local culture’s influence. So when the story is in Hermosillo, Solomon, Spain, Turkmenistan, San Carlos, Tempe, Tucson, Ft. McDowell, or wherever, I used actual street names, buildings, office locations, and sometimes business names, such as the Casa Reynoso in Tempe and Taylor Freeze in Pima.
When I write, I have a general idea, sort of a very sketchy outline of my main plot. From there, I simply tell the story, let it flow naturally. I’m often surprised where this takes me; I guess that’s the pantsy part of me. But the “engineer syndrome” part of me comes to play in that I keep track of each plot and subplot, the clues, and each character I invent on spreadsheets. While I always have new characters in each novel, I also reuse characters from other books. This organized tracking facilitates reuse of interesting minor characters, keeps me from revealing a clue or a clue-related action at the wrong time, and lets me weave the progress of plots and subplots in a logical order, and to sometimes connect subplots as contributory to the main plot.
I love the act of writing, especially fiction because I can take it wherever I want it to go, as long as it makes sense to the story. But I hate to be interrupted when writing. This makes it kind of a tough, lonely time for my longsuffering wife. I need about a three-hour block of time, so I can get the story flowing and translate it to words; with any less than that, I spend most of my time trying to figure out where I am in the story and where I want to go. There have been times I started writing at seven pm and interrupted to go to bed at seven am. Such a session is very productive; it’s like playing at the top of my game.
One thing I do when writing either pure history or depicting actual history in a novel is present the facts as they actually happened and in the context of the period, without passing judgment or equating it to today’s values. History must be what it is. There is no need for excuses or blame.
For more about my work or myself, visit my page: https://virgilalexander.weebly.com/books.html
The books are available in print and digital at Barnes & Noble Stores and Online, at Indy stores, and through Amazon.
Highly Acclaimed Author, Robert Dugoni, Shares His Thoughts
Robert Dugoni is the critically acclaimed New York Times, #1 Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon Internationally Best-Selling Author of 20 novels in The Tracy Crosswhite police detective series set in Seattle, the David Sloane legal thriller series, and the Charles Jenkins espionage series as well as several standalone novels including The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, a #1 Amazon kindle download and The Cyanide Canary, a Washington Post best book of the year. Several novels have been optioned for television series. Robert is the recipient of the Nancy Pearl Award for fiction and many other awards.
I’m known mostly for my mysteries and thrillers, specifically the Tracy Crosswhite series, which is now eight novels. But I’ve always enjoyed other genres. I grew up mostly reading literary novels like The Great Gatsby, A Prayer for Owen Meaney, and The Old Man and the Sea. I got the opportunity to write a literary novel with The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, and it did very well. I have a second literary novel coming out next September, The World Played Chess. I’ve also written a successful espionage series with Charles Jenkins, a spinoff character from my legal series with David Sloane.
My 8th Tracy Crosswhite Novel, In Her Tracks, will be out in April 2021. The World Played Chess will be out in September 2021.
What brought you to writing? I’ve always loved to write. My mother would hand me classic literary novels when I was young, and by the seventh grade, I knew I wanted to write stories. In high school, I edited the school newspaper, and in college, I majored in journalism, and creative writing, then went to work for The Los Angeles Times. I ended up in law school and practiced law for a while before getting back to writing. It took me several years to get established, and since 2013 I’ve written full time.
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? I now write at home. My wife and I added on a beautiful office with a lot of windows and ambient light. I treat it as a job, though I love what I do. I write full days, five days a week. The one distraction I allow now is golf. It gets me outdoors in the fresh air with good friends, and it’s a great distraction.
Tell us about your writing process: Monday through Friday and some weekdays when the muse is flowing, I write from seven in the morning until around four or five. When I am writing the story, as opposed to doing research, I read Stephen King’s novel, The Green Mile, every morning until I hear the muse. Then I begin. When writing the first draft, I don’t edit myself. I treat it almost like an outline. I write as fast as I can, learning about the characters and what they want and need. Then on the second draft, I go back and begin to add and cut as needed.
What are you currently working on? I have a Tracy Crosswhite mystery novel, In Her Tracks, coming out in April. A literary novel, The World Played Chess, is coming out in September, and I’m completing the third novel in the Charles Jenkins series, The Silent Sisters.
How long did it take you to write your first book? It was an ordeal. I must have thrown out 1000 pages and wrote 19 drafts over several years. I did it backwards. I wrote before I studied story structure and really understood how novels were told. Now I can write three novels in a year. I understand story structure after studying The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler and other craft novels.
How do you come up with character names? I often use the obituaries because you know the names were real. There are also websites, like fakenamegenerator.com, but I don’t stay on the site for long. It just seems like the kind of sight where someone is sucking you in.
What’s the most challenging thing about writing characters from the opposite sex? Honestly, the hardest part is not trying to write from the opposite sex. I get asked questions all the time about how I write from the perspective of Seattle Homicide Detective Tracy Crosswhite. My answer is I don’t try. I write from the perspective of a person who has been grievously injured in her life and is struggling to find a life for herself and later, for her family. Tracy wants what we all want in her personal and her professional life. I always try to keep that in mind.
Do your protagonists ever disappoint you? Actually, it’s usually the opposite. They usually please me. When I’m really into a story and into a character, and I let that character tell the story rather than try to force the story, the character will often do things I never thought of or considered. That’s one of the best parts of being a writer, having characters surprise us.
Do you ever kill a popular character? If so, what happens to your story? I did in the David Sloane series upon very bad advice. I won’t do it again. Readers don’t like it. They feel you’re trying to manipulate them. I did it because I was told that married protagonists aren’t interesting. I’ve come to realize that simply isn’t true. Marriage comes with its own trials and tribulations, and it is those that make the characters real.
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? I’m a pantser. I’ve tried outlining, but I’m usually off the outline very quickly. Instead, I do a lot of research, and from the research, I usually find my characters and often scenes that become the story.
What kind of research do you do? I try to travel to all the locations I write about. Beyond that, I do a lot of research, reading books, papers, watching documentaries and television shows.
What is the best book you ever read? Probably Lonesome Dove.
How do our readers contact you? Your website, blog links, any links you want to be posted?