Claire M. Johnson worked as a pastry chef in San Francisco Bay Area for a number of years. Ms. Johnson’s first novel, Beat Until Stiff, was set in the restaurant world and was nominated for the Agatha Award for Best First Novel and was a Booksense pick. Her second book in this series, Roux Morgue, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. She has written two Jane Austen pastiches and has recently finished a first-person POV historical memoir of Pauline Pfeiffer (Ernest Hemingways’s second wife) and a mystery set in San Francisco in 1930. She is currently President of MWA NorCal.
In 1930 San Francisco, the Moore Detective Agency is two months away from closing its doors. When the wife of one of the most prestigious bankers knocks on their office door asking them to look for her wayward stepson, secretary Maggie Laurent takes the case. The aftermath of the stock market crash nine months earlier is now being realized in soup kitchens and bread lines. She needs this job to help support her widowed mother. Maggie soon finds herself up to her neck in murder, arson, and the lies and double lives of San Francisco’s wealthy elite. Will she be the next victim?
Do you write in more than one genre? I’ve written two mysteries, two Jane Austen pastiches, a standalone YA thriller, a first-person POV biography of Pauline Pfeiffer, and my latest book is a historical noir mystery set in 1930 San Francisco.
What brought you to writing? I moved to the suburbs! I found myself without a name, essentially. I was someone’s wife or mother. I felt my identity slipping away and was terrified that one day I’d walk up, look in the mirror, and there wouldn’t be anyone there. Writing is about as personal as it comes.
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? For the first time in my life, I have a real office—no more laptop on the dining room table—with an old-fashioned oak desk that I got from UC surplus. I overlook my garden and am occasionally distracted by the antics of the squirrels chasing each other from tree to tree. Does this make me more productive? No, but it’s lovely to have all my books, my piano, and pictures of my family around me.
What are you currently working on? I’m working on the second in the series set in San Francisco in 1930, right after the stock market crash. In the first book, my heroine Maggie Laurent is the secretary to a detective. When a “dame’ does him wrong, he goes on a months-long bender, and she takes over a simple missing person’s case. Which, naturally, turns out to not be that simple.
Has an association membership helped you with your writing? Yes. I think that belonging to writers’ groups helps you establish a tribe that speaks the same language you do. You can share knowledge, frustrations, successes, and information on agents, what publishers will consider books without an agent, etc. Writing is a business, and I think that networking is critical. Plus, writers are a great group of people.
Who’s your favorite author? I have many favorite authors, but I would say that in this genre that John Le Carre is the master. The genius of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is that this book is 90% backstory, which is usually the death knell of any book. And yet… His book The Constant Gardener left me stunned for weeks.
How long did it take you to write your first book and get it published? Oh years. I was lucky that Poisoned Pen Press was just opening its doors, and they were open to writers without agents at that time. Unfortunately, it was difficult then, and twenty years later, it’s even more difficult.
Do you have subplots? If so, how do you weave them into the novel’s arc? I think you must have subplots because otherwise, it becomes too formulaic. Subplots are an excellent vehicle for exposing characters that enriches what happens in the main plot arc. I think this is a tricky road to walk because you don’t want to detract from your main storyline too much. Otherwise, it only serves as a distraction rather as an element that is complimentary. That is the key function of a subplot. It should compliment and enhance some aspect of the main plot line, whether it be an expansion of a character study or even the secret key to solving the puzzle of whodunit.
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? I’m basically a pantser. For me, part of the joy of writing a book is discovering who my characters are. Even though I’m writing this, I’m also acting as the first reader. What are they going to do next? What are they going to say? I’ve heard many writers say that at some point, the characters take over. I have experienced that as well. Your id is firing overtime, and you can’t type fast enough. Even if you don’t use much or any of the additional material, it gives you insight into their character. I’m a character-driven writer, so this is the cream in my coffee. I will say that I always know the ending. First, this tells me why I want to write a book. The “why” a story needs to be told. Second, it gives me a goal post to write to.
Otherwise, I can get distracted by the shiny. I also have a fair idea of what the middle is. Sometimes that gets delayed a bit, but I think if you have a firm grasp on the middle of a book, say around 40,000–45,000 words, then you can race toward that end with the knowledge that much of the book’s character arcs are developed enough that you can concentrate on the action in the last half of the book. Not that you abandon your character arcs because you need them to respond to the plot arcs, but it does give you the freedom to go hell-bent for leather in the last half of the book. I also have a firm beginning in mind, but beginnings are hard for me. I always end up rewriting any beginning to my books a minimum of six times. Grabbing the reader in the first fifteen pages is hard, which these days is a mandatory requirement. The days when you are allowed to mosey into the plot are over.
What kind of research do you do? For my Pauline Pfeiffer historical novel, I delved into the world of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the ex-pat world of Paris after World War I. I have more biographies on this period lining my bookshelf than any sane woman should admit to. Also, that period saw an explosion of photographic documentation of history with magazines such as Life.
I’ve just written my first historical mystery novel, which is set in 1930 San Francisco. I’m old enough to remember much of older San Francisco, so I wasn’t faced with trying to capture what San Francisco looked like before the Summer of Love, at which point everything changed. Newspapers are a great source for photographs. The SFGate archive is amazing.
Looking to the future, what’s in store for you? I hope it’s published! I have three finished novels I’m currently shopping. I have self-published before, and while I don’t relish the amount of work that self-publishing entails, I think all these books are good reads and deserve an audience, so I never say never.
Links for Books:
Beat Until Stiff
Pen and Prejudice
Vaseem Khan is the author of two award-winning crime series set in India. His debut, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, was a bestseller, translated into 16 languages, and a Sunday Times 40 best crime novels published 2015-2020 pick; the series won a Shamus Award in the US. In 2021, Midnight at Malabar House, the first in the Malabar House novels set in 1950s Bombay, won the Crime Writers Association Historical Dagger, and in 2022 it was shortlisted for the prestigious Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award. MW Craven, CWA Gold Dagger winner.
ELEVATOR PITCH – THE DYING DAY by Vaseem Khan. Bombay, 1950. A 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy vanishes, leaving behind a series of complex riddles and bodies. ‘The Da Vinci Code meets post-Independence India.
Do you have any advice for new writers? I wrote and submitted my first novel aged 17! It was awful. I spent the next 23 years and seven novels trying to get published before landing a four-book deal for my Baby Ganesh Agency series. Perseverance is important. But more crucially, it’s important to recognise that quality will out – it takes time and effort to bring your writing to the standard that agents and publishers consider publishable. On my website www.vaseemkhan.com you’ll find a blog piece entitled “Is this is a Dagger I see before me – lessons from 30 years of writing”. It might be useful.
What was your debut novel? And what happened next? My debut, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, was written after I went to work in India for ten years. It became a Times bestseller after I launched it on the BBC Breakfast sofa to an audience of several million! I then found myself having to write a novel a year. That has meant strict discipline. Luckily, I’m a deadline masochist!
Tell us about your writing process: Wake up. Drown in a few moments of existential angst. Remember that there are still books and cricket in the world, so it can’t be all meaningless. Write for about three hours until my brain stops working. Potter around for the rest of the day, avoiding any DIY assignments my wife would like me to tackle.
What is the most challenging part of your writing process? I’m a detailed plotter – that takes months to get right. My current historical series is compared to Agatha Christie in style – so much so that this year I’m speaking at the International Agatha Christie Festival. The books include complex clues and, sometimes, codes and cyphers, as well as a wealth of historical detail about the period when India became independent after 200 years of British rule. Balancing all these elements is a challenge!
What do you feel are your biggest writing achievements? Getting published after two decades of trying! Followed by winning a Crime Writers Association Historical Dagger, the world’s premier prize for historical crime fiction – for Midnight at Malabar House. In the book, we meet my protagonist, Persis Wadia, newly qualified as India’s first female police Inspector at a time when India is still an intensely patriarchal society. No one knows what to do with her, so they stick her in Bombay’s smallest police station – Malabar House – where all the rejects and undesirables are sent. And then a sensational murder – of an English diplomat – falls into her lap… and she’s off! In fiction, we love pioneers. There’s something mythic about a protagonist challenging the status quo. Persis, as a woman in a male dominated environment, is forced to prove, time and again, that she belongs. As a man, it wasn’t easy to write such a character!
Why do you write about India? I was born and grew up in England but lived in India for a decade in my twenties. It was an intense culture shock. In The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, there is a chapter that takes place in a slum in Mumbai. I visited that slum while living in India, and it was eye-opening to observe poverty on a scale we simply can’t imagine in the West. At the same time, it was life-affirming to see the locals just getting on with things – especially the ever-grinning kids!
How do you come up with character names? A great character name is euphonious, meaning it is pleasing to the ear because it fits the character completely and makes them more real. I trawl through hundreds of online name lists to get just the right name.
We hear of strong-willed characters. Do yours behave or run wild? The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, introduced a middle-aged Mumbai policeman who must solve the murder of a poor local boy – whilst dealing with the odd dilemma of inheriting a baby elephant. What do you do when you live on the fifteenth floor of a tower block, and someone sends you an elephant? Read the book to find out! That elephant has become incredibly popular with readers around the world, so much so that I continue to get email about him. To be clear: he doesn’t talk or fly or solve the mysteries. The elephant is merely a symbol for India and allows me to showcase a different side of Chopra’s personality – he’s a very rigid and honest man. He has to gradually come to terms with the idea that he is responsible for this animal’s welfare.
What’s the most challenging thing about writing characters from the opposite sex? I wrote a female lead for the Malabar House series because I wanted to say something about the patriarchal, sometimes misogynistic society that was India in the 1950s. Persis is ambitious, so much so that she is sometimes quite ruthless in her desire to prove herself. And why shouldn’t she be? We allow male mavericks in crime fiction, so why not a female?
Do you have subplots? If so, how do you weave them into the novel’s arc? Always! For instance, inThe Dying Day, the second book in the Malabar House series, we see twin plots. A 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy vanishes from Bombay’s Asiatic Society, and the case lands on Inspector Persis Wadia’s desk. Uncovering a series of complex riddles written in verse, Persis – together with English forensic scientist Archie Blackfinch – is soon on the trail. But then they discover the first body.In a subplot, Persis must also investigate the murder of a beautiful white woman whose body is found on train tracks. Could the two cases be related? The trick is to plan in advance exactly how your subplots fit together. If they don’t hang together at all, I think it can sometimes lead to readers feeling cheated! .. Oh, and to date, only one person – an Australian reader – has claimed to have solved all the riddles in The Dying Day. The challenge is made!
Do you base any of your characters on real people? A lot! Early on in Midnight at Malabar House, Persis finds herself working with Archie Blackfinch, an English forensic scientist based in Bombay. They get off to a rocky start, but we know this is going to be one of those will-they-wont-they situations. And this presents a challenge for Persis. Because, of course, this is India just after Independence. The idea of an Indian woman in a relationship with a white Englishman… They’re both socially awkward people – but whereas Archie is one of those Englishmen who’d rather hack their own arm off than speak out of turn, Persis’s determination to succeed sometimes means that she’s a bit ruthless, such as when she almost shoots Archie’s ear off. I guess you could say there’s a lot of me in Archie. (Though my wife hasn’t shot my ear off. Yet.)
Looking to the future, what’s in store for you? I’m getting ready to promote THE LOST MAN OF BOMBAY, the third book in my Malabar House series, out in August in the UK and Kindle in US on August 18, 2022, hardcover on November 22, 2022, in the US. Frankly, I’d buy it just for the amazing cobra on the cover! It’s set in 1950 in Bombay, India. In this one, a white man is found frozen to death in a cave in the Himalayan foothills. His face is crushed, making his identity a complete mystery. When the case lands on Persis’ desk, she discovers a notebook on the body holding a series of cryptic clues. As Persis and Archie Blackfinch chase down the clues, more murders occur in Bombay of Europeans. Could there be a serial killer loose in the city? Pre-orders really help, so don’t be shy!
How do our readers contact you?
The Book Group https://www.facebook.com/groups/readrecommendreview
UK Crime Book Club https://www.facebook.com/groups/ukcrimebookclub
Lost in a Good Book https://www.facebook.com/groups/1715381925391873
Mystery Readers Café https://www.facebook.com/groups/2024429557790696
Bookaholic Café https://www.facebook.com/groups/BookAholicCafe
Book Connectors https://www.facebook.com/groups/1466353170351020
Crime Fiction Addict https://www.facebook.com/groups/507750129408471
The Crime Book Club https://www.facebook.com/groups/CrimeBookClub
The Fiction Café Book Club https://www.facebook.com/groups/FictionCafe
Our guest today is Michael A. Black, author of over 47 books, including his latest series featuring ex-army ranger Steve Wolf as a modern-day bounty hunter.
Michael A. Black is the award-winning author of 47 books, most of which are in the mystery and thriller genres. He has also written in sci-fi, western, horror, and sports. A retired police officer, he has done everything from patrol to investigating homicides to conducting numerous SWAT operations.
Black was awarded the Cook County Medal of Merit in 2010. He is also the author of over 100 short stories and articles and wrote two novels with television star Richard Belzer (Law & Order SVU). His Executioner novel, Fatal Prescription, won the Best Original Novel Scribe Award. His latest novels are the Trackdown series (Devil’s Dance, Devil’s Fancy, Devil’s Brigade, Devil’s Advocate, and Devil’s Vendetta) and Chimes at Midnight (under his own name), Dying Art and Cold Fury (under Don Pendleton), and the Gunslinger series (Killer’s Choice, Killer’s Brand, Killer’s Ghost, Killer’s Gamble, and Killer’s Requiem) under the name A.W. Hart.
Let’s start with something off the beaten track. Tell us something about yourself that isn’t in your bio. Okay…One of the reasons I was interested in writing westerns is that Zane Grey is a distant relation of mine.
You have a new book out. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about it? I’d be glad to. It’s the latest installment of my Trackdown series about disgraced ex-army ranger Steve Wolf, who was wrongfully accused and convicted of a war crime in Iraq and sentenced to prison. Upon his release, his mentor, Big Jim McNamara, picked him up and helped him get back on his feet with Mac’s bail enforcement business, i.e., bounty hunting. Wolf and McNamara had several adventures through the first four books in the series (Devil’s Dance, Devil’s Fancy, Devil’s Brigade, and Devil’s Advocate), and the newest one takes up where the last one left off. It’s called Devil’s Vendetta.
Sounds like a devilish series; what’s the new one about? Devilish is right. Wolf’s goal is to clear his name since he was wrongfully convicted, and through the first four books, he fought to do this by trying to bring the rich and powerful adversary who framed him to justice. In the fourth book, he came close to succeeding, but as everyone knows, nothing is simple when it comes to our justice system. Devil’s Vendetta continues this theme and begins a new story arc. In this book, Wolf receives a call from his mother in North Carolina that his younger brother, Jimmy, has fallen in with a bad crowd, and an intervention is needed. After going back home for the first time since his release from prison, Wolf finds the old adage, “You can’t go home again,” grievously accurate. His hometown has a bit of a problem with political corruption and a growing crystal meth epidemic. To make matters worse, Wolf’s brother and his friends have concocted a dangerous scheme to rip off a drug kingpin. Wolf finds himself battling against superior odds trying to save what family he has left.
And this one continues the series, correct? It does. It’s actually number five in the series. Numbers six and seven are also coming out in short order as well.
You’ve got three new books coming out together? Right. Number six is Devil’s Breed, which takes up where Devil’s Vendetta left off, and then number seven, Devil’s Reckoning, follows in short order. My publisher, Wolfpack, is releasing all three books in the space of about a month (October 4th, October 25th, and November 15th) under their new Rough Edges imprint. I’m feeling a little bit like Charles Dickens. He used to do a chapter a week when his novels were serialized in the newspaper.
That certainly does sound like a quick succession. How long did it take you to write these? I started working on these three last year (2020) in August. I wrote straight through to this past August, with a few other projects interceding from time to time. It was a busy year.
It sounds like it. Three novels in a year is pretty impressive. Actually, I managed to squeeze in a fourth one, but that was a co-author project. I did a novella, too. They don’t call me the fastest keyboard in the Midwest for nothing.
That sounds like a well-earned title. So does the series continue beyond these seven books? Well, each book is a story in itself, with continuing plot threads. At this point, the series could end, but I’ve left enough of a thread that it could continue. That’ll be up to the readers.
What are you working on currently? After spending so much time with Wolf and Mac, I had a yearning to do something different. I also write westerns and had an idea on the back burner for a while. It’s set in 1913 during the early days of motion pictures. It’s got a troubled veteran of the Philippine/American War, a silent movie being filmed, real-life author Ambrose Bierce, the Mexican Revolution, and of course, some nefarious goings-on.
Sounds ambitious. Good luck with that one. But, before we let you go, I have a question about a group you are active in, the Public Safety Writers Association. I understand that you are not just engaged but, in fact, chair the annual PSWA Conference. Please tell us about that.
Sure. I’ve been a member of the PSWA for a number of years and work with the other board members to run the annual conference in July. We always host it in July at the Orleans in Las Vegas and have a great time. I’ve been to many writer’s conferences, and I can truly say that the PSWA Conference is the best. It’s all about sharing your experiences and becoming a better writer. The people are great, and the members come from a variety of backgrounds. It’s affordable and always a lot of fun. Check out the PSWA website for a glimpse of this past conference.
Thanks for stopping by.
Always a pleasure to be on the best of the best blogs, George. Thanks for having me.
How can our readers contact you and buy your books:
Well. Someone in China hacked my website, and I still haven’t gotten around to organizing another one, but all of my books (Ebooks or paperbacks) are available on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, or at your local bookstore. If you want to get hold of me, my email is DocAtlas108@aol.com. I’m always glad to hear from people.
Whatever you wish to list here, like links to seller/buy sites or any URL.
Devil’s Vendetta: A Steve Wolf Military Thriller (Trackdown Book 5) – Kindle edition by Black, Michael A.. Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.
Devil’s Breed: A Steve Wolf Military Thriller (Trackdown Book 6) – Kindle edition by Black, Michael A.. Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.
Prior to his literary career, Joe served six years as an officer in the U.S. Army, including tours of duty in Vietnam and Greece, from which he received numerous decorations.
After his military service, he worked for thirty-six years in the banking & finance industries. He was a founding director and senior executive of a New York Stock Exchange-listed company for sixteen years.
Joe is an Amazon #1 bestselling author with 18 published, award-winning suspense novels. He has been recognized as “One of The 50 Best Writers You Should Be Reading.” He was named Writer of the Year by the Military Writers Society of America, is a two-time winner of the Tony Hillerman Prize for Best Fiction Book of the Year, a four-time Military Writers Society of America Gold Medal Winner, an Eric Hoffer Prize Winner, a four-time “Finalist” in the International Book Awards competition, and a top prize winner on multiple occasions in the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards competition, including “Best of Show” in 2021. He writes a regular column titled “Inspired by Actual Events” in Suspense Magazine.
Joe is a member of Croak & Dagger, Sisters in Crime, Military Writers Society of America, International Thriller Writers, Public Safety Writers Association, International Crime Writers Association, and Southwest Writers Workshop.
Everything to Lose pits New Mexico homicide detectives Barbara Lassiter and Susan Martinez against a duo of mass murderers terrorizing Albuquerque, New Mexico…and then their arch-nemesis, Lisa French, targets the detectives for murder.
In this fourth book in his Lassiter/Martinez Case Files series, award-winning and Amazon #1 Best-Selling Author Joseph Badal brings back his female detectives as they investigate a series of murders in the Albuquerque area. Inspired by actual events, Everything to Lose is an edge-of-the-seat thriller built on a foundation of characters from previous books in the series, including Lisa French, a psychopathic murderer in her own right who has targeted Barbara and Susan.
This take-your-breath-away story will put you on a thrill ride of tension, misdirection, and surprise within the backdrop of New Mexico’s majestic landscape and unique culture. Barbara Lassiter and Susan Martinez, savvy ladies with real-life personas, are the best female detective duo since Cagney & Lacey. They will have you begging for more of their exploits.
What brought you to writing? Between a verbal story-telling tradition in my family and the influence of reading Robert Ludlum novels, I was motivated to be a writer, especially in the suspense genre. But I was pushed to focus on a more traditional area of study, which led me into a finance career. My desire to be a writer always simmered below the surface and finally became my focus when I was fifty-six. My first novel, The Pythagorean Solution, was published in 2003. I have been a full-time writer since then.
Tell us about your writing process: I write every day for at least four hours in a room sequestered from other household activities. When I begin s story, I generally have a main character and story concept in mind. But I do not outline my manuscript. Rather, I let my characters carry the story. I have no idea where my plot and characters will lead me. Sub-plots and characters arise as I write.
What are you currently working on? I am currently working on two novels. The first will be the fourth in my Curtis Chronicles series and will draw on current events around human trafficking. I have been involved with an organization that is combatting trafficking and want to make more people aware of this hideous crime. The second book I am working on will be the eighth in my Danforth Saga series. The story will be placed in France and Ireland and will pit Bob Danforth and other retired CIA officers against a Russia-funded assassin.
Has an association membership helped you with your writing? I have belonged to Southwest Writers Workshop for 30 years. SWW is a writers group headquartered in Albuquerque. Conferences and classes sponsored by SWW went a long way in teaching me about the writing process. Additionally, I met my first agent at an SWW-sponsored conference. I highly recommend that writers join a local writers group. It is a wonderful way to meet other authors and hone one’s craft.
Who’s your favorite author? In a way, this is a bit like asking me which of my children I love the best. I have many “favorite” authors. In addition to Robert Ludlum, who I mentioned above, I love the works of James Lee Burke, Tony Hillerman, Elmore Leonard, Bernard Cornwell, Sheldon Siegel, Douglas Preston, David Morrell, and many others.
Do you base any of your characters on real people? My characters are typically an amalgam of people I know. I have an extensive list of personality traits that I created based upon individuals I have known. For instance, I included the name of a person who is perhaps the kindest individual I have ever known. If I am writing about a character who has similar characteristics, I use the person from my list as a template for that character.
What kind of research do you do? I perform extensive research for all of my stories. I want my readers to relate to locations and want those locations to be as accurately described as possible. My intelligence/military novels require a great deal of research about current organizational structures, weaponry, technology, etc. Wherever possible, I travel to the locations where my plots are placed. For instance, the Danforth Saga novel I am working on takes place in Ireland and France. I traveled to Ireland and France this year to be able to see the scenes I will include in the books.
Do you have any advice for new writers? Probably the two most important things I can offer new writers are 1) to put their story on paper and 2) to challenge every word in their story. Too many aspiring authors get intimidated by the overwhelming process of writing, editing, publishing, and marketing. I recommend that they focus on the writing and not worry about the quality of that writing. That comes after they have finished the first draft. Then they should edit-edit-edit. They must challenge the necessity of every word in their work and eliminate every word that does not move their story forward.
How can our readers contact you and/or buy your books? To learn more, visit Joe’s website at www.JosephBadalBooks.com.