Thomas Burchfield was born in Peekskill, New York. After many years as a legal clerk and library assistant in the Bay Area, he now lives in semi-retirement in Grass Valley, California. His latest short story, “McCain, the Stranger,” recently appeared in the online version of The Mystery Tribune. A freelance editor, he’s also the author of the short story “Lucky Day” in Berkeley Noir’s anthology (Akashic Press 2020). He’s also the author of Butchertown (Ambler House 2017), a ripping 1920s gangster thriller, and the award-winning contemporary vampire novel Dragon’s Ark (Ambler House 2012). His original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night are available in e-book editions only. His reviews and essays have appeared in Swing Time Magazine, Posthoc.com, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Strand Magazine, and Filmfax. He also posts essays on Medium and his own webpage, A Curious Man.
What brought you to writing? I’ve been writing pretty much since I first picked up a crayon. I started out like all writers by copying my favorites. In my case, I started by retyping A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories. That, of course, became boring. I then started writing up the Universal horror movies I loved as a kid (which I still do). Eventually, I started writing my own stories, and I found people liked what I did, so I kept going.
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? I write in my home office. I always play music: classical, jazz, and film music, especially the scores of Ennio Morricone. Music is sometimes inspiring. At other times, it provides solace and keeps me in my chair when things are not going well.
What is the most challenging part of your writing process? The first draft. My first drafts are awful, like finger-paintings by a three-year-old. Second drafts and upward are where the fun begins.
What are you currently working on? I have several pots bubbling on my stove. As for fiction, I’m currently working on what I call “The McCain Stories,” a series about a big city cop who’s assigned to police a Sierra Foothill community as it recovers from a devastating wildfire. They’re inspired by Georges Simenon’s “Maigret” novels and Midsomer Murders.
How long did it take you to write your first book? I tried writing my first novel in the 1980s but failed miserably. I then spent about fifteen years trying to break into Hollywood screenwriting (during which I wrote some pretty good scripts) until I aged out of their interest in 2001. (Screenwriting can be an excellent way to learn about plot and structure, though you’re unlikely to sell any of them). Around 2002, I finally started my Dracula novel, Dragon’s Ark. It took me about seven years.
How long to get it published? I spent about a year looking for an agent for Dragon’s Ark, and while I received plenty of praise, no one bit. I then published it myself under my Ambler House imprint. That took a year.
Do you have subplots? If so, how do you weave them into the novel’s arc? I don’t see how a novel can do without them. Any action on a character’s part will have consequences beyond the story’s main plot. Different characters will have different goals and will take different actions. Entanglement of other stories with your main one is inevitable unless it’s a single-character novel, like Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, which I found very boring.
How do you raise the stakes for your protagonist—for the antagonist? I get him into as much trouble as I can. To paraphrase Vladimir Nabokov, I chase a man up a tree and throw rocks at him. The great silent comic Harold Lloyd described comedy as “a man in trouble.” I work from those principles.
Do you base any of your characters on real people? My characters contain streaks of real people, including myself, those I’ve known, and, occasionally, indelible movie characters (but not too close, lest the book or story become too meta). Eventually, a character should be able to breathe on his own regardless of his origins in real life, literature, or cinema.
One exception: A best friend of forty years has made numerous appearances in my work under variations of his name but always described as looking exactly like him. I always kill him off, much to our mutual delight.
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? I was a pantser until I got stuck in too many swamps. A while back, I met Jeffery Deaver at a MWA workshop, and he described how he “outlined” his novels in bits and pieces, sometimes starting with the ending, sometimes in the middle, sometimes with just a scene, and then weave it all over time. I now work from that template. I generally like having a good idea of my ending from wherever I start.
What obstacles do you face when writing about historical figures? My love and respect for history and historians is boundless, so I keep real historical figures mostly at the edge when it comes to fiction. I want to avoid debates about whether I got this or that factual detail about Calvin Coolidge right. I’m going to disappoint someone somewhere, but on the other hand, I don’t want to distract from my purpose, which is to change the reality we know into one that feels almost as real.
Do you have any advice for new writers? Learn to be your own best, most sharp-eyed critic. Writing groups are helpful when you’re starting out, but while you learn about craft, structure, and character development, they tend toward conformism, so you eventually want to get away and write from your own soul. But to do that, you have to learn to recognize when you’re not good. No one’s a good writer every time: not Shakespeare, not me, not you. Learn to recognize it. By no means hate on yourself—because that just makes you quit–but seek a level of Zen: a calm, almost scientific, detachment from your materials where you sit calmly back and say, “Hmmm . . . that’s not working.” And then work at it until it does. Writing badly is not a crime. Not fixing it is.
Second, don’t show your first drafts to anyone, not even to torture your worst enemy.
Third, don’t bother chasing the marketplace. You may be knocked out by the sales figures for I Was a Twelve-Year-Old Serial Killer but by the time you finish I Was a Ten-Year-Old Serial Killer, the marketplace will have moved on to novels about man-eating talking plants. Be the self that God gave you, for good and bad, above all.
How do our readers contact you?
I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My author’s page is http://amblerhouse.blogspot.com;
My essays and reviews can be found at https://thomburchfield.medium.com and http://tbdeluxe.blogspot.com.
You can also find me on Facebook. Finally, if you’re looking for an editor for your non-fiction, check out Thomas Burchfield Writing and Editing.