Steve Hockensmith’s first novel, the mystery/Western hybrid Holmes on the Range, was a finalist for the Edgar, Shamus, Anthony, and Dilys Awards. His heroes — a pair of 1890s cowboy brothers who solve mysteries using the “deducifyin’” methods of their hero, Sherlock Holmes — have gone on to appear in six sequel novels and more than a dozen stories. (Their latest adventure, “Enchantress,” can be found in the current issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine).
Hockensmith has also written a bestselling zombie novel (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls), tarot-themed whodunnits (The White Magic Five and Dime and its sequels), and a series of middle-grade mysteries (the “Nick and Tesla” books, co-authored with frequent Jimmy Kimmel Live! guest “Science Bob” Pflugfelder). His latest book is Black List, White Death: Two Holmes on the Range Novellas.
What brought you to writing? A complete lack of talent for any other form of human endeavor. Except for making chili. I’ve gotten pretty good at that over the years, but there’s no money in it.
I’ve always had the impulse to tell stories. I remember turning in an English assignment in fourth or fifth grade — writing sentences that show I understand a list of 20 vocabulary words — and having the teacher say to me afterward, “You didn’t have to make a story out of them. I just wanted sample sentences.” And I was like, “Yeah, I know. It was more fun to connect them and have something happen.” So that’s a writer for you: giving yourself extra homework for life.
I didn’t get serious about writing until I left college and failed miserably at being a musician. (I had friends in a rock band, and they were having a lot of fun. Unfortunately for me, I have zero musical talent. I could handle playing the cowbell, but that’s about it.) I knew I wanted to do something creative, and writing had a big advantage: if you sucked at it while you learned how to do it, no one would see you. (Well, except for the editors who reject you. But they’re used to that.) So I sucked at writing for a while, then I stopped sucking and started selling. Voila! I was a writer! It’s not quite as cool as being in a rock band, but I’m proud I made it.
Do you write in more than one genre? The real question is, what genre haven’t I written in? The answer is erotica. Although, now that I think about it, my zombie novels have some pretty lovey-dovey parts.
When I first gave writing a serious try, I focused on science fiction. I’d read a lot of it as a kid, so I figured I knew the genre well enough to write it myself. I even took a writing class taught by the great Gene Wolfe, author of the classic “Book of the New Sun” series. Gene was wonderfully supportive and encouraging and never told me my science fiction blows. Though it mostly did. I sold a few stories, but I could tell it wasn’t working. Then I stumbled onto a cheap copy of The Big Sleep in a used bookstore and whammy. I knew what I should be doing.
Mysteries opened the door for me. Since then, I’ve also written Westerns, zombie romances, and books for kids. Maybe I’ll get around to real erotica one of these days. But I think most folks would prefer I didn’t.
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? I am a big, big, BIG believer in outlining. For me, anyway. I can’t write a word unless I know exactly where a scene is going. I lock up without a road map. Like, “Maybe the characters should start talking about the weather…? Maybe they should decide to get a sandwich…? Maybe one of them needs to go to the bathroom…? MY GOD — WHAT SHOULD THEY DO?!?!?!?”
My mysteries tend to be pretty intricate, with lots of clues and red herrings that fit together at the end, and I definitely couldn’t pull that off without thinking everything through first. I know some writers work by producing draft after draft after draft and fine-tuning by rewriting, but that would drive me nuts. I spend weeks brainstorming, researching, and outlining first, then I write. I also write really, really slowly, polishing as I go. Which I know would drive other writers nuts. But it works for me. When I’m done, I’m done. I’ve never had to do a major revision.
So, in a nutshell, my secret to writing is “Torture yourself by making it as slow and laborious as possible. You’ll thank yourself afterward!” For some reason, it’s advice most other writers don’t take…
Do you have any advice for new writers? Yes: Ignore what I said in my previous answer. That’s what works for me. What works for you might be completely different.
I outline meticulously and write slowly. Maybe you’re the type (and there are a lot of them, I think) who just jumps in and writes fast. Whatever! You can figure out your best approach with just two or three or, a dozen, or thirty years of trial and error.
The main thing is to try. By which I mean write. Type a word, then type more, and then type even more, and don’t stop!
Or do stop if you need to. Everybody’s writing journey is different. Maybe yours involves a three-year pit stop. Don’t let that discourage you. If you’ve written before, you can write again. Writers write. I would tell folks, “Just do it,” but I don’t want to hear from any corporate lawyers.
Has an association membership helped you with your writing?
Absolutely! I’ve been a member of Mystery Writers of America (MWA) for more than 20 years. I let my membership lapse once when I was at a low ebb and thought my writing career was toast — I got dropped by my first agent and contracted an acute case of Imposter Syndrome — but I got over it and rejoined before long. This nutty business has a lot of ups and downs, so it’s nice connecting with the other folks on the rollercoaster.
I recently joined Western Writers of America, too. I haven’t been able to get to any of their events yet, but I’m looking forward to it. They seem like nice, welcoming people. They have a magazine, Roundup, that’s really impressive — jam-packed with tidbits about the state of the genre—Ditto for The Third Degree, MWA’s newsletter. Anyone trying to break into either field can learn a lot from reading those.
Looking to the future, what’s in store for you? Writing! Rough Edges Press is going to publish a pair of spin-offs from the “Holmes on the Range” series in 2024, and the little hitch to that is that I’ve only finished one of them. So I’ve got some work to do. After that, I’ll write another “Holmes on the Range” story for Ellery Queen and then another “Holmes on the Range” novel. Given my writing pace, that means I’m booked up through…oh, probably June of 2025.
After that, who knows? I’ll be writing, but I don’t know what. Maybe it’ll finally be time to get serious about erotica…
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