Lynn-Steven Johanson is an award-winning playwright and novelist living in Illinois. His mystery novels, Rose’s Thorn and Havana Brown, are published by Level Best Books. His next mystery, Corrupted Souls, will be published in 2022. He holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and is retired from Western Illinois University.
Havana Brown, a prequel to my first novel, Rose’s Thorn, was the 2021 winner of a Royal Dragonfly Book Award for mysteries.
“Homicide detective Joe Erickson returns, this time obsessive as ever when he is pitted against a serial killer as methodical as Dexter and as cold as a winter breeze in Chicago. Fans of thrillers will feel Joe’s every frustration and relish his small triumphs, but they won’t deny author Lynn-Steven Johanson’s talent. Havana Brown has twists and turns, crisp dialog, and introduces readers to a sinister, terrifying, and unforgettable killer.” —Gabriel Valjan, Agatha and Anthony-nominated author of The Naming Game.
My third book in the Joe Erickson Mystery Series, Corrupted Souls, is due to be published this spring.
How long did it take you to write your first book? Because Rose’s Thorn was based on a screenplay I had written about ten years previously, the adaptation only took about six months. Most of the dialogue was already there. But I had to teach myself to write narration. Fortunately, my wife helped me with that. Being a former English teacher and an avid novel reader, she was able to assist me with my narrative writing. She still acts as my editor. Once I complete a chapter, she reads it and suggests fixes, and points out things that I missed. She’s nice about it and doesn’t use red ink!
How long to get it published? That took a while because once Rose’s Thorn had gone through numerous drafts and I was satisfied it was in good shape; I started to send out queries to agents. For over a year, after reaching out to forty agents, getting ignored by half, and receiving thanks-but-no-thanks messages from the other half, I began to approach publishers who were accepting solicitations from authors. Level Best Books requested the entire manuscript, and they eventually offered me a three-book contract. The entire process from the first email to an agent to the contract offer was two years. It goes to prove it pays to be tenacious.
How do you come up with character names? My main character, Chicago Detective Joe Erickson, is named for my maternal grandfather, who died eight years before I was born. It’s a good, strong Midwestern name. His romantic partner, Destiny Alexander, a criminal profiler, has a name that is symbolic as she is Joe’s destiny. This one woman will always be with him. I see my characters in my mind and hear them talk, so my other character names are based a lot on how the characters look. Sometimes I search for “popular names for men or women” on the internet in order to see lists. Starting with Havana Brown, my second novel, the stories take place in Chicago, so I have a lot of ethnic characters. For instance, Joe’s partner is Detective Sam Renaldo. I found his names by doing internet searches for common Hispanic first and last names. I chose his names based on what seemed to fit him. And on a rare occasion, I will use a friend’s first or last name for a character. I did that to pay homage to a late friend in Corrupted Souls.
Do you have subplots? If so, how do you weave them into the novel’s arc? Only once. When I decided to write a prequel for my second novel, I knew I would be employing subplots. Havana Brown has a main plot which is Joe Erickson on the trail of a serial killer. But there are two subplots. The first is his developing romantic relationship with Destiny. The second is Joe dealing with his aging father’s health issues. I wrote it in a tight chronological order. I devoted certain chapters to Joe and Destiny and some to Joe and his father. But even in those chapters, something happened with the serial killer case, so the main plot was still intertwined with the subplot chapters. The subplots did make for a longer book.
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? I’m a playwright as well as a novelist, and I approach playwriting as a pantser. But having written two screenplays, I learned to write them via Syd Field’s method, which is highly structured. And I applied that method to writing novels. Syd Field calls his structure a paradigm that essentially lays out the story in terms of three acts: the setup, the confrontation, and the resolution. Each is separated by a plot point which is a major event in the story. Since Act II is twice as long as either Act I and Act III, it has a mid-point, which is another type of plot point that turns the confrontation in a direction toward the resolution. Once these points are decided, you begin filling in the story elements. I like to think of these elements as potential chapters. When you actually begin writing, the elements of the paradigm remain fluid. They can change as you write, but the plot points remain constant because they are the major events you write toward.
What kind of research do you do? I like to be as accurate as possible, so I do a lot of research on various aspects of a story. My first novel took place in the Iowa county where I grew up, so I knew the area quite well. But I had to research local law enforcement when I was writing the screenplay. I interviewed the county sheriff, and he answered all of my questions. Covid has made it difficult for me to do on-the-ground research on my subsequent novels. I live in downstate Illinois, but my locations are in Chicago, and I have been unable to travel up there. Using Google searches has been a godsend. My fictional detective works out of Detective Area 3, which covers the north side of the city on the Lake Michigan side. I am somewhat familiar with that area and can look up nearly everything on the internet I need about neighborhoods and police districts covered by Area 3. I also called Area 3 and spoke to a detective a couple of times about a few technical things. When I began working on my third novel, Corrupted Souls, I discovered a former homicide detective on LinkedIn who still works out of Area 3. He agreed to be an adviser for me, and he has been a great resource.
Where do you place your settings—real or fictional locations? I use real locations in so far as street names, neighborhoods, hotels, and well-known landmarks in Chicago like the Art Institute, Burnham Harbor, Navy Pier, and places like that. What I don’t use are the names of actual businesses like restaurants, bars, theatres, independent stores, and so on. If I’m looking for a bar in a particular neighborhood, I’ll do an internet search, choose a particular establishment, and instead of giving the name, I will write something like, “an Irish pub on East Ohio Street.” I go to their website, look at photographs, and may use a few details in my description. Some savvy readers from Chicago may be able to guess the pub I’m referencing on East Ohio Street. If it is important, I will use a fictitious name for an establishment, but that is an exception to the rule.
How do our readers contact you?
They can contact me through my website at www.LSJohanson.com. I would be happy to respond to them. My books are available on Amazon, and there are links on my website.
Miley began her fiction career with The Impersonator, winning the Mystery Writers of America Best First Crime Novel award, and currently optioned for a television movie.
A graduate of William and Mary, she worked at Colonial Williamsburg and taught history at Virginia Commonwealth University for many years. She retreats to her Virginia winery for getaways, where everything she does would have been illegal during the Prohibition era.
You think it’s easy, naming characters? Ha! It’s harder than naming your own baby. In fact, it’s one of the hardest things about writing—for me, anyway. I was talking with an acquaintance the other day who said, “How about using my name in your next book? I don’t care if I’m a villain or a hero—or even just a walk-on part.” It put me on the spot. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but choosing names for characters doesn’t work like that. It can be a daunting prospect—especially for authors who, like me, write historical novels.
First and most important, the name has to fit the era. My mysteries are set in the Roaring Twenties, so names popular in the 1950s or 1970s or today may not work well at all. Authors who set their books in the medieval era or Revolutionary Russia have an even tougher time.
One place I consult for ideas is the Social Security website, where the most popular names of any given decade are listed. If I have a character who is 35 years old in 1925, I look at the records for 1890 to learn which names prevailed. I don’t necessarily use the most popular names on the list, but I definitely want a name from that list. For example, the top 5 names for boys in 1890 were John, William, James, George, and Charles; the top 5 for girls were Mary, Anna, Margaret, Helen, and Elizabeth. There is zero overlap with today’s popular names (Liam, Noah, Oliver, Elijah, and William; Olivia, Emma, Ava, Charlotte, and Sophia). I also take into consideration naming styles of the era. In the 1920s, it was common to use –ie or –y endings on nicknames for men, not just boys. Thus, lots of grown men were called Freddy, Tommy, Jimmie, Johnny, Timmy, Frankie, Eddy, Wally, and so forth. You don’t hear those much today, do you? Also common was the use of nicknames that bore no resemblance to the given name, like Slats, Studs, Lucky, Stretch, Fats, Porky, Babe, and Lumpy. This is particularly true in the criminal underworld; think of Bugs, Scarface, Hymie, Killer, and Snorky—all real gangsters.
But first names are a breeze compared to last names. For those, I need to consider not only the era but the likely ethnicity of the character. The Roaring Twenties was a time of heavy immigration from eastern Europe, so many people in urban centers had last names that were Italian, Jewish, and Polish. If I’d been writing about an earlier time, the names might have skewed to German, English, Irish, and Scots. I have to also consider professions: police forces in 1920s Chicago skewed toward Irish, so I named the cop in my latest book Kevin O’Rourke. In the early part of the twentieth century, servants were often Irish immigrant girls or African American women, which is why the young Irish housemaid in my current book is called Ellen, and the Black cook is Bessie Jackson. Their employer’s name is Weidemann, a German name representing the German immigrants of the previous generation. Unlike today, when African Americans often use names that have African, Muslim, or biblical origins, in the early 20th century, they chose names that closely resembled those used by European-Americans.
In writing my current book, I muddled my way through several names before settling on Maddie for my main character. She was born in the 1890s in Chicago to immigrant parents from French Canada, so I gave her a French name, Madeleine, which I Americanized with a nickname to Maddie. She married an Italian immigrant I named Tomasso Pastore, so she now has a multicultural name—how very American!
Another fun tool I use to help me with ideas is the online random name generator. This site lets me choose the gender, the ethnicity, the country, and the age of a person; then, it spits out an appropriate name. So if I needed a name for a minor character who is an Australian male living in America today and in his fifties, I get . . . (drum roll please) Eddie J. Adcock. Sounds good to me! Check it out at www.fakenamegenerator.com.
Some authors, like my friend David Baldacci, auction the naming rights of their characters for charity, promising to use the winner’s name in their next book. It’s a nice fund-raiser, but it’s risky for the author. I guarantee you, the author worries about the winning name! What if he or she ends up having to use a name that doesn’t fit any of her characters? I’d love to auction a name for charity, but I can’t risk getting stuck with something that didn’t exist in the 1920s. It’s really more appropriate for authors who write contemporary fiction.
I explained a little of this to my friend and promised him I’d keep his name in mind for future books. But, off the record, it won’t happen. His name is far too modern for a Roaring Twenties mystery, and that’s the era I love.
“I wasn’t proud of what I did, but I was proud of how well I did it.” It’s 1924, and Maddie Pastore has it made. A nice house, a loving husband with a steady job—even if it is connected to Chicago’s violent Torrio-Capone gang—and a baby on the way. But then Tommy is shot dead and she learns her husband had a secret that turns her life upside down. Penniless and grieving, Maddie is sure of only two things: that she will survive for the sake of her baby and that she’ll never turn to the mob for help. So when she’s invited to assist a well-meaning but fraudulent medium, she seizes the chance. She’s not proud of her work investigating Madam Carlotta’s clients, but she’s proud of how well she does it. When Maddie unearths potential evidence of a dark crime, however, she faces a terrible dilemma: keep quiet and let a murderer go unpunished or follow the trail and put herself and her baby in mortal danger. . .(Cover Flap)
And before I go, one more thing . . . who doesn’t love illustrations in a book? I sure do, but unfortunately, adult novels seldom contain illustrations—a map, perhaps, or a genealogy chart are the most readers can hope for, considering the cost. So in order to overcome this visual wasteland, I set up a Pinterest page for The Mystic’s Accomplice, where I post illustrations of Maddie’s Chicago in the 1920s, although many buildings no longer exist.
Because I weave real people through my stories (people like Al Capone and Johnny Torrio), I include photos of them, plus photos of the objects mentioned in the story. Please take a peek at the page and let me know what you think! https://www.pinterest.com/mmtheobald/the-mystics-accomplice/
Mary Miley www.marymileytheobald.com
The Impersonator (St. Martin’s: 2013)
Silent Murders (St. Martin’s: 2014)
Renting Silence (Severn: 2016)
Murder in Disguise (Severn: 2017)
The Mystic’s Accomplice (Severn: 2021)
Spirits and Smoke (Severn: 2022)
Sheldon Siegel is the New York Times, USA Today, and Amazon best-selling author of the critically acclaimed legal thriller series featuring San Francisco criminal defense attorneys Mike Daley and Rosie Fernandez.
Sheldon is the author of the thriller novel The Terrorist Next Door featuring Chicago homicide detectives David Gold and A.C. Battle. Sheldon’s books have been translated into a dozen languages and sold millions of copies worldwide. A native of Chicago, Sheldon earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois in Champaign in 1980 and his law degree from the University of California-Berkeley in 1983. He specializes in corporate and securities law with the San Francisco office of the international law firm of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP. Sheldon began writing his first book, SPECIAL CIRCUMSTANCES, on a laptop computer during his daily commute on the ferry from Marin County to San Francisco. A frequent speaker and sought-after teacher, Sheldon is a San Francisco Library Literary Laureate. He is a former member of the National Board of Directors and the Past President of the Northern California chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, and an active member of the International Thriller Writers and Sisters in Crime. His work has been displayed at the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley. He has been recognized as a Distinguished Alumnus of the University of Illinois and a Northern California Super Lawyer. Sheldon lives in Marin County with his wife, Linda, and a 17-year-old tabby cat named Betty. They also have twin sons named Alan and Stephen. He is a lifelong fan of the Chicago Bears, White Sox, Bulls, and Blackhawks. His twelfth Mike Daley/Rosie Fernandez story, FINAL OUT, was released on January 26, 2021. He is currently working on his next novel.
What brought you to writing? I always wanted to be a writer, but I don’t know why. I’ve discussed this with other writers, most of whom have said that it seems that there is something hot-wired into our system to try to tell stories. It’s a bit presumptuous for us to think that we have something interesting to say. I have no formal training. I studied accounting in college at the University of Illinois, and I’ve been a corporate lawyer with a big law firm in San Francisco for more than 35 years. I have never handled a criminal case (not even a parking ticket), but I’ve written twelve best-selling novels about murder trials. I like to tell people that I’m a fraud on multiple levels.
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? When I was practicing law full time, I used to write on a laptop computer on the ferry between Marin County and my firm’s office in San Francisco. I no longer work full-time, so I do most of my writing at home in the spare bedroom in our house. It’s a great luxury to be able to write almost full-time.
Tell us about your writing process: I start with a light outline. It helps me to know the beginning and the ending. I write a series, so I know that the books will feature Mike Daley and Rosie Fernandez and will be set in San Francisco. I outline in greater detail about 50 pages ahead of wherever I am in the story. I try to write to the end of the outline, and then I outline another 50 pages. I generally try to write straight through from beginning to end, but I sometimes skip ahead and write the ending. I spend about 50 percent of my time on the first 100 pages because if I make a mistake in the early part of the book, I’ll pay for it later. Once I get to the midway point in the book, I don’t stop until I get to the end. I tend to write long and cut. I usually do at least six full drafts. The first draft takes about eight months, the second about two months. The remaining drafts take a couple of weeks.
What is the most challenging part of your writing process? I’m self-taught, so I find plotting to be challenging. First drafts are more difficult than second and third drafts. There’s nothing scarier than looking at a blank sheet of paper. Once I have something in the computer, I know that I can go back and fix it.
Has an association membership helped you or your writing? I have been a member of MWA, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers for years. I served on the national board of MWA and as the president of the Northern California Chapter years. These organizations provide a supportive environment for writers since we spend so much of our time in front of our computers.
How long did it take you to write your first book? It took three years. I had the idea for my first book, Special Circumstances, for about ten years before I started writing it. I took one creative writing class at Book Passage in Corte Madera, which was very helpful. Then I worked on the book in short increments on my commute to work and late at night.
How long to get it published? I got very lucky. When I finished the manuscript for my first book, I was introduced to an agent who was friends with one of the attorneys at our law firm. She agreed to read the manuscript as a favor to my colleague. The agent liked the manuscript and agreed to represent me. She submitted it to multiple houses in New York, and they liked it. Two weeks later, I had a two-book deal with Bantam for a six-figure advance. The chances that this would happen again are one in a million, so I am very grateful.
We hear of strong-willed characters. Do yours behave, or do they run the show? My characters have minds of their own. At times, I feel like I’m just a stenographer. That’s why my outlines are so light—my characters tend to misbehave, and they rarely follow the plotline that I’ve started.
Do you try to make the antagonist into a more human character? Yes. Good guys are interesting when they have flaws, and bad guys are interesting if they have some positive elements. Characters who are all good or all bad are one-dimensional.
Do you have any advice for new writers? Read a lot and write a lot. Work on your craft so that you can make your story as good as it can be. It’s fine to read a few books about writing, but it’s better to spend your time writing than reading books about writing. I would recommend Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and On Writing by Stephen King.
How do our readers contact you?
Veteran – TV Cameraman, NASA Journalist, Sci-Fi & Mystery Writer
What’s the name of your most recent book? And could you tell us a little about it and any other books you’ve written? My latest novel is “Death in the Holler,” a mystery published on June 15, 2020. Luke Ryder, the main character, is a Kentucky game warden who’s an alcoholic. He’s in danger of losing his job because of his addiction.
Ryder’s life-long friend, Sheriff Jim Pike, wants to hire him, but only if Ryder can control his drinking. Pike offers to ask Ryder’s boss to give him a temporary transfer if a big case comes up. In Kentucky, game wardens are also law enforcement officers.
A Latino man from Louisville is found shot dead on a farm’s food plot shortly after the beginning of “muzzle-loader” deer-hunting season. Sheriff Pike calls on Ryder to help with the investigation. The two lawmen wonder why a man from a big city ghetto would be killed on a remote farm in a holler, a small, wooded valley. And why was he killed with a modern black powder weapon or perhaps an antique flintlock firearm?
This story is loaded with rough and tumble action, plus a smidgen of romance. Readers tell me that as they follow the story, they constantly root for Ryder to defeat his alcoholism and to find the killer.
Another of my books, “The Knight Prowler, a Novella,” is a mystery about a government researcher whose body is discovered not far from the Livermore Lab in Northern California. Rick Knight, the protagonist, is a TV nighttime crime reporter. His brother, John, is a Livermore Police detective. They team-up in an effort to catch the killer.
How did you come up with the ideas for those two mysteries? The concept for “Death in the Holler” came to me when I was visiting my daughter, Melody, and her husband, Matt, in Kentucky. Matt hunts deer with a crossbow. To attract deer, he plants “food plots” on a relative’s farm. My brother-in-law also lives in the Bluegrass State and has hunted deer. I helped him plant a food plot on his farm years ago. So I wondered, what if somebody was killed on a food plot during hunting season? That was how the idea for “Death in the Holler” was born.
As for “The Knight Prowler,” I wrote that short book to see if I would like writing in the crime/mystery genre. I have a background filming crime news for television, though I did this many years ago. My first jobs after my Army service were news cinematography positions. I covered daytime crime for several years for WMAL-TV (now WJLA), the ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C.
I filmed stories about many bank robberies and homicides. Often I found myself in bad sections of town, usually on my own. More than once, friends asked me if I carried a “piece,” a pistol. I didn’t. I found that most folks in the “bad” part of town were good people. At first, I felt edgy going to murder scenes by myself, often after the police had left the scene. But I grew to like the excitement—I became addicted to taking chances to get stories.
Even now, flashes of memory from crime scenes I visited years ago pop into my mind’s eye. I see money blowing across the street after a bank robbery, a pistol lying near a curb of a major avenue, bullet holes in a door, blood on a concrete sidewalk, and much worse. So, when writing a mystery, I find it easy to realistically picture scenes, even though I’ve invented a purely fictional story. When I think of what will happen in my stories, I daydream. I see the story unfold. I hear the characters talk, and I feel the cold or hot air, the humidity. I imagine smells that waft through the air.
Do you write in more than one genre? In addition to crime/mystery, I write science fiction. I began to write it because I worked for NASA for years. I saw many projects and learned of numerous discoveries that would have been fiction in years past.
What brought you to writing? I was born on Chicago’s Southside. When I was very young, my family moved to a small, two-bedroom house in Milton Township between Glen Ellyn, an affluent suburb, and Lombard. I was lucky to attend very fine public schools in Glen Ellyn. In contrast to many of my schoolmates’ families, mine wasn’t well-to-do. At times we were poor. Later, our financial situation was better. But I have always been sympathetic to poor and downtrodden people.
I was good in science and math at school. English was my weakest subject. Some of my teachers urged me to study to become an engineer or a scientist. But I wanted to do something that could help right the wrongs of the world, journalism. So, I studied TV news when I went to the University of Illinois. That’s where I began to learn to write.
The day after I completed college, I was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War and was on a jet plane on my way to basic training. The university sent my diploma to my parents’ house. The Army made me a journalist. Early on, my Army newspaper editor taught me the most I’d learned to that point about writing. I wrote for the Ft. Lewis newspaper, “The Ranger,” a weekly that included as many as forty pages. It had roughly 20,000 to 30,000 readers because Ft. Lewis is the size of a small city. I also wrote and hosted an Army radio news program that aired on a few stations in the Pacific Northwest.
After the Army, I worked in commercial TV news. I filmed crime and other news events. Later, I was a broadcast engineer at WMAL-AM/FM, an ABC Network station. While I was having a beer with a NASA official, he offered me a job to write and produce documentary programs for the agency. After joining NASA, I made more than a hundred NASA TV programs. Later, I wrote hundreds of articles and news items for NASA. I earned my living for much of my career writing about news events and discoveries. After thirty years, I retired from NASA. It was then that I decided to take a stab at writing fiction.
What are you working on now? I’ve nearly completed a volume of short stories called “Florida Grand Theft & Other Tales.” It not only contains crime stories but also includes a section of sci-fi short stories. My next mystery novel is tentatively titled “Murder at NASA.” Besides that, I’m planning a memoir about my TV news experiences and my time working at NASA.
How do our readers contact you? My website is an excellent place to contact me at http://www.bluckart.com. There’s a place on the home page where you can send me a message. There’s another page on my site that lists my books and where they can be purchased: http://bluckart.com/books.html.