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.
In her youth, Kassandra Lamb had two great passions—psychology and writing. Advised that writers need day jobs and being partial to eating, she studied psychology. Now retired from a career as a psychotherapist and college professor, she spends most of her time in an alternate universe populated by her fictional characters. The portal to this universe (aka her computer) is located in Florida, where her husband and dog catch occasional glimpses of her.
Service dog trainer Marcia Banks tackles a locked room mystery in a haunted house. She has trained a dog to clear rooms for an agoraphobic Marine who was ambushed during combat. But the phantom attackers in his mind become the least of his troubles when Marcia finds his ex-wife’s corpse in his bedroom, with the door bolted from the inside.
All my books are mysteries, but I like variety, so I tend to explore different subgenres. I have one completed series of traditional mysteries, one series of cozy mysteries that is winding down, and I have started a new series of police procedurals. I’ve also written some romantic suspense stories under the pen name of Jessica Dale.
We hear of strong-willed characters. Do yours behave, or do they run the show? Some behave, but many do not. My main characters tend to behave most of the time. An exception was the main character of my cozies, Marcia Banks (pronounced Mar-see-a, not Marsha). I originally gave her a few neuroses, so she’d have some things to overcome during the course of the series. The main one was a longing to “be normal,” as she had been teased as a kid over her name and because she was a pastor’s kid. Plus, she’s licking her wounds after a short but disastrous marriage. But then she decided to throw a strong resistance to commitment into the mix, which drove her love interest a bit crazy for a very long time.
Minor characters often assert themselves and insist on bigger parts in the stories. I had two minor characters do this in my Kate Huntington series. One, Skip Canfield, wooed his way both into Kate’s heart and into a main character role.
Where do you place your settings—real or fictional locations? I use some of both. If I’m only going to have good things happen in a location, I’ll probably use a real place. The last two of my series are set in Florida, where I live now. Locals get a kick out of seeing a location name and being able to say, “I know where that is,” or “I’ve been there.”
But if I’m going to have negative things happen, such as corrupt cops, I make up a location. I’ve added three fictitious counties and a fictional city to the Florida map, so far.
What is the best book you ever read? Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, by Bebe Moore Campbell. It is set in the 1960s and 70s when I was a teen and young adult, and it addresses race relations in a very human way.
Ms. Campbell captured the thoughts, feelings, and internal conflicts of all of her characters, including the extremely bigoted white males! She handled the multiple points of view so well that I was inspired to try that approach in my Kate Huntington series. (I’ve since switched to one point of view, usually first person, in most of my stories.)
What are you working on now? I’ve started a series of police procedurals, and I’m really enjoying that new challenge. The protagonist was a secondary character in my Kate Huntington series, a homicide lieutenant who becomes increasingly frustrated with big-city politics (the Kate series is set in the Baltimore area) and with riding a desk instead of being out on the street. Judith Anderson takes a job as Chief of Police of a small city in Florida, figuring if she’s in charge, she can be more hands-on. In Book 1, Lethal Assumptions, she’s only eight days on the job when she finds herself chasing a serial killer.
I’m currently writing the first draft of Book 2, Fatal Escape, which deals with human trafficking and domestic abuse. But since I’m used to writing cozies (which are supposed to be “clean”), I’m trying to keep the gore and swearing to a minimum. I don’t want to offend my loyal readers.
Do you have subplots? If so, how do you weave them into the novel’s arc? I usually do, especially in a full-length novel. Often the subplot is about the main character’s love life. My favorite kind of subplot, though, is one that ends up tying into the main plot at the end of the story.
In Fatal Escape, Judith’s love interest is the sheriff of the next county over. She calls him Sheriff Sam inside her head. She already has a drowning case on her plate—that could be a suicide or murder—when she gets a call from Sam to come to a murder scene on the boundary line between their two jurisdictions. They have a funny little back-and-forth in which each is trying to give the case to the other one.
Sam finally takes the case since Judith’s already got her hands full. But later, it turns out that the two cases are linked. I won’t say more for fear of spoilers, but I can hardly wait to write the chapter in which they make the connection. Every time I think about it, I want to rub my hands together and laugh diabolically.
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Lis Angus is Canadian; she grew up in Alberta but moved to Ontario for university and has lived there ever since. Early in her career, she worked with children and families in crisis, switching later to work as a policy advisor, business writer, and editor while raising two daughters. As a child and teenager, she loved writing stories; she didn’t come back to writing fiction until she’d retired. 2022 is her breakout year, with her first short story published in February and her first novel, NOT YOUR CHILD, released in April.
NOT YOUR CHILD A strange man insists Susan’s twelve-year-old daughter Maddy is his granddaughter, abducted as a baby—then Maddy disappears, but he has an alibi.
Excuse my blogger intrusion but here is a review by Jim Napier in The Ottawa Review of Books. I just had to share this with our readers.
Although she has published short stories previously Not Your Child is the author’s debut novel, and it is among the strongest such works I’ve seen. It is original and polished, with believable dialogue and a strong sense of atmosphere. The characters are engaging and nuanced; the author is particularly effective in portraying the obsessed grandfather in a partly sympathetic light. Add to that a crisp pace that keeps readers engaged until the very end and you have a sure winner. Highly recommended.
To read the entire review, I’ve included the link: https://www.ottawareviewofbooks.com/single-post/not-your-child-by-lis-angus?fbclid=IwAR1hpczBZI4fAU6uX6rvZDlf8oHLni7NSFhX6HOS77NpyuUbJSOwOFSvowk
If anyone had told me as a teenager—when I was reading Writer’s Digest and sending stories off to Redbook and Ladies Home Journal—that it would be decades before any of my fiction would be published, I likely wouldn’t have believed it.
My high school teachers praised my writing (though they saw only my assigned essays, not my fiction.) I fully expected that writing would be my life.
And so, it proved to be, though not in the way I would have expected. I have indeed spent my life writing, though I didn’t return to fiction until a few years ago.
Raised on a farm in rural Alberta, I was a practical girl. Freelance writing did not appeal to me. If I were to be a writer, I’d need a job that paid me to write. So, I enrolled in a journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.
That’s when the plan got sidetracked. At that time, Carleton required first-year Arts students to take a variety of courses; journalism courses were not offered until the second year. And my attention was grabbed by the social sciences: psychology and sociology. I ended up not taking any journalism courses—instead, after graduating, I accepted a position at a treatment centre for children and adolescents with behavioral and mental health issues.
Skip ahead a few decades, through years that included working with children and families in crisis, earning two graduate degrees, switching into a business career, and raising two daughters while working full-time. I did a lot of writing in those years, reports, articles, and policy papers. I learned how to write clearly and persuasively, structure an argument, and self-edit.
It was satisfying, and I was good at it, but it was all business-related, non-fiction writing.
In the back of my mind, I always thought I’d come back to fiction. I enrolled in some online fiction writing classes. Those classes were useful, but I didn’t pursue my fiction writing dream any at that time.
Skip ahead a few years again, to 2017. Suddenly my agenda was clear. Around then, I bumped into National Novel Writing Month. November each year—thousands of people around the world take on the challenge of writing 50,000 words in thirty days.
The idea intrigued me, and I thought, “If not now, when?” I had no idea if I could write 50,000 words in a month, but I plunged into the task.
I had a basic idea for the novel, an image that had flashed into my mind: what if someone showed up claiming that your child wasn’t yours? I wanted to flesh out that concept. What kind of characters would be involved? What could lead to that point? How would the story unfold?
I mapped out an initial outline and went to work. And I succeeded! I wrote 50,000 words that November.
I set that draft aside for a month, then had another look at it. I realized that it wasn’t a novel yet: it was a beginner’s effort. I wasn’t even sure what it needed or what I needed to learn, but I didn’t want to give up on it.
At that point, I made a smart decision. I joined Sisters in Crime; an organization founded to support the professional development of women crime writers (though it now has many male members as well.) I also joined one of its sub-chapters, the “Guppies.” Through the Guppies, I took many excellent fiction writing classes, learning about novel structure, pacing, character development, plotting, voice, suspense, and other topics. I also connected with other writers, some at my own level and some published and award-winning authors.
All the while, I was working on my novel. I revised and rewrote, adding and subtracting characters and storylines. I moved scenes and chapters around. I engaged a professional editor to review my drafts and give advice, and I also got feedback from a small group of early readers (friends and writing colleagues).
I’d heard that agents would look more favorably on writers who show they are serious, including setting up a web page. Looking at other authors’ web pages, I realized their purpose is to promote the author’s books and writing careers. I had no fiction credits to my name. But decided to set up a website anyway. Around then, Black Cat Mystery Magazine announced it was looking for story submissions. In a fit of optimism, I submitted a story I’d written a dozen years previously but had mothballed. I thought that if they accepted it, I’d have something to feature on my website. And in March 2020, they did accept it!
Meanwhile, I sent queries to about twenty agents. A few asked to see my manuscript, but ultimately, they all rejected it. I figured the novel needed more work, so I paused my queries while rewriting it. A few months later, I tried again with a revised draft and another set of agents, but the result was similar: some expressed interest, but none offered to represent me.
During this time, I’d been exchanging manuscripts with other writers and absorbing their critiques. By my sixth draft, I concluded I needed a completely different ending, so I threw out the final 25% of the novel and wrote a new one.
In early 2021, I began my third round of queries. This time I decided not to limit my queries to agents but to also approach a layer of smaller publishers who were willing to consider un-agented submissions,
And I started to get some encouraging signs. The new agents were no more enthusiastic than those I’d approached in the earlier rounds. Still, several small publishers gave me detailed suggestions for improving the novel and said they’d be willing to take another look if I revised it. (At that point, I was already working on a seventh draft, based on input from a second professional editor.)
I also was selected as a finalist in the 2021 Daphne du Maurier contest for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense, in a division for unpublished authors—and I ended up placing second among the six finalists.
And—in a final breakthrough—in July 2021The Wild Rose Press offered me a contract for my novel, NOT YOUR CHILD.
At that point, I still didn’t know when issue #11 of Black Cat Mystery Magazine was going to be published; that was the one that would feature my short story. I joked that it was a race between BCMM and Wild Rose Press as to which of them would be the first to publish my fiction. As it turned out, BCMM won the race by a whisker: the issue came out in February 2022.
NOT YOUR CHILD was released two months later, on April 18, 2022— four and a half years after I decided to plunge into National Novel Writing Month. So much happened during that time, yet in another way, it seems like it’s been like the blink of an eye.
It’s been an amazing time for me, learning new skills and becoming part of a wonderful community of writers. I’m grateful for all the help and support I’ve received.
Now I hope readers will enjoy the novel. I hope they’ll love my characters and that they’ll be caught up in suspense as they turn the pages to see how the book ends.
Purchase links: https://books2read.com/notyourchild
Dragon’s Ridge – An orphanage headmistress must use her wits to escape from a dragon, but only compassion can set her free from both dragons and men.
Brian Thao Nguyen Gunney was born in Vietnam and escaped to the U.S. as a refugee in 1975. After briefly considering a creative writing major, he earned a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering and scientific computing from the University of Michigan. He drew on his technical training, outdoor experience, and interest in history to bring dragons into the real world in his first novel, Dragon’s Ridge. Brian works in scientific computer simulations. He writes, hikes, runs, and bikes in Northern California, where he lives with his wife and two teenage children.
Dragon’s Ridge – An orphanage headmistress is snatched, saving a child from a dragon, and the world believes her dead and eaten. For centuries, Gascony’s top predators have treated humankind as easy prey.
But Isodore’s misery has only begun. On a lonely ledge high in the Pyrénées, where even the famed dragon slayers won’t go, she comes to terms with the nature of dragons, her fate in her captor’s hands, and her own dark secret. A child survivor of a dragon’s wrath, she has relied on her wits to stay alive. But it’s compassion that gives that life meaning, stirring a warrior’s idealism, breaching class divisions, and sustaining love for an outcast. On Dragon’s Ridge, Isodore’s struggle brings the two virtues into conflict. She placates her captor to plot her escape, unaware that the plan will cost her a part of herself she can never get back.
Dragon’s Ridge will test the fortitude, resourcefulness, and humanity of the humble headmistress. It will forever change her, the lives she touches, and the world she lives in.
Writing Dragon’s Ridge was an opportunity to present a fantasy setting with scientific plausibility. There is a tradition of minding scientific plausibility in sci-fi, but not so much in fantasy, maybe due to the reliance on magic to explain things. In real life, science and technology are governed by natural laws, with limitations and consequences. When fantasy resembles that, the story feels true to life for me. When it doesn’t, it’s like a free lunch, and there’s no such thing as a free lunch. I’ve enjoyed stories like that, like fairytales or humor or satire. But for adventure stories, I want to feel like I’m right there with the characters, sharing their world and their agency. Scientific implausibility makes it difficult for me.
To complement scientific plausibility, I used a real-world setting. My goal was to make the setting as authentic as possible from the scientific and historical perspectives.
What brought you to writing? I have a very active imagination. A story gets inside my head, and I have to write it down so that it won’t distract me from my work. I had never thought of myself as a writer until I looked back on my life and saw how much writing I had done. Writing is something I’ve returned to time and time again.
Tell us about your writing process: Ideas linger in my head, sometimes for years. They grow without direction or constraint. Sometimes, they collide and happen to fit together like pieces of a puzzle. I think that’s when they turn from ideas into story and grow like a rolling snowball. That’s the inspiration. The telling of the story is the work. My California Writers Club – Tri-Valley Branch critique group, helps keep me making progress. Talking about my drafts helps me think about it, dissect it, understand what’s going on, and see things I had overlooked. Not only can I fix what’s wrong, but I can also find out what else I could add to the scene.
What is the most challenging part of your writing process? Writing characters who are very different from me. I have to get into my characters’ heads to see how they think and respond, but it’s hard to get into a head that’s very different from mine. For example, I’m rather introverted, so it’s hard for me to write outgoing characters at a party.
In the editing process, polishing the manuscript for publication is challenging. Writing is fun and something I do for myself. Moving toward publication means getting a lot of technical things right. It’s important but tedious. I struggle with certain details of the English language, particularly with verb tenses and plurals.
Has an association membership helped you or your writing? Being around writers in TWC reminds me that it’s okay to write. The encouragement I received kept me going when I was stuck. My critique group helps to keep me writing regularly. I knew nothing about publishing or marketing books. Learning from speakers and my peers about how all that works is very helpful to give me an idea of the road ahead.
How long did it take you to write your first book? The idea first came to me about thirteen years ago, and I put the first words down eight years ago. I worked on the book six out of those eight years. In all, I wrote five complete drafts.
How long to get it published? Once I decided to publish the book, it took almost two years. I continued working on the manuscript because I was still studying the art of writing and incorporating what I learned into the manuscript as I was preparing for publication. I didn’t have any luck after a few months of trying the traditional publishing route. I believed I had a good story to tell, so I approached Paula Chinick of Russian Hill Press, an independent publisher in our writing club.
Do your protagonists ever disappoint you? No. As long as a character is authentic, I find them interesting. My characters seem to have minds of their own. If they go off-script, that’s all the better. It shows they’re independent of me. The best ideas come from them acting on their own.
Do you have subplots? If so, how do you weave them into the novel’s arc? As a novice, I used to be concerned that I didn’t have enough subplots, but when I saw how long Dragon’s Ridge was getting, I stopped being so concerned. Weaving in subplots, for me, is a lot of work. I usually don’t know the subplots ahead of time, so when I get an idea, I have to do quite a bit of rewriting and editing to weave it in tightly.
How do you raise the stakes for your protagonist—for the antagonist? Isodore is fighting for her life from the first scene, so the stakes start out very high for her. But it’s when she wants more than just to live that the reader sees the full depth of her character. For her, the stakes were raised by the opportunity to get things she had thought were out of her reach. Can she bring peace between two enemies? Will she avenge the injustices she had to endure? Could she be her true self? It’s similar for the antagonist. He’s not concerned only with the present struggle. He wants to survive the changes he knows are inevitable, among other things.
I didn’t start the story with complex stakes. They kind of created themselves. I think authors get to play god in their stories, but I don’t think I’m the kind of god who rubs my hands together saying, “Ah-hah!” After constructing the premise of Dragon’s Ridge, I mostly left the characters to find their way to the ending. I like being the observer more than the master.
What kind of research do you do? I had to learn a lot about the setting to figure out how the characters would interact with it, everything from the daily life of peasants to historically significant events. I read up on medieval history, and it’s fascinating. The medieval world was dynamic and lasted a thousand years. It started as the remains of the western Roman Empire and became the foundation of the Renaissance. Popular culture often portrays a composite setting, putting together elements that didn’t overlap much, if at all, in real life.
An example is the chivalrous warrior knights in shining armor. Knights of the Early Middle Ages didn’t care much about chivalry, which was a concept invented by the clergy to incentivize more civil behavior from the warrior class. By the time shining suits of armor came around, knights pretty much stopped being warriors. They were more like athletes competing in tournaments.
I also read about the people, their language, and their technology. I studied the geography and the ecology of the region. I obviously inserted elements of fantasy into the setting. Still, I wanted to keep that minimal and make the setting as historical as I could.
For scientific realism, I had more of a head start because of my aerospace engineering background. To make sure I had scientifically plausible dragons, I did some aerodynamics calculations, which led to a blog post. I also looked at recent theories on giant pterosaurs. I was comforted that my dragons aren’t much different in size than those prehistoric flyers.
I even made tallow torches to verify that what I wrote about them was accurate.
After studying the medieval world, I can’t help but change my perspective on my life a little bit. Salt, one of the cheapest and most ubiquitous commodities in our world, was once available only to the most important people of the medieval world. Now, when I measure out half a teaspoon of salt, I feel rather privileged.
How do our readers contact you? https://dragonsridgebook.com/
In addition to presenting the book, the website has a blog and a contact page. I also have set up an author page at Good Reads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/21950689.Brian_T_N_Gunney
Brian enjoying the great outdoors.
ATSNStop the ThreatChuck Thompson
Sarah’s latest crime fiction thriller is The Carlucci Betrayal.
Here is a glimpse into Sarah’s award-winning career:
Sarah Cortez, a Councilor of the Texas Institute of Letters, Fellow of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, and Fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She has poems, essays, book reviews, and short stories anthologized and published in journals, such as Texas Monthly, Rattle, The Sun, Pennsylvania English, Texas Review, Louisiana Literature, The Midwest Quarterly, Southwestern American Literature. Winner of the PEN Texas Literary Award, her debut poetry collection is How to Undress a Cop. Her books have placed as finalists in many contests, such as the Writers’ League of Texas Awards, Los Angeles Book Festival Awards, and the PEN Southwest Poetry Awards Latino Book Awards, Border Region Librarians Association Award, Press Women of Texas Editing Award. She has been both a Houston and Texas finalist for poet laureate; she is a law enforcement veteran of 28 years. Her memoir entitled Tired, Hungry, Standing in One Spot for Twelve Hours: Essential Cop Essays brings the reader into the patrol car as it reveals America’s most dangerous profession.
The Carlucci Betrayal takes readers deep into the Mississippi Delta during Prohibition to witness the founding of a criminal empire, and not since The Godfather has a Mafia family captivated readers the way the Carlucci brothers do in Robert Wilkins’ and Sarah Cortez’s rollicking novel of love, lust, and naked ambition.
Michael Bracken – Anthony Award-nominated editor of The Eyes of Texas
Genres in Which I Write: I write in more than one genre, and I love seeing how the interaction of skill and intention translates and doesn’t translate across genres.
I began as a literary fiction writer, then to poetry, then to memoir. At this point, I think I’ve been published in almost all popular and literary genres and subgenres. I love all kinds of writing and edit all genres.
Writing Process: In terms of my writing process, I don’t have much leeway to choose a particular set of locations or circumstances to write. As a full-time professional writer/editor, I write when and where I can. I always seem to have deadlines breathing down my neck, whether for writing or editing. I am also an editor for a large international Catholic online journal of the arts. Those deadlines keep me very busy. www.catholicartstoday
First Publication: My first book came out within less than three years of beginning to write poetry. I now have 14 books—all traditionally published. For quite a few years, I had one or two books published per year. I have been very fortunate to work with publishers who really believed in my book projects.
Characters: In the popular genre of crime fiction, there are usually two strong-willed characters: the criminal and the sleuth. They must be fairly evenly matched in order to have a drawn-out conflict that is sufficiently interesting for a reader to read the entire novel.
The process of creating a 3-D character, particularly a main character is involved and mysterious. Tomes have been written about it. Curiously enough, it is the one critically important step that most fiction writers, particularly beginning fiction writers, don’t spend enough time doing. All the hours of research, imagining, taking notes, thinking through personality and choices, and personal history of the character pay off. Yet, most fiction writers either skip this step or do it quickly—a fatal mistake to both plot and the possibility of writing a book that readers enjoy.
Writing Characters of the Opposite Sex: Due to police work and my corporate career before policing, most of my life has been spent working with men. I do not find it a particular challenge to write from a male’s POV. In fact, most of my literary and popular fiction is written in a male’s POV.
Do You Base Characters on Real People? As a freelance editor who has been privileged to work with many writers, I think that basing a fictional character on a real person is an absolute no-no. Fiction that does this results in erratic character motivation and is often boring. Characters must be free to act according to the psychological and emotional dimensions based on the imagined history and personality that the writer has given them. So, you can see from this line of thought that I never base my characters on real people and certainly never on myself.
How To Raise the Stakes for Characters? Especially in popular fiction, but also to a lesser degree in literary fiction, the author’s “job” is to apply stress on the main character. These stresses of circumstance create conflict, and conflict creates plot. The way the stress is applied to each character will be different since each character has a different personality and history.
Does a Protagonist Ever Disappoint You? As an author, I am not thinking about my reactions to characters in a book. I am always thinking, however, about what the scene needs to be of interest to a reader. Sometimes a protagonist needs to fail, whether that failure is of his choice or imposed on him. If the writer is writing a protagonist that changes throughout the book, the protagonist will make mistakes. Some characters, like James Bond, do not change over the course of a book. But even this type of character does experience failure of action and choices.
vintage Italian mafia gangster in 1930 in New York
What Kind of Research Do You Do? I research what I need to research. Sometimes that involves an entire era with its cultural artifacts of music, dance, clothes, attitudes, disasters, politics, etc. Sometimes research is very specifically related to a particular scene. For instance, in The Carlucci Betrayal, I had to find out how a young male below the age of military service would get to Europe in 1938 to volunteer to fight against Hitler. Since 1938 was before the U.S. declared war, I had to see which avenues were open to this young man. This only affected a couple of sentences in a phone conversation between two main characters, but it had to be historically accurate.
Also, for The Carlucci Betrayal, I had to research Mississippi law regarding homicide and manslaughter in the late 1920s for a courtroom scene and for the lawyer’s arguments to be accurately based on the law.
A Writer You Admire: I greatly admire Megan Abbott, a wonderful noir writer. She successfully combines what’s best about crime fiction with exquisitely styled prose. She is so successful because so few writers write with her precision and energy in such gorgeous prose. My favorite title of hers is Bury Me Deep.
Advice for New Writers: I’ll pass along some wise advice from a professional saxophone musician: don’t choose anything but your horn. In other words, writing demands a serious commitment to practice and learning. When the others meet their friends to go bowling or drink at the bars, you must be reading, learning, revising, drafting, studying, etc. If you’re going to be a good (highly skilled) writer, then writing isn’t a hobby. It is your job.
Anything Else You’d Like to Mention: Getting to work on The Carlucci Betrayal was tremendously hard work and also tremendous fun! I’ve always wanted to write Mafia-era fiction. This gave me an opportunity to research plus create three-dimensional characters that acted according to a different era’s pressures in a society that was both more constricted and more free-wheeling than today’s.
I also relished my research into Mafia fashion. Not only for the men but for the women. Holsters, spare magazines, stilettos, razors, cigarette lighters, etc. Types and calibers of guns. Several PWSA members helped me out with these questions. For me, becoming conversant with places of concealment, fashions for men and women, mobsters on different coasts, and what they wore—fascinating! It was a delicious peek into the psychology and practicality of why the mobsters and their ladies wore what they wore.
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