Mark Coggins was born in the Four Corners region of New Mexico and is an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation. His work has been nominated for the Shamus and the Barry crime fiction awards and selected for best of the year lists compiled by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Detroit Free Press, and Amazon.com.
THE DEAD BEAT SCROLL – Private investigator August Riordan’s quest to avenge the death of his old partner drops him in the missing person case his partner was working when he died. An alluring young woman named Angelina is looking for her half-sister, but what Riordan finds instead is a murderous polyamorous family intent on claiming a previously unknown manuscript from dead Beat writer Jack Kerouac.
What brought you to writing? I composed my first published short story, “There’s No Such Thing as Private Eyes,” in the late ’70s for a creative writing class at Stanford University taught by Ron Hansen. This was shortly after I’d learned about Raymond Chandler and his distinctive writing style in another class, that one taught by Tobias Wolff. I was all of 19 years old when I typed out the original draft on my Smith-Corona portable, but it was eventually published in the mid-1980s in a revival of the famous Black Mask magazine, where Hammett and Chandler got their start.
In addition to being my first appearance in print, the tale also introduces my series character, San Francisco private eye August Riordan.
Tell us about your writing process: I maintain a research folder on my computer for each novel I write. In it goes digital photographs, Word and PDF files, links to web pages, etc.—anything that can be stored on disk. I also have a small notebook in which I write a variety of things, including location descriptions, snatches of dialog, plot ideas, and similes. The dialog can be imagined or something I’ve overheard.
Of course, the reason I have the notebook is to draw upon the entries when I’m writing. If I decide to use an item from the notebook, I put a tick mark beside it, so I know I’ve already put it in a novel. But even when I don’t select something I can use directly, I find thumbing through the notebook can be helpful, especially when I’m suffering from writer’s block. Somehow, just reading through everything I’ve jotted down can be inspirational, and I usually come up with an idea to get me back on track again.
Do you ever kill a popular character? If so, what happens to your story? Yes, in The Dead Beat Scroll, I killed a character named Chris Duckworth. (This isn’t a spoiler since the book begins with news of Duckworth’s death.) Duckworth was Riordan’s sidekick for five of the seven books. Many readers found his personality and the byplay between Riordan and him to be one of the most entertaining aspects of the novels. Although Riordan and Duckworth are estranged at the time of Duckworth’s death, I hope Riordan’s regard for Duckworth and the real grief he experiences come across in the book. I found the process of writing the final scene in the novel—which is a celebration of life for Duckworth—to be particularly poignant. I hope some of that poignancy is transmitted in the text.
What kind of research do you do? The first research I do is on Bay Area locations, where most of my books take place. I usually walk around a neighborhood I’m going to set a scene in, taking both pictures and notes that I use to jog my memory when I get to the actual writing.
I also do research about the theme or social issue I’m using to drive the plot. For instance, in my novel Runoff, I researched electronic voting and the possibility of defeating the security of voting machines to rig an election. To do that research, I interviewed computer science experts on the topic and talked with poll workers who had an “on the ground” understanding of how the machines are used in a precinct.
For my novel Candy from Strangers, which was about cam girls, I interviewed a young woman who has a website where she solicits anonymous gifts.
Where do you place your settings—real or fictional locations? My settings can probably best be described as hyper-real. I try very hard to set every scene in a real location—often in San Francisco—and many of my books feature black and white photographs of those locales.
Do you have any advice for new writers? I can’t emphasize enough the importance of critique groups. In addition to providing camaraderie and support, they give you feedback, encourage you to write to deadlines. Reading other writers’ work with an eye towards making suggestions for improvement helps me better understand what does and doesn’t work in fiction. Good writers read a lot, and even better writers read a lot and analyze what they are reading.
The Dead Beat Scroll – https://www.amazon.com/Dead-Beat-Scroll-August-Riordan/dp/1643960318
Podcast (where I do serial readings of some of my books) – https://riordansdesk.buzzsprout.com/
The day after high school graduation, Vinnie Hansen fled the howling winds of South Dakota and headed for the California coast. There the subversive clutches of college dragged her into the insanity of writing, where the dark influences of Sue Grafton and Marcia Muller coaxed Vinnie to a life of crime. A two-time Claymore Award finalist, she’s the author of the Carol Sabala Mystery series (misterio press), the novel Lostart Street, and many short stories. Retired after 27 years as a high school English teacher, she remains sane(ish), notwithstanding the evidence of her tickling the ivories with local ukulele bands.
Do you write in more than one genre? Yes, my short stories range from literary to noir. They’ve appeared in diverse publications from Lake Region Review to Santa Cruz Noir. My most recent print publication, “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” is in Gabba Gabba Hey: An Anthology of Fiction Inspired by the Music of the Ramones
In full-length work, my Carol Sabala series falls most accurately in the Private Investigator tradition. Carol Sabala starts as an amateur sleuth, but her career arc in the seven-book and one-novella series takes her into official private investigation.
I’m currently working on two novels, One Gun and Crime Writer, in the literary suspense sub-genre of crime fiction.
Finally, I dabble in non-fiction with a lovely creative non-fiction piece published in Catamaran Literary Reader’s Winter 2021 issue and an article in the last issue of Mystery Readers Journal.
Who’s your favorite author? An impossible question to answer, George! Since I write all over the place, I read all over the place. Right now, I’m in love with literary suspense, and my favorite authors in that sub-genre are Jane Harper, Allen Eskens, and Lou Berney.
When I was working in PI fiction, my inspiration was Sue Grafton.
Some of my favorite books of all time lie where the literary and mystery genres intersect. Think William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace or David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars.
But an author who is a favorite for other reasons is Dorothy Bryant. She comes from an English teaching background, as do I, and that background wends its way into works like Miss Giardino. Dorothy Bryant was feisty, the first woman to wear pants when teaching at Contra Costa College.
Her first book, Ella Price’s Journal, was traditionally published. Still, when her agent deemed her second book “very bad,” Bryant struck out on her own before self-publishing was common or easy. She established Ata Press and published this “very bad” book, The Kin of Ata are Waiting for You. The book was later picked up by Random House and stayed in print for 30 years. Who doesn’t love that story?
But the main thing I love about Bryant is how she explored everything from the diary format to stage plays to science fiction. She followed her love of writing wherever it led her. She did not feel confined by genre. More than any other writer, she’s my role model.
What kind of research do you do? I do whatever research a book or story demands. The fifth Carol Sabala novel, Death with Dessert, involves immigrants coming over the border in Arizona, so I went to Arizona and drove down to Sasabe. I wanted to see the terrain, feel the quality of the air, smell the desert. You can’t Google those sensory details.
Since I’m a crime fiction writer, I’ve toured our local police station, the county jail (twice), San Quentin prison (twice), the FBI Crime Lab in San Francisco, and a prison in Wisconsin. I tried to visit a detention facility in Mexico but was rather forcibly removed. I’ve done two police ride-alongs and attended the Writers Police Academy, where I made a tourniquet for a writhing dummy squirting blood and participated in Shoot; Don’t Shoot video scenarios used for police training.
My personal experience has led to some unintended research. My husband and I were both handcuffed and put in the back of a sheriff’s vehicle to bake for an hour as the LEO’s sorted out a report of shots fired on our street. The photo shows what our street looked like that day. That’s our brown house!
We also came home while our house was being burglarized; my husband gave chase to the burglar, who pulled a gun and threatened to kill him. Luckily, he didn’t. Because of my husband’s pursuit, the cops were able to arrest the young man, and we ended up with front row seats to the criminal justice system—from arraignment through trial. The burglary and the question of what became of the gun served as the impetus for my next novel, One Gun, coming from Misterio press either late this year or early next year.
I’ve attended numerous panels and workshops on everything from search-and-rescue to autopsies. In a survival camp, I constructed an emergency shelter and tried to make a fire. I’ve been to a gun range, of course.
On a more cerebral level, I’ve read Adam Plantinga’s books 400 Things Cops Know and Police Craft and have reference books at my fingertips like Deadly Doses, when I need a little poison, or Police Procedure & Investigation by Lee Lofland when I need a better sense of how the whole bureaucracy operates.
Not all my research is so dark. I visited the Grateful Dead archives here in Santa Cruz to write my story “Dead Revival,” which was published August 15th at Yellow Mama. For an earlier story (“Room and Board” in Fishy Business, the Fifth Guppy Anthology) featuring the same duo of numbskulls, I toured our local Surf Museum.
And, of course, probably like every writer, I go down rabbit holes on the internet. I’ve spent whole afternoons looking at and reading about blue scorpions. For the story in Gabba Gabba Hey, I killed an hour watching videos of killdeers.
Vinnie Hansen, two-time Claymore Finalist
The Carol Sabala Mystery Series
LOSTART STREET, a novel
A murdered metal sculptor. A Russian mobster on the hunt. Can a talented PI outsmart a vindictive killer who has her in his crosshairs?
I’m a lifelong reader of mysteries – historical, contemporary, futuristic, paranormal, hard-boiled, cozy … you can find them all on my bookshelves and in my e-readers. I honed my logic and planning skills while working as an IT project manager. Still, my characters and dialog benefited greatly from my second career as a Congregationalist minister. (No, I don’t write Christian fiction, but I confine myself to mild profanity as needed for the character and avoid any explicit sexual scenes. No judgment on those who do. It’s just my preference.)
I grew up an Army brat, living in Germany, France, and Korea, and several states in the U.S. After my dad retired, we settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I raised my daughter and son there while working at AT&T.
My Maltipoo Teeny and I now live in Wellington, Colorado, a few miles south of Cheyenne, Wyoming. One of my greatest joys is hearing my three granddaughters shout ‘Nana’ when I come in their front door in Fort Collins, Colorado. No matter where I make my home, I will always be a Green Bay Packers fan.
Do you write in more than one genre? I’m a mystery/crime thriller gal, through and through. That said, there are a gazillion sub-genres under those two big umbrellas, and I’m looking forward to exploring a few. I’ll start a historical spin-off series to my Angelina Bonaparte books next. And there may be a dog in one or two of those. Or even a paranormal element. We’ll see.
What brought you to writing? I was always the kid with my nose in a book. I just love to read. Back then, I used it as a way to escape reality, and I still do. In the late 1990s, as I planned to enjoy a pre-bedtime chapter or two, I once again got that feeling of ‘I could do better than this.’ So I put my money where my mouth was and started taking classes. Then I joined a local writers’ studio, where I learned accountability (pages due!) and where creative feedback and encouragement really energized me to write. From there, I worked up the courage to send my baby, Truth Kills, into the world.
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? I have a micro-office in one corner of the guest bedroom – comfy chair, computer cart to hold my laptop and monitor, and the biggest distraction in the world – my Maltipoo, Teeny. She’s a senior dog now, but she does demand intermissions from me for potty breaks, feeding, and a few minutes of toss the toy. If not for Teeny, my neck would probably be more cranked than it is, so I don’t complain.
Has an association membership helped you or your writing? I remember being afraid to enter a writer’s group at the beginning. What if they don’t like my work? What if someone steals my ideas? What I found was a place where I could safely fail and start again. A place where I was told that I was good enough—a place that felt like home. I wouldn’t be a published writer without that kind of support, and one of the first things I look for whenever I move is a critique group.
How long did it take you to write your first book? It seems like it took forever because I worked full time at a demanding IT job and raised two kids as a single mom. Besides, I was learning the process as I went. (Thanks to patient critique partners and a writing coach.) Truth Kills was published in 2012, after more than a decade of work on it. Since then, I’ve averaged a book every two years. I’m certainly not the fastest writer out there!
Do you ever kill a popular character? If so, what happens to your story? I’ve never killed a main character in the series arc, but I did kill a sympathetic character in Honor Kills, book four. The story called for it, and I could find no authentic way to end it happily. I will say that I got mixed reactions from readers, who to this day tell me that I need to resurrect the dead. I love that the readers really related to the character and I, too, feel the pain of letting him go.
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? I started out as a pantser exclusively, but now I’m more of a hybrid. After two books that required extensive rewrites because I created big plot holes without realizing it until the end, I learned my lesson. Now I follow James Patterson’s recommendation in his Masterclass – I lay out a high-level outline and write one paragraph per intended chapter. Of course, there are still a few kinks. In Blood Kills, I moved the exposure of the murder victim as an assassin (but was he?), which resulted in a cascade of edits to keep all the pieces in place. So I don’t strictly adhere to an outline, but I find that a general sense of how the story will unfold keeps me from needing to start over.
What kind of research do you do? I hate to be caught out in a factual error, so I contact experts (who are surprisingly willing to help), run internet queries, ask online groups for help, and, of course, talk to librarians. And some lovely readers even do occasional research for me. Typically, only about 10% of the research ends up being used in the book. However, it is still very useful in guiding the actual writing.
Where do you place your settings—real or fictional locations? My PI Angelina Bonaparte Crime Thrillers series is set in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I grew up after my dad retired from the Army. I use the local landmarks and the Milwaukee slang and cultural group accents (think Polish- and Italian-American) to flavor the stories. Like P. D. James, I treat setting as another character in the novel. Of course, Wisconsinites love it, but a reviewer from New Zealand even mentioned that she felt as if she ‘knew’ Milwaukee after reading the books. Love that!
What is the best book you ever read? The Lord of the Rings trilogy. So deeply layered, with characters (even the villains) that just leap off the page. I was delighted that the movies were largely faithful to the books.
Looking to the future, what’s in store for you? At the end of Blood Kills, Angie asks her papa for more information about her mother, who died when Angie was a child. She’s surprised when he stonewalls her, and her Aunt Terry tells her to look to the future and not the past. The last line in the book: Well, I thought, if they won’t help, I’ll have to do some investigation on my own.
This leads into my new spin-off series that follows Angie’s mother (involved in uncovering WWII espionage), grandmother (1920s journalist), and great-grandmother (post-Civil War feminist and astronomer). I see lots of research in my future!
Anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself and your books? Let me just say to all those people who always wanted to write a book, but whose lives got in the way, it’s not too late! I’ll reveal my age and say that I was in my early sixties when my first book was published. I’d had two careers before then: IT project manager and Congregationalist minister. At every step of my life, I was able to take what I already learned and leverage it for a new adventure. If you’re willing to put in the work and realize that it’s usually a slow process to publication and an even slower process to build a reader base, you can make it happen.
How do our readers contact you?
Links to each book across all retailers: https://tinyurl.com/NanciRathbunBooks
Twitter handle: @nancirathbun
Twitter link: https://twitter.com/NanciRathbun
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Nanci-Rathbun/e/B00E9E7QCI