Virgil Alexander – Miner, World Traveler, Historian, Author

History must be what it is. There is no need for excuses or blame.

My first book remains a large, fractured manuscript, still a work in progress, titled Ranching in the Heart of Arizona. From a conversation with a coworker about 14 years ago about the fact that many old ranchers in our area were passing away and my comment, “Someone should get their history before it’s too late.” She said, “Why don’t you do it?” Expecting to be dealing with a score or so ranches, research has turned up more than three hundred old ranch-families in my home Gila County; and started me on my never-ending personal story.

In fact, it was the act of researching that history that I first happened on the very interesting 1889 robbery of US Army Paymaster Major Wham and his escort at Cottonwood Canyon in Arizona. My first fiction novel, The Wham Curse, set in two different centuries relates the story of the robbery and creates a fictional answer to what if the Wham loot were found in modern times?

I became friends with my lead characters and needed to keep them alive. I am the author of a four-book series of mysteries set in rural Arizona and the greater Southwest. I am also an Arizona Historian, with several papers for the Historical Society, museums, on-line history pages, articles in print magazines and newspapers, and an editor and contributor to a history book.  My interest in the Southwest’s natural and human history and my love for mystery stories are combined in my fiction stories. A sense of place and history plays out in my stories as a natural part of the setting.

Each of my books has a primary murder plot, three or four subplots, and character backstories. In The Wham Curse, the primary plot is solving the inexplicable killing of a young Apache boy, which makes no sense until connected with the old robbery. Secondary plots deal with historic preservation, environmentalism, and crime on the Indian Reservation.

Saints & Sinners has the main plot of protecting a Mexican girl from cartel assassins. Secondary themes resolve around border issues, a romance blooming for Deputy Sanchez, international crime, and Mexican culture.

Archaeological theft and international illegal marketing and murder are the primary plots of The Baleful Owl. Subplots include dealing with differing views among different tribes, acceptance of the mentally disadvantaged, and the place of preservation in the rapidly changing Southwest.

Set in two fictional mine developments in Arizona, Murder in Copper, deals with a murder and both industrial and international espionage, justice on the reservation, international relationships with former Soviet republics, alcoholism, and grief.

I do a lot of research, even for my fiction. The Apache, O’odham, Mexican, Mormon, and rural culture will be as accurately depicted as I can make it. The geography, natural environment, and history of each setting will be very accurate. I research the legality of situations and law enforcement jurisdictions, and the local culture’s influence. So when the story is in Hermosillo, Solomon, Spain, Turkmenistan, San Carlos, Tempe, Tucson, Ft. McDowell, or wherever, I used actual street names, buildings, office locations, and sometimes business names, such as the Casa Reynoso in Tempe and Taylor Freeze in Pima.

When I write, I have a general idea, sort of a very sketchy outline of my main plot. From there, I simply tell the story, let it flow naturally. I’m often surprised where this takes me; I guess that’s the pantsy part of me. But the “engineer syndrome” part of me comes to play in that I keep track of each plot and subplot, the clues, and each character I invent on spreadsheets. While I always have new characters in each novel, I also reuse characters from other books. This organized tracking facilitates reuse of interesting minor characters, keeps me from revealing a clue or a clue-related action at the wrong time, and lets me weave the progress of plots and subplots in a logical order, and to sometimes connect subplots as contributory to the main plot.

I love the act of writing, especially fiction because I can take it wherever I want it to go, as long as it makes sense to the story. But I hate to be interrupted when writing. This makes it kind of a tough, lonely time for my longsuffering wife. I need about a three-hour block of time, so I can get the story flowing and translate it to words; with any less than that, I spend most of my time trying to figure out where I am in the story and where I want to go. There have been times I started writing at seven pm and interrupted to go to bed at seven am.  Such a session is very productive; it’s like playing at the top of my game.

One thing I do when writing either pure history or depicting actual history in a novel is present the facts as they actually happened and in the context of the period, without passing judgment or equating it to today’s values. History must be what it is. There is no need for excuses or blame.

For more about my work or myself, visit my page: https://virgilalexander.weebly.com/books.html

The books are available in print and digital at Barnes & Noble Stores and Online, at Indy stores, and through Amazon.

 

10 Comments

  1. John G. Bluck

    I like your method of using real places, Google maps and the Internet to accurately describe locations depicted in your novels. I’m sure your experience as a historian has helped you a lot, as well. One of my daughters lived in Arizona for a while. I look forward to further exploring the Southwest via your books.

    Reply
  2. Michael A. Black

    It definitely sounds like you’ve got a system that works well for you, Virgil. Using spreadsheets to keep things on track is a novel idea. Good luck with your writing. I hope to see you at the next PSWA conference.

    Reply
    • Virgil H. Alexander

      Once, I decided to maintain minor characters across by books, it became necessary to keep them straight. In was an idea for novels, so truly a novel idea, right?

      Reply
  3. Valerie Leach

    I have known Virgil for many years and graduated high school with his wife, Lois! Just finished reading “The Wham Curse” and loved it! Will now be reading “Saints and Sinners”! Learning a lot about Gila County where I grew up and love the accuracy of these historical novels!!

    Reply
    • Virgil H. Alexander

      Gila County gets a little more exposure in the Baleful Owl, and Globe-Miami are a major setting in Murder in Copper.

      Reply
  4. Keith Alexander

    So, what are the best methods for researching distant locales which you can’t visit them in person?

    Reply
    • Virgil H. Alexander

      For scenes of places where I’ve never been, I review the official webpage of the place, then I “explore” it using google street view, so I can accurately describe the setting. I did this with the scenes in Saints & Sinners set in Hermosillo, and in Spain. The CIA World Book is a great source of basic economic, political, and cultural information for any country. Research is so much easier with the internet than having to use physical archives or microfilm.

      Reply
      • Katherine Alexander

        What does pantsy mean?

        Reply
        • Virgil H. Alexander

          Pantsy refers to “flying by the seat of the pants”, writing as ideas flow to you, rather than planning a detailed narrative and following it. This is the way most of my writing is done, though I also usually have a rough outline of what I want in the main plot.

          Reply
  5. Virgil H. Alexander

    Thanks again George for helping to get the word out on my works. I’m hoping we get some interesting discussion of questions. Fellow readers, I will be out for a while late morning today, but will check in periodically for comments.

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

John Bluck – Drops in to Share His Story

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.

 

5 Comments

  1. Michael A. Black

    Interesting interview, Mr. Bluck. You’re in good company having worked as a journalist in the army. During WW II Dashiell Hammett did a stint working for an Army newspaper in the Aleutian Islands. (It was his second time in the service.) Your books sound fascinating. I’ll have to check them out. Good luck with your writing. And thank you for your service.

    Reply
    • John G. Bluck

      Thanks, Michael. My service in the Army was memorable to say the least. I probably should write about it. In my short story book, “Venus Warning and Other Tales,” there’s a short story that recounts how I was almost killed in a helicopter. Jet fighters nearly hit us. (We didn’t crash.) I changed the names of the characters, but it really happened.

      Reply
  2. Ellyn H Wolfe

    Congratulations, John, on this enlightening interview! “Death in the Holler” was terrific, and I’m looking forward to your next book.

    Reply
    • John G. Bluck

      Thank you, Ellyn. My next book will be my second volume of short stories, half about crime and the other half about sci-fi. The tentative title is “Florida Grand Theft & Other Tales.” I’m hoping it will come out in early 2021. I like writing short stories. Of course, writing them takes much less time than writing a book. I also enjoy throwing in a twist at the end of some of my stories.

      In addition, I’ve made preliminary plans for a second Luke Ryder mystery novel. For now I’m calling it, “Murder at NASA.” Because I worked at NASA for 30 years, I’ll weave in lots of little known detail based on my observations.

      Cheers, John

      Reply
  3. John Bluck

    Thanks, George. The page looks great. Cheers, John

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.