Thursday, November 08, 2012

Today's Mystery Author Guest: Robert Kresge

As promised yesterday, fellow mystery author Robert Kresge is visiting my blog today. To read his bio and see his photo, please page down to yesterday's post.

The photo above is the cover for his upcoming release, Death's Icy Hand, the third novel in his Warbonnet historical western mystery series, which will be published by ABQ Press in November or December. It features the further sleuthing adventures of small town schoolmarm Kate Shaw and lawman Monday Malone in the year 1872. Mysterious deaths follow Russian Grand Duke Alexis on his goodwill visit to America, via train from New York harbor to Chicago, and on to the rolling plains of Wyoming. Monday Malone and special deputy Kate Shaw board the royal train and attempt to identify a murder victim in Laramie. Which passengers will help them, hinder them, perhaps even harm them? When a killer strikes again, in a locked compartment aboard the grand duke’s snowbound train, hunting guides provided by the Army—Buffalo Bill Cody and George Armstrong Custer—offer their help.  But are they allies or suspects?

Below are Robert's answers to my interview questions. Please leave a comment for him, and if you have a question of your own for him, ask it!

1. Who or what inspired you start writing and when did you start?

I was inspired by authors whose books I listened to on CDs when I was still commuting.  My buddies for a half-hour in each direction Monday through Friday became Brother Cadfael (Ellis Peters), Amelia Peabody (Elizabeth Peters), Captain Jack Aubrey (Patrick O’Brian), and rifleman Richard Sharpe (Bernard Cornwell).  Of course I also loved the modern mysteries of authors like Tony Hillerman, Margaret Coel, and Michael McGarrity, never dreaming that they would one day meet and help an aspiring author.

I began writing in the spring of 2000 when I took a course at Northern Virginia Community College called “The American West in Fiction and Film,” taught by Judy Riggin.  One of five optional requirements was to write a chapter from a hypothetical novel, so I began writing Murder for Greenhorns and turned in Chapter 3, the murder.  In the fall, Ms. Riggin taught “The Worlds of Mystery.”  Again the course completion requirements (50% of the grade) included another chapter.  By that time, I had finished the first draft and so I turned in the solution chapter.  I aced both courses, began revising, and in June 2002 began to query agents and publishers.

2.  What tools and process do you use to “get to know” your characters before and while you’re writing your books?

I developed my two polar opposite main characters, Eastern-educated newly-minted schoolteacher Kate Shaw and former Texas cowboy Monday Malone to let them both be “fish out of water,” at least in their first adventure.  I went on to fill out detailed character sheets on them, from their birthdays, families, and physical characteristics to their favorite colors and food preferences.  For minor characters, I do somewhat less, but fill out 3x5 cards on each of them.  I do extensive research on real historical characters I use, like Buffalo Bill, George Custer, the painter Thomas Moran, and Crazy Horse.

3.  How do you construct your plots?  Do you outline or do you write “by the seat of your pants”?

The standard recommendation I’ve heard for mystery writers is to start either with main characters that you find interesting or unique and then give them something to do or to conceptualize a crime and then populate your story, starting with main characters(s).  I think historical mystery authors get to start at a third point—what  true historical event will take center stage or form a backdrop for my mystery.  Like John Grisham and C.J. Box, I outline.  I think with the mystery, even though it ought to be character-driven, readers demand a crime, the process of solution, and then a logical fair-play denouement.  In order to lay in clues, red herrings, and suspects, I follow Margaret Coel’s advice and outline scene by scene before I begin to write.

4.  In the age-old question of character versus plot, which do you think is the most important in a mystery and which one do you emphasize in your writing?  Why?

Well, in mysteries (please note that I don’t refer to them as “murder mysteries” since, like the term “crime fiction” implies, mysteries can be about more than murder), a crime and its solution always play a big part in plotting that readers expect, but I emulate Margaret Coel in emphasizing characters over plot in advancing the continuing relationship between my two main characters.  In my first published short story, given the confines of 2,800 words, I emphasized plot over character, but still received compliments on my female protagonist.

5. What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer and what inspires you and keeps you motivated?

Easily the biggest challenge was overcoming rejection during the long road to publication.  Now it’s hoping I can continue to meet readers’ expectations about Monday and Kate.  Advancing that relationship in fits and starts, with romantic rivals, misunderstandings, and dangers they face keeps me going now.  That will continue to motivate me for the next five books in the series that I’m planning.

6.  What is a typical workday for you and how many hours a day (or week) do you devote to writing?

Since I had a few manuscripts nearly ready to go when my first Warbonnet mystery was published, writing for me has been revision and polishing the last few years.  In June I finished a few weeks crashing on the final revision of my third mystery, Death’s Icy Hand, then proofreading the PDF that was prepared for the publisher.  Those were 40-hour weeks.  I’m now working on expanding my fourth novel, the draft of which only came to 61,000 words.  I normally work at writing 10-20 hours a week, spending the rest having fun with my wife Julie—kayaking, biking, hiking, camping, and in season, snowshoeing.  Next year, when I begin drafting Book 5, I’ll probably go to 30-40 hours a week.  One thing I’ve never had trouble with is writer’s block.  As an outliner, I seldom get stuck.

7. What advice do you have to offer an aspiring writer?

The same three pieces of advice I gave to the members of the writers group I established at CIA in 2000, a group which had 180 members upon my retirement in 2002 and is still active:

a.  Start writing early.  If you find you’re good at it, you’ll be glad you didn’t wait until your 50s like I did.  If it proves difficult, you’ll have plenty of time to take courses, attend conferences, and join a critique group.  I can’t emphasize the value of critique groups enough, as long as you are a small group (4-6 is ideal), meet regularly (every two weeks is ideal), and follow the pattern of exchanging written comments on chapters at each meeting (do not fall into the common trap of soliciting comments by reading out loud; accept the cost of making copies).

b. Develop good writing habits consistent with your career and family situation.  Near the end of my CIA career, I wrote at home, downstairs away from a TV about two hours a night four nights a week.  My family and yours want to see you on weekends.

c. Introduce yourself to people as a writer.  As soon as you start, you are a writer.  You never know who you may be introduced to or sit next to—an author, an agent, an editor, the relative of a screenwriter or producer, the spouse or aunt of a famous performer.  So polish and memorize your 30-second, three-sentence précis.  You'll also use that précis in your query letters.

8. Now here’s a zinger.  Tell us something about yourself that you have not revealed in another interview yet.  Something as simple as your favorite TV show or food will do.

Well, living in New Mexico makes food (green chile on everything, please) an easy choice.  But I’ll take another tack.  Besides blending history and mystery, I write about the on again-off again romance between my two protagonists.  One of my two favorite Westerns, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, one of my two favorite historicals, Shakespeare in Love, and one of my favorite comedies, A Shot in the Dark, all have strong romantic underpinnings.  I guess “romantic underpinnings” sounds like Victorian underwear, one of my continuing favorite research subjects.

9. What are you working on now and what are your future writing plans?

I will shortly begin to revise and expand my fourth Warbonnet mystery, set in 1873 and featuring Crazy Horse.  Then I’ll begin to research and write number five, set in 1874.  I have copies of my manuscript for Fire From the Ashes, a Civil War spy thriller that resembles Cold Mountain meets Day of the Jackal, out with two publishers.  It is based on true incidents, uses real historical characters, and, yes, has strong female and male protagonists.

10. Is there anything else you would like to tell my blog readers?

Readers can visit my website to read the prologue and first three chapters of each of my three Warbonnet mysteries.  I’m proud of the work my son Matt does on my covers (he’s a lead video games artist for Warner Bros.) and my website (created and maintained by a man who was Matt’s mentor in the 1990s when he was a volunteer at the Animation Lab in the DC Children’s Museum). 
I’ve spoken to everything from school students to MENSA chapters, book clubs, writers groups, historical associations, and the media about my novels and my CIA career.  Anyone interested in hearing from me can contact me at or through my website. 

Thanks, Robert! I know that I, for one, want to hear more about your interest in researching Victorian underwear. Now, who else has a comment or question for him?


Heidiwriter said...

Great interview, Beth! I'm going to have to add Robert's books to my TBR list!

Beth Groundwater said...

Thanks for commenting, Heidi!

Gloria Alden said...

I met you at Malice, Robert, and bought your book MURDER FOR GREENHORNS there along with a couple of dozen other books. The last six months have been hectic and busy so I haven't gotten to it yet, but I just moved it off my book shelf to the table by my nexting chair. As soon as I finish the books I need to get read for my two book clubs, I'll start on yours. I'm looking forward to it since now I remember why I bought it in the first place.

Mike Orenduff said...

What a great way to start the day - reading about one of my favorite writers on one of my other favorite writer's blog. Rob's and Beth's stories are both set in the west, and you might think the comparison ends there. One is contemporary, one is historical, etc. But what they mainly have in common are great characters, exciting plots, terrific sense of place and realistic dialog. And they are both prolific, so there is always a next one to look forward to.

Arletta Dawdy said...

What a dynamic interview, Beth and Robert. Thanks for great questions and insightful answers.
One additon I might suggest for Historical writers: Work out your timeline re: protagonist and real events that affect her/him. I also check that it is feasible for a real character to appear in the time and place I want. My work is character driven with a tip of the hat to general ideas about plot.

Beth Groundwater said...

Thanks for your comments, Gloria, Mike and Arletta, and thanks for stopping by, Rob!

Rob said...

For Arletta and others:

Absolutely right about knowing where your true historical characters were at the time you want to write about them. For Crasy Horse in next year's Book Four, I wasn't able to establish exactly where he was, but he lived in Wyoming and wasn't any place that will conflict with his appearance in my book.

I own but have yet to read a book on Jay Fiske and the financial panic of 1873 which happened because Crazy Horse and other Sioux chased off railroad survey parties that year so that the builidng of the Creat Northern RR had to be postponed. I wonder if Crazy Horse will show up in the Fiske.