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Edward Stanton is a man hurtling headlong toward middle age. His mental illness has led him to be sequestered in his small house in a small city, where he keeps his distance from the outside world and the parents from whom he is largely estranged. For the most part, Edward sticks to things he can count on…and things he can count. But over the course of 25 days (or 600 hours, as Edward prefers to look at it) several events puncture the walls Edward has built around himself. In the end, he faces a choice: Open his life to experience and deal with the joys and heartaches that come with it, or remain behind his closed door, a solitary soul.

— The back-cover copy for 600 Hours Of Edward, by Craig Lancaster

Last year at about this time, my good friend Craig Lancaster and I started the National Novel Writing Month event together. We checked in on each other every day, held each other accountable, talked one another through our struggles, kept each other excited about writing.

Only I blew it, getting bogged down by a bad start in mid-month, deciding to start over, and coming up short of the 50,000-word finish line by Nov. 30.

DSCF9547Craig, on the other hand, succeeded at NaNoWriMo in a way almost nobody has. He not only finished his novel, but finished early at nearly 80,000 words. And after a short tweaking period, he self-published the novel — then titled 600 Hours Of A Life — and set about it promoting and marketing it from his home base in Billings, Montana. Despite some missteps borne of inexperience, he made enough connections among the local literati and generated enough positive word-of-mouth that he wound up being offered a traditional publishing deal through Riverbend Publishing. The revamped novel — now titled 600 Hours Of Edward — rolled out Nov. 1 and is available on Amazon and elsewhere.

That’s right, folks … from nothing at NaNoWriMo time to mainstream publishing success in a year. I couldn’t be more proud of my pal.

As such, I think there’s a lot that all of us who have struggled to finish a novel — let alone get one published — could learn from Craig’s story. So, below is a Q&A I’ve done with him that may answer a lot of questions you may have about how he did it — and how you can do it.

And, as a guest blogger, Craig will be checking in throughout the day to answer your questions and respond to your comments. And to sweeten the deal, I’ll be giving away a copy of Craig’s novel through a random drawing; everyone who posts a comment or a question for Craig is entered into the drawing.

Thanks, my readers. And thanks, Craig. (By the way, if you haven’t already, follow him on Facebook here and on his fan page here.)

Q: I know you well enough to know that YOU are not Edward Stanton, the protagonist of 600 Hours Of Edward — even though you’re both fans of Dragnet, the Dallas Cowboys and rocker Matthew Sweet. So where did he come from? Was it from anything in your own experience?

A: That’s funny, because one of my family members, upon reading the book, said, “That’s you!” You’re right, of course. He’s not me. But I think, were Edward real, he and I could connect on a very narrow range of subjects we’re both interested in.

Edward’s creation stems from the chestnut about writing what you know. The things he likes are things I like, but those are only background pieces to flavor the story. His personality, his mannerisms, his heart — the things that ultimately make the story what it is — are his alone. He’s more afflicted, less bombastic, more regimented and far sweeter than I could ever be. I once described my method of creating characters like this: I steal attributes from people I know, and then I give them a good, hard twist into something else entirely. That’s what happened with Edward.

Q: 600 Hours Of Edward was written largely during NaNoWriMo in 2008. How much did the unique discipline of the event — the challenge to pound out at least 50,000 words in 30 days — fit with your personal work ethic?

A: I like to get to it, and NaNoWriMo certainly demands that. But I’d tried the event before and never made it very far, so I had more going for me than discipline. Actually, in a big sense, I credit you for what happened in those 24 days (that’s right — I finished the nearly 80,000 words of 600 Hours a week before the event ended). I was going to sit out NaNoWriMo 2008. I’d had a rough year, and I was just starting to emerge whole from a motorcycle accident I’d had in July of that year. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t want any more disappointment, and up to that point NaNoWriMo had been nothing but disappointing. But when you asked if I’d take part, I thought about it and figured I’d give it a whirl. I spent a day thinking up the broad outlines of Edward’s story, and on Nov. 1 I got to work.

Once I hit about 20,000 words, I knew I had something, but I was writing so quickly that I wasn’t sure how good it would ultimately be. I’m a pretty fast writer under any circumstance, but this was a marathon at sprint speed. These days, I still write every day, but I’ve learned to walk away when the wheels go a little wobbly. Whether it’s 400, 750 or 2,000 words that I’ve managed to get down, I know I’ve pushed down the road. Eventually, they all add up to a novel, if you keep going.

Q: Given your knock-it-out-of-the-park success with NaNoWriMo on your first go, what advice would you offer others who seem to struggle with the challenge?

A: NaNoWriMo 2008 wasn’t my first go; I’d attempted it at least twice previously. But it was the first time I’d put my ass in the chair and made myself write. The primary reason I was able to do so was I had a plan (read: outline) and a pretty clear idea of where I wanted to go. Those things help. Beyond that, I would tell anyone taking part in the event to really take the spirit of it to heart. The goal is to write 50,000 words, not 50,000 pristine, ready-to-be-published words. Allow yourself to write with abandon and with a minimum of cogitation. Accept the high probability that you’ll squeeze out some dreck. Form a symbiotic relationship with your story and write the living daylights out of it. If, at the end of 30 days, you have a good pile of clay to work with, you can worry about the finer points in December and beyond, as you hone it into something more approximating art.

In other words, don’t even worry about publication. Not yet.

Q: One of the more remarkable things about 600 Hours Of Edward, to me, is that you steer well clear of what I think of as “Debut Novelist Disease.” You don’t drown your characters and themes in dense poetic prose — in fact, you seem to have an excellent feel for what to leave out so that the story zips along and develops its characters and themes along the way. How did you manage to steer clear of the need almost every other first-timer has to describe the leaves on the trees and the dew on the grass and give every character a zillion pages of backstory?

A: My answers to these questions notwithstanding, I’ve always been a fairly spare writer. Part of that comes from my grounding in journalism and its demand that you draw the shortest line from A to B. Part of it stems from emulating writers I’ve admired, particularly Hemingway. When I was in high school, I mainlined Hemingway’s stories. At his very best, he wrote the most muscular, uncluttered prose imaginable. I think it’s a real shame that his style has fallen out of favor in popular literature, because to me, it’s timeless.

Here’s the other thing: Every time you flash back, or describe a room in punishing detail or whatever, the forward motion of a story stops, and so does that pleasant feeling of being swept along for the reader. You have to be able to judge when it’s OK — nay, when it’s vital — to stop the story like that. In all other instances, resist the urge.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of writing, to me, is letting the reader have some control over what a scene/person/object looks like. In 600 Hours, Edward spends a bit of time in his basement, building a toy for Kyle, the neighbor boy who is the first person to start breaking through Edward’s wall. I didn’t describe the basement at all. I figured that single word — “basement” — was evocative enough for anybody reading the story. He or she can decide whether it smells dank, or it’s finished, or where the work bench is, or how steep the stairs are. It’s out of my hands.

Q: Speaking of publication, how would you describe that feeling when you first held a bound, finished book, written by you, in your hands?

A: Everybody says it’s surreal, and everybody is right. You can’t help but think of what it took to get there and the high hopes you have for it.

That said, the biggest emotional payoff for having written a book is not rooted in the physical book living on someone’s shelf but in the story living in the mind of someone who’s read it and enjoyed it.

Q: You originally self-published 600 Words Of Edward. How well did that work out?

A: I would call it a mixed bag of success. I did so many things wrong, but I also did the biggest thing right: I wrote a good novel that captured the attention of a publisher who could do more for it than I could in terms of getting it out there. (The hard pushing of marketing and meeting readers and stumping for the book still fall largely to me, and that’s fine. Great, even.) In my haste to get the book into people’s hands, I emerged with a story that still needed editing and a cover that absolutely screamed “poor self-publish job.” Because the book was print on demand, I was slowly able to make good on those things, but it was a less-than-professional way to go about it, and one that still embarrasses me.

Q: What do you know now about self-publishing that you would have liked to have applied to that experience?

A: I would have been much more deliberate — securing a good editor and a good cover designer before the book ever saw the light of day. I would test-driven parts of it with public readings. I would have realized the value in a slower build, in getting blurbs and sending out review copies well in advance of the release. Slapped-together projects (very) occasionally work in publishing, but the smart money is on steady and professional. Self-publishers, more than anybody else, need to go with the smart money.

Q: Based on your experience, for whom can self-publishing work?

A: Despite some notable success stories — like my friend Carol Buchanan, who won a Spur Award for her self-published debut, God’s Thunderbolt — it’s undeniably a tough road for fiction writers. The audiences are harder to find and identify — this is also true for traditional publishers — and the legwork, beyond the marketing expected of almost any writer, tends to get in the way of the next book.

Peter Bowerman, the author of The Well-Fed Self-Publisher, contends that someone with a surefire nonfiction book and an established platform can realize some impressive pure profit by self-publishing. He seems to be proof of that contention. So I think, in a general sense, that nonfiction will fare better in that realm. Of course, nonfiction also fares better in the traditional realm.

I’m interested to see what the massive tectonic shifts in the industry hold for self-publishers. It seems obvious to me that the playing field is leveling a bit.

Q: Does having your book picked up by a publisher make you feel more “legit”? Or does your literary self-esteem come from other places?

A: I’m going to say yes, but in a very narrow sense. My publisher, Riverbend Publishing, has a reach into my market that I couldn’t replicate on my own, and if that reach means that more people will now read my book, that’s a good thing for my so-called legitimacy as an author. But the story was just as good when the book was a print-on-demand item that I moved one at a time.

As far as literary self-esteem goes, that comes strictly from readers. They’re the completion of the circle. The publishing apparatus is the necessary middleman between me and them.

Q: How has your newspaper background helped you as a novelist? Has it detracted in any way?

A: There is no writer’s block in journalism. You write, no matter what. So the biggest help has come from that. I have the discipline to sit down and do it, and if you sit down and write enough times, you’re going to reach the finish line (unless you’re Michael Douglas’ character in Wonder Boys). Journalism also helped me develop a sense for recognizing a good story — not just “news,” but also subtle human stories that really form the backbone of what I try to do as a novelist. I’m grateful for the ability to pluck those moments of inspiration out of the air.

Beyond the physical act of pounding the keyboard, newspaper writing and fiction writing are entirely different things. When I edit a news story, I want the salient details up top, because I’m banking on the fact that a good number of readers will never make it to the end. (Hmmm. Maybe I’ve identified what makes so many newspaper stories so relentlessly pedestrian.) With fiction, you assume that readers will reach the denouement and structure the story accordingly.

Q: You’re a very fast worker. Are you a writer who generally trusts his first instincts and find that they hold up through the revision process? How do you keep from paralyzing yourself over word choices, prose cadence, segues, plot points and the like?

A: My first instincts get plenty of challenges, but that happens in subsequent drafts. On the first go, I just try to get it down, baby. If you’re in perpetual first-draft mode, agonizing over every little thing, the finish line will never come into view.

I’m enormously hard on my work in the second draft. Things get bloody. The third draft may bring a smaller amount of corrective surgery. After that, I apply spit and polish.

I’ll say this: I’m thankful that it isn’t more of an ordeal. I know writers who put down 150,000 words in a first draft and spend subsequent drafts cutting that in half. That would drive me crazy. Or crazier.

Q: Writing for a small publishing outfit, you’re largely responsible for promoting your work and getting it into the hands of paying readers. What, in your view, are some of the best high-upside, low-cost ways of making that happen?

A: This is one of them. You have a lot of readers, and you’ve given me an opportunity to talk up my book. I’m involved in social networking about to my tolerance point — because I love it on its merits, and because it allows me to connect with readers and potential readers.

But here where I live, nothing beats shoe leather. I’m planning to support the bookstores that stock my novel, and I’ll go to any public library or civic group that will have me. And then I’ll hope that the math of word of mouth favors my book. We shall see.

Q: How confident do you feel in your public persona as an author? Do you feel comfortable giving readings, speaking to classes, gladhanding, talking with strangers, making friends among other authors?

A: I’m still a newbie at this, and I still have a vivid memory of my first public reading — the shakiness of my hands, the waver in my voice. But I got through it, and I’ve gotten progressively better at standing in front of a group of people and talking. Maybe I should join Toastmasters and really ramp up my game.

The thing that I struggle with, on a personal level, is that I’m fairly goofy, and I have to guard against that becoming too closely associated with my work, which is intended to be taken seriously. So in a public situation, I try to straddle that line between warm and amiable — which I am — and irrepressibly stupid. Which I also am.

Q: Who are some established authors you’ve gotten close to, and what have they been willing to do for you? What do you feel you can do for them … or do to honor in some way what they’ve done for you?

A: I’m lucky to live in a such a richly literary place as Montana. In my town alone, there are several established writers who have been very generous with their time and counsel, among them Sue Hart, Russell Rowland and T.L. Hines. Sue, who has forgotten more about the literature of the West than I’ll ever be able to learn, has invited me to her classroom and introduced me to other folks (and wrote a hell of a nice blurb for my book). I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to repay Russell for all he’s done. It was his encouragement, after he read 600 Hours, that convinced me I had something worthwhile. He’s given me opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise. And Tony has been a good friend to talk to about publishing and pop culture. We’re both kids of the ’70s and ’80s and we like a lot of the same stuff, and that makes our chatter free and easy.

Ron Franscell is another one, although not a Montanan. He’s been a vast resource for tips on staying sane and for some good, rollicking conversation.

I think the best thing I can do to honor them is to follow their example and be generous with my time and advice if I’m ever sought out in a similar way.

Q: 600 Hours Of Edward is set in Montana, and while its settings are largely urban and suburban, your reverence for the flavor and mythology of the West is obvious. What is it about Montana — and Billings, specifically — that speaks to you as an author as much as a person? Could 600 Hours Of Edward work just as well if it was set in, say, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania?

A: Billings is where I live and the place I know best, so it was an easy decision to drop Edward into this world. I’ve never been to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but I suspect that Edward’s story could have been told there. You’d just have to change up some of the details; maybe Edward’s father would have a background in state government rather than in Big Oil.

In the stories I love best, setting is almost another character. Think of Of Mice and Men and that farm near the central California coast. Could Steinbeck have set it on a dude ranch in New Mexico? Maybe. But that changes the fabric of the story. Had he done that, we wouldn’t know what we were missing, of course, but imagining it retroactively takes something away from us.

Ultimately, I strive for a setting that provides a distinct flavor but a story that has universal themes.

Q: When you’re working, what’s a tolerable level of distraction? Music or no? Facebook or none? Dogs on your lap or no?

A: Absolute quiet and no external distractions. I’m lucky in that my most productive hours are after I get off work, between midnight and 3 a.m. My wife is in bed, the dogs are tucked away, and Facebook is more or less quiet. I sit in the dark and I try to find my way through the next scene, the next chapter, the next plot point.

Q: Do you ever have days where the words just won’t come? How do you deal with that?

A: If I’ve committed myself to writing on a given day, I really try not to leave without having pushed the plow down the field. I may know that I’ll never let the resulting pablum see the light of day, that I’ll double back and fix it at the first opportunity, but at least I will have done *something.*

As I write this, I’m in the middle of a lengthy break from fiction writing. In late July, I finished my second novel (now in the query stage), and I promised my wife that after writing two novels in less than a year, I’d let her see my face for a while. (And, to be honest, I needed the emotional recharge.) I’m about to start up again, and I’m eager to see how that goes.

Q: What expectations do you have for yourself in terms of eventually becoming a self-supporting, full-time writer?

A: It’s certainly my aim, though I’m heeding the advice of my friend Ron Franscell, who warns me that it’s a long road. Whether I ever get there, I’m going to keep writing and keep hoping that someone will find my stories worthy of publication. And, most important, that readers will find them worthy of their time and money. I don’t take either of those things for granted.

Q: What’s next for you? What can you say about Novel #2?

A: It’s finished. I’ve tentatively titled it Gone to Milford. Like 600 Hours, it delves into human relationships, but it comes with much darker undercurrents. 600 Hours is a very straight-ahead, sequential tale. Milford, I think, is the more difficult achievement. It spans a few decades and puts more things into play.

Here’s how I described it in query letters:

Mitch Quillen is in a rut. He’s on the cusp of his forties, his marriage is peeling apart, and his career has gone sideways. When his estranged father, Jim, calls unexpectedly — and then keeps calling — Mitch views the intrusion as one more problem he’s ill-equipped to handle.

Compelled by his wife to leave their home and go to his father, Mitch embarks on a journey not only forward in the here and now but also backward through a father-son relationship gone horribly wrong. Mitch goes to his father hoping to square accounts and find peace with what happened in the summer of 1979 in a small Western town, the place to which he traces a lifetime of losses. He finds reconciliation at home and with his father, and it comes with a harrowing yet affirming lesson in the power and the poison of the things we keep inside, and what happens when our secrets are dragged into the light.

Q: Any interest in doing genre fiction, or book-length nonfiction?

A: Genre fiction doesn’t hold a lot of appeal for me, at least not as a writer. I sometimes wish it did; if I could write two or three thrillers a year, my future in this business would probably be much more clear.

When I moved to Montana in 2006, it was partly with the idea that I would write a nonfiction book about my dad, who grew up here and whose young life was like something out of a Dickens novel. But then life and work took over, and I never made much progress on the intensive research such a project would require. As it is, I’ve managed to exorcise some of those compulsions through my fiction. It’s no accident that father-son relationships drive the narrative of both of my completed novels.

Q: What’s the nicest thing someone’s said to you about your writing?

A: A dear friend wrote to me some weeks back and told me that she works with someone who’s a lot like Edward — irrevocably fixated on details, difficult to know, obstinate and probably suffering from some of what ails my character (who’s OCD and has Asperger syndrome). She said that since reading my book, she has found herself caring more about him and being more patient with him. That brought tears to my eyes. I mean, imagine that: a fictional character inspiring more empathy in real people. And, brother, I can’t think of anything we need more than a greater understanding of each other.

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… and they’re still hurting, and they’re still angry.

This morning, I spent a little over an hour on the phone with the parents of a girl who was killed in January 1979, when she was just 16 years old.

Almost any journalist will tell you that talking to the victims of sudden, violent deaths — and convincing them to share their memories and reactions with the world — is the roughest gig in the business.

I’ve done it before in my newspaper-reporter days, often just hours after somebody’s kid died in a car crash or somebody’s spouse went down in a plane — and it’s every bit as brutal as you might think. Even worse, it gets you to questioning what you’re doing, and just how you came to choose a career path that put you squarely in the path of a private person’s private pain.

The answer we eventually come to is this: That people usually want to talk about their loved ones, and that having them do so benefits everyone. That being a conduit for shared empathy and sympathy in your shared community is a good thing.

And it is.

And yet … damn, it makes my guts roil and boil. Mucking about in human misery will do that.

If you’re good enough, and a little lucky, however, you can make something magical come out of it. I think of my late friend Jack Olsen, the “dean of true-crime writers,” whose 1996 book Salt Of The Earth told the story of the abduction and murder of a 12-year-old — and the later suicide of her anguished father — through the eyes of the mother and wife, Elaine Gere.

Olsen spent some two years with her, patiently extracting an incredible amount of detail about her early life and her more painful later memories. And the reviewers took note: “By viewing the world through the eyes of Elaine Gere and her devastated family, he finds the core values that enabled them not only to survive and flourish, but, in the end, to triumph. Salt of the Earth is a remarkable saga of indomitability, an inspiring and cathartic elegy to the increasing numbers of Americans whose lives are transformed by violence.”

I doubt I’ll ever be that good. Or even one-fiftieth that good.

But I do feel good about have gotten a little further down that road today than I ever have before in my 24-year journalism career.

It’s not easy even getting to the point where survivors of a tragedy will talk to you. And I think it’s even harder when the tragedy took place as long ago as the one about which I’m writing. What must it take to be willing to cut into the scars of ancient wounds for the benefit of somebody else? I can’t even imagine.

I like to think I won these parents over with a few simple facts. One, I’m telling a straight story, not taking sides. Two, I’ve done my homework on their case, and am not pestering them to rehash basics. Three, I’m a politely persistent fucker.

That said, it wasn’t easy. Not only did these folks lose their daughter to an unbelievable act of brutality, but they’re being forced to relive it today — one of the two men convicted in her murder has been pursuing a pardon through the governor’s office.

And that pisses them off.

They think he should still be in prison.

And they wanted me to agree with them.

And I couldn’t do that.

That made the conversation a little awkward, as there were these little pauses in which they seemed to be reminding themselves that they were talking to somebody who isn’t on their side.

And it’s moments like that, that I wish I could still drop in on Jack Olsen in his drafty old garage office at his Bainbridge Island home and ask him: How did you do it? How did you be on the side of your subject … and still stay on the side of your story?

I want to ask that because the hour-long conversation this morning wasn’t enough. I’m going to have to go back to them again. And again and again. And I’m going to have to press, patiently and skillfully, for more details. What was she like? How did you feel? What did you do? Tell me more. Tell me more.

This story, as I might have said before, is a labor of love. It’ll likely be self-published, and God knows if I’ll ever clear a dime after expenses. But I don’t think too much about that. It’s just something I have to do.

And love hurts sometimes.

God knows it does for this family.

So it’s good to talk about it.

Isn’t it?

Things are picking up.

I’ve gotten clearance from the state to visit two prison inmates who have agreed to talk with me for separate books I’m preparing, and will be seeing both within a couple of weeks: Aaron Borrero, who’s doing 22 years for kidnapping and attempted murder at McNeil Island; and Jeannette Murphy, who’s in her 27th year at the Washington Corrections Center for Women for shooting her parents in the head as a teenager and setting the house on fire to cover up the crime.

I’m also planning to meet next Monday with Les Lemieux, the victim of Borrero’s attack. I’ve received the entire Clemency and Pardons case file on Borrero — 857 pages’ worth — from the state and am picking my way through some frankly fascinating reading. By week’s end, I expect to have the transcript from the Sept. 10 hearing in which the Borrero petition was successfully heard. I’ve been calling and setting up appointments with a list of former-inmate friends Jeannette gave to me, because I want the story about her to be rich in behind-the-scenes looks at the culture of the women’s prison.

And, when time allows between all that and my regular job and, oh, you know, sleep, I’ve been working on my outline for my National Novel Writing Month project. I’m going to make time for it that I don’t really have, which will be extremely interesting. Do I have at least 50,000 words of a novel in me ready to come out of me by Nov. 30? I’ll be really surprised if I do … and really pissed at myself if I don’t. Hoo boy.

And, in the last few weeks, I’ve been building up to a whole new project that will, in all likelihood, be ready to roll by Nov. 10 or so. (As metro editor Michael Keaton’s secretary said to him in The Paper when he tried, and failed, to juggle too many people at once: “Are you completely psychotic?” To which, he replied, with dry distraction: “Eh, I have occasional episodes. Nothing serious.”)

You’ll like this one. It concerns a third story I hope to develop into a book (though it’s the one I’ve been working on the longest — nearly a year, in fact). It’s slightly self-destructive. And it’s on slightly soggy ground where journalism ethics are concerned.

Read the following and tell me what you think.

In December 2008, when I first decided to write a book about the most dramatic and interesting cases before the Clemency and Pardons Board, I attended a hearing in Olympia in which the case of Robert Holmes was aired.

In 1979, when he was 19, Holmes played a secondary, somewhat passive role in the rape and murder of a teenage prostitute in rural Snohomish County. He went on a drunken joyride with his older cousin, David Duhaime, whose idea of fun was to pick up a couple of prostitutes in downtown Seattle and rob them. One girl got away; the other wasn’t so lucky. Too drunk to act and too intimidated to protest, Holmes sat mute as Duhaime drove them to a remote spot and ordered Holmes and the girl to have sex.

Duhaime then hauled the girl out of the car, raped her and cut her throat.

The two were caught a few days later. A few months down the road, Holmes agreed to plead guilty to first-degree rape and second-degree murder, and testify against his cousin. Duhaime just missed getting the death penalty, thanks to a juror who balked at the last minute, and Holmes was sentenced to 20 years to life.

Holmes did good time, however, and was paroled after just 8 1/2 years behind bars. He went home to his native South Dakota, married his childhood sweetheart, had two daughters and scrapped about for several years in search of subsistence-level work. Several years ago, he landed a good job as a freight hauler for FedEx, and hasn’t been in a scrap of trouble since.

But Holmes has been hit by a series of setbacks in the last couple of years.

One, newly tightened Homeland Security regulations brought about a new look at everybody who held a commercial driver’s license with a hazardous-materials endorsement. Holmes, with rape and murder on his resume, was told that his CDL likely wouldn’t be renewed when it comes up again in 2010.

Two, in the wake of Megan’s Law, Holmes was required to register as a sex offender, and his neighbors were notified that they had a convicted rapist in the neighborhood.

And three, the sex-offender status caused Holmes a big problem this year, when South Dakota child protective services took his 2-year-old grandson away from his oldest daughter when he wandered away from her home a couple of times. Holmes and his wife tried to become custodial parents, but that effort went nowhere when Holmes’ criminal record came to light. The grandson remains in foster care, and Holmes gets to see him “maybe for an hour every other month,” he told me.

Talking with South Dakota authorities got Holmes nowhere, either. The answer was the same everywhere: As long as he’s got murder and rape convictions hanging over his head, the hands of bureaucracy are tied.

So, with the encouragement and help of his 1979 attorney, Holmes set about trying to get those convictions off his record, reasoning that his cooperation then and his unblemished record since was a strong basis for requesting a pardon from Gov. Christine Gregoire. After several months of preparation — digging up his past court records, recruiting several people to write letters of reference for him, verifying that his record from his 1987 release on was clean — he was granted a hearing before the governor’s five-member panel.

The centerpiece of his presentation was a surprising letter of support from Russ Juckett, the Snohomish County prosecutor who had initially pursued the death penalty against Holmes three decades before.

The hearing went well for Holmes. Despite the opposition expressed by the parents of the murdered girl, the members of the board voted, 4-to-1, to recommend that Holmes receive a pardon. I sat just a few rows behind as Holmes turned to embrace his wife and daughters.

Impressed by the story’s dramatic heft, I got hold of a copy of the petition packet, and went to Snohomish County to dig up the 1979 court file as well as clippings from the The Herald of Everett’s coverage of the case. I then approached Holmes for an interview, and we wound up meeting in May at his home in Sioux Falls.

Then, in August, came stunning news: Holmes’ petition had been denied by Gov. Gregoire. The letter sent by her office offered no explanation. I felt one was needed for my story, so I spent the next couple of months banging on doors at the state Capitol in search of a short interview with Gregoire. I was rebuffed at every turn, however. And the last door was slammed in my face when the governor’s senior legal counsel — who advises Gregoire on matters having to do with the Clemency and Pardons Board — told me last week that he wouldn’t comment because the governor is his client, and their deliberations on Clemency and Pardons Board cases are covered by attorney-client privilege.

(This doesn’t strike me as being quite right, given that she’s an elected official and he’s a state employee, and they were discussing official state business. But I couldn’t find anything in the Revised Code of Washington statutes to contradict him, and the past case law I found online seems to indicate that it’s a deep dark gray legal area. Besides, who can afford a lawyer to argue this? I sure as hell can’t.)

Still, my sense of fair play is outraged to the point that I feel compelled to do something — even as the old-school journalist in me warns me to stand down, shut up and not monkey with the machinery. A journalist reports what happens, after all. He ‘s not supposed to make things happen to report on later.

That held me back for a few weeks until, recent and uncoincidentally, I watched All The President’s Men on DVD. (It just happened to be the next movie in line in my Netflix queue.) And as I watched, I realized that what Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did was just what I was proposing to do — write a story in hopes of rattling some cages and spilling out some sunshine. At least half of their published stories in what turned out to be a Pulitzer-winning series appeared to be calculated to induce people to spill more information that would lead to more stories. And it worked.

That quelled one ethical dither. But another loomed: By proposing to write such a story, am I becoming Robert Holmes’ advocate rather than the objective chronicler of his story? Do I risk being seen that way?

After thinking about it a little, I’ve settled on two answers: No. And probably not.

First of all, I am the objective chronicler of Robert Holmes’ story. I’ve taken great pains to represent myself that way to him and to everyone else I’ve interviewed this year in the pursuit of this story. I like Robert, personally, but that’s not stopping me from revealing the painful details of what he did — and didn’t do — on the night of January 26, 1979. It’s not stopping me from interviewing the parents of the victim, who remain dead-set against any leniency for him and frankly think he and David Duhaime should both be on Death Row.

Second, I can’t control what other people may think.

Third, really … why would anybody think that, anyway? (Besides me in my whinier and more insecure moments?) What I’m proposing to do is write a factual story, with plenty of documents and recorded interviews to back me up, that in essence puts the question to the public: Does Robert Holmes deserve a break? Or, as a convicted rapist and murderer, did the governor give him what he deserved when she shot him down — even though she overrode the advice of her own handpicked panel in the process? Either way, does he deserve an explanation? Do the people of Washington state?

I think it’s fair and ethical for me to write a story that lays out the issue according to the facts and invites its readers raise that question on their own. The fact I that I’m trying to get readers to ask that question doesn’t ethically trouble me in the least any longer. Every day, there are newspaper stories that are published specifically for their potential to provoke public reaction.

In this case, I’ll be trying to provoke readers to provoke Gov. Gregoire into speaking publicly about the Holmes the case — or, at least, authorizing her senior legal counsel to do so. I suspect the reason she turned down Holmes was political, and I think political pressure (of a populist sort) could, just maybe, provoke her to change her mind. Or at least talk about why she won’t. Realistically, I believe the chances of getting her to talk about it are slim. But at least I’ll know I’ll have done everything I could possibly do to get her to do so. And that’s just good journalism.

(By the way, there is precedent for Gov. Gregoire turning down a clemency request from a convicted murderer — again, over the recommendation of her board — and later changing her mind. I’ll be getting into that in my story; trust me, it makes for a very intriguing sidebar.)

Not sure who will publish it, but I’ll approach the Everett paper first, and if they turn me down, there’s a decent-sized list of credible Seattle media outlets to approach. Someone will publish it, given a) how good a story it is on its own merits; b) my own credibility as a Pacific Northwest journalist; and c) the fact that I can back up the facts I cite with the interviews I’ve recorded and the documents I’ve gathered.

The worst-case scenario? I publish it on my blog and get as many blogs and news sites in the greater Seattle area to link to it as possible.

So, this is something I’ll be working on, on top of everything else I’ll be working on, for the next couple of weeks.

Good thing I have no life, isn’t it?

From Lowell Cauffiel, author of Masquerade and House of Secrets:

It’s a simple fact that the quality of your true-crime book will be directly proportional to the quality of your research. I try to schedule tasks when I’m researching a book, but once you open up a thread it can take days to run it down.”


Heh. Or weeks.

I haven’t had a very productive October so far when it comes to developing my true-crime book.

Perhaps it all depends on how you define it, however. On the one hand, I’ve had some deep frustrations in terms of getting access to documents and people I need in order to substantively proceed:

— For nearly two months, I’ve been trying to arrange a short interview with Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, in regards to her policy and practice in acting upon the recommendations of her Clemency and Pardons Board. Things went well at first, with her communications director promising to see if he could arrange something for me. Then he abruptly quit his job and moved back home to North Carolina. And while an interim successor has been named, I’ve had a hard time getting him to return my e-mails and phone calls. The deputy directors haven’t returned them, either. I even turned to some statehouse reporters — fellow members of the newspaper brotherhood — and they haven’t been returning my e-mails, either.
Finally, today, one of the deputy directors got back to me, apologizing for the delay in responding, and — you guessed — promised to see if she could arrange something. My confidence in actually getting face time with the governor isn’t high at the moment, as you might imagine … but at least one of the many doors on which I’ve been knocking has cracked open a bit.

— As readers of past posts on this blog might recall, I’ve shifted my focus from writing one book compiling short stories on several Clemency and Pardons Board cases to writing several books on individual cases. First up, as things stand now, is the story of a man who helped hold up and try to murder a fellow Seattle-area drug dealer before taking off to California with his girlfriend — another attempted murderer on the run — before being featured on “America’s Most Wanted” and being caught on a tip from an AMW viewer. And now, 12 years later, the man has been recommended for clemency and early release to the governor, largely on the strength of supportive testimony from his victim. The delay there has been in getting hold of the petition paperwork — including the court documents — that make up the factual backbone of the story. My paralegal contact in the state Attorney General’s office is finally coming through on my request, however, and I should have a CD bearing the entire file in the mail in a day or two. Reading what’s contained in that file will pave the way to several other avenues of research, I imagine. It’ll also enable me to start interviews in earnest with Les LeMieux, the victim in the case, who has agreed to work with me.

— Aaron Borrero, the man who tried to kill LeMieux, hasn’t yet fully pledged his cooperation with me, but he has agreed to meet with me so I can answer his questions about my project. Problem is, he’s at McNeil Island Corrections Facility. And while he’s agreed to put me on his visitors list, the state Department of Corrections hasn’t yet approved me as a visitor. If this sounds like a familiar complaint from an earlier blog … well, that’s because it is. I sent in the paperwork nearly a month ago and haven’t heard a word. (I’m also trying to get access to an inmate at the state women’s prison about whom I’m also writing; she murdered her parents as a teenager 26 years ago.) In the meantime, however, his sister found me on this blog, and hopefully she and I will be able to sit down for a conversation soon.

That’s on the one hand.

On the other hand, that’s left me plenty of time for the necessary drudgery of true-crime writing — transcribing interviews (which I really hate, because I hate the sound of my own voice) and drawing up timelines for the other cases I’m working on, for which I have most of the documents already.

That’s been going slow, because I have a low threshold for boredom. And that’s a real problem in writing a credible book, obviously. My attention tends to wander after half an hour or so, and usually sitting for an hour straight stretches me to my limit. So I get up, read or write for an hour or two, and guilt myself back to the kitchen table where I do my work. The upshot is that I get some stuff done, but not as much as, you know, an actual adult would. (Did I mention that I’m 44 years old?)

That’s going to make November interesting. Because, by Nov. 1:

a) I may well have everything I need to proceed with my main story, which I fervently wish to have finished in six to eight months. Which means I could easily spend every waking, non-working moment doing something productive toward that end.

b) I still need to do the drudgery work.

c) I still need to chase new cases, and there’s a new Clemency and Pardons Board hearing coming up at the end of November.

d) NaNoWriMo.

NaNoWriMo?

Do you know about National Novel Writing Month? Basically, it’s a big challenge: Write a novel of at least 50,000 words between Nov. 1 and Nov. 30. I did it last year, and completely faceplanted. I failed to draw up an outline, thinking it would be better to start cold from the first word, and wound up seeing my frontstory get sidetracked by my backstory. So I started over in mid-month, and while I did better, my efforts at frenetic catching-up fell short, and I finished at 42,000 words.

So, this year, I’m torn. At this time last year, I hadn’t even developed a zygote of an idea for the nonfiction project that’s all but consumed me this year. And I know that trying to shoehorn NaNoWriMo into all the other things I have going on is probably asking for more from myself than I can possibly deliver.

And yet, I’m driven by two things:

1. My friend Craig Lancaster, my wingman and daily confidante from last year’s NaNoWriMo effort, not only finished his novel in 30 days (with some 80,000 words, yet), but self-published it. And, based, on the positive word-of-mouth he was able to generate from that effort, he landed a mainstream publishing deal. And just after this year’s NaNoWriMo kicks off, Craig’s novel, 600 Hours Of Edward, will be re-released by Riverbend Publishing. I couldn’t be more proud of my friend … or more inspired by what he’s accomplished.

2. I really like my idea. I won’t bore you with a comprehensive plot summary, but suffice to say that it’s a dark thriller about an estranged father and son who team up in the course of a single night to kill a lot of people what need killing — and work out their longstanding differences with each fresh addition to the body count.

3. I really need to just fucking write. A year of researching and interviewing has been like a year of foreplay — fun as far as it goes, but eventually it’s got to get you where you really want to go. I think I can work out some of my long-shelved ya-yas in November by just diving in and happily humping away at my novel. It’s just a month, honey … you’ll understand, won’t you? (I hear myself in my mind asking my nonfiction project for permission.)

I think I’m going to go for it. As hard as it’s going to be. And hard it will be, because I won’t neglect this blog, either.

Q&A: Camille Kimball

Camille KimballCamille Kimball, like everybody else in Phoenix, lived in fear during parts of 2005 and 2006 as the “Serial Shooter” prowled the city streets day and night, wounding and killing people and pets at random. In all 29 people were shot, eight fatally, and 13 horses and dogs were also hit. And like everybody else, she was relieved — and intrigued — when it turned out the “Serial Shooter” was actually two people. The veteran broadcast journalist decided to turn her interest in the case into a book — and emerged a few months ago with her debut, A Sudden Shot: The Phoenix Serial Shooter. Camille, a Facebook friend, agreed to share with me how this book came together — and what challenges she faced pulling this multifaceted story together into a coherent narrative.
Q: Tell me about your background as a journalist.

A: I stumbled into a radio newsroom when I was 17 years old and I pretty much never found my way out. I’ve been a columnist for the Arizona Republic. I have an Emmy in investigative reporting. I’ve had bylines in the L.A. Times and the Irish Times of Dublin. I’ve had work appear in Newsweek and in Sports Illustrated. I did take several years off to have a brain tumor. That was fun. Then I came back to write this book.

A Sudden ShotQ: Before A Sudden Shot, did you have much experience with long-form writing?
A: Not really. Switching from short form to long form is far more than a matter of word count. It’s a whole different structure. And it requires the development of different skills. Just remembering what you’ve already included can be an Olympic sport! While journalism is an excellent background for these books, you have to be willing to put some of your journalism habits in a drawer and try out some new and uncomfortable ones. If you can’t do that, your project will strangle itself to death.

Q: What were you doing when the Serial Shooter killings began? Did you provide daily coverage of them as one of a group of Phoenix journalists?

A: At the time of the shootings, I was inside a newsroom doing anchor work. So I didn’t get out on the street for stories. A radio audience heard me delivering the stories.

Q: At what point did you see the potential for a book in this story — and see the potential for you to be the author?

A: The day an arrest was made. An entire town — a major U.S. metropolis — had been held captive. How could that not be a book? I thought I could write it because my agent thought I could and I’ve learned not to argue with her!

Q: Once you decided to write a book, how did you go about getting an agent and a contract? Was the book a tough sell?

A: I already had an agent. She did a great job getting the proposal in front of the right people. Then it became a matter of timing. Publishing is a lot of hurry up and wait with sudden flurries of activity.

Q: How did you decide how to get your arms around this story, given that so many people and so many criscrossing storylines are involved? Talk about how you approached the organization of A Sudden Shot, and developed a focal point for readers to peer through and not get lost?

A: Imagine yourself standing in a pile of five billion facts. You are the tiny little scribbler at the bottom of the skyscrapers. I did the only thing a professional can do and that is just start writing. After awhile, I began to see a potential structure. You know, all Michelangelo and stuff — once I had the clumps of words, the shape inside revealed itself. For jurors at trial, the prosecution began at the very beginning and I knew this was very hard for the jurors. I couldn’t do that to the reader. I decided they had to care about individuals right off the bat and glimpse the epic battle between villain and heroes surrounding those individuals.

Q: How did you develop your inside access to the law enforcement people at the heart of this story? Did you get access that nobody else in the media received?

A: Yes! of course I did! I did it the old fashioned way, picture a fedora with the “press card” tucked in the band, making cold calls and meeting in hallways and restaurants out of view of others. It was pretty cool, actually, as they began to trust me because at first they didn’t, of course. These are people with jaundiced eyes who are trained to sniff out the worst in people. None of them knew how the book would turn out until they bought their own copies. So can I have that laminated? “This Person Passed by Homicide Detective Gauntlet.” I’d like to tuck that in my fedora from now on.
Q: Was there a risk for you of developing a sort of Stockholm Syndrome with the cops you got close to — to the point that you questioned how objectively you could tell the story of their investigative work? Or was maintaining the right distance and detachment from them never a problem?

A: As a longtime journalist, I hope my objectivity skills are intact. I got to know the players first as names on documents. It’s hard to develop Stockholm Syndrome with a stack of search warrants and transcripts! I knew none of the cops personally until long after the arrests. It didn’t matter if any of them ever talked to me or not, I would have written it the same way. If I had found a major weakness in their work, I would have exposed it. But facts are facts. The bottom line speaks for itself — these serial killers were captured in record time.
Q: One of the tougher things for you in A Sudden Shot must have been the realization that because of the sheer volume of victims, you couldn’t tell the stories of all the victims — those who lived as much as those who didn’t — with the same sort of character development and personal color that you were able to with survivor Paul Patrick. Did you struggle with the unfair reality that not all victims could be equal in the book?


A: What would have been more unfair would have been if none of their stories were told and they all continued to suffer the aftermath in lonely obscurity. I reserved a special page to tell all the players that the book had to stand in for everyone involved, whether or not their own particular story was fully explored in it. Each one could have been a book of its own. When the families call me, they never complain they didn’t get enough ink. They all shower me embarrassingly with thanks.
Q: Once you had a contract in hand for the book, did you have a deadline for it that disregarded the timing of the trials and sentencings? Or did your publisher give you the time you needed to give the story the ending it needed?

A: The publisher does give a true crime author a deadline, or at least mine did. They need to work the book into their catalogue schedule and you have to have it ready so everyone else at the publishing house can do their jobs. I believe the ending in this book is exactly what it needed. Crime is about people, not laws. The judicial process will continue to play out over many years to come. The bad guys are convicted by the end of this book, what else is necessary?

Q: Did you approach Sam Dietemann or Dale Hausner, the convicted killers, for interviews? If so, what happened?

A: The most truth Dale ever spoke is on the wiretaps. He testified he deliberately lies to reporters. I sat through many days worth of Dale’s speaking on the stand at hearings as well as at trial. I sat near him during over 6 months of trial. I observed him up close and listened to him as much as anyone ever wants to. There was nothing to be gained. More lies and denials? Which pages would I replace in the book to add more of that?

Similar story with Sam. I’ve been near him quite a bit over the last couple of years. His wiretaps, his testimony and police interviews are voluminous. I felt it was both more raw and substantive having him speak for himself through those venues.

Q: Did you work with assistants or researchers at all? Or did you do all the digging yourself?

A: Assistant? What is this creature of which you speak?

Q: How much time did you have to do the actual writing? How did you work — just lock yourself at home and unplug all possible distractions for as many hours a day a possible as you could physically endure? Or was the process not quite that gut-churning?

A; Oh, the process is gut-churning. As a reporter, you think you’re pretty good at deadlines but taming a 325 page beast with its tail trapped in New York City is a challenge you haven’t contemplated. Distractions? they don’t bother me. A hectic loud newsroom is my natural habitat. But there is the fickle finger of fate. Phoenix is an annex of hell during the summer and, due to a freak storm, we were without power for days. Try doing this without air conditioning when it’s 115. Or any form of electricity. There were many such freak obstacles and at times I didn’t think it was possible to continue.

Q: How did the revisions process go with your editor? Was there cleanup work here and there, or wholesale structural changes? Were there disagreements between you and she about how the final version should be structured and written?

A: An editor’s eye is very helpful. Books are experienced in a different way than TV is or newspapers are and you really need the editor to help you make the shift. Moving a paragraph from page 283 to page 147 can suddenly make all the sense in the world, when your editor points it out. One of my favorite things she did was organize the photos to tell a story of their own and that was beyond my ability to conceptualize even though my background is in the visual medium of television.

Q: Were you concerned at all about prose style, or just getting the bones of the story onto the page? Did you want to write a new In Cold Blood, or just a good piece of Phoenix journalism? How big were your literary ambitions?

A: I guess I would have to say over time I thought less and less about my literary ambitions and more and more about making people count. People across the country are crying for Claudia and cheering for Paul. Both cops and families are thanking me tearfully. Isn’t good literature supposed to move people? I guess I can exhale, then, both for my ego and for my soul.

Q: How has the book been received so far? Good reviews? Have sales met expectations — or have expectations even been outlined?

A: I keep being flabbergasted that people like it so much. After one has read the drafts eleventy million times, it’s hard to have any opinion about one’s own work. So, yes, the reviews are good and I’m so grateful. Number One best selling mass market paperback at the influential and international Poisoned Pen right now, so sales seem good, knock on wood! (it’s hard to come by hard numbers, otherwise, at this point)

Q: Is the book seen as having reader appeal beyond Arizona? To what extent is your publisher promoting the book on a national level? How have your personal publicity efforts gone outside Arizona?

A: Caught on tape secretly reveling in their crimes and tailed by law enforcement while actively hunting prey — these are the only serial killers I know of where you can get that. By my standards, that’s pretty interesting. Does the D.C. Sniper interest people outside Washington? Does the Zodiac spark interest beyond San Francisco?

I have done publicity outside of Arizona and it has gone quite well. It’s a compelling story with intriguing people in it and that is universal.

Alas, with true crime, you have to move on to your next trial and that curtails the amount of out-of-state promoting you can personally do. Gotta have your kiester sitting on a hard bench downtown, you can’t just write on a laptop in a hotel room.

The book is available at any store coast to coast and it’s going to have to pull its own weight while I sit behind another killer at another defense table!

Q: I see on your blog you’ve had a number of signings and group appearances with people from the book — have they all been good sports about becoming major public figures?

A: Watching the cops become celebrities has been a delight to me! These are guys who work in the dark streets as a breed apart for their entire careers. They can’t believe people actually want to thank them, get an autograph. I knew it, though, and I love watching them blush!

The victims are living in a different emotional register. It makes my heart flip over for them to receive the well wishes and condolences of good-hearted people. They already know how horrific their suffering has been: what they don’t know is that anyone else cares. The signings are a time for fellow citizens to speak up and tell them they are not alone. Yes, they like it.

Q: How comfortable are you being a public figure? Any creepiness attached to that? Any jealousy or backbiting from the media community there?

A: All of them have wished me well and personally thrown their support behind it. I couldn’t be more blessed and I’m proud to be a part of them! I can’t speak for them but the feeling I get is that all my fellow reporters see this as their own baby or at least a nephew and they all have a stake in seeing it succeed!

I also couldn’t have finished this book without the help of KTVK reporter Mike Watkiss or Arizona Republic reporter Michael Kiefer. Really, there’s so much good energy about this book it’s remarkable. And they are all fans! As a book author, you’re able to do far more digging than they are able to do as daily reporters. They are all knocked over at how much more there was to the crime spree.

A good example is Melissa Sharpe of KYOT, who titled her review of the book, “The story you thought you knew.”

Q: What’s the best and most memorable thing anybody’s said to you about A Sudden Shot?

A: So many, so many. How about this text from Adriana, who lost her sister to the spree: “In the name of my sister in heaven and in the name of my parents, a thousand thanks.”

Or when Paul Patrick’s daughter wrote on the Facebook fan page: “This book is his voice, without it, who knows if he would have had the will to survive?”

Or when fan Erma Pais wrote that “never has a book moved me so much.”

Or when Running with the Devil author Kerrie Droban purchased a copy and later let me know that she had by saying, “Your book made me realize suddenly why I write true crime — to inspire and to tell an amazing story that no one else has the guts to reveal.”

Or when the orphaned 13-year-old of one of the characters in the book was brought to me for his own private signing?

I could go on and on but then I’ll cry for the rest of the day so I better stop.

Q: What’s next for you? Do you have another book in mind? Do you have a contract for a second book?

A: I have what’s called an “option book” written in to my contract. And, yes, I do have things in the pipeline. I would be very glad to notify this blog when we are ready to make announcements, how’s that?

To me, it was a mystery worthy of, well, a mystery novel.

A Seattle mystery author publishes three novels. All are reviewed reasonably well; all sell reasonably well. She’s under contract to write two more. But that fourth book never materializes. In fact, the author disappears … and is never heard from again. As an author, anyway.

Fourteen years later, had the trail grown too cold for the truth to emerge?

I decided to find out.

And the solution I found to this mystery is, to many I’m sure, a much greater mystery:

I found a writer who simply didn’t want to be a writer any more.

What — or who — killed her ambition?

Here’s my investigator’s report.

*****

To explain this properly, let me go back nearly two decades in time. In the spring of 1991, I was the Ellensburg correspondent for the Yakima Herald-Republic newspaper (central Washington cities, for those of you who don’t know the area).

I was also a voracious reader of mystery novels, in an era when Seattle-based mysteries were going through something of a golden era. And I was envious, too — I had taken my own hack at writing mysteries but couldn’t seem to figure out how to do it right, how to do proper pacing and plotting. So I kept on reading to find out how it was done. And I kept on reading because the books were so damned fun to read.

There were J.A. Jance’s novels about surly-but-sweet-hearted Seattle police detective J.P. Beaumont. Ridley Pearson‘s Lou Boldt series covered similar but somewhat darker ground. G.M. Ford and Frederick Huebner were just cranking up a head of hard-boiled Puget Sound steam. Earl Emerson made a big splash with his snappy noirish novels about Seattle private dick Thomas Black and small-town fire chief Mac Fontana. And Mary Daheim grabbed me from the get-go with the small-town entanglements of fortyish newspaper editor and publisher Emma Lord.

210X3YFV4WL._SX106_And there was Janet L. Smith, the Seattle attorney whose 1990 debut novel, “Sea Of Troubles,” was a skillfully entertaining diversion. In fact, I bought that book at Jerrol’s Bookstore in Ellensburg, where, I learned shortly after, a caravan of six mystery authors would be making an afternoon stop. I don’t remember every name, but the tour included Sequim author Aaron Elkins, the author of several mysteries featuring anthropologist Gideon Oliver; children’s mystery author Willo Davis Roberts, and Emerson and Smith.

I happily flitted around Jerrol’s during the entire visit, schmoozing with as many of the authors as I could. (In fact, I wound up writing features on two, Emerson and Roberts, for the next day’s Herald-Republic.) The event was pretty sparsely attended, as far as I can recall, and I don’t think any of the six sold many books (other than the dozen or so I snapped up, of course). But everybody seemed to have a good time anyway, visiting with the few people who did drop by, and with each other.

I got Janet L. Smith to sign my copy of “Sea Of Troubles.”

*****

In thinking back on that event, I realized that almost every single one of the authors I met and read in those days is still in business. Most, in fact, still pump out at least a book a year.

In fact, there are just two exceptions: Willo Davis Roberts, who died in 2004, and Janet L. Smith.

I got thinking about Janet a few months ago, when I was cleaning up my garage. I came across a box full of old paperbacks, and among them were Janet L. Smith’s three novels: “Sea Of Troubles,” (1990) with the author’s signature still there in faded ink on the inside page; “Practice To Deceive” (1993); and “A Vintage Murder” (1995).

I re-read each one. And I’ll say this: They’re not great, but they’re pretty good. They’re well-paced and well-plotted, authoritative on legal procedure, maybe a little light on character development and distinctive prose style. But I bought all three when they came out … and would have kept right on buying them if they had kept on coming out.

But, of course, they didn’t. And I set out to find out why.

Finding her wasn’t too difficult. A Google research revealed a Seattle law practice for Janet L. Smith. And, as big as Seattle is, I figured the odds of two Janet L. Smiths practicing law there were pretty long.

As it turned out, I played the odds right. I sent off an e-mail, and got one back less than two days later. Not only did I have the right Janet L. Smith, but yes, she’d be willing to meet with me and tell me her story.

We met Sept. 22 at a Starbucks on Aurora Avenue, not far from the Northgate-area office where she practices eldercare law. A smiling woman in her mid-fifties, Janet let me buy her a latte.

I jumped right in. So … what’s the deal? I asked. Why are you no longer a writer?

*****

Janet smiled.

“When people me ask me that, I say, “Nobody asks someone why they didn’t write another Ph.D thesis.'”

That much fun, huh?

She then cautioned me, still smiling, against the assumption that she had failed.

Then she talked about introverts and extroverts. She was very much the latter, she said. Most authors don’t like being public figures, much preferring to hole up at home and write. That, Janet said, is not her.

“If I was doing writing 100 percent, without talking, I’d go stark raving out of my mind,” she said. But that, of course, is the discipline of novel writing, the one that doesn’t get talked about much. The reality is that writing a book is damned hard work, and requires a concentration that usually insists on isolation from all distraction. Some of us thrive on it. And some of us are like Janet.

Luckily, Janet didn’t have to worry about that, at first anyway, as she was juggling her part-time writing career with her legal work. At the time she landed her deal for her first book, “Sea Of Troubles,” she was working as an administrative law judge for Washington state, having moved on from the corporate law for Boeing and other clients. While her career was only intermittently satisfying, she did know legal work of some kind was what got her juices flowing the most.

“I have a high need for a lot of challenge,” she said. “What makes me happiest is solving complicated problems.”

For a while, she could balance the boring work with meeting that need through the novels. After all, her fictional alter ego, Seattle attorney Annie MacPherson, solved complicated problems, too. And at the time Janet broke through, heroines like Annie MacPherson were just what the publishing industry was looking for. Mystery authors like Sue Grafton, Sharyn McCrumb and Sara Paretsky, with tough, sexy, self-sustaining heroines, were just completing their ascents into the sales stratosphere.

“I hit a moment in time where what I was selling was what they were looking for,” Janet said. “They wanted women protagonists, a strong regional flavor, nobody who was a cop or an FBI agent.”

That said, breaking in wasn’t a slam-dunk. Janet did what most aspiring authors did in the pre-Internet era, which was write dozens of letters to agents whose listings were found in the annual Writers Market reference books. “No luck,” she said in reference to her efforts to get attention for “Sea Of Troubles,” which was actually completed in 1989. “And I must have paid a fortune for copying and postage.”

But, Janet added, “I got encouraging rejection letters. That kept me going.”

And, at last, she broke through, with a small Bay Area press called Perseverance Press — an outfit so small, Janet said, that at the time it put out just one book a year. At the time, Janet was working in the state capital city of Olympia and recalls regularly visiting the small mystery bookshop there — Whodunit Books, which is still around — to babysit her book.

Then, mysterious good things happened. “Sea Of Troubles” got a positive review in The New York Times, even though it had never been submitted for one as far as Janet knew. (The reviewer said that “the novel has “an intelligent heroine, a glorious setting, an ingenious murder and a romance that doesn’t overwhelm the crime-solving procedures.”) A buyer for Fawcett/Ballantine books spotted it, and eventually a mass-market imprint publisher — Ivy Books — picked up the paperback rights.

213NAYCZHVL._SL500_AA140_That led to a new deal which saw her second Annie MacPherson book, “Practice To Deceive,” come out in hardcover as well as paperback. And led to her developing a public presence as an author. She attended the major mystery-writer conferences — Bouchercon, Malice Domestic and Left Coast Crime among them — and became active in the Sisters In Crime organization. She made friends among the Northwest writer community. Some of those she got close to were Emerson, Elkins, Huebner, Bellingham’s Audrey Peterson and Seattle historical-mystery writer K.K. Beck.

That part was fun. The actual making-the-books part, not so much.

“For me,” she said, “the process of writing just isn’t fun.”

210BY75NRRL._SL500_AA140_There were other factors, however, more beyond her control. After three books, her sales were steady but flat, trapping her in what she called “the comfortable midlist.” “Practice To Deceive” had done slightly better than “Sea Of Troubles,” and “A Vintage Murder” had done no worse than “Practice,” but neither represented the great leap forward that author and publisher both hoped for. That was being reflected in her publisher’s so-so support for the books; Janet’s regional tours to promote them were largely self-financed.

“Going from the midlist to something more probably wasn’t going to happen,” Janet said. “I probably wasn’t going to make that leap into Sue Grafton territory. My publisher didn’t see me having gold foil covers.” That’s the point, she said, where “they put you in a box and tell you where you belong.”

By 1995, she said, “I realized I was getting bogged down with the writing.”
Part of the reason for that were the other factors more within her control. In 1992, Janet had traded in her administrative-law judgeship for part-time private practice, dealing with worker-compensation cases.

And in 1994, as work wrapped up on “A Vintage Murder,” she and her longtime boyfriend got married. Soon after, Jim — her husband — started work on launching a company dedicated to geriatric care management, and Janet found herself increasingly invested in getting that business up on wheels.

By 1996, Janet had lost interest in Annie Number Four. “I was struggling with the outline and character development stage. I wasn’t happy with my progress,” she said.

So she went to Ivy, her publisher, and asked to be let out of her two-book deal.

“They were very gracious,” she said. “I choose to believe they were disappointed, but they didn’t give me any grief.”

It was a good time to get out, Janet recalled. “The number of publishers were decreasing, and editors were getting fired left and right. My editor was involuntarily retired. People were scared.”

There were no regrets, nor any time for them. From their West Seattle home base, Janet and Jim’s business, Elder Care Solutions, launched in 1997. Janet kept her law license active, and eventually helped steer the business in a legal direction. By 2000, things were going well enough that she let go of her other legal work.

“It was a very, very satisfying time,” she said.

Everything went fine, in fact, until Jim died unexpectedly in August 2004.

“I had to regroup and rethink,” she said.

Little more than a year later, Janet created the Seattle eldercare law practice she has today. “It was the logical thing to do,” she said.

And today, it’s a thriving business. “Unfortunately, we’ve got a lot of bad people out there trying to take advantage of Grandma,” she said.

And things are just as satisfying for Janet on a personal level. She has a new man in her life. And even though he relocated to Arizona not long ago after being laid off from his Seattle job, she’s making it work, spending about 10 days a month in Tucson with him.

That happiness means leaving her mystery-book days in the past. She’s not even a particularly voracious reader of them. She still loves her old favorites like P.D. James, however, and calls Florida author Carl Hiaasen’s novels her “go-to airplane books.”

And she’s left her days an author in the past, too. Well, mostly.

She laughed as she recalled a moment from earlier this year in which she caught her practice’s office manager, during a slow day, reading one of her books — totally unaware that the author was her employer.

“I asked her what she was reading, and she was so embarrassed to be caught that she just said, ‘Oh, just some crap.’ I asked her who the author was, and she looked at the cover. It took her a moment to figure out that I was that Janet L. Smith.

‘I didn’t mean ‘crap!'” the office manager howled.

Janet teased her about it. “‘Not only are you reading on the job,” she recalled saying, “but you’re reading fluff!’ She had to tell everybody in the office about it.”

And that’s about the sum of her literary legacy, she said.

“It’s a trivia fact of my life,” she said. “Not much more than that.”

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Diane

Diane Fanning is one of the most prominent and prolific voices in the true-crime-book genre. In barely a decade, she’s written nine nonfiction books (and three mystery novels). This fall, Fanning has two books out — “A Poisoned Passion,” about the West Texas murder of an Iraq war hero by his wife; and “Mommy’s Little Girl,” the first book on the media-saturated Florida murder case involving victim Caylee Anthony and her mother Casey. That one hits bookstores Nov. 3.

The New Braunfels, Texas resident, who does a lot of high-powered media, graciously agreed to do a question-and-answer session with me via e-mail. (And as befits this amazingly fast worker, she turned my questions around within a day!)

This will be a bit different than the usual interview, which, as far as I’ve been able to tell online, have been focused primarily on Fanning’s stories. As a budding author of nonfiction crime stories, however, I’m more interested in the process by which those stories are told. As such, it’s my hope that those of you who follow Fanning’s work and media appearances will learn something new from this interview.

Thanks again, Diane.

Q: I’m stunned at prolific you are as an author: Nine true-crime books (and three novels) in a decade, including two true-crime books this fall. Wow! How are you able to work at such seemingly breakneck speed?

A: It doesn’t feel like breakneck speed as I am working. I am always thinking it takes me too long to do everything. And yet when I look back at what I have accomplished, I am stunned, too.

Q: Do you work with assistants or field researchers? If so, how does the workload break down?

A: No. I work alone.

Q: Once you decide to take on a true-crime project, how do you develop your game plan? Is there a well-honed formula for getting all the records you need, the access you require, the interviews you pursue?

A: I didn’t know what I was doing when I started — I just held my breath and jumped in. Now, my first step is to identify as many of the individuals, entities and settings involved in the case as I can. Once I have that information, I shape a plan of action. The order of tasks for each book is always different. And often when I think you’ve got it all down pat, I run into a closed, locked door and have to reorder my priorities and seek ways to get around a road-block.

Q: How did you position yourself to land your first true-crime book contract?

A: I found a story I was passionate about—the survival and courage of 10-year-old Krystal Surles. When I learned of her ordeal, I had to write her story — the compulsion to do so could not be ignored. I started with a sample chapter about the murder of Krystal’s friend. That got me an agent and my agent helped me craft a proposal. After that, two publishers both offered me a two-book contract. (The book of Krystal Surles’ survival of an attack by serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells is told in “Through The Window.”)

That is not typical, however. Most agents and publishers want to see your proposal before they’ll consider you at all.

Q: What did you learn about information-gathering techniques from your first time out? Are there things you now do, or do now, that you wish you could have applied to that first book?

A: I wished I knew where to get the documents and information I needed. I went about it all in a backwards way, learning as I went. I eventually got what I needed but wasted a lot of time in the process.

Q: How important is to have access to the principal living figures in a story? Is there a point where, if your access is limited, you have to make a hard decision about whether or not a book project is worth continuing to pursue?

A: Once I sign a contract, there has to be a manuscript. You don’t need to have access to all the principles—I have, for example, not had access to a lot of the perpetrators in my books. The official documents and their family, co-workers and friends often fill in that gap. For me, talking to someone close to the victim is vital. If I don’t, I cannot feel close to the victim, the life goes out of the story.

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Q: In “A Poisoned Passion,” who refused to cooperate with the book? If Wendi Davidson (the convicted killer of husband Michael Severance) decided tomorrow that she was willing to talk to you, would you want to do a whole different book?

A: Wendi Davidson, her parents Judy and Lloyd Davidson and her brother Marshall Davidson did not cooperate. I did talk with some other members in her extended family. I doubt if talking to her would have really made a significant difference in my book because I learned that you cannot believe a lot of what she says.

Q: One of the more puzzling characters in “A Poisoned Passion” is Marshall Davidson. At first, he seems to be a man who values the law over his family, when he told Wendi that law enforcement had to be called when she told the family that she had hidden Mike Severance’s body. Then he becomes such a willful obstructionist to law enforcement that he winds up losing his game warden job. What do you think explains this contradiction? Did you approach him for an interview?

A: I did approach him but could not get an interview. Marshall was torn in two directions. I think he knew what was the right thing to do but family loyalty pulled him in the wrong direction and he did not resist that pull which raises questions about his ethics and principles.

Q: You seem to have had a lot of success making books out of some of the more media-saturated cases of this decade, such as the pastor’s shooting in Tennessee a few years ago, and now, with your forthcoming book on the Caylee and Casey Anthony case in Florida. From what I’ve heard, cases like this are surrounding by swarms of people — independent TV and movie producers, would-be authors, family friends and acquaintances — all frenetically pitching and buying and selling rights and access. How is it you’re able to wade into such swamps and wade back out with what you need to produce a book?

A: It is difficult when nearly everyone is making deals to find people who will talk freely. An atmosphere is created where many people put out their hand for payment before open their mouth to speak. Since it is unethical to pay for an interview it creates problems. I try anything I can to get around those barriers. In one case, I talked to someone’s grandmother who ordered her to speak to me and in another I talked to a father who told his son that talking to me was the right thing to do.

Q: What makes a story appeal to you? What necessary elements must it have in order for you to be interesting in pursuing it enough to make a book out of it?

A: It becomes very personal with me. I need to feel empathy for the victim. I want a perpetrator who has at least one interesting aspect to their life. And I want to know going in that I will learn something while doing the research and writing of the book.

Q: Have there been stories you’ve looked closely at and decided not to pursue? If so, why?

A: I have a file drawer full of them. Sometimes, as the news develops in a story, something that looked interesting turned boring. And quite often, the killer is not found. As a general rule, publishers want someone in jail before they award a contract. At other times, a story I found fascinating did not resonate with the senior editor and, with a big sigh, I had to set it aside.
Q: Can one be a true-crime author and make a comfortable living? What factors help decide how much money there is to be made at it?

A: You can but you need to get a start without depending on the income for survival. I worked full-time as the executive director of a nonprofit while I wrote my first five true crime books. The quicker you can accumulate a backlist, the better. You also need to work to raise your profile and those opportunities are not so easy to access. I think my first big break was when covering the trial for my third book, I had the opportunity to be on Court TV during their live coverage and Nancy Grace praised my first true crime book. The next one occurred when my third book was nominated for an Edgar Award. I expect that my appearance on 48 Hours, when they air their show on the death of little Caylee Anthony, on October 17, it will have a very positive impact on my profile as well.

Q: What’s your read of the publishing industry’s attitude toward true crime nowadays? is there still a bedrock belief in the strength of the genre? What does the industry want in a true-crime book?

A: There is a solid core audience for the true crime genre. What publishers want, though, is a book that crosses over from that core and is read by the general public. In short, they want sales—lots of sales—as they do for books in every genre.

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Q: How has your fiction done? Do you find that the majority of your true-crime readers are crossing the genre divide with you? Or are your TC readers and your mystery readers two distinct audiences?

A: My fiction has not done as well as my true crime. The readers of each form two overlapping circles. Additionally, since my fiction is only in hard cover, they are not as accessible as the less expensive paperback true crime.

I’ve been told that it takes three books in a series for it to really capture the imagination of the public. I’ll find out if that’s true next year. The third book in the Lucinda Pierce mystery series will be released in the UK in February 2010 and in the U.S. in May 2010.

Q: What advice would you give somebody wanting to break into true-crime writing?

A: Read a lot of true crime. Understand what makes a book interesting—and what doesn’t work. Find a story that resonates to your core — one that stirs your passion. If you don’t care about what you are writing, your readers won’t care either. Then, learn enough about that case to write a proposal and send it off to agents and editors.

And never forget, if you take this path, you are opening yourself up to attack. Among other detractors, there will always be people who do not like the verdict in a case and some of them will take it out on your book. They’ll post one star reviews on Amazon and bash you and your work every chance they get. So you need to stay focused on the difference you can make in the lives of others by providing them with the information they need to help them not become a victims and to recognize red flags in the lives of those close to them.
Q: You mentioned that it helps to read a lot of true-crime books to get a handle on what works for publishers and what doesn’t. As you prepared to launch your career, who were some of the authors that inspired your ambitions?

A: Edgar Allan Poe was my first and ultimate inspiration — which is odd now that I think about it since he died young and in poverty.

Q: What, in your opinion, are some of the best true-crime books ever? What makes them great?

A: IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote, of course, because it essentially gave birth to a genre. HELTER SKELTER by Vince Bugliosi because of the incredible detail and the shocking nature of the crime and the times in which they occured. And NUTCRACKER by Shana Alexander because it was the first true crime book I read and it simply blew me away.

Q: Are there books in the genre that make you cringe? Without naming names, what in your opinion makes for a BAD true crime book?

A: Unless someone commits an act of plagiarism, I won’t publicly point out the flaws in anyone’s true crime book — with or without names or titles. I know that no matter how bad a book might be, the author has poured hours of work, invested a life’s worth of emotion, and to show disrespect for that effort is something I am not willing to do.
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Q: Getting back to the Caylee Anthony book: This story has been one of the most picked-apart tales in the media. Without offering any spoilers, can you say with confidence that your book will present a lot of new information that nobody’s publicly heard or read before?

A: A television reporter who covered the case from day one and read all the publicly released documents opened the 11 o’clock news praising my book noting the new material and the way I wove all the information into a understandable and entertaining story.


Q: In many of your books, your sympathy and empathy for certain people and families are evident. What tells you that readers want and need that? Have you ever been told that readers favor a more journalistic approach? What’s the right balance?

A: I just go with my heart. I think, objectively, you have to feel for the victims’ families who are going through the wsorst experience of their lives. To me, the most important part of any story are the people. And no matter what you write or how you write it, you will be criticized. You cannot conform your style to the negative comments of others.
Q: What makes for a productive writing atmosphere for you? Window or no window? Music or no music? Pets or no pets? Open or closed door? What hours of the day do you prefer, and how long will you work at a time before you need a break?

A: I move all around — with windows and without, with music and without. It’s the diversity that is best for me. My best writing time is between 5 and 10 in the morning. If I am in the flow, I can write through those errors without stopping for anything but a refill of my coffee.

Q: What’s next for you? Will you see the Caylee Anthony trial through in person? Or are you moving on to other stories?

A: I may or may not go to the trial and for that matter, there may or may not be a trial. A plea bargain could bring everything to a screeching halt.

Since writing the Anthony book, I completed the third fiction novel in my Lucinda Pierce mystery series. I am laying groundwork for a fourth book currently under contract.

I am now focusing on a book about accused Black Widow Betty Neumar, the woman arrested at the age of 76 for the murder of the fourth of her five dead husbands.