Tag Archives: Evan Delaney

Writing: You Can’t Do It All At Once

A while back, I was asked to write a guest blog post on the writing process for Southern Writers Magazine. I’m cross-posting it here. I hope it will give y’all some reassurance that writing takes time, and work, and that it’s all worth it.

The Writing Process: You Can’t Do It All At Once

Writing is a process, we hear. But what does that mean? That writing is like assembling cars on a factory line? Like baking a cake, or giving birth?

For me, process means I spend months brainstorming ideas for a novel, and sketching character biographies, coming up with plot twists, and researching topics that range from cryptology to cat burglary. It means I outline the story: the beginning, the middle’s big turning points, and the ending. It means I pound out a rough draft. (So rough, I could glue it to a belt sander and use it to grind down metal filings.) It means I revise that draft once, twice, maybe three or four times, adding more plot twists, pruning dead ends, and turning cardboard characters into living, breathing, bleeding people who launch themselves at the world and at each other.

Process means that writing a novel is a multi-faceted, multi-layered endeavor. Which means you can’t do it all at once.

So, if you’re gazing into the abyss that is your writing project, feeling overwhelmed, lean back. Repeat after me: One step at a time.

It took me years to figure this out. When I first attempted to write a novel, I had no idea what I was doing. I just hammered out a story featuring an embryonic version of my series heroine, Evan Delaney.

In the first version, Evan’s entire family disappeared. Ooh… it was a mystery. The problem: Evan spent 20 pages sitting in her brother’s empty living room, having flashbacks about her childhood, before noticing that nobody was home. It was lumpen. In the second version, a bunch of amateurs pulled off a sting. That version had witty dialogue, a cast of hundreds, and a major issue: I called the novel a murder mystery, but nobody in the book actually died.

In still another version, I spiced up a slow scene by introducing a revving engine and a blinding set of headlights. The characters dashed to safety, and then the would-be thriller screeched to a halt, because I had no idea who was at the wheel or why they were after anybody. I was a deer in those headlights, broadsided by the realization that I had no plot.

That’s when I taught myself to plan novels so they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And as few blinding headlights—and other clichés—as possible.

I learned how to construct a plot: a big, strong story that builds to a conclusion that’s surprising yet inevitable, with strong, sympathetic characters in action under pressure, facing the hardest choices of their lives. Now, with twelve novels published, I know that this is the work I’ll tackle whenever I start a new book.

Process means that your writing has to develop, evolve, and grow. All that takes time. One step after another. Embrace the journey. You’ll get there.

Ask Me Anything 2016: Research

Dan writes:

“China Lake” will forever be one of my favorite novels of all time.

Why, thank you. You have incredible discernment and taste. I’m going to end this post here and go out dancing for the rest of the day.

Okay, fine.

As it was your first, how did you begin your research? I’m assuming that “networking” plays a big part in having technical questions answered when writing a novel. Did you have friends to rely on for questions or was there “cold calling” involved? (I was honored to be mentioned in your acknowledgements for “The Nightmare Thief” when all I did was answer a question about Toyota fuel consumption.) Were most people receptive and happy to help or was there more effort involved?

My research for China Lake started with my own observations. When I lived in Los Angeles, a wacko religious sect blanketed the city with ads warning that the Pope was the antichrist. I just shook my head, until the sect turned up at a Catholic parish where a friend was the music director. My friend found the group putting flyers under windshields, basically saying, YOU’RE GONNA BURN IN HELL. When he challenged the group, they jumped in their van to escape… and nearly ran him over.

After that, I didn’t want to do any first-hand research about religious cults.

Fortunately, copious information is available online — scholarly histories of cults, analyses of the psychology of toxic spirituality, and many, many, many websites run by bizarro religious groups, braying about the evils of music and posting countdowns to the apocalypse.

Networking does play a role in my research. Family and friends can be fantastic sources of information. For China Lake, I learned about the Naval Air Warfare Center at China Lake, California, from my father-in-law, who was stationed there as a naval officer. For The Memory Collector, I got a tutorial on nanotechnology from my brother-in-law, who’s a physicist. Friends have filled me in on wilderness helicopter landings, and how to serve a summons.

The biggest cold-call I made was to the Air National Guard. It took months from my first call to the California Guard’s public affairs office until a Master Sergeant at the 129th Rescue Wing phoned and offered me the chance to visit Moffett Field and meet some pararescuemen. I hate cold calling. But touring the 129th and talking to PJs gave me insight into, and appreciation for, the work they do on our behalf. And it enriched the character of Gabe Quintana, the PJ in the Jo Beckett books.

Everyone at the 129th, like almost everybody I’ve asked for help with research, was generous with their time and expertise. That includes the author of this question, Dan Kotwasinski.

For the record: Dan did more than simply answer a question for me about Toyota fuel consumption. I asked how many hours a Tacoma pickup could run if it was left abandoned with the engine idling and the gas tank full. Here’s what Dan did:

  1. He explained the rule of thumb that an engine at idle for two minutes will use approximately the same amount of fuel it takes to travel one mile.
  2. He looked up the specs for the V6 engine option with 4-wheel drive, and found the stated mileage rating (16mpg/city and 20mpg/highway, with a fuel tank capacity of 21.1 gallons).
  3. He calculated that the Tacoma will use .0625 gallons to travel one mile — meaning that every minute it burns about .03125 gallons — and estimated that it would take about 11 hours and 15 minutes to burn a tank full of gas at idle in the Tacoma. Depending, he cautioned, on ambient temperature and elevation.

He confirmed that the action sequence I’d written — along with its aftermath, and the hopes of the main characters for rescue after being kidnapped in the Sierra Nevada — were all plausible. He saved my bacon.

Research can be weird and wonderful. Writers: pay attention to the knowledge and wisdom of everybody you meet. You never know when it may help your work.

How my characters spend time over the holidays

Last week on Twitter, mystery reader JayeL wrote:

Then she named some authors including me, and said: “Challenge issued.”

Well, if it’s a challenge…

This was fun — short fiction, 140 characters at a time. It also says something about how readers perceive characters, and how writers structure suspense novels.

Readers love vivid characters. Especially series characters, who come back time after time to face new challenges and adventures. But when those characters feature in crime fiction — mystery, suspense, thrillers — the challenges they face involve mayhem, danger, and death. The characters must face those challenges, or it’s not a crime novel.

Readers have asked me why the pace in my novels is fast. Why must the characters race to solve mysteries under time pressure? Why can’t they enjoy a leisurely lunch, or spend a week on the beach, or take a painting class?

Because that’s not even a story.

Here’s a secret. My characters all live full, rounded lives. They throw New Year’s Eve parties and deliver Meals on Wheels and spend long weekends reading Sue Grafton and binge watching The Sopranos. But the portion of their lives that makes it to my thrillers involves danger and daring.

A couple of years ago, a forensic psychiatrist wrote a journal article about how that specialty is portrayed in popular fiction. I was thrilled that she included Jo Beckett. And I was amused that she noted, somewhat skeptically, that in all the Beckett novels, Jo solves the case. Of course she does. The only cases I write about in the Beckett novels are the ones Jo solves. The cases her colleagues solve aren’t part of the story.

But just for the holidays, I’ll let you imagine Evan Delaney, Jesse Blackburn, Jo Beckett, and Gabe Quintana chilling on the beach in Santa Barbara. Ho ho ho and Happy New Year.

Question Time 2015: Answers Part III

Today’s Q&A features Evan Delaney and seditious monkeys.

First, two questions about Evan.

From Anne:

I just started your Evan Delaney series and I just love her. Will you write another Delaney book? Or did you have a reason to stop with the 5th book?

And from Susan:

Me too. Still waiting for the next Evan and Jesse episode. But I can understand if you’ve moved on. (Maybe though, just a hint of an epilogue?)

Guys. I’ll never move on from Evan and Jesse. They’re the characters I’ve lived with the longest and love like hell. I took a break from the series because I had other stories I wanted to write, and because my publishers were eager to publish the Jo Beckett novels and my stand alones. But I haven’t forgotten Evan. In the past few years a lot has been going on in the background. The novels were optioned for development by Fox TV. I spent time with the screenwriter working on the pilot script. The series wasn’t picked up (nothing new there; it’s Hollywood) but the project is still out there. And I have a folder on my computer titled “Evan Delaney: Novel 6.”

In the meantime, Jesse makes cameo appearances in several other novels, and Evan is featured along with Jo Beckett in The Nightmare Thief. I hope that’ll hold you for now.

Next: In my original Question Time 2015 post, I said, “Ask me anything — about my books, writing, publishing, how to train an army of monkeys to infiltrate the White House — whatever’s on your mind.”

From Bill Malloy:

Hmm, how would you train an army of monkeys to infiltrate the White House?

Smartass. I’ve been training these monkeys for years now. YEARS. If you think I’m going to reveal my techniques, you’re nuts. Get your own monkeys and get to work.

Or, you know, you could take them on the White House Tour.

Question Time 2104: Answers Part II

Jason asks:

I know you prob can’t answer but… nothing ventured nothing gained right? Meg Gardiner and JT Ellison… Jo Beckett or Evan Delaney meet Taylor Jackson. Any remote possibilty?

Let’s see about that.

If that’s not enough for you, check out JT Ellison’s novels about Nashville Homicide Lt. Taylor Jackson.

Awkward conversations

Here’s a transcript of an awkward conversation for a thriller writer. Leave it to my son Mark to recognize an aspect of my novels that no reviewer has ever asked about.

Chat with Mark Shreve

Bonus points for the kid throwing in a Game of Thrones reference.

And no, Mark doesn’t actually have an evil twin in the attic.

For the record: the order of my novels

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Because I am often asked about the order of my books, here’s a quick post listing them in order, from earliest to most recent.

Evan Delaney series

China Lake
Mission Canyon
Jericho Point
Crosscut
Kill Chain

Jo Beckett series

The Dirty Secrets Club
The Memory Collector
The Liar’s Lullaby
The Nightmare Thief
(featuring Evan Delaney)

Ransom River

This information and much more is available at my main website. A good starting place is Frequently Asked Questions.

California Dreamin’ — Songs my characters love

All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray… okay, all the leaves are scarlet and it’s a vivid autumn day. The point is, songs. And not just songs I love, like “California Dreamin’,” but songs my characters love. I want to reassure everybody that my characters do have loves and hatreds. Because in a recent post — What do writers owe readers? — some commenters expressed surprise that the characters in my books are fictional. Please don’t panic. They’re as real to me as they are to you, and to prove it, here are their favorite, and least favorite, songs.

Loves:

Evan Delaney — Patsy Cline, “Crazy.” Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Jubilee.”

Jesse Blackburn — Jimi Hendrix, “All Along the Watchtower.” Foo Fighters, “Times Like These.”

Jax Rivera — Ray Charles, “Georgia on My Mind.”

Jo Beckett — Elvis Costello, “Complicated Shadows.”

Gabe Quintana — Stephen Sondheim, “Johanna.” No, only kidding. Los Lobos, “Will the Wolf Survive?”

Lt. Amy Tang — Beyoncé/Jay-Z, “Crazy in Love.”

Rory Mackenzie — Radical Face, “Welcome Home.”

Riss Mackenzie — Amy Winehouse, “Some Unholy War.”

Hates:

Jesse — “Memory,” played on a Hammond organ at the Holiday Inn in Goleta, California.

Evan — Donny and Marie.

Rory — anything that Riss has played within her hearing.

Q&A with Girls Just Reading

The avid readers at Girls Just Reading have posted a Q&A they did with me. Hop on over there and check it out.

Author Interview: Meg Gardiner

GJR: It always takes us by surprise that you can (and do) kill off your characters so easily. We have to ask, does it hurt you as much as it hurts us?

MG: It’s not easy at all. It’s terrible. But I write thrillers. This means the characters will find themselves in danger, facing life and death situations. And if they always survive, where’s the suspense? When I first started writing, I protected my characters, because I liked them. Though I put them in danger, I knew in the back of my mind that they’d be okay. I never truly put them at risk, and that meant that I never truly took a story as far as it could go. I stunted its possibilities from the beginning.

Read the rest.

36 hours in my hometown – and Evan Delaney’s

The New York Times suggests food, drink, beaches and hiking for a short break in Santa Barbara. And I count at least six places that are mentioned in the Evan Delaney novels.

36 Hours in Santa Barbara, California.

And I’m thrilled to learn that the drive-in movie theater near the airport is open again. Popcorn and cheesy monster movies for everyone!

(Thanks to Kate for the link.)

Halloween reading: get scared with Evan Delaney and Jo Beckett

Halloween is in five days. And before you carve your jack-o’-lanterns and plan your trick or treating route and plant an army of zombie garden gnomes on your front lawn, you’re going to need some Halloween books. What, oh what, will you read this year?

Don’t forget that two of my novels take place around All Hallows Eve.

In China Lake, Evan Delaney faces off against an apocalyptic sect that believes Halloween is a “doorway to evil” that allows demons to escape from hell and infiltrate our world.

In The Dirty Secrets Club, Jo Beckett faces off against earthquakes, Klingons, a crazed Capuchin monkey, and a couple of homicidal maniacs.

Just sayin’.

Santa Barbara: behind the scenes

I’m in my hometown — land of Evan Delaney and, now, of Barney, the star of Contest 2010. So here are some photos.

Here’s a shot taken at Brophy Brothers seafood at the Santa Barbara marina. This is the balcony where Evan, Jesse Blackburn, and Adam Sandoval celebrate the arrest of the man wanted in the hit-and-run wreck in Mission Canyon.

Here’s another shot of the marina. It was a stormy sunset, and the sea urchin boats were unloading their catch.

And here, up close and personal, are Barney and his fellow rescue dog and life partner (in Chihuahua madness) Monty. I feel so privileged that these international blog stars let me hold them on my lap.

And here is an Internet Jedi performing feats of derring-do. So that I can blog wirelessly from anywhere in the Mom’s house now. Feel the Force, young padawans!

It’s great to be here.

RT interview: Evan Delaney and Jo Beckett

The final part of my interview with Morgan Doremus of RT Book Reviews.

Friday: Lucien Francoeur talks about Jo and Evan on CNV radio

For all French speakers, Montrealers, Canadians, or anybody else who wants to listen: tomorrow, Friday April 30 , musician and radio host Lucien Francoeur will be talking about my books during his weekly show.

Says Lucien:
“Friday live 11 to 12 noon Eastern
Saturday and Sunday en reprises rerun.”

You can listen to the show online at cnv.ca.

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