January was a three novel month. It started with the penning, from start to finish, of a new thriller called Thicker than Blood; it continued with editing the forthcoming Cole Blackwater novel called The Lucky Strike Manifesto, and finished with me starting work on The Slickrock Paradox, the first of three books planned for The Red Rock Canyon Mysteries series.
Thicker than Blood was born of two of my greatest fears: going to prison and losing my children. Sometime, maybe a year ago, and just for fun, I started thinking about what made me most terrified. Prison is right up there. I’ve always said that if I faced prison, I would run. (If you are a prosecuting attorney, please stop reading now.) I wouldn’t last in prison. I’m no good in confined spaces. My body simply wouldn’t stand up to prison tats. Now, I have no plans of ending up in a situation where I’d be faced with this choice, but sometimes bad things happen to good people, and they end up doing things that society frowns on.
And sometimes police and prosecutors make mistakes, such as they did with Donald Marshall Jr., David Milgaard and Guy Paul Morin.
I thought about that scenario for a while. I guess this is what writers do. It wasn’t until I imagined what I would do if Rio or Silas faced jail – even as juveniles – that I realized I had a possible plot line. From there, the story just wrote itself. As I often do with fiction, I spend a lot of time at the beginning of the process letting my brain sort out the variables of the plot. Who are these people who are telling this story? What drives them? What makes them, like me, afraid? How far are they willing to go?
I wanted this story to be a departure from the genre mysteries I’ve been writing, so I added an element: family. Thicker than Blood, as the name suggests is about the bonds between parents and children that allow us to do the most extraordinary things for those who we love.
I’ve posted a page in the “Works” section of my website that gives a teaser of what the story is about. As with most everything I write these days, I penned the opening couple of chapters about six months before I sat down and worked through the rest of the book. That allowed me to play with the voices in the story. Inspired by reading Linwood Barkley’s Never Look Away, I decided to try something new in Thicker than Blood: the protagonist would tell his story in first-person while alternating chapters, featuring other characters, would be in third person. I’ve never written fiction in first-person, and it took some getting used to, but I think it worked.
Thicker than Blood needs a lot of work. The day after I finished the first draft Jenn and I flew to Mexico, to the Yucatan Peninsula, where the book is set. And while part of our trip was rest and relaxation, we did a lot of research while there on the locations featured in the novel, including the city of Chetumal and the fishing port of Xcalak. The book currently stands at a little over 71,000 words and reads like a thriller on crack; there’s little in the way of texture yet; the characters rush through the plot as if catapulting towards the dramatic conclusion. It’s a work in progress and my next step is to polish the first few chapters, along with the outline and see about finding a publisher for it.
After returning from Mexico in the third week of the month, I set my sights on an edit of The Lucky Strike Manifesto. I recently posted a long blog on the development of this book, which if you’re having trouble sleeping is worth a read. Touchwood Editions, who is publishing my novel The End of the Line, has agreed to pick up The Cole Blackwater Series, bless their hearts. The Lucky Strike will be the third installment of this environmentally themed murder mystery series, and we hope to release it in the spring of 2012, about a year from now.
It’s an ominous sign as a writer when you’re penning a novel, just humming along, and spell check decides to go on strike. It’s not that Word, or Microsoft, experienced their normal brain-freezes. No: spell check simply couldn’t count all the errors anymore and point them out with the little squiggly red lines, so it shut itself off. This was because the Lucky Strike, until very recently, was over 530 pages long, and 140,000 words. In this publishing environment, that’s too damned long, and my publisher not so subtly hinted that some trimming was in order (she sent me a chain saw and a coupon for extra gas).
Now, I love the editing process. I have no formal training as a writer, so the closest I’m going to come to being schooled in the literary arts is to work with a great editor. Touchwood assigned a good friend of mine, Frances Thorsen – who owns Chronicles of Crime bookstore in Victoria – to work with me on the End of the Line, and it was nothing short of amazing. Day by day I could watch the book getting better. The editorial process, with Frances and I working back and forth, chapter by chapter, was so much fun that I was sorry when it came to and end and the book was finished.
No I get to do that again with the Lucky Strike. I managed to trim 10,000 words in my first read-through (draft eight if you’re keeping track….) and now its over to Frances.
I took a day off the 5 a.m. grind, and then sat down to write the outline of novel three for the month: The Slickrock Paradox. I do this free-hand, usually with five or six sheets of butcher paper, or in this case, a legal pad. With these novels I’d mapped out a three-book series called The Red Rock Canyon Mysteries a year-and-a-half ago while traveling around the American Southwest. I used that outline to plot out a chapter by chapter approach to the first novel, which Touchwood has also agreed to publish.
Pause for a moment: Touchwood Editions has agreed to publish not one, not two, but three of my mysteries series. Since 1994 I’ve been trying to publish books. I have a PFO file (Please %$*# off) an inch thick with letters of rejection. Now, this modest sized Victoria BC publisher wants to publish a book of mine every six months. First the Durrant Wallace series, starting in September of this year; then the Cole Blackwater Series in the spring of 2012; and then the Red Rock Canyon Mysteries, starting in the fall of 2012. And start again, with the next Durrant Wallace novel. Every. Six. Months.
This is also the first time a publisher has agreed to pick up one of my books having only read the first chapter and an outline of the first three novels.
That kind of confidence by a publisher in my writing is what gets me up at 5 a.m. six mornings a week so I can write, as well as earn a modest living making the world a better place through my consulting and (forthcoming) return to conservation work.
On the last day of January, I started work on The Slickrock Paradox. Its set in Arches National Park, on the Hopi Reservation, in Canyonlands National Park, the Castle Valley, the Behind the Rocks area near Moab, and half a dozen other parts of the American Southwest that I love nearly as much as I do my home in the Canadian Rockies, and have been fascinated with since reading The Fools Progress, my first Edward Abbey novel in 1990.
Every time I start a new project, I always worry a little that it might not work. Writing Cole Blackwater was so easy, so effortless, so blissful, that I worried that it was just him; just Cole. When I wrote Durrant Wallace, it worked too. And so did Thicker than Blood. And I’m pleased to report, five days, 100 pages, and 33,000 words in that the Slickrock Paradox is coming together just fine, thank-you very much.
February is looking good.