Saturday, 26 June 2010

An interview with Derek Rutherford

Interview conducted by members of the Black Horse Western Discussion Group on 19-20 June 2010:

Welcome, Derek, and thanks for agreeing to do this interview. Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Here's a very simple potted history of Del, The Writer:

I've been writing with the intention of being published for around 30 years. My first published story was back in the early 80s in a magazine called The Horror Show, which was published out of California. Over the years there have been a couple of dozen short story successes, but for most of that time I've concentrated on unpublishable novels. I think I've written three complete crime novels - only one of which I ever submitted anywhere - and about two dozen unfinished novels. I actually found a few of the agent rejection slips recently and several of them had positive comments. If only I knew then what I know now I'd have probably redrafted the piece and tried again.

I've written three BHWs: Vengeance At Tyburn Ridge, Yellow Town, and The Bone Picker, extract here. The first two have been published, the last is due out this autumn. So far as Express Westerns is concerned, I submitted The Man Who Tracked A River for Where Legends Ride and Dead Man Talking for A Fistful Of Legends.

That's me.

Oh my, I hadn't thought of The Horror Show in years. Might even have an issue or two lying around, since they published Nolan's Norliss Tapes wrap up.

I'm impressed you remember The Horror Show. My first ever story was in their Robert Bloch special, which I remain quite proud of.

I like the extract. I also like the way your story starts already *after* something critical has happened. Like walking into the middle of a movie, and we want to know right away what's the situation this guy is in? how did he get into it? is there any way he can get out of it? etc. We have to read on to find all this out, and by then we're hooked.

That's an interesting and welcome comment. I often feel that I don't do that enough, that I work my way around a story too much before getting into it. So recently I've been trying to actively start stories and scenes in the middle of something, rather than pussyfoot about. There's a fine balance between engaging the reader and confusing the hell out of them.

This scene is nicely written. It all comes out as monologue followed by dialogue, with a handful of "stage directions." It could be a scene from a play. I've seen scenes like this in western movies, usually just before the big final confrontation in which our heroes might die ("Open Range," the remake of "3:10 to Yuma"). They can be powerful, as this one is.

What's interesting is that it's all spoken rather than thought. There's an emotional weight to the scene that comes from men saying to each other what they're thinking and feeling - instead of just keeping it all to themselves, which men tend to do because it makes them seem less vulnerable. Men don't have these moments often in their lives, when they can reveal so much of themselves without the risk of looking "weak."

I generally try to keep my heroes pretty laconic, but I also try to work up a nice shape to the scene, and a nice rhythm - so a long monologue followed by the short exchanges is very intentional. Also, having the character's talk (albeit a contradiction to what I've just said) rather than just think is also a nice way to reveal those characters to the reader whilst at the same time keeping the story progressing at a good pace. Dialogue is probably my favourite element of writing.

I do enjoy studying plays, too. I guess that shows on occasions in my writing.

I think your Buzzard is an interesting mix of honourable and dishonourable. On any moral scale his behaviour is more excusable than the torturing murderers who hung the man from the tree. Could be wrong, but I think it's easier sometimes for a reader to identify with someone like Buzzard than a certified hero.

In some of my reactions from earlier novels excessive violence has been mentioned by agents. Strangely enough, I don't see it myself. Sometimes I allude to violence that has happened in the past and we see the aftermath, but there's not usually much graphic stuff. Certainly not compared to many things I read these days. But then it's entirely possible I'm too close to what I'm writing to see it.

What's violence to one person can be nothing out of the ordinary to another. I suppose it depends on your own benchmark. Personally, if I'm reading a good story and it starts getting a bit too into overload for me I just skim read the bits I don't like the look of whether it's sex, violence or scenery description!

So, take us through how you go about writing a Black Horse Western. Are you a heavy synopsis writer, or more seat of the pants?

I most definitely am not a synopsis writer, but I most definitely should be, hence the large amount of unfinished novels in my bottom drawer. I'm forever writing myself into corners. But every time I set out to produce a synopsis I find myself losing interest - it's the uncovering of the story, the revealing of it to me, that is one of the joys of the process for me.

Usually there'll be two or three elements that come together to create the necessary reactions and interest to kickstart my muse. So it may be an idea for a scene, combined with a period and location in time that has piqued my interest, and maybe something I'm trying to achieve as a writer. In The Bone Picker three such elements came together and away I went. The scene that arrived, fully formed in my imagination, involved a character, most definitely not the hero type, stumbling across a tortured and dying cowboy, and being called upon by the dying man to do something. The time and place was Kansas just before the Civil War.

And the third element was my desire to experiment with The Hero's Journey and to explore some of those devices - the refusal of the call, death and rebirth, shapechangers, and so on. If you've ever read anything about The Hero's Journey then this will make sense. If you haven't, this may come across as nonsense. So, those three things combined and away I went. No plan, just an opening scene and a good intention.

In Yellow Town I wanted to explore how the Civil War might, years later, affect men who'd been involved in the war - in this case men who were on opposite sides in the war but now become partners. The War Between The States often appears in my western fiction. I can't imagine how anyone who was involved cannot be massively influenced by it, witness how WW2 veterans are still moved to tears by just talking about their experiences 70 years later. So I like to explore how such experiences impact events later on in my character's lives.

I appreciate your comment about the Civil War and how it must have darkened the lifetimes of all those who lived through it, especially fought in it. Bloody Kansas in 1855 is a quick hook for me, having grown up in Nebraska just to the north. The national politics (over admitting slave/nonslave states to the Union) leading up to the War made Kansas a real battleground. And a great setting for a novel.

Agreed. In Vengeance At Tyburn Ridge I again explored how the past impacts the present. That novel was almost like a detective novel set in the old west, although one reader told me it was more a love story than anything else - and maybe that was insightful. I always try to incorporate a love story in everything I write.

Story is everything to me. And story is driven by creating interesting characters that the reader cares about. Such character's must want something, and consequently there needs to be other characters who want the opposite... we then get conflict and hence story. So armed with the idea I try to create a decent set of intriguing characters.

After that I see where it goes, and bit by bit I start to find the story. It's not always smooth.

I am a synopsis writer myself, since most of my stories have a central mystery. I generally start with a list of characters, then construct a flow chart of how the story unfolds and how it will tie up. That way I get a visual sense for the book.

Louis L'Amour famously described being asked by his daughter as to why he typed so fast - replying that it was because he wanted to know what happened. Starting with a blank sheet of paper and just writing seems the bold way to go and I have never had the nerve to try it. But perhaps I will. What is your attitude to plotting?

I'm not sure I'd recommended diving in without a plan, if planning currently works for you. I swear I must have written half a million words that ended up going nowhere. I wouldn't say they're wasted words as I'm a firm believer that we need to practice this craft as surely as a musician needs to practice scales or a tennis player his ground strokes. Nevertheless, there is still a sense that with a plan those words could have given me a little more return for my investment in them.

My trouble is that when I sit down and try to imagine an entire novel and a cast of characters I end up getting stuck after a couple of chapters. But if I get into writing those chapters and start to get to know my characters they soon tell me where the story should go. If there is a mystery element to the tale, though, I do tend to work that out in my head beforehand so I do at least know what the basic 'story behind the story' is.

Having said that, I've kind of reached a compromise in my procedure now. I treat my first draft much like this outline/plan/synopsis that we're talking about. So I write it out fully - and much of it will still be there in the final draft - but I give myself permission to write badly, write quickly, to make notes about whole sections / characters / sub-plots that might need to be removed or amended. This way, I don't get too hung up on creating a beautifully rewritten first draft. By treating draft # 1 as an outline I almost get the best of both worlds.

I'm most definitely in the 'there are no new plots' camp. One of my favourite writing books is the massive Seven Plots by Chris Booker. A read of this is a pretty convincing way of illustrating how most of what we read or write falls into a few clear categories. However, that's not to say there are no new stories.

The difference between the two is, for me, characters. Again for me, they are the key to everything. When I think back over the books I love most of all, the thing I remember is not the flawless prose, the beautifully painted backgrounds, the unique twists and turns, but the characters. I remember Hawk and I recall Valdez and Edge and even the Man With No Name, but pretty much I can't remember anything about the plots or the settings. It's all about people. Real people.

So my method of writing (and thus plotting) is that something will give me an idea, it might be a terrorist incident I see on the news, or a cave system in New Mexico I read about in a library book, or a memoir of a stage-coach journey, an insight on card-cheats in the old west, a picture of a beautiful girl...anything. But for some reason it will trigger some resonance within me.

Step two is to let my subconscious mind dwell on this for a while. Also I'll think about how such an incident or insight might fit into one of the classic plots. Is there a Revenge story there about a young boy going after the gang that killed his family? Could a card shark or a beautiful saloon girl somehow use their unique skills to infiltrate an secret organisation (i.e. an Overcoming The Monster story)? Is there something hidden in those caves that a group of men - maybe several groups - are racing to get to (a Quest)?

There are other plots, too: Rags to Riches, Journey and Return, etc etc. But any of these are merely the classic formulas on which we can hang pretty much anything we want. I'll start to think of what my characters are like. I'll start to see them, talk to them, write letters to them (sometimes they write back). I'll spend a long time just imagining what they're lives are like. I hang out with them.

Eventually I'll get to the point where I start to make life harder for my prospective heroes. My card shark, who is the only man in town with the skills to infiltrate the secret mining organisation who are running a white slave labour regime, might be a coward. My boy bent on revenge might be in prison facing the gallows. My pretty girl might be in love with the married sheriff. My man trying to protect his family might be incredibly brave but he's a crippled war veteran. My fearless gunslinger might have killed an innocent man and has vowed to hang up his guns in favour of the bottle.

At this point, I generally start writing (adhering to all those ideas about structure and making my stories compelling that I wrote about in an earlier post). I have a rough idea of the overall classic plot and the key issue for this specific tale. I know my characters and their immediate problems. Any more thinking spoils the enjoyment of the writing. So in I dive.

The downside to this approach is that it does involve a lot of rewriting afterwards, and sometimes I end up writing myself into a canyon I can't get out of. But it's the most fun way to write for me. And if it's not fun, why do it?

I have never been able to plot a novel. I've got half a dozen books on plotting and often feel plotting is my major weakness. Do you tell your story by coming up with a character and following where he or she leads? Or do you set up some kind of time line? Or do you plot down to the incident as Matt Braun suggests in his book on writing westerns?

I've not read Matt's book, but I have read a couple of others on plotting and I most definitely am unable to plot down to the level that a lot of them suggest. Whenever I've tried to build a story through step-sheets, through writing each scene idea out on little index cards, or through any of the other devices designed to help, I find my interest in the story disappearing extremely rapidly. It's almost like once the story is down on paper in any form there's no longer any reason for me to write it. And that's assuming I'm able to get to the end of such a planning process anyway.

I think I've only ever managed to plot out a novel in advance once, and somewhere I still have that deck of about 50 blue index cards held together by an elastic band outlining that plot... I've never gone back to it.

We all know a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. What are your techniques for turning a beginning, middle, and end into a compelling read?

The beginning, middle, and end structure is important. When I write I'm very aware that I need to hold such a shape in my mind and I try and adhere to it. The beginning needs to introduce the characters, the hero, the villain, the love interest, clearly articulate what each wants, why, and what's stopping them getting it (hopefully each other in most cases!) and set-up up enough overt conflicts that the reader is hooked. The middle is the main bulk of the novel and explores those conflicts, and the end resolves everything - and, in my case - usually contains a short little chapter that shows a glimpse of the future, in essence resolving other things about my characters' lives beyond the main conflict of the book. (As an aside, were I to write a series I'd likely miss out on that last 'fully resolving' chapter)

But how to turn that structure into a compelling read? For the beginning, it's all about mystery. Not mystery in the crime genre sense, but setting up questions in the reader's mind that they're really keen / interested /desperate to know the answer to. I like to get right into the story, start the tale where one of my characters is already in a bit of trouble, in a situation of some sort. It's massively importantly that as soon as possible I make the reader care for that character, give him some traits that the reader will identify with, make the reader like him. That's the toughest thing to do at the start as you really need to do this in the opening few paragraphs to fully set that hook.

Equally important (and this is important in all the conflicts throughout the story) is that the character can't be in a position to walk away from any of this stuff. Something has to be holding him back, forcing him to face the issue. If I can get all of this into my opening, also clearly introduce the majority of my characters and the overall issue - even if it's not yet had to be tackled - then the beginning hopefully becomes compelling.

That's what I set out to do in the opening of Yellow Town. For the middle it's all about increasing the pressure on my likeable characters, making sure things are getting ever worse, ever more impossible, for them. Making out like the bad guys are invincible and are going to win. I want the reader to enjoy the story so I try and make the prose easy and fun to read, I like a bit of repartee between characters, I like some 'cool' in there - you know, my hero to be very heroic, albeit not perfect - and I like to add some insight that readers might stop and say "Yeah, that's how it is. That's right."

Such moments are most likely (in my work) to be about human reactions, fears, worries, more than anything external. All of that I try to put into a framework that builds to one or two set-pieces, a gunfight, a lynching, a stampede, a train crash. Those set pieces are the big foundations of the framework, but it's all the aforementioned little character-based things that make the middle compelling.

For the end, everything I've written above, plus all the strands of the plot need to be tied up, resolution is important, and I like to work to the biggest of all the set pieces. I'm a massive believer in the 'black moment', that instance when all looks lost for the hero and consequently for all the people on who's behalf he is fighting (as, in my fiction, he's usually helping others). This moment is what drives the final act of my fiction. As mentioned above, I also like a little 'afterward', in which I try and move the reader to tears and make them determined to buy my next book.

And that's how I go for a compelling end! So there's a structure, but it's all about characters, making them real and likeable and giving them problems that the reader is personally involved in.

How long does it take from start to finish on average?

I had to rewrite Yellow Town in its entirety as I'd used up my BHW wordcount long before I'd finished telling the story. So I had to start again and strip out a few characters and their respective subplots. This meant the whole thing took about six months to write and rewrite, which is about par for the course for a BHW. I have a full time job. I also teach guitar some evenings. I play in a band other evenings, so my writing time is not quite as copious as I'd like. Peter Straub says he can't understand how anyone can work a fulltime job in the day and write in the evenings. I tend to agree, but I struggle on and try to prove him wrong!

I'm interested in your micro fiction and shorts. Have you done a western micro?

The micro fiction stuff hasn't really covered Westerns. It's just a fun exercise I occasionally dabble in other genres. I have used a western background in a couple of the tales, but they've usually had a supernatural or horror element within them. I'll try to find one later.

Apart from AFOL etc, what sort of market have you found for western short stories?

In terms of markets for western short stories, I have submitted a few to anthologies, but again these have tended to be supernatural stories with western backgrounds. I use websites such as duotrope to uncover such markets, but to be honest, it's not something I focus on a lot. Any ideas I have for Westerns tend to very quickly grow into BHW length pieces.

Do you prefer writing short stories or longer length ones?

Longer fiction is my preference. That said, like a lot of fiction writers I started off with short stories (very short stories, in fact) as this felt easier, more manageable. But I've always been a fan of novels and this is where my heart lies. These days I struggle to tell the stories that I want to tell in just a few thousand words, and as most short story markets want just 2k or 3k stories I rarely write shorts any more. I do occasionally work up a 10k story if the idea (and an idea for a market) is there, but most of my (admittedly limited) time is spent on novels.

BHWs are great because they're still quite short but they are long enough to explore themes and characters and tell a good tale.

The disadvantage of the novel form is, of course, it takes longer to produce a piece of work, there's so much more opportunity to go wrong, and they're very hard to sell. Having said all of that, in between my attempts at novels, I do enjoy the light relief of having a bash at something that I can finish in a day or two. There's something refreshing about completing something, so it's a good way of recharging batteries. I even try flash fiction once in a while - 350 word short stories. It's a whole different challenge but can be quite fun.

Nevertheless, the novel is where it's at for me.

What's the average writing day like for you?

I wish I could answer this, but I don't think there is an average day. In a perfect world (when I'm on leave and don't have any other commitments) I'll get up around 7.00, make a cup of coffee, open the laptop and write for hours. I've written several thousand words day after day at such times.

Saturday mornings I often do the above and can also produce a couple of thousand words. Weekday mornings I try to get up and spend an hour writing before work - and can often produce 600 words (my daily target when I'm in the middle of a piece).

But...the reality is that I often need to start work at 7.00 and I often work until late in the evening (I work from home, which has its good and bad points. One of the bad points is that during busy times it's very easy to spend all one's waking hours working!), and with other commitments I really struggle to stick to a schedule. I also have a whole host of other things in my life (which I think is essential for a writer) but aren't necessary conducive to large word count.

Probably an unsatisfactory answer. Probably an unsatisfactory situation for an aspiring writer!

How did you fall in love with westerns?

I grew up at a time when the bookshops in the UK always had a whole stand of Westerns, the way they have a whole stand for Sci-Fi or Horror or Crime these days. I can still recall going into WH Smiths and seeing row upon row of Edge novels, Hawk novels, Breed novels. I recall buying the novelisations of all the Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns. My father was a huge fan of Westerns and his personal favourite was Sudden; there were always a few Sudden novels lying around the house (usually resting on top of a Creedence Clearwater Revival LP), a few of which I still have. Although he was adamant that the Oliver Strange novels were the only 'true' Sudden novels, and that Frederick Christian was no Oliver Strange.

So, once I'd reached a certain age in terms of reading ability and pocket money I used to buy loads of these books (trying to get a good pocket money balance between such books and Airfix models!). But even before that, the movies of my youth were all westerns too. As far back as I can remember we were outside playing cowboys and indians.

Almost overnight, however, that stand of books disappeared, never to come back. A mystery as peculiar as the dinosaurs vanishing. Years later, I bought a whole batch of Edge books on eBay, but the intervening years had changed my reading habits / experience quite considerably and I must admit the books no longer caught me the way they did when I was 10 or 11.

Instead, in adulthood, I found new literary heroes and I was often delighted to discover that in their formative years - and often later years - many of these writers had written westerns. I'm thinking of people like Elmore Leonard, Charles Williford, and Robert Parker. James Lee Burke wrote a great novel against the back drop of the Civil War, as did Daniel Woodrell. Ron Hansen's book about Jesse James remains one of my favourites. I had a bash at Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy but it was still a little beyond me, but Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove is tremendous - although I'm not quite so keen on the others in the series.

So these days, maybe it's the historical novel of the west rather than the Western that grabs me as reader, although it's the Western that I write. But I still believe, despite that rack of books having disappeared, that the genre is alive and well, that there still are some big old dinosaurs out there in the jungles.

And I am as proud as hell to have a tiny part in that.

Your comment about the rack of westerns and deciding about buying one of them or an Airfix model is a problem I shared with you.

It seems you enjoyed reading series westerns, have you thought about writing a series?

I'm a huge fan of series characters. When written well, I love the progression of the character, I love the way the author is able to reference earlier events in a character's life that we've been witness to, I love the feeling of living and growing with a character - or even a whole cast of characters.

And it's absolutely something I've thought about and would really like to do, possibly with one of my existing characters, but more likely with someone new. I have a vague idea in my mind of a group of three books for Hale that would fit this bill. I often think about it and always get quite excited by the idea. Just needs some serious intent put around the excitement. But it's highly likely that the next book for Hale might be the start of such a thing (although I did make a start on a standalone recently that I really ought to progress).

In fact, the story that prompted this whole author weekend "Dead Man Talking" was originally planned as a BHW, or possibly several. The flashback element of the story (the murder of the young boy's family) was going to be the catalyst that drove my hero through a series of adventures, all the while trying to track down each of the killers. I envisioned the tracking down and seeking revenge upon an individual 'baddie' in each book, but in the process, a whole series of other adventures happening. But when the call came for a short story for AFOL I thought let's give that plot a go in short story form...

The principle still holds good though, and one day I'll probably give it a go.

How much historical research do you put into writing a novel?

I probably don't do enough research, to be honest. I try my best to be historically accurate and thus to maintain the suspension of disbelief for the most informed of readers. But if ever there's a moment when historical accuracy has to be balanced against the need of story I'm likely to come down on the side of story. That said, for something like the Kansas novel I read everything I could find on the subject - although no matter how much one researches one's story there's always a feeling that reading one more library book is essential... that just one more day's work on the web will uncover some fact that will turn out to be vital.

In the case of the Bone Picker I spent a fair bit of time trying to understand the political situation, the views of the various sides, what happened before my novel, what happened after, why, and where. When I first heard about Bleeding Kansas I thought "I *have* to write something set in this place and this time.

I always try to get a feel for the flora and fauna and geography of a place. The web is a Godsend in this regard - can't believe how I ever managed without it. In other stories I've referred to famous storms and bad winters of history. I always try and check the nvention/production dates of guns and technology, of turns of phrase, and so on. In The Bone Picker I wanted, at one point, one of my characters to refer to a famous racehorse of the day - it was only a passing reference - but it meant looking up the horse racing records of the day. Songs, musical instruments, card games, food, all that stuff is important. But I'm sure I make loads of mistakes. In future I think I might have to specialise in one corner of the west. That way I can reuse a lot of my learning!

To what extent do you find yourself wanting to slip in your knowledge of history for the reader?

I don't feel that need at all, luckily. In fact, the less I can include the better, as the less likely I am to be found out. But I am aware for a need to create enough verisimilitude to create the dream. My preferred method of telling a story is through dialogue, so if my characters don't say something it generally doesn't get said by me either. Almost everything is told through the eyes of characters so if they wouldn't mention something or think about something, then it doesn't get included.

To be honest, I love learning. I love knowledge. If I read ten history books and included none of what I learned in a given story I wouldn't mind - it's still great knowledge to have. Finally, some of my favourite sources, books and web aside, are the two brilliant DVD series "The Civil War" and "The West" by Ken Burns. I highly recommend both.

Do you find yourself aware of the craft and style of a particular writer as you read?

I often set out to read a book with the intention of learning from it as a writer, to be aware of technique, craft, and style... but usually within a few pages I'm caught up in the story and all writerly intentions go out the window and I become a pure reader. Which is, of course, wonderful. Sometimes I'll then reread the book... and get caught up in the story again. Heh.

But it's impossible to read and not be influenced, even if subconsciously. I guess one of my key influences over the years has been Elmore Leonard for demonstrating the way to stay out of the story as an author and to tell the whole piece through the eyes of my characters. To me that's the purest way of story-telling. That said, I do wish I had the ability to write in an omniscient way, but I don't.

Feeling guilty again, most of my other influences are not western writers. John D MacDonald creates some of the greatest characters and stories I've ever seen. Stephen King (I prefer his non-fiction) exudes such joy in the craft of writing. Hemingway for the simple structures that build slowly to produce stories of immense power and beauty. I love Steinbeck and Chandler and Graham Greene and Robert Parker.

Most recently, I've been spending a lot of time reading interviews, screenplays, books, and watching the movies of William Goldman. At this very point in time I'd say he's the one writer I'd love to sit down and have a beer and a chat with. I'm sure I could write a whole essay on the subject of what I've learnt and by whom. I might do so later...

Do you feel that as a writer you read differently than you did when you merely read for pleasure? Do you find yourself analysing the books you read?

I do. I think that once you become a serious writer it becomes impossible to read a book they way a 'layman' would. As mentioned earlier, I still find myself drawn into the stories and forget - on a conscious level - all the intentions I had insofar as learning from a particular book, but subconsciously I'm always analysing how the author is doing things, whether it's working, whether I can do something similar. It doesn't really become an overt process until I go back and read something a second or third time, but it's definitely happening - and how cool is that? I get to read a great book, enjoy it, and learn stuff at the same time.

I do often go back to sections and chapters of books that I recall had a particular effect on me and reread them and analyse them in much more detail. I've even have fun sometimes writing scenes of my own in the style of someone else. I also enjoy those fleeting moments of false superiority when reading a bestseller and finding a line that I think is awful... Heh. I'm sure Dan Brown does the same with my work...

But I still try to enjoy reading, wherever I can, for reading's sake. I can still remember my first day at school when the teacher showed us the 'library'. The library was basically the corner of the room, a few chairs, lots of shelves and loads of books. Many of them were simple Janet and John books... Dog. Ball. Cat. That type of thing. But there were others - full of words that I couldn't read - but with pictures of pirates and knights and cowboys and indians and sailing ships and highwaymen and I knew right then that within books I could find all the adventure that I could ever want. And I still feel that same way.

You mentioned earlier trying to include a love story. Care to expand on that a little?

I'm probably a foolish old romantic but I feel that love is just about the strongest emotion there is, certainly the one that engages me the most. I'm not saying that terror or jealousy or hate or the desire for revenge or anything else isn't up there, but it's love that has driven more songs and movies and books, more scandal, more life changing decisions than anything else. Love has started wars and created heroes, fools, and villains. Artists and poets have long made careers out of love alone.

When I read books or watch movies, irrespective of the genre, it's usually the love story that I'm most interested in. Now, I have no interest in reading, writing, or watching pure romances. I've tried, and believe me they do nothing for me. I can't explain this, but slot a good love story in the middle of another story - be it a western, a crime novel, a superhero movie, whatever - and I think it adds a tremendous amount of power and depth and emotion to the whole.

Consequently, I always try to do the same in my work, and often it is the scenes that relate to the love story that I have most fun writing. Out of everything I've written so far this weekend this answer feels the most vague, yet it may be the single thing that is most important to my joy of writing.

I agree. Romance is part of real life so why not include it in any genre. I certainly include romantic elements in my BHWs and it hasn't been badly received. In fact Louis L'Amour has tonnes of it in his and it didn't do him any harm. Go for it!

One last one (and you don't have to answer this): Do you find yourself working through some of your own personal issues as you write? For instance, do you discover at some point that a conflict between characters reflects something going on within yourself?

I'm sure the answer is yes, but probably unconsciously. There's no doubt an awful lot of me in all of my characters - the good, the bad, and definitely the ugly. But I've never consciously used their conflicts to work out my own.

That said, I've used - and I still use - writing to work through all sorts of things in my life. Like everyone, I've had good times, bad times, hard times, easy times, lows, highs, and sometimes extreme versions of all of these. I keep a journal - I have volumes of them - where I record all sorts of things that are going on in my mind (the journals tend to be about internal rather than external events in my life), and in the process of writing this stuff down, and rereading it later, I find I'm able to deal with my life in a far more ... happy... way than I would be able to do without the release of that writing.

And all that said, as I'm writing this I do recall a particular time in my life when I took the emotions I was feeling and poured them into a novel. It's possible that the scenes I wrote at that time are amongst the strongest I've ever written (although that might be only my reaction to them), so maybe I should do more of this. It does take a bit of courage though.

And having said that, I daresay were I to look back at much of my work I'd probably realise that I do put huge pieces of me and my issues into all of my work. I'm not sure it could truly be any other way. It's quite a scary and revealing thought. Perhaps I should adopt a pen-name!

Having read both your BHWs and the two shorts for the anthologies - I just enjoy what you have written so far. I get the feeling that a lot of thought goes into the characters and the construction of the novel because I get a lot of satisfaction from the reading.

I'm looking forward to 'The Bone Picker'.

It's pretty tough to be objective about one's own work so it's always nice to get other opinions. The moment I put anything 'out there' I almost immediately find things I wish I could change, add, or delete, but that's the way of this particular world. I'm usually aiming for something particular with each and very story - and it's usually interesting characters and an engrossing story - and so long as people are enjoying them I'm happy!

Your short story in AFOL grabbed me from the first line: "The wall was sweating." That is so powerful and gets the reader's attention in four words. How did you think that up?

In all my stories I try to work hard to grab the reader in the first line. In Dead Man Talking I had a very clear vision of that opening scene, of Jared reaching up and touching the wet wall, of his cellmate reeking of sweat, and I guess it just seemed like a great image to kick-off the tale with, linking the idea of sweat (and hence heat) with the image of walls (i.e prison) and also instantly sowing the seeds of the escape methodology. All in four words, that felt pretty good to me.

As an aside, the idea for the story itself came from a real-life terrorist incident I saw on the news some time ago where the terrorists forced a man to become a human bomb and kill somebody else in order to save his family. How humans can do such things is absolutely beyond me... so as a writer I immediately set out to explore the incident, and transposing it to the old west seemed like an interesting way to do this.

I like your writing style in the whole story. How did you develop your own style? Do you think writers are just an amalgamation of all the other writers they have read?

If I have a style it's developed from writing many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of words over many, many years. I have always strived for a smoothness of style - I spend a lot of time reading my work out aloud to myself which really highlights errors, echoes, poor rhythms, etc etc. But you're right - I'm sure I've taken a little something from everyone I've ever read and gradually taken the bits I liked the most and worked them into a mush that I can call my own. I prefer dialogue to description (although I love James Lee Burke when he does the latter), and enjoy having my characters tell the story themselves, often indirectly - saying one thing but really meaning something else. This isn't necessarily a strength, and certainly in the early days I had a penchant for endings that left things too open and required the reader to do too much work.

The last two or three years I've really been studying story-telling as opposed to writing. There's still masses of work I can do to improve the writing, but my greatest fear is not being able to tell a good story, so that's my current area of focus and study.

I just want to thank everyone for extending me the courtesy and opportunity to hog the limelight for an entire weekend.

I hope some of you have found something of value in my ramblings. Certainly for me it's been a great chance to clarify some of my ideas to myself (if not to others) and it's inspired some new ideas and a bucketload of enthusiasm. As tomorrow is a work day I'll think now is a good time to close my author weekend and go and get some sleep.

This was my first author's weekend with the group, and I appreciated your thoughtful comments and the chance you gave us to look closely at examples of your writing and discuss your intentions and process. It's inspiring for everyone, I think, whether readers or writers.

You can find Derek at and his next Black Horse Western, The Bone Picker at Amazon.

Watch out for another author interview soon.

No comments: