Meet Author James L’Etoile

(I ran out of room for my full interview with James in my November newsletter, but his answers were all too good to waste. So, I decided to run the full interview here in my blog.)

James L’Etoile uses his twenty-nine years behind bars as an influence in his novels, short stories, and screenplays. He is a former associate warden in a maximum-security prison, a hostage negotiator, facility captain, and director of California’s state parole system. He is a nationally recognized expert witness on prison and jail operations. He has been nominated for the Silver Falchion for Best Procedural Mystery, and The Bill Crider Award for short fiction. His published novels include: At What Cost, Bury the Past, Little River -The Other Side of Paradise and Black Label.

A bit about his latest novel, Black Label, released in July by Level Best Books:

Big Pharma has a secret and it’s costing thousands of lives. Prison gangs and corporate board members make strange bedfellows, but where there’s money to be had, peace exists through an off the books Black Label drug lab. Until a pharmaceutical executive wakes up in a strange apartment and finds herself suspected of the CEO’s murder. Believing she’s insane, or a murderer, Jillian Cooper is on the run from the police and gang enforcers as she tries to unravel the secrets of Black Label.

The Interview

Q: For almost three decades, you have worked with criminals through the prison system. When did you realize you also wanted to write novels? How did you hone your skills?

James: For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a reader. But I didn’t start writing fiction until I retired from my career in the California prison system. I recall reading a novel and it wasn’t particularly good—predictable, tons of plot-holes, and characters I really didn’t care about. Something in me snapped and I thought, “I could do better than this.”

I didn’t have the confidence to jump in and write fiction, until I thought back to one of my early assignments as a probation officer. I prepared pre-sentence reports for the sentencing judge. To prepare those reports, I interviewed the defendant in jail, taking down their version of the crime, spoke with the investigators, read the arrest reports, and meet with victims uncovering the impact of the crime on them, or their families. I’d then have to sort through all this information and cobble together a narrative about the crime and make a recommendation for how long in prison or jail it deserved. What I didn’t realize until I thought about writing crime fiction was, I’d been writing crime stories all along.

With that confidence—that I’d been down this road before—I began learning more about the craft of fiction writing, attending writer’s conferences like the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference outside of San Francisco.

Q: You have written both serial mysteries and a standalone thriller. Which do you prefer and why?

James: What a good question. It’s difficult to pick a favorite. Writing a series allows you to take your existing characters and move their stories even further along. You have the setting in place (usually), existing players ready to act their roles, and character traits/motivation established. It’s familiar. Throw in a new villain and a unique problem to overcome, and you’re on your way. I like writing standalones because of the absolute freedom. You, as the author, get to create a new world, fresh, new characters, and there are no limits on where the story can go because of the constraints of an established series. What I attempt to do in a series is keep the story as self-contained as possible, so the creative freedom is there in a sequel. And readers can pick up any book in the series and not feel lost.

Q: You worked in the prison system for twenty-nine years, yet the protagonists in your serial fiction (both published and forthcoming) are detectives. Why detectives rather a protagonist based on your experience in parole, or as a hostage negotiator, an associate warden, or a facilities captain?

James: Good catch, Lori! I’ve taken that direction intentionally, because most readers have a general idea of police and police work—even if it’s from bad episodes of CSI-Miami. Ask people about what goes on in prison and people tend to have a vacant stare. That said, most of the novels and short fiction I write have some sort of tangential relationship to prison. A character has been to prison, the detective visits him in prison, or as in the case of a manuscript being shopped around now, a man comes home after a decade behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit and the only way to prove his innocence, is destroying the entire town, including the one woman who stood beside him.

Q: How long did it take you to write your first novel, land an agent, and then sign your first publishing contract? Were there any surprises along the way?

James: The first novel, a manuscript which shall forever be entombed in my bottom drawer, took about two years. You don’t know what you don’t know, right? So, with a little practice and a few craft workshops under my belt, my debut novel, Little River, took another two years before a publisher picked it up. I was working on At What Cost and had an elevator pitch to throw out when I attended a mystery writers conference at Book Passage. I listened to an agent panel, approached one of the agents, gave my pitch and she told me to send her the manuscript. Six months later I was represented, and a publisher offered a two-book deal after a short submission period.

As far as surprises along the way—I had to learn a new business model, which was nothing like running a prison, or managing a half-billion-dollar budget. Everything moves in slow motion, except for your deadlines. The biggest surprise, I think, was finding out the crime fiction community is incredibly supportive and actually nice. Where I worked before, folks were generally not nice, and I needed to wear a stab-resistant vest.

Q: What was the inspiration behind Black Label?

James: At What Cost and Bury the Past were straight up police procedural thrillers. Police detectives on the chase to bring down the bad guy before the next bad thing happens. I enjoy writing them and they kind of play into my wheelhouse with my former career in the California prison system. The inspiration for Black Label came from a session I was teaching at the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference a couple of years back. A few of us were talking about using fear in our work. Not the fear that you won’t hit your deadline, or the fear that no one will read your book, both real, but I’m talking about that base-level fear each of us have at one point or another. Fear of heights, fear of the dark, or in my case fear of being utterly helpless.

There’s something about being helpless that scares the bejesus out of me. Maybe it’s the control-freak in me, or it could stem from working in prison where you always had to be in control and be prepared for the bottom to drop out from you at any second. So, I wanted to create a character and a storyline where that kind of fear was thrust upon them. What could make someone feel helpless more than being accused of a murder when you’re not sure if you did it or not?

Jillian Cooper is faced with evidence that she’s either a murderer or insane. I like the idea that she must struggle through the helplessness, when the police, the press, the corporate boardroom, and her own mind are ready to take her down.

Jillian is like so many of us who devote our lives to the company, even take on the job as part of her identity. Jillian is smart, focused, and driven to succeed. Her Type-A personality is probably in response to her childhood experiences—told she never measured up to her older sibling, witnessing her mother’s declining mental health and eventual suicide. These all combined to push Jillian to excel and prove to herself that she was good enough.

I think Jillian would tell readers that she is a cautionary tale. When you are so single-focused, spending all your waking moments emptying your life into a job, you miss what’s happening all around you. Sometimes that means you sacrifice relationships, or social interaction. In Jillian’s case it threatens to kill her. I think Jillian would now advocate for a work-life balance.

Q: Tell us about your upcoming series and the first book, Dead Drop, which is due for release in July of 2022?

James: I’m looking forward to the first installment in the new series. Dead Drop is a return to a procedural thriller. It takes place in the Southern Arizona desert where Detective Nathan Parker confronts the deadly consequences of illegal immigration. He’s got a reason he wants strict enforcement of the immigration laws—his partner was murdered by a coyote smuggling people over the border. Parker follows a series of migrant deaths in the desert and soon finds himself relying on very people he chased back across the border for his own survival

Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

James: Oh, Lordy. Publishing is a weird business. And it’s just that—a business. It doesn’t care about you personally. It’s very much a what have you done for me lately thing and even then, publishers have been known to change course and focus on different genres to take advantage of what’s hot in the market. Rejection comes with the territory, and it might sting, but when it’s all said and done it ain’t personal it’s just business. That said, I’ve met some of the nicest, most generous people in this business. There are authors, editors, booksellers, bloggers, and readers, who make all the hard solitary time worth it.

So, to a new author, I’d strongly recommend you get involved in this writing community. They are an incredibly supportive bunch, and you can find them in Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, and Mystery Writers of America.

Preparing for publication is like planning a wedding: Lots of waiting, negotiations and more waiting

Accepting a book contract is much like saying “Yes!” to a marriage proposal.

The moment of commitment is overwhelming. You want to explode, to shout your news to the world. So you do. You tell anyone and everyone, infecting them with your giddiness.

And just like an engagement, the big announcement evokes big questions: When is the wedding (release) day? Do you have a dress (cover)? What are your honeymoon (book tour/promotion) plans?

Self-publishing is akin to elopement or a small, quick wedding. Plans are entirely in your control and either the release itself is over and done with by the time it’s made public, or the book is published soon after the announcement.

No waiting. Answers to all questions are readily available.

Not so with traditional publishing.

I signed my three-book contract with Black Opal Books in February.

I want so badly to answer those questions, to know exactly when the first book will be released, what the cover will look like, where I can do book signings and book discussions. But I can’t. This is the first lull, the time when committed couples meticulously compare calendars, settle on the size of the wedding and look for venues that will work for all.

The first of the novels, A DEAD MAN’S EYES, awaits that kind of meticulous overview. It sits in the Black Opal queue, waiting for an editor to review it for any major plot problems, inadequate research or facts that are incorrect. About four to six months later  (in June, July or August), the manuscript will emerge and the editor will likely request some changes.

My hope is that I will be thrilled with the editor’s suggestions, that I will quickly and effortlessly revise the manuscript and we will move on to the next stage of planning. But it is possible that, like couples planning a wedding, there will be a little back and forth before we settle on these big and important details.

Next comes the nitty gritty.

This is the final round of edits, when someone will comb though my manuscript, studying every chapter, paragraph and sentence for errors. If this were a wedding, Black Opal and I would spend this time carefully sampling the food of recommended caterers, reviewing photographers’ portfolios and listening to the music of various bands. The goal is perfection, a book that creates lasting memories, that moves people to recommend it to others, and makes them clamor for more.

But this isn’t a wedding. I made my selections when I wrote the book. Now I will have to wait another six months (until December, January or February) until the second-round editor has a chance to scrutinize my every choice, look for mistakes and give me feedback. It is not something I want to rush. This book has my name on it. I want to publish the best book possible.

Once that second round of edits ends, the process will pick up speed.

Black Opal will give me a release date and I will have a cover to reveal. I will suddenly find myself in a hurricane of preparations. I expect to hound friends and family for space on their basement floors where I can blow up an air bed and crash for a night in order to do promote my book in every city, village and hamlet I can manage. I will seek out bloggers for reviews. I will send out press releases to news outlets in every place I have where I have even the most remote connection.

While all that is happening, the second book in the mystery/suspense series, NEVER BROKEN, will enter its second round of edits in preparation for release five months later.  NO STRANGER HERE, a stand-alone thriller, will likely be published five months after the second novel.

So what do I do now? Twiddle my thumbs? Not a chance. The key to getting through this period with my sanity is keeping busy. I recently completed a second thriller and I have started writing book three in the mystery/suspense series. My goal is to have the third book in the series ready when the second one comes out.

Between writing, teaching and my family, I am hoping the time will fly.  So, please, toast with me to a happy, healthy and long-lasting relationship with my publisher, Black Opal Books.

 

 

 

 

Happiness is a book contract

I have waited a long time to say this, and here it goes:

I have signed a contract with a publisher, a three-book contract with Black Opal Books.

I am beyond thrilled.

I am beyond giddy.

I am sore from jumping up and down, but I still hop whenever I think about it

I have no release dates yet. The editing process takes a while — anywhere from six to eighteen months — but my thriller, No Stranger Here, and the first two books of my mystery/suspense series, Dead Man’s Eyes and Never Broken, will finally make their ways into readers’ hands.

I have Pennwriters to thank.

I first heard about Black Opal Books in May during a Pennwriters conference, where I met a couple of authors who had signed with the Oregon-based company. It is important to be cautious with small publishers. I’ve heard stories about contracts and rights lost when small publishers folded, but Black Opal Books has been around for a while. They are also approved by Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers, two high-profile groups that advocate for crime writers.

Even more important though was that the authors I met were happy. Black Opal Books was founded by people in the publishing industry who wanted to do more for authors. They wanted to publish high-quality, well-edited works while offering a percentage of royalties that surpasses the big publishing houses.

I looked into submitting when I returned, but the publisher was closed to submissions until June.

The summer got busy with a family reunion and the high school graduation of our oldest. In the midst of it all, I forgot about submitting to Black Opal Books, focusing instead on writing a new novel. Then I got an email from Pennwriters. I had won first and second places in the organization’s 2017 Novel Beginnings Contest. Pennwriters wanted updates from past contest winners for its newsletter. I remember my conversations about Black Opal Books.

This was in November. Black Opal Books was open for submissions until Dec. 31.

So I did it, and I am glad that I did.

I will post more about the release dates when I know more.

And now, if see me hopping, you’ll know why.

Inside Sing Sing


I had expected a journalist’s tour when I visited Sing Sing Correctional Facility in July, the kind where I’d meet hand-picked inmates; visit only clean, curse-free cell blocks; and encounter corrections officers who were instructed to wear only their sternest and most focused expressions.
But this was a tour for mystery writers and no one seemed concerned we would rush back to our laptops, type up secret memos crudely written on napkins and passed to us by inmates of the maximum-security prison with stories of mistreatment, conspiracies or trumped-up charges, and then publish them, inciting public outrage.
I had no responsibilities and no power to persuade.
My status as a fiction writer gave me freedom.
It was a relief.
I came to Sing Sing seeking the realism that is critical to good fiction, and I got it.
Well, okay. So they didn’t open the doors to the isolation cells, take us through the psych ward or allow us to fan out in the recreation yards to mingle with the inmates, but I’m cool with that. And I fully understand the presence of Superintendent Michael Capra throughout our tour led to a wee bit more politeness than we might have experience on our own.
I’m cool with that, too.
With so many imposing gates locked behind us and in front of us, it was comforting to know we were accompanied by a man who could make the inmates’ lives even more hellish should they attempt anything at all.
Like many Sing Sing newbies, I got lost trying to find the entrance to the prison, which is located in Ossining 30 minutes from New York City. I was steered to the huge sage-green bars that protected the main doors by two kind strangers who lived in Sing Sing’s shadow. Its cinematic appeal is immediately obvious. The prison, with the skeleton of its oldest buildings mixed among its newer, yet still quite ancient facilities, sits on a hill overlooking a wide section of the Hudson River.
It would make an excellent site for a plush resort.
Our group of 20 members of Mystery Writers of America stood outside chatting until the officer at the gate had taken each of our licenses through the bars and then admitted us a few at a time. We emptied our pockets (I had to give up my gum! Apparently gum is useful for disabling locks.), stepped through metal detectors and got our hands stamped with that invisible ink that shows only under ultraviolet lights.
Sing Sing, New York State’s third oldest prison, is home to about 1,600 inmates and most are serving time for murder. With a ratio of one correction officers for every 60 inmates, they don’t mess around. Yet, despite the intimidating atmosphere, three inmates in green jump suits were allowed outside the gates to haul boxes down the steps we waited on. They were cautious and respectful, and the officers who oversaw them did so with a wary kind of trust.
As I watched them, I understood they were probably among the minority – the inmates unlikely to return, the ones who took advantage of college and vocational programs in hopes of succeeding when they are released. About 95 percent of Sing Sing’s inmates will someday experience freedom again, Superintendent Capra told us. That gives them hope, which is an important motivator for better behavior. The biggest challenge for Capra and the staff is getting inmates to recognize and embrace that hope so they never come back.
The superintendent began our tour with the auditorium and worship areas, where Sing Sing offers rooms for people of any and all religions. Like much of the prison, the auditorium is made of aging concrete and the rooms lack good ventilation. It feels and smells of an old, leaky basement, a good reminder that the people who worship there have major sins to address. Many years ago, an inmate lured a female officer to the adjacent chapel with a false phone call, the superintendent told us. The inmate raped and killed her where we stood.
Another good reminder.
Next, we toured the 88-cell honor block, where the cells are unlocked for most of the daylight hours and inmates can wander outside to work out, play volleyball or garden; play games or read on the picnic tables in the hallways; or venture to the basement to cook meals or do laundry. They also hold jobs and sometimes do paperwork for administrators.
The aroma from the basement was enticing as we descended. An inmate was making some kind of spicy pasta dish with food he’d bought from the commissary. Further down the hall, two inmates were doing laundry just steps from the shower area, where, unlike in the rest of the prison, inmates can sud-up behind curtains, enjoying a little privacy.
As the superintendent talked with the group, I chatted with an inmate about cooperation among the honor block residents, how they help each with laundry and meals. A corrections officer, with a hint of panic in his expression, ended the conversation after just a few minutes. Despite my curiosity, a part of me was grateful. Twice during my 11-year journalism career, I was lunged at by inmates, and both times it came out of nowhere.
It was good to know the corrections officer had my back.
The honor block, where feral cats feed out of dishes placed in the stairwell, can be deceiving. As Superintendent Capra reminded us, it is home to only a small percentage of inmates who have proven themselves over the years. Their living quarters are in sharp contrast with A block, where inmates stared down at us from four tiers of 8×10 cells (600 cells in all) either still locked up for the noontime count or on their way to lunch, cramped on the fenced-in catwalks that couldn’t have been more than about eight feet wide.
My plotting mind imagined what it must be like for a corrections officer, carrying only a baton (Guns are not allowed inside.) who must walk from one end of the catwalk to the other while the inmates are moving out of their cells. Corrections officers never know when they might get punched, slashed, spit on, covered in urine or hit with feces. One-third of the officers are females, who have other issues to deal with. It is not a job I covet, but it is a job I greatly respect, even more so after seeing first-hand the crowding on those walkways.
Our walk-through ended with an indoor recreation area with a basketball court, gym equipment and tables for gathering and playing board games. Days are divided into three parts for inmates. They must be active for at least two of those parts, working jobs for money toward commissary purchases, hanging out in the recreation yard or attending classes. No baggy clothes allowed during recreation. It’s too easy to hide weapons in clothing or blend in after an incident. No milling around in large groups either.
Then we talked about what we didn’t see – crisis intervention teams that track gang formations, counselors who wander among the inmates to study the culture and keep threats at bay, the inmates who are liaisons to the administration, offering ways to keep their fellow residents busy and out of trouble while also relaying expectations to the general population.
The superintendent treated us to lunch afterward in the administrative building and shared his views on the portrayal of prisons in fiction, both on screen and in print. For the most part, he said, the job of a corrections officer is not all that exciting, so he understands we have to spice it up a bit. Quite a bit. Historically, administrators have cooperated with groups that want to film at the prison.
He’s unbothered by it all.
But I found the reality truly intriguing and full of potential.
When the prison gates closed behind me and I stepped into the sun (with my gum once again tucked into my pocket ), my mind began swimming with possibilities – plots, characters, motivations, settings, the works – all stemming from what I had seen, felt, smelled and heard. The real stuff. Unspiced. Fresh in my mind.
Reality.
That’s what suspends disbelief.
That’s what elevates certain novels above the rest.
I’d most certainly gotten what I’d come for.

Death: Getting it Right

The guy in the black clothing sneaks up behind his victim, slips his large hands around her throat and squeezes.
She desperately reaches for her throat, weakens and drops dead.
The teenager is dead on the pavement, blood gushing from the hole in his chest.
A masked man walks into a convenience store, whips our a nine-millimeter handgun and shoots the woman who tries to stop him, blowing her head off.
I cringe.
I don’t want to read these novels anymore.
I don’t stop because the scenes are frightening, shocking or gross.
I can handle that.
I stop because I have lost my suspension of disbelief.
The death scenes are impossible.
Inaccurate.
Unreal.
It takes about five minutes to die from asphyxiation and it’s a messy death, with the victim in panic mode, fighting with huge doses of previously unknown adrenaline for his or her life.
Hearts stop beating when people die, so blood stops flowing.
Nine-millimeter bullets might make small messes inside their targets, but not outside.
They certainly don’t blow heads off.
I don’t want to be that writer — the writer who loses readers who are familiar with guns, medicine or death.
And it’s amazing how many people know that stuff.
That’s why I appreciate people like D.P Lyle.
I met D.P. Lyle in August at Killer Nashville, a conference for mystery writers in Nashville, Tennessee.
I listened to him speak, chatted with him, bought two of his books and became a fan of his blog and podcast, Crime & Science Radio.
Dr. Lyle is a cardiologist, a novelist, a writer of nonfiction and a medical consultant for authors. He has worked as a consultant for such television shows as Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, 1-800-Missing, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars.
His expertise is a big part of the reason I attended Killer Nashville, to improve my knowledge of forensics.
To get it right for my own peace of mind and for readers.
Every mystery writer needs a D.P. Lyle.
Who is yours?

Author Mark Pryor on serial mystery: the choice and the craft


Mark Pryor, author
When I first spoke with Mark Pryor, I was impressed.
In one phone call, I could tell he knew his stuff — the law, the streets, human nature. He even had a sense of humor. Throw in the fact that he is an English guy living in Texas, and he had all the ingredients for a great mystery writer … if he could write.
No doubt, he proved that with his debut mystery, The Bookseller: the First Hugo Martson Novel, already climbing the best-seller lists and recommended by Oprah
Hugo is an intriguing character, an ex-FBI profiler working as head of security for the U.S. Embassy in Paris. He’s bored, debating what to do with his vacation time, when his friend Max, an elderly bookseller is abducted. Hugo watches, forced to stand helplessly by.
The Bookseller on Amazon
With no help from the Paris police, Hugo enlists his semiretired CIA buddy, Tom, to help him find Max as  bookseller bodies begin surfacing in the Seine. Soon, Hugo becomes the target of unknown assassins himself, unsure whether former Nazis, who were hunted by Max, or drug lords fighting  violently for control of Paris’ streets are behind the guns.
The novel is fast-paced and suspenseful with rich characters and the perfect setting.
I even learned something of Parisian history.
But Mark didn’t even pause to take a breath after its October release. 
The second book in the Hugo Martson series, titled The Crypt Thief, will be released in May of 2013, and the third in October.  Mark’s first non-fiction book, As She Lay Sleeping, will be published this coming January and is the true story of a ‘cold’ murder case he prosecuted last year.
With his freshness to the publishing scene, his early success and the experience he already is building in writing serial mystery, Mark seemed like the right guy to ask about the genre of serial mystery, the craft it demands and the choice to pursue it.
Thankfully, he agreed to answered a few questions.
First, just a little more about the author: 
Mark is a former newspaper reporter from England, and now an assistant district attorney with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, in Austin, Texas. He is the creator of the nationally recognized, true-crime blog D.A. Confidential. He has appeared on CBS News’ 48 Hours and Discovery Channel’s Discovery ID: Cold Blood.
Now, here we go!
You write book-length fiction and nonfiction. Which was your first passion?
Mark: Fiction.  My imagination has always pushed me to take a real life situation and say, “Yeah, but what if this happened next?  And then this…?”  I remember once in primary school in England, when I was six or seven.  We had two notebooks to write in, one was for  actual stuff we did  and one for made up stories.  My teacher once asked us to write in the “news” notebook about what we did over the weekend.  So I wrote about the haystack I’d played on with my best friend, and how it had suddenly floated out to sea as we were being attacked by crocodiles.  Now, I’m pretty sure that didn’t actually happen but what stuck with me the most was the fact that my teacher never said a word about it that I recall–perhaps she liked the story?!
Did you set out to write serial fiction?
Mark: Yes, I think I did.  Or at least, create an enduring set of major characters.
If yes, why?
Mark: I’ve always wanted to have a character I could run with.  Someone interesting who I could develop and plonk into different situations among different good guys and bad guys.  I think back to my favorite books they were always the ones I could get to know and appreciate over time, starting with the Hardy Boys and moving on to Sherlock Holmes, to my modern-day favorites like Harry Bosch and Harry Hole.  When you pick up a book with a familiar character it’s like sitting down for a chat with an old friend, and so that’s something I’d really like to be able to create.
When you sat down to write the second Hugo novel, which has yet to be released, how did that differ from writing the first one? Did any particular issues surprise you?
Mark: It differed in that I tried to plan it more carefully, to outline it.  I created a notebook with ideas and characters, sketching out scenes and events.  I did a lot before I sat down to write and guess what?  I think it’s fair to say that zero percent of those people or events made it into the book!  Turns out that as long as I know who does what to whom, and why, I can pretty much push the start button and get writing.  Now, I did think more consciously about pacing, about making sure the reader bites and then (hopefully!) keeps enjoying.  I suppose it might be fair to say it’s closer to a thriller than a mystery, although those distinctions have always eluded me to a large degree.  Anyway, one thing I’m sure of, I won’t be outlining again!
In serial mystery, authors must consider the main character’s potential for growth and development. What kind of future do you see for Hugo? Which type of reader would be most intrigued by Hugo’s development?
Mark: I agree, that’s important.  I always thought of Hugo as a little detached from those around him.  He’s led an interesting life but a fairly testing one.  He has built walls to protect himself and his own personality make him, as I say in The Bookseller, a watcher not a player. But like in a real friendship, I hope that over time these walls come down, that the reader gets glimpses into what makes him tick.  I never wanted to create someone you felt you knew after the first few chapters, or even the first book.  After all, if you want someone like that you can enjoy Tom Green who isn’t shy about laying it all out there from the get-go.
As for who will enjoy him?  I think there’s a little something for everyone.  He’s a man’s man to some degree, in the sense that he’s very practical and pragmatic about solving problems.  He’s not particularly emotional or sentimental. . .  and yet he has that softer side.  He’s playful with Claudia, and has an old-fashioned charm that is sincere and makes him appealing to women.  At least, I hope so!
How well do you know Hugo and the other characters who will likely return (I hope!), such as Tom? How well do you feel writers should know their characters in serial mystery before they get started? Should they map it all out, or discover as they go?
Mark: I think for the writer as well as the reader it’s a journey of discovery.  Some things happen in the second book that I didn’t plan out but that developed because they seemed consistent with the actions and personalities of the characters.  Sorry to be so vague, but I can’t very well spoil my own novel, can I?! 
The bottom line is that all people grow and change over time, all relationships and friendships do.  I can’t pretend to know what Hugo will be like two or three books from now because I don’t know what wonders and evils he will encounter.  I like it that way, because if it’s a little unpredictable, if it’s a fun journey of discovery for me, then hopefully it is for the reader, too.
Hugo has quite an interesting resume – former FBI agent turned head of security for the U.S. Embassy in Paris. What inspired you to choose this career path for Hugo and what are its benefits for you as a writer?
Mark: I actually went to law school with the idea of becoming an FBI agent myself! True story.  And I have known a couple of FBI agents and even profilers, through my personal life and my job as a prosecutor.  And those guys have stories to tell, I can assure you, fascinating people.  In some ways it’s a fairly obvious choice for a main character but on the other hand there aren’t really many repeat novel characters who have that job, are there?  And yet it’s something, behavioral analysis, that just about everyone on the planet has some interest in.  It also fits Hugo’s character as a ‘watcher,’ as I talked about before — it just wouldn’t be right to have him as a former Navy SEAL or retired ninja!
As for the US Embassy job, well, I needed him to be in an English-speaking environment, where he gets to carry a gun (I checked on that point), and can move around the city, the country, even Europe pretty easily.  His job fills those criteria very nicely, and lets me put him in contact with visiting Americans (see book two) and dignitaries (see book three!) alike.
Why Paris? How important is setting in serial mystery?
Mark: Great question, in fact I just wrote a guest post on this topic for my local indie bookstore’s blog.  And I hope it’s obvious from reading The Booksellerthat setting is very important to me.  Paris has so much to offer, as a writer, a reader, and even an imaginary character.  It’s such a walkable city that Hugo (or I) can stroll around and find adventure anywhere.  It’s a beautiful city, no one would argue with that, and it is subject to the whim of the four seasons, which are always helpful in creating mood.   (Maybe I’m not good enough to write a book set in Texas, where nine months of the year it’s nothing but hot!) 
I also see history as a part of ‘setting,’ and that’s going to be a huge part of the Hugo Marston series.  Obviously, the unique bouquinistes and France’s World War Two history feature in The Bookseller, but history and place continue in the next two books: the cemeteries in the next, and Napoleon and the Revolution in the third. 
As much as I love Paris, and always will, I must confess to looking forward to having Hugo explore other places, though.  Because, as mentioned, that means I get to as well!
Early in the novel, we learn of Hugo’s traumatic romantic history. He eventually begins a relationship in through which a more personal side of him is revealed. How important is the romantic plot to serial mystery? Should all serial mystery contain some element of romance or lust?
Mark: I wouldn’t dare to pronounce a rule for all mysteries!  But it’s an interesting question because if one is to have a successful series there’s no question that the main characters must be fully rounded, or at least must be working towards being fully realized people.  And if that’s true, then it seems to follow that the parts of their lives that matter will reflect the parts of our lives that matter.  Romance, health, work, money, spiritual fulfillment, I suppose all these have to play a role in some way in a series.
Now, how those appear must be left to the author, of course.  Some will focus on health as an area of conflict (drug and drink-addled detectives) and some may focus on work or money.  But romance is an intriguing area because it lets a writer play with his hero’s softer side.  Hugo’s a red-blooded Texan in that he’s not afraid of an adventure and he willingly chases bad guys down blind alleys, but he’s also a big softie in some ways.  He’s old-fashioned and a little out of his depth with the savvy, confident modern woman.  I don’t intend (I don’t think!) to linger on his romantic adventures or to make his pursuit of love any kind of significant sub plot.  But as an attractive, single man with needs and desires, it does let me find conflict for him, and it allows me to show the reader another side of him, which is important to make him a fuller character.  Plus, when they make it into a move and let me play Hugo, I might get to kiss Angelina Jolie. . .
What do you suppose has made your debut novel such a big success so soon? What elements does it offer readers that some of the less success serial mystery does not? Any sage advice for budding writers bade on your experience?
Mark: Now you’re being too sweet — I don’t know whether it counts as a success, though one can hope.  But I’m always happy to give advice.  I think the first thing is to make sure you know the nuts and bolts of writing, to make sure you learn the craft of it.  Things like showing v. telling, using strong verbs instead of adverbs, going easy on the dialog tags.  Learn those, and practice them until they are second nature.
The second piece of advice is to remember what you’re doing.  I’ve been asked my opinion on sample chapters, or entire novels, and it seems to me that the writer is too aware they are writing a novel, they are trying very hard to be a writer.  Sometimes it helps to step back and remember you’re not writing a novel, you’re telling a story.  That may seem like a strange distinction but it does exist, I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
The final piece of advice kicks in when you have the craft of writing under your belt (as much as anyone can) and you have a story down on paper.  Don’t give up!  Sadly, writing the book is sometimes the easy part.  Finding an agent, and then a publisher, can be frustrating, dispiriting, exhausting.  You’ll get more rejections that a spotty teenager who smells like Gruyere, but that’s the nature of the business.  I’d tell you how many I received, from agents and publishers, but I lost count long ago.  Be patient, persevere, because if you have a good story and it’s well told I really believe it will find a home.
Who is your favorite serial mystery author if you have one? Why?
Mark: Conan Doyle.  Sherlock Holmes is such an icon, such a brilliant character, and the stories are so intricate and fun, that I doubt they will ever be replaced for me as the greatest series. I love the interplay between Holmes and Watson, too, and I’m sure that had a strong influence on my creation of Tom as Hugo’s friend.

Too scared to write, like spooked-scared

I scare myself.
There are certain scenes I just can’t write when my husband is out of town.
I can’t edit or re-read them either.
My husband finds it ironic that I can talk about such a morbid side of human nature — about bodies and decomposition, about methods of murder and causes of death — without flinching, with fascination even when he is home.
I can recount details of lifeless bodies I’ve seen — what they looked like, what they smelled like — with a certain scientific detachment. It doesn’t bother me. Sometimes, my husband says, I even sound a little obsessed.
But that changes when he is not home.
On those nights, I rarely write.
I prefer to play Angry Birds.
I can’t be the only one.

New agent, new energy

I was excited last year when I dropped the kids off for the first day of school.
I had recently terminated my contract with my agent and couldn’t wait to find out what the future would hold. It was a scary thing — going agent-free after two years, especially since my former agent is such a good guy — but I knew instantly I’d made the right decision.
We were not a good match.
Sometimes, that happens.
I was careful when I started firing off queries to new agents.
I didn’t want to go through that again.
Some rejected me instantly.
Others asked for full manuscripts and have yet to respond.
Others read partials or fulls and decided against representation, or were interested in only one of my two completed novels. The latter were the agents I chose not to pursue. I want an agent who will stick with me throughout my career, regardless of what genre I write. I’d hate to shelve a novel simply because it’s not a particular agent’s “thing.”
Then came the response from Elizabeth Trupin-Pulli of JET Literary.
She’d found flaws in my mystery/suspense novel that no other reader had, and offered to reconsider after revisions. She opened my eyes to those logical errors and immediately inspired confidence. In her emails and on the phone, she struck me as sharp, honest, and experienced.
But it was that confidence that impressed me most.
She knew what both novels needed and she knew how to express that.
She had plans.
She offered strategies, visions and direction.
She knows the industry and knows it well.
She is the kind of agent who can sell my novels and steer my career in the right direction.
I like her but, more important, I trust her.
So here we go.
It’s that time of the year again.
All four kids will be in school full-time for the first time ever.
I will have time to write and, as much as I will miss them, I am excited.
But this is a fresh kind of excitement.
This year, I get to write — just write — without worrying about the business side of things. 
I feel focused.
I feel encouraged.
I feel, once again, like I made a wise decision.
Two more days and I’m off.