I recently had the pleasure of a two-way interview with Chris Rogers, author of so many excellent mystery novels and short stories that I have lost count. In this interview, we spoke primarily of her soon to be published novel Here Lies a Wicked Man, which I have read in manuscript and highly recommend. She interviewed me about my work in progress.
Here are my questions to Ms. Rogers and her answers. Per my policy for this blog, I interject a bit of consensus-building wisdom, so be sure to read all the way through!
Q: You made your name with, and are probably best known for, your series of mysteries featuring Dixie Flannigan. Why did you shift from the hard-edged Flannigan thrillers to a cozy sub-genre for Here Lies a Wicked Man?
A: When I conceived the idea of Dixie Flannigan, woman bounty hunter, she was the only one out there. But I was unpublished, and that first book sat in what an editor told me was his “might buy” pile for months. Meanwhile, I wrote the second Flannigan book and a first draft of the third.
These weren’t my first novels. I’d written several practice books in the romantic suspense genre, all unpublished though one of them won an award in its unpublished state, but when I hit upon Dixie’s character, I felt I’d found my niche. I liked her, and I had confidence in my ability to create a suspense series featuring Dixie. Yet as that first manuscript continued to go unsold, I began questioning my choices. Maybe I was the only person in the world who liked Dixie Flannigan.
I decided to turn every choice around 180 degrees. Instead of a tough, thirty-something metropolitan female with legal training, my new hero would be a retired male with a financial background living in a small Texas community and trying his hand at commercial photography. Instead of gritty, hard-hitting suspense, the story would be humorous mystery in the Agatha Christie style, with no blood spilled on the page. Within a few months, Booker Krane emerged from my keyboard, and I enjoyed every moment of writing it.
As Fate would have it, just about the time the rough draft was finished, Bitch Factor, featuring Dixie Flannigan sold to Bantam Books, so the Booker Krane series went on the shelf for a long while.
Q: What plants the first seed of a new story idea in your mind—character, plot or something else?
A: For me, inspiration for a novel usually comes as a situation. The idea of a retired financial auditor occurred to me because I was working in the audit department of a bank at the time. I knew a little about photography, so that seemed like a good skill for Booker Krane to take up, and the small town was based roughly on a community where I owned property. From those parameters, I built a character whom I believed would make the decisions that led to his situation.
Q: I love the secondary characters in Wicked Man, especially Emaline. What inspires your character ideas?
A: Cozy mysteries usually have a few quirky characters, so I drafted mine from the community. It has a golf course, which means a golf pro might be on hand giving lessons. Since my protagonist was male, I wanted his sidekick to be female, but not a romantic interest. So I made retired golf pro Emaline older and gave her some quirks.
Booker’s somewhat of a loner and practical in his thinking, so I wanted his primary counterpart to be his opposite. Emaline dabbles in astrology, knows everybody, and believes in poking her nose into everyone’s business. She creates horoscopes on her neighbors so she’ll know what they’re up to. Honestly, I don’t know anyone who would put up with Emaline if she were real, but as a character other people have to put up with, she’s fun. She’s Booker’s closest friend but also a thorn in his side.
The third character in what I consider the “humor triad” is Pete Littlehawk, owner of the country club’s restaurant. Part Choctaw, Pete draws attention to his heritage in the way he acts and dresses. When he and Emaline toss insults back and forth, Booker plays the straight man.
Q: In Wicked Man, you made two teenage boy characters come across very believable, even though it’s been awhile since you and I were teenagers. How did you do it?
A: Deep down, I believe people, male or female, are very much the same in their reactions to life. We all hurt when wounded, especially if wounds are inflicted during our formative years. Outwardly, we respond differently, of course, according to gender, heritage, and upbringing—but at the core we all feel deeply. By starting with that inner core, I can empathize with my characters, even the worst of them.
A definite asset for writing about the boys, though, is that I have eight grandchildren, six of whom are boys. They live several states away from me, but I occasionally get the chance to observe their various personalities.
Q: What was the most fun aspect of writing Wicked Man?
A: I never expected to say this, but it was the humor. While Dixie Flannigan has a humorous side, that usually comes out as sarcasm—which can be fun to write—I never considered myself adept at writing humor. In that respect, Wicked Man is quite a contrast to most stories I’ve done in the past, but it turned out to be great fun. Fortunately, readers laugh, so I guess it worked.
Q: What was the most challenging aspect of writing Wicked Man?
A: Not spilling any blood. I never expected I’d have trouble plotting a “cozy” mystery, since I’d worked out some rather twisted plots for the Dixie books as well as for my unpublished romantic suspense novels and a range of short stories from mystery to science fiction to supernatural.
Working out the puzzle-type plot went okay, but the ending was tough. No shoot-out or fight scene, Booker needed to solve the crime and dramatically reveal the killer without bloodshed.
Q: Are you planning more novels featuring Booker Krane?
A: Absolutely. I envision a seven-book series.
Q: What sorts of readers would Here Lies a Wicked Man appeal to?
A: At the risk of once again showing my age, I have to say fans of Carolyn Hart’s Death on Demand series, Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series, and Bill Crider’s Sheriff Dan Rhodes series. All of those are long-time favorites of mine. Also, readers who enjoyed watching the TV show Murder She Wrote with Angela Lansbury or Diagnosis Murder with Dick Van Dyke will enjoy the Booker Krane books.
Q: I get how Booker’s situation is very different from Dixie’s, but what inspired his personality?
A: I have to confess that I’ve always preferred temperate, intellectual- type men to rough and rugged guys. I believe charm often comes from a person’s character flaws, from caring about others yet not always being a hundred percent certain you’re doing the right thing. So I burdened Booker with those traits.
Q: Why do you think the character of Booker appeals to men as well as women?
A: You know, I wasn’t sure this would be true until my male readers told me they like Booker and can relate to him. I guess readers are thinkers, so men connect with him on that level, and most men like to see themselves as strong and rugged—which is exactly how Booker wants to be seen. He often wonders if he really measures up, and like many temperate men, he’s strong on the inside, determined to soldier on even when panic might stop him cold, so that’s another way men can connect.
Q: There’s a scene in which Booker broaches a difficult topic with his son. As I read Booker’s dialogue, I was thinking, Uh oh! If only I could whisper some persuasion advice in Booker’s ear—“Slow down. Ask, don’t tell,” —we could avert a consensus-building disaster. And sure enough, disaster followed in the scene.
I know that, in real life, you are exceptionally tactful and would never have handled the conversation the way Booker did. Being a writer myself, I know why you didn’t impart that tact to Booker, but please tell my readers in your own words.
- It’s human nature to want to be smart and solve our problems easily. In that same vein, it’s natural for writers to want their characters to solve their problems with brilliant efficiency. Unfortunately, a good story comes from the struggles our characters endure.
Think about it: A hero exclaims, “Oh, no! I have a flat tire and I have to be at a meeting in ten minutes.” He knocks on his neighbor’s door. “May I borrow your car?” The neighbor says, “Sure!” and gives him the keys.
Not a very long story, right? And not particularly interesting; in fact, rather boring. Great stories ride on the back of tension, and tension is created by conflict.
Booker and his son Bradley have not been on good terms because Bradley blames his father for the divorce. But now Bradley has come to discuss a problem he can’t talk about with his mother. If Booker simply rattled off the perfect words to solve his son’s problem and mend the rift between them, it would be too easy—thus, boring. Booker has to struggle to mend that rift.
Q: Later in the story, Booker gets another chance to speak with his son, and handles it much better. What persuasive communication skills did you have Booker learn between the two scenes?
A: He didn’t suddenly get brilliant, but he did remember to listen—which I consider to be a most important skill. Also, and I believe you discuss this in teaching communication and persuasion techniques, he learned not to judge Bradley or to make him feel wrong.
As I mentioned above, this was a two-way interview. Look for Ms. Rogers’s questions about Love on the Rocks—with a Twist and my answers in a future blog article.