CRIME WRITING: THE CREATION A CRIME SERIES 1 OF 3 POSTS

Psst! Do you want a few tips on how to commit the perfect murder? You do? Ok. But, before asking my advice on planning the despatch of your mother-in-law, you’ll probably want to know why I can help you avoid having your collar felt. Stick with me till I’ve outlined the background to how I acquired such esoteric skills.
I come from an Irish Catholic working-class background and I suppose you could say I was one of life’s late developers in the area of personal ambition. I certainly had no idea what a criminal direction I would end up in. Killing people – and getting away with it, was far in the future.
When I took my the examination, at the age of eleven, which would decide my educational future, I confess, I was far more interested in winning Jimmy Smith’s prize 4-er marble than I was in taking tests. Darlings –I won the marble… but failed the 11+. Examination.
So it was off to secondary modern for me.  For those who don’t know, secondary modern existed to teach people the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic and then send them out in the world at fifteen or sixteen to have jobs rather than careers. So I wasn’t off to a good start in my life.
Unsurprisingly, after I left school at 16, a long list of dead-end jobs followed. I won’t bore you with a litany of them. But, somewhere along the way, i found ambition. I realised that i wanted to do something with my life, rather than fritter it away.
I’d always been a keen reader, so trying to become a published writer seemed a natural step on the road. Oh boy! Was I in for a shock!
I first started writing in my early twenties, but I never finished anything. I was an amateur. A rank amateur. I knew nothing about research. Nothing about creating characters or plot. I hadn’t a clue, basically.
But hitting the age of thirty concentrated the mind wonderfully and gradually, I learned how to write novels and finish them. It was a long apprenticeship. Apart from what had gone before, from the age of thirty I wrote a book a year for six years before I achieved publication.  That book was a romance called Land of Dreams and set in the Canadian Arctic (don’t ask!). But after that brief brush with success, it was back to rejection alley.
By then i was pretty fed up. Nobody likes being repeatedly rejected. My ‘stuff you’ mentality came into play. I felt like murdering someone. So I did.
I turned to crime. I’ve done them all. Stabbings, poisonings, smotherings, bludgeonings. You name it and I ’ve done it. I’ve even hanged someone, but that was after they were dead.
The first book in a crime series is, I believe, the most difficult and demanding. You not only have to master the problems of plotting, clue laying and red-herring scattering and learn about police and forensic procedures, at the same time you have to create a cast of characters who are capable of supporting a series. A pretty tall order for a first effort in a genre I think you’ll agree.
There must be many neophyte writers who have fallen by the wayside in attempting to write crime novels. I might have been one of them if I hadn’t decided to do my own thing rather than follow the crowd.
Maybe the word originality explains why so many fail. That single word strikes terror into the hearts of a lot of new crime writers. I know it did mine.
After a writing history of five rejected romantic novels followed by the publication of the sixth, as well as the publication of various articles, the writing of a crime novel seemed not only much more demanding than anything I’d tackled before, but also extremely intimidating.
Just thinking of all those crime writers who are regularly praised for their devilish ingenuity, god-like intellect and masterly characterisation was enough to have more ordinary mortals, like me, quaking in their boots at the thought of trying to emulate them.
So, how on earth do you set about creating an original crime series? All I can tell you is how I went about it.
I suppose you could describe the Rafferty and Llewellyn mystery novels, which form my first series, as Inspector Frost meets Del Boy Trotter and family. For those who don’t watch British TV, Inspector Frost is something of a bumbler who’s anti-authority, but he’s smart enough to get his man. And Del Boy Trotter is a market trader (market stall not the stock market), who’s into buying dodgy gear. He’s working-class and a bit of a ducker and diver, but witty with it. So if you’re looking for the intellectual, Sherlock Holmes, type of crime novel – steer well clear! Though, having said that, I had one reviewer who likened me to Holmes.
 In short, the Rafferty family has more than their share of ‘Del Boy Trotter types’ whose leisure-time activities are far from Adam Dalgliesh and his poetry writing or Morse and his Wagner. The Rafferty family pursuits are nothing so refined. They’re into back-of-a-lorry bargains and other diversions of equally questionable legality.
And Rafferty’s ma ,Kitty Rafferty, often leads the field in such pursuits, using emotional blackmail to make Rafferty feel guilty when he upbraids her. Having far more than her share of blarney stone baloney, she always wins these little arguments.
Given the above, don’t restrict yourself to what you  think are the usual sort of police characters if something else would come more naturally to you.  Like me with Detective Inspector Joseph Rafferty and his back of a lorry family – try to find the main character that’s right for you.
To get back to this business of originality for a moment, I think we can all agree that being original is a tricky business. A book that one person considers a true original might be thought of as over the top by another. While a third person might consider your hard won originality is nothing more than a poor copy of a well-known writer’s style that’s been given a bit of a twist.
So, originality’s a pretty moveable feast. Publishers themselves are often a bit vague when they try to define what they’re looking for. But, even if they can’t tell you what they want, they find it easier to tell you what they don’t want.
No editor is going to be impressed by a writer who’s a copycat. For one thing, it’ll put the publisher in danger of being sued. So – no second rate plagiarism.
Okay, so where do you start? You start by asking
yourself a few pertinent questions.  About yourself, your background, your family, warts and all and then maybe oomph it up a bit.
Maybe, like British Prime Minister John Major, your family has a circus or funfair background? Maybe you could have a sort of Gypsy Rose Lee type in there somewhere? A travelling crook detector with her crystal ball ever at the ready! Outlandish, perhaps, but then wacky might be just your thing.
Or maybe your working background’s a little more conservative? In insurance, for instance.
An insurance investigator could get to look into a lot of suspicious deaths. And he doesn’t have to be your average stereotypical insurance worker, whatever that is.
Maybe he desperately wants to get out of the insurance business and into the world of entertainment. An insurance investigator as comedian, perhaps, given to cracking tasteless jokes at the crime scene. A man who’s learned to judge the witnesses as he would judge an audience.
They’re just a couple of ideas to get you thinking. Feel free to use them. Or not!
To get back to me, and the choices I made when I was creating my crime series. I decided on the surname Rafferty because I wanted his name to suggest someone who was a bit of a scruff – a rough Rafferty, in fact.  I chose the name Llewellyn for his sidekick because i wanted to give the suggestion of royalty.
In Dead Before Morning, the first in tis fifteen-strong mystery series, alongside the main story runs a humorous sub-plot, in which Rafferty is ensnared in the first of the series’ many family-induced problems. I’ve just finished Kith and Kill, my fifteenth in the series, and, like the previous fourteen, it has Rafferty embroiled in more trouble than a Victorian lady of the night sans the morning after pill.
To return to similarities, I thought if Rafferty shared class and education with me he might as well have other elements of similarity. Why not? Other writers do. Would a non—classical music lover have created Morse? Would someone who knows little and cares less about poetry have created the poetry writing Adam Dalgliesh? Well, possibly, i suppose. But it’s far more sensible to make use of elements from your own life.
I wanted a character I could empathise with. One who was as near me as I could get. Believe me, it helps! (even though I’m not a man, I made Rafferty male because I felt the relationship with his ma was important and I felt, rightly or wrongly, that there would be more scope for humour with a male main character).
And with that first crime novel you’ll have enough trouble creating a plot that conceals as it reveals, with coming up with clues, red herrings, a satisfying denouement and the rest. You won’t need to increase your difficulties by having a lead character from a totally different social background from yourself as well.
My background is Irish-Catholic working-class. So is Rafferty’s. I was educated (sic) in a Roman Catholic secondary modern. So was Rafferty. I come from a large family. So does Rafferty.
There are a few differences, of course. Apart from the differences in gender. But the basic elements of similarity are there, which all help to give the writer a ‘feel’ for a character and their background, something I regarded as essential when I hoped to carry him through a series of novels.
There are a lot of working class policemen out there – just like Rafferty – who have risen up the ranks, perhaps leaving behind them the less savoury habits of youth and family. Often, they’ll have had to shed or at least conceal, certain aspects of their character: prejudices of one sort or another, for instance. Or, like Rafferty, a family with a love of dubious ‘bargains’.
But just because our policeman character has found it necessary to change doesn’t mean to say his family would be so obliging as to do likewise. He would have parents, siblings, nephews, nieces and so on, all with their own ideas of what constitutes right and wrong. And all beyond the lead character’s influence or control.
Imagine such a family. They’d be only too likely to embarrass your lead character.
Now, i know we’re talking fictional policemen here, but just think again for a moment, of John Major and his family. Of Terry and Pat and the trapeze-artist, gnome-loving father. Nothing criminal there, of course. But still, what ammunition they provided his enemies – of whatever political persuasion. He must have often wished he had been an only, lonely orphan. Rafferty often wishes the same!
It doesn’t take a major (go on – groan!) Leap of the imagination to see that a policeman, in a position of authority, with the need to be seen to uphold the law can easily be embarrassed by a less than honest family. He could even have his career put at risk by them.
I was well into my stride now and decided that if Rafferty was going to be working class like me he might as well have other elements of ‘me’ – it not only makes life easier, it also helps me relate to the main character and to the past which has helped to shape him
But in order to have a ‘past’, he’s got to have memories. And the best memories, from the point of view of believability, are one’s own memories.
Which is something else you might perhaps care to bear in mind if and when you start creating your own mystery series.
I’ll give you an example.
In Down Among The Dead Men, the second in the series, I had Rafferty reveal – just as I remember doing – that as a schoolchild he and his classmates would attend Friday afternoon Benediction at the local Catholic Church and sing Latin hymns without – as they had never been taught any Latin – having a clue what they were singing about.
Not much, perhaps, in the broad sweep of a novel, but it’s little touches like that which help to bring a character to life. Which perhaps helps a reader to identify with them, to the point of saying, ‘yes. I remember doing that.’ it helps to make it all more real.
Once i had Rafferty down on paper, i gave a lot of thought to his sidekick. But that’s for the second in my three-parter posts. So tune in next time!

JOHN DESJARLAIS INTERVIEW

Today I’m very pleased to welcome JOHN DESJARLAIS, the author of VIPER, BLEEDER and other books. A former producer with Wisconsin Public Radio, John Desjarlais teaches journalism and English at Kishwaukee College in northern Illinois. His first novel, The Throne of Tara (Crossway 1990, re-released 2000), was a Christianity Today Readers Choice Award nominee, and his medieval thriller, Relics (Thomas Nelson 1993, re-released 2009) was a Doubleday Book Club Selection. Bleeder and Viper (Sophia Institute Press, 2009 and 2011 respectively) are the first two entries in a contemporary mystery series. His work has appeared in periodicals such as Student Leadership Journal, U Magazine, The Critic, On Being, Student Soul, Apocalypse, The Upper Room, The New Pantagruel, The Karitos Review, Dappled Things and The Rockford Review.  A member of The Catholic Writers Guild, The Academy of American Poets and Mystery Writers of America, he is listed in Contemporary Authors, Who’s Who in Entertainment, and  Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers.

On All Souls Day, Selena De La Cruz’s name is entered in her parish church’s “Book of the Deceased.”

The problem is, she’s not dead.
And someone thinks she should be.  

Is it “The Snake,” a notorious drug dealer Selena helped to put in prison when she was a Special Agent with the DEA years ago? Or someone far, far more dangerous?

VIPER  a mystery

by john desjarlais
coming March 2011
from Sophia Institute Press

the thrilling sequel to BLEEDERHaunted by the loss of her brother to drugs and a botched raid that ended her career with the DEA, insurance agent Selena De La Cruz hoped to start afresh in rural Illinois. But her gung-ho former boss needs her back to hunt “The Snake,” a dealer she helped arrest who is out of prison and systematically killing anyone who ever crossed him. His ‘hit list’, appended to a Catholic Church’s All Souls Day ‘Book of the Deceased,’ shows Selena’s name last. Working against time, small town prejudice and the suspicions of her own Latino community, Selena races to find The Snake before he reaches her name while a girl visionary claims a “Blue Lady” announces each killing in turn. Is it Our Lady of Guadalupe or, as others believe, the Aztec goddess of Death?

See the 30-second video trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vY1wljwPe5w

That certainly sounds intriguing. Tell us a little more about your latest novel, Viper.
VIPER is the sequel to BLEEDER, a mystery published in 2009. It features a minor character from the first book as the protagonist, Latina insurance agent Selena De La Cruz. Since the first book touched upon immigration issues in rural Illinois and my main character Reed Stubblefield was disabled and dealing with insurance problems, Selena provided a way to present a positive and empowered Mexican-American character while at the same time addressing those insurance claims. As soon as she walked on the stage in those cherry high heels and with that attitude, I knew she had a story of her own. She played a larger role in BLEEDER than I’d originally envisioned. Then, in thinking about the next book and the “Book of the Dead” on All Souls’ Day, I learned that the Mexican holiday called “The Day of the Dead” runs nearly concurrently with that feast. It was clear to me then that the sequel would feature Selena and the story would be told against a rich tapestry of Aztec mythology and Mexican Catholicism.

What age were you when you decided to write a book and what prompted you to do it?

I was 35 and working as a scriptwriter in a small media company that produced videos for corporate training and public relations. I produced a documentary on the history of Western Christianity and became intrigued by the Irish monastic movement – scholarly men and women who valued art, literature and poetry, who were close to nature and champions of womens’ rights. Columba of Iona fascinated me in particular – a hot-tempered monk with “Second Sight” from a royal family who went to war over a disputed manuscript. 3,000 men were killed in the “Battle of the Book” in 560 AD, and in remorse, Columba exiled himself among the Picts of Scotland where he dueled the druids, miracles versus magic. He’s also the first man in recorded history to have encountered the Loch Ness sea-beast. This was material for a novel, I told myself, and I wrote “The Throne of Tara” in 1989 (it was published in 1990 and re-issued in 2000).

You have written historical novels – do you have any plans to write more?
No – I’m hooked on mysteries for the time being.
Did you find your background in teaching a great help when it came to
writing novels and if so, why?
Teaching literature and writing has provided me with a short cut in learning the elements of style, perhaps, although I’ve benefited more from writers’ conferences and books about genre novel-writing.  Being a teacher allows me time to write, especially since I have summers free – and my college granted me a sabbatical to finish a draft of BLEEDER.I imagine, as your books combine history, religion and mystery that you must
do a lot of research. How do you set about this? Does the research take
longer than writing the novels?
Research is time-consuming but opens up many character and plot possibilities. I love libraries, and the Internet has changed everything. I conduct interviews where needed. You might think that the historicals require more research than the mysteries, but it is a different kind of research and nearly as demanding. For historicals, one must re-create a world and pay assiduous attention to every detail of clothing, customs, architecture, weapons, food, the works. Everything contributes to atmosphere and authenticity but must never be overbearing. With contemporary mysteries, there are a whole new set of concerns. For BLEEDER, I needed to do research on blood diseases, cancer treatment, anxiety medications and other medical things. I needed to learn about the mystical phenomenon of the stigmata and the Catholic Church’s procedure for investigating such things (they are quite rigorous and skeptical about it), as well as know the process of canonization. I was not Catholic at the time of drafting and so I needed to learn about the Mass and the special services on Good Friday (I didn’t know there was no Mass on Good Friday). Then there’s all the police procedure, police interrogation techniques, police report writing, coroners’ inquests, etc. VIPER was even more of a challenge, since I had to create a credible Mexican-American female protagonist in the insurance business with a troubled background in the DEA and ongoing issues in her family.  So research about Aztec religion, snake handling, vintage car repair, firearms, DEA undercover operations and crime scene management were all easier than learning to “be” a 30-something Latina.

Tell us about your heroine, Selena De La Cruz, and why you decided on her
character. Is the choice of name of any significance?

Selena is a thirty-something Mexican-American woman in a family of three brothers; her Mami and Papa were well-off since he was a PEMEX executive before becoming an official in the Mexican consulate in Chicago. The family was raised in the Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago. Selena’s fraternal twin Antonio developed a drug problem in the Army and was killed in a car accident in Germany, leaving her with his chili-pepper red 1969 Dodge Charger called “The Beast.” Always a tomboy anyway, Selena was motivated by this incident to join the DEA where she applied her finance degree from Loyola in the Financial Tracing division before hitting the streets where she really wanted to be. She is handy with a P226 SIG Sauer pistol, does undercover work well, and knows how to maintain her awesome car. She’s fond of expensive shoes (seized drug money pays for them) and struggles with living in two worlds at once, being bi-cultural and being an independent woman in a man’s world. Her real name is Selena Perez; she changed it to De La Cruz when she left the DEA under a cloud and wished to start afresh as an insurance agent in rural Illinois. The name is from a medieval Spanish poet and mystic she admires, Juan De La Cruz (John of the Cross). 

Here are some reviews for VIPER

“I just couldn’t put it down! More compelling than BLEEDER!”
     Regina Doman, author of The Shadow of the Bear and The Midnight Dancers

“Non-stop action, nail-biting suspense –and enough genuine compassion to warm the coldest heart. A winner, start to finish.”Jeanne M. Dams, author of the Dorothy Martin and Hilda Johansson mysteries

“A compelling mystery that will keep readers in suspense.” spiritualwomanthoughts

“Desjarlais keeps you guessing as the action accelerates faster than De La Cruz’s souped-up vehicle. VIPER strikes fast and sinks its teeth in you. You won’t be able to put it down.”Tony Perona, author of Second Advent and Angels Whisper

“A don’t miss it page turner that blends ancient Aztec mysticism, Catholic Mariology, and a good old-fashioned whodunit.”Mike Manno, author of Murder Most Holy and End of the Line  
 

Wow! As we can see, above, you’ve had some tremendous reviews. So what next for John Desjarlais? It sounds as though your novels would make for exciting movies. Is there anything in the wind?

No movie options yet. I need an agent for that, and my previous agent left the business after a serious car accident. I managed to sell BLEEDER and VIPER on my own.

What are you currently writing?

I’m working on the third book in the mystery series and, at the moment, I think it will be the last in this arc. I’d like to try a stand-alone thriller and pitch it to an agent next year. Let’s see if Selena has other ideas.

Clearly religion has played a big part in your life. Tell us about your upbringing, where it happened and the importance that religion had in it.

I was raised Roman Catholic in north-central Massachusetts but it didn’t mean anything to me and I chucked it all in high school. However, I discovered Jesus in college and was utterly transformed. After bouncing among churches, I finally landed in the Presbyterian Church where I was a devout disciple for years along with my wife. Around age 50 I began reading the Church Fathers and Catholic poet and intellectual Thomas Merton, seeking a closer, more ‘sacramental’ union with God through contemplative prayer. I went to Catholic monasteries on retreats and came to see that the majesty, mercy, and mystery in the Catholic tradition was completely fulfilling. It was nothing like what I knew as a kid. There is a beauty, peace and wisdom here that has made me a new man. I appreciate the Catholic social teaching on justice for the poor and the weak, and the historic support of the fine arts is also a wonderful thing.

Is there anything else you’d like to add that your readers would like to know?
My wife and I are involved in retired racing Greyhound rescue. These gentle creatures make excellent family companions and I’d encourage everyone interested in adopting a dog to do a little research at a site like regapgreyhounds.org in Illinois (REGAP is “Retired Greyhounds As Pets”);  there are REGAP chapters in many states and rescue organizations in many other countries.
Thank you, John. A most interesting interview. I was intrigued to learn about your background and the widely divergent style of your novels.
An interview with John can be found in Novel Journey and Time with Tannia.Contact John at his website: http://www.johndesjarlais.com/

Visit John’s blog,
Johnny Dangerous

Meet John at www.facebook.com/jdesjarlais1.

Follow John on Twitter

Viper is not yet on Amazon, but here are the links for Bleeder – USA paper, Kindle, and UK paper, Kindle: