Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Conversation with Mystery Author John DeDakis

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with John DeDakis
with John DeDakis

We are delighted to welcome novelist John DeDakis to Omnimystery News today.

John's third mystery to feature journalist Lark Chadwick, Troubled Water (Strategic Media Books; February 2014 trade paperback) and we recently had the chance to talk with him about the series.

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Omnimystery News: Troubled Water is the third in your mystery series. What is it that appeals to you about a recurring character?

John DeDakis
Photo provided courtesy of
John DeDakis

John DeDakis: It wasn't a conscious decision, it just sort of evolved. I've been a just-the-facts-ma'am journalist since 1969, so my first book-writing effort was to pen a biography of a friend who was murdered in 1975. I began researching the project in about 1992, traveling extensively and conducting many interviews, all while trying to juggle my day job as an editor at CNN in Atlanta, and family duties as a husband and father of three young children.

But it was too much; something had to give.

I decided to shelve the biography project because it was time consuming, expensive, and I was digging up information that caused a lot of unnecessary consternation for my friend's family. Instead, I turned to fiction and rolled some of my research into the plot of Fast Track, my first novel which was published in 2005.

When I began writing Fast Track in 1994, I wasn't planning on writing a series, but I read somewhere that if you write a series, don't have your main character be 75. Choose a younger age so your series will have some longevity. I've always had a preference for long-form journalism, so I quickly saw the possibilities of creating a character young enough to evolve over time.

OMN: You write in the first person as a woman in her twenties. How did that come about and how difficult is it to do?

JD: That came about by accident. When I was beginning to toy with the idea of writing fiction, someone suggested that I should try to write in a voice that takes me out of my comfort zone and stretches me as a writer. I'd never been a woman before (at least not in this life), so writing as one seemed like a logical stretch.

To my astonishment — and relief — I discovered it wasn't as hard as I expected.

Beginning with my mother, I've always found it easier to talk with women than with men because, in my experience, women are much more open and nuanced about expressing their emotions. I'm fascinated by the stories they tell and the way they tell them.

Cindy, my wife of nearly 36 years, is smart, funny, deep, and interesting. My daughter Emily, 32, has a PhD in creative writing and, if I remember correctly, has been winsomely talkative since she emerged from the womb. Plus, during my 25 years at CNN, many of the women I worked with were in their twenties and I listened attentively as they told me their stories about their boyfriends, careers, and families.

So, for me, writing as a woman comes naturally. Lark Chadwick, the heroine of my three novels, is actually what I'd probably be like if I'd been born female. Emotions aren't gender-specific. Everything Lark feels, I've felt.

Another thing that helps me write as a woman is the feedback I get from the women in my life. Many women, ranging in age from 21 to 75+, read early drafts of my manuscripts and tell me what works and — more importantly — what doesn't work. Their comments are invaluable in helping me to bring authenticity to the text. Apparently, I must be doing something right because my agent is a woman — Barbara Casey has represented me since 2004. Plus, many of the 5-star reviews of my novels on Amazon are written by women.

OMN: So … what do you wear when you write?

JD: Guy clothes. No lace. No heels. Nice try.

OMN: You mentioned that you wanted to see your character evolve over time. How do you see that happening?

JD: I feel that it's critical that Lark not stay static. In Fast Track, she's vexed because she feels like her life is wobbling out of control. She was orphaned as an infant when her parents were killed in a car accident; as a college senior, she was sexually assaulted by a professor.

As the series begins, Lark's a college dropout working as a waitress, frustrated that she doesn't know what to do with her life. She's angry and impulsive. Her closest friend is the bi-polar aunt who raised her.

Fast Track begins when Lark discovers the aunt's body — an apparent suicide. That trauma launches Lark on a quest of self-discovery — a quest that continues through my second novel, Bluff, and into my latest novel, Troubled Water.

Readers will see how Lark learns to confront life's tragedies, and grow in the process. She's matured, but she still has a ways to go as life (me) keeps throwing more challenges at her.

OMN: Is it necessary to read Fast Track first in order to stay abreast of the series?

JD: No. Each book is written so that it can stand alone, yet they contain just enough nuggets of backstory to keep the reader up to date. Ideally, though, you'll be enticed into wanting to read the earlier stories, too. That's my hope, but it's not a requirement.

OMN: How much of your own personal or professional experience have you included in your books?

JD: A lot. My sister, Georgia, 38, died of carbon monoxide poisoning in 1980. Her suicide is ripped from reality and placed, almost verbatim, at the beginning of Fast Track. Writing the scene was a personal catharsis.

In my second novel, Bluff, Lark has a hilarious experience as a TV anchor. Something similar happened to me when I anchored — very briefly (for obvious reasons) — at WMTV, the NBC affiliate in Madison, Wisconsin.

OMN: Are any characters in your series based on people you know?

JD: Yes and no. In most cases the characters are either composites, entirely made up, or contain elements of myself. Lark, as I mentioned, is a lot like me.

There's also an interesting dynamic that plays out through all three novels between Lark and her mentor/friend Lionel Stone. Lionel is very loosely based on the late Bob Slosser, a mentor and former colleague of mine who was the assistant national editor of the New York Times back in the sixties. But Lionel is as crusty as Bob was kind.

Friends have told me they see a lot of me in Lionel. That's probably true, at least to a point. I certainly have a rapport with some young women that's echoed in the Lark/Lionel dynamic, but I'd like to think I'm less gruff and more sensitive than Lionel.

OMN: Into which genre category would you place your books?

JD: Mystery-suspense with an amateur female sleuth/journalist. The genre evolved during the ten years and fourteen major rewrites it took to create Fast Track. The most helpful rejection came from a publisher who told my agent, "I don't know how to market this. It's not a mystery, it's not a romance, it's not literary. I don't really know what it is."

Frankly, it was a 155,000-word mishmash.

I took the manuscript to the Princeton Lakes Book Club which met in the neighborhood where I lived near Atlanta. About two dozen women read the manuscript and then let me sit in as they discussed it. As I listened, I realized I'd been trying to do too much, so I got rid of three superfluous subplots and whittled the manuscript down to a lean, 76,000-word, tightly written, page-turner mystery.

OMN: What advice might you give to aspiring authors?

JD: Don't give up. If you give up, it guarantees failure. There's always hope if you keep trying. If you don't think you're a very good writer, but you're passionate about the story you're bursting to tell, then work at improving your writing.

Also, expect that the first draft will suck. It's probably why they call it the "first" draft. So, don't be discouraged. Keep trying. Get critical feedback — and listen to it. Then try again. Be persistent.

Oh! One more thing: Did I mention don't give up?

OMN: Tell us a little more about your writing process.

JD: First, I keep a journal of my writing project noting when I work, what I'm working on, and what's going on in my life.

Before I ever write a scene, I do the necessary spade work of getting to know the story and the characters. Often I do "job interviews" to get to know them. It's amazing what voices pop into my head when I ask questions. (I've been told on good authority that hearing those voices means I'm creative, not crazy.)

When I'm ready to write the story, I turn off my inner editor and write the story uncritically straight through. That takes about four months. Then I let it simmer (or fester) for a few days before I read it to see how it feels. Usually, at this stage, it feels pretty awful. But I'm always amazed to find a few encouraging nuggets, too.

The rest of the time (nine months at least) I meticulously rewrite until it's as good as I know how to make it. I then ask a few close friends to read it critically to tell me what they like and, more importantly, what isn't working. Then I keep tweaking until it's ready to show to Barbara Casey, my agent.

OMN: Does this mean you outline your plots?

JD: Yes. I sketch them (emphasis on "sketch") because I don't like spinning my wheels. I prefer to have at least the semblance of a roadmap. I usually take plenty of detours, but I have a clear destination in mind (which is also open to change).

There are times, however, when I get stuck while writing the first draft. When that happens, I keep typing in order to maintain the forward momentum. Basically, I'm thinking through my fingers and onto the page, trying to figure out how to get from where I am to where I need to be. At these times, I switch to ALL CAPS. It's sort of like putting on snow tires until I can gain some narrative traction. Once the wild, seat-of-the-pants skidding ends, I go back to using upper-lower case and resume my journey.

OMN: Why do you turn off your inner editor and write the first draft uncritically?

JD: I got the idea from the book The Weekend Novelist by Robert Ray. He suggests that writing the novel straight through and not looping back to tweak accomplishes two things:

1) Unlike some writers who forever get bogged down with premature buffing and polishing, you will actually finish the novel which gives you a tremendous sense of accomplishment.

2) The act of writing without second-guessing yourself allows you to tap into your subconscious in a way that can pull out unfiltered deep truths. Ray argues that getting those things written down before they've been judged as inappropriate or unworthy gives you the chance to see what's going on deep inside you. No one's going to see the first draft anyway, so you still have plenty of time to go back and look objectively at what you've written — and scuttle it, if necessary.

OMN: Describe your writing environment.

JD: I'm not very fussy about where I write. Because I was a journalist for 45 years, I can write anywhere — a chaotic newsroom, an airplane going through turbulence, a coffee house or restaurant, in a car, beside a stream, at the beach — or even at a desk in a quiet room. Right now I'm sitting where I usually sit — at the dining room table.

OMN: How do you go about researching the plot points for your books?

JD: Most of my research comes after I've written the first draft because then I realize what I don't know and what I need to find out.

For the most part, Fast Track was based on personal experience, but because trains play a huge role in the story, I did talk with some railroad engineers, including my dad's former next door neighbor, Vern Strayer, an engineer for the Burlington-Northern railroad.

Bluff, my second novel, contains scenes along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru. When I was working on the third draft, I began looking at pictures of the Inca Trail on line. I thought I could get away with simply imagining the experience, but I quickly realized I needed to go there. I booked a trip (tax deductible) and went on a 4-day, 25-mile hike along the Inca Trail. I came home with vivid experiences that added a lot of texture to the story.

In Troubled Water, there are some dramatic scenes that involve 911 calls, so I sent early drafts of the chapters to my friend Karen Hoel who trains 911 operators in my hometown of La Crosse, Wisconsin. Karen confirmed the authenticity of the scenes and provided me with some valuable technical insights.

Also in Troubled Water, as Lark covers a serial killer story, she interviews a psychiatrist friend of mine, Paul Dobransky. "Doctor Paul" plays himself in the book and her interview contains his actual answers. Dobransky was one of the experts who counseled survivors of the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.

OMN: How true are you to the settings of your books?

JD: Fast Track and Bluff are set in southern Wisconsin where I used to live. Troubled Water is set in western Georgia where my son James went to college. But in each case, I changed the names of the cities so that I could take creative liberties. The Wisconsin books are set in the fictionalized community of Pine Bluff, a composite of Stoughton — a small town where I lived south of Madison — and La Crosse, where I grew up along the Mississippi River. Troubled Water is patterned after Columbus, Georgia, but I changed the name to Columbia.

OMN: Why change the names?

JD: I changed the names because key aspects of the plots required adjustments to the settings. I didn't want some stickler-for-detail to call me out on a factual mistake.

For example, there is no railroad crossing outside Stoughton like the one I describe in Fast Track. Nor does Stoughton have a scenic bluff, so I moved Grandad's Bluff from La Crosse to serve as the setting for the scene of a murder in Bluff. In Troubled Water, Columbus doesn't have quite as treacherous a setting as I depict in the dramatic climax scene. But, in each case, La Crosse, Stoughton, and Columbus are embedded in my psyche because they have a certain charm.

OMN: How important are the settings to the storyline?

JD: I know that for some authors, setting is a major character. That's less true for me and is probably why I take the liberties I do with settings. But a book has to be set somewhere, so I choose locations that are familiar to me. The story and the characters, in my opinion, are more important than the setting.

OMN: If your book were to be adapted for television or film, who do you see playing the roles of Lark Chadwick and Lionel Stone?

JD: This is not a hypothetical question. I'm working with my "Hollywood" agent, Garry Dinnerman of BGA in Atlanta, to make my Lark Chadwick novels into a TV series or movie. Garry thinks Ron Howard's daughter Bryce Dallas Howard [The Twilight Saga], would make a perfect Lark.

Garry and I also like the idea of having a no-name actress play the part of Lark because it could be a career-igniting vehicle.

Right now I'm collaborating with broadcast journalist Jenna Troum [WSPA — Greenville, SC] on a proposal to build a TV series around Lark [Working title: Press Pass]. Not only is Jenna a young, sassy, scrappy reporter (like Lark), but Jenna looks and acts like Lark. (During one of our working sessions, I almost accidentally called her Lark.) Plus Jenna has acting chops. She's appearing in the comedy "Don't Dress for Dinner" April 4 - 19, 2014 in the Greenville Little Theatre.

As for Lionel, Garry and I like the idea of George Clooney (who wouldn't?). I had the often-irascible Gene Hackman in mind for Lionel as I wrote Fast Track.

OMN: What's next for you?

JD: Since leaving CNN at the end of March 2013, I'm busier than ever. And loving it. It feels like every day is Saturday.

Right now I'm busy promoting Troubled Water, doing interviews and leading several writing workshops. I'm also collaborating with Florida writer Deeia Topp on some very hush-hushy TV and film projects for my agent, Garry Dinnerman.

Probably the two projects closest to my heart are my fourth novel in the Lark Chadwick series [working title, Bullet in the Chamber], and a self-help memoir on grief that I'm writing with Pittsburgh psychologist and writer Joyce Wilde [working title, Healing From Grief: A Conversation].

Both projects stem from the death of my youngest son, Stephen, 22, of an accidental heroin overdose in August 2011. For the past year and a half, I've been working with grief counselor Adrienne Kraft at the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing in Washington, D.C. I pray that writing and speaking about the insights I've gained from my conversations with Adrienne will be able to bring hope to others who have experienced the excruciating loss of a loved one.

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Award-winning journalist John DeDakis is a former CNN Senior Copy Editor for the Emmy and Peabody-Award winning news program "The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer." DeDakis, whose journalism career spans nearly four and a half decades, served as a White House correspondent and interviewed such luminaries as Alfred Hitchcock, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. A writing coach who currently teaches journalism at The University of Maryland—College Park, John DeDakis lives in Washington, DC.

For more information about the author and his work, please visit his website at JohnDeDakis.com or find him on Facebook.

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Troubled Water by John DeDakis

Troubled Water
John DeDakis
A Lark Chadwick Mystery

Just as young journalist Lark Chadwick is about to begin her new job on the cops and courts beat, she discovers the body of a strangled girl — the first victim of a serial killer. Lark's got the inside track, but there are complications: jealous rivals in the newsroom, her job in danger, a hunky colleague who becomes a suspect, a superstar athlete with anger issues.

And just who is that mysterious bag boy at the local market?

With the help of her friend and mentor Lionel Stone, Lark's nerve is tested like never before in a dramatic life or death showdown with the killer.

Amazon.com Print/Kindle Format(s)  BN.com Print/Nook Format(s)

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Lance Wright owns and manages Omnimystery, a Family of Mystery Websites, which had its origin as Hidden Staircase Mystery Books in 1986. As the scope of the business expanded, first into book reviews — Mysterious Reviews — and later into information for and reviews of mystery and suspense television and film, all sites were consolidated under the Omnimystery brand in 2006.

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