Thursday, January 09, 2014

A Conversation with Mystery Author Tj O'Connor

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Tj O'Connor
with Tj O'Connor

We are delighted to welcome mystery author Tj O'Connor to Omnimystery News today.

Tj's first in a new series is Dying to Know (Midnight Ink; January 2014 trade paperback and ebook formats) and introduces the gumshoe ghost Oliver Tucker.

We recently had a chance to talk with Tj about his new mystery.

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Omnimystery News: Dying to Know is your first series title. How did you decide between writing a stand-alone and a series mystery?

Tj O'Connor
Photo provided courtesy of
Tj O'Connor

Tj O'Connor: Dying to Know, my debut novel, is the first of the Gumshoe Ghost mystery series and my fourth of seven novels. Among my other works are two mysteries written with the intent to making each a series — New Sins for Old Scores and The Killing of Tyler Quinn. My other works are stand-alone thrillers.

Since Dying to Know is just coming out, I had little rhyme or reason to it becoming a series — both writing this story and it being published as a series, was, well, a fluke. It was my incomparable agent, Kimberley Cameron, and my publisher, Midnight Ink, who saw this story as a series because of the unusual storyline and characters.

You see, Dying to Know is about a dead detective solving his and other's murders. But this is not a ghost story: it's a traditional murder mystery with a paranormal twist. Oliver "Tuck" Tucker, the dead detective, is an active, very traditional character — except he's dead. Tuck works with his wife, Professor Angel Tucker. Both characters are in the spirit (pardon the pun) of the 1930's Topper and The Thin Man. Tuck and Angel are adventurous, fun-loving — a typical married couple. They argue, cajole, and finagle their way through crime solving. Their characters are what made Dying to Know turn into a series.

OMN: Many of Midnight Ink's mysteries are cozies. Would you characterize Dying to Know as one?

TO: It is — although I had no idea what a cozy was until a year after I wrote it and my agent called to say it was being published — "Surprise, you're being published. Surprise, it's a cozy!" I had to look up what a cozy was.

Now, in hindsight, another of my novels, New Sins for Old Scores, an as-yet-unpublished mystery, is also a cozy. And no, I had no idea when I wrote that one either. My other works are thrillers with a humorous, off-beat touch to them. Is there a cozy thriller? If not, perhaps I've just started the genre.

As yet, I see no advantage or disadvantage. Ask me in two years as the series rolls out. Perhaps I'll change my mind.

OMN: Tell us something about the book that isn't mentioned in the synopsis.

TO: Dying to Know is not a ghost story. It's a murder mystery with a paranormal twist. Oliver Tucker, the protagonist, is a dead detective, but he is also a traditional, interactive lead character.

Tuck interacts with Angela, his wife, and he has strengths and flaws like any traditional character. His little flaw — his death — is a tool in his investigation, it is not the story itself. His "dead-skills" allow him to see and hear what others cannot — including into the past of some characters that become critical moments in the plot but otherwise would not be known. But still, Tuck is not clairvoyant and doesn't have any "crystal ball moments." His new supernatural skills can be helpful at times, but they are more often frustrating and confusing.

OMN: How much of your own personal or professional experiences are included in your books?

TO: My life experiences are my stories. As a former Government agent and international security consultant, I've lived and worked around the world running anti-terrorism operations and investigating murderers, spies, and general bad guys. My characters come from my world.

Many of the story lines (not the being-a-dead-detective one, though) have a basis in real cases I've worked. Dying to Know is based on two experiences from my past. Twenty-plus years ago, I investigated a skeleton discovered on a Government installation. We soon learned it was a historical discovery and not a fifty-year-old homicide. In my home town, anger and turmoil surrounded a previous potential highway construction project that would have impacted Civil War historical areas and angered some local citizens.

And of course, Dying to Know is based on a recurring nightmare I had for more than twenty years. Years ago, after several tingling cases in Greece as a Government agent, I began having a nightmare — I was killed during a terrorism operation and came back to solve my own murder. It plagued me for years until I finally wrote the story.

OMN: Describe your writing process.

TO: My process is probably not atypical. I start with a plot that I've conjured up by meshing together cases from my past with "what if" scenarios. A nightmare here or there often helps, too. I use a storyboard to sketch out main themes and characters and often main scenes like the initial murder or ending. Then, I create timelines and chapter outlines and do research as needed.

Then the fun begins. I sit and brainstorm ideas with my mentor (he's retired US Intelligence big shot) as we drink chilled Retsina and eat fantastic Greek food. Then I redo it all over again.

Eventually, I sit down and write.

My main characters are carefully thought out and structured. The supporting cast develops as I write. But, the little buggers tend to tie me in the closet and run away with the story. By the time I gnaw my ropes off and escape, it's already time for the first rewrite.

OMN: How do you go about researching the plot points of your stories? Have you come across any particularly challenging or exciting topics to research?

TO: Fact checking begins as I sketch out the outline. Then it continues all the way through final edits with my publisher. I use internet, my large collection of books, and many professional resources I have. I also use my crotchety, retired mentor, too. He's better than any book I ever read. Also, a lot of the details are first-hand experience but I do brush up on facts as I use them.

The most challenge is doing the historical research. All my stories had a history sub-plot such as the OSS in World War II, 1930's mobsters working with the FBI, and so on. I enjoy this research the most. It's nice to see that there were others before me that had wild and crazy ideas about their lives.

My most exciting topic has been my mentor's input to my novels. He is one of the last surviving OSS operatives in the world. I've spent many great meals and bottles of wine learning about his extraordinary life. I only hope I can capture it as exciting as he lived it. That is, if I remembered it right after all the wine and Greek food.

OMN: Is Dying to Know set in a real place?

TO: Dying to Know and its series are all set in my current home town, Winchester, Virginia. Winchester is a beautiful, historic town with history dating to pre-American Revolution. Its historic milestones are in the Civil War. I try to stay true to its geography, structure, and principle history. I do take liberties with its residents — I don't think there were any Prohibition gangsters, OSS agents chasing Nazi spies, or Cold War serial killers walking its streets. Well, maybe.

The setting here is very important because Dying to Know is about a small city cop caught up in big city crimes — all thoroughly immersed in historical tragedies and crime.

OMN: How involved were you in coming up with the book's title and cover?

TO: The book cover shows Tuck in "ghost sketch" format sitting at his desk studying a document with Hercule, his black Lab, prominently paws-up on the desk with him. It is supposed to be a scene from the opening three chapters of the book. The design was 100% my publisher's concept and decision. Frankly, it took me by surprise. Being new to the "cozy mystery" genre and not knowing anything about it at all, I wasn't expecting an illustration like this as a cover. I envisioned something more dashing or dangerous. But, after my publisher educated me in the ways of cozies and publishing, I learned a valuable lesson — shut up and stick to writing. Let the experts do what they do. So I did. Since the cover hit the internet, I have gotten quite a few compliments on the cover design which I humbly accept.

The title, Dying to Know, was my original title and will form the basis for all the titles in the series. The next two sequels are Dying for the Past and Dying to Tell. These of course are a play on words. The dying part is for Tuck's situation and the rest hints at the story plot. Dying to Know is simply put — Tuck's death sends him on a quest to know who was responsible. Other victims of the killer also seek Tuck out to have him learn who was responsible.

OMN: We realize that Dying to Know is a new title, but have you received any feedback from those that may have read the galley?

TO: I really haven't gotten any as my debut novel is just coming out. But from my team of readers (whom I use to test my drafts) and my agent, I've gotten great input on character flaws and story lines. Strange as it sounds, I prefer the "this doesn't work," and "I don't buy this character" as opposed to the "Oh, I love it" comments. I truly want my work to get better and to write better stories so I push my readers to be tough on me. I can get compliments and kisses from my three Labrador Retrievers just for playing ball or passing the cookie jar. And they don't need expensive wine and dinner to work.

OMN: What is the best advice … and harshest criticism … you've received as an author? And what might you tell new writers?

TO: Best advice: Keep writing. Don't give up.

Harshest criticism: (After submitting a thriller about domestic terrorism to an agent) — "You should write about something you know." I've worked in anti-terrorism my entire life.

What did I learn? Take advice. Find what fits and works for you. Toss the rest.

What advice to others? Never give up. Keep writing.

OMN: Complete this sentence for us: "I am a mystery writer and thus I am …".

TO: I am a mystery writer and thus I am a devious, cunning, and calculating killer at heart. No really, I am.

OMN: What kinds of books did you read when you were young?

TO: I read everything — the Hardy Boys, mysteries by Barbee Oliver Carleton and Gordon Shirreffs. I also loved the classics by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. And there was my love affair with thrillers like James Grady's Six Days of the Condor and everything I could get my hands on by Robert Ludlum and Alistair McLean.

Creating stories that people could love like I love them was why I became a writer. That and the billions of dollars and wild, flashy lifestyle (wink wink).

OMN: And what do you read now for pleasure?

TO: My time is limited these days but I try to keep up on the big names like Nelson DeMille, David Baldacci, Sue Grafton, and James Patterson. But I am just now breaking into the cozy mysteries that I find in my genre. I'm trying to play catch-up and read all I can get my hands on. Unfortunately, my den is littered with the works of Colin Campbell, G.M. Malliet, Jess Chandler, Karen MacInerney, Terri Nolan (just to name a few), and a dozen more from Midnight Ink. Most have book marks in them from where I stopped and started as I try to read 3-4 at a time.

OMN: Which series characters do you find most interesting or appealing?

TO: Hercule Poirot – Agatha Christie
Charlie Chan – Earl Biggers
Jason Bourne – Robert Ludlum
John Corey – Nelson DeMille
Oliver and Angel Tucker (Dying to Know) – Tj O'Connor (one day you will too!)
Richard Jax and Trick McCall (New Sins for Old Scores) – Tj O'Connor (sorry, I can't lie)

OMN: Several of the authors you mention have had their books adapted into film. Suppose Dying to Know becomes another. Who do you see playing the key roles?

TO: As I recently blogged for a similar question, here are the players:

Tuck – Nathan Fillion
Angel – Rebecca Romijn
Bear – Joe Manganiello
Poor Nic – James Caan
Ernie Stuart – William H. Macy
Doc – Sam Elliot
Lucca Tuscani – Steve Buscemi
André Cartier – Jean Reno

OMN: Do you enjoy watching movies?

TO: I'm a movie freak — especially old films. My favorites are the 1930's and 40's film noir and all things sci-fi and b-rated monster movies. My favorites are the movies of Chandler and Christie books; Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto are fun, too; and b-movies like Creature of the Black Lagoon, War of the Worlds, The Thing, and all the early space thrillers. I should note that my adult children, all between the ages of 23 and 30, roll their eyes and find reasons not to watch with me — when they do, they laugh through all the good parts. They have no taste in classic movie thrills.

Movies haven't really inspired my writing. The books behind them did. The movies just keep me sane. Well, they try to — it's a shame, really.

OMN: What are some of your outside interests? And have any of these made their way into your books?

TO: Harley Davidson motorcycles; Target shooting; Reading; and Mosby, Maggie Mae, and Tobias — my three Lab companions.

All my stories seem to wiggle in a Lab as a character. Maybe in the future is a gun-toting detective who drives a Harley with a Black Lab in a sidecar who loves Shakespeare and Christie in his spare time. Wait … did I just invent my next series?

OMN: Create a Top 5 list for us on any topic.

TO: Top 5 List of Mystery Series Television Most Don't See

1. Foyle's War – A British series;
2. Murdock Mysteries – A Canadian series;
3. The Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries – An Australian series;
4. Midsomer Murders – A British series; and
5. New Tricks – A British series

If you haven't read or watched these mysteries, you haven't experienced some of the best work since Agatha Christie.

OMN: We absolutely agree with that list. Terrific television all around. What's next for you?

TO: I've just completed the first sequel of the Dying to Know, entitled Dying for the Past. I'm now writing the third in the series, Dying to Tell. During my breaks, I'm hoping to publish two other novels I finished this past year — New Sins for Old Scores and The Killing of Tyler Quinn. Soonest I can, I will be reworking Double Effect, one of my thrillers that I completed two years ago and would love to see published in the pile.

Personally, I'd love to have some free time to plot out a couple more thrillers to write. That, and …. Oh hell, there is no more time.

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Tj O'Connor is an international security consultant specializing in anti-terrorism, investigations, and threat analysis — life experiences that drive his novels. With his former life as a government agent and years as a consultant, he's lived and worked around the world in places like Greece, Turkey, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, and throughout the Americas — among others. He was raised in New York's Hudson Valley and lives with his wife and three lab companions in Virginia where they raised five children.

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

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Dying to Know by Tj O'Connor

Dying to Know
Tj O'Connor
A Gumshoe Ghost Mystery

Dying is overrated. Murder is not.

Detective Oliver Tucker prefers to be the guy investigating shootings, not the guy getting shot. So when he returns as a ghost after being murdered in his home, it's only natural for Tuck to investigate the most important case of his life — his own. Detective, solve thyself!

Piecing together cold cases, foggy memories, and eerie premonitions, Tuck fears that if he doesn't figure out who pulled the trigger, his wife may be the next victim. Surprised to discover many earth-bound spirits chasing the same killer, Tuck's unique perspective from the other side leads him to a chilling conclusion — it's the living, not the dead, who are most terrifying. Print/Kindle Format(s) Print/Nook Format(s)  Kobo eBook Format


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