Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Conversation with Crime Novelist Dana King

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Dana King
with Dana King

We are delighted to welcome crime novelist Dana King to Omnimystery News today.

Dana's independently published e-book A Small Sacrifice, which features Chicago PI Nick Forte, has been nominated for a Shamus Award for Best Indie PI Novel for 2014, and we had the opportunity to talk with him a little more about the book and the series as a whole.

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Omnimystery News: Introduce us to the lead character of your Penns River mystery series.

Dana King
Photo provided courtesy of
Dana King

Dana King: Nick Forte refers to himself as a "professional investigator," and is a former cop and "recovering musician." He's divorced and adores his daughter, Caroline. His inability to spend as much time with her as he would if he were he still living with her plays into many of his decisions and attitudes, both professionally and personally. If he's a damaged protagonist, that's where it is. He's a social drinker, does not use drugs, is not depressed or suicidal, He's a regular guy who's not well satisfied with how life is turning out and doing the best he can under increasingly difficult circumstances.

OMN: How have the characters in the series evolved over time?

DK: They change. Not dramatically from book to book, but they evolve over time. That's what keeps them interesting, to me, at least. If I had to write a stagnant character book after book, I wouldn't do it. I'm not even averse to killing one off once in a while.

OMN: Into which genre would you place your books?

DK: The Nick Forte stories (such as A Small Sacrifice) are straight up PI stories, though I hesitate to call them mysteries, per se. The villain is usually known before the end. The rest of the book deals with what Forte is going to do about it.

My Penns River series are character- and setting-based police procedurals, Ed McBain in a small town. (Not that I'm on a par with McBain, but I got the idea from his 87th Precinct books. If you're going to steal borrow ideas, steal borrow from the best.)

OMN: Tell us something about A Small Sacrifice that isn't mentioned in the publisher's synopsis.

DK: Jeez, that could be anything. It has no publisher. It's an indy all the way. Oh, you mean something that's not on the back cover cop? Sorry. Forte's not as tough as he'd like to be, and probably not as tough as he needs to be. He's smart, he has balls, and he's not afraid to try to make his own luck.

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

DK: Forte is a former musician; I'm a former musician. Each of his books has a scene where he goes to some musical event: concert, nightclub, something. So far he's heard Maynard Ferguson's band, a jazz combo, the Chicago Symphony, and Tower of Power.

There are also scenes in each book between Forte and his daughter. Almost all of them are based on things my daughter and I have done, almost direct transcriptions in places.

OMN: Describe your writing process for us.

DK: I'm an outliner, though not detailed. I work from a Word table, with each chapter having its own cell, which may consist of no more than a sentence to tell me what has to happen there. How it happens is usually determined as I draft, though sometimes ideas come to me out of sequence and I'll add notes to the table. This sometimes leads to revising the outline as I go when better ideas present themselves.

I'm not big on character bios, except in the most rudimentary form. We don't know everything about the people we meet as soon as we meet them; why should I? As for expanding or contracting characters, there's often a little contraction, but not much. This is the kind of rewriting the outline allows me to avoid.

OMN: And where do you usually find yourself writing?

DK: A small extra bedroom in my townhouse that looks out onto a small woodsy area where I can pretty much forget I live in a fairly heavily populated suburban sprawl.

OMN: How do you go about researching the plot points of your stories? Any particularly challenging or exciting topics you've come across?

DK: Not a whole lot of fact-checking. If a decent Internet search doesn't tell me what I need to know about something specific, I change it. I did a lot of research into things like police attitudes and methods when I was starting out, and those are the foundation of what I use in the stories now. I'm not a big CSI guy, just enough to get something else to work in the story.

The most challenging and most exciting topic was the ability to plant false memories. Lots of reading on that one, as it was a crux of how the crime was committed. Through work and some luck, I ended up speaking with Dr. Elizabeth Loftus personally for about forty-five minutes. She was an enormous help, letting me run ideas past her so she could say what she was more or less comfortable with in a practical, clinical sense.

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

DK: I believe setting is key to a crime story, whether it's fictional or real. Forte's stories take place in and around Chicago, and I try to stay as true as possible. I made up a fictional town for my own purposes in A Small Sacrifice, but I was careful to place it in the context of Chicagoland.

OMN: If you could travel to a city to spend some time researching it for a book — on our dime, of course! — where would it be?

DK: Either Pittsburgh or Chicago. I base my series in or near one or the other, and each fascinate me. There are many things I'd like to know better about each.

OMN: What are some of your outside interests? Have any of these found their way into your books?

DK: Reading, obviously. (Well, it should be obvious.) I'm a huge baseball fan, and baseball references sometimes work their way into my books. Hockey, too. Basically, I'm a homebody, so spending time watching a movie or The Daily Show with The Beloved Spouse rates high on the list.

OMN: What is the best advice — and harshest criticism — you've received as an author? And what might you say to aspiring writers you meet?

DK: On writing in general? "Don't quit your day job." For me, specifically? Learn to self-edit, and tighten your writing by looking for places where you used seven words where five would do. My first agent, Pam Strickler, told me that, and it has served me well. What can someone else learn from that? Don't use more words than you need. That doesn't mean everyone should write sparse, Ellroy-esque prose. James Lee Burke would be foolish to try anything like that. The key thing to remember is not to use any more words than you need to. We all tell stories differently.

As for harsh criticism, I've been lucky. One reviewer said my characters were stereotypes, and several have commented on my use of foul language. I've had enough offsetting compliments on my characters not to worry too much about the former. To those of the latter opinion, I say I use the language I think is needed. If you think you'll be offended, read something else. I don't say that to be snotty. Life is short, and you should read something you'll enjoy.

My advice? Have a vision for your work and stick to it. Whatever you write, make it yours, even if you're working in a well-plowed field. I asked a friend back in my musician days if I should play the Haydn Trumpet Concerto on my recital, or had it been done to death. He said, "There's always room for another good Haydn." Substitute "PI story" or "procedural" or whatever for "Haydn" and go for it.

OMN: Complete this sentence for us: "I am a crime novelist and thus …".

DK: I am a crime novelist and thus I spend a lot of time thinking of entertaining things that can happen to people who piss me off.

OMN: Tell us about the cover of A Small Sacrifice.

DK: The Beloved Spouse and I noodled around on Amazon's Cover Creator tool and came up with it. A pro would provide a different insight and, likely, much more creativity, but it was fun to do and we're happy with it. Right now, the "it was fun" part is most important.

OMN: What kind of feedback have you received from readers?

DK: This will sound corny, but I haven't had any question asked of me that I didn't enjoy answering. This is still new enough to me, I'm flattered that people care enough to ask me anything, including, "Where's the head?"

The feedback and questions I enjoy most are those that provide an opportunity to engage with that person about writing. I love talking about writing and wish business discussions didn't inevitably interfere.

OMN: What kinds of movies do you enjoy watching?

DK: Crime films and comedies, mostly, so long as the depiction is realistic. Comedies get more leeway so far as pushing the credibility envelope, but as soon as a movie makes me work to suspend disbelief, I'm gone.

OMN: Suppose the Penns River series were to be adapted for television or film. Who do you see playing the key roles?

DK: Not saying any of these actors would ever consent to appear in such a film — but this is my fantasy, right? — I'd say Jon Hamm as Nick; Charlize Theron as his secretary, Sharon; Don Cheadle as Goose; Bruce McGill as the chief of police; a younger Meg Ryan as Jan (no offense to the currently aged Meg Ryan, but Jan is in her early thirties); and a younger John Heard as Doug Mitchell.

OMN: What specific authors influenced how and what you write today?

DK: Raymond Chandler got me to want to write in general, and PI stories in particular. More recently, and more specifically influential, are Elmore Leonard for dialog and organic humor, and Ed McBain for ensemble casts and procedural work. He's very funny too, in his way.

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

DK: All kinds. I lost track of how many times I read Tarzan and Call of the Wild. The John R. Tunis books about the fictional Brooklyn Dodgers. Chip Hilton. It seems pretty clear in retrospect the ones that stuck with me were the Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown, the Thinking Machine short stories, and, of course, Sherlock Holmes. I wrote my first school paper on the Holmes stories, in seventh grade.

OMN: And what do you read now for pleasure?

DK: Crime fiction and non-fiction, mostly history. My definition of crime fiction is pretty broad, and I tend to lean toward the writers who delve into history and living conditions. George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Daniel Woodrell come to mind. Adrian McKinty's Sean Duffy novels are brilliant.

OMN: Do you have any favorite series characters?

DK: Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, the cops in the 87th Precinct, Tim Hallinan's creations, Junior Bender and Poke Rafferty. Dave Robicheaux and Spenser, though both of those in their earlier incarnations.

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

DK: Top Five Secondary Series Characters (alphabetical):

1. Arthit (Bangkok cop in Poke Rafferty series)
2. Fat Ollie Weeks
3. Hawk
4. Joe Pike
5. Louis and Angel

OMN: What's next for you?

DK: A couple of quiet weeks, I hope. This has been a much more hectic summer than I'd planned. Then it's time to work on the edits for the fourth Penns River novel, and a busy (for me) fall conference schedule: Creatures, Crime, and Creativity in October, NoirCon in October-November, and Bouchercon in November.

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Dana King has worked as a musician, public school teacher, adult trainer, and information systems analyst. His short fiction has appeared in New Mystery Reader, A Twist of Noir, Mysterical-E, and Powder Burn Flash.

He lives in Maryland with his Beloved Spouse, where he pays the bills by working as a consultant at an undisclosed location. It's not one of those, "he'd tell you, but then he'd have to kill you" deals. He's just not going to tell you.

For more information about the author, please visit his blog One Bite at a Time or find him on Facebook.

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A Small Sacrifice by Dana King

A Small Sacrifice
Dana King
A Nick Forte Mystery

Detective Nick Forte is not impressed when Shirley Mitchell asks him to clear her son's name for a murder everyone is sure he committed. Persuaded to at least look around, Forte soon encounters a dead body, as well as the distinct possibility the next murder he's involved with will be his own.

Clearing Doug Mitchell's name quickly becomes far less important to Forte than keeping references to himself in the present tense.

Amazon.com Print/Kindle Format(s)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the smart questions and thoughtful answers. "A Small Sacrifice" is a wonderful, hard-boiled fix, so I enjoyed this interview all the more.


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