Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Conversation with Mystery Author Mark de Castrique

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Mark de Castrique
with Mark de Castrique

We are delighted to welcome author Mark de Castrique to Omnimystery News today.

Mark is the author of two mystery series in addition to several stand-alones and young adult novels. His most recent book, Risky Undertaking (Poisoned Pen Press; Novembrer 2014 hardcover, trade paperback, audiobook and ebook formats) is the sixth mystery in his Barry Clayton series.

We recently had the chance to catch up with the very busy author to talk more about his work.

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Omnimystery News: How do you go about deciding whether a book will be part of a series or a stand-alone novel?

Mark de Castrique
Photo provided courtesy of
Mark de Castrique

Mark de Castrique: My original series, of which Risky Undertaking is the sixth book, was intended to be a series from the beginning. I had a character, a young, small-town funeral director, and a location, the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina. Without a single plot, I knew I wanted to write four novels that would take the reader through the four seasons of the Appalachians because not only the foliage changes but the diversity of people populating the region. However, story ideas can be generated from a variety of sources, and after I completed the fourth mystery, I tackled an idea suggested by the true story of an elderly white friend, who as a ten-year-old boy in 1919, accompanied his father as they aided an African-American funeral director in transporting a body through the Jim Crow South from Asheville to north Georgia. I used the history as a foundation for the plot, yet set the story in the present day. I felt the novel needed a fresh approach unrestricted by my series character. So, Sam Blackman and Blackman's Coffin were the result. The book was meant to be a standalone, but my editor, Barbara Peters of Poisoned Pen Press, encouraged me to follow it up with a sequel and I always listen to Barbara. I have also written two standalone thrillers and two Young Adult standalones. In each case, the premise of the story dictated the approach.

OMN: How do you categorize your books? That is, into which mystery subgenre would you place them?

MdC: My two series are categorized as traditional mysteries, and I guess stylistically they are closer to the Police Procedural sub-genre. Barry Clayton, the undertaker, is also a part-time deputy sheriff. The Sam Blackman series features Sam and his lover/partner, Nakayla Robertson, as a P.I. duo, but Sam's military career was as a Chief Warrant Officer investigating crimes in the Army. In some ways, the hybrid choices I've made enable me to use aspects of both traditional law enforcement and the looser reins of private investigations. As for labeling, I find it limiting in some ways. I've written two adult thrillers, one set in the confusing world of the Federal Reserve and the other in a particle physics supercollider in 2030. Both are very different from each other and from my two series. I write what interests me, and it's not necessarily what is easily categorized.

OMN: Tell us something about Risky Undertaking that isn't mentioned in the publisher's synopsis.

MdC: Risky Undertaking started because I wanted to write something involving the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. As a kid, my family would go as tourists to the reservation and I enjoyed learning about tribal heritage. I had no particular plot and so I visited the tribe's Internet site and read that the tribal council meeting the previous night had postponed a contentious vote on whether to build a second casino. Clearly there was a timely conflict involved. Proponents wanted a new casino on the southern edge of the NC reservation to lure players from Atlanta by shortening the drive through the winding mountain roads by nearly an hour. Opponents argued the second casino would cannibalize the existing casino and eliminate a number of visitors who also visited the Cherokee heritage museum, craft displays, outdoor drama, and reenactment village from the 1700s. At stake were millions of dollars and a potential increase in payouts to all enrolled members of the tribe. That one report of the tribal controversy got me started on the story's development.

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

MdC: My series books take advantage of the location where I grew up. The undertaking series extrapolates what might have been my destiny. I spent the first years of my life living upstairs in a funeral home. As a three-year-old, I was once evicted from a visitation when I crawled behind the casket and started singing, "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You." My dad later changed professions, but I was intrigued by what could have been my entry into a family funeral business and thought the character would be interesting. I also had humorous and poignant stories from my dad which I've used throughout the series. The Blackman series tends to extrapolate consequences of historic events in the region, and also involves real people such as Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Carl Sandburg who all had connections to the region. I went to school across the street from Sandburg's farm in Flat Rock, NC. I've also used real people who provided research assistance or stories for the books. I figured if I had to go to them for information, my detectives would have as well. That's been fun. I always let those "real characters" read their pages so that they are comfortable with the words I'm putting in their mouths.

OMN: Describe your writing process for us.

MdC: When I wrote the first few novels, I was a more detailed outliner. Later books tend to grow and develop during the writing process. I have an idea of motive and culprit, and usually a handle on the culminating scene, but how and who gets me there may change. For example, some characters that you needed for a very specific function turn out to be more important than you realized. In other words, they won't get off the page. I've planned to kill some people whom I let lived, and murdered others I anticipated would make it to the end. New events and characters create consequences that create new and unanticipated events and consequences. For me that is the fun of discovery. I'm looking for the story that was meant to be written and just happen to find it ahead of the readers.

OMN: Where do you most often find yourself writing?

MdC: I can and do write anywhere. I keep a journal and fountain pen with me everywhere I go. If I get free time during the day, (waiting for an appointment, for example), I'll work on the story. It might be doing a rough outline of where I think the story is headed in the moment or notes for character or plot development. Eventually, it comes back to my home office and Scrivener, which is the software I prefer. Also, moving between computer and long-hand can be beneficial when I'm stuck. Sometimes just changing the physical environment and method can move things forward. I try to stop writing when I know exactly what the next sentence or paragraph will be so that momentum returns quickly. Starting new chapters are the most challenging because I have to get that momentum going again.

OMN: You mentioned that you take advantage of the location where I grew up in some of your stories. How true are you to the settings of your books?

MdC: I have a series and a standalone that are set in a real place and accuracy is important to me. Most people aren't intimately familiar with Asheville, NC's geography, but for those who are, a geographical error will yank them out of the story. This is also true of the books that have been recorded for audio. I've been fortunate to have communication with my series' narrator to double check the regional pronunciations of places that would trip up a non-native.

My standalone thriller The 13th Target was set primarily in Washington DC, a city much more familiar to readers. My wife and I once drove seven hours to look at a street near the Mall and Vietnam Memorial for accuracy of details as minute as the location of a storm drain. I spent about 10 minutes walking the area and got back in the car for the seven hour drive back to Charlotte, NC. In hindsight, that might have been a little over the top, but I was pleased that what I'd imagined and already written as a draft matched what I found.

Setting is very important to me. Even though the themes and motives of the story might have universal appeal, I'd like to think the particulars of the setting make it an intergral part of the story. I do research as I go along. There's an initial flurry to see if research supports the premise, and then I write what I hope is accurate, check the specifics afterwards, and then either correct or have a plausible explanation for any variance. It's in making assumptions that I know everything about a subject, a weapon, or a procedure, that will get me in trouble.

OMN: If we could send you anywhere in the world, at our expense, to research the setting for a book, where would it be?

MdC: Wow! What a great question and even greater gift if any benefactors happen to be out there wanting to send me away as opposed to put me away. The opportunity would be so awesome that it is paralyzing. If I had to make a choice today, I would select Ireland. My wife and I were there for two weeks in June 2014 and storytelling, either through spoken word, written work, or song is in the country's DNA. The challenge would be that there are so many great Irish writers. I think I'd have to stay true to my perspective of someone from the outside following a case that had links to Ireland. The history and songs of my native Appalachians are descended from and in some ways preserved by the early Scotch-Irish settlers so that connection would have accurate roots. The premise could grow out of that relationship and unfold from there.

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

MdC: My career has been and continues to be in film/video production. I primarily do documentary work, which is storytelling with moving images, and I think that helps me as a writer who views stories in scenes. Some of the things I've learned from various projects have become part of my mystery stories. What I enjoy outside of writing is reading and music. I play the banjo and guitar badly, but it's great mental therapy. I think it's required of anyone who grew up in the mountains, and the old ballads and song collections played a role in my book The Sandburg Connection.

OMN: Complete this sentence for us: "I am a mystery author and thus I am also …"

MdC: "… I am also allowed to kill people who have made me angry." I've never used real names, but it is great fun to envision and create the demise of some pompous jerk whose behavior, not necessarily to me, has been cruel, malicious, or just plain arrogant.

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

MdC: I like when a reader lets me know that a character or story has touched them in a personal way. In my Barry Clayton undertaking series, I wanted Barry to have an internal conflict. That is, he wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement but had to give that up when his father developed Alzheimer's at an early age and could no longer run the funeral home. I hadn't anticipated the family dynamic that created, but I explored the implications as I wrote the first novel. Many readers have commented how they appreciated the treatment of the topic and how it reflected the experience of their own family when dealing with this tragic disease. I'm pleased that dimension of the story that I initially used as a reason for Barry's return offered a connecting point for readers in a way I hadn't anticipated.

OMN: What's next for you?

MdC: I'm working on a new Sam Blackman book, the series set in Asheville, NC. I'm about a third of the way through it, and find that I usually pick up speed as the options for the direction of the story begin to become more focused. Still, it's too early to say much about it as I'm in those uncharted waters where characters and events are unfolding as I go. The premise that propels the story taps into the lore of Asheville hauntings. The mountains and town are rich with murdered spirits walking the hills and streets. I thought it would be interesting to have several murders occur that are reenactments of some of the more famous ghost tales. How and why are yet to be revealed.

OMN: Finally, what advice might you offer aspiring writers?

MdC: First, be a critical reader. Study the stories that have lasted and pay attention to the way the story is structured. I believe aspects of storytelling are genetically embodied in each of us as a human trait that has served us since the cave days. Go back and review Aristotle's Poetics on structure, or Poe's literary criticism. After all, Poe impacted so many of our modern popular genres. The Edgars are named after him for a reason. Then there is the unavoidable BIC that none of us can escape — Butt in Chair. If you want to be a writer, you have to write and be disciplined about it. Don't over talk your story. It's tempting to share your great idea with family and friends, but only up to a point. I think it kills some of the spontaneity of the creative process. If your goal is publication, be persistent. Show your work to a few people whose judgment and honest criticism you trust. Look for patterns in their suggestions and reactions. Recognize that you are a storyteller if you have a reader or hearer, and their opinions are about your story as they understood it.

Write what you enjoy. It's a long process and I hope you don't find it a chore but rather an adventure!

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Mark de Castrique was born in Hendersonville, NC, near Asheville. He went straight from the hospital to the funeral home where his father was the funeral director and the family lived upstairs. The unusual setting sparked his popular Barry Clayton series and launched his mystery writing career. A veteran of the broadcast and film production business, he has directed numerous news and public affairs programs and received an EMMY Award for his documentary film work. Through his company, MARK et al., he writes and produces videos for corporate and broadcast clients. He also offers developmental editorial consultation to fiction writers providing structural, story, and character analyses of first-draft manuscripts.

Mark lives in Charlotte, but he and his wife Linda can be often found in the NC mountains or the nation's capital.

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

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Risky Undertaking by Mark de Castrique

Risky Undertaking
Mark de Castrique
A Buryin' Barry Mystery

When Cherokee burial remains are unearthed on the site expanding a local cemetery, the dual occupations of Barry Clayton, part-time deputy and full-time undertaker, collide. Then, during the interment of the wife of one of Gainesboro, North Carolina's most prominent citizens, Cherokee activist Jimmy Panther leads a protest. Words and fists fly. When Panther turns up executed on the grave of the deceased woman, Barry is forced to confront her family as the chief suspects. But the case lurches in a new direction with the arrival of Sheriff Tommy Lee Wadkin's Army pal, Boston cop Kevin Malone. He's on the trail of a Boston hit man who arrived at the Cherokee reservation only days before the murder. Malone is convinced his quarry is the triggerman. But who paid him? And why?

The accelerating investigation draws Barry onto the reservation where Panther's efforts to preserve Cherokee traditions threatened the development of a new casino, a casino bringing millions of dollars of construction plus huge yearly payouts to every member of the tribe. Leading an unlikely team — his childhood nemesis Archie Donovan and his elderly fellow undertaker Uncle Wayne — Barry goes undercover. But the stakes are higher than he realized in this risky undertaking. And the life of a Cherokee boy becomes the wager. Barry must play his cards very carefully … Print/Kindle Format(s) Print/Nook Format(s)  iTunes iBook Format  Kobo eBook Format


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