Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A Conversation with Novelist Jim Stewart

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Jim Stewart

We are delighted to welcome author Jim Stewart to Omnimystery News today.

Jim's first book in a new mystery series is Ochoco Reach (Word Hermit Press; December 2015 trade paperback and ebook formats) and we recently had the chance to spend some time with him talking about it.

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Omnimystery News: Introduce us to the recurring characters of your new series.

Jim Stewart
Photo provided courtesy of
Jim Stewart

Jim Stewart: Creating a hero for a series is a big deal — I wanted Mike Ironwood to be someone I would never get tired of writing about. So he is really an amalgam of the most compelling people I've met — friends, acquaintances and others I've met only in books. I thought about people who were decisive, resourceful, and controlled enough to stay calm when everyone around them is panicking. I also drew from Marines I met when my band used to play at Camp Pendleton during the Vietnam War. And some of me is in him too. His half brother Daniel is the brother I never had, but wanted. He's half Nez Perce and getting that part of him right has been a challenge. The thread of magic realism that is woven throughout the story is dependent upon respect of that tradition. Perhaps my favorite character is Willy (Wilimina Hayes), who becomes the love of Mike's life, and he hers, as the story gathers momentum. I wanted to create a woman readers would fall in love with from the first page they met her, someone who was tough but vulnerable, beautiful but matter-of-fact, pragmatic but full of humor. I first met her in a story I wrote called "Early to Rise". I've kept her history intact in Ochoco Reach. The other primary characters, Jasper Cronk, Pablo Montoya, and Elina Black Fox, are exciting to me, especially Elina. They are new to me in this story and I'm invested in watching them grow.

While I'm on the subject of characters, I have to mention Bucket, Mike's Catahoula Leopard dog. He is part of the glue that holds the story together and has a big role to play. He and Mike are a team and his personality blends with Mike's so that each is an extension of the other. I love dogs and it was pure joy for me to include Bucket in the mix.

OMN: How do you expect these characters to develop over the course of the series?

JS: I believe that all characters, in any kind of literature, need to develop over time as they react to the world around them. That's what people do. Some characters are more static than others, but life changes all of us. Sometimes the changes are predictable, sometimes they're not. I'm looking at all of the Ironwood stories as a world. With luck, I'll get to chronicle the interaction of this family over a lengthy period of time.

OMN: Describe your writing process for us.

JS: For me, writing is a voyage of discovery. I spend a lot of chair time, staring into space, running various scenarios through my head, practicing dialog. It completely engrosses me. It's a part of the process I absolutely love. When I put my butt in my writing chair, the story unfolds on the page. I just keep going until it's there. After a draft is complete, I may or may not create an outline of what it is and study it to see how the flow can be improved. If not a detailed outline, then something showing the sequence of crucial events. After I think it's done, I send it to my editor and she tells me the truth. Of course it's not done. The real work has only just begun.

I think of my work as character-based fiction. Sometimes, when I try to write a scene, the characters will tell me I'm an idiot and just do what they would do instead. They are right most of the time, but sometimes I have to ride herd on them and listen to them grumble about it. In the end, it's a teamwork thing.

OMN: How do you go about researching the plot points of your stories?

JS: Fact checking is of paramount importance. In Ochoco Reach the Vietnam bits were checked in books, online, and by talking to friends who were actually there. I also have first-hand experience with guys who'd survived their tours and were back in the USA for mere hours. Those guys left a deep impression on me. The ranch stuff is from personal experience, but I still had to pay attention to the business details because I didn't know much about that when I started writing the novel. I like talking to people who are lifelong ranchers. The most challenging aspect of getting it right in Ochoco Reach is the Indian (American) content. Sherman Alexie has stated categorically that non-Indians should never try to write an Indian. I get that, but I'm stubborn and my interest is deep and lifelong. And I use Indian, rather than Native American. Just about every Indian I've ever talked to thinks Native American is silly, if not insulting. I believe them and try to stay true to that. For the Mexican Spanish I use throughout the book, I worked with a lifelong friend who grew up with it. I didn't want Mexicans speaking Castilian Spanish. I guess the most exciting topic to research was the geography. I've always been a map person. Over the years, I've learned to read maps like I read novels. There is a story in every topographical line. Now, I must say that my locales are what they really are, but I have taken literary license when I felt it would enhance the story.

OMN: How important is the setting to the story?

JS: It depends on what I'm trying to accomplish with the setting. My depiction of Portland, Oregon is pretty true, but I have changed some place names, just because. Anyone from Portland might get a chuckle out of how I've done that. The Central Oregon stuff, the Ochoco Mountains part, is a combo of made-up and real. Likewise, so are the Arizona/Mexico locales. I've been through that country, but not with the intimacy of the novel characters, so a combination of experience, imagination, and research had to be struck.

The Ochoco Mountains have long been a favorite part of Oregon for me. The land rolls and tumbles, the vistas are breathtaking. As I wrote the novel, I wanted to feel like I was there. I wanted to feel a part of it and I think readers would love to visit, even if it's only in their imaginations. That's one of the cool things about writing, putting readers in places they have never been.

Difficult terrain creates problems to solve. How the characters solve those problems reveals who they are. Beautiful landscape allows characters to show gratitude and sensitivity. If they don't respond to the beauty, that also says something about them. So, yeah, setting is very important to both character and plot development.

OMN: Was Ochoco Reach your working title as you wrote the book?

JS: My first working title was Death is Easy, but I was never completely comfortable with that. I decided upon Ochoco Reach because I wanted to show how a small rural locale could have profound impact in the larger world. I also wanted to make it obvious that Oregon was part of the story. Besides, the way Ochoco Reach comes off the tongue is appealing to me. I like the sound of it in the air.

OMN: What's next for you?

JS: I'm working on the next installment of what I hope becomes an Ironwood series. The working title is Stranger Blood. The characters continue and at least one of the open issues raised in Ochoco Reach continues as well. In addition, I'm writing a short story that precedes Ochoco Reach by twenty years. The central character is Mike Ironwood when he was an Oregon State cop in the 70s.

I am also making the transition from the day job I've had for the past 30 years to fiction author. Some would call it retirement. I'm calling it getting to work.

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Jim Stewart was born in Chicago and has memories of living in Buffalo, New York, New England, and Southern California. Finally, he grew up in Oregon where he has lived and worked for the last four decades. His working life has been eclectic, with time spent as a musician, truck driver, laborer, mechanic (of both vehicles and musical instruments), house painter, business owner, salesman, and, through it all, a writer and poet. Food on the table comes from technical writing in the biomedical field. It's good writing work, but not where his heart lives.

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

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Ochoco Reach by Jim Stewart

Ochoco Reach by Jim Stewart

An Ironwood Novel

Publisher: Word Hermit Press

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

Mike's usual strategy was to gently stir the pot and wait for patterns to emerge, but this case was boiling over from the day Willimina showed up at his office …

Freelance investigator Mike Ironwood doesn't hesitate for a moment when a lovely stranger asks him to help her get to the bottom of suspicious happenings on her family cattle ranch. The case is intriguing, and Willimina even more so. Six days in, the case has turned up two dead bodies, an alphabet soup of secretive federal investigators, and a client who just might be The One. That's when things get complicated.

When a greedy DEA agent and his complicated and deadly triggerman kidnap Willy, Mike enlists help from his brother and sets out to rescue her from a conflicted cartel jefe. The trail leads them deep into Mexico, but they come home with dangerous unfinished business. Ochoco Reach introduces Mike Ironwood, his special ops brother Daniel, and Bucket, a Catahoula leopard dog who is equally at home herding cattle and pinning bad guys to the floor. Together, they are formidable allies who also seem to attract trouble at every turn.

Ochoco Reach by Jim Stewart


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