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Tj O’Connor is the 2015 Gold Medal Winner of the Independent Publishers Book Awards (IPPY) for mysteries and the author of Dying To Know, Dying For The Past, and Dying To Tell. Tj 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 has 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 furry canine companions in Virginia where they raised five children. Dying to Know is also a 2015 Bronze Medal winner for the 2015 Reader’s Favorite Book Review Awards, a Finalist for both the 2015 Silver Falchion Award and the Foreword Review’s 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award.
Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Dying to Tell. To begin with, can you give us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?
A: Dying to Tell is the third book in the Gumshoe Ghost series. Wait—I know—I’m not fond of that series name either, but my publisher, Midnight Ink, is. The series follows Oliver “Tuck” Tucker as he solves traditional murder with historical roots, all with a paranormal twist. You see, Tuck is different kind of detective. He’s dead. Yes, a dead detective, and he can work with the living and commune with dead spirits who are seeking their own overdue justice. After being killed in the opening toDying to Know, Book I in the series, Tuck learns that being back amongst the living and not truly one of them has its perks. Like being able to pop back and forth in history between the present day murder and the historical one. Oh, and he gets help from a dead relative now and then, too. Big plusses. In Dying to Tell, Tuck is investigating the murder of a reclusive banker, William Mendelson, who has been hiding his own past form World War II Cairo, Egypt. Mendelson got crossways with Operation Salaam—a real-life Nazi spy operation— and it’s taken decades to catch up to him. Each of my stories has three elements: a traditional murder mystery, a historical subplot, and in the end, the two collide with Tuck’s own family past. Tuck never knew his family—he was raised in foster care—and he’s finding out about his family one secret at a time. Among the best secrets is that his family tree is littered with prohibition gangsters, World War II OSS Operatives, cold war spies, and others. I was compelled to write the entire series based on my own experiences and adventures. I’m a former government anti-terrorism agent and now a security consultant. I’ve lived and worked around the world in places most only read about in books. Characters and plot lines come from my past. I started the stories based on a nightmare that plagued me for 20 years following my work in the first Gulf War—I dreamt I was killed during an operation and came back to find my killers and get justice. My daughter, Jean, heard me tell about the nightmare one day and she begged me to write it as a murder mystery—complete with the paranormal twists. I did, and landed my agent and first book contract as a result.
Q: What do you think makes a good cozy mystery? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?
A: Well, a cozy traditionally is based on Agatha Christie, of course. And I’m told that cozies have basic elements: an amateur detective, no sex and less violence, and often the crimes are in small towns or settings. For me, though, my mysteries have humor and real characters. There are no super-detectives or untouchable villains or good guys either. People are people—normal with strengths and weaknesses. But what makes mine—and the ones I enjoy the most— is the “different spin” put on them. Many cozies surround non-traditional sleuths like bakers, cooks, gardeners, etc. Not mine. My hero is a cop. His unusual twist is that he’s dead. How much more of a character flaw could you have? Also, I think a good cozy has to find a voice that is still a mystery and still exciting, while evading series sex, violence, and politics. My stories all verge on those areas and put a few toes over the line here and there. That makes them slightly different cozies. And I think writers all find their own version of getting a toe over the line here and there in order to find a different voice. It’s the unique voice and characters that will make your book.
Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?
A: I generally have a one-two page outline of the main points, characters, and goals. I sketch out the opening scene on a story board, put a character list with descriptions together, and then outline what my historical subplot will be. Then I sit, and start writing. I often outline 100 pages at a time. Alas, after I get through the opening chapter, Tuck takes over and runs the show. My outline is toast and I end up writing first, outlining after the fact, and pressing on. My characters steal the story quick and before I know it, they’ve got their own plot and subplot working and I just do what they tell me.
Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her. Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?
A: Tuck is a combination of me, who I wish I was, and some fun movie and television personalities. Sort of a Frankenstein sleuth. I made him an orphan who grew up in foster care so I didn’t have to deal with family issues after his murder. He has a lovely and brilliant wife, Professor Angela Tucker, with whom he struggles to keep a marriage of sorts. The interesting thing about Tuck is that his own family lore is the basis for each book. His ancestors were some wild and crazy people—gangsters, spies, professionals, and generally adventurers that all got into serious trouble along the way. All these troubles bring the historical subplot into each of my books. Tuck, using his paranormal skills as a dead detective, is able to connect the dots between the historical murder and the modern day one because he can move between the timelines and commune with the dead—all of whom are seeking justice on some overdue accounts. Because Tuck can work with the living, he can get justice for the dead.
When I develop characters (Tuck and the main crew are already done), I generally sketch them out, list physical descriptions, and then list quirks, strengths, weaknesses, background, etc. I also use a whiteboard and storyboards to keep track of plots and twists and how each character is involved. When you’re moving between two story lines, one being historical as long ago as 75 years, you have to be careful not to screw up the time line. I map these things out very carefully in advance.
Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?
A: Villains and antagonists are the easy ones. I steal from my experiences as a government agent and consultant. But, you also have to be careful to create someone who is not so obviously a bad guy and that they have a good reason for doing what they do. A good reason to them, of course. So a character just doesn’t wake up and go kill someone. Unless they’re just nuts. And you don’t really make a story very interesting if your plot conclusion is simply, “You see, Watson, John killed Michael simply because he’s insane. There was no jealousy, no missing money, no blackmail or deep transgression. John is just cuckoo.” I don’t think you’ll find many fans that way. And you have to have some twists and turns and false endings. You can’t just charge through the investigation and nab the killer. You have to finesse it, coax it out of your reader to follow along. There should be an “Ah ha!” moment that they say, “Oh crap, didn’t see that coming!” while still being plausible and interesting. As for realism, villains must be able to stay secreted for as long as possible. They have to be plausible and part of the story. I hate movies or books that when I get to the last three chapters, the killer is someone introduced on that page, with a motive that the detectives or characters suddenly give narrative to. I like to drop hints, clues—subtly—and I like nearly every one of the main characters to be a suspect. The villains are almost never loons or outwardly dastardly people. They’ve become murderers for circumstances and events that they lost control over. They did not set out to be bad guys, it just happened. Most of the time, that is. Sometimes, I have to have a villain with a secret life that is only revealed with hints and clues and circumstantial tidbits. Too much and they’re too obvious. Too little and the reader is robbed of the opportunity to solve it themselves. It’s not easy work, but somebody has to do it!
Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?
A: Excitement is in the eye of the beholder of course. For me, I try to keep my chapters short and each one end with either an important event or an “Oh crap” moment. Some chapters just have to lay out evidence and dialog and keep the reader informed and the story moving. Not every chapter can have a body or a crisis. But, you can certainly have every chapter SUPPORT those bodies and crises, and if they don’t, you probably don’t need the chapter much. Other ways of keep excitement moving is through handing out clues and character development in small doses. Keep important questions about them back and don’t do memory-dump (I learned that early on). When you have a chapter that can’t have a body, action, or some crisis, use it to drop more important information on a character or lead up to something significant and just stop. Leave the reading saying, “What the heck? How’s this going to work out?” And they’ll turn the page. If the chapter ends and they don’t need to turn the page, the book might need work.
Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?
A: I research details and try to zero in on just the highlights of those details. I do not write a lot of description or setting out. I tend to give a snapshot of the scene and places—just the important ones to get the mood and visual across—and let the characters bring in the rest. For instance, my current series is set in historic Winchester, Virginia. So it’s easy to find interesting things to comment about, but difficult to narrow them down to just a few things without spending paragraphs outlining the town, the setting, the house, the room, etc. I use dialog for much of that. For instance, I can have a character explain important items in a room in dialog or tell a brief story about the house or town that supports the plot and still gives some feel and visual to the setting and scenes. Word count is important, and I could spend way too much setting scenes and such, but that cuts into the dialog and action and narrative that is not related to scenes and setting. Therefore, you have to find ways, like through dialog, to create the right setting. It’s perhaps the most difficult part of writing—it is to me. Think about some of the great authors like PD James and for thrillers, Tom Clancy. They spend pages and pages setting the scenes before anyone spoke or the narrator explained things. They are masters! But I can’t get away with that and many others can’t either. So, I got for the jugular, quick, detailed, just the highlights, and let the characters spell out the rest.
Q: Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme(s) recurrent in your other work?
A: Yes, my themes are to some degree, systemic. Each novel has the traditional Agatha Christie style murder that begins the story. Then, a historical subplot—historically accurate based on the storyline though I take liberties with details—and then it culminates toward the end and wraps around Tuck’s family’s misadventures. Those are the basic themes. Each book addresses some historical episode of Tuck’s long-lost family and their involvement with crooks, thieves, spies, gangsters etc. And in each one, a modern murder has occurred because of someone or something that has been connected to that past event.
Now, for my other mysteries and the thriller I’m working on, those are entirely different. History still plays a role—I love history—but the storylines are very different. I won’t go into those details here as the genres are very different.
Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?
A: Wow, very deep here. I’m not sure. My editing improves the story. I tend to prepare the general outline, sit down, and write. I outline after the chapters to keep track of the story and clues and such. Then, I edit to make sure it works. Often, I delete several chapters, put new ones in, change characters, etc. Often, I get to the end and go, “Ooh, wait, if bad guy did this, and came from here, I could end it like this.” Those revelations usually come at 3 am. And I have to get up and email myself notes on what I want to change. No, my first draft is to get the basic story out. Then the second and often third drafts are to refine it, improve it, and make it work for me. My creativity really comes in the editing where I look for ways to twist and turn. And my characters tend to drive themselves, too. They will often say and do things in a draft that surprise me—and hey, I wrote it!
Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?
A: We’re all different. I won’t and can’t speak for others, but I can say I feel a little successful only from the notes from fans and from a few folks who seek me out at signings and speaking engagements. For me, it’s the uniqueness of my characters and that they are not “super characters.” They’re flawed, they have real emotions, and they are fallible. Readers said they cried when Tuck’s Lab, Hercule, forced Tuck to play ball with him in front of Angel (Tuck’s widow)—it made her understand that Tuck was back and with them. So real feeling characters is one. Second, I’d say a fun plot. Cozy mysteries are supposed to be fun and interesting. Tuck is definitely a fun-loving guy. My thrillers are totally different, but the main characters are still fun and full of life. There are no moaning, grumbling, curmudgeons as lead characters. And last, I think success comes from just loving what you do and showing people you love it. I travel every other weekend ten months a year—on my dime—to do signings and talks and attend events to be on panels and such. I love talking books with people who love to read. Being in love with your craft exudes somethings to others—interest, commitment, something—that makes you successful if even only to yourself. And after all, you have to believe in yourself before anyone else will, right?
Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. What do you think about that?
A: No. Absolutely not. We all poke fun at this world. I do. But I truly love what I do and while I work a real job 50 -60 hours a week, I cannot wait to get back to my story and my characters. I have a computer full of plot ideas and character sketches and notes. I don’t lack for ideas, I lack time. If I could afford to write full time, I would today. Every day. But mama and the Labs won’t live in a box in my kid’s basement, so I have to do real work. Writing, that’s not work to me, it’s life itself. Corny, I know, but I’ve felt that way my entire life.
Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?
A: Absolutely. Resources are a keystroke away on your computer. There are writing workshops in every town, at every college, and sponsored by every genre. For cozy mystery writers, there are two big ones—Malice Domestic, in Bethesda Maryland every year, and Bouchercon that travels the country every year. They’re the best. But get involved in writing workshops and informal community groups. They are out there and plentiful. For the beginner, I highly recommend Donald Maass’ book, Writing the Breakout Novel. But frankly, the best resources are just reading what you want to write. Just read. And WRITE! I learn more and more with each book I write and by going through the edits, and meetings, and traveling. I meet other authors and they are a wonderful lot—they share their skills and ideas and experiences. I have met very few who don’t. Get out and meet them. Listen. Ask questions. If you have a question, one of us has found an answer—or know where to send you to find it.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?
A: Write. Write. Edit. Write. But, above all, don’t stop writing. Don’t let bad query responses, no responses, or simple rejection stop you. Keep writing. I wrote my first book right out of high school and it was horrible. I continue to write. I published my first book at age 53. While I didn’t try to get published until I was 45, I continued writing all those years learning my craft and just getting it on paper. The hardest thing for anyone who wants to write to do is type “The End.” Once you get there, the rest comes with time and perseverance. Don’t stop.