Monday, May 23, 2011

As the Crow Dies: Book One of Ken Casper's New Mystery Series

Vietnam took his legs.

A murderer took his father.

Somehow, Jason Crow has to take a stand.

“My father had no reason to kill himself," I said. "On the contrary, he had every reason to live. I was coming home. We had plans to do things together. Plus, there’s no way he’d kill himself using my gun.”

Burker picked up a screw driver, went through the motions of examining it. “Look, Jason, we’re not friends. Never have been. Probably never will be, but I’ve always respected your talent on the football field and your intelligence. You were good. Damn good. What’s happened . . . well, it’s a shame.”

“I don’t want your pity, Burker.”

“Good, because you won’t get any from me, but I will tell you I’m disappointed in you. You’re smart. That’s why I expected you to be more objective about what’s happened. Let me give you another tidbit of information, another fact for you to consider. There were powder marks on your father’s right hand. He pulled the trigger.”

Jason Crow comes home to Texas on clumsy, prosthetic legs—a double amputee, struggling with his lost dreams and the pitying curiosity of friends and strangers. But there's no time for him to brood, because his father has just been shot to death.

Unable to convince the police that his father was murdered, Jason begins his own investigation. In the process he uncovers family secrets that shake him to his core and make him question everyone and everything around him, including the love of Michiko, the beautiful Eurasian-American nurse he met in Japan.

While fighting his own insecurity as a double amputee, Jason must challenge forces capable of destroying him and those he loves to pursue the person who robbed him of his greatest hero: His father.

This debut book in Ken Casper's Jason Crow series treats readers to a powerful new voice in mystery fiction.

Five Scribe Readers: I usually do an introduction, but how could I top the excerpt above. Please welcome Multi-published Author Ken Casper to the Five Scribes.

D.B.: Ken, it’s an honor for me to talk to you today. Confession time. I attended a conference last weekend and kept sneaking out of workshops to finish AS THE CROW DIES. One would think the subject matter too painful to read. But like your protagonist Jason Crow, I suspect Ken Casper is no quitter. When the story took hold, you finished it. Moreover, you wrote it in such a way, that while I empathized with Jason, I’m like Burker above, I couldn’t pity him. I knew Jason wouldn’t want me to.

A double amputee protagonist. What inspired you to develop such a tortured character?

K.C.: Years ago I read all the Nero Wolfe mysteries. Nero Wolfe never left the house on business. Since I like turning things on their heads, I tried to imagine a protagonist who couldn’t leave the house. But of course a heroic character does next to the impossible. So I came up with a character who might never want to leave the house but who fights his own demons because honor dictates that he must. Jason went through many iterations before I discovered he was a double amputee.

D.B.: This story takes place in 1968. Jason and his friends from Coyote Springs are in Saigon when Jason’s hurt. You do a great job of placing us in war-torn Asia. Your research is impeccable. Are you a Vietnam veteran? Why choose this particular time and this war?

K.C.: Yes, I am a Vietnam vet. 1968 was a pivotal year in our history. So much was going on. So many paradigms shifted that year. Assassinations, riots, war, flower children, drugs and religious cults. To use a term that wasn’t in vogue yet: it was a perfect storm. For my protagonist it had to be cataclysmic too. All seemed lost. It wasn’t completely lost, but it was permanently changed. Life would never be the same for us as a society or for Jason Crow as an individual.

D.B.: Not only did you select an unpopular war, you chose an era in which the U.S. was in the midst of enormous bigotry and social turmoil -- and I can’t think of one issue you didn’t address in this book, by the way! Then you place this story in the heart of West Texas (I know something about this region. I was born in Lubbock, my daddy grew up in Big Spring.) I read you were born and bred in New York. And yet you captured the heart of these people like a native.

What compelled you to set the novel in this area, and how does one prepare for a novel like AS THE CROW DIES? Since Five Scribes is a writing blog, will you talk about the drafts, any frustrations that arose as you wrote and how long it took you?

K.C.: It’s that contrariness again. Plenty of mysteries are set in NYC. How many are set in West Texas? I wanted my protagonist to be different but the environment unique as well. As for writing the book . . . it went through a lot of drafts. It wasn’t that I didn’t have ideas. I had too many. What to put in and what to leave out is a perpetual dilemma. The original concept probably goes back twenty years, the actual writing of it considerably less. More than once I put it aside, wrote other things but inevitably came back to it.

D.B.: To say the characters in this book are three-dimensional and non-cliched is an understatement. You take a family at odds, where any one of them might have murdered Theodore Crow. Jason’s closest friend, accountant Zack Merchant, is a five-foot-two-inch Jewish orphan. Jason’s deceased father is in the restaurant business in partnership with George Elsbeth, a black man. Jason’s love interest, Michiko Clark, is a Eurasian-American nurse. Race is unapologetically addressed in this book. I have to tell you I flinched more than once at the treatment of your characters. But you were fearless in your creation.

Is this strength something that comes with writhing 25 novels? What I’m getting at is did you experience any doubt as you tackled such a controversial issue?

K.C.: My doubts weren’t about the characters but whether readers (the editor is the first reader) would accept them. Flinch at situations? We do that because they scare us, and they scare us because they feel real. My first drafts were meek and self-conscious, but real life isn’t gentle or politically correct. That’s where learning how to “show, don’t tell” comes in. By showing it the way it is, we experience what the character feels, and that binds us to him or her.

D.B.: From the opening pages, you do a convincing job that Theo committed suicide. And then you do the most devilish thing. With enough drug dealing and corruption in Coyote Springs to light up a powder keg, you weave in clue after clue that has the reader sitting up and saying--Suicide? Oh, no, he didn’t.

You certainly don’t believe in information dumps either. Not only are there hooks in the chapter endings, there are twists and turns and questions in every chapter. As a side note, I will read this book more than once as a study of craft. I guess a very simplistic question is: How do you do it? Do you plot from start to finish, or are you more of an intrinsic writer?

K.C.: I’m a plotter . . . or plodder, if you prefer. I write an outline and follow it until I discover it doesn’t work (about half the time), or because a better idea comes to mind. Then I sprinkle in clues, but I try to do it by indirection, by disguising them as innocent bits of information not associated with the problem at hand. I’m always amazed by the creative process. I surprise myself at the details that pop up—little seemingly innocuous tidbits of information that furnish unexpected clues I can take advantage of. It’s a wonderful adventure, discovering what my characters will tell me.

D.B.: Your chapters are short. Talk about pacing. Was this deliberate on your part or part of the editorial process?

K.C.: I prefer short chapters and cliffhangers that make the reader automatically want to peek at the next page. I like plenty of dialogue because it serves both as a means of delivering needed information and of characterizing the speakers. I also enjoy the editing process, cutting superfluous words, even details. The result inevitably speeds up the pace.

D.B.: You write in first person. Was this a conscious decision or did this involve some experimentation? What authors do you like and who has inspired you?

K.C: Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe stories are told in the first person by the central character’s companion. My first draft of Jason Crow was told by his best friend, but then I decided to go a step further and have the handicapped protagonist tell the story himself. Actually, I experimented with first and third person and combinations of the two. Third has its advantages because you can be in the heads of different characters. But third can’t compete with first for immediacy. When a third person character gets in trouble, the reader watches but doesn’t feel threatened. When a first person character is in trouble, so is the reader. Nero Wolfe’s leg man (no pun intended), Archie Goodwin, was the first person narrator of the stories, but he was rarely, if ever, in physical danger. The same with Dr. Watson. Jason Crow, by the very nature of his handicap, is perpetually vulnerable, physically and emotionally. How can the reader not be concerned for him?

D.B.: You also pitched and sold this book to Bell Bridge Books Will you tell us about your experience with them? Also, I’d love it if you’d share how the title came to be.

K.C.: Deb Dixon and Deb Smith have been fabulous to work with. Experienced, best-selling writers themselves, they understand both the craft and the business of writing. I have to give Deb Smith credit for the title. My working title, The Point of No Return, suited the story but was cliché. Deb saw the potential for capitalizing on Jason’s last name and started playing with it. In fact a crow will be featured as a logo on all Jason Crow mysteries. I display it on my website too.

D.B.: I do my best not to give away too much of a book’s plot in my interviews. One thing I will say is I was impressed how Jason grows, not only mentally but physically. You give him his independence, always keeping in mind his beloved father’s words, “We can’t control what other people do, son. We can only act honorably in our own lives.

We’re not quitters, you and I. We do the best with the hand fate deals us . . . ”

How can Jason, and readers, not love a man like that? Feelings and emotions just pour off these pages. As for Jason, he’s a worthy, worthy protagonist, and in between gasping at what happens next, readers will be cheering him on. Also, readers, you will learn there isn’t anything in this book that is as it seems. Ken Casper creates characters, not only with baggage, but with secrets.

Will you talk about characterization? Do you do character profiles? Or do they come fully conceptualized with only minor tweaks as you write?

K.C: I have a pretty good concept of the character when I start writing, but it inevitably matures with the writing itself. I’ve tried using profiles (I do keep notes about details), but I generally let the characters tell me who they are. For example, in one of my early books, I had the romantic heroine driving a Ford Escort in her profile, but when I wrote the scene she climbed into a Chevy Corvette. Suddenly I realized who she really was. A woman who drives a ‘Vette is different from a woman who drives an Escort. In Jason Crow’s story I didn’t realize a couple of the relationships between characters until they popped up on the page. Those discoveries are enormously rewarding. It makes writing an adventure.

D.B.: Is there any advice you’ve received over the course of your career that you’ve considered especially profound? Also, what advice would you give to aspiring authors?

K.C.: We read fiction for emotion, not information. That’s non-fiction. The value of a story is in the emotion it elicits. That’s not to say we can’t learn from fiction. The joy of learning is, after all, an emotion. I was blessed with wonderful critique partners when I started writing, three women who were writing romance. They perpetually prodded me with the question: what is the character feeling? Then, of course, there was the dictum to “show, don’t tell.” In a rough draft I may write “He felt sad,” but then I have to go back and expunge the word “feel” and either show what elicits sadness or what actions or words betray his experiencing that emotion. As for advice to aspiring authors: keep writing and keep revising. My late mother-in-law was an expert seamstress. Her motto was: “If you’re not willing to tear out, you shouldn’t be sewing.” That’s sound advice for writers too. “If you’re not willing to revise, you shouldn’t be writing.”

D.B.: Finally, I understand this book is a series. When may we expect the next Jason Crow mystery?

K.C.: The second book in the Jason Crow West Texas Mystery series, tentatively entitled Crow’s Feat, is due out in early 2012.

Ken, thank you for joining us here today. Readers, questions or comments will enter you in a drawing to win an autographed copy of AS THE CROW DIES. We will draw a name on Thursday evening May 26th. Thanks for joining us. Happy Writing & Reading.



Donnell said...

Welcome, Ken. Thanks for joining us today.

Loralee said...

Great interview! Ken, I look forward to reading the Crow series. I know I'll learn a lot about the craft of mystery writing while enjoying your intriguing story.

E. B. Davis said...

What Ken said about the writing process gives me hope. I'm doing all the same things in my work--changing details after getting to know my characters--and revising for conciseness, showing more than telling, etc. If after 25 novels, that's what he does, than there is hope for me. I'm doing something right!

Great interview Donnell--another author I will have to read.

Jane Sevier said...

Fascinating premise, Ken, and timely today with vets still coming home from the wars with all manner of physical and mental disabilities.

AS THE CROW DIES sounds like a cracking good yarn!

Ken said...

Thanks for the invitation. Glad to be here. E.B., keep writing and keep submitting. My first published book bounced between me and the editor for two-and-a-half years before it was accepted.

Cynthia D'Alba said...

Great interview. Story sounds very intriguing. Love the hero. Very daring of you to give him such a physical handicap to overcome

Dale Mayer said...

Hi to Ken and Donnell, thanks for a great interview.

I just love the tag line that you've written for this book - talk about catchy!

Congrats on your success Ken!

Laurie Wood said...

Thank you for such a detailed interview, especially about your writing process, Ken. I love the fact you've taken an unpopular war that most would like to forget, and made your hero a double amputee when so many of our soldiers are coming home with the same injury.

Ken said...

Laurie, setting As the Crow Dies in 1968 came with several inherent obstacles. It didn't fit most publishers' parameters of being either contemporary or historical. And of course the specific year, 1968, stirs emotions in itself. What the setting and the year gave me, however, was the opportunity to explore deep emotions.

It wasn't always easy writing, but I hope soldiers coming home to their own changed worlds can also find encouragement in it.

Jessica Matthews said...

Ken, thanks for sharing your creation of Jason Crowe! I can't wait to read the series.

Julie Rowe said...

Ken, thanks for sharing this story and your experience with us.

I absolutely LOVE the cover! I'd buy it for that reason alone.

Cheers, Julie Rowe

Ken said...

It is a great cover, isn't it?

I hope you all enjoy the story. It was a challenge to write but a very satisfying one too.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Hi Ken! I love the concept of the book and can't wait to read it. And yeah - I agree with Julie - the cover is great!

Scarlet Pumpernickel said...

Thanks for a great interview and for introducing me to a new author. I look forward to reading this book. Putting the link for KODers to find their way here was helpful!


Barbara White Daille said...

Hi, Ken,

Thanks for a great mini writing lecture here in your responses to the questions.

I'll be reading this post over more than once to commit some of the great advice to memory.

Love the titles (I hope you get to keep Crow's Feat--it's great) and the cover.

Best of luck with the series!


Donnell said...

Ken, I just love the seamstress advice. It certainly applies to writing as well. I think the cover is amazing and Crow's Feat sounds particularly apt for this character. I wish you the very best with this book and the series!

Ellis Vidler said...

Fascinating interview! The gorgeous cover got my attention first, but the description of your character kept me reading. Very, very nice.

Polly said...

Coming in late here, but I really enjoyed this interview. This is a book I definitely want to read. Thanks for writing about a difficult time in our history and about a subject so many want to forget. Those of us who were around remember it well.

Scott Parmenter said...

When is the next book coming out!? I can't wait until "Crow's Feat" comes out!! I'm loving this book now... 61% through it!