Five Scribe Readers: Fate is the funniest thing. Years ago, at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, this nice older man stood in front of the crowd and read from his book, “Living with Your Kids is Murder.” When I wasn’t leaning forward from fits of laughter, I was thinking who is this guy? He’s good. Years later, when he joined my online mystery critique group, turns out my first impression wasn’t wrong. Nominated for the best humorous mystery of 2009 for a Lefty Award, Mike Befeler is good; what’s more he puts the pro in prolific.
Kirkus Reviews writes, “It’s hard to beat a team that includes a wisecracking old fart and a straight-talking young sprout, and Befeler’s second geezer-lit entry delivers.”
Today, Mike is here to talk about his third book in his Geezer-Lit Mystery Series, “Senior Moments are Murder.” Please welcome Mike Befeler.
D.B.: Mike, what a pleasure. Geezer-lit. I’d never heard of it until I read one of your novels. Did you coin the term, or is it a well known genre I’ve missed?
M.B.: I had toyed with the term, and it was reinforced by fellow mystery author Christine Goff. I went with it and found other references when I started Googling “geezer-lit.” In any case, I’ve embraced it and always wear my Geezer-lit Mysteries straw hat at conferences.
D.B.: Paul Jacobsen is a hoot. A crusty old man with a quick temper, Paul also has another problem. While he ordinarily has a high I.Q. with a photographic memory, he has what Paul himself calls “foggy brain cells.” Meaning if he goes to sleep, the unthinkable happens and he loses his memory of what happened in the days before. One thing, and one thing only, keeps him from losing his memory. But I’ll leave this for readers to discover. It’s charming and ingenious.
I take it you couldn’t give your character Alzheimer’s for understandable reasons. But what a great plot device. What inspired you to create Paul, and tell us in what way is he like Mike Befeler and then, minus the obvious memory problem, what way are you two different?
M.B.: Paul was inspired by my stepfather who had short-term memory loss. There are many forms of dementia besides Alzheimer’s, and both my stepdad and Paul suffer from the type that is caused by minor strokes. The one attribute that Paul inherited from me—we both hate taking pills. When I write a character, I may use snippets from people I know, but the vast majority of characteristics are just what feels right for the character. One other aspect of Paul—he cusses. I don’t swear very often (except when I’m playing racquet sports). I’ve received some flack from cozy readers who don’t like swearing. As I tell these readers, Paul learned to swear when he was in the military during WWII. I’ve tried to get him to stop, but because of his short-term memory loss he keeps forgetting.
D.B.: It’s bad enough that Paul forgets critical elements of the day before, but with the temper I mentioned, he is the perfect protagonist cum murder suspect. You can’t leave well enough alone with one body, Mike. Paul becomes a suspect in three murders in “Senior Moments are Murder,” an art dealer, a rival for his wife’s affections and finally one of Venice Beach’s most popular artists.
If that’s not enough the book opens and he’s in bed with a sweet young thing who’s all of seventy. You write in first person, but you feed in the secondary characters well. Was Marion in “Living with your Kids Is Murder?” (I suspect I missed Paul and Marion’s courtship.) Do we need to go back and read books one two to read more?
M.B.: My books are a series, but they can be read in any order. Marion appears in the first two books, “Retirement Homes Are Murder” and “Living with Your Kids Is Murder.”
D.B.: Evidently your stories have been based in Hawaii, but Paul finds himself in Venice Beach, California, smack dab in the art district. Add to his short-term memory loss, he’s afraid of water, hates lawyers and technology and he seems to find himself in a verbal fight with every character he encounters. Is knowing this character so well something that comes with writing a series? When you started with book one, was that your intention? Or with its success, did Five Star say what else have you got?
M.B.: When I started writing the first book, it didn’t even start as a mystery. Having spent a lot of time with my mom and stepfather in their retirement home, I was intrigued by the people I met there who displayed vitality and a great sense of humor. My book started as a relationship story about three men and three women in a retirement community. At the same time I was writing a collection of short stories that had either the victim or the perpetrator being an older person. The two ideas merged and “Retirement Homes Are Murder” was born. I learned mystery writing on the job. I didn’t even think of a series until I had completed the first book. Then I just had to keep writing about Paul. My editor at Five Star, Deni Dietz, was a terrific coach and mentor. For example, in the original draft I submitted, I killed off one of the secondary characters. Deni suggested I might want to reconsider that decision, and she was absolutely right. That character continues to play throughout the series.
D.B.: You introduce Detective Quintana in the opening pages, and with Paul arguing with the first victim the night before, and Paul just happening to stumble upon the corpse in the water, it looks bad, real bad. I have to agree with Quintana -- Paul did it!:) But the old geezer and Marion know he’s not capable of murder, so Paul sets out to prove his innocence. Using Paul’s photographic memory, he journals at night so when he wakes up, he can read what happened the day before. In addition to great plotting, Mike, you know law enforcement. What did you do to prepare to write your mysteries? I’m also curious, do you paint? You list some techniques, and with your inclusion of the art world in the story, I wondered if that were the case?
M.B.: I’ve attended the Boulder Citizens’ Police Academy and the Boulder Sheriff’s Academy. I’m also vice president of the Boulder Citizen’s Police Academy Alumni Association for which we have monthly speakers on different aspects of law enforcement. I’m also vice president of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Mystery Writers of America with monthly meetings often on law enforcement. Another thing I’ve done is volunteer as a role player for police training, so I’ve been “arrested” and cuffed numerous times. I’ve tried to make my law enforcement accurate from what I’ve learned. In my past I did some painting. When I was 56 years old, I made the conscious decision to retire into something creative. Writing was my first choice and painting was my second. Some day I may paint again, but right now I’m fully consumed with writing and enjoying it.
D.B.: As I mentioned Paul doesn’t appreciate technology, believes his ticker’s too old for the Internet, but luckily, his granddaughter Jennifer can do it for him and possesses a photographic memory like Paul’s. I found the relationship between Paul and Jennifer charming, as well as Paul’s relationship with Marian’s grandson, Austin.
You address the differences between the younger generation and the geriatric set well. In addition, you address some other important social problems, e.g. macular degeneration, the isolation one feels in nursing homes and the plight of the homeless. Serious topics, but you do so with warmth and always with a sense of humor. When you’re starting to tell a story is this intentional to bring to light these problems? Or does your muse just incorporate them as your protagonist tries to clear himself of murder?
M.B.: Donnell, I try to relate a balanced picture of the aging process. I’m co-chair of the Boulder County Aging Advisory Council and have become involved in volunteering to support the older population. There are problems people face as they get older but also opportunities. I often speak to service organizations and retirement communities about POWs, not prisoners of war but older people—persons of wisdom. Much like I enjoy humor in mysteries, I like the aspect of humor being appreciated by my older characters. As a grandfather, I’ve come to welcome the intergenerational interaction and put that into my books. In society, older people and younger people can all benefit from knowing those at the other end of the age spectrum.
D.B.: Let’s talk about writing in general before I give the whole story away
M.B.: I spent 39 years in the computer industry. I was actually in sales, marketing and program management but worked with engineers all the time. I’m a late bloomer. I wasn’t that good an English student in high school and college, but over the course of a business career I figured out how to put a sentence together. I also learned a little about fiction writing because I used to write press releases. With my job and raising a family, I didn’t pursue the writing muse until 2001, when I made the decision that I would retire into fiction writing rather than retiring away from the computer industry. My first novel was published in 2007, and I retired later that year to write full time. I’ve written novel manuscripts in both first and third person. With Paul it just felt right to let him speak directly.
D.B: I know firsthand that the Geezer-lit series aren’t your only books. In addition to Geezer-lit, I’ve read two mysteries, a paranormal P.I. story that I’ve never seen anything like, (and know readers would love), and even a young adult. Talk about your process, Mike. What happens when you get an idea, how long does it take from inception to draft to completion of a novel?
M.B.: I’m always coming up with crazy ideas so in the last ten years I’ve been jotting them down and keeping them in a manila folder. I often take walks during the middle of the day, and these ideas percolate. When a particular concept reaches a critical mass, I write a basic outline. I’ve tried the range from a detailed outline to seat of my pants, but I find I need some structure to get my thoughts organized. Once I decide to go with a concept and start writing, I follow the general outline but find the story always goes off in some direction I never would have predicted. That’s what I enjoy about writing—being surprised when something unexpected develops. One manuscript was inspired by a presentation I heard at a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference. I came home, took a walk on Sunday afternoon and started writing the next day. That manuscript got interrupted, and I finished it three years later. I enjoy trying different types of writing projects. Although most of what I’ve done is mystery, I’ve also written several business stories and right now am working on a spy novel. I’ve also experiment with middle-grade mysteries in addition to the YA one you mentioned.
D.B.: Blink and the industry changes. What advice, if any, would you give to today’s writers?
M.B.: The most important message is perseverance. Writing is a difficult, frustrating, lonely, disappointing activity and full of rejection. On the other hand it is the most amazing, fulfilling and rewarding thing imaginable. I received 111 rejections before I sold my first short story, and I’m not that unusual. Louis L’Amour, the famous western author, received over 350 rejections for over 200 manuscripts before he sold his first story. Don’t ever give up. Keep writing, keep improving your skills, keep pitching, keep querying, keep submitting manuscripts.
D.B.: What’s next in the Geezer-lit series? Will it continue, or will Mike Befeler introduce a new cast of characters?
M.B.: Book four in the Paul Jacobson Geezer-lit Mystery series is under contract with Five Star for publication December, 2012. I recently completed the rough draft of book five, so the series will go at least that far. I’ve completed the first book of a new geezer-lit mystery series that can be developed into at least three books.
Mike, thank you so much for being with us today. As readers can see, I’m a fan. His books are such fun, with twists and turns in every chapter. You’ll laugh, cheer and keep smiling for days.
Well, readers, there you have it. Have you ever heard of Geezer-lit? And, like me, do you wish more stories revolved around older protagonists?