Monday, July 27, 2015

Guest Post by Gordon Hopkins

So here's the deal:

When I decided to write my first novel, I was working as an insurance investigator. I had just moved from San Francisco to Hartford, CT and I hated it. There are no words to describe how miserable I was living in Hartford. Creative Writing 101 says "write what you know," so I wrote about an insurance investigator from San Francisco who moved to Hartford and hated it.

I lived in San Francisco for five years. It is still my favorite city. So why did I leave? Good question. I'm glad you asked. I was in San Francisco during the dotcom boom and bust. During the boom, the cost of living kept going up and up. I was promoted several times at work. Then the bust happened and my career stalled. You didn’t have to be working for a dotcom to get screwed by the bust. Everyone was affected. For example, the insurance company I worked for lost a lot of business when the dotcoms died and dropped all their insurance policies. Despite all this, the cost of living kept going up. By that time I was so sick of being broke that when I was offered a job as a fraud investigator in Hartford I jumped at the chance.

The moment I stepped off the plane, I realized I had made mistake. Just to be clear, it was Hartford I hated. I actually liked the work and was pretty good at it. Another upside was that my job gave me plenty of material for my book. I was investigating medical insurance fraud when I started writing the book. There are a lot of insurance investigators in crime fiction but they usually investigate murders (Did Lady Faversham bump off her husband for his million dollar life insurance policy?) or theft (Who stole Lady Faversham's heavily insured jewels?). There are a smattering of books about investigating arson (Don Winslow's California Fire and Life), car accidents (Dan Simmons' Darwin's Blade) and even a book about viatical fraud (Richard Dooling's Bet Your Life) but I couldn't think of a single example of medical insurance fraud as the basis of a mystery novel.

Having come up with what I thought was a good idea for a book, I just had to write it. I'm sure many of the folks reading this blog are aware of the difficulty of writing a book while also working a full time job. During my lunch hour I would take a pad and pencil (I didn't have a laptop at the time) and sit by the fountain, which had been turned off for the winter. I created a character named Gil DiMauro, who I named after my high-school Latin teacher, Mr. DiMauro (he was a teacher, so his first name was Mister). I made him a displaced San Franciscan and a Deadhead. He starts every morning by deciding which Jerry Garcia necktie to wear. Then I gave him a crusty, chain-smoking, ex-cop for a boss. His boss is never named. She is always just referred to as "The Old Lady." Most detectives in crime fiction seem to be either government employees (cops, FBI, etc.) or self-employed private eyes. I liked the idea of making my detective an employee with an office and a cubicle and a mean boss. The plot pretty much wrote itself. Although the book is fiction, all the scams described in it are real. I called the book Fraudsters, as one word titles were de rigueur at the time.

Okay, so I wrote a book. Now what? I heard from various sources (i.e. frustrated, unpublished writers like myself) that no publisher would consider my book without an agent, so I tried getting an agent. That didn't go so well. I sent out dozens of inquiries. No one will be surprised at how few gave a response. Then I found out that St. Martin's Press runs an annual contest called "Malice Domestic." No agent required. I sent in my book. It didn't win but it was a finalist. St. Martin's Press runs another contest in conjunction with the Private Eye Writers of America. I sent the book in. It didn't win but, again, it was a finalist. I tinkered with the manuscript a bit and sent it in to both contests again the following year. It was a finalist for the "Malice Domestic" contest again. I hadn't gotten published yet but this was enough to convince me the book didn't suck, so I tried again. It was about this time that I received a very nice (let me emphasize this: very nice) email from an editor at St. Martin's Press, which said in part, "I wanted to let you know that I enjoyed your novel very much and we considered it for publication, outside of the competitions. I’m afraid we decided it wouldn’t quite work for us." In other words, "we ain't publishing it so stop sending it to us."

By this time, I had escaped Hartford. Every once in a while, I would try sending the book to some publisher but, for the most part, I held out little hope it would ever be read by anyone other than my mother and sister (who, I'm pretty sure, only skimmed it). Speaking of my sister, she was the one who first introduced me to Joe Konrath and Jack Daniels. Our first conversation on the subject when something like this:

Me: What's so funny?

Shelley: (laugh) cat...(snort) diaper...(cough) cat...(laugh) can't talk...

Me: What the hell is wrong with you?

I began reading Mr. Konrath's blog and, following his lead, published the book myself.

I'm a big fan of the Jack Daniels stories, so I jumped at the chance to write one, especially since Mr. Konrath was allowing other writers to use their own characters in the stories. I banged out the story in three days, again using a real insurance scam, the time honored "swoop-and-squat." In keeping with the cocktail theme of titles, I called it, The Whiplash Brokers. Yes, there really is a drink called the whiplash.

I was online when I stumbled across the recipe for a drink called a Japanese Slipper. I immediately thought that would make a great title for a Jack Daniels mystery. I wished I had a story idea. Five minutes later, I was reading about insurance fraud in a nail salon. I changed the nail salon to a massage parlor, added a few murders and wrote, The Japanese Slipper Murders.

Unlike some of the others writing in the Jack Daniels and Associates Kindle World, I am only just getting started as a writer. So far, I have published only one novel and the two Jack Daniels stories. I have now finished two books and have two more in production. I hope all four will be out this year. I will also be writing more Jack Daniels stories. In The Whiplash Brokers, I made reference to a case Jack's mother had worked on years ago when she was a cop. It was never intended as anything other than an excuse to talk about Jack's mother. Having brought it up, however, I now feel obligated to tell the story, so I am currently working on Black Mary: A Mary Streng Mystery.

Joe sez: Check out Gordon's books.

I'm always fascinated how authors decide they want to write books, and the route they take to publication. Everyone is different, and there is no "right" way to do things.

The thing we all need to focus on, especially in the beginning, is how much fun we're having. If you're having fun, it gets you through the rejections, the poor sales, the bad reviews. Hopefully, the fun you have also bleeds out onto the page, which allows the reader to have fun as well. The more fun the reader has, the few rejections, better sales, and nicer reviews the writers gets.

So have fun. Keep having fun. Don't be afraid to learn, to experiment, to fail. Help one another, and keep building your career.

Looking forward to Black Mary, Gordon.