A New Prospect is my first full-length novel and prequel to the seven Sam Jenkins mystery novelettes I’ve had published. It’s scheduled for release on January 20th by Black Rose Writing and will be available from them, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, et al.
Jenkins is a retired New York detective lieutenant living in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. In the middle of his mid-life crisis and as he’s feeling the boredom of retirement, he lands the job of police chief in the small city of Prospect.
On his first weekend on duty, Sam encounters a homicide at the annual British car show.
A few things complicate his investigation: Political corruption, the victim’s rich widow and her powerful father, a former criminal court judge. Toss in internet pornography, sexual coercion, and incest and Jenkins wishes he stayed tending his vegetable garden.
Tell us something about yourself.
Shortly after WW2 I was born in Brooklyn, NY. Although I never wanted to leave a community with such an efficient trolley car system, I had little to say in my parents’ decision to pick up and move to Long Island where I grew up and lived for forty-six years. The only interruption of my time there was the unpopular Vietnam War and my participation in it. I currently live in East Tennessee with my wife, Barbara.
After separation from active duty with the Army, I was hired by the Suffolk County Police Department, at that time the 10th largest municipal department in the US. I worked there for twenty years, thirteen of them supervising investigators.
All the police procedures, some of the storylines, and my protagonist’s personality come from my experience at SCPD.
What inspired you to write this book?
After reading Robert B. Parker’s first Jesse Stone novel, I formulated the idea to write something similar. Stone was an ex-LAPD detective who found a job as chief with a small Massachusetts PD. I wanted my retired New York detective to lead a small Tennessee department. I love the way Parker wrote. I figured if he could do it, so could I. I had police experience and he didn’t. See any hubris at work?
How did you choose the title?
Originally, I wanted to call this MURDER IN THE SMOKIES, with the next book called DEATH IN THE SMOKIES, and so on through the series. But I changed it for two reasons. I didn’t want the reader to focus on a traditional murder mystery. I wanted the book to be about people—one man in particular, but also his generation and those who have experienced a change in culture within their own country. There is more here than just a body and an investigation.
The name of the city is Prospect. After they meet Sam Jenkins, the town will never be the same. Jenkins’s new job not only represents a culture shock, but his adaptation to doing business differently, and a new view of his life. A NEW PROSPECT held the double meaning.
What obstacles did you encounter in getting this book published? How did you overcome them?
When I completed the novel, I made the drastic mistake of querying agents with an old-fashioned business letter . . . of more than one page. Oodles of rejections later with no one ever reading one page of fiction, I learned what an agent wants to see, but still had little luck.
I hired a retired editor turned book-doctor to evaluate my manuscript. He became very helpful in teaching me about what publishers want to see in 21st century fiction. My style would have been more suitable to the early 1990’s. So, I did MAJOR rewrites.
After exhausting all the agents interested in seeing a new author’s work in the mystery, police procedural, and detective and crime genres, I queried any traditional publisher who would accept submissions directly from a writer. I was down to the last four possibilities when I received an email saying, “Greetings, here’s a contract.”
How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?
As a police officer, and to a lesser extent, as a soldier, I always had to write reports. Compared to many of my peers, I did that fairly well. When I retired, I volunteered at a Tennessee state park and wrote publicity articles for their living history program. That led to writing non-fiction magazine articles.
Seeing my name in print was cool. Getting a free subscription or a check for what I wrote felt even better.
Originally, I wanted to write a novel about Vietnam. I finished a few chapters and found that to be as authentic as I wanted, I made the language so atrocious, I was too embarrassed to go further. I’m no prude and my police stories tend to have realistic and “salty” language, but the other was over the top.
Using the theory you write about what you know, police stories was a logical alternative. I’ve done fairly well selling my novelette-length work.
Do you have any writing rituals?
Generally, I like to start early and keep writing until my head is empty of ideas. So far, I don’t start out with an outline. That seems too much like work. I remember something interesting from the job and I embellish it for fiction.
If a timeline is critical to the story, I may go back and outline the days to insure I maintain continuity.
I guess my fast-paced agenda of quickly getting what’s in my head onto a yellow pad is something of an outline, because I always go back and refine it and flesh it out a few times.
What was the biggest misconception you had about writing fiction?
I used to read police or detective stories written by civilians and saw glaring procedural mistakes. I’d see a supposedly good cop do something patently stupid. I shuddered and said, “My hero will never screw up.”
I thought fiction would allow me to look back at the reality I lived and if anything went wrong, I could correct it through my protagonist. If I failed to say the right thing somewhere along the line, he now had the opportunity to say it. If something didn’t go according to plan, he could, by God, make it come out perfectly. TOTALLY WRONG IDEA.
My first writing coach told me, “Don’t make your protagonist perfect. Allow him to make mistakes. Give him a personality flaw.”
A perfect person doesn’t make mistakes. A story without the tension of a mistake is like a report. People like tension, conflict, and they love to grit their teeth when the hero is in a pickle.
Whether it’s Philip Marlowe walking onto a darkened warehouse without back-up and he gets sapped over the head, or Dave Robicheaux steps up and slugs a political candidate he’s known since high school, we know they knew better, BUT they NEED to be put in a precarious position to keep the reader on edge and interested.
How do you come up with the names for your characters?
Sam Jenkins was my grandfather’s name. I gave some of the recurring characters names significant to me. But for the other characters, I realize southern Appalachian names can get unique. So, whenever we travel, I look in the local phone books for interesting names. I make two columns, one for first names and one for family names. I mix and match by sound.
Did you learn anything from writing and publishing this book? What?
I learned several things about fiction writing and the publishing business. I mentioned the necessity to know the style a publisher is currently seeking. A second consultant taught me about reader psychology and reader demographics. Those are important, too and I changed a few small things to keep from potentially losing popularity with some readers. I guess I looked at that as a form of sensitivity training.
If you were doing it all over again, what would you do differently?
My story involves a lot of the protagonist’s former life. I jumped through hoops to filter in the back-story during the latter chapters so the beginning moved quickly. I think doing that in a first novel was tough. But I wanted readers to know what made Sam Jenkins tick and wanted them to look forward to his next adventure. I thought a solid background was essential for a series. A totally stand-alone book sounds much easier.
What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?
In the past, I read a lot of non-fiction—mostly about colonial America. Now, I like mysteries and historical fiction.
I like James Lee Burke for his extraordinary ability to do descriptive work. Robert B. Parker, in my opinion, is the master of telling a long story in the minimum number of words. Raymond Chandler can do outlandish metaphors like no one else. Bernard Cornwell is superb with historical fiction and action. I usually need a drink after reading one of his battle scenes. And I can’t forget that other guy from Long Islands who writes mysteries, Nelson DeMille. I’m amazed at his ability to come up with an endless supply of top-shelf smartass remarks for his characters.
Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?
I’ve finished book number two in the Sam Jenkins series, A LERPRECHAUN’S LAMENT. I’ve workshopped it online at The Next Big Writer and now I’m ready to look at all the suggestions and make a final revision.
This involves a basic case I actually worked on back in the 1980’s. It starts with a very simple civilian worker’s background investigation and escalates to a murder and involves the FBI, CIA, British Intelligence, The Irish Garda (their national police), and the IRA. I had fun transplanting it from New York of 1980-something to Tennessee in 2006
What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?
I have five bits of advice.
1- Don’t try to be self-taught. Take a creative writing course where a teacher evaluates your work and offers advice.
2- Workshops are helpful. I like the online type where many people can read your work and comment on it. You reciprocate and learn by reading their styles. Two (or more) heads are not only better than one in writing, they’re essential. Warning: You need a thick skin at times. Not everyone has a good bedside manner.
3- Don’t be afraid of major rewrites. I HATE them! But at times it’s necessary to scrap exceptionally good stuff to keep your story on track and moving quickly.
4- NEVER GIVE UP! Keep sending queries and/or submissions. Learn to live with rejection. They’re just agents and editors, not members of the opposite sex who you have an interest in for romantic reasons.
5- Remember what I’ve heard from and about famous authors. “You don’t have to be good—you have to be marketable.” “Sometimes tenacity trumps talent.” And people like Jonathan Kellerman, Tom Clancy, and John Grisham all took years to publish their first books. James Lee Burke says he received 111 rejections to one of his early novels.
Who is the perfect reader for your book?
I never started out with a target audience in mind, but I ended up with a few.
Because of my main character’s circumstances, I think people of my generation (Over fifty. In my case, way over fifty) will identify with Sam’s problems and his personal demons.
Those who have retired and relocated to a culturally different locale will appreciate all the stumbling blocks Jenkins encounters and tries to work around.
And dyed-in-the-wool mystery fans and police officers will like the authentic procedure and technical details I try to preserve.
Where can readers learn more about you and your book?
A great place to start is at www.waynezurlbooks.net. The website provides links to my publishers and other places to buy my books and audio books. I provide photos of the areas where the action takes place, links to media coverage, additional interviews, and my Facebook page as well as the other author’s sites I subscribe to.