DDale T. Phillips has published novels, story collections, nonfiction, and over 70 short stories. Stephen King was Dale's college writing teacher, and since then, Dale has found time to appear on stage, television, radio, in an independent feature film, and compete on Jeopardy (losing in a spectacular fashion). Learn more about him and his books at his website and blog.
Authors get asked all the time about where we get our ideas. How do we create something so memorable from all the flotsam and jetsam of random brain neuron firings?
My Zack Taylor Mystery Series is now five books strong, with #6 on the way later this summer. Many readers enjoy the setting of Portland Maine, and the protagonist, a troubled ex-con who lives a life of violence, anger, and regret, but who tries to be a better person by helping others.
When writing the first one, I heeded the saying, “The average book doesn’t get read, but the average mystery does”. Also: you should write the kind of book you like to read. My favorite series is John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGe, so I wanted that flavor. A thinking person’s action series.
Having spent a lot of time in the wonderful city of Portland, the setting was so different from the mysteries set in NY, LA, or Chicago. It would be a fish-out-of-water story: how would a person from away fare in a place where everything is changed, but familiar enough to get by?
The protagonist would be a man with a dark past who looks into the death of a close friend. He would encounter danger, talk to people and investigate, and deal with the law. He’d be an amateur, a non-professional civilian just doing what he can.
In much of mystery fiction, unlike real life, guns solve most everything dangerous. When the protagonist whips out a gun, the threat magically diminishes or goes away completely. I’ve never been in a situation where a gun solved a problem, so what if the protagonist didn’t use a gun? That would make the story more interesting by upping the threat level to the max. And more believable as well.
But what kind of person would put himself in so much danger? How about a man who had a past gunshot tragedy, who blamed himself, felt rage and grief, and hated the effect of guns? He tried to drink himself to death, but was saved by a friend. He’d need something, though, so I turned to the martial arts. It’s a perfect way to show Zack’s character, and how he tries to channel all his destructive tendencies into a better way. It also helps when he goes up against the bad guys.
So we had a badly flawed, struggling character with darkness surrounding him and barely in control. Nice. To add to his problems, he had a criminal record, from a long time before when he lost control and paid the price. So he and law enforcement are always at odds. Zack’s past would cut him off from most people, make him shun the nine-to-five life of family and regular job. He became a bodyguard/bouncer, a man who lived in the night, who could work out his control issues and read people before violence erupted. As a wanderer, with few social ties and no involvement in his locale, he could pack up and move elsewhere for a mission, a thing that would finally give his life purpose, even if it killed him.
I like names that have echoes of other things, so we have Zack Taylor, named for the past President. He’s a smartass who does not suffer fools, pomposity, or pretension, and has no fear of social standing or speaking truth to power. He’s also a bit of a pirate, and loves finding (and keeping) stashes of cash, which often accompany the illicit dealings he’s looking into.
Zack finds that discovering the truth is difficult, but the search for it helps him deal with his self-destructive tendencies. So he learns to help others, and continue finding new adventures.
Travis had a friend, Meyer, who added much to the character of Travis himself. So Zack would befriend J.C. Reed, an older journalist and somewhat mentor. Maybe Zack would find love, and some friends. And enemies. Lots of enemies. Boy, are they fun to write!
Lastly, a title was needed. I chose a relevant quote about grief from a translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest recorded story we know. It fit the theme of the book perfectly, so I used similar items in subsequent titles, which represent the theme of each book. Titles now cover The Bible, the work of Plato and Carl Jung, Emily Dickinson, and the final words of Sir Walter Raleigh, with Nathaniel Hawthorne coming up next.
A Sharp Medicine
A Zack Taylor Mystery, Book 5
Zack Taylor's life is once again in shambles. Having narrowly escaped death, guilty over the pain he's caused a loved one, he's hurting and angry. When looking into the disappearance of a reporter, Zack's death wish may be his cure for his troubles as he uncovers corruption and evil in a world of politics, passion, and power.