An interview with BCW member Dan Stout

Dan will release Titan’s Day, the second book in his noir mystery/fantasy world (The Carter Series) on Tuesday, April 7. Dan and BCW board member Eileen Curley Hammond used appropriate social distancing while discussing the follow-up to his enthralling debut, Titanshade.

ECH: Congratulations on the pending launch of your second book. Obviously, the world has changed greatly since your first book was introduced last year. What new strategies are you going to employ to launch your book in a COVID-19 world?

DS: Thank you so much! And yes, things have changed so much, so fast, that it’s been a really crazy time to be releasing something into the world. With all in-person events canceled, we’ve shifted to increase the number of podcast and blog appearances, and I’ve been working with book stores to get them additional free books, signed copies, whatever will make their job a little easier.

One bright spot has been the number of people who’ve reached out to help myself and other authors. It’s a reminder that we’re all in this together as we move through this radically different landscape.

ECH: Leaving aside the launch, what was easier – writing your first book or your second, and why?

DS: You know, my first impulse is to say that writing the first book was easier. But it’s probably more accurate to say that writing the second book was much harder than I expected. I thought that with the second book I could just apply the techniques I learned in writing Titanshade, but that wasn’t the case! A sequel has requires a separate set of skills, and all of those I was learning from scratch.

In addition, the mystery and fantasy genres have their own set of traditions for sequels. Mysteries are often less tightly linked than fantasy sequels, and telling a story that would work for both new and returning readers took a couple of tries. I’m very proud of the final result, but it wasn’t easy!

Interestingly, writing the third book has gone much smoother because of everything I learned in the course of writing Titan’s Day.

ECH: What aspects of a noir mystery/fantasy mashup drew you to writing in this genre?

DS: My heart is definitely in the mystery genre, and everything I write tends to have a puzzle box structure, usually with a heavy dose of noir imagery. I also love fantasy, and as a kid I’d always wondered what would happen as technology improved and things like the internal combustion engine came to Tolkien’s Middle Earth. I was just really fascinated with the way that a fantasy world would develop over time.

One benefit of blending them is that the structure and familiar touchstones of a noir mystery make it easier for readers to slide into the foreign and fantastical setting of Titanshade. I frequently hear from mystery readers who didn’t expect to enjoy a novel with fantasy elements, and it always makes me happy to get that feedback!

If I do my job right, these books will stand as both a mystery story and a fantasy story. It’s a tricky balancing act, but it’s really rewarding when it comes together.

ECH: How do you manage continuity as your series evolves?

DS: I do my best to keep track of the worldbuilding and character details in a separate story bible, and the copy editing process at DAW is pretty fantastic for catching any slipups.

But for me, the most important thing to maintain is honesty in the characters’ behavior. I don’t mean that they are literally honest, but that they act in the way that’s natural for them, even if they (like the rest of us) can be confusing and contradictory at times.

For me, that goes for both how they view the world around them and their relationships with other people. That has to feel natural, and I prioritize honest characterization and character decisions above everything else.

ECH: Plotter? Or Pantser?

DS: Plantser!! I outline extensively, but I don’t hesitate to throw it out the window if it doesn’t seem organic in the moment. If a character wouldn’t do what I have sketched out, I simply can’t make them do it, without violating that prime tenet of honesty I talked about earlier. When that happens, I have to roll with it, and see where it leads me.

I tend to think of it as a jazz performance, where there is an agreed-upon structure in place beforehand, but the give and take of the actual performance is spontaneous and alive. 

ECH: You participated in a civilian police academy. What was the most important thing you learned and have you incorporated any part of your experience in your writing?

DS: It was massively useful! I attended the academy while finalizing the edits for Titan’s Day, so while some of what I learned showed up in the book, it didn’t affect the big picture.

For me, the most useful things are the tiny details that lend verisimilitude. Those little things I wouldn’t think of on my own, like the weight of a service belt. Many officers have back issues because they carry so much weight on their hip, and the habit of resting their hands on their belt isn’t an attempt to appear intimidating, but an unconscious move to relieve back pain.

ECH: How many books will be in the Carter Series?

DS: Right now I’m working on the third book, and it’s on schedule to release next year. I’d love to keep that pace up, and we’ll have to see how readers embrace it!

The series is intentionally structured to be ongoing, but I want to avoid the trap of having a book that doesn’t come to a satisfying conclusion. I know that as a reader I’m annoyed when series just trail off into nothing, and I never want to deliver that kind of experience as an author.

ECH: Can you share an excerpt from the book?

DS: Sure!

“Detective Carter?” My name was underscored by the pop and sizzle of a flashbulb.

I shoved aside my doubts and turned my attention to the pair of crime scene techs circling the alley. Both human, both looking tired and unhappy to be there. One held a clipboard, making notes on carbon-paper forms, the first of many that would document the life of the investigation. Her partner swapped out a new flashbulb and hefted his camera to eye height.

“We’re moving to the body,” said the notetaker. “You can touch the surrounding items.” She was doing her job well, even if she stole glances at Jax and me when she thought we wouldn’t notice. We’d become accustomed to that mixture of interest and suspicion in the six weeks we’d been off the streets. I hoped the stares would fade when some new distraction claimed the city’s attention.

That attention was why this case, this victim, had been selected for us. Training wheels for a pair of detectives with instructions to stay out of the limelight. In Titanshade, a dead candy in an alley was low profile: not flashy enough to garner press attention, and common enough that if we didn’t clear the case, it wouldn’t be considered an issue. It had fallen to us to find justice for this girl who was so disposable.

Sprawled on one side, the victim’s arms and legs were askew, and the right side of her face was exposed, the wound in her temple on gruesome display. Her natural golden complexion was fading, growing paler by the hour. Her T-shirt had been pulled up, revealing more red and black coloration tracing her hip bones, before disappearing behind low-cut denim shorts. Her bra had been disturbed, but not the shorts. The medical examiner would confirm it, but I doubted she’d been sexually assaulted.

“Looks like a candy,” I said. “Got herself killed and had her emergency cash plucked from her cleavage.” The women and men who worked the streets often had a roll of bills discretely tucked away, payment for pimps and something to hand out in case of a mugging or shakedown.

Ajax grunted a low note of assent, the deep nasal tones of his biting mouth harmonizing with the higher pitched tinkling of the speaking mouth in his throat, directly above the crisp knot of his tie. “Looks like,” he said. “But looks lie, don’t they?”

I smiled. He was right, of course. Fashion sense doesn’t always indicate a vocation. Hells, I’m a cop and I wear a suit.

My partner stooped to press the sensitive skin of his wrist against the victim’s exposed belly, below her crumpled T-shirt. Enough of the design was visible to make out that it read Disco Sucks. I liked her immediately.

ECH: Where can we buy the book? And, can you provide a link to your website?

DS: You can get Titan’s Day wherever you buy or borrow books. That said, right now there’s an incredible strain on the independent bookstores that are so vital to the industry. If you’d like to pick up a copy of Titan’s Day (or any book!) I encourage you to consider buying from a local shop, or from a service like Indiebound.org or BookShop.org, where part of your purchase will support indie retailers.

My website is www.DanStout.com, and it has links to my social media, free short stories, and my mailing list sign-up. If you like noir mysteries, fantasy, or just nerding out about good stories, stop by and say Hello!

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