By Dennis Collins
Dennis Collins: How long have you been writing and what inspired you to become a writer?
Todd Stone: Inspiration? I think it’s in my blood. At about twelve I was writing for the local newspaper’s school section, and a couple years later came my first copyrighted byline. Late one night, a woman was murdered outside the trailer where I lived. As she got out of a cab, 8 yr old son at her side and baby in arms, a drunken boyfriend gave her a shotgun blast point-blank to the face. The boy ran, yanked open our unlocked door, and burst in screaming, “He shot my mommy!” We calmed the child and I tapped out the story on this ancient, manual, sticking-keys typewriter I had in the trailer’s utility room I called a bedroom. Then near dawn I rode my bike (not old enough to drive), to the newspaper and filed the story. Made page one. The baby lived, by the way—at that close range the buckshot didn’t scatter.
I wrote through high school, then took a short break of about two decades for college and an Army career. I picked up a pen (keyboard) again in 1990 to write KRIEGSPIEL, a military technothriller, while I was an Associate Professor of English at the United States Military Academy at West Point. That was my start at novel writing. They said write what you know, and give Ranger/ Infantry officer/ paratrooper a MA in English and a word processing program and what do you expect? There’s an interesting story about inspiration on my first novel KRIEGSPIEL, one that comes back to me whenever I go off on flights of fancy about the great works I want to produce. My friend Ed Ruggero, author of “38 North Yankee” and several other works of military fiction and non-fiction, had just published that work. In office conversation I told him I’d like to write a novel and thought I could do it. He looked me dead in the eye and said “Then why are you here? Get back to your desk and write.” I did. A year of nights and weekends later, I had a novel of men in combat that was able to obtain representation, sell rather quickly, and gain positive reviews from the NY Times Review of Books, Kirkus, and PW.
Then came mysteries. For a number of reasons, I wanted to do something other than military techno thrillers, and detective work fascinated me. Write what you love to read. My wife Terri suggested the genre, and I began to read widely in it. I found things I liked to read and re-read, and grew hungry to write in the genre—thus CLOSE TO HOME. The reviews have been positive, and I’m happy to say that CLOSE TO HOME finalled in the EPPIE Mystery Competition and is on the Short List for the INDIE Mystery Awards—we’ll know in November. Not bad for a first mystery, eh?
For CLOSE TO HOME specifically, inspiration for the story came from a variety of places. I was intrigued by criminal behavioral profiling, also known as forensic psychology and a few other names. CLOSE TO HOME has been called a “profiling procedural.” I don’t think there are many, if any, books like it that take the science and process of criminal profiling and put it into a work of crime fiction. I wanted a character that was more complex than the stereotypical P.I., who had experienced both being at the top of his game and at the bottom of the heap. And I wanted that character to have insight into the criminal mind (a profiler) but to be challenged by, if not blind to, his own emotional baggage. Then there are Chicago’s affluent suburbs, where nothing bad ever happens, all the families are functional, everyone loves their neighbors, and issues are worked out with smiles on contented faces. If there ever was a façade ripe for puncturing, that was it.
Dennis: Are there any writers who influenced your style?
T.S: In the mystery genre, I’m a big fan of long-time greats like Block, Chandler, and Parker. You cannot beat Block for clean prose. George Pelecanos, Michael Connelly, and Robert Crais are some of my more recent favorites. They’re doing interesting things with writing, things I find useful in my own work. Even Mr. Patterson has had an influence—I like the very episodic, fast moving style of his first works. In the military/techno thriller genre, I delight in the late SLA Marshall’s stylistic ability to make history very personal. Nobody writes military Sci Fi like David Drake.
Dennis: Your novel, Close to Home, first appeared as an e-book. What can you tell us about your experience with electronic publishing? How does it compare to traditional publishing in terms of distribution and sales?
T.S: I first published CLOSE TO HOME as an e-book. The trade paper version followed shortly thereafter. I discuss e-publishing extensively in my article “Are YOU a candidate for e-publishing?” That article is available at www.scribesworld.com and is being made available on a German e-book site. I also talk about e-publishing at various writers’ conferences in the Midwest. Having publishing both traditionally (KRIEGSPIEL--hardback/agent/major house) and alternatively (CLOSE TO HOME--e-pub/trade paper/independent press), I’ve found e-publishing to be the fastest, friendliest, and most rewarding method of bringing one’s work to the reading public.
The challenges are monetary—there’s no advance with independent/small presses/e-publishers—and to a degree, distribution. Sales are smaller, too. The e-book market is only 2% of the print market, but it’s growing. Not a bad small pond to be a big fish in. Most e-publishers also trade paper versions of their books, so they find their way to the chains. As a general rule, readers visiting the chain booksellers will still have to order them—instead of pick them off the shelves.
All things considered, I’d do it again. In fact, I have. THE BEST DEFENSE, a military action/adventure story about a female Army officer who leads a rag-tag band of wannabe soldiers to defend a nuke depot from a legion of genetically enhanced terrorists, is due out from NBI this coming spring. NBI is small press/e-publisher.
Dennis: Is Close to Home going to be part of a series?
T.S: There’s more murder in Chicago’s suburbs coming. Readers who enjoyed P.I/Profiler Jonathan Kraag and his hulking Polish sidekick Dubrowski will find them together again in NO PLACE LIKE HOME. It’s about 25,000 words along, although I don’t know if those are the right 25,000 words yet. Look for Kraag and Dubrowski sometime next year.
Dennis: How about your personal life? Do you have a family? Hobbies?
T.S: The rest of my family is perfectly normal, thank God. Without a doubt, my wife Terri is my biggest supporter. She has kept the faith even when I haven’t, and she’s born the weight of being married to a writer with exceptional patience and good humor. Her work on the business side of writing keeps me out of jail. My son and eldest daughter are away at college, and my youngest, Sarah Ann, is a very talented singer and percussionist and a high school junior.
When I’m not at the computer, I’m on my bike. I think motorcycling gives me a chance to fully concentrate on something other than writing. This may sound odd, but what happens is that the unconscious mind does a lot of the creative work deep in the background when you’re fully concentrating on something else in the present.
Now, my wife would say this is a thinly veiled ruse for me to spend more time on the bike. I can only plead the Fifth. Especially now that the weather has changed in Chicagoland, I see significantly more riding—err, deep creative work—in my future.
Dennis: What kind of writer are you? Are you an outliner or do you just start writing?
T.S: Lately I’ve found that to make the most of my limited writing time, creating and then working from a very detailed treatment or synopsis is a must for me. There are two schools of thought on this, but I’d offer that if your time is limited and you often find yourself stalled, or if you have other commitments that often take you away from writing fiction for a day or two or more, then some kind of guide is probably a necessity. For those who find they’re not real good at making up treatments or synopsis or outlines, I’d suggest taking a screenwriting class. Nobody does story like screenwriters.
Dennis: Do you set daily goals or deadlines for your writing?
T.S: I really like deadlines—they look so good as they fly by. My goal is 500 words each time I have a block of time to work on my fiction. How often I actually reach that goal is another matter altogether, but when I do it is cause for celebration. I write all day for a living as a marketing communications writer, so I squeeze my fiction writing in when I can: nights, weekends, some early mornings.
Dennis: Is there a message in your stories?
T.S: My stories don’t have a social agenda, but rather a human one. My protagonists have weaknesses as well as strengths. They’re put under enormous pressure in situations that are physically, mentally, and emotionally dangerous. We get to not only see what they see, but feel what they feel. In my mind, humans are a lot like leather—and it’s the scars in leather that give it (and us) uniqueness and interest.
Dennis: How much of your writing is from personal experience?
T.S: With the appropriate disclaimers that my stories are completely fictional and any resemblance to actual people, places, or organizations is purely coincidental, I draw a lot on my own experience for inspiration. There’s no one-to-one correspondence, but I do have lots of scribbled notes of things I’ve seen, read, done that go into what I write. Certainly my background as an Army Airborne Ranger Infantry Officer helped give me a frame for KRIEGSPIEL and THE BEST DEFENSE. I attended my local Citizen’s Police Academy and did a lot of research on forensic psychology for CLOSE TO HOME and NO PLACE LIKE HOME.
I find people fascinating, and so my characters are made up of bits and pieces of the people I meet and watch. They aren’t Polaroid images—no one looking in CLOSE TO HOME will find his or her picture, but they might think they recognize an interesting personality trait of someone they know. The same with places. CLOSE TO HOME takes place in Ravensburg, a mythical, affluent suburb west of Chicago. It is NOT Naperville, the town where I live. But there were some Naperville traits that inspired Ravensburg. Others I took from other places. Suburbanites, though (and that ‘s most of us), will recognize “their” town and “their” suburb. And that’s how it’s meant to work.
So many of my ideas come from “real life” (“Ripped from today’s headlines!”), but interestingly enough there’s much that I can’t write about—things that actually happen, because nobody would believe it. Fiction, regardless of what kind, must be believable, and so much of what goes on in the real world just isn’t. There’s a great irony, I think, in the notion that what’s made up has to make sense, while what isn’t, doesn’t.
Dennis: Close to Home contains a lot of specialized information. How much research did you need to do?
T.S: For CLOSE TO HOME I read everything I could get my hands on about forensic psychology, to include Douglas’ and Turvey’s seminal works, and of course the “must read” for any crime fiction writer, PRACTICAL HOMICIDE INVESTIGATION. The Internet made research easier in many ways. I also belong to several on line discussion groups about criminal psychology and profiling. Forensic psychology is an evolving science and I work to stay as close to current as a non-practitioner can. Patricia Cornwall and Kathy Reich set the example with their ability to weave specialized forensic science through the story, and wanted to do the same with the art and science of forensic psychology with a male protagonist.
Dennis: What sort of advice can you offer aspiring writers?
T.S: If you get the urge to be a professional author, lie down until the feeling passes. If this means you stay in bed so long you miss the new TV shows premiering season, it’s still worth it. You’ll thank me later.
More seriously, of all the writing advice I could give (and I give lots in the Creative Writing and other writing classes I teach), three things seem to be most important. First, the age-old advice that an aspiring author should write what he or she loves to read holds true. Second, make peace with the world we live in (tens of thousands of novels written each year and NY editors constantly complain they can’t find good manuscripts) while remembering that success in writing is much like success in most other fields—ten percent inspiration, ninety per cent perspiration. That perspiration includes not only the writing, but learning about writing, learning how to edit, reading works both in and outside the genre in which you decide to write, learning about the business of writing and publishing, and much more. Mostly, though, it’s applying one’s seat to the chair and filling the blank page. Third, I think aspiring authors would do well to consider electronic publishers as their first target markets. I have been a spectator of the publishing game for the last 20 years and a player for over ten. Right now I am convinced that electronic publishing offers the aspiring author an exceptionally rewarding path to publishing.
Dennis: Do you have any other books published?
T.S: KRIEGSPIEL was my first novel, a military technothriller. Presidio Press published it in late 1992. I was fortunate to get very positive reviews in the New York Times Review of Books, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly. It’s out of print now; the hardbacks that are left are collector’s items. They’re available, though, in used bookstores or from the author. The good news is that NovelBooks Inc. (www.novelbooksinc.com) will be bringing out KRIEGSPIEL electronically and in trade paper, along with a new military technothriller of mine THE BEST DEFENSE, in the spring / summer of 2003.
I also have articles on e-publishing and e-book readers out at www.scribesworld.com. If you’re thinking about buying one of these machines, I’d suggest you read my head-to-head comparison. Writers who are yet umpublished, who are published but have a backlist for which they now have the rights, or who are published in print but not electronically and are interested in e-publishing might find “Are YOU a candidate for e-publishing?” helpful.
T.A. (Todd) Stone
From a tour de force through wealthy suburbia’s wholesome appearances and sordid realities to tanks and infantry, from mystery to military, T.A. (Todd) Stone has made his mark on the print and e-book worlds. Stone is the author of the “profiling procedural” and 2002 EPPIE and 2002 INDIE Mystery Finalist CLOSE TO HOME (Hard Shell Word Factory) and the NY Times Review of Books acclaimed military techno thriller KRIEGSPIEL (Lyford Books/Presidio Press). His second military thriller THE BEST DEFENSE is due for publication in May 2003 (NBI). He is a member of the Author's Guild, Mystery Writers of America, EPIC (the Electronically Published Internet Connection), the Author's Guild, the National Writers' Union, and is a graduate of his local Citizens Police Academy.
When not writing fiction, Stone writes marketing communications materials for a major telecommunications manufacturer, teaches copywriting at a local community college, and presents at writers’ conferences throughout the Midwest.
An avid motorcyclist, Stone is a former Army Airborne/Ranger Infantry officer whose military assignments included duty as an Assistant Professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He has his undergraduate degree from Indiana University and his MA in English from Northwestern University. He lives with his family in a perfectly normal suburb outside Chicago, IL. He can be reached through his web sites www.closetohome.org or www.tntstone.com, or by e-mail at TAStone@aol.com
About CLOSE TO HOME
In CLOSE TO HOME, a brutal killer with a bloody sense of revenge terrorizes the affluent Chicago suburb of Ravensburg. First the well-scrubbed teenage "girl next door" is found dead, her corpse provocatively posed alongside a busy thoroughfare. The body count climbs as the town's young and handsome activist minister and his older, married, minivan- mom lover are found mutilated in her locked suburban home.
In this tour de force through the wholesome appearances and sordid realities of a town voted "the best place in America to raise a family," emotionally battered PI Jonathan Kraag ties together cases hot and cold, racing to get inside a murderer's mind before the killer adds the town's children to his growing extended family of victims. Find out more about the book, the characters, and the author at www.closetohome.org.
Like military action/adventure and technothrillers? Smell the cordite and gun smoke of modern armored war in the NY Times Review of Books acclaimed KRIEGSPIEL by former Army Ranger Todd Stone. Outnumbered and outgunned, US soldiers face off against the armored forces of a new Fourth Reich. Available from Barnes & Noble at www.bn.com or signed from the author: send email to firstname.lastname@example.org