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Q&A with D.E. Johnson

 

Johnson DEAlthough D.E. “Dan” Johnson always wanted to write, for the first half of his life, he chose practicality over passion.

After a long, successful career in the audio-video retail business, he sold his Grand Rapids, Michigan-based company in 2006. He took a couple years off to get back to the dream and use the time to hone his writing skills. As it turned out, it was time well spent.

In 2008, Dan met veteran P.I. novelist Loren Estleman, who agreed to read some of Dan’s work. Dan sent him the first three chapters of his novel in progress, The Detroit Electric Scheme, a historical mystery set in 1910 Detroit. To Dan’s delight, Estleman praised the work, comparing it to Les Miserables. The book found a publisher (St. Martin’s Minotaur Books) and hit the bookstores in September 2010. The Detroit Electric Scheme was named one of Booklist’s Top Ten First Crime Novels of the Year and won a 2011 Michigan Notable Book Award.

Dan followed up with three more books in the series — Motor City Shakedown, named one of the Top 5 Crime Novels of 2011 by the House of Crime and Mystery, called “extraordinarily vivid” by The New York Times, and won a 2012 Michigan Notable Book Award; Detroit Breakdown, placed on the best crime novels’ list for 2012 by multiple publications; and Detroit Shuffle, which earned starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews in 2013.

A 2009 Midwest Writers Workshop Fellow, Dan calls MWW’s summer workshop one of the best conferences in the country and certainly the best value.” He is joining MWW’s 2015 faculty, teaching an all-day Thursday intensive session, “Writing the Crime Novel,” an hour-long Friday afternoon session, “Settings You Can’t Escape”; a Saturday morning buttonhole, “Characters You Can’t Forget”; and a Saturday afternoon session, “The Hows and Whys of POV.”

Dan and his wife, Shelly, make their home near Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he grew up. We thank Dan for speaking with MWW Planning Committee member Janis Thornton earlier this week about his writing and his journey as an author. The result, a Q&A with Dan, follows.

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MWW: When we first met at the MWW fellows’ retreat in the spring of 2009, you didn’t yet know it, but you were on the brink of landing your first publishing contract, resulting in your highly successful The Detroit Electric Scheme, which came out the very next year. What did that achievement do for your confidence as a writer, your passion for writing, and your writing itself?

DEJ: It was very affirming to get my first book deal and a thrill beyond description to see the manuscript in hardcover. My confidence really jumped, which let me give myself permission to take more chances in the subsequent books. As far as passion, I had pretty well maxed that out already. After denying myself writing most of my adult life, I dove in with both feet in true compulsive fashion.

MWW: Now, four books later, what has been your biggest writing-related surprise? And what has been the most satisfying aspect of becoming a published novelist?

DEJ: I’d say the biggest surprises have been the affirmations by critics. My books have gotten three starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, and one each from Booklist, Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. I’ve also won two Michigan Notable Book Awards, which I didn’t even know existed until my publisher submitted my first book. I was just hoping to get a book out there in the world, so it’s been really gratifying to have a good reception for four of them so far.

The most satisfying aspect, without a doubt, is reader email. Two kinds in particular: my fave is the “You kept me up all night” email, because that tells me I did my job, and also emails from readers who feel like my book has connected them to some aspect of their past, usually an ancestor who lived in Detroit during the time period. Just the fact that people feel compelled to share something about their reading experience with me is amazing.

MWW: Please tell us a bit about your writing process. For example, do you write until you reach a daily word goal, a certain number of pages, or a particular stretch of time? Do you plot your story in advance, or do you let the story reveal itself as you progress?

DEJ: My process is to write every opportunity I get. I’ve seen quotes from many writers along the lines of, “I get inspired by putting my butt in my seat.” Since I also work a “real” job, I can’t wait for my muse to call. I write early in the morning and most weekends — all weekend — until I’m done. On occasion, I’ll give myself a word count goal, but usually I slog along until I’m finished.

I plot in advance but give myself permission to change anything and everything. Two of my books even have different antagonists than I expected when I started. A mystery plot has to follow a pretty specific convention, and I find it much easier to have a plan.

MWW: Where are you in your Detroit series? Now four books into it, you’ve taken your readers from 1910 to 1912. How far into your character s’ future will you keep the series going? Is there a new series brewing, and if there is, what is it?

DEJ: I’m giving Will, Elizabeth, and company a well-deserved rest. They need to heal their bumps, bruises, cuts, gunshot wounds, radiation burns, etc., before I punish them further. I’m currently working on two different Chicago-based series, one in the gambling world of the early 1900s, and the other in a grimmer reality after the Great Fire. Both still need work, so I’m not sure which will surface first.

MWW: What is the ratio of time you spend conducting research vs. time you are writing? What is the primary source for your research? When you are writing, how do you make that mental shift from 2015 to 1912?

DEJ: When I was working on plotting The Detroit Electric Scheme, I spent three months full-time on research. I’ve been able to use that material throughout the series, and I’d guess I probably spent another four weeks in research out of the year, give or take, it took me the write each book. There are a lot of good sources for researching the time period, none better than the archives of the Detroit News and Free Press.

As far as “thinking 1912,” I give myself a running start. Before I go to bed, I read the section I just wrote to put me in the proper frame of mind for the next morning. I’ll usually read it again just before I start writing.

MWW: What advice do you have for writers in their mid-life years, and beyond, who dream of being a published author but are still looking for that first book deal?

DEJ: Don’t give up! Perseverance is the most important trait for a writer to be published. Hundreds of famous authors were rejected dozens or hundreds of times before they made it. However, you also need to be realistic about your project. Even though you’re in love with your post-Apocalyptic YA novel, chances are agents are not going to be these days. Look for your next idea, sit your butt down, and get to work.

MWW: You are booked for a Thursday intensive session, “Writing the Crime Novel.” What would you like your participants to know in advance about you and the material you’ll be teaching? What’s the best way for them to prepare for the class? And what is the most helpful writing advice you plan to pass on to them?

DEJ: First of all, we’ll have fun. The class will be part lecture and part workshop, with a lot of interaction. I’ll be touching on all the important aspects of writing thrillers, mysteries and crime novels, from characters and setting to plotting and writing violence that kicks the reader in the gut. My topic is so big I don’t know that I can single out any one piece of advice I think is most important. My goal is to give the writers a blueprint for writing the best book they can. If the attendees have works in progress, that’s great, but the only prep necessary is to drink lots of coffee beforehand and be ready to go!

MWW: Thank you, Dan! We look forward to seeing you in July.

Interview with author D.E. Johnson

DE JohnsonD.E. (Dan) Johnson, a graduate of Central Michigan University, is a history buff who has been writing fiction since childhood but had to hit his midlife crisis to get serious about it. His first novel, a historical mystery entitled The Detroit Electric Scheme, was published in 2010 by St. Martin’s Minotaur Books. The Detroit Electric Scheme was named one of Booklist’s Top Ten First Crime Novels of the Year and also won a 2011 Michigan Notable Book Award. Motor City Shakedown, the sequel to The Detroit Electric Scheme, was named one of the Top 5 Crime Novels of 2011 by The House of Crime and Mystery, called “extraordinarily vivid” by The New York Times, and won a 2012 Michigan Notable Book Award. Dan’s third book, Detroit Breakdown, was published in September, 2012 by St. Martin’s Minotaur Books. It was named to the best crime novels list for 2012 by multiple publications. Book four,The Detroit Shuffle, continuing the adventures of Will and Elizabeth into the world of political corruption, will be published in fall 2013 by St. Martin’s Minotaur Books.

MWW committee member Linda Taylor interviewed Dan for this week’s newsletter.

Linda: You say in your bio that a “midlife crisis” got you started writing. Many of our attendees are in their midlife. What encouragement can you give older writers about following their dreams even at this time of life?

Dan: Like most MWW attendees, I was one of those kids who thought about trying to be a professional writer, but by the time I was ready to graduate from high school I had become convinced by my elders that it wasn’t practical. (BTW, even in my fifties I’m not saying that it is, but we don’t do this because of practicality.) I spent 25 years doing work I didn’t enjoy, and even though the rest of my life was grand, I was miserable.

My wife and I had always told our girls to try to live their dreams. I was the example of the one who never did. Finally, at 47 years old, I stopped working for two years and dove headfirst into writing. I knew I had a limited window, so I worked like crazy, hoping I could get a good book contract before I had to find another job. As it worked out, I was offered my first book contract by St. Martin’s Press about a year after I started looking for a job. (And it was a good thing I had found one, because that six-figure advance didn’t materialize like I had planned!)

It’s never too late. That’s one of the beauties of writing. We can do this until our minds are so feeble we can’t pick up a pencil. Perhaps by then software will be able to read our minds so that our senseless ravings can be saved for posterity.

Linda: You also say that when you began writing you took classes, read everything you could find, and wrote for hours every day before you hit upon the automotive history crime genre that you write. When did the light bulb go on for you about what you should write about?

Dan: The light bulb turned on one book too late. For some reason, I had a religious satire in my head that had to get out. (And this is from a person who had to get a book contract in two years!) Okay, I know it was a poor choice, but we probably all have a book to get off our chests before we can write something marketable. It turns out I thought I was funnier than I am.

I tried to sell that book and had some interest from agents, but no one was interested enough to give it a try. After a couple of months of depression, I went back to the drawing board. I love history and historical fiction, and I love good crime fiction. I set as my goal writing historical crime in an “E.L. Doctorow and T.C Boyle meet Elmore Leonard and Dennis Lehane” kind of way. (And then Lehane went and started writing historical crime too. Copying me? Someone should investigate.)

Linda: At MWW, you’ll be teaching about writing unforgettable characters and point of view. Who’s your favorite character in your books and why?

Dan: I have to say Elizabeth Hume, my protagonist Will Anderson’s ex-fiancee. Elizabeth has a pretty severe character arc through the books, starting as a heroin addict in The Detroit Electric Scheme and becoming a women’s suffrage leader by Detroit Shuffle (book 4, publishing Sept. 3). She and Will both grew up in privileged households and have had to learn a lot of hard lessons. She’s tough as nails and has even had to kill a few men along the way. It’s been fun to write a really strong female character, or maybe I should say a female character who has grown very strong.

I learned a lot about her writing Detroit Breakdown, because I had to write half the book from her perspective. It gave me a chance to really delve into her mind, which gave me a lot of insight into her character. It’s amazing how much these people will tell us if we listen carefully.

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My first MWW was in 2006, two months after I left my job to pursue writing. It was, hands-down, the most useful conference I’ve ever gone to. I learned a great deal about writing and about the industry. I went on to become a MWW Fellow in 2008, where Terry Faherty helped me hone the beginning of my first book, which sold four months later. MWW is the best writers’ conference there is!

Dan’s Part II sessions include:

  • Characters You Can’t Forget – Who have you met in a novel who still seems like a friend-or an enemy? The author who created those characters had a plan and executed it well. Dan will show you how to create believable and compelling characters that draw readers into your stories. This workshop will put you on track to create characters your readers won’t be able to forget.
  • Publishing in a Brave New World Panel: Sarah LaPolla, Roxane Gay, Barb Shoup, Jane Friedman, D.E. Johnson
  • POV – Who’s Telling This Story? – Point of view is one of the most important decisions a writer has to make and can be one of the trickiest to handle. This fast-paced workshop Dan will not only provide the tips and tricks, he will have you writing from a unique point of view before the hour is out.

“Terry Faherty helped hone my first book”

Meet Terence Faherty!

In our last E-pistle, D.E. (Dan) Johnson praised Terry Faherty for his mentoring help on the first chapters of his historical mystery, The Detroit Electric Scheme. “I become a MWW Fellow in 2008,” said Dan, “where Terry Faherty helped me hone the beginning of my first book, which sold four months later. MWW works!”

That’s what Terry does: encourage, instruct, and provide direction for improving and selling your writing. He’s been a MWW supporter for many years, participating in our Writers’ Retreat and mini-conferences. If you want to learn how to develop a well-structured plot, sign up for Terry’s Writing the Mystery – Idea to Plot to Story.  (Short assignments included!)

FahertyTerence Faherty is the author of two mystery series. The Scott Elliott private eye series is set in the golden age of Hollywood and is a two-time winner of the Shamus Award, given by the Private Eye Writers of America. The Owen Keane series, which follows the adventures of a failed seminarian turned metaphysical detective, has been nominated twice for the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award.  His short fiction, which appears regularly in mystery magazines and anthologies, has won the Macavity Award from Mystery Readers International.

Terry had two new titles in 2011, both in the Elliott series. Dance In The Dark, his eleventh novel, was published by Five Star and is set in 1969.  Perfect Crime Books released a collection of the Elliott stories entitled The Hollywood Op, which contains all the Elliott short stories published to date, including the Shamus winner “The Second Coming.” In 2012, a new Owen Keane novel, Eastward In Eden, will be published by the Mystery Company.

Q. What accomplishment or achievement are you most proud of as an author? What has been the most satisfying aspect of getting published?

DeadstickI don’t think any accomplishment has meant as much to me as the sale of my first novel, Deadstick, not even my first short story sale a few years earlier, though I can still picture the room where I was standing when I was notified by phone that the story had been accepted.  I heard about the Deadstick sale over the phone, too, and disappointed my editor-to-be with my low-keyed reaction (though I was shouting on the inside).  She kidded me for years about my first words, claiming they were “that’s nice” or something equally intense.

The most satisfying aspect of being published has always been the feedback from readers.  Writing without publishing can feel like launching notes in bottles:  an endless series of messages and no replies. Hearing from someone who’s read you and who appreciates what you’re trying to do is a really wonderful thing.

Q. Please explain how attending writing workshops influenced your career (if it did).

I attended a series of evening workshops given by the Writers Center of Indianapolis after graduating from college and really profited from the feedback from my teachers and fellow writers, though I was sometimes self-conscious about being the only mystery writer in a room of literary writers.  Later, the Writers Center sponsored a program by four touring mystery writers and that turned out to be one of the most significant days of my life.  I made important professional connections that day (and three friendships that I still value).  After hearing those four speak, I was never again embarrassed about being a “mere” mystery writer.

Q. Tell us a little bit about your journey to publication: when and what you first began to write, when you began submitting, to when you received your first contract.

I’ve been telling stories all my life, and writing them as soon as I could write-my earliest surviving manuscript is from the sixth grade.  (It’s a mystery.)  I wrote for and edited my high school and college literary magazines and began sending short stories out shortly after I graduated.  I have rejection slips from the 1970s from Redbook, Atlantic Monthly, and Ellery Queen, among others.  (Luckily, Queen later changed its mind about me.)  My first story sale came about five years after graduation (after the workshops described above) and my first book sale about ten years after that.  All that time, I was working as a technical writer, which did a lot to knock the curlicues off my prose style.

Q. What should writers expect from your intensive workshop and what would authors who don’t write your genre benefit from your session as well?

Writers should expect too much information in too short a time. I would hope they’d come away with some new thoughts on the mystery story that might help them see the potential of it and one or two suggestions about the craft of writing that might help them move their ideas from jottings in a journal to completed manuscripts. I also hope the participants come away with the sense that they’re part of a larger writing community that supports and values their efforts.

Q. What is the best advice on writing that you were ever given, and what is something you wish you had known sooner?

Best advice:  Maintain good relations with your editors.  They’re your first fans and your champions within the publishing world.  Listen to what they say with both ears and chose your inevitable battles carefully.

What I wish I’d known sooner:  Don’t quit your day job, not until your writing income has forced you to seek out tax shelters.

Note: Terry’s Part II Sessions:

  • I’ll Wait to See the Movie – How to use screenwriting techniques to improve the pacing and structure of your book and your chances of selling it.
  • Writing the Period Mystery – A discussion of how to bring to life a historical period through your fiction.  Although aimed specifically at mystery writing, these techniques can be applied to any type of historical writing.
  • Two for the Price of One –  A discussion of the two stories in every mystery, the hidden story and the open story, and how understanding their relationship can make your idea development easier and your plotting more effective.

“Most useful conference ever!”

Meet D.E. (Dan) Johnson!

MWW Committee Member Cathy Shouse continues the Q&As with members of this summer’s workshop faculty. Now it’s Midwest Writers turn to brag a bit on the success of D.E. (Dan) Johnson!

DE JohnsonD.E. Johnson, a graduate of Central Michigan University, is a history buff who has been writing fiction since childhood but had to hit his midlife crisis to get serious about it. His first novel, a historical mystery entitled The Detroit Electric Scheme, was published in 2010 by St. Martin’s Minotaur Books. The Detroit Electric Scheme garnered excellent reviews (including being named one of Booklist’s Top Ten First Crime Novels of the year) and also won a 2011 Michigan Notable Book Award. (Video of Dan on Jay Leno’s Book Club!)

Motor City Shakedown, the first sequel to The Detroit Electric Scheme, was named one of the Top 5 Crime Novels of 2011 by The House of Crime and Mystery, called “extraordinarily vivid” by The New York Times, and won a 2012 Michigan Notable Book Award. Dan’s third book, Detroit Breakdown, will be published in Fall 2012 by St. Martin’s Minotaur Books.

Q. What accomplishment or achievement are you most proud of as an author? What has been the most satisfying?

I guess I’d say getting a second two-book contract has been my biggest accomplishment to date. Receiving a couple of Michigan Notable Book Awards has also been great, but the fact that St. Martin’s believed enough in my potential to commit to two more books makes me very proud.

The most satisfying? Prior to shopping the The Detroit Electric Scheme, I got a letter back from Loren Estleman (Detroit mystery writer) saying he loved the book. I jumped around the living room for about five minutes. (And if you know me, you know how uncharacteristic that is.) It was the moment that I went from trying to believe I had a chance to be published to actually believing it.

Q. Please explain how attending MWW workshop influenced the launch of your career.

My first MWW was in 2006, two months after I left my job to pursue writing. It was, hands-down, the most useful conference I’ve ever gone to. I learned a great deal about writing and about the industry. I went on to become a MWW Fellow in 2008, where Terry Faherty helped me hone the beginning of my first book, which sold four months later. MWW works! (Watch for Terry’s Q&A in the next E-pistle!)

Q. Tell us a little bit about your journey to publication, to include when and what you first began to write, when you began submitting, to when you received your first contract.

I started writing, like most of us, when I was very young. I enjoyed it and was good at it, but by the time I started thinking about a career, I was convinced it wasn’t a practical pursuit. So instead, I got a degree in teaching, which I didn’t want to use, and eventually got into business, where I stayed for 25 years, generally being miserable and always feeling unfulfilled. I tried writing books over the years, but I didn’t know what I was doing. It was just frustrating.

Finally, in 2006 I dove into writing, with the full support of my family. For two years I studied writing and wrote 60-80 hours a week. (I’m known to be a bit obsessive, but I was going to have to get another job after two years. I had motivation.) At the end of those two years, I started querying for an agent. Two months later, I had one. Two months after that, I had a two-book contract. (Don’t throw things at me. There was a lot of being in the right place at the right time.)

Q. What should writers expect from your sessions and what would authors who don’t write your genre benefit from your session as well?

I’ll be working on how to write settings that you can’t escape, writing characters you can’t forget, and when to say “when.”

I write historical mysteries, but the lessons I’ve learned apply to all genres. Whether you write narrative non-fiction, memoir, or fiction, you have to be able to immerse your reader in your story, and there are easy tools to use to accomplish this. The New York Times called my most recent book, Motor City Shakedown, “extraordinarily vivid,” and a large part of that was the setting detail I employed. I can help writers learn how to create a memorable setting.

Nothing’s more important than character. Regardless of genre, your reader has to live and die with your characters in order to have a satisfying read. To do that, your characters have to be real. Not so easy to do, but definitely “learnable.”

Sometimes the most frustrating part of writing is to know when to stop. Every time you look over the work, you find more things to change. You feel like you could go on for an eternity and never really be done. Lie down on the couch and let Dr. Johnson help you move past that doubt and get on with it. The second part of this session addresses when to stop researching and start writing. All it takes is one mistake for the reader to start doubting you. You can’t make that visible error, but you can’t research forever either. I’ll help you work through that.

Q. What is the best advice on writing that you were ever given, and what is something you wish you had known sooner?

Best advice – Put your protagonist in a tree and throw rocks at him. I wish I’d known sooner – a lot sooner – that I had a real chance of making a go at writing novels.

Q. Is there anything else you would like to add?

MWW remains my favorite conference of the year. I’ve gone to a lot of conferences, and NONE COMPARES!

Note: Dan’s Part II Sessions:

  • Settings You Can’t Escape – How do some writers create a setting that’s so real that not only can you see what’s happening, you can also hear, smell, feel, and taste it?
  • When to Say When – When should you stop researching and start writing?