by Ron Franscell
Genre: Mystery, Thriller, Crime Fiction
Retired from a big-city homicide beat to a small Colorado mountain town, ex-detective Woodrow “Mountain” Bell yearns only to fade away. He’s failed in so many ways as a father, a husband, friend, and cop that it might be too late for a meaningful life. When he stumbles across a long-forgotten, unsolved child murder, his first impulse is to let it lie … but he can’t. He’s drawn into the macabre mystery when he realizes the killer might still be near. Without help from ambivalent local cops, Bell must overcome the obstacles of time, age, and a lack of police resources by calling upon the unique skills of the end-of-the-road codgers he meets for coffee every morning—a club of old guys who call themselves Deaf Row. Soon, this mottled crew finds itself on a collision course with a serial butcher.
|DEAF ROW is more than a tense mystery novel, more than an unnerving psychological thriller drawn from Ron Franscell’s career as a bestselling true-crime writer and journalist. It is also a novel of men pushing back against time and death, trying not to disappear entirely. DEAF ROW is a moving, occasionally humorous, portrait of flawed people caught in a web of pain and regret. And although you might think you know where this ghastly case is headed, the climax will blindside you.
What made you switch from true crime to crime fiction?
My true crimes are the product of old-school research and investigation. I’m an old-fashioned reporter who believes in first-hand, up-close sensory experiences that tell me everything I want to tell a reader. I write narrative nonfiction, in which I tell utterly true stories with some tools from a novelist’s toolbox—foreshadowing, character development, setting details, etc.—a reading experience that relies heavily on the tiniest details of what I can see, hear, taste, smell, and feel. I can only get that from having my boots on the ground in the places where it happened, talking to people who might have lived it. That richness has set my true-crime apart from more formulaic books.
Then along comes Covid. Suddenly, in a spasm of global lockdown, I can’t book a hotel room, dine out in a restaurant, find a motel room, enter courthouse or libraries … and I certainly can’t talk face-to-face with the few hundred people I typically interview for my kind of richly reported true-crime book.
So in early 2020 I locked myself in my office alone with 40 years of experience, stories, and ghosts of telling true crime stories, and I breathed life into those old farts of Deaf Row.
Which is harder: True crime or crime fiction?
In my career, I’ve written a literary novel, a few mysteries, a road-trip memoir, and more than a dozen true-crime books. I’ve also written maybe a thousand newspaper articles, three screenplays, countless blogs, and a couple poems. What I’ve learned is that each genre has its own unique conventions. Think of it this way: A news anchorwoman, a songwriter, a poet, and a film director are all storytellers. They might all have a special affection for language, but what about being an anchorwoman naturally makes her a poet? What about being a filmmaker makes him a natural songwriter? Really, nothing.
So, it is with writing true crime and crime fiction. The leap might not seem as great between two thematically related literary pursuits, but the realms of nonfiction and fiction are separate universes.
In some ways, the true-crime writer has an easier job. He needn’t imagine a plot, characters, setting, a message, or anything else except maybe the structure of his story. But on the other hand, the mystery writer isn’t constrained by what ACTUALLY happened and can solve plot predicaments by simply imagining a solution.
Another interesting difference comes when you tell the reader up front “This is a true story” or “I made this up.” Fiction readers give an author a wide berth; they suspend their disbelief and allow the storyteller some leeway between what is likely and what is possible. The nonfiction writer tells you on the front cover “This is a true story” so readers don’t suspend their disbelief, they don’t give permission to be elegantly gaslighted, and they are quick to declare the author to be a lying charlatan and throw the book across the room. It’s why we can love a movie about blue people in a different universe, but be angry with a TV weatherman.
So even though I’ve written both true crime and crime fiction, I can’t declare one easier than the other. To me, they’re as different as writing a history book or a song. They’re both hard.
If a beginning writer asked me which genre she should pick, I’d say it doesn’t matter. I advise that she become an ardent student of the form, to learn everything she can about how it’s done, then the rest is easy. You just sit down at your word processor and let the blood ooze from your forehead.
Do your characters talk to you?
I’ve heard a lot of writers say they carry on conversations with their characters. Somebody studied this recently: 63% of authors said they heard their characters speak while writing, and 61% swore their characters were capable of acting independently and some said they actually carried on dialogue with these imaginary beings. When I hear a fellow writer say stuff like that, I usually take a subtle step backward. Hearing voices in your head is a symptom of schizophrenia and I just don’t want to take any chances.
BUT … I must think and behave on my characters’ behalf. Think about it this way: We all imagine hearing the voices of other people when we think about how an argument might have gone differently, or how someone we know is likely to respond to the news we’re about to give them. That’s just our normal thought process.
My imaginary characters live the life I give them and no more. I am sometimes surprised by what my subconscious produces, but I’m not possessed or surrounded or dependent on my characters. I don’t feel their physical presence or smell them or touch them or hear them. There’s no doubt in my mind who’s in charge.
Any advice for young or beginning writers?
Beware of anyone who offers magic beans. There are no magic beans. Anybody who says he knows the secret that will make you a bestselling author is probably trying to sell you a book. The tricks are no tricks at all: Practice. Stay organized. Keep files. Practice some more. Study people. Take clear notes. Write down every pertinent thought. Practice more. Don’t get overwhelmed. You’ll know when you know enough. Once you have all the ingredients, you’ll know it’s time to start. And practice.
What’s your next book?
I haven’t retired from true crime but my next manuscript is a sequel to DEAF ROW. In fact, it’s a fiction closely based on a real-life crime. I’ve done a lot of research into the facts of that case, which is one of the funner parts of my true-crime writing. But I’ve also enjoyed getting to know Woodrow Bell and the boys of Deaf Row a lot better. So, I’ve been able to blend some of the best of both the real and imaginary worlds. It’s its own kind of challenge.
Do you see writing as a potential career?
LOL. I’m still practicing.
A veteran journalist, Ron Franscell is the New York Times bestselling author of 18 books, including international bestsellers “The Darkest Night” and Edgar-nominated true crime “Morgue: A Life in Death.” His newest, “ShadowMan: An Elusive Psycho Killer and the Birth of FBI Profiling,” was released in March by Berkley/Penguin-Random House.
His atmospheric and muscular writing—hailed by Ann Rule, Vincent Bugliosi, William Least-Heat Moon, and others—has established him as one of the most provocative American voices in narrative nonfiction.
Ron’s first book, “Angel Fire,” was a USA Today bestselling literary novel listed by the San Francisco Chronicle among the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century West. His later success grew from blending techniques of fiction-writing with his daily journalism. The result was dramatic, detailed, and utterly true storytelling.
Ron has established himself as a plucky reporter, too. As a senior writer at the Denver Post, he covered the evolution of the American West but shortly after 9/11, he was dispatched by the Post to cover the Middle East during the first months of the War on Terror. In 2004, he covered devastating Hurricane Rita from inside the storm.
His book reviews and essays have been widely published in many of America’s biggest and best newspapers, such as the Washington Post, Chicago Sun-Times, San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury-News, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and others. He has been a guest on CNN, Fox News, NPR, the Today Show, ABC News, and he appears regularly on crime documentaries at Investigation Discovery, Oxygen, History Channel, Reelz, and A&E.
He lives in northern New Mexico.
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