It's a complete mystery to me how authors of whodunits not only get inspiration, but figure out law enforcement and legal procedures. Luckily, local mystery writers, from the aspiring to the award-winning, can get some clues from the Mystery Writers of America Rocky Mountain Chapter. We caught up with accomplished author and president of the RMWWA, Mark Stevens, and gave him a grilling under harsh lights.
Can you tell us a bit about the types of writers who belong to the RMMWA?
Good writers, funny writers, short story writers, master wordsmiths, poets … is that the type of writer you meant?
Ah, just kidding.
There’s a mystery focus, of course. We are a chapter of Mystery Writers of America (MWA). Most of the writers who come to our meetings are members of MWA. MWA has two key types of memberships! Active members are professional writers in the crime/mystery/suspense field whose work has been published in the United States and who live in the U.S. and who meet specific criteria set by the national board. The other type of members are “affiliates.” In general, affiliate members are not yet professionally published and/or they are fans of crime/mystery/suspense. There's more about application information here.
But, we actually do have poets! And romance writers (plenty of romance novels have mystery elements). And yes, we do have master wordsmiths, including writers who have been nominated for the Edgar Award. It’s a fun, wide-open group of writers. We are eclectic. And you do NOT need to be a member to come to our events. However, we do ask that guests buy a ticket in advance so we know how much food to have on hand (most of our meetings involve dinner, but you may also purchase the non-dinner option). For event information, visit Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of America.
What sub-genre of mysteries do you write?
I write contemporary mysteries with environmental, topical themes. My four mysteries to date are in a series featuring outfitter and hunting guide Allison Coil. They are set in the Flat Tops Wilderness in western Colorado (north of Glenwood Springs). In order, the books are Antler Dust, Buried by the Roan, Trapline and Lake of Fire. The last three were all finalists for the Colorado Book Award; Trapline won. The stories have touched on everything from animal rights and big-game poaching to climate change, fracking, immigration and for-profit prisons. The fifth book in the series is done (no publication date yet), and I’m working on a more urban stand-alone mystery-thriller, too.
Do you have any examples of past speakers, and how they impacted your writing?
Yes! Most of our speakers are experts or professionals from law enforcement. We’ve had county coroners, experts in cyber security, prosecutors, private investigators, state parks and wildlife rangers, instructors in self-defense, and trial lawyers involved in famous cases. (We also occasionally have speakers who focus on the book business and/or writing and/or topics related to the book business). If you are a writer of crime fiction, all access to folks who work in law enforcement, from any corner of the land, is of value. At least, that’s my opinion. You never know what kernel of information might be helpful with what you’re writing. Sometimes it’s the details of a particular line of work, other times it’s how a law enforcement officer thinks.
What are some surprising things you've learned from the speakers? How does it differ from conventional portrayals that you might see on a TV show?
The second question, I think, answers the first. The second question implies—that TV shows are TV shows. I can’t tell you the number of speakers who just shake their head about the difference between the TV version of “reality” and, well, reality. The whole CSI TV franchise is routinely criticized for its head-shaking impossibilities. The speed of processing a crime scene is always longer in real life. The cases take longer. The work is, often, much more tedious. And non-glamorous. What our presentations show us is the gritty, hard work and dedication of these real individuals who are determined to help keep order and justice in our society. One surprising thing is these folks are extremely motivated about their work. They take it personally. That might be the only accurate comparison to a fictional character—the personal drive to ferret out crime. And criminals. To me, it’s all fascinating. And sometimes surprising.
Can you tell us about some upcoming guest speakers?
In February we have an expert from the Human Trafficking Unit in the 18th Judicial District (Arapahoe County) and in March we have a speaker who is an expert in aviation and airport security.
Who are some of your favorite mystery writers, and why?
Do you have an hour? A day? Can we talk? I read a wide variety of writers for all different reasons. Sometimes I want dark and noir. Sometimes I like something more brisk and fun. So: Patricia Highsmith (really dark, very good); Michael Connelly (excellent police procedurals); James M. Cain (dark); Denver’s own Ausma Zehanat Khan (three books featuring a Muslim detective who is based in Toronto); Christine Carbo (outdoor mysteries in Montana); Lori Rader-Day (great suspense); Christopher Bartley (1930’s gangster stuff with a thoughtful lead bad-guy); Elmore Leonard; Richard Price (yes, he writes crime fiction); George V. Higgins; John Galligan (what a writer); Michael Harvey; Rachel Howzell Hall (featuring a feisty L.A. cop); Craig Johnson (a brilliant writer; the Longmire series); James M. Ziskin (featuring a female newspaper reporter set in the 1960’s); Denver’s own Manuel Ramos (noir); Nevada Barr (I think Allison Coil and Anna Pigeon would get along just fine); Boulder’s own Rex Burns and Margaret Coel (a legend); and on and on. And on and on.
Thanks to Mark for those great suggestions, and don't forget to sign up for the Winter of Reading Program!