Saturday, March 8, 2014

Ten Questions for Ken McKea

Ten Questions for Ken McKea
(used by permission)

Ken McKea, author of four Florida mysteries, is at work on number five in the series. He talks about the process.

1-First, how do you pronounce your name? Mack-kee?

No, McKAY. Some branches of the clan spell it that way, too. Mine’s the poor branch of the clan, I guess.

2-What made you want to write mysteries?

I was a fan of the late John D. MacDonald, author of a number of mysteries set in Florida, most notably the Travis McGee series. Travis is a salvage expert. He finds clients who have lost a lot of money and have no legal way of retrieving it. He gets it back for them, or what’s left of it, and splits it fifty-fifty. Half of something is better than all of nothing. McGee is a self-described beach bum who takes a slice of his retirement when he makes a score, so he might work one or two cases a year and then party for the rest of the time. Nice work if you can get it, but he pays a high price: his carcass is scarred and marked from the violence he encounters.

3-McGee, McKea—is there a relationship?

Not a direct one, but I think my character Jim Dallas is at least a cousin of McGee’s.

4-How long does it take you to write a book?

Why does everybody ask that? It takes as long as it takes. I do considerable research, and then life intervenes. I’m not a full-time writer. A book might gestate for years before it’s written, or I might write at a rapid pace. Two books a year is probably what I could do if I put my mind to it and set all else aside.

5-How did you come up with Jim Dallas as a character?

James Thomas Dallas. I don’t think anyone’s known his full name until now. Wanted a guy who’s been around and who has a grudge to settle with the world. Named him Dallas because at first John D. MacDonald was going to name Travis McGee “Dallas McGee.” Unfortunately, his manuscripts for the first three novels landed on his editor’s desk on November 23, 1963. At that time, nobody wanted to be reminded of Dallas. He found “Travis” as a replacement by looking at the names of Air Force bases. Anyway, Dallas is the son of an Alabama salesman and a former schoolteacher, both now dead. He has one living sister, but they’re not close. He went to college intending to be a lawyer, decided against that profession, and entered the police force in Atlanta. He was persistent if not brilliant and began to rise in the force. Got married to a nice Atlanta girl. They were trying to have kids. Then Dallas was more or less roped into going undercover to investigate police corruption—a lot more of that is going to come out in two later books—and when his cover was blown, two rogue cops tried their best to murder him and got his wife instead. They turned state’s evidence and are both serving prison terms. Dallas, who was badly hurt in the assassination attempt, has been pensioned off and now lives in an odd little house he inherited from his wife—it once had belonged to her crazy uncle. From time to time people who know him ask him to do favors. He usually profits from them.

Now, how did he emerge? God only knows. The books needed someone who’s driven, obsessive, but—I hope—human. Dallas could easily become a case of anti-social behavior disorder. What saves him from that is his friendship with another guy, Sam Lyons, who’s his polar opposite in many ways but who has a gift of openness and a shrewd sense of character. Through their investigations, Dallas is slowly learning to cope with the world again.

However, he still has unresolved issues.

6-Do I notice a pattern in the titles?

I don’t know, do you? There is one, of course: Atlanta Bones, Cuban Dagger, Eden Feint, and Glades Heist. AB, CD, EF, GH. The next one is Islamorada Jam. It involves Florida land developers, civil and moral corruption, and a might-be, might-not-be suicide. Dallas runs into a woman who’s been as deeply damaged by loss as he has. There’s chemistry, of a kind. Of course, there’s chemistry in making TNT too.

7-So you have what, thirteen titles?

Thirteen planned. Two are pivotal: Miami Needle and Year Zero. Don’t ask me what I’m doing for X—I know it, but that’s a surprise.

8-Does Dallas die in the Y-Z one?

Wouldn’t you like to know?

9-These are self-published, right?

Right. Which is different from vanity publishing. Actually, I write other things, under other names, and I have an agent. I really wanted to write these, but he discouraged me because there’s not a huge market for this sort of adventure-thriller any more, and the big publishers want guaranteed best-sellers. However, they all came out as books for Kindle, and they’re doing well. I get a nice check every month, anyway, and I’ve received some encouraging letters from readers.

10-So, if you could be any writer in the world, who would it be?

Me. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it, and I’m the closest.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Down Time and Reading

Despite good intentions, down time happens. I've begun Islamorada Jam, the fifth Jim Dallas novel, but various personal concerns--chiefly illness in the family--have sidetracked that for a while. Happens now and then.

So in the interim, while I don't have sustained time for writing, I can snatch moments for reading. And I'm reading all over the map: 

Don Quixote: I'm reading an old translation (1895) into English of the classic nutty-knight story. It's not as funny as it maybe once was. One thing's for sure, for a fifty-year-old guy Don Quixote could soak up the punishment. He takes beating after beating and like a Timex keeps on ticking.

Ross MacDonald novels:

The Moving Target. The first Lew Archer novel, made into a not-bad movie, Harper, starring Paul Newman. The book is fairly standard hard-boiled California private eye with flashes of the style and approach that would get better and better over the years. Raymond Chandler was asked to blurb the book and acidly declined, saying it was poorly done, but I think that was down to sour grapes. It's actually better than anything Chandler produced between then and his death.

Find a Victim. This one's from 1954, five years along in Archer's career. Hell of a start as Archer, driving through Las Cruces on his way to testify in a case in Sacramento, announces "He was the ghastliest hitchhiker who ever thumbed me." Archer gets the dying man to a hospital, but that's only the beginning. For a small town, Las Cruces is rotten through and through, and we begin to see Archer's obsessive side--I'm reminded of Quixote!--as he becomes fascinated with tangled family relationships and the drive for easy money that's underneath it all.

The Wycherly Woman. Published in 1961, twelve years after Archer's debut, this one settles in to MacDonald's strengths: looking for a missing coed for her irascible father, Archer runs up against a whole intricate web of blackmail, deceit, and deeply-buried family secrets. There's a neat surprise woven into the story, too, as Archer, much against the divorced father's wishes, finds and interviews the alcoholic mom.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Want to hear something really scary? has made available a two and a half hour long, well, "audio movie," I suppose you could call it. The Dancer in the Dark was written by the late Thomas E. Fuller, a hell of a good writer, and is performed by the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company.

If you discovered and liked H.P. Lovecraft, this is a treat. Fuller moves the spookiness south, to the fictional Blankenship, Georgia, and the plot involves a retired Professor of Archaeology from Miskatonic University (!) who undertakes to help his nephew solve the riddle of some ancient Native American mounds.

And then the riddle turns deadly. Shock and humor and intense local and period detail make this one a keeper. If you'd like to check it out, you can find it right here: THE DANCER IN THE DARK.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A New Old Book!

Twenty-five years ago, a new writer named Kelley Wilde brought out his first novel, a gritty urban fantasy called The Suiting. In its own memorable way, it proved that clothes make the man....

Now Reb MacRath, who wrote back then as Kelley Wilde, is bringing out a 25th anniversary edition of The Suiting. It will be available at beginning this coming Monday.

It's a great read, and as a special added attraction, MacRath is offering discounts on his other books, too. Check 'em out here.

And treat yourself. The language is crisp and imaginative, the people memorable, and the experience a rush. It's a somewhat refurbished new and improved edition, and it's a memorable read.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

"Just one more question...." Columbo used to say. Someone emailed me and asked, "Is it okay if I come up with more than twenty questions to get a handle on my characters?

Sure it is. You can come up with hundreds if you want. It's your book.

Only caution: Don't get so wrapped up in backstory that you forget your main goal - to write a book.

As for other questions, deal with things that lead into problems: What does the character do for a living? What does the character hate about that means of earning money?

If the character were truly desperate, what moral absolute held dear by the character might be bent or broken? How would the character feel afterward?

Stress. It's all down to stress. Jane Yolen, a lovely writer, once said "There is only one plot: Joe gets his ass caught in a bear trap and has to get out."

When you know your character thoroughly, all the background, habits, ways of thinking, philosophy, beliefs, you can really put that person through the wringer. Don't make it easy. Make it hard. And then make it harder.

And you know what? You're going to wind up with a story worth reading. So, yeah, come up with more questions. Knock yourself out. But when you get to the agonizing decision your character might face -

Stop. And start writing the book.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Boss Is Back

If you like your tough guys really hardboiled, check out Reb MacRath's latest: The Alcatraz Correction.

Look for it in the Kindle store at! 

Twenty Questions for a Mysterious Character

When I first began to write, I soon became aware that my characters were, well, shallow. The plot pushed them around; their attitudes and outlooks changed from moment to moment. From somewhere - I don't remember where - I picked up on the concept of Twenty Questions.

Basically, you create a sketch outline for your character. You begin by asking yourself twenty questions about the person and answering them. They begin with the character's physical appearance, and they progress to the crucial issues in the character's life. By the time you finish thinking of, and writing down, the answers, you know your character much better.

Examples (your mileage may vary because you come up with your own questions)


  1. What is the character's gender?
  2. What is the character's age?
  3. What are the character's eye color, hair color, and complexion?
  4. What are the character's weight and height?
  5. What feature of the character is memorable to those meeting the character for the first time?
  6. What one feature of the character would the character change, and why?
  1. Where was the character born, and under what circumstances?
  2. Who were the character's parents?
  3. What was the character's childhood like?
  4. How did the character do in school?
  5. What kinds of partners is the character attracted to?
  1. Where does the character live?
  2. What work does the character do, if any? If none, why?
  3. What activities make the character happiest?
  4. What activities or circumstances upset or distress the character?
  5. What is the character's voice like when the character is tense, happy, frightened, or angry?
  1. What is the character's greatest secret fear?
  2. What is the character's favorite possession, and why is it a favorite?
  3. What does the character want more than anything but cannot have?
  4. What action or thought is utterly beyond the character's ability?
Having come this far, you may want to elaborate. That's fine. You should. Ask more questions. Find out what the character's great need (recognized or unrecognized) is; discover what the character's trigger points are for rage, for fear, for love.

Then write a biography of the character. Make it at least a thousand words long, longer if you really want to know the character. Zero in on the character's needs, desires, fears, and goals.

You're standing on the brink of a story.