A mystery and a romantic suspense: Two Cuenca writers discuss their latest work

Feb 14, 2018 | 8 comments

J. Michael Herron (left) and Tom Larsen discussing their books at Cuenca’s Caffe Magnolia (Photo by Susan Herron)

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of dialogues between Cuenca expat writers. J. Michael Herron talks about his latest book, part of his Breaking Free series, while Tom Larsen discusses his mystery, Insomnia Blues.

Writers’ Q&A (Part 1): Michael Herron asks Tom Larsen about Insomnia Blue, Book Four in the Jason Freeh Mystery Series

Tom, you have just published Insomnia Blues. What is the book about?

It is a mystery, set in Portland, Oregon About fifteen years ago I began a trilogy featuring Jason (Jayce) Freeh, a Portland P.I. At the time, Jayce was turning fifty (as was I) with all the angst that can go with that particular milestone. While it’s classified as a mystery series, I always thought it was about Jayce’s journey and his growth from what I would call a small-time hustler into a pretty decent, if flawed, human being. I finished the trilogy and moved on to other things, but lately I began to wonder how Jayce was faring these days. He should have been entering his “Golden Years” but I found him to be struggling financially and emotionally due to the death of Jennifer, his long-time companion. Again, it’s a mystery, but it’s also about Jayce’s sense of loss and how he deals with it.

Is this just a story or does it have any deeper meanings in it?

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As a mystery writer, I think that my first responsibility is to entertain the reader. At the same time, I want the reader to think and experience something that is perhaps coming from a different perspective than they’re used to. I’m a big fan of Noir—dark fiction—so I’m always struggling between trying to “make it darker” and giving people a satisfying ending. I’m still learning.

How’s a guy supposed to solve a mystery when he can’t even sleep?

How much of you is in the series?
In this particular series, probably more than in anything that I’ve written. I was working in construction when I began the series, and while I loved the work, I found myself struggling (along with a lot of my co-workers) with this question: What am I going to do when I get too old for this? That was where the Jason Freeh character began. I like to think that I’ve made better choices than Jayce did.

You’ve written it in Cuenca – was that important to you?

Cuenca plays an important role in my writing, along with the fact that I’m now retired and have more time. I’ve been more prolific than I’ve ever been in twenty years of writing. There are some really excellent writers here, as well as great support from the expat community for artists of all types. I’ve begun a second mystery series, set here in Cuenca, and featuring Cuencano detective Wilson Salinas.

Where do you get your characters from?

All of my characters are (loosely) based on real people, or more often, a combination of people.

What are you working on these days?

This past year, I wrote several articles for The Cuenca Dispatch and Cuenca Expat’s Magazine. I also wrote a couple of travel articles for a small online site. This was a good experience because I hadn’t done this type of writing before, and I really enjoyed it.

2018 is going to be a busy year. I find myself with too many projects and not enough time. I’m writing the third episode of the Wilson Salinas Mystery Series, as well as compiling an anthology of short stories that I’ve written over the years. I’m also excited to be collaborating with a couple of filmmakers from Quito, Rick Segreda and José Correa, on a script for a proposed mini-series.

This past year I also finally finished a novel that I’ve been working on for years. The Nine-Finger Piano Player is set in the 1950s, and is the story of a young man who wants to move on from a life of petty crime to become a jazz pianist. As the title suggests, he loses a finger and his life takes a backward turn. Spoiler Alert: This one has a happy ending. My goal is to have this book published conventionally rather than self-publishing. I’m in the process of shopping it to agents, and entering it in literary contests. Anyone who wants a free PDF copy in exchange for honest feedback can email me at: tomlarsenmysteries@gmail.com

What writers have influenced you the most?

Jack Kerouac, Jack London, and Ken Kesey where writers that influenced me early on, and changed the way that I think about life. As far as writing influences, I’d have to say Elmore Leonard, Raymond Carver and Raymond Chandler.

How do you rank these in importance: Plot, Story, Character?

Character for me is always number one. I cited Raymond Carver a few minutes ago. When I first read his work, I thought, “What is so great about this guy? Nothing happens in his stories.” But he creates such amazing characters, relationships, and situations that you keep reading to the end. Real life doesn’t adhere to the standard three-act format, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fascinating.

Next, for me, is the story. It’s important to differentiate between plot and story. The plot tells you what happens to the protagonist. The story tells you how it happens, and how it affects him or her. I happen to subscribe to the theory that there are only a limited number of plots; everything has been done before. Story, though, is different. There are thousands of ways of telling stories that follow the same plot line.

I think of plot as a necessary evil. Steven King says: “I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all of our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.” That’s good enough for me.

How can people find your work?

All of my novels are available on Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/TOM-LARSEN/e/B00N00JLZM. Like all authors, I desperately need praise, so if you like my work, please take a moment to post a review.

My short story, Los Cantantes de Karaoke —The Karaoke Singers, a Wilson Salinas Mystery, set here in Cuenca, will be published in the March/April Issue of “Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.” Available February 20 at www.alfredhitchcockmysterymagazine.com

I can be reached by email at: tomlarsenmysteries@gmail.com

Writers’ Q&A (Part 2): Tom Larsen asks J. Michael Herron about his Breaking Free series:

Mike, you have recently published Guarding Genny and Healing Hayley, Books One and Two in the Breaking Free series. What is the series about?

Each book in the series tells the story of one of three siblings raised in a dysfunctional family and how they each break away from their home environment to try and establish who they are as individuals. Genny and Hayley are twin girls, the youngest of the three children. Jordan, their brother, is six years older than his sisters and will appear in Judging Jordan, the third and final book in the series.

Is this just a story or does it have any deeper meanings in it?

I write in what I describe as the romantic suspense genre, with a bit of mythology/fantasy thrown in. I guess that last part is what sets me apart from other authors in the romantic suspense genre. There are a lot of things that happen in life that we don’t understand, and so we tend to describe them as supernatural or the work of the devil or whatever. I believe everything that happens is governed by natural laws that we have not yet discovered, and if we are willing to approach such events with an open mind they will eventually make sense.

Guarding Genny is the first book in J. Michael Herron’s Breaking Free series.

The deeper meaning that I want to convey is I want to give people hope. Hope for a better future. Hope that they can overcome any obstacles in their lives and attain their dreams. In a nutshell, that’s why I write. Thank goodness it’s not for the money because my wife and I would soon starve to death, even at Cuenca’s bargain food prices.

How much of you is in the series?

There are pieces of me, experiences I’ve had, and people I know in everything I write. I wouldn’t know how to write in any other way. One of the advantages of writing fiction is I can make the actions and events turn out the way I’d like them to and not necessarily how they really did. Spoiler alert: An example of that is Healing Hayley, a story that tells about a young woman’s battle with cancer. The romance novels I write require a Happily Ever After (HEA) ending. I collaborated on the story with my eldest daughter Sherilyn who battled cancer for over fourteen years. I was able to provide Hayley with her HEA. I was not able to do that for my daughter who died last year. Fortunately, collaborating on the book with Sherry was a cathartic experience for both of us.

You’ve written it in Cuenca — was that important to you?

Cuenca is probably one of the most supportive environments for all of the arts I’ve ever been. It doesn’t matter if you’re an author, painter, photographer, musician or whatever. I often say there’s something magical about the city that brings out the creativity in everyone who lives here. There are a number of writers groups, critique groups, even an annual writers conference sponsored by expats who have moved here. All of us support each other. The helpful and supportive environment makes it much easier to focus on writing.

Where do you get your characters from?

A better question might be where don’t I get my characters from? I get them not only from my own experiences, but they are an amalgamation of everyone I know and meet. I don’t remember who said this quote but it describes writers well: “Stories happen all around us every day. Authors manage to capture them in words.”

What are you working on these days?

I’m over halfway through writing Judging Jordan, which will complete the Breaking Free series. I’m already trying to figure out what my next book or series will be. I also write periodically for various magazines. I’m part of the planning committee for the Cuenca International Writers Conference, which will be held May 28th through June 1st this year. I help with some grant writing for the Hearts of Gold Foundation here in Cuenca. I’m supposed to be retired, but I often wonder how I ever found time to work.

What writers have influenced you the most?

Which ones haven’t? I’m a voracious reader and often devour five to six books per week, more when I’m not actively writing. My reading is pretty eclectic and crosses multiple genres. I like Nicholas Sparks and Pat Conroy a lot. I also like Nora Roberts, although unlike her I prefer to leave sex at the bedroom door and let my readers use their imagination.

How do you rank these in importance: Plot, Story, Character?

I’d have to go with the reverse order in which they are listed. Character is definitely first. When I set out to write a book, I find a picture of the person I see in my head and copy it into Scrivener, the writing program I use. I then look at them when I’m writing. I create a list of attributes the character has that include skills, talents, strengths, weaknesses, habits, hopes, fears, etc.

Once I understand who my characters are I try to get out of the way and let them tell their story. I’m just the conduit to capture their stories in words. Their stories all center around overcoming the various obstacles life throws at us so we can find the happiness we all seek.

The plot is just the details of their stories. Very important details, to be sure. It’s also the hardest part to write.

How can people find your work?

All of my books are available on Amazon in both e-book and print versions. I have four other books besides those mentioned above: Appalachian Gold and the Colors of Alaska series (Black Diamonds, Blue Ice and Green Skies).

Guarding Genny is at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B073PL42DY

Healing Hayley is at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B075W11SJ4

My author website, http://www.jmichaelherron.com, hasn’t been updated in a long time. I keep meaning to bring it into the modern age but to date haven’t gotten around to it.

I’m on Facebook at: J. Michael Herron and I try to post something about once a month.

Email me at: jmichael@2herrons.com

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