My guest today is Fort Worth mystery author, Earl Staggs. Earl is the author of two novels, Memory Of A Murder and Justified Action, both of which have earned all Five Star reviews. He is a two-time recipient of the Derringer Award for Best Short Story of the Year. He served as Managing Editor of Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine and as President of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Fans can find him at conferences and seminars where he is a frequent speaker. I’ve known Earl for many years and have been privileged to follow his career through many novels and stories. I, along with many others, have been delighted to meet the many characters he has created for us.
MT: Let’s start with you. Besides being a hot shot mystery writer and editor, you’re a PROUD school bus driver. How does that background play into your stories?
ES: When I retired from the insurance business, I tried staying home for a year but discovered I didn’t like it. I didn’t want a full-time job, so I looked around for something part-time and found driving a school bus was perfect. It got me out of the house every day, put me in touch with other members of the human race, and left enough time during the day for writing. It helped that I liked kids. Most of them.
A few years ago, I wrote an article about how I happened to get the job and how I felt about it. I called it “For Whom the Bus Rolls.” It’s a fun piece about what I consider the best possible job for a writer. It’s available here if anyone wants to read it: http://tinyurl.com/yby7gfxd
A few months ago, my wife and my doctor ganged up on me and convinced me I should give up the job and try full-time retirement again, so I did. I still miss the kids, the teachers, and the parents. I even miss that big old yellow bus.
In all the time I drove, I never used a school bus in a mystery story. I didn’t feel comfortable mixing crime, especially murder, with kids. Last year, however, I was invited to submit a story for an anthology called MURDER ON WHEELS. Since a school bus has six wheels, it seemed a perfect time to try it. After wrestling with the idea for a while, I came up with a solution. I called the story “Dead Man on a School Bus.” The murder occurred after school hours, and the body was discovered the next morning before school started. Result: no kids involved.
MT: What drew you to writing mysteries?
ES: Mystery has always been my favorite genre for reading as well as for watching movies and TV. That’s why writing mysteries fell like a natural niche for me. For most people, daily life is an ordinary and unremarkable experience until something extraordinary happens and they’re forced to deal with it. Few things do that better than a crime, particularly a murder. Cops are forced into action because it’s their job. Private Eyes get involved because it’s how they make their living. Amateur sleuths get pulled into action because, like Jessica Fletcher and Miss Marple, they just can’t help themselves. Once the characters get involved in solving the crime, their personal lives become a major part of the story and we have a complete character/plot arc.
Besides, I love a good puzzle and a mystery story provides that.
MT: How would you characterize your mysteries? Cozy, hard-boiled, noir, humorous, zany, amateur, other? Why did you choose that sub-genre?
ES: I’ve dabbled in all of them except noir. For some reason, I have a problem bringing a tale to the dark or fatalistic ending noir requires. While I’ve written a number of stories what are pure hard-boiled, most have been soft-boiled bordering on cozy, and many of them include a touch of humor. For example, I’ve written a number of stories featuring Mollie Goodall, sheriff of a fictional county in Texas.
In fact, two Mollie stories were published this month. One has just come out in an anthology called THE KILLER WORE CRANBERRY: A FIFTH COURSE OF CHAOS from Untreed Reads. I called my story “Stakeout in a Maple Tree” and set the tone of it with this opening paragraph:
So, Mollie, she thought to herself, here you are. Fifty-one years old, after twenty years on the Fort Worth PD and five years as Sheriff of Watango County, you’re sitting in a maple tree at midnight, in full uniform, fighting to stay awake and hoping you don’t fall and break your neck. How did this happen?
My story is one of fourteen from some of the best mystery writers around and is available in ebook or print at: https://goo.gl/vLckVX
The other Mollie story, “Fishing For an Alibi,” is this month’s Editor’s Choice at B J Bourg’s excellent free flash fiction ezine, “Flash Bang Mysteries,” at: http://flashbangmysteries.com/
In this one, a career criminal thinks he can outwit Sheriff Mollie, but he’s in for a surprise.
MT: Which author or books have had the greatest influence on your writing?
ES: I’m been influenced by so many writers, but if I had to pare the number down to two, I’d have to say Ernest Hemingway and O. Henry. I admired Hemingway for his use of lean, strong language, without a lot of wasted words. O. Henry’s work appealed to me because he wrote about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances and how they dealt with them. He also had a way of bringing all the elements of his stories to an ending filled with irony and poignancy and often a pleasant surprise. I’m not all surprised when people say they see influences of both of them in my work. In fact, I’m flattered. I like to say I learned from the best.
MT: You’ve written some acclaimed novels and award-winning short stories. Do you have a preference for one format or the other?
ES: While I enjoy both, if I have to state a preference, it would be short stories. You can finish a short story in a matter of days while a novel can easily take months. Or years. Writing a novel is a major challenge and finishing one is a major achievement with long term rewards. Finishing a number of short stories in the same amount of time brings smaller rewards, but more of them. Fortunately, we’re not restricted to one or the other, and I intend to continue writing both for as long as I can.
Sometimes, when people learn I write both, they ask, “What’s the difference between a short story and a novel?” I always answer, “One’s bigger than the other.”
That usually earns me a chuckle or a “Huh?” look. I go on to explain that a novel is not only bigger in number of words, but also in the size and scope of the story being told. A novel can involve a large number of main characters, several subplots in addition to the main one, and can take place in a variety of settings over a period of years. In a short story, there’s normally one or two main characters, maybe two or three minor ones, no more than one or two settings, and the entire story usually plays out in day or two.
MT: Tell us about Adam Kingston. What qualities does he bring to the solutions of your mysteries? How does he get involved in the stories?
ES: Adam Kingston was the main character in my first novel, and I’m currently working on a sequel. He’s exactly like me, except he’s younger, smarter, tougher, better looking, and much more interesting. He’s a former FBI agent who now works as a PI with a special and unique talent. After a near-death accident, he developed some psychic abilities. When he visits a crime scene or handles an object related to a crime, he receives a series of fleeting mental images. Sometimes the images contain clues which lead him in the right direction, and sometimes they leave him confused because he has no idea what they mean. Solving a case always comes down to old-fashioned police work.
MT: If your Adam Kingston books were made into movies, who would you cast in the role?
ES: That’s easy. George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. I only hope somebody makes those movies before George and Sandra get too old to play the parts.
MT: What’s ahead for Adam Kingston, Tall Chambers, and Mollie Goodall?
ES: As I stated above, I’m working on a sequel for Adam Kingston. His first novel was titled MEMORY OF A MURDER. This one will be MEMORY OF A MISING GIRL, and I hope to finish it by the end of this year.
Tall Chambers is the main character in my second novel. JUSTIFIED ACTION. Like Adam, he’s exactly like me except for being younger, smarter, tougher, better looking, and much more interesting. He’s also taller. Anyone who wants to get to know him can read his interview at: http://tinyurl.com/nfd6jys. The closest to a sequel for Tall so far is a short story called “Rescue,” which is available as a free download at http://tinyurl.com/mdmqnyy
Mollie Goodall has become one of my favorite characters. I’ve used her in a bunch of short stories, and she has become a favorite of readers, too. Her stories are on the cozy-with-humor side, and three of them are featured in my short story collection, SHORT STORIES OF EARL STAGGS. I seem to hear her whispering, “Hey, Earl, when do I get my own novel?” Don’t worry, Mollie. It’s on my to-do list.
MT: You live in Texas, but before that in Maryland. Are those places important settings to your stories?
ES: Very much so. My first novel was set in Baltimore and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. I spent most of my life in that terrific state and still miss it. Some of my short stories are also set there. My second novel involves international mystery and suspense adventures and takes place in Washington, DC, and several sites in the Middle East. I’ve lived in Fort Worth, Texas, for nearly twenty years now, and have placed a number of short stories here. I think it helps to be familiar with the settings you write about. I’ve never been in the Middle East, so I’m grateful to Internet research for making it possible to write about it.
MT: How can readers contact you and learn about your books?
- Chapter One of MEMORY OF A MURDER
- Chapter One of JUSTIFIED ACTION
- A short story called “The Day I Almost Became a Great Writer,” which some have said is the funniest story I’ve ever written.
- A story called “White Hats and Happy Trails” about the day I spent with a boyhood idol, Roy Rogers. There’s a picture of my wife and me with Roy to prove it’s true.
MT: Thanks, Earl! We’re all looking forward to the new Sheriff Mollie story and Memory Of A Missing Girl.