Interview with James Scott Bell
Susan: Today it’s our pleasure to bring you a “killer” interview (sorry about that) with James Scott Bell. Welcome to Keep Me In Suspense, Jim! It's a pleasure to have you here.
Jim: Happy to do it.
Susan: Try Darkness is the second book in your Buchanan series, and follows Try Dying. In the first book, Buchanan's fiancée was killed right off the bat. What's the major premise for this book?
Jim: Ty Buchanan is a lawyer who's lost everything. His fiancé, his job with a big law firm. Now he represents the poor, when a woman with a little girl comes to see him. She's being hustled out of a hotel against her will, and the law. When the woman is murdered in a transient hotel, Buchanan takes charge of the girl, who has no last name and no family. He's never been a father, but he knows he'll do anything to protect this little girl. But some bad people want the girl. And Buchanan has to figure out why, and who killed her mother.
And he has to do it all with the help of a basketball playing nun, one of the only friends he has left in the world.
Susan: How did you get the idea for this story? Did it spring off the first book, or did it come from a totally different source?
Jim: There are low rent hotels in L.A., and sometimes the owners try to get around renters' rights with something called "the 28 day shuffle."
They force residents out of their rooms before the one-month point so they don't become legal "tenants" and get the benefit of certain rights under state law.
I liked the sound of that as a legal issue, since Buchanan is helping out poor people now. And I then thought up a whole web behind it, and wrote the story with my series characters doing the heavy lifting.
Susan: In a series, is it difficult to come up with fresh premises for each book?
Jim: I don't think it's any more difficult than coming up with a stand alone premise. And there's an advantage in knowing your characters and the setting in each book. You don't have to reinvent the wheel each time. I like doing this series. I have become attached to my characters and would love to see them continue.
Susan: How do you keep your series characters consistent, yet growing?
Jim: That's the main challenge with a series. But you deal with different aspects of the characters, different secrets from the past, different challenges in the present, relationships and so on. In Try Dying, Buchanan has to deal with the loss of the only woman he's truly loved.
In Try Darkness, he's forced to deal with what he has become as a result of the loss and the violence he encountered.
My basketball playing nun character, Sister Mary Veritas, is struggling with her calling. She may or may not be the nun type, and helping Buchanan is only making things more complex for her.
It's a challenge all right, but when it's pulled off, it's incredibly powerful. That's what I find in the works of Michael Connelly. Reading one of his books makes me want to chew my arm off. I don't know if it can be done any better.
Susan: Okay, fess up. How much are you like Buchanan?
Jim: In my dreams, maybe. Part of the fun of the series is letting Buchanan do things I would never do, but would have liked to at some time. For instance, in Try Dying, he's fed up with the legal games of a big time lawyer, and gets up on the guy's conference table and does a tap dance. I don't think I ever would have done that, even on my best day.
But there are parts of me in Buchanan. The eye of the tiger when going to trial, for instance. And what caring for a vulnerable little girl brings out in him. I thought about how I feel about my own daughter.
How I know I would do anything – ANYTHING – to protect her. What would be unleashed if somebody ever tried to hurt her.
Susan: Do you think you have an advantage over other suspense writers since you are a lawyer? Does that ever get in the way when you're writing?
Jim: The legal background is definitely helpful when it comes to the courtroom scenes. There's so much that goes on in court that you don't pick up from watching TV or reading books. And you have to know the rules of evidence backward and forward, and trial tactics, and what a trial lawyer would do – and not do – in myriad situations. I trained trial lawyers for ten years on communication techniques, so all that comes out in the books.
But the suspense aspect is the same. All my legal knowledge won't matter a bit if I can't keep the reader turning pages.
Susan: You've also got a new nonfiction book out, Write Great Fiction:
Revision & Self-Editing. What need did you see among fellow writers that prompted you to write this book?
Jim: It started with the idea of giving novelists an "ultimate" checklist for revising a manuscript, so the task can approached systematically, not haphazardly. In my own experience, and that of other writers, I've found this to be a weakness that needs to be addressed. So I thought I'd address it.
From there, it grew into a basic book on the most important elements of fiction and how to assess them for yourself, in your own work.
The book can be used as a reference to strengthen your craft, as well as a guide for revision. It can be used by new writers to learn how to make their manuscripts salable and veteran writers to brush up on things. It's the kind of book I would like to have had early on.
Susan: What's the one thing new writers seem to overlook most before they send that manuscript off?
Jim: Chapter beginnings and chapter endings. There's a lot of lard that can be hacked off of each that will make the book more readable. I give some tips on this in the book. There's a lot of competition out there, as everyone knows, so these little things make a difference.
Another area I cover extensively is dialogue. I believe that improving dialogue is the fastest way to improve a manuscript. Great dialogue jumps off the page and gives an editor (and ultimately a reader) the feeling he or she is in the hands of a professional.
Susan: What's your schedule like this summer and fall? I know you'll be on the road for book signings for Try Darkness. Will we see you at any writers' conferences?
Jim: I will be at the Philadelphia Christian Writers Conference in August; the ACW conference in Spokane and ACFW in Minneapolis in September; and the ACW Caribbean Cruise conference in late November. Talk about tough duty.
Susan: What's ahead for your readers? Can we look forward to more Buchanan books?
Jim: Yes, Try Fear is in the works, scheduled for mid-2009. This one starts with the arrest of Santa Claus for drunk driving. Of course, it's just a guy in a Santa hat, and naturally Buchanan gets the case. And naturally, there's a lot more going on beneath the surface than anyone can imagine.
In L.A., there always is.
Susan: Jim, great talking to you again! Thanks for stopping by.
Jim: My pleasure.
Susan: Readers, be sure to leave a comment to be entered in the drawing for a free copy of Jim's new book, Try Darkness. You can learn more about him and his works at www.jamesscottbell.com.