Transcripts

 

Turning Fact into Fiction, an interview with Ron Lovell, November 7,

Moderator: is me, your web editor, Mary Rosenblum.

Ron Lovell is our guest speaker.

Names in red are members of the audience.

Ron Lovell was a journalism professor at Oregon State University for 24 years. Before that, he worked for McGraw-Hill in Los Angeles and Houston, Business Week in Denver, and Medical World News in New York. He combined this experience to start his third career as a mystery writer. Thomas Martindale, the main character in his mystery series set on the Oregon Coast is a university journalism professor who used to be a magazine investigative reporter. In the first book, Murder at Yaquina Head (Sunstone Press, http://www.sunstonepress.com ), Martindale tries to solve the murder of a beloved friend using clues from her World War II memoir. In the second, Dead Whales Tell No Tales (to be published by Sunstone in April 03), he helps a former lover when she is charged with killing a marine biologist during a whaling conference on the Oregon coast.

 

Moderator: Tonight, we're visiting with Ron Lovell, mystery writer, who will be talking about turning 'Facts into Fiction'. He's also going to be sharing his experiences with us about publishing with a small press house rather than a big NY publisher. Welcome everyone, to our regular Thursday Live Interview.

Ron Lovell Hello

Moderator: Ron, welcome. We're all looking forward to chatting with you.

Ron Lovell Me too!

Moderator: So, Ron, how did you first get started writing mysteries?

Ron Lovell After I retired from OSU, I decided that I wanted a change of pace from all the articles and textbooks I had been writing for more years than I care to remember. I found mysteries intriguing and challenging so decided to try my hand at writing one.

Moderator: So were you a big mystery reader for pleasure, before you began writing them?

Ron Lovell Yes, they are theonly ficton I have read for years. Also, I never thought I could write a literary novel. Not enough danger and maybe a bit boring--for me and readers too.

Moderator: So, I'm curious, Ron. Has the fact that you write mysteries hurt your love of reading them?

Ron Lovell Not at all. I still buy only them--both series and stand-alones.

mbvoelker: How do you effectively organize your fact research for easy access while you're writing? If I printed everything out I'd probably have a stack of paper over a foot high with background info ... for a fantasy novel.

Ron Lovell I have long been a pack rat and keep files of material I might use some day. I assemble it--old articles, reference books and have it stacked around me when I write, but I usually don't consult it until the 2nd draft.

Moderator: Do you organize it in some manner so that you're not fishing frantically through a foot thick stack of papers?

Ron Lovell Usually by chapter. And to expand on the earlier thought, I blast through the first draft and get the whole story on paper, then go back and pick up the pieces and add whatever facts are needed.

Moderator: You're more organized than I am! I fish frantically!

annie Is it better to set stories in a real place or a made up city?

Ron Lovell It comes from my journalism days when yu have al those deadlines looming. I think it is better to use a real city because it adds authenticity and readers like to know the places they read about. But that does not mean you can't make changes in geography and other things.

Moderator: How far do you change things without blowing your credibility with readers who know the site?

Ron Lovell Not too far although I did move a cove for the next book down the coast a bit to suit my purposes.

chatty lady: What if you just get these wild ideas and write from them not using reference material much, is that o.k.? I have a half dozen started already

Ron Lovell Sure, that is fine as long as you are not pretending to present factual material. That why itís called fiction--I tell people who ask me. But my next book has a lot about whales and I was careful to get those facts right lest I alienate any scientist readers--like at the OSU Marine Science Center.

annie: Can you actually set a story in a place you haven't visited? How do you do it?

Ron Lovell I have not done that and I don't think I would because I could not really say much about it that would resonate with readers. So I have used places I have been or live now. And that includes the Arctic, the setting for my 4th mystery. I was there 15 years ago so I used it and then added other stuff from reference books.

chatty lady I just finished one about Vegas and people will know its Vegas but changed the names when talking about some characters so I don't get sued, Could I get sued, even if the facts are a matter of record in Vegas?

Ron Lovell I don't think so, unless you libel someone and make them worse than they really are. It is like a reporter would do. Back to the last question of how you do this if you haven't been there, that is where good research comes in. The author of Gorky Park had not been to Russia when he wrote it.

jim Using a city like NYC, would you mention private, well known places like the Biltmore Hotel, Madison Square Garden or Carnegie Hall?

Ron Lovell Absolutely. No problem at all.

Moderator: So how do you go about using real facts in your fiction?

Ron Lovell Before I answer that, let me say that my publisher told me that the disclaimer--any similarity between persons living or dead really helps a lot. But don't libel anyone. To your questions, Mary, In my case, a lot of it has involved situations I have encountered in my 24 years at OSU. Things any academic has experienced, so that they will have a ring of truth. The rest of it has meant adding material to push the story along, like having the Yaquina Head lighthouse as a principal setting for my first book, and the Yaquina Bay Bridge. The whale material in the second one is another example.

mbvoelker: Thank you, but could you be more practical and specific about organizing research?

Ron Lovell: OK. I label the various material by chapter number or overall topic, like lighthouses or whale regulation and then I grab it when it is time to put it in. I also file material I keep in file folders with broad titles. I go through them when it is time to use them and toss some and get good stuff out. It is not very scientific I am afraid, or very high tech. I cannot see the use of putting stuff into my computer and then calling it up when I need it. I am very old-fashioned.

chatty lady : Do you have all your material before you begin your book or do you find it as you need it?

Ron Lovell A bit of both. I dig out my old stuff and then search the Internet or a library for material I find I need later on. I needed facts on Russian commando forces and even kinds of helicopters for this Arctic book and facts about coast guard ice breakers (I'm giving my plot away!) and found it all on the Internet.

gail: I am working on a short story set B.C.E. I'm finding some of my researched data to be sketchy, at best. Is there some room for speculation on daily life in those times?

Ron Lovell What is B.C.E.?

Moderator: Before Common Era. Long time ago.

Ron Lovell Sorry, a new term to me. I suppose there is some room for cleaver speculation. Look at the success of Jean Auel. I would just make sure your readers find your speculation credible and interesting.

Moderator: For those of you who aren't sure, it's Jean Auel, who wrote the series set back in Neanderthal times. She did some 'creative guessing'.

g.j.: If you're writing fiction using a real place and have done research would you use a bibliography at the end of the book or story telling where you got your information from?

Ron Lovell: I would not unless there is a lot of it or you are making a larger point. As a former textbook writer trying (without success) to break into non-fiction. I found that people get the impression that something is boring and "textbook-like if you include too many of those references. I would add a "For further reading" list if there are things readers might benefit from.

teachwriter: Did you write fiction while you were a professor? If so, how did you find the time to write AND prepare lessons, grade papers, etc.?

Ron Lovell I did not. I purposefully waited until I retired because I thought I needed to write books and articles that would help me get promoted and be a better teacher of young journalists and writers.

jim: Do you outline? How specific is your outline for the first draft?

Ron Lovell I did not outline the first two books, I guess because I add carried them around in my head for several years as I planned my plunge into mystery writing. The last two I did, especially the Arctic one because it had many characters and a complicated cause and effect timeline. For the most part, I think an outline need be only as detailed as it helps you, but keep in mind that you have to send an outline along with sample chapters when you contact publishers.

Moderator: Ron, do you ever use real people in your fiction?

Ron Lovell Not yet. I have based some characters on "types" of people I have known in my life but never any specific person. Some people would like it, others would not, so it is safest not to do so.

mbvoelker: What sort of facts do you find the most useful for giving the reader a sense of immediacy and authenticity?

Ron Lovell For geographic places, a description to show you've been wherever it is. For events or consequences, that is where you would add the material I discussed before, like a whaling conference that is the background of the murder in my next book. I plugged in facts from a failed book on the political aspects of whaling. To sum up on this, I guess the thing you need is to make readers feel they have been to wherever you are taking them or know more about a subject than when they picked up your book.

Moderator: Do you even worry that since your stories are set in small towns, relatively speaking that residents will THINK they recognize real local citizens in your tales?

Ron Lovell It is my job that they not, but I am usually dealing with university people who are in a town like Corvallis or on the coast (Corvallis is where OSU is located and not locals. I did use a local sheriff as a figure of fun and a foil for my hero, but I removed a reference to any specific county lest I get pulled over for erratic driving or whatever.

wendyhaber: How do you spend your day? How much time do you spend writing, doing research, reading, etc.? What is the best use of your time?

Ron Lovell I am a morning worker. I try to start at 8 a.m. and work until noon. My goal is not hours worked, however, but finished pages. I try to do 5 pages a day so that makes for 25-30 a week and they mount up fast. This is for the 1st draft, which I tear through to get done. I then spend the afternoon doing research or reading or writing letters to get info.

jim: For a publisherís purposes, is the outline a series of three word phases, or full statements for each chapter or scene, or something else?

Ron Lovell It is usually 2 or 3 sentences that tell what happened in that chapter. I write mine after the book is finished. One I used to help my writing would be more sketchy, because only I would be reading it. And you tell everything, including who the killer is because you are trying to sell your book above all.

gail: Historical events can often be political events. If I use such an event to timeline my story, should I use actual names and places, and how carefully must those events be chosen?

Ron Lovell Absolutely. If it happened it is fair game. I would choose them only if they advance your story but there is no problem with libel or copyright or anything else as long as you don't darken the reputation of someone.

mbvoelker :Is it the big picture or the small details that contribute most to the readers' suspension of disbelief?

Ron Lovell I would say both, in that all the details contribute to the "big picture" that is your book.

chatty lady: You tell all that up front in your outline? How important is the query latter or could you just send the MS?

Ron Lovell No, you must have a query letter too even if it repeats details in your outline. It is kind of like textbook writing for students. You tell them what you are going to tell them in a chapter, then you give them the chapter and then you tell them what you've told them in review questions at the end. Work carefully on your query letter. it is like a resume--you only have a few seconds to attract an editor's attention.

Moderator: So, Ron, your mysteries are published by Sunstone Press, which is a small press house -- that is, it is not one of the huge publishing houses that live in NYC. Are you happy with their work on your book?

Ron Lovell Yes, I am. They have given me lots of personal help, from editing to promotion to knowing how to get the book reviewed nationally, and I am always able to reach the people there I need to reach.

Moderator: How does a new writer go about finding a small press publisher?

Ron Lovell I did it systematically by looking at the Amazon mystery section of new releases in a given month and locating all the small presses that published mysteries. There were six and I wrote to all of them.

gail: Are small press publishers more willing to look at work from new writers than the larger publishing houses?

Ron Lovell Yes, they are. I think, in large part, because they don't get buried in manuscripts and they also have more of a feeling of wanting to help writers get started. Also, there is always the possibility of really hitting pay dirt if things go well.

gail: Does small press usually translate to self-publishing?

Ron Lovell No, not at all. Sunstone designed the book, hired an illustrator to do the cover, and handled shipping copies out. Had I published it, I would have all those copies in my garage. A small press rejects as many manuscripts proportionally as a big house.

Moderator: When you self publish, you pay the cost of production yourself. A small press house pays for the production, although they may not be able to offer you an advance. So, do you begin receiving royalties immediately, Ron? Since you don't have to pay back an advance?

Ron Lovell That is right. I got no advance. And, no, there is a waiting period, specified in your contract, in my case six months after publication.

Moderator: But then you receive the royalties for the books sold during the first six months? Or does Sunstone keep that?

Ron Lovell Yes, I get my percentage. They have gotten the money as it rolled in, of course, but all publishers work that way. After this first time, I will get royalties every six months. One of my textbook publishers pays once a year, so it varies.

gail: Do you feel the quality of the finished product was as good with the small press as with the larger ones?

Ron Lovell Yes, very much so. The cover was especially elegant and had a flat finish, which made it look good, at least to me. Sunstone has an in-house designer who worked on it. I did not feel like it looked shabby at all. In fact, I think small publishers pride themselves in how their books look more than the big houses, with the exception of Random House and Knopf--which always list the typeface used as a throwback to its past when the real man, Alfred Knopf and his wife Blanche...worked hard to improve book design.

Moderator: I can attest that 'Murder at Yaquina Head' is a lovely and well-designed book!

annie: So is it better to start with a smaller publisher if you've never sold anything before?

Ron Lovell Thanks for the compliment Mary. It might be good to mix the two kinds--big and small... your idea may be just what a big publisher is seeking but you can also try it out with a small house, that is if you are doing simultaneous submissions, which you should do to save time. All of this takes a long time--five years for me!

Moderator: Ouch. But that's the business, alas.

wendyhaber : In addition to an outline, do you use a wall to plot your book or use photos or some other way to view what is happening in your book as you write?

Ron Lovell I never have but that is a good idea. I came close in the Arctic book, but just spread out file cards on a table. That might be a great way to go, especially if you have an involved plot.

wendyhaber : Five years from beginning to end for a book?

Ron Lovell No, five years to sell the first one. While my agent tried to sell the first one, I kept writing them--four in all. But it took all of that time before the first publisher was interested.

chatty lady: What did you say when you wrote to Sunstone?

Ron Lovell I usually write the cover letter like a press release or a news story--most important thing first, followed by less important points. I started with who my main guy is and then in the 2nd paragraph I said something like--"In Murder at Yaquina Head. Martindale (my guy) discovers... etc., etc. Then I say something like--I am writing to determine your interest in publishing my book, the outline and sample chapter enclosed, etc.... With a mystery, you send pages up to the first murder. In my case it was page 60, but you should send at least 2-3 chapters. Mary, do you agree?

Moderator: My books have always gone to my agent first. As far as I know, she always takes the whole ms to the editor.

jim: Do you use an agent to find a publisher or review a contract?

Ron Lovell I started with an agent but after she had no success with the first three, I went out on my own to the smaller presses..She had tried only New York houses. It is definitely preferable to have an agent to get your stuff read and to cut you a good deal, but when I could not have any success under that system, I tried it on my own.

Moderator: I will put in here that agents rarely want to deal with small press houses. The money is not enough, compared to a NY deal.

gail: Are the royalty ratios the same for small presses and large?

Ron Lovell I think they are fairly standard.

wendyhaber : It's a real honor to have you here tonight and to be able to ask questions since I live in the Corvallis area and my son attends OSU!

Ron Lovell Thank you.

jwlovell: Howdy Ron - I made it after all. Here's a question - have you ever co-authored a project with anyone, and if so, what are some of the difficulties to overcome?

Ron Lovell Hi Joel. Glad you are here. I have done four textbooks with co-authors and it has worked well for the most part. It is important to divide up responsibilities carefully and also to decide who the principal writer will be. In our case, I did a first draft and then the other two added material on photography -- their subject, not mine. But I had the book writing experience. In later editions, another writer took the lead and I dropped back to a less involved role, like handling permissions. Another time a publisher found me a collaborator in another university. I only met him once but it worked out very well. I had the idea but needed help.

gail: Have you ever used a timeline for writing mystery, and if so, can you describe your method?

Ron Lovell: I only used one once--in that Arctic book I keep mentioning. I just charted it out by days--from the file cards and then worked in who was dying or what major traumatic event was taking place. I always use a day of the week subhead so maybe that helps keep track. In the next book set in 87, I checked out a calendar to make sure the dates and days matched.

chatty lady: What's your take on writing to the publishers before you actually write the book but have a good outline or idea?

Ron Lovell I would not do that because if they want to see it you need to send them something while you have them on the hook. If you go back later and say, Remember you liked this 6 months ago they won't remember or worse yet, that person will have left the publisher entirely. With fiction you need the whole manuscript. With non-fiction, you need only a few chapters and a good outline. Your credentials for being able to do the book count a lot too.

Moderator: It rarely works unless you're an established pro. The publisher has no way to be certain that you can write what you propose to write!

gail: Should the outline be separate from or a subsequent page to your query?

Ron Lovell Should be separate with a nice boldface heading.

chatty lady: So how does someone get an advance to write a book or is that only for people already famous?

Moderator: Maybe you should define advance, Ron.

Ron Lovell An advance is an amount of money a writer gets on signing a contract. A typical one for a new writer is $5,000, but the writer pays it back from first royalities. Back to the question: Not necessarily. A publisher will give even a new writer an advance if he or she thinks that the work as promising. Itís a way to encourage and snag the writer for this and future work. I have gotten them for textbooks, but did not get one for my mystery.

Moderator: What about distribution and promotion? How does a small press house handle this? Do they distribute to large bookstore chains like Barnes and Noble?

Ron Lovell That is where small presses have some trouble. They have only a few sales reps and just do not have the reach of a big house. So you as a writer have to do a lot of get bookstores interested. I hired a publicity man, Gary Chesnutis, who has helped me by writing press releases and getting bookings for readings and signings. I have also been helped greatly by our regional booksellers organization Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. I attended their trade show this fall and got a lot of interest when I signed books --next to Mary--and have been invited to have signings in both Portland and Seattle. I cannot stress the importance of small bookstores enough. One bookstore here on the coast has sold 80 copies of my book, strictly by word of mouth. A big chain will not do that, but I have had successful events in Borders stores in Salem, Oregon and Corvallis, Oregon arranged by a local PR guy with them and not Borders nationally.

gail: If self-promotion and marketing are not your "thing" would a larger press be your best option for reaching a wider readership?

Ron Lovell Don't get me wrong, I llove to promote my book, it is just that you cannot reach everybody. That is where being with a big company would be great, but that has not happened so I am doing much of this myself. But Sunstone did get my reviewed in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Booklist and I have used that in bookmarks and a postcard I sent to bookstores.

jwlovell: How many bookstores do you estimate are selling your books now? Approximately?

Ron Lovell It is really hard to say--but I would guess 50, plus it is listed on Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble and I have had reports of it being in libraries in New York and Ohio.

Moderator: So how do you go about finding a publicist, and what do you ask that person to do?

Ron Lovell My publicist is a longtime friend who has long experience in the Silicon Valley and wants to get more involved in representing writers. I can put anyone who is interested in touch with him. I ask him to line up signings and readings and make arrangements for going to trade shows and to plot strategy like whether to try to get an agent.

jwlovell : Have you explored publishing with e-book companies?

Ron Lovell I did once before I fond a publisher, but it didnot work out and I am glad. I think the more traditional publishing world is best for me, not that there is anything wrong with e-publishing.

jim: If I can help with the last book, I was once appointed to the Whaling Control Commission of the New York State Senate and a piscador in the Denmark Strait.

Ron Lovell Thanks.

Moderator: I'm sorry. I lost a question from janp, asking if you had any advice for those who write for magazines.

Ron Lovell It is getting tougher all the time, because so many magazines go out of business. I would say to really do a lot of research on the magazines you are aiming at and make sure what you are proposing fits their format. The so-called niche magazine is doing best now, vs. the more general ones of the past. You need to establish your credentials fast too, but if you do, you might find them calling on you if the first assignments worked out. I tired freelancing twice but always rushed back to the protection of the university!

Moderator: Well, we're almost out of time. Ron, thanks so much for chatting with us. Your information is very useful! So do you want to tell us a bit about your mysteries and where we can buy them? The next one will be out at the end of March, right?

Ron Lovell Thank you Mary and all of you in the Chat Room. I really enjoyed myself. Murder at Yaquina Head is available at any bookstore on special order, through Amazon.com and B & N. In Oregon, stores on the central coast have it, and so does Borders in the Valley. Dead Whales Tell No Tales will be out the end of March and will be available at the same places then. Its "launch" will be at the Marine Science Center during Whale Watching Week, so if anyone out there can come over here, I will be glad to meet them.

Moderator: I've read Murder at Yaquina head, and it is a nice solid read! I'm looking forward to the next installment.

janp: Thank you Ron and Mary

Moderator: Thank you indeed, Ron...

Ron Lovell My pleasure.

Moderator: And thank all of you for coming tonight! This was great.

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