Monday, June 27, 2011

Murder The Hard Way

© Wayne Zurl 2011 all rights reserved

On June 28th, 2005, I submitted my latest article to Buckskinner magazine. I called it The Bumppo Travel Agency; a travelogue of text and photos of Cooperstown, New York. The piece was geared towards those living historians interested in the exploits of Nathaniel Bumppo and his faithful Mohican companion Chingachgook. Some readers may know the pair as Hawkeye and the man who truly was THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS.

For two years I had been writing a regular column called Cooperstown, dealing with the Early American fiction of James Fenimore Cooper. I was a retired cop turned writer. The readers I met loved my articles. They loved the magazine. Then something unusual happened. The publisher of Buckskinner hadn’t acknowledged my submission. Damned unusual; he always responded promptly, always sounded pleased, and always paid me on time. I sent a few more emails which went unanswered. A few days later, I learned the magazine went bankrupt. And I learned something about the periodical business—don’t publish an all color magazine on high quality paper for a reasonable price unless you’ve got thousands and thousands of subscribers.

So, I was retired and unemployed.

After the turn of the next year, I picked up a copy of Robert B. Parker’s novel NIGHT PASSAGE. He told the story of ex-LAPD detective Jesse Stone who had been fired for alcoholism. Based on the Americans With Disabilities Act, I’m not sure that could happen as depicted, but it made one hell of a story. Dejected, separated from his beautiful wife, and only thirty-five years old, Jesse applied for the job of police chief in the small town of Paradise, Massachusetts. He was hired and Parker began a successful series of police mysteries.

I loved the book. I had read most of Parker’s Spenser stories and found Jesse and Paradise just as interesting. After I closed the cover and drained my second glass of Glenfiddich, I said, “If Parker can do it, so can I. I was a cop and he wasn’t.” I hadn’t written anything in six months and needed a creative outlet.

I began devising a plan. I’d have a former New York detective find a police chief’s job in Tennessee. Since I worked for twenty years in New York and now lived in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, I’d stick with the author’s maxim of “write about what you know.” My hero would be retired (like me) not fired (like Jesse). He’d be married to a beautiful woman (like me) not about to be divorced (like Jesse). He’d drink scotch (like me) but not be an alcoholic (like Jesse). Cool! I had a modicum of success writing non-fiction. How difficult could it be getting fiction published? I’d write about cases I worked on or knew about in New York. I’d embellish them, fictionalize everything, and transplant them in Tennessee. Easy, huh?

For almost a week I talked with my wife (the beautiful one) and formulated a basic story she and I thought would make a good novel. I hadn’t written any fiction since school. Some defense attorneys called my prosecution worksheets pure fiction, but they were prejudiced. But how hard could it be? I asked again. It’s like riding a bicycle or hitting a softball. Everything comes back once you start.

So, with no formal training in creative writing, I grabbed a yellow pad and Holiday Inn Express pen and began writing something called MURDER IN THE SMOKIES. A few weeks and 45,000 words later I finished, typed it into a Word document, and proof read it. I thought it was the cat’s ass. I envisioned sequels. DEATH IN THE SMOKIES, METH IN THE SMOKIES, THE GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAIN BANK ROBBERY—you get the idea.

I pondered over a name for my protagonist and called him Sam Jenkins after my maternal grandfather. That sounded like a fictional detective. I called the small city where he’d be chief Prospect. A community named Prospect was founded in 1784 no more than five miles from where I lived, but it never incorporated and never got its own zip code. Today only the memory of Prospect remains.

Then I learned a little about query letters; a little, but not enough. I wrote a two page standard business letter that talked about my book and me, and sent out a dozen to literary agents I found in a library book. I received twelve rejections with no one reading a word of my novel. Only one agent commented, “45,000 words is too short for a novel.” How should I know? Who counts words in someone else’s book?

I started over. At 84,000 words I thought I was finished again. I sent out more letters and got more rejections. Then I spotted a publisher who dealt exclusively with mysteries. I sent them a letter and fifty pages. A few months later I received another letter. They weren’t interested, but their acquisitions editor did say she thought I wrote well, but disliked all the back-story in the first chapters.

“Hey,” I said, “Parker used seventy-nine pages of set up to provide back-story on Jesse Stone in NIGHT PASSAGE. How do you tell the readers about a character unless you tell his story? I enjoyed what he did. It made sense. It held my attention. Why can’t I do it? What is back-story anyway?

I bought a copy of Stephen King’s book ON WRITING to learn how the big guys do it. He spent several pages addressing back-story and referred me to his 1998 novel BAG OF BONES. King said: Get it out of the way up front, and he spent more than eighty pages doing so in BOB. Stephen was a success. He probably owned half of Maine. Why couldn’t I do it his way?

I hired a professional editor and “book doctor” to do a manuscript evaluation and help me write a new query letter. His first email was encouraging. He said, in part: I wrote with a good voice. He liked my main character; he was memorable and had true grit. The story was good and worth salvaging. Salvaging?

He taught me things like: trim down, flesh out, arrive late – leave early, and passive slows – active propels. I didn’t have to be a great writer; I had to be a great rewriter.

I began revising the book and changed the title to A NEW PROSPECT. It held a triple meaning, one for me and two for the readers. A couple months later I had an almost finished product. The pro liked it. I joined an on-line writer’s workshop and solicited other opinions.

When I really had a completed manuscript, I began querying agents again. Still no luck. I assumed a middle-aged cop working in east Tennessee held less interest than the current crop of vampires, zombies, and teen-age werewolves that was burning up the book stores. So, I found all the publishers who would accept submissions directly from an author and I began, promising myself to accept the first reasonable contract offered.

In January 2011 A NEW PROSPECT was traditionally published. In May of this year it was named best mystery of 2011 and won an Indie at the Next Generation Independent Publishing Professional’s Book Awards. Today it’s available in print and various eBook formats from all the usual sources.

About the author:

Wayne Zurl grew up on Long Island and retired after working for twenty years with the Suffolk County Police Department, one of the largest municipal law enforcement agencies in New York and the nation. For thirteen of those years he served as a section commander supervising investigators.

Prior to his police career, Zurl served on active duty in the US Army during the Vietnam War and later in the reserves.

In 2006 he began writing crime fiction. Seven of his Sam Jenkins mysteries have been produced as audio books and simultaneously published as eBooks. His first full-length novel, A New Prospect, traditionally published by Black Rose Writing, debuted in January 2011.

Zurl left New York to live in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee with his wife, Barbara.

For more information about Zurl or his writing, visit Follow his book signing tour at

Connect with Wayne at Twitter at!/waynezurl   or Facebook at .


Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Wow, Wayne. What a story! This is fantastic, and should inspire our newbie authors who read MB4 to carry on - I will be tweeting and facebooking (is that a verb yet?) this to authors everywhere - it is a wonderful success story and a great lesson in how it's done. Thanks and best of luck with your book, which I will be checking out right now!

Cheryl Hart said...

Like Aaron said, VERY inspirational. :)

pat said...

Aaron once told me what a wonderful writing "voice" I had. And Marta taught me about "point of view". And I also read (and loved) King's book...but I have made every excuse not to do the work. Bravo, Wayne! And Aaron and Marta...wait for me. I promise. I'll come through. I vow a daily visit to MB4 as a kick start. Who knows?

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Thanks for stopping by, C.E.!

And Pat, you know how much I love your writing - enough to be happy to wait for when your muse comes back to visit. You are such a talent!

Jenny Milchman said...

Very interesting to learning about the story behind the story of PROSPECT. It's particularly different for me to read about discussing the story before you even begin writing. I love stories with a cop character and am looking forward to reading yours. Best of luck!