The next author to be featured in this series has arguably been the biggest influence in my writing career. Before I ever started the first draft of my first short story, I discovered the work of Patrick J. O’Brian by pure happenstance. My wife and I took a weekend getaway to an amazing resort that our friends had told us about in southern Indiana. Tucked into the hills in the French Lick area, the West Baden Springs Resort is a hidden gem in a very unassuming, tiny, rural area. Once we got checked into our room, we were scoping out the gift shop when I stumbled across a book with an interesting cover called Reaper. I read the blurb on the back of the book and it instantly grabbed my interest. It seemed to be a murder mystery/thriller that was set in the hotel, so what better way to get acquainted with the resort than to read a story about a murderer hunting on the premises while you’re staying there?
After purchasing the book, I flipped to the “About the Author” section and learned that O’Brian serves as a firefighter in the same town where I worked. I’ve mentioned before how the thought never occurred to me that authors are mere mortals and not fictional superheroes that live in mansions on the coast, or high-rise condos in New York City, or a luxurious, isolated cabin in the woods. That was, until I learned about O’Brian. Being in such close proximity to a published author completely blew my mind. I went out on a limb and reached out to him on Facebook, asking if we could meet so I could get my book signed and also to talk about writing. I prayed that he wasn’t too weirded out by my forward request, and he probably was, but he still agreed to meet with me in a very public, well-populated area. Ever since, he has been a massive inspiration to me and I’d like to say that I consider him a friend at this point. Whether he considers me one in return is up to him, but he can’t deny me calling him a friend of mine at least! Enough of my babbling, let’s get to the interview now, huh?
How important is research to you when writing a story?
It’s always important, even when I’m writing something that’s set in the apocalypse or something other-worldly happens in the story. I still want the setting to be accurate, because that determines the actions and the mindsets of my characters. I do my homework when writing fiction, sometimes on the fly with Google, but doing a non-fiction project is much more of an endeavor. If you don’t have your i’s dotted and the t’s crossed, everyone who cares about the subject you’re writing about will let you know it.
How particular are you with spelling, grammar, etc? Do things have to be perfect from the beginning, or are you more worried about getting the idea on paper, then leave the proofreading to the editing?
In fiction, I want to use proper grammar, but I also want to use my own style, and sometimes those clash. When it comes to characters speaking, I tend to be a lot more liberal than when describing setting or telling the story. If my word processor could speak, it would say I’m one of the worst sentence fragment offenders in the world.
When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
I started writing and drawing comic books back in junior high school. My illustrations took forever, and eventually it just seemed easier to paint the story in words. I wrote novellas during high school and completed what I would call my first novel my freshman year of college. (It’s not in print and never will be…lol). (Editors’s note: I’d love to get my hands on that manuscript!)
What inspires you to write?
I always looked at writing as an escape from the real world. My stories tend to be about things I want to see or experience as a character and I can only hope other people want to tag along for the journey. Finally making money at writing was a treat, but it’s never been the reason I write. Authors have to have a passion about what they’re writing, whether it’s true or in the fictional world.
How often do you write, and how long is a typical writing session?
Writing is off and on for me due to having a ‘real job’ some of the time. Luckily, I can write at work sometimes, and that’s when I tend to have time to sit down and carry out research. Writing is never a steady thing, like two hours straight, or anything like that. I tend to write in five or ten minute blocks, take a quick break, and get back to it for however long I feel like writing.
Do you write for a certain time period, or do you set a word count and write until you reach that goal?
I’ve never been one to set writing goals, or force myself to write every single day like some writers. There are times when I just get on a roll and crank out a chapter, and others where I struggle for the right character dialogue, or how to next progress the plot to where I want it to go.
Do you outline an entire plot, or have a few highlights in mind then let the action dictate the rest of the story?
The one time I tried outlining a story from beginning to end (and it was a fairly good story if I may say so myself) I never finished the thing because it felt too boxed in for me. Now I tend to jot down notes or quotes of certain things I want said or done in the context of the story. This keeps it grounded, and gets the highlights in there without me feeling like I’m following a formula.
What do you think is the hardest thing about writing?
By far the research because while it can be fun, it’s time-consuming and keeps you from the fun part.
What is the easiest part of writing for you?
Typically, the start of a book, because it’s new and fresh and as an author I tend to pour my soul into getting those first few chapters right. If a writer can’t hook a reader right away, then you may lose them. I’ve consciously paid attention to this my last five or six years after constructive criticism from third party sources.
What are your thoughts on “writers block?” Do you think it’s a real thing? If so, how long does it usually last and what methods do you use to get past it?
For me, writer’s block is usually not knowing exactly where I want the plot to go next, or what I want the characters to say in a key conversation. There are those major turning points in every book, and I like to get them right, so I stew about it until the right scenario finally comes to me. That’s my writer’s block.
What do you like to read (genre, titles) and who are your favorite authors?
I tend to read action-adventure, mysteries, and some biographical/true story books. Books about shipwrecks and their survivors tend to draw me in for some reason. My favorite author is Clive Cussler, and I modeled at least part of my style after him in the way he describes virtually every character.
If you took the chance to rewrite one of your books, which one would it be and why?
I dare say ‘Reaper’ because although it’s a slasher book mystery of sorts, there would be a hell of a lot more police involvement if there were that many murders going on. Also, I wasn’t very good at giving the main character feelings, in some crucial areas. Parts of it just felt juvenile to me, and I wrote it in my early 20s. Life has a way of teaching you things and making you wiser, I suppose.
Any advice you’d like to give your younger self? Any advice you’d like to give to aspiring authors?
Reading more is key, and I wish I had done more earlier, and I wish there was more time for it now. It seems most of my reading these days is research or testing materials for work. My advice would be to read, refine your craft (with strong editing, too!) and learn to take criticism because there will always be those people who don’t like your projects. No goal is unattainable, but it does take a lot of work to get there.
Do you read any of your own work? If so, are you a harsh critic, or do you get wrapped up in the story?
My process is to read the book once through myself once it’s finished, before I hand it off to any editors. I’m tough on myself, but I also write stories I enjoy. I mostly go through it for technical stuff, but occasionally add/change dialogue or add some plot points. It’s pretty uncommon for me to add anything major once the project is done.
Have you ever incorporated something that happened to you in real life into any of your stories?
Oh, all the time. There are aspects of calls on the fire department that have made it into my fire stories. I tend to pick up on characteristics of people I meet, and sometimes those quirks make for interesting characters when put to paper. There are also stories people tell me, I read about, or see on a TV program, that I sometimes use. I’ve built books from a five-minute new segment before.
What are you currently working on/What’s your next project?
Currently working on the second of ‘The Undead Chronicles’ at the moment and picking out photographs for a pictorial book of the West Baden and French Lick hotels that I hope to organize and publish this year. It’ll be light on the history and heavier on contemporary photographs to show the area during the different seasons.
How many ideas do you have stories for at the moment?
It always feels like 50, but it’s probably closer to ten or so at any given time.
Who are your books mostly dedicated to?
Family members, people who have inspired me, and people who work in public safety or the military.
Do you have a day job other than being a writer? If so, what is it and which do you prefer?
I’m a lieutenant on the Muncie Fire Department, and while I love my work there, writing is a passion I’ll always prefer.
Is it true that anyone can be a writer?
I believe so. People often sell themselves short, saying they can’t spell, or don’t use grammar correctly, but it’s so much easier these days with computers tracking all of that stuff for you. Hell, I used to hand write books, type them, and eventually use a physical word processor before computers were in every home.
Which of your books would you most like to see adapted into a motion picture?
Probably ‘Stolen Time’ because of all my books, I felt like I nailed the pacing, the plot, and the characters in that one. The special effects would be pretty cool if they did them right for the flashback scenes and the end of the book.
Are you involved in marketing your books? If so, what are your favorite tips/tricks?
Unfortunately, I don’t have much time for marketing my stuff, and I’m pretty bad at it anyway. I do the website, and the books get carried in some of the right places, but I don’t do much once they come out. With so much competition, a writer has to get their name out there, too.
Have you ever worked with other writers on any of your projects?
I tried it once on a true story project but we clashed on several concepts and the project never saw the light of day. Collaboration is something I’d be open to, but I dare say the writers have to share a mindset, and ground rules probably have to be put down beforehand.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I’m a roller coaster junkie, so I spend much of my time at various theme parks. I also dabble in photography and buy and sell in online auctions. During the summer, I play vintage baseball (base ball as it was spelled back in the 1800s) where we use no mitts, the ball is a bit softer, and it is pitched underhanded as opposed to over the shoulder.
How did you celebrate the publishing of your first book?
I don’t know that I really did. That’s not to say I wasn’t over the moon, but I dove right into advertising it, and spreading the word, and trying to get sales. There wasn’t any big dinner, or gathering, or anything like that.
What kind of mementos do you have in honor of your published works?
I keep all of my first copies of each book (usually the proof copy) on a shelf in my living room. Some of the objects that have adorned my covers also line various walls of my house (i.e. the tribal masks from ‘The Sleeping Phoenix’). I also do a lot of the photography for my covers, so occasionally I have a cover blown up to poster size as well.
Have you ever abandoned a manuscript for any reason and not proceeded with publishing?
I abandoned manuscripts back in my early days before getting published. There are a few on the back burner right now, but none I would consider scrapped since 2002 when my first work got published.
Have you received any awards for any of your literary works?
I can’t say I have, but I’ve only entered two or three contests ever.
Do you need silence to write, or do you prefer some background noise? If you need noise, what is your preference?
My ideal writing scenario is listening to my favorite playlist of movie score music, having a mood-setting scented candle nearby, and some time where I’m not obligated to do anything else. I’m listening to score music right now!
Where did you do your first book signing?
Danner’s Bookstore before it went defunct, in Muncie.
Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym? Why or why not?
I never seriously considered it, but if I chose to, my reasoning would be the famous Patrick O’Brian who wrote all of the seafaring tales back in the day. He’s been dead over a decade now, but his books are everywhere. People accidentally buy mine and give them bad reviews just because I’m not him. I wouldn’t seriously consider it because I meet too many people and it would be hard having a ‘stage name’ of sorts in public.
Is your goal to offer a unique writing style, or to provide a more conventional story that readers are more geared towards?
I’m more conventional, but that’s not to say I don’t have my own little quirks in my style. And my style has changed slightly over the years. Some of the things I used to do (like frequent sentence fragments on purpose) I don’t necessarily do so much these days.
What is the best purchase you’ve made as a writer?
Strangely enough, it’s my current Nikon camera. Not only does it give me awesome shots for my coffee table books, but it also helps me capture images when I’m out doing research so I can describe settings and whatnot in perfect detail later on.
Who’s your favorite author that nobody knows about?
Paul Lindsay, who passed back in 2011, was a retired FBI agent who wove some really good tales about gritty FBI agents and their cases. It was fiction, but I think he drew quite a bit from his experiences and cases he’d read.
How do you select the names of your characters?
In the old days it was the phone book, but now I start with what letter I want the surname to begin with and do a Google search for surnames. Once I pick that, I go for a first name that fits with it, or rolls of the tongue really well.
Have you ever Googled yourself? What was your reaction to the results?
I just did for the first time after reading this. There’s some stuff out there about me, but it’s mostly tied to Amazon and other sites. Probably better not having my whole life out there, I suppose.
How can fans reach/find/follow/contact etc?
Facebook is consistently a good way. My website is usually a really good way, but I’m having technical difficulties lately and it may be down a bit while I switch providers.
Anything else you would like to share?
I’m a Halloween nut, and love decorating my yard every year when the weather permits. Most years, I take lots of time off in October to watch horror movies and travel to theme parks for the final time(s) of the year.
I really want to thank Patrick for taking the time to answer all my questions – both for this and for all the other times I pester him! Now click here and find your next great read. Readysetgo!
8 responses to “Author Spotlight: Patrick J. O’Brian”
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