Please welcome our honored guest poster today, J.M. Hayes. J.M.—Mike—was born in Hutchinson, Kansas, when it was the fourth largest city in the state. He was a graduate student studying archaeology at Wichita State University when he joined a National Science Foundation project that inspired his latest novel—The Spirit and the Skull. He moved to the University of Arizona to continue his studies and has lived in Tucson since. He has seven other books in print—The Grey Pilgrim and the six entries in the Mad Dog & Englishman Mystery Series (Mad Dog & Englishman, Prairie Gothic, Plains Crazy, Broken Heartland, Server Down, and English Lessons). For more about Mike and his books, check out his website: http://www.jmhayes-author.com/.
In Rules of the Knife Fight (Harper & Row, 1986), Walter Walker explains his title with the following epigram: There are no rules in a knife fight. –Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Thus, four years before I published my first novel, Mr. Walker summed up the opinion I have developed about rules for writing. There are no rules. There is, however, one very important caveat. Writers who hope to sell their work must satisfy their readers. Other than that, I think writing shares a lot with knife fighting. Use anything that works.
As in a knife fight, you're wielding a sharp instrument. Your pen? Maybe your cutting wit? Keen insights, perhaps? Should you be aggressive or defensive? Aim for death by a thousand cuts, or maneuver carefully for the sudden surprise of a finishing blow?
Whatever you decide, don't wound yourself through over-reliance on an opening metaphor. That's not a rule, it's just part of the satisfying readers thing.
My first novel, The Grey Pilgrim (Walker and Company, 1990), wasn't a big rule breaker. It was based on actual events in which American Indians near Tucson refused to sign up for the draft in World War II, threw out the officials who planned to register them, and disappeared into the desert in a state of rebellion. Telling a fact-based story tends to keep you aligned with rule-based writing. It's possible I used too many flashbacks to explain how my characters came to meet and begin testing their individual and culturally based senses of honor. And I may have tossed in an overly downbeat coda. At least one reviewer thought so. But it wasn't like I brought a saber to a knife fight. More like a small machete. It was my first hack at writing. I'd learn.
Among the things I learned is that the publishing business doesn't fight fair. Walker asked for my next novel. I wrote and delivered it almost simultaneously with their decision to eliminate their suspense line and fire my editor. It took me ten years, in between the kind of jobs that earned enough money to support renewed efforts to write for publication. Also, a reinvention and an open-minded publisher—Poisoned Pen Press. This time, the rules I followed had mostly become my own.
Take a rural Kansas sheriff and pair him with a wannabe Cheyenne (his brother, the town oddball) who thinks he's a natural born shaman. Since nothing ever happens in rural Kansas, when it does, during the twenty-four hours or less described in each book of my series, all hell breaks loose in Murphy's Law fashion. I blend farce, a cynical world view, and toss my characters into the kind or horrors the real world offers all too often. One reviewer described what I do as “McMurtry on skates.” Another said “...as gothic as Faulkner, as amusing as Twain...” But a series imposes its own rules.
So now I've done another standalone, The Spirit and the Skull. It's just your usual Paleolithic murder mystery, set in a band of immigrants crossing into Alaska in search of a break through the glaciers leading to their promised land. The Earth Mother drops in to deliver a few blows, complicating matters. So do thrusts of time travel—as the band's spirit man has dream visits with a modern archaeologist after being entombed for 15,000 years. Finally, twin threats cut from both sides of that little temporal anomaly. And there may be a concealed hint of alternate realities. All that bends or breaks nearly every mystery-genre rule I know. Except, I hope, the one about satisfying readers.
I probably should have had a knife fight, instead of spears and bows and arrows.
My readers will have to decide, while dodging pointed plot twists in what just might be the oddest mystery they've ever read.