Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Countdown to Malice Domestic 2012--Robert Kresge

As we continue the countdown to Malice Domestic 2012 in Bethesda, MD, we have ten days left before the conference begins. Another of the panelists on the Saturday morning panel I'm moderating, Have Gun Will Travel: Mysteries Set Out West,is
Robert Kresge, author of a series of historical mysteries set in 1870s Wyoming. Kresge says he writes about the Old West because "history matters." He settled on Wyoming because of its pivotal nature during those years, leading the way with women's rights, in natural history with dinosaurs and the country's first national park, and visits from presidents, Russian grand dukes, and Buffalo Bill.

Kresge's two protagonists, male and female, are both newcomers to Wyoming but from very different backgrounds, Texas and Buffalo, New York. The use of protagonists of both genders works well in helping to demonstrate the different treatment of women in the Wyoming Territory. Their different backgrounds lead to misunderstandings but also allow them to bring different strengths to the investigating they must do.

Here is a link to buy Kresge's books.

Robert Kresge Bio

As a boy, I camped with my family across the West, soaking up the grandeur of our most scenic national parks, learned to ride in the Grand Tetons, and saw first-hand the plight of modern Indians on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. As an avid reader, I decided early on I wanted to be a writer, so I got a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Missouri.  One course that stuck with me was “The Twilight of the Sioux,” taught by Dr. John Neihardt, transcriber of the famed memoir Black Elk Speaks

In 2000, I founded a still active writers group at CIA that grew to 180 members. I took two courses in 2001 and 2002 -- “The American West in Fiction and Film” and “The Worlds of Mysteries” under Judy Riggin at Northern Virginia Community College— that got me started writing Murder for Greenhorns. I studied writing under mystery author Noreen Wald (aka "Nora Charles") in 2002.

I helped found the Albuquerque chapter of Sisters in Crime in 2004 and was 2008 president. While writing and revising Greenhorns, I spoke on a panel on spy novels at MWA’s Edgars symposium in 2002, a panel on settings at Left Coast Crime Seattle in 2007, and a panel on research and realism at LCC Denver in 2008.

For those new to your series, can you describe your series?  How would you describe the Warbonnet mysteries to someone who has not read any of your previous novels?

The Warbonnet mysteries are set in a small (130) Wyoming town on the Oregon Trail in the (so far) early 1870s.  In the first novel, Murder for Greenhorns, 19-year-old newly minted Eastern schoolteacher and 22-year-old former Texas cowboy Monday Malone witness the ambush shooting of their traveling companion, Warbonnet’s marshal-to-be Sam Taggart.  Since Monday finds the shooter’s tracks lead toward Warbonnet, their destination, he reasons the killer must have come from there.  Kate is upset at the callous crime and doesn’t want to be living in the same town as a murderer.  Since she and Taggart were both hired sight unseen on the basis of letters, she convinces a reluctant but smitten Monday to take the letters and the dead man’s place, reasoning that only the killer might know the real Taggart but would be reluctant to admit that.  After a successful solution to the crime, at great danger to themselves, Kate convinces Monday not to ride on to Montana as he intended, but to stay in Warbonnet and become the new marshal in his own name. 

In a nutshell, the Warbonnet mysteries are like Dr. Quinn meets Murder She Wrote.  My Civil War spy novel is like Cold Mountain meets The Day of the Jackal.

I was inspired to write this series by John McPhee’s geology book Rising From the Plains, in which the geologist’s mother came to Wyoming to teach school in 1905 and had to endure a three-day stagecoach ride to get from the nearest railroad station to her school.  I coupled that with a character from a 1957 Western called Ten Against Caesar, in which a young Texas cowboy identified only by the first name Monday was a major character.

Painted Women, the first of many sequels to Greenhorns, takes place a year later, in the summer of 1871.  Monday, now marshal of Warbonnet and a deputy sheriff of Albany county, learns that the last member of his foster family, his brother Tom, has been framed for murder in Laramie, the county seat.  Kate Shaw longs for home back East and considers leaving Wyoming.  As a budding artist, she concocts a scheme to experience the glories of the West by joining the Hayden expedition to Yellowstone.  Separated by fate, Monday and Kate struggle to clear Tom and survive threats to their own lives.  Torn by conflicted feelings for each other, Kate and Monday are reunited in Laramie at the eleventh hour.  Can they sift clues and eliminate suspects to unmask the real killer before Tom hangs?

What's your writing process? What is a typical writing day like for you? Do you keep to a set schedule? What are your writing habits?

Since I have three sequels to Greenhorns written and a standalone Civil War spy novel, I have no current writing process except to revise my manuscripts and continue to outline Warbonnet #5, set in 1874.  However, when I was writing first drafts, I developed habits which I passed along to the 180 members of the writers group I founded at CIA in 2000:
a.       Start writing early.  If you find you’re good at it, you’ll be glad you didn’t wait until your 50’s like I did.  If you have to struggle, then you’ll still have plenty of time to read books on writing, take classes, network at conferences, and join a critique group.
b.      Develop good writing habits/schedule commensurate with your career and family situations.  Your family expects to see you on weekends.  I used to write two hours each evening, Monday thru Thursday.  I have an understanding wife, and we did family things Friday nights and weekends.
c.      As soon as you’ve started writing, you’re a writer already (see point 7 below).  Work into your introductions or conversations “I’m a writer.”  You never know who the person sitting next to you may be—an agent, an editor, an author, or related to one.
d.      Oh, and it stands to reason that the best advice is finish the book or story.  Leave revising to the time after you finish the first draft.  And note when you finished that first draft on your calendar.  No matter how many things you write and how successful you become, you can only finish the first draft of your first work once.

What projects, literary or otherwise, are occupying you at the moment?

Revising the manuscript of the third Warbonnet mystery and trying to decide whether to publish the Civil War spy novel as an original e-book.

Who were your literary influences growing up? Are there any authors (living or dead) that you would name as influences?

My literary influences growing up were Edgar Rice Burroughs and the sci-fi trio of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein.  Starting in the 1990s, the authors who most inspired and influenced me were Tony Hillerman, Margaret Coel, and Ellis Peters.

When I said my two biggest influences were Tony Hillerman and Margaret Coel, it was because they alternated chapters from the POVs of two co-equal protagonists.  Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, starting with Skinwalkers, worked the same case from different angles, usually getting to the solution at about the same time by different routes.  They often did not confide their progress in each other or did not have time to do so, in the press of sudden insight.

Margaret Coel did the same thing with Father John O’Malley and Vickie Holden, never so at odds as when they pursued different suspects in her most recent work, The Spider’s Web.   There could be no romance between the two, but I wanted to add romantic/sexual tension between my coequals.  I’ve introduced romantic rivals, misassumptions, and widely different backgrounds to complicate solving mysteries for my two sleuths.  And I’m not done throwing obstacles in their paths yet.  I do get email asking when they’re going to hook up, but as J.K. Rowling famously said of writing anguished situations for Harry, Ron, and Hermione:  “These are my characters.  I invented them.  I own them.  And I’ll twist and torture them any way I please.”

I couldn’t have started my series without Tony and Margaret’s books, which sustained me during years of auto commuting through their books on CD.

What inspired you to write your first novel? Had you always wanted to be a writer?

As an avid reader in high school (600 paperbacks in my personal library), I always wanted to be a writer.  I got a Bachelor of Journalism degree in 1968 from the world’s oldest, largest, and best school of journalism, and, after Vietnam, joined the CIA and became an intelligence analyst.  After retiring in 2002, I was already finished with the first draft of Murder for Greenhorns

I worked with two critique groups on the manuscripts of Greenhorns and Painted Women.   We knew how effective critique groups operate and I took between 50 and 90 percent of the advice I received. 

What is your advice to aspiring writers? How important is it for a young writer to be a reader? What would you recommend they read?

For aspiring writers?  Everybody who begins to write is a writer.  You mean aspiring authors, those whose names appear on covers or magazine or short story bylines.  The best advice I can give are points 2 a-d above It is absolutely critical for a writer of any age to read a lot, especially in a genre or nonfiction subject you’d like to be published in.  Get to know the conventions of the field that is your goal.  Don’t be like Stephanie Meyers or Sarah Palin; no one should try to write a book without having read one first.  If they’re hoping to write mysteries, read Write Now! Mysteries that was just published and features exercises by 86 published authors.  After that the three most useful books are Writing and Selling Your Mystery by Hallie Ephron, Don’t Murder Your Mystery by Chris Reardon, and Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing by David Morrell (Rambo).

What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned in your writing career? What has been the hardest part about being a writer?

The most surprising thing I learned is that in general agents don’t want to talk to you unless you have a publisher and publishers don’t want to talk to you unless you have an agent.  However, the changing nature of the publishing business is that virtually anyone can get published now if you’re not in it for fame or fortune, but just for the satisfaction of getting the stories inside you out there.  The hardest part was spending eight years accumulating hundreds of rejection slips from agents and publishers who couldn’t get their heads around the concept that the Old West is just as valid a setting for historical mysteries as ancient Rome, ancient Egypt, the Middle Ages, Victorian Europe, or even 1920s Melbourne, Australia.

There.  Inside all that excess verbiage are some nuggets aspiring authors might use.  Have faith in yourself.  Keep writing.  And as Tim Allen said in Galaxy Quest:  “Never give up.  Never surrender.”


  1. Enjoyed the interview. Looking forward to meeting you both at Malice!

  2. Thanks, Casey. Rob did a great job with his answers, I thought. I think we'll have a good time at Malice.