In this episode, Linda Hengerer talks with Vincent O'Neil about his book Death Troupe, winning the St. Martin's Press/Malice Domestic Best First Novel contest, his series featuring Frank Cole, and how he got the acting bug at SleuthFest.
In this episode, Linda Hengerer talks with Vincent H. O'Neil. Vincent H. O’Neil is the Malice Award-winning author of the Exile murder mysteries from St. Martin’s Press and the military science fiction Sim War series (written as Henry V. O’Neil) from HarperCollins. He has also authored several short stories in Mystery Tribune, Bourbon Penn, Mystery Weekly, Hypnos, and Lovecraftiana magazines.
Visit him at www.vincenthoneil.com for links to his books and short stories, as well as helpful presentations he's delivered on a variety of writing topics at different conferences.
Get to know Vincent - The Tart Words Baker's Dozen:
1. Plotter or Pantser? Combo? Combo.
2. Tea or Coffee? Coffee.
3. Beer, Wine, or Cocktails? None.
4. Snacks: Sweet or Savory? Sweet.
5. Indie Published, Traditionally Published, or Hybrid? Hybrid.
6. Strict Writing Schedule: Yes or No No.
7. Strictly Computer or Mix It Up? Mix it up.
8. Daily Goal: Yes or No No.
9. Formal Track Progress: Yes or no Yes.
10. Special Writing Spot? No.
11. Writer’s Block? No.
12. File of Ideas: Yes or No Yes.
13. Favorite Author(s)? William Gibson, Patricia Highsmith, H.W. Brands, Rex Stout, Mario Puzo.
Transcribed by Otter.ai; Lightly edited by Linda. Please forgive typos or grammar errors J
Episode 224 - Vincent O’Neil
Welcome to Tart Words. I'm your host, Linda Hengerer. And I'm a writer, a reader and a baker. I talk to writers about their latest book and what inspires them, chat with fellow author Suzanne Fox about what writers can learn from reading their favorite authors, and share fast and easy recipes for anyone looking for a sweet treat. Join me as I share Tart Bites, Tart Thoughts, and Tart Words. In this episode, I’m talking with Vincent H. O’Neil.
Vincent H. O’Neil is the Malice Award-winning author of the Exile murder mysteries from St. Martin’s Press and the military science fiction Sim War series (written as Henry V. O’Neil) from HarperCollins. He has also authored several short stories in Mystery Tribune, Bourbon Penn, Mystery Weekly, Hypnos, and Lovecraftiana magazines. Visit http://www.vincenthoneil.com/ for links to his books and short stories, as well as helpful presentations he’s delivered on a variety of writing topics at different conferences.
I'm looking forward to talking with you today and in particular finding out more about Death Troupe.
Thanks a lot for having me here, Linda. Yeah, I had a great time writing that book Death Troupe. Now that of course is a theater themed murder mystery that I wrote a few years ago. One of the things that happened there is I had been involved in a pretty involved – it was more than a skit, it had a script, it had characters – and it was at Mystery Writers of America, Florida Chapter SleuthFest that you used to run. It was a great time doing that skit with all the other writers and I kind of got the acting bug. So I said, the next one I'm going to write is going to be something involving acting. So I started reading up on theater because I knew next to nothing about it. And I started reading things like the Complete Idiot’s Guides, which I think are great research. And the end result was Death Troupe. Death Troupe is the nickname of this theatre company called The Jerome Barron Players, but they're very special group. Jerome Barron is the director. He's world famous, he has a lot of loyal actors and actresses who will come and do this once a year, each year in a different town. And the towns compete to get Death Troupe to come on by. And the thing about this performance is that it's the performance of a play that's written in the town. So the playwright, who is the main character in the book, goes to the town six months before the performance and writes a murder mystery script based off of the local lore and history and the people who live there. And so of course, the playwright wants to get to know everybody. And the way that they keep this interesting through the six months is there's a wager involved here that after the second act on the night of the performance, the people in attendance take a vote. And if more than 50% of them PIck the right player, who is the actual murderer as the murderer, if they can identify the murderer then the town is off the hook for paying for the rest of the engagement. So that keeps everybody involved. And it also makes them try and pry into what the playwright is doing to try and detect clues and get an idea of what he's actually writing here. And of course, there has to be a mystery and the mystery involves the previous playwright who had a very bad experience in the previous engagement where they were people coming into the town who were getting inside of their planning cycle seem to know Death Troupe a little bit too closely. And they were spreading clues that were throwing the whole thing off. And the same thing starts to happen to the replacement playwright if you will, in the in the novel Death Troupe. So that's how that works. They’re a lot of fun to write.
And how did you get the idea? I know you mentioned the skit from SleuthFest, which I do remember quite well, I think you had mentioned also the Complete Idiot’s Guide for some background research.
Yes, the Complete Idiot’s Guides. I think they're just a lifesaver. I started out writing my first mystery after having read all sorts of Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, and I was writing the book for the Malice Award competition. And so it had to be a cozy and I was thinking about making my character someone who had had a bad experience in life and had gone bankrupt, his business went bankrupt, and that he still had the debt attached to him, which is unusual in a bankruptcy. And so he was going to get out of the Northeast where he lived, and he would head down to Florida and just do odd jobs and just keep his living very minimal. And that way he'd be able to convince the people who were after settling this debt that they weren't going to get paid and that they'd have to come to a different agreement and then he could restart his life. So the guy is very analytical and I thought, what if he went down under became a PI, so I went and got the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Private Investigations, which I highly recommend, and quickly learned that kind of guy wouldn't get to be a PI, wouldn't get licensed and certainly couldn't post the bond that goes with that in the state of Florida. Well, I was reading the Complete Idiot’s Guide and learned about all these other jobs that are part of investigations, one of which is fact checker or background checker. And because this individual is a computer software developer, that was his business, that's what that went bankrupt. He's very analytical and he's very dogged. I figured I'll make him a fact checker or background checker who actually helps investigators. So the Complete Idiot’s Guides are just a treasure trove of assistance for inspiration, research, and making sure that you don't make a mistake like that. So when I was doing Death Troupe, the first thing I read was The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Amateur Theatricals, then I started working my way up just very basic stuff. I really don't claim to know much about the theater. But I really got a lot from reading some of the memoirs and how-tos from the big directors. And one of the best things I read was one of them said, when you hit that final high point, the climax of the story, he's talking about the stage, I applied this to my writing. So when you hit that final high point, drop the curtain as fast as you can afterwards. And so I've tried to keep that in mind, when I write, I do try to tie up the loose ends, let's have a nice ending after the big moment, that is the climax of the story, whatever that may be, and don't leave people hanging. But at the same time, I try to end it as soon after that as possible, because it is the big moment. And that's what you want people to remember.
That's interesting, because when I talk about writing with other writers and read books on writing and whatnot, usually you have the big story question. And that's the first question you start with. And then there are other ones that come along. And the conventional wisdom is that you wrap them up in reverse order. So the last story question to get asked is the first one answered. So that leaves the main story question, which for us mystery writers is usually who done it and why, would be the last one. And that goes along with dropping the curtain as soon after as possible, because the climax to that story question is finding out who the killer was, will they be brought to justice, whether they were arrested or you know, brought to justice in some other way? That would be the question. And then once you wrap up that story question, you're really done.
Exactly. Just thinking about what you said there about doing them in reverse order. I'd never heard that one before. That is really cool. I'm going to have to look at that. Because you know, one of the things that happens in Death Troupe, because Death Troupe really is a writer's book is for everybody. It's about anybody who likes the theater, like murder mystery. It's just a book that has broad appeal to people. But it's really a writer's book as well, the main character, the playwright, has a methodical approach to things and likes to outline, likes to do a lot of brainstorming, get the ideas together. So it's all flowing one point to the next. Whereas his predecessor, who was more of a seat of the pants kind of playwright, had an idea that he'd go almost reverse is that this guy would try to think of big moments in the story. And he kind of had this explanation where he said, it's kind of like, your story is hidden under floodwaters. And all you see is water at the first and then the water starts to recede and what would you see first, you'd see the high points. So he viewed that as the high points of the story, we would see first, and that was what was most important to that writer. And then as the water receded further, you'd see the things that set up the high points and the things that happened after them. And finally, once it's receded enough, you see all the connective tissue that takes you from the high points in the midpoint in the middle of the story into the very big climax at the end. And at one point, my playwright in the book has to abandon the way he was working for a number of reasons. And he switches to the predecessor’s way and actually finds that it works for him, which I thought was just a fun exploration because as you know, so many times we writers get together and talk about the plotters versus the pantsers and write that way.
I think it's always interesting to hear how other writers, real or imagined, work, because you never know when you'll be able to use something in your own writing. Tell me a little more about Exile and how you won the St. Martin's contest. And that book was published. And you had several books in that series. So tell me a little bit more about that series.
I had been writing a bunch of different things over the years. I published some short stories. I had several books, two or three novels, and one nonfiction book, and I just wasn't getting anywhere. And so I started looking at the competitions. And I wanted to find ones that were well thought of. I looked at the St. Martin's Press/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery competition. My hat's off to all their preliminary readers who do this out of the goodness of their hearts, because you submit the complete novel. It's not a treatment. It's not the first three chapters, they read the whole thing. The year that I was lucky enough to win, they had a bumper crop and a lot of submissions, and so many of them are really, really good and so frequently, they'll submit several from the stack they get. I've talked to so many people who submitted at the time and as you know, you go to these writing conventions and some of the best fun at the writing conventions is talking to just the other writers, wherever they are in their journey. And just hearing about their ideas and what book they're writing. Now, it's just so much fun to hear these ideas. And you just say, oh, my goodness, I want to read that book, I do hope you get that published. That's how I got my foot in the door was actually won the competition. That was a big step up for me. And I really enjoyed writing that character. Because he is a character who has had to start over completely: his business was crushed, he had to leave the place where he was from, his marriage ended, he felt that he had really been mistreated by the court, he was working 18 hour days trying to save the business he gave his heart and soul, and he just died and it wasn't his fault. But other people blamed him for it. And so finally, he's down there. And I've got him as an individual who is not a particularly well balanced at this point. Because of that trauma. He wasn't aware of how badly it affected him. So some of his reactions are a little bit out of place. One of my friends this is this is 2006. So people are well aware of PTSD, but I never really considered it when I was writing it. And someone said, Frank Cole, the main character is suffering from PTSD from everything that happened. And I thought about that. And I said, you know, I've got this one line, because it's written first person singular. And he says, I was run over by a locomotive where there were no railroad tracks. I said that is an indication of someone who's had a really traumatic experience that is still impacting him months and months later.
It's interesting to me, too, that Frank Cole comes to Exile, leaving everything behind whether it was by his choice or not. And then with Death Troupe, they're an itinerant band of people. Do you consciously write about people who are not tethered to one place in particular? I know that Frank is in Exile for a little while, because there are several books in that series. But with Death Troupe, they go from town to town.
I think it's really kind of fascinating to have something where you take the characters, and they're not in their natural environment. So it helps presenting the locale of the story and setting the tone. And it's almost like they're seeing it for the first time the way that the writer is seeing it. So I think that is an easier way for me to do this. I've got other books that are set in just one place. And everybody's familiar with where they are. But it is funny, you mentioned that the people who are the cast members of Death Troupe are itinerant, because they are all successful actors and actresses in their own right. And to the extent that they haven't been in their contracts that day, once a year, I'm going to bail on you. And I'm going to go over to the Barron Players, we're going to do this thing. Because I want to explain why would serious actors want to do something like that. And one of the reasons for it is because they have very little prep time, they are not doing plays they've done before. It's a play they've never seen before, it's been written for the locale. And of course, the rumor about Death Troupe is that they have several different endings, almost so they could trick people if they had to, to win that wager. They don't do it. They don't do it. But it's a rumor about them. And then there's that clannishness that comes from that because the town of course sees itself as a group trying to win the wager, the Troupe sees the town as people they want to entertain, and they want to get to know them. But they're also a little suspicious of them. And they have to be on their guard. And so they have little hand signals. One of them I came up with is that you're standing there, you're two members of the Troupe, and someone walks up who is a little too sharp, a little too inquisitive. And the other member with you hasn't met them yet and needs to be on his guard, they just reach over and just squeeze your left elbow from behind. And that's the signal to be careful, this one, this one's sharp. And it's just a little thing that later on in the program, it reveals the presence of someone who they didn't even know was in the Troupe, who had been brought in by the director, when she does that to the main character.
You had mentioned that there's a quote from Death Troupe that's been used in different play publications and whatnot. And I just really love that line.
It’s a line that just appeared on the stage. It's a discussion between the playwright and the director and the line was, “Actors are all about entrances but writers are all about exits.” And it really fits because the actors coming out on the stage first time you see that character or the characters being revealed on the stage, whether they are going to do something big or small, or they're reaching for a big effect or something that is very nuanced. That entrance is something they work on very hard and they come up with the best way to do it. Whereas the writers, you know you as a writer would know this, is that we're always looking for how this thing's going to end. What is the end of the line? What is that big moment before we drop the curtain? How do we make sure that we've explained the story well enough without spoon-feeding? So we're more toward the end of that set of a sentence? What is it impact? And so yeah, so the line “Actors are all but entrances and writers are about exits.” It's been very gratifying to see that quoted on a bunch of different websites, theater outfits, theater Guild. So it was just very nice that so many people are in that in that line of work likes that line.
Yeah. And I really think it's true, too. I think it was Mickey Spillane who said that for a book, the first chapter sells the book and the last chapter sells the next book, and that gets into writers are all about exits.
I really liked that. I liked that line. I'm not surprised it came from Mickey Spillane. He really, really knew a lot about the craft. As I said, I read a lot of the Nero Wolfe Rex Stout books when I was younger. Oh, aren't they fantastic? Yes. I just love them. And you know it's funny because the Frank Cole character, even though he's a little off balance, I wanted him to be a bit of a wise guy when he would speak because he is quick and he is a bit resentful of what happened to him. So even though the character of Frank Cole and the character of Archie Goodwin are completely different, Archie is a very competent investigator working for Nero Wolfe. Archie can be hands-on and two fists when he has to be, very confident man, but Archie is also a bit of a wise guy. And so I read some Nero Wolfe books before I wrote the Frank character just to try and tap into that wise guy part of Archie's nature. But to get back to your comment about how you set up the sequel, you know, you've got that vendetta that develops in the Nero Wolfe books involving that guy Zell, Arnold Zeck. It's resolved in the book In the Best Families, but it's referred to a couple of times beforehand. He's almost like the Moriarty to Nero Wolfe.
Right - Sherlock Holmes.
Oh, Sherlock Holmes. He's the equivalent Moriarty for Nero Wolfe. There's one book, I don't think it's the one where they first mentioned him, I think it's the first the first one where they actually ran into one of his enterprises kind of brushed against it and got warned by him. And they know his name is Zeck. And, and I think it ends with some reference to a dictionary and a word and, and someone says, oh, my goodness, that begins with a Z. And that's how the book ends. And it's, it's setting up to let you know that they're going to come together again, later on, there is going to be a resolution of that, that Nero Wolfe and Arnold Zeck are going to have the heavyweight fight of the world. And of course, it does play out in the book In the Best Families, which is one of my very favorites.
Tell me what else you're working on. You mentioned that you write a lot of short stories. Is that what you've been working on lately? Or is there something else?
What I did was, I had written a murder mystery there for a while and the Frank Cole series came to an end. And because I had started out I got the writing bug from reading Stephen King's The Shining. And so I wrote a couple of horror stories. And then I – because I graduated from West Point, I was an army infantry officer, I was a paratrooper, I graduated from the Ranger course, I have this military background. And I've always enjoyed military sci-fi. So I wrote a military science fiction novel and got very lucky – this is in 2014, HarperCollins just opened up an unagented submissions window for science fiction, I submitted it, they liked it. From 2014 to 2018, roughly, I was writing that series, that was the Sim War series that ended then. It's five books, and it's all done. I wrote it under the name Henry V. O’Neil. And when I got done with that series, I realized I'd been writing book after book after book. And I said you know I always enjoyed short stories. I like the discipline of short stories. I like how hard it is when you've been writing books where you have a lot more room to maneuver, whereas with a short story, you get a word count, you got to get your point across the setup, the background of the character is very limited. And so I started writing short stories in a bunch of different genres. And I got several of them published. So I did that for the last two, three years. And then finally, I've got a new one going on. It's a futuristic fiction story that I'm about two-thirds of the way done writing the first draft, and I've just taken an idea that a lot of people have played with, it's the idea of in the future, what if the robots are actually doing just about everything for us – What would the society be like? What would life be like? What would get people to get up in the morning? I've just been playing around with that idea. It's been a lot of fun. It's tough, but it's a lot of fun.
I bet it would be tough. Part of the appeal of being a writer, isn't it, is exploring other worlds and other lives.
Exactly. At SleuthFest and other conventions every now and then I'm asked to give a presentation. And one of the writer’s workshops I do is on Brainstorming, and that question that I've heard from other authors, where they ask, What if? No, what if this? What if that? So you take an idea. And so that's one of the ways you can take an idea like, okay, so the robots are doing everything. This has been handled by a lot of different writers, a lot of different ways. Many of them have done a fine job with it. And so of course, the thing is to not try to follow in their footsteps and say, What if? and go in a different direction, so that you do come up with something different. That's one of the techniques I use and say, What if? this and What if? that, then just follow it where it leads.
Do you have a writing routine or a schedule?
The thing I enjoy most of the conventions is when you sit with the other writers, whether it's between the panels or at lunch, or in the bar, and you just sit there and just kick back and forth, the writing things. And the schedule thing is interesting for me, because I know so many writers are so disciplined, they write a certain number of hours, that they have a certain time of day to write. Whereas I have to be quiet at that point, because I don't write unless I've got something I really have that wants to come out. But once it starts to flow I’m writing practically nonstop.
It's been really great talking to you, Vinny, and I look forward to talking to you again and finding out more about your military sci-fi books, and we'll do that later in the year. But for now, goodbye, and thanks for coming on the podcast.
Thank you very much, Linda, it's been great.
Thank you for joining me this week. To view the complete show notes and the links mentioned in today's episode, visit tartwords.com/tart224. Before you go, Follow or Subscribe for free to the podcast to receive new episodes when they're released. Follow now in the app you're using to listen to this podcast or sign up for email alerts through an easy signup form for Bakers, Readers, and/or Writers at tartwords.com/about. Thank you again for joining me, Linda Hengerer, for this episode of Tart Words.
Vincent H. O’Neil is the Malice Award-winning author of the Exile murder mysteries from St. Martin’s Press and the military science fiction Sim War series (written as Henry V. O’Neil) from HarperCollins. He has also authored several short stories in Mystery Tribune, Bourbon Penn, Mystery Weekly, Hypnos, and Lovecraftiana magazines.
Visit his website for links to his books and short stories, as well as helpful presentations he's delivered on a variety of writing topics at different conferences.