Exclusive – A Conversation with Author, James Reasoner – Part One

Can you share a little about your background and how you got started as a writer?

I grew up in a small town in Texas during the Fifties and Sixties and was always a storyteller as far back as I can remember. My friends and I played with toy guns (that was the era when a lot of Westerns and war series were on TV), and any time we would run around pretending to shoot each other, I always had to come up with a story and characters to go with what we were doing. They probably thought I was crazy, but they put up with me.

I started writing stories for my own pleasure when I was in the fifth grade. My first effort was based on those Sons of Hercules movies from Italy, a syndicated package of which was being shown by one of the local TV stations at the time. I didn’t know anything about syndication then, of course; I just liked the movies. My second story was a Western, though, a proverbial portent of things to come. I did a long series of mystery stories featuring myself and my friends as the detectives. These were very much in the mold of the Hardy Boys and Three Investigators books I was reading at the time. I was in college before I started trying to sell mystery, science fiction, and horror stories, sending them to markets I’d found in a Writers Yearbook magazine, with a total lack of success.

A few years later, after college, I got hold of one of the annual Writers Market volumes and began sending out even more stories, again with no success. I was about ready to give up, but I was recently married and my wife urged me to keep trying. I sold my first story a few months later, on December 27, 1976, a date I’ll never forget, naturally. I sold fairly regularly after that, mostly mysteries and men’s magazine stories. I still got a lot of rejections, but I was selling enough to consider myself an actual writer.

Your works span across multiple genres, including westerns, mysteries, and historical fiction. What draws you to these particular genres, and do you have a personal favorite?

I’ve always been the type of reader who enjoys a lot of variety. Just as it seems natural to read a lot of different things, I’ve always wanted to write different things, too. But growing up I read more mysteries and Westerns than anything else, and my goal when I started writing was to be a mystery author, of private eye stories, specifically. I wrote and sold more than a million words of mystery fiction before I ever wrote a Western professionally, and that was only because an editor asked me to do a book in a series he was working on. Once I did, though, I found that I enjoyed writing Westerns as much as I enjoyed reading them, and I’ve wound up doing more of them than anything else. I really wouldn’t want to write in the same genre all the time, any more than I want to read the same genre all the time.

Many readers appreciate the authenticity and attention to detail in your historical novels. How do you approach researching and immersing yourself in different time periods?

Before the Internet, it wasn’t uncommon for me to have several tall stacks of research books around me whenever I was working on a historical novel. I was a regular patron at several different public libraries, and I bought promising research books whenever I came across them. I always tried to use contemporary accounts as much as possible. When I was writing my World War II novels, I was lucky enough to have several older relatives and friends who served in that war, and I picked their brains as much as I could. I spent several hours one day talking to a friend who served on the USS Lexington and survived its sinking in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Many of the details he told me went into the chapters I wrote about that battle. I enjoy research and never minded the time I devoted to it. My wife is also an excellent researcher and has been a tremendous help to me in that area. These days, most of my research is done on the Internet, and there are things I really like about that, too. A lot of the material I used to dig out of books is available online, and that’s certainly quicker and easier, even if it doesn’t have quite the same charm as poking through old books.

As an author, what challenges do you face when switching between genres? Are there any specific techniques or strategies you employ to maintain your voice while adapting to different storytelling styles?

Maybe because I grew up reading such a wide variety of fiction, I’ve never had any trouble switching between genres. I don’t really know how I seem to be able to slip right into something different, but I manage somehow. I made a joke to an editor once when I was working on a Biblical historical novel and a Western at the same time. I told him, “I have to be careful not to have one of those Bible characters say, ‘Well, I’m fixin’ to go slay me some o’ them Philistines.’” But that was just a joke, and in reality, I’ve never had that problem.

Your characters often have distinctive voices and personalities. How do you go about developing and fleshing out your characters to make them feel real and relatable to readers?

This is something else that I can’t really explain, other than I often have some actor in mind when I’m writing a character, and that influences their dialogue and personality. But that’s not always the case, by any means. I do pay a lot of attention to dialogue and try to make sure it sounds distinctive. Very rarely, I’ll read some lines out loud to make sure they sound like something somebody might say.

Throughout your career, you have written numerous series with recurring characters. How do you keep these characters fresh and evolving over time, while still staying true to their established traits?

When I’m working with characters created by someone else, I’ve usually read quite a bit by the original author. I try not to do anything that contradicts what’s been established about them, but I’ll gradually add in touches of my own, lines of dialogue and bits of business that a lot of my characters say and do. On a series where a lot of different hands have written the characters, I’ll usually base my approach on that of the original author and not try to work in things that other writers might have done. In some series, the characters do age and evolve and I try to keep that in mind as I’m writing, but in others they’re pretty much ageless and never change much. That’s just the way the series is set up.

What role does setting play in your storytelling? How do you approach creating vivid and immersive settings that transport readers to different times and places?

That goes back to the research. I’ll look for little details I can include that will be familiar to someone who’s been to the place I’m writing about. With all the images available on the Internet, that’s easier now, so I can do things like finding a painting of a frontier fort that was done when the fort existed, painted from direct observation, and describe it like that. I tend not to write long, detailed descriptive passages—I want to get on with the story and action—so I have to find those little touches that will put the reader into the scene right away and carry them along.

Is there a particular book or series of yours that holds a special place in your heart? What makes it stand out for you?

My first novel, TEXAS WIND, grew out of the desire to write a private eye novel like the ones I loved to read. But those novels were set in places I knew very little about, like New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco. So I said to myself, why can’t there be a private eye novel set in Fort Worth, which I knew very well? So I wrote the book I wanted to read, I guess you could say. Also, I’m very fond of my Western/World War I novel UNDER OUTLAW FLAGS. I really like the narrator’s voice in that one. And I’m in the framing sequence set in the 1960s, which takes place in my uncle John Strickland’s grocery store in the tiny town of Blanket, Texas. I’m the fat little kid reading comic books and eating popsicles. Write what you know, they say.

Writing can be a solitary pursuit. How do you stay motivated and overcome any creative blocks or self-doubt that may arise during the writing process?

It’s been pretty easy most of the time because I’ve had contracts and people depending on me and there was just no time to slow down much. But the self-doubt is always there—at some point in every book, I’m convinced it’s terrible—but my wife reads and edits all of them and says they’re good, and my editor likes them and the readers keep buying them, so I guess maybe they’re not too bad. I think most writers suffer from imposter syndrome, though, and are just waiting to be found out.

Are there any authors or books that have had a significant influence on your writing style or career? Who are some of your literary

Robert E. Howard has been a huge influence on me, not only because he was a great adventure writer and I enjoy his work, but because he was from a small town in Texas like me and managed to become a successful professional writer anyway. I learned a lot about dialogue and plotting from reading thousands of comic books written by Stan Lee. And there are a ton of mystery and Western writers from the pulp and paperback eras whose work influenced me over the years, more than I can even attempt to name.

As a seasoned writer, what advice would you give to aspiring authors who are just starting their writing journey?

Read! Read the kind of book you want to write and anything else that interests you. I’ve known a few writers who just didn’t read fiction, but I don’t see how they did it. I need a steady diet of good fiction to keep my mind working. And persistence is always important. A friend once told me, “A writer is somebody who sits in a room and types for 30 years.” There’s a lot of truth in that, only in my case it’s getting close to 50 years.

What are you currently working on, and what can readers expect from you in the near future?

I still do a lot of house-name work I can’t claim, but my wife and I are working on a mystery series that we hope to publish later this year. I have a short story using some pulp characters coming out in an anthology called DOUBLE TROUBLE this summer, and I have a Western story in another upcoming anthology called LAWLESS, but I’m not sure when it will be out. That’s all with my name on it that’s in the works.

Do you have any upcoming projects or collaborations that you’re particularly excited about?

I have ideas for a couple of Western series I’d like to write, and I’ve had plots for several hardboiled crime novels stuck in my head for years. It’s just a matter of finding the time to write them.

Are there any genres or storytelling formats that you haven’t explored yet but would like to try in the future?

I’ve never sold a comic book script or a movie script. I’ve tried both, with no success. But I’ve never had time to make a persistent effort in either field. As far as genres go, I’ve never written as much science fiction as I would have liked, but what I’ve done has been well-received, and I enjoyed writing it.

Lastly, what do you hope readers take away from your books? Is there a particular message or feeling you strive to convey through your stories?

More than anything else, I want people to be entertained. I want them to close the book feeling like they’ve read a good yarn. And if it’s helped them get through some tough times, so much the better.

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