In the first part of this interview series, author Steve Robinson shared how he brings mystery and intrigue to genealogy. The pioneer of the genealogical mystery genre, Robinson also shared what personal research what impacted his writing, and how he goes about creating his novels. Join us now as we share the rest of our interview.
FT: Your books are known for being suspenseful, with realistic characters and dialogue. Could you give us some tips on writing a nonfiction family history that non-genealogists would enjoy?
SR: I would probably set out to write it as a work of fiction, even though the people, places and events were real. Life is full of drama, and the drama that presumably makes the nonfiction story worth telling still has to unfold in an engaging way for it to hold any reader’s interest. I think if you’re telling the story of real lives in a family history context, you can still write with suspense and create intrigue in much the same way as any fiction book. The fact that the lives being written about were real people’s lives can surely only serve to make the story more poignant.
My job, of course, is to breathe life into fictional characters, and make their lives seem real. Perhaps the nonfiction writer has something of a head start in that area: To bring a character to life, first it’s important to fully understand the person you’re writing about, whether he or she is real or imagined. Having a good ear for dialogue helps, and I think that’s one of my strengths. Snippets of conversation pop into my head all the time. If it’s something you struggle with, there’s a simple way to get your characters sounding real, and that’s to act out your own scenes, reading all the dialogue aloud. Get someone to do it with you. You’ll soon hear whether a character sounds real.
FT: What advice would you give aspiring authors considering self-publishing?
SR: Once you’ve finished writing your book, do lots of editing, and then do some more. You really can’t edit and proofread a book too much, and it has to be as perfect as it can be. It has to stand up against not only many other self-published books, but also the great many books edited and published by traditional publishers. If you have the means, hire an editor. The same is true for the cover design.
That said, I did all my own editing and designed my own covers initially, although the books had had an agent’s eyes over them and were improved as a result before I published them myself. I had to cut more than 50,000 words from In the Blood, but I’m very glad I didn’t publish the entire 168,000-word tome as it was originally. I was so fond of some of the scenes I had to cut that I’ve put them on my website under the Cut Scenes tab.
Nowadays, I’m fortunate to have a structural editor, who helps me tell the story in the best way it can be told, a copyeditor, who handles all the grammar and consistency from book to book, and an army of proofreaders who make sure the work is error-free before it hits the bookshelves, and a professional cover-design team. It’s quite a list, and if you’re self-publishing, you should expect to spend a lot of time getting your book ready after you’ve written “the end.”
Mystery in many languages
FT: A Japanese translation of In the Blood recently came out. Have your books been translated into any other languages?
SR: I’m fortunate to find my books also now available in French, Italian, Spanish, German and Czech. Harper Collins published the Japanese edition and I was sent six copies of the book, which are beautiful and small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. I love them. My Czech editions, published by Mystery Press, are also lovely in hardback, each with a different colored silk ribbon for a bookmark. It’s always a special day to receive a new translation, or a new release, in the post.
A possible DNA tie-in?
FT: With the Golden State Killer case highlighting the use of genealogy to solve real-life crimes, will DNA testing make an appearance in a future Jefferson Tayte mystery?
SR: When a fan on my Facebook page drew my attention to the case, my jaw literally dropped. Surely, this was fiction, right? Just like in my books? But no, it was real genealogical sleuthing, and right up Jefferson Tayte’s alley. I honestly wasn’t surprised to read that genealogical research had helped to track down a killer. DNA has been at the forefront of criminal investigation for a while now, and it goes hand in hand with family history. It would be great if the Golden State Killer case boosted awareness of the genre. I’ve hinted at DNA being used to confirm a bloodline in In the Blood, but it’s not yet been used as the central focus. I’m sure there’s scope for it in a future Jefferson Tayte Genealogical Mystery, though. Stay tuned, as they say.
FT: A customer review of The Last Queen of England on Amazon says, “I can see this as a movie.” Who would you pick to play the main character?
SR: I run monthly competitions on Facebook to win signed copies of my books, and when I asked this, I received some great suggestions. For Jefferson Tayte, who is tall and heavyset, I think Ben Affleck would be perfect. He has the build to carry it off, and I’ve seen some online images of him in tan suits just like Jefferson Tayte wears. His hair is the same color, too. Ben, if you read this and want to make a movie or seven, do get in touch.
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