Mike Manno practices law in West Des Moines, Iowa. He also teaches law and political science at Upper Iowa University. An amateur ventriloquist, he has done numerous school shows and has also appeared twice at the Iowa State Fair. For nine seasons he raced Formula Vees with SCCA. Mike is the author of “Murder Most Holy”, and his new book, End of the Line, featuring former star prosecutor, Parker Noble, will be out this spring.
Practicing attorney, race car driver, ventriloquist. What led you to add mystery writing to your resume?
Actually, I was a writer first. I always enjoyed writing and my mother tells me that even as a kid my favorite school classes were those where I had to write. My undergraduate major was journalism and I spent the better part of my first four years out of college news writing and editing. And, of course, practicing law means spending a lot of time drafting and editing legal briefs and documents.
Were there any websites or books you found especially helpful?
Yes, probably too many to list here. There is a series of books that I do recommend to budding mystery writers: The Howdunit Series by Writers Digest Books. They cover all the things you need to know to write accurately about crime, such as poisons, motives, police practices, autopsies, etc.
I realize that writers have to take some license to create a good story, but I think you should try to be as factual as you can. Avid mystery readers will be able to pick apart a writer who is writing about something he doesn’t know. I think this series will help writers keep on track. I also recommend my friend Todd Stone’s Novelist’s Boot Camp, also from Writers Digest Books, and Robert McKee’s Story.
There are also plenty of web sites out there that are writer friendly. Joe (J. A.) Konrath has a particularly good site for writers. My friend Jerry Hooton also has a great site and offers a free monthly newsletter. Jerry has given advice to many “big name” writers, such as Michael Connelly.
You also might try your favorite author’s web site. Many have great links and very valuable information for writers.
You certainly jumped into the genre with a bang—the murder of a nun! Please tell us how you came up with your first Parker Noble story.
Actually, I came up with the motive first, then created the characters around it. I don’t want to say anything more or I might give something away. The murder of a nun, however, probably came from so many years in a parochial school! No, not really. I did enjoy the nuns, but like most kids, I have a fonder memory of them than I had opinion back then.
I can’t help wondering: Did being Catholic influence your writing or your story line? (And were you waiting for the wrath of the local convent over your choice of victim?)
No, being Catholic doesn’t have an obvious influence on my writing, but it does have some subtle influences. I am Catholic, and as every writer has heard, write about what you know. So if I need a religious influence or story line I go back to my roots. I also try to write books that parents would not mind letting their teen-aged kids read, so I don’t have a lot of profanity, sex or violence in the book. Those things can all be hinted at without being too graphic.
In the first book, you paired Parker with Detective Sergeant Jerome (Stan) Stankowski, making a delightful duo who play well off each other. What does each character bring to the story?
I think they bring a great tension into the story; Parker is an attorney and thinks like one while Stan is a cop and thinks like a cop. Putting them together where people mistakenly believe that Parker is in charge sets Stan up for a lot of frustration – especially when Parker seems to come up with the solution for the crime. It’s also a challenge telling the story first person through Stan when Parker is the main character.
Will the two remain together in your series?
Yes, definitely! Both will continue, as will Buffy Coyle, the news reporter who doesn’t know what she wants more: Stan or a scoop.
You were a recent presenter at the Catholic Writers Conference*. Tell us what it’s like to prepare a class on mystery writing and what it’s like to give this class online versus the way you usually teach–in person. Any difficulties? Is it a surprisingly easy format to use?
I teach college law and political science in a regular college classroom. Obviously you can connect better with students in person and the classroom discussions are easier to follow.
Classroom discussions are a bit better in person, too, since on-line there is a lag time from when a student types a comment or question and when it appears on the screen and often there is more than one at a time. However, that having been said, the on-line conferences are still a great way to pick up valuable information without the added expense of travel and lodging that you would incur in a traditional conference. And, once you get use to the on-line format it is surprisingly easy to use.
What’s the one piece of advice that you hope the attendees took away with them about writing a mystery?
Actually, three things: One is to outline your story so you know where you are going. I think that is very important when writing in any genre.
The second is to make sure your facts are correct. I’ve seen (actually read) writers who get some important facts – especially the legal ones – wrong.
Finally, lay out all the clues for your reader – they need not be obvious, but the reader will feel cheated if at the end of the book the clue that tripped up the culprit was hidden from them.
In your class (which was excellent!) you stressed the importance of outlining a mystery. Do you outline every detail or do you lay out a general path for your characters to follow?
I lay out a general path. I liken outlining to a road map. You decide where you want to go and find it on your map then sketch a route to your destination. You know where you are going to end up, but you are free to take any interesting side trips that might appeal to you on the way.
It’s the same way with my writing. I know where I’m going to end up, but along the writing “trip” I might find an interesting side trip (sub plot) to follow. You might call this “flexible certainty,” and I think it is important when writing a mystery since you will always be looking for ways to hide clues and red herrings.