by Alycia King
Jeff Boarts has been writing since high school, but got serious when the idea for his first novel came to mind in 2004. Now working on his third novel, the self-published author of “Merry Merry Murder” and “A Flash of Murder” shares the journey of his writing and what it’s been like to finally see his books in print.
Where did the inspiration for your books come from?
I always start with a “what if…?” For “Merry Merry Murder,” I think I had either just read a book or seen a movie in which some kind of treasure was discovered. I thought, what if a treasure would be found in Kittanning? What would it be? Where would it be found? How did it come to be there? Who brought it? Was it left there intentionally?
In “A Flash of Murder,” I used the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Kittanning as my backdrop, and I thought about what would be the worst thing to happen during a summer-long celebration where lots of people would be affected–sort of like the folk festival held all summer. I came up with a serial killer, who strikes at random, with no apparent motive or reason for selecting his victims.
My books are also historical, since I set them in the past. My first two books take place in the 1950s, while my current work in progress takes place in 1919. The inspiration for this book is to tell how the protagonists of books one and two originally met. Naturally, there must be some tension between them, so I thought, why not have Ruth (the heroine) be the chief suspect in the murder that takes place, and George (the hero) be the chief witness? Tie that in with everything that was going on in 1919, and there’s plenty of fodder for the story.
How did you go about publishing your first book? What was the journey?
I went the traditional route of writing query letters to agents with hopes one might want to represent me, but I learned my manuscript was way too long. Typical manuscripts are between 80,000 and 100,000 words in length. My first manuscript was 165,000. Since word count is included in the query letter, it’s doubtful any of the agents I queried even looked at my pages once they saw how long the book was.
By the time I learned this, I had already started my second novel. Rather than stop work on it, I decided to finish book two before going back to re-write book one. I finished it seven or eight months later, and well under 100,000 words. The next summer, one of the published writers in the Sisters in Crime chapter I belong to offered to facilitate an “intensive critique” session. There would be four meetings in as many weeks, a maximum number of six could participate, including the facilitator, and the final requisite was that each participant had to have a completed manuscript. It would be intensive as each of us would read and critique up to fifty pages from each person per week. It was very grueling work reading and evaluating 250 pages between Sundays, but it was worth it.
However, I learned in the second week that my manuscript would never be considered for publication by an agent because I had crossed genres. I write what are considered “cozies.” A cozy is a sub-genre of mystery in which there is minimal violence, minimal language, minimal blood, no sex, and the sleuth is typically an amateur. Think Agatha Christie. Well, I had a serial killer in my second novel. The published author, who has a stable of over 50 traditionally published novels, said to me that serial killers are never found in cozies. If I wanted to publish my book traditionally, I had to either take out the serial killer, or make it a thriller-suspense.
Long story short (too late), I decided to self-publish the book instead of re-writing it.
Another thing I considered in my publishing journey was typically it takes five to 10 years for an author to find an agent and get published. Quite honestly, I didn’t want to wait that long.
What was most rewarding about the writing process for you?
This is a two-fold answer.
The first was finishing the book. After starting two other novels that fizzled, being able to finish one novel was a wonderful feeling. Deep down, I knew I could do it. I also had help from some friends I had confided in. Eric Cook was one of them. Without his feedback, critiques and support, it may also have failed as a project.
The second part is hearing how much people have enjoyed my books. Knowing I am able to tell a story that someone has read and enjoyed means all the world to me. Last week, I had a half-dozen people ask me when the next book is coming out, as they can’t wait to read it — music to my ears.
Don’t get me wrong. I know I’m no Steinbeck or Hemingway. I’m just a hack trying to entertain someone. If they finish my books and say, “That was a fun story,” I’m delighted.
Did you do any research prior to or while you were writing your books?
Absolutely. As I said, my books take place in the past. Even for the 1950s, a decade I was already familiar with and using Kittanning as my backdrop, which also made it easier since I had an idea what was here at the time, I still had to research what was going on in the world so my stories would sound real and authentic.
My third book is set in 1919, in Pittsburgh. Thank goodness for the Google news archive. It allows me to read actual newspapers from the days my story occurs, allowing me to utilize the current technologies, headlines, fashions, etc., for the period.
For this book, I also visited the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh for information. The murder takes place in a fancy, five-star hotel, and they kindly gave me all kinds of information regarding amenities at the time, what the rooms were like, a sample menu from 1917, and some pretty cool stories of the hotel and its construction. It opened in 1916, which makes it perfect for my book.
Did you have any concerns about publishing through Amazon?
If you’re wondering if I fretted about self-publishing, then yes. I belong to two writers’ organizations: Sisters in Crime, to which I have both national and local memberships, and Pennwriters, which is a Pennsylvania-based organization. Pennwriters actually has members across the country and in Canada.
Because I belong to both organizations, and because I have met and become friends with many traditionally published authors, I hesitated to make the leap toward self-pubbing. Several years ago, those who self-pubbed were not looked on very kindly. The reasons were, and I understand completely where they are coming from, most self-pubbed books aren’t as polished, properly edited, or well-written. Self-publishing was what someone did who had no chance of getting traditionally published.
Things have changed, however. A year or two ago, a well known sci-fi/fantasy author turned down a multi-book deal with a New York house worth over a half-million dollars to self-publish. Why? He said he could make more money. Other popular authors have also taken the same path.
There are many other reasons self-pubbed authors are not looked upon with derision, but one of the other main reasons is the chance a New York publisher will make an offer if you sell enough books.
So, even though I hesitated to tell my Sisters in Crime critique partners, and other members of both organizations, I have not become the pariah I feared I would be. In fact, quite the opposite is true. I have been congratulated and wished the best from everyone, including the one who told me I’d never get the serial-killer cozy published. Everyone has been wonderful, and I consider myself blessed to have such good friends.
Did your book premier on Kindle first or in hard copy?
Both. Amazon also owns a publishing company in one of the Carolinas called Createspace. They do a marvelous job with printing my books. I can order books to sell, plus they are offered for sale on Amazon. If you check out either of my books on Amazon, you’ll even see the paperback is listed as “in stock”. In reality, it’s considered a POD (print on demand). If you order the paperback, they print it and send it to you.
Do you do any sort of marketing efforts to further promote your novels?
That’s the one drawback to self-publishing. You have to do everything. And I mean everything. I’m making an attempt at a website, but it’s difficult for someone like me who doesn’t understand such stuff. Emily (my daughter) has helped, but her time is limited. I have been able to put paperback copies in two local bookstores, the Kittanning News, and the Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, Pa. They have also been very supportive, especially Kittanning News who has also had me for a couple book signings. I’ve done two library talks, and have been invited to another, although we haven’t set a date yet. I’m scheduled to speak to the Rotary Club at the end of the month. Other than that, I rely on good reviews on Amazon and word-of-mouth.
What is something you wish you knew when you first started writing that you know now?
How to write a book. I know that sounds goofy, but seriously, I made a lot of technical errors with my first manuscript. Formatting, passive vs. active voice, and when to use each, conflict and tension need to be on every page; and if it doesn’t advance the plot, build character, or give the reader vital information, it shouldn’t be in your book. Stuff like that, basic elements that improve one’s craft as a writer. I tell everyone if they have any inclination to be a writer, join a writers’ group, attend workshops (online or in person), study books on writing, etc. It may take some time, but it’ll be worth it when you don’t have to go back and re-write complete scenes and chapters.
Now that you’re a published author, what’s next?
Keep writing and enjoy myself.