Today it is my pleasure to have fellow Five Star author Jerry Peterson, author of Early’s Fall. Jerry is a former journalist whose stories have appeared in numerous publications and have won several honors including the Great Manhattan Mystery Conclave’s writing contest. The Wisconsin Regional Writer selected his short “Hard Day on the Road” as winner in its Spring 2005 flash fiction contest and published the story in its Fall 2005 issue. He is also a pilot: single- and multi-engine rated, and a member of the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association.
Mike: Thank you for joining us, Jerry. From some of the events in Early’s Fall, it appears to be set in 1949 (Berlin blockade ends, Dodgers win the pennant, etc.). Why did you choose that time frame for your book?
Jerry: I wrote two stories for a short story contest that the Great Manhattan Mystery Conclave sponsored six years ago. The stories had to be set in and around Manhattan, Kansas. I had lived and worked there for eight years, so I knew the territory. I had seen pictures of the downtown during the great flood of 1952 – those pictures had always fascinated me – so I set the first story during the flood. A body is found floating in an alley. I used a county sheriff and a coroner as the sleuths. I set the second story a couple years later, when the Corps of Engineers was building a flood control project north of Manhattan. A man, with his throat cut, is found tied to sign that reads “Big Dam Foolishness”, a sign protesting the project. Same sleuth, only this time I gave James Early a deputy.
Both stories won slots in the Conclave’s anthology that was published the next year.
You’ve had it happen to you. A character tells you there’s more here, another story you have to write. That was the genesis for Early’s Fall. I backed it up to 1949, so it would be a handful of years after World War II. A war never lets go of the soldiers after they come home . . . and it doesn’t let go of Early who had been an infantryman in the war in Europe. I also wanted to bring Early and President Truman together, Early because he needed a problem solved and Truman was the man who could do it.
M: Since the book is set some 60 years ago, how difficult was the research and how much of it did you do to keep brand names, locations for the period, etc., historically accurate?
J: Darn little. I’m a silver-haired guy. I grew up in the 1940s and ’50s. I knew all the brand names, the vehicles, the newspapers, and the magazines. I had lived in Manhattan, so I knew all the buildings and the streets. The downtown and the courthouse had not changed significantly between 1949 and when I was there in the 1970s.
Abilene was different. While I was at the Conclave, I drove the old state highway from Junction City to Abilene – it would have been a gravel road at the time – because Early would drive that road. I wanted to see the towns and the farmland. And I wanted to see where the old courthouse was in Abilene, it had been replaced a couple decades ago. The woman at the visitors center remembered it vividly and described it for me. I also wanted to see again the house where Dwight Eisenhower had grown up because I intended to use it as a backdrop for one of the scenes.
Kansas City was a bit different, too. I had been there in the 1950s, so I remembered the Muehlebach Hotel, the Union Station, and the World War I monument, all of which I intended to use as scene locations, but I had never seen the friezes that cover the front wall of the monument, so I drove over, spent an afternoon walking around, taking pictures and collecting print information at the tour center.
Union Station is just down the hill from the monument. The interior of the structure has changed little since railroading days – days when Early would have ridden the train to Kansas City. I wanted to walk the halls and see where the big clock was. If you were meeting someone at the station, you always said meet me under the clock. I stopped at the information desk and one of the volunteers there was a railroad historian. So I asked if he knew the names of the passenger trains – and roughly the schedules – that ran east from Denver through Manhattan and on into Kansas City, and the trains that ran west. Did he ever. And I used what he told me.
M: Was your main character, Sheriff James Early, based on a real person, a composite of people you know, or just created out of the air?
J: Early is neither a real person nor a composite. He just slipped into being through my fingertips as I tapped out that first short story. I knew he would be just about average for his time, not a big man who could slap a villain silly. He would have a ragged mustache, and that would be his physical tag that sets him apart from all the other characters in the story and, later, the book. And I knew he wouldn’t carry a revolver, that he preferred talk over force . . . but he’s a cowboy and an ex-soldier, so he knows how to use guns and does when he has to.
In the second story, I discovered Early was kind of short. My mother and I had gone to a cowboy poetry event and bean feed one night in southwestern Wisconsin, and one of the cowboy poets was a tall guy – really tall, 6-foot-4, maybe 6-6 – and even taller in appearance because he wore a 10-gallon hat. He became the model for James Early’s deputy, Hutch Tolliver.
In book 2 – Early’s Winter – I give Early a new deputy who is a big bear of a man, a former military policeman.
M: What’s in store for James Early? Any plans for other Early adventures?
J: There is a sequel, Early’s Winter. It’s with the publisher, waiting for the executives to decide whether to pick it up. Early finds a young rancher and his family murdered in the northern part of the county. The rancher was a compulsive gambler and lost more money than his ranch was worth to card sharps in Kansas City. So, yes, it’s back to Kansas City again, this time for the wildest poker game you’ve ever read.
Early’s Fall, Early’s Winter, you’ve guessed it, the series follows the seasons. I have a fifth book outlined in which Early goes to Korea during that war, to rescue his deputy, Hutch Tolliver, who has been called back into the Army and is lost behind enemy lines – believed to have been captured by the North Koreans. I’ve always wanted to write a war novel. This is one of two that I’ve outlined.
M: I joined Early’s Posse on Facebook. I think that is an interesting marketing concept. Has that helped with your sales?
J: Probably not. Most who have joined The James Early Posse are fans, people who have bought Early’s Fall – or borrowed it from the library – and read it and enjoyed it. I use the posse to let people in on the status of the next book, and to let them know where the sheriff and I will be doing author talks and book signings. I also share new James Early short stories with the posse.
M: It appears that most of your writing is short stories. How did you make the transition from short stories to novel-length work?
J: Short stories are easy for me because I’m a fast writer. I can knock a short story out in a day, polish it the next day and be done with it; it’s ready for posting on my website or sending to an editor of an anthology or putting in a collection that I might one day publish as a Kindle book.
I didn’t transition to novels. I write both, but I did break into the publishing world first as a short story writer.
Novels just take more time because they cover more complex story lines. And I learned one thing when I wrote my first mystery. I had set the story in 1936 Tennessee, and, yes, I had used a sheriff for my detective. My agent – yes, I got an agent for it – said nothing ever happens to your main character. He doesn’t change. He’s the same at the end of the book as he is at the beginning. And she was right. So in the rewrite I created a crisis in the sheriff’s life. He’s got to give up sheriffing, because it’s dangerous, or his wife is going to walk out on him.
I learned then that modern mysteries are really stories of your detective’s life, of his/her changes, tragedies, and growth. The mystery – the puzzle to be solved – is a bonus for your readers.
M: Anything more you’d like to include, maybe something about mystery readers?
J: We crime writers write to be read, we write for you. And we like to meet you, so come to our events. And, of course, come to our websites and our fan pages. And join CrimeSpace.com. It’s free. This is a website that brings mystery readers together with mystery writers.
M: Thank you, Jerry, for taking time with us today.
For those interested, here is Jerry’s website: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=130708749239 and he has a blog at: http://jerrypetersonbooks.com/blog/ ; and for those wanting to join the posse, you can find it here: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=130708749239 And here’s the link to Jerry’s page on CrimeSpace: http://crimespace.ning.com/profile/JerryPeterson