I met Russ on the Queen Mary 2 crossing from England to New York City. I attended the workshop he did on authoring and self-publishing. It was the perfect setting to talk about his murder mystery set on a cruise ship.
You Become a Writer by Writing
“Just sit down and start writing,” is what author and lecturer Russ Smith tells people when they ask how to get started as an author. “Think about what you like to read or what you like to do and then write a paragraph, then a page, and then a chapter. The chapter you write might be the first, the last, or somewhere in the middle of your book, it doesn’t matter. Get started. After you start, keep going. Once you have something completed, you can sort out how to get it edited and published. We’ll save that discussion for another time, but let’s just say it’s a thrill to see your books in a bookstore.”
I was apprehensive about the lecture when Russ introduced himself by telling us he’d only found out he was scheduled to talk a couple of hours earlier. Thinking the cruise staff had cancelled his lecture, he’d given away all of his supporting materials. He was out of books and the crew didn’t have the projector working for his presentation. Yet the workshop must go on. Russ began by telling the packed room, “Let’s see where this goes and have some fun.” That started his lively talk.
General Ideas Lead to Specific Results
Speaking with Russ afterword, I learned he starts his books the same way he started his presentation. He told me, “I start with a general idea and a perhaps a few things to include, but then let the story take whatever path it takes. The only difference with the lecture is that I have actual experience with or have researched most of the topics that might come up. I let the audience give me clues as to which things to emphasize and then go from there.” Obviously, Russ isn’t a control freak and is pretty flexible about how things are structured.
Russ said as he first creates new characters for his book, and then researches related information as he progresses. With his first book, Table 29 A Murder Mystery, the broad idea was a murder mystery on an ocean liner. When I asked Russ how he actually started writing that book, he told me, “I like to use dialogue and share what characters are thinking to tell a story, so I started by creating the characters. As I created them, I created the places where the story takes place, supporting events, and then interactions with other characters.”
Real People Inspire Fictional Characters
When I asked Russ for an example, he told me about Lenore. “I started with Lenore reminiscing about her first ocean voyage, her children, and her first husband, while she was getting dressed. She then meets her daughter for lunch and later boards a ship for a crossing from New York to England. By the time she meets the other main characters, the reader has a good idea of Lenore’s personality from her conversations and thoughts. I created Lenore based on someone I met on a ship years ago.”
I then asked Russ how he got the idea for his next book, The Carinthia Secret. “I saw a painting of a ship called the Carinthia and decided I wanted to write about her,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed historical fiction and have always been fascinated by old ocean liners, so I thought I’d give it a try. I wanted the story to be a murder mystery, but since the Carinthia was an actual ship that didn’t have any recorded murders on board, I decided the murders in the story would be kept secret by the authorities. The most fun part of writing this book was learning about life in the 1920’s.”
I again asked Russ how he actually started writing the book. “I did more research before I started writing this book. I obtained brochures from the actual world cruise during which the story takes place, a scrap book from a passenger on that cruise, and a book written by the captain of the Carinthia. I then read a 1922 edition of Emily Post to learn the etiquette of the day and also newspaper articles about the ship and current events of the mid 1920’s. When I began creating the characters, I again let the reader listen to their conversations and thoughts to tell the story. I also used dream sequences to highlight and explain the fears of the main character. Research continued as I was writing on simple things, like whether you could place a telephone call from Los Angeles to New York in 1925 or whether police could determine if bullets from different crime scenes were shot from the same gun.”
Readers’ Responses Shape Final Results
Russ went on to tell me that he values input from others while writing his books. He frequently does readings for other authors at local writer’s groups to get feedback. Since his first two books take place on ocean liners, Russ did readings for fellow passengers and made numerous changes based on their input. His next book, The Park, takes place in a mobile home park. Over the past year, Russ has been talking with residents of parks and reviewing his work with them for their feedback.
Russ told me he started a few years ago, after ending an interesting career in organizational development and supply chain management at a large semiconductor company. Since the job included long term assignments in a number of different countries, he had the opportunity to meet many interesting people who provided ideas for characters in his books. “You’ll find me talking about my characters as if they’re friends or members of my family.” “It’s all about the people in the story, what they are saying, thinking, and doing.”
Writing Reflects Life Experiences
In addition to writing, Russ also lectures and conducts courses about writing and self-publishing on cruise ships and at his local community college. Last summer, he built the web site for the Village of Beulah, in Michigan. When not writing or traveling, Russ, plays golf, bridge, and poker, and enjoys cooking and baking. He spends his summers in Northern Michigan and is either traveling or in Arizona the remainder of the year. You’ll find his books on Amazon or connect with him at https://www.crimemysteryauthor.com
There’s no one right way to approach writing. Join us at the Galveston Island Zion Retreat Center April 26 – 28, 2019 to learn how other authors approach their work. Be inspired and enjoy time to focus on your own writing project, just a mile from a walk on the beach for inspiration. For more information go to HowWiseThen.com/weekend-write-away/