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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Interview with Mystery Writer, Sherban Young author of Dead Men Do Tell Tales

My interview today is with Sherban Young who writes mystery novels with a splash of humor and a mix of trivia. He is definitely not your standard mystery writer. I know once you read his ideas you will want to buy his books, so read on!

Prior to writing your current mystery books, what was your writing background?
I was a literature major in college (Loyola), but like most writers, I've been writing my whole life. Writing just becomes who you are.

My first major project came while I was at Loyola. My friend and I created a CD-ROM adventure game called Majestic. It was published and did quite respectably (well enough to justify all the attention we had diverted from our studies). My friend did the lion's share of the work - the graphics and programming - and I wrote the story and puzzles. Creating those puzzles would later inspire me to write Deadly Allusions (Dead Men Do Tell Tales).

What writers are your inspiration? Whose style, if any, do you think you emulate?
Without a doubt, P. G. Wodehouse is my largest inspiration. It always makes me think about a Bob Dylan quote I read once. He said the first time he heard Elvis sing he knew he'd be a musician himself. That's how it was for me and Wodehouse. The first time I read a Wodehouse novel, I knew I'd be a writer. Writing had interested me before then, but after that I knew.

You've written what I consider a unique style of mystery book which is both stories and games. One is Deadly Allusions and the other is Dead Men Do Tell Tales. What gave you the idea of doing these books?
Dead Men Do Tell Tales is the print edition of the Deadly Allusions e-book. My publisher changed the name. I'm working on getting the Allusions e-book title changed over to the Dead Men name - it's less confusing that way.

I originally wrote the Allusion puzzles for my website, something to get people to visit my page. The puzzles were pretty popular and I decided to turn them into a trio of iPhone apps: Deadly Allusions, Deadlier Allusions and Deadliest Allusions (12 puzzles in each).

I also brought out the complete collection (61 puzzles) in a Kindle edition. The apps were very well received by reviewers, and a few months later I was approached by Dover Books about selling them the print rights. They brought out the 61 puzzle collection last December under the new title Dead Men Do Tell Tales.

In each of these stories, you have a puzzle that the reader needs to figure out. How do you develop those puzzles? Could you give me a specific example of one of your word puzzles and how the reader would solve it?
When I first started writing mini-mysteries for my website, I tried to be more traditional with them. There was a mystery and a clue pointing to the culprit - something someone said or something out of place. I didn't like them. It just wasn't an approach that spoke to me.

I still liked the format, however, and so I had the idea of mixing trivia and knowledge into the mystery. I had always been fascinated by the old-fashioned mystery scenario, where a murder victim gives a clue with his dying breath. Agatha Christie's "Why Didn't They Ask Evans?" is a famous example of this. I also liked the more cryptic version, where the dying man, unable to speak, fumbles around and latches onto some telling clue - something that somehow identifies his killer.

I took that concept a step further. The mysteries in the collection feature a dying clue left behind by the murder victim. This clue always has some cultural or scholarly reference. An example I give in the introduction goes like this: Let's say the murder victim is a sports enthusiast. He's shot and with his last ounce of strength he grabs a Babe Ruth baseball card. We learn that one of his associates is named George Herman. George Herman, it will turn out, is the killer. (Babe Ruth's real name was George Herman Ruth.)

There are puzzles relating to literature, history, art, food, word origins, movies, sports etc. All the editions include hints, and I actually encourage readers to take their investigations online (or at least into a dictionary.) That is part of the fun - the sleuthing. It's also a great way to learn a new tidbit.

The puzzles are all done humorously. I like to call them murder-filled crosswords without the squares. My new novel, Fleeting Memory, features a Deadly Allusions style puzzle, which the characters are compelled to solve in the course of the book.

Amazon shows you as having 6 books “in print.” Three show as paperback and three in print? Why have you done three in e-book format only? I ask this as I don't read e-books as my favorite place to read is either in a Jacuzzi or a hot bath. Until they make a totally waterproof e-reader I probably never will.
I decided to mix things up with my two newest books - Fleeting Memory and Double Cover. I brought out the e-reader editions first, with the print editions to follow later this summer. Similar to how Dead Men came out.

Although I share your love of traditional print books, I think there's room in anybody's library for both. E-books have the advantage of a cheaper price (or should have), instant gratification and ultimate portability. Print books are more romantic. They look nice, they feel nice, they don't electrocute us in the bath. So I think it's wonderful for readers to have the option, depending on the book and the situation. I'm romantic and I love toys, so I love both mediums.

I see your first two books were published in 2000 and 2002 then the next one didn't come out until 2009. What did you learn about writing and publishing during that break in time?
I think what I learned most is flexibility. For a while, a long while, I was fixated on going the traditional route in publishing - that's the romantic side of me again. But the fact is, that traditional route is drying up. The industry is changing - for the better I'd say, but that wasn't always apparent to me. It is now.

As a percentage of writing time spent, how much time to do you spend on doing re-writes as opposed to the initial formulation of the story?
I spend a lot of time rewriting. It's essential. I think this is not only true at the end of a project but at the beginning. If you go into a project fully aware that you're going to rewrite it, you can approach it much more relaxed. The ideas flow.

Someone once described the process as writing to figure out what you're writing about. I think that's an apt way of putting it. You diddle around, get things moving a little, then you go back and start writing seriously. The serious writing is in the rewriting.

What is the best advice that you've been given about your writing?

Don't spend too much time on the opening, trying to make it perfect. You're just going to end up rewriting it anyway.

How have you found the time to write and do all the editing that goes with it?

I'm fortunate enough to have another source of income. I'm my own boss and can set my own schedule. As far as finding the time - I really don't do anything else. Wow, that's sad.

Are all your books self-published? Why did you switch from PublishAmerica to Dover Publications?
I don't think the term self-published applies as well as it once did. I prefer independent. When I first published with PublishAmerica they weren't even called PublishAmerica. They were America House then. After my first two books, it just wasn't a good fit anymore.

Dover Publications is a traditional publisher - and a very nice one. I enjoyed working with them. Their niche is game and hobby books. They do a lot of reprints, but they occasionally do originals, like mine. Dead Men Do Tell Tales is a beautiful edition.

After a lot of thought and examination of the market, I decided I'd bring out my two newest novels independently through Amazon. I feel I know enough about the industry now to devote my energy to marketing my own imprint of books, instead of using that same energy to find an agent/publisher; wait while that publisher publishes the book; and then finally - after years have passed - finally begin the marketing process.

It's a myth that the author can sit back and do nothing while the publisher makes him or her famous. Very few authors enjoy that luxury. After a book comes out, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done, and it just makes sense that I put that effort into me and my audience.

I see you have a phone app for Deadly Allusions. Did you design it? What goes into making an app?
I did design the apps. I had a little background in programming and with that, and a lot of help from Apple's sample code and various online tutorials, I was able to bring my mini-mysteries to the iPhone. The stories were the focus of designing the app.

What do you do to promote your books? For others who self-promote what ideas would you suggest someone avoid?
I'm no expert on promotion. I do know this, however - whether you go through a large publisher, a small press or you are your own press, book promotion is constant work. Blogs have emerged as a great venue. I think that's a win for everybody. When you market online, potential customers can sample or buy your book right then, while they're thinking about it. That's a great plus.

I'm not sure there is anything you need to avoid. Try a little of everything and then once you see what works, jump on it. Sort of like rewriting. Marketing and re-marketing.

What other books do you have in the process now?

I'm working on bringing out a new edition of The Five Star Detour, to go along with Fleeting Memory and Double Cover (they all relate to each other). I'm also in the process of revising another book - a separate detective novel, with just a hint of sci-fi.

If you would like to learn more about Sherban and his writing, here's three options to do just that...,


  1. Good interview Sherban and Chris.

  2. Interesting interviews. I also love the pictures of your plants. I am very into gardening and can uderstand how proud you feel! :)

    I found you through Book Blogs and signed up to follow you. When you have a chance- please stop by the blog for my middle grade novel that I am hoping to get published.

    Take care-
    Jess- although I may show up as Fairday, the main character from my novel. I can't figure out why that happens sometimes and I can't fix it. :)

  3. I will look up your blog. I am interested in MG novels and hearing more about them.