A reporter gains fame as a mystery writer
It’s about finding the time, finding an agent, and relentlessly beating the drum
This episode of my newsletter is about how a police reporter at a a metropolitan daily newspaper became a celebrated writer of mystery novels.
For some journalists, covering crime or politics is a stepping stone to more creative work. And in the digital world, cheap tools for distributing and marketing your work make it look easy to produce a best-seller.
My friend Robin Yocum made the transition from journalist to novelist over more than two decades of trial and error, successes and failures. For him, it was not so easy. But he is a relentless optimist who never learned to take no for an answer.
Yocum was a finalist for the 2017 Edgar Allen Poe Awards, presented by the Mystery Writers of America, for his novel “A Brilliant Death” (Prometheus Books — Seventh Street Books). It was also a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award [it’s a type of sword] at the Killer Nashville Writers Conference.
His novel “The Sacrifice of Lester Yates” was named a finalist for the 2021 Dashiell Hammett Award for Literary Excellence in Crime Writing. The award is given out annually by the International Association of Crime Writers, North America.
“I’ve been a finalist three times for pretty big awards. I’m starting to feel like the Susan Lucci of mystery writing.” (Lucci was nominated for an Emmy 19 times before finally winning.)
Here is a list of Yocum’s books available on Goodreads.
I interviewed Yocum over Zoom a few weeks ago while he was in Columbus and I was in France. What follows is a summary of our conversation, which you can listen to in audio format here.
Get out of town
Yocum’s fiction draws heavily on his experience growing up in an Ohio River town that depended on steel mills and other manufacturing. He was one of the few kids from his high school class that went to college.
“I had a football scholarship to Bowling Green (State University). That was my ticket out of the steel mills of the Ohio River Valley. My dad took me over to the mill between my junior and senior year in high school and got me a tour. He did that I think to say, ‘This is what your future is going to look like if you don’t get out of here’.”
Yocum was a wide receiver and place kicker on his high school football team. The Bowling Green coach at the time, Don Nehlen, hinted that he probably wasn’t big enough and fast enough to make the team as a receiver. But if he could make the team as a kicker, Nehlen promised to give him a four-year scholarship. And that’s what happened.
“It paid for my education. It was a great four years. It was a really good deal.” Yocum was among the last of the straight-ahead place kickers at a time when soccer style sidewinders were disrupting football. His three field goals, one a record 47-yarder, helped his team beat Syracuse, a perennial football powerhouse, in 1986.
The itch to write fiction
Yocum majored in journalism at Bowling Green and worked for some small dailies before arriving at the Columbus Dispatch, which is where we met and worked together.
“In 1984, the Dispatch formed an investigative team, and for a while we were an army of two; I was the reporter and you were the editor,” he recalled. Yocum’s work won several statewide Associated Press awards. He also wrote a couple of true-crime books, “Insured for Murder”, co-authored with Catherine Candisky, in 1993, and “Dead before Deadline: . . . and Other Tales from the Police Beat”, which came out in 2004.
Meanwhile, he had the itch to write fiction. “In journalism, you’re always writing about other people’s accomplishments, and I wanted to write something that was uniquely mine. My imagination, my words. It was difficult. The first couple stories were pretty awful, and if I ever find them, I’ll shred them because I wouldn’t want anyone to find them after I die.”
A search for models
His impatience led to problems with his first attempts. “I was writing to finish the book instead of writing to create a really good work of fiction. So I started reading a little bit more. Stephen King’s book on writing is just terrific [“On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”], and anyone who wants to be a novelist ought to be reading that. And I listened to an audio book by James Lee Burke, called “Purple Cane Road”, and I thought, that’s how it ought to be done. He’s a really good storyteller and also a very good writer.”
“I downshifted a little bit and started taking a little more time with my work. But also I think the biggest move forward for me was that I started writing books first person instead of third person. And that seemed to make a big difference. I seem to write better from the inside out, telling what I see.”
The first novel Yocum wrote that he thought had some potential was told in the first person. The main character, Jimmy Lee Hickham, introduces himself this way:
It was never easy being the class dirty neck, the derisive term used for those of us unfortunate enough to grow up along Red Dog Road, a dead-end strip of gravel and mud buried deep in the bowels of Appalachian Ohio.
“When those words came off my fingers,” Yocum recalled, “it was like Jimmy Lee Hickham took up residence in my head, and would not let me rest until I finished that book. It was more like taking dictation than it was like writing.”
Estrogen vs. testosterone
“My original idea was to write about a kid who uses football to get out of his environment. But one woman that I worked with quite a bit, said, ‘Robin, you’ve got to get some estrogen into your stories. Everything you write is about these manly men doing manly things, and 85% of the books in this country are purchased by women. You have to have a strong female character’.”
So he switched things around and made Jimmy Lee Hickham into a character that was a good football player but, more surprisingly, an athlete who could also write. That book was “The Essay.”
I told Yocum how much I loved that book for its authenticity. He captured the mannerisms and speech of people from Appalachian Ohio. And it was the story of a teenager bursting with creative talent and looking for a way to express it.
Yocum went looking for an agent to get “The Essay” published. He approached it the way he approaches everything — with discipline and optimism. He bought a copy of the Writer’s Marketplace, which lists contact information for agents and publishers.
“I got up every morning before work and sent out three of four proposals in whatever format they wanted. Some wanted email, some wanted a sample chapter, some an entire manuscript.
“You’re going to get a lot of rejections. You only have to convince one person that you’re worth the effort.”
For him, the first person was Frances Kennedy, the secretary in the office of the Doe Coover Agency in Boston, which receives about 200 queries from writers a month. Yocum’s sample chapter caught her attention, and she passed it on to agent Colleen Mohyde. “You ought to read this,” she said. Mohyde has been Yocum’s agent for years now.
How to find the time
Yocum left journalism for public relations and eventually started his own agency, where he still serves some clients. He also has a flipping business. He and a partner buy homes, fix them up, and resell them. He and his wife, Melissa, have 10 grandchildren between their blended families. And he travels to visit his three children in Michigan, Virginia, and Tennessee.
“When do you find the time to write,” I asked him.
“I write whenever I get a couple of minutes,” he said. A visit to one of his children often involves a six- or seven-hour drive. “The Sacrifice of Lester Yates’, I wrote the entire first draft on my phone using my voice-to-text app. As I’m driving down the road, I’m just cruising along talking to myself, and when I get a break I email it back to myself and paste it in and edit it. It’s a great way to make good use of that time.”
“When I’ve got a book going — and I just started a new one — I have a goal of a minimum of 500 words a day. If I have to stay up till 1 or 2 in the morning, I make sure that I get those 500 words in, even if they aren’t great words. I can get up the next morning and edit those words, but I can’t edit a blank sheet of paper.”
“You have to develop your craft, you have to work at it, whether it’s playing a musical instrument or kicking a football. And it doesn’t come overnight. I’m a better writer than I was 20 years ago, and I hope in a couple years I’ll be a better writer than I am right now.”
He was explaining his 500-words-a-day process at a seminar, and one participant said, “That’s not how the creative process is supposed to work.” Yocum replied, “The creative fairy doesn’t sprinkle magic dust on me every day. It’s like working out in the gym. You have to do it every day.”
Yocum and I chuckled recalling the late Dispatch columnist Mike Harden, who said writer’s block was an unacceptable excuse for not producing anything. “A plumber doesn’t say, ‘I can’t fix your pipes today because I’ve got plumber’s block’.”
Beating the drum
Yocum also does a lot of personal appearances at independent bookstores that promote his work, such as Gramercy Books in Columbus and Paragraphs Bookstore in nearby Mount Vernon, Ohio. “They actually read the books.” By contrast, a giant bookstore near his home “has no idea who I am.” They recently sold out of his books and had not replaced them.
“I try very hard to support the independents because they take care of me. There’s something great about walking into a bookstore where they care about books and reading and seeing a display of your books.”
Marketing the books
At the same time, the majority of his sales are coming through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online booksellers. “There are people who will go online and buy a book from Amazon that won’t get in a car and go to the store.” When you are working against a publisher’s advance, he said, every sale counts, no matter the source.
The platforms don’t report how many books they sold, only a book’s ranking and the royalty revenue. In any case, the responsibility for marketing a book is really on the author these days. “Don’t expect your publisher to spend $20,000 on a marketing campaign.”
Yocum spends more time with bloggers and podcasts than he does with traditional media. TV and radio aren’t interested in fiction. They want to speak with authors who are writing about topics in the news. “I can’t honestly say how valuable newspapers are any more, with their declining circulation.”
The most frequent question he gets from readers is whether his books are autobiographical. They want to know of the main character, “Is that you?” “If it’s told in the first person, it’s always me. It’s based on my experiences growing up, the kids I went to school with.
“There’s a squirrely little guy I knew from grade school and high school, and he’s played that same role in three of my books. I don’t describe him as he used to be, so he has no idea I’m writing about him and I will never tell anyone who he is. But he’s still running around in my head.”
Or the main characters for his books might be public officials he knew from his newspaper work. “They might not be playing that particular official role, but I always assign them a role in my head. I know their inflection, their mannerisms, how they would react in certain situations.”
This is part of what Yocum described as his effort to be honest with his readers. By “putting himself out there” and fictionalizing his truly embarrassing thoughts and actions, readers sense an authenticity. Many writers hold back, he believes, and that’s why they don’t “get over the hump” and attract a loyal following.
Recommendations and what’s next
Yocum said he was an avid reader until high school, when he was distracted by girls. But in a political science class at Bowling Green, he read Ken Kesey’s novel “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. “I credit this book for pulling me back into reading.”
He recommends the 1990 Darryl Brock novel, “If I Never Get Back”, about a reporter who is transported back in time to 1869 and travels with the first professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings.
He also loves to re-read another time travel book, which he calls one of the funniest he’s ever read, Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”
Meanwhile, he is working on his next book. “It’s mafia related and even though the primary character will be a mobster, he will be kind of a likeable guy. We’ll see if I can pull that off.”
Originally published at https://jamesbreiner.substack.com on May 19, 2022.