HARRY DOLAN is the author of the mystery/suspense novels BAD THINGS HAPPEN (2009), VERY BAD MEN (2011), and THE LAST DEAD GIRL (2014). He graduated from Colgate University, where he majored in philosophy and studied fiction-writing with the novelist Frederick Busch. A native of Rome, New York, he now lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his partner Linda Randolph.
I interviewed Harry via email.
What comes first for you: your characters or your plot? Do you have your idea in your mind and allow it to germinate, or do you immediately start writing?
Characters tend to come first. My first novel, Bad Things Happen, started with the character of David Loogan, a mysterious loner with a violent past; in fact, a big part of the mystery in that novel is finding out who David is and where he came from and what happened to him.
My second novel, Very Bad Men, began with the killer, Anthony Lark, a very troubled young man who’s obsessed with a seventeen-year-old bank robbery and determined to hunt down the perpetrators.
My most recent book, The Last Dead Girl, began with the victim, Jana Fletcher, a young law student who’s involved with an “innocence project,” trying to help people who’ve been imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. But even though the characters come first, the plot is just as important, and I always need to have a good idea of the plot before I start writing.one of the most important things I learned is that a writer has to do justice to his characters.
I understand that you outline your work. How extensive are your outlines?
It varies, but I try to have the major plot twists worked out before I begin writing. I always know who the killer is—there may be writers who could begin a manuscript without knowing that, but I’m not one of them.
I don’t always know specifically how the book with end. I did with Bad Things Happen—I had the climactic scene in mind from the beginning. But with The Last Dead Girl, I only knew that there would have to be a final confrontation between David and the killer; I didn’t know where it would happen or how it would unfold.
Why did you choose your hometown to write The Last Dead Girl?
The first two novels of my series were set in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is where my protagonist, David Loogan, lives—and where I’ve lived for the last fifteen years. The Last Dead Girl is set in David’s past, and David, like me, is originally from upstate New York (specifically, Rome, New York). So the logic of the story dictated the setting.
I know you studied with Frederick Busch. What did he specifically teach you? Whatever I’ve learned about plot twists, I’ve learned from other writers—from people like Lawrence Block, Thomas Harris, and Jeffery Deaver.
I took a fiction writing course taught by Frederick Bush at Colgate University, and one of the most important things I learned is that a writer has to do justice to his characters.
Even in a crime novel, where the strength of the plot tends to be the primary concern, you have to remember that you’re writing about characters. Even though they’re invented people, they need to have their own truth—they’d better have it, if the reader is going to care about what happens to them. Apart from any particular lesson he might have taught me, I think the most valuable gift Frederick Busch gave me was the time he spent reading my work and giving me feedback—and encouraging me to keep at it.
Is that how you learned the technique of plot twists—knowing the timing of reveal and how to reveal?
I’m not sure that’s something you can learn from a writing course. I think you learn it by reading a lot of crime novels and paying attention to how other writers practice their craft. Whatever I’ve learned about plot twists, I’ve learned from other writers—from people like Lawrence Block, Thomas Harris, and Jeffery Deaver.
Around three quarters of the way through the book, there’s a scene where, with a single line, you unexpectedly reveal the identity of the killer. That sudden revelation threw me for a loop. I had to reread that section to make sure I understood correctly. How did you learn that kind of timing?
Again, I think you learn a lot by observing how other writers do these things. The Last Dead Girl is structured so that you observe some of the scenes from the killer’s viewpoint, without knowing his identity. That’s something that plenty of mystery writers do.
How did you come to craft that reveal? Was it in the original, or did it come in the editing, or the outline?
That’s not something I outlined in advance: when I started, I wasn’t sure how the killer’s identity would be revealed to the reader. When I came to that point in the story, it seemed like the logical place for that reveal. That particular scene is pretty much unchanged from the first draft.
How long did it take you to craft The Last Dead Girl?
Probably a year and a half from the idea to the completed manuscript. The actual writing probably took eight or nine months.
How much research do you do for your books? Do you talk to doctors, psychiatrists, murderers, those convicted of crimes?
I tend to do as little research as I can get away with. Most of what I do is from books or online information. The killers in my books come from my imagination, not from any research I’ve done into real killers. I have occasionally talked to doctors to get medical details right.
A lot of the editing I do involves cutting. When I turned in my first novel, my editor asked me to cut about 50 pages from a 400 page manuscript. Something like that is a big and intimidating undertaking, but it teaches you a lot about economy, about what’s really important and what’s not.
What made you decide to keep your character, David Loogan, for your third novel and have him return to his hometown and use that novel as a prequel?
The Last Dead Girl didn’t start out as a prequel. Originally, it was going to be set in Ann Arbor in the present day. Jana Fletcher was going to be a law student at the University of Michigan who worked part time as an intern at Gray Streets, the mystery magazine that David Loogan edits. He was going to be her mentor, not her lover; but as I worked on developing the plot, it became clear that it would work much better if the character investigating Jana’s death had been romantically involved with her.
At one point I introduced a boyfriend to solve that problem, but that made things more complicated. There were too many characters to juggle. That’s when I hit on the idea of making David Jana’s boyfriend and setting the story in David’s past. When I did that, everything became much simpler. That’s how the book became a prequel.
Do you write your novels simultaneously, or one at a time?
I’d love to be able to work on two things at once, but I’m afraid one at a time is as much as I can manage.
What is the decision breaker for using first person and third person narration in your novels?
My first novel, Bad Things Happen, is written entirely in the third person, with scenes alternating between the viewpoint of David Loogan and the viewpoint of Elizabeth Waishkey, an Ann Arbor detective. That arrangement made sense to me because part of the mystery is David’s real identity, and the third person provides some necessary distance between the reader and the character.
With Very Bad Men, I wanted David to narrate the story in the first person, as a nod to classic private-eye novels—and also because I wanted to try my hand at a first-person narrative. But the killer, Anthony Lark, was a major figure in that novel, and I wanted to include scenes from his point of view, so I ended up alternating between first person and third person.
When it came time to write The Last Dead Girl, I used the same structure: first-person scenes narrated by David, alternating with third-person scenes from the killer’s point of view. I also included flashbacks that told the story of the victim, Jana Fletcher, and used third person for those as well.
I understand that you wait until your first draft is completed before anyone sees it. Who sees the first draft? How does the editing process work for you?
I tend to edit as I go along, so the real answer is that no one but me sees the first draft.
When I have an edited draft that I’m ready to show someone, it goes to my girlfriend, my agent, and my editor.
My editor generally gives me extensive notes on changes that need to be made, scenes that don’t quite work, and so on; but she leaves it to me to make those changes. A lot of the editing I do involves cutting. When I turned in my first novel, my editor asked me to cut about 50 pages from a 400 page manuscript. Something like that is a big and intimidating undertaking, but it teaches you a lot about economy, about what’s really important and what’s not. In the fall of 2007, Amazon announced its writing contest—the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. I entered the manuscript of Bad Things Happen, thinking I had nothing to lose—and also that nothing would come of it…but I did get an agent, and a publishing contract.
Who are your three biggest writing influences? Have those changed from when you were younger?
When I was younger, I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, and my favorite authors were J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Heinlein. Now I read mainly mysteries and thrillers. The authors who influenced me the most are probably Raymond Chandler, Lawrence Block, and Gregory Mcdonald.
What can you tell us about your current novel that you’re writing?
I’d rather maintain an air of mystery about what I’m working on now, but I can tell you that it’s not part of the David Loogan series.
It’s a stand-alone novel with a fresh cast of characters.
Why did you choose to write murder mysteries?
When I was younger, I thought I would write fantasy or science fiction, because those were the books I liked best. When I got older I discovered mysteries and got hooked on them.
I was studying philosophy in college, but I spent a lot of my time reading Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. I found that writing mysteries came much more naturally to me than writing science fiction.
What made you decide to become a writer?
I come from a family of readers, and that probably explains as much as anything how I became a writer.
I wrote my first short story at the age of seven and for a long time I thought I would be a writer when I grew up. In college I got interested in philosophy, and that sidetracked me for a long time. I wound up getting a master’s degree in philosophy and then taking a job as managing editor of an academic journal. After about eight years I’d had enough of that, and I quit that job in order to devote myself to writing.
Could you please share with the audience how you got your first contract?
The first novel I wrote took almost three years and wound up being over 800 pages long. It was part crime novel, part love story, and part coming-of-age tale. I sent it around to agents and several of them liked the writing, but they told me what I already should have known: no one was going to publish it, not at that length. I thought about cutting it, and couldn’t figure out how, so I set out to write something new.
I knew it would have to be shorter and more focused, so I started something that was more of a straight crime novel. The result was Bad Things Happen. When I finished it, I sent it around to agents and got the same kind of polite interest: they liked the writing but they weren’t sure if it was marketable. None of them wanted to take it on.
In the fall of 2007, Amazon announced its writing contest—the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. I entered the manuscript of Bad Things Happen, thinking I had nothing to lose—and also that nothing would come of it. The book was chosen as one of the top hundred, then one of the top ten, then one of the top three.
In the end, I didn’t win the contest, but I did get an agent, and a publishing contract. It turned out that one of the expert judges in the Amazon contest was Amy Einhorn, who was just starting her own imprint (She has gone on to publish bestsellers like The Help). She read Bad Things Happen and liked it and wound up giving me a two-book deal. After she published the first two, she signed me for two more.
The Last Dead Girl is now available in paperback. His next novel is planned for 2016.