Blending Fact and Fiction
We talk to author Robin Yocum about his new book, true crime and fiction.
A Brilliant Death is set in your actual hometown of Brilliant, Ohio. How did you blend the fiction with the town where you grew up? How do your friends and former neighbors feel about you using Brilliant as a backdrop for your novel?
I love my hometown and have great affinity for the people. I have received nothing but positive comments about the book. But, it isn’t like I wrote Peyton Place and exposed everyone’s secrets or portrayed the village in a negative way. I use Brilliant simply as a backdrop. I certainly hope the residents see it as a compliment. I could have set the story anywhere along the Ohio River, but there is a lot of me in the book’s narrator, Mitch Malone, and it certainly made it easier for him to tell the story with Brilliant as the backdrop.
I took some liberties with the topography of Brilliant, but anyone from the area will certainly recognize it as my hometown. Although I have not lived there since graduating high school in 1974, in my mind’s eye I could very clearly see the houses and buildings of that era. All that remained was to create the fiction within the village boundaries.
Favorite Sons, my first novel, was set in Crystalton, Ohio, which was a thinly veined version of Brilliant. I was told that people in town were having fun reading the book and trying to figure out which residents were the inspiration for the characters.
You’re well known for your work as a crime and investigative reporter with the Columbus Dispatch. Tell us about the transition from writing true crime to write crime fiction.
One of my former editors, the late and legendary Ned Stout, was fond of saying, “I hate it when the facts get in the way of a good story.” That is the great advantage to writing fiction. I’m not constrained by the facts.
My years as a reporter provided the bedrock of my writing career. Being a crime writer certainly gave me a solid understanding of police procedures and the court system. It also exposed me to a side of life that you don’t see as a sports writer. Those experiences on the crime beat have stayed with me, and I use them as my personal research library. However, there are obvious differences to writing a twelve-inch story on a murder and churning out a hundred thousand words for a novel. I enjoy writing fiction. Instead of writing about the deeds—or misdeeds—of others, I’m creating something uniquely mine. I love the challenge of creating a compelling story and following it through to completion.
What authors inspired you as you were writing A Brilliant Death?
I like books that tell a story while providing a snapshot of a particular place and time in the country. Richard Russo is one of my favorites. I’ve also read everything that John Steinbeck wrote.
Interestingly, I started this book years ago. I don’t remember how long ago, but I think I saved the original on floppy disks. After the release of Favorite Sons and The Essay, my agent, Colleen Mohyde, asked what I had sitting around unpublished. I had this manuscript, which I had always considered one of my practice books. She liked it and encouraged me to give it a rewrite. I did, and she sold it to Seventh Street Books.
What are the three essentials you need for writing?
I am very flexible in my approach to writing. Life can get in the way of a rigid process, so I simply try to be flexible and take advantage of every available minute I have to write. What does it take for me to finish a novel?
1) A solid ending. Before I start grinding on a novel, I have to know how it ends. I’m no good trying to hunt-and-peck my way through a story. If I know how it ends, I can draw the roadmap to get there. I may take some detours along the way, but I always have the ending in my sights.
2) A voice that resonates with me. I like writing in the first-person because I enjoy hearing the words and seeing the scenes unfold from the perspective of my protagonist. It keeps my stories moving, and keeps me engaged.
3) A strong setting. I write with eastern and southeastern Ohio as my backdrops. I like the industrial setting and ethnic population where I grew up. As a boy, I was surrounded by steel mills and coal mines and men with tobacco juice running down their chins who still spoke with thick, European accents. A few years back, I started writing a sequel to Favorite Sons that was set in the Columbus area. After struggling with it for a couple of months, I put it away. The setting was simply too sterile. At some point, I’ll pick it up again, but I’m going to move the story back to the Ohio Valley.
What can readers expect next from you?
My next novel will be out in about a year. It is yet untitled. (Okay, it has a title, but not one that my editor likes, so it will be getting a new one sometime soon.)
The novel is set in the Ohio River Valley city of Steubenville and involves a disgraced former high school athlete trying to get his life in order after getting out of prison on a drug charge. It is largely different from my previous books in that I have traditionally written stories where at least one of the characters is trying to do the right thing in life. In the next book, nobody is trying to do the right thing. Everyone has their own agenda and is trying to secure their piece of the pie. It’s rawer and more profane than my previous efforts, but I’ve injected humor as it explores the lengths people will go to secure power or money.
Learn more about A Brilliant Death here.
Robin Yocum is the author of the critically acclaimed novels Favorite Sons and The Essay. Favorite Sons was named the 2011 USA Book News’ Book of the Year for Mystery/Suspense. It was selected for the Choose to Read Ohio program for 2013-14 and was a featured book of the 2012 Ohioana Book Festival. Yocum is also the author of Dead Before Deadline . . . and Other Tales from the Police Beat and Insured for Murder (with Catherine Candisky). He is the president of Yocum Communications, a public relations and marketing firm in Westerville, Ohio. He is well known for his work as a crime and investigative reporter with the Columbus Dispatch from 1980-1991. He was the recipient of more than thirty local, state, and national journalism awards in categories ranging from investigative reporting to feature writing.
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