A Conversation – M. Albert Morningstar
June 18, 2011
Author of Murder at the PBR
Thank you, Al, for visiting with me! From the moment I saw the title of your novel, I was intrigued, and my first question was – PBR?[i] So, of course I had to read Murder at the PBR. I’m a mystery lover, and getting a chance to read a new mystery author is always a pleasure, and to delve into a world I know nothing about is a big plus. In addition, I loved your protagonist’s name, Chance Boettecher! I’m always making “name” lists to use in future writing efforts. Having just the right name to fit your character’s personality is a knack. Chance, I think, was perfect.[ii] Not only did I enjoy your first novel, but I learned a lot of inside information about rodeos, and the PBR circuit through Chance’s eyes.
Reading your bio on your website, I couldn’t help but be impressed. I didn’t immediately see a tie-in with bull riding and your prior accomplishments. But I’m guessing there’s a connection or linkage there somewhere between you, bull riding, and your first novel. So, my first question is, how did you get involved in Rodeos and the PBR, and then decide to write a mystery with the PBR as your “location, so to speak?
There really is no connection between my prior life and my interest in bull riding. What happened was my wife and I were able to scrounge out a life sabbatical in the late 1990s in, of all places, Hawaii. During the 14 months we spent there, we caught a PBR bull riding event on TV @ 2 in the afternoon. That would have been 8 PM back east. We got hooked. Subsequently we traveled to PBR events in Landover, Md., Baltimore, Md. San Jose, California and the World Finals in Las Vegas, Nev. We also began attending PRCA sanctioned rodeos as well as unsanctioned rodeos, including one in Hawaii during our time there. I was writing mysteries then and the muse led me to develop a plot centered around the PBR. I had a great deal of fun tweaking the story and writing the book. I’ve also developed 2 sequels that I hope to see published in the next couple of years. They are Murder At The PRCA and Murder At The NFR.[iii]
A “life sabbatical” in Hawaii, how wonderful! I find the chain of life events that lead to both the writing-life, and author’s books very interesting—and often surprising! Sounds like for you, your sabbatical time and your rodeo interest were the perfect mix, at the perfect time.
Murder at the PBR is written in first person. Sometimes first person point-of-view can be a problem for me if I don’t like the protagonist—not this time. I was charmed by Chance from the start, and ended up liking and rooting for him. I also like hearing about where characters “come from.” Did you set out with a definite idea about the “who and what” of Chance? Or…?
I definitely gave considerable thought to the character and characteristics of my protagonist. I wanted him to be a bull rider. He needed to be injured so I could make him a judge and reveal many aspects of the bull riding scene. Bull riders are not big burly guys like Sam Spade, Lew Archer, etc. so he had to be below average in physical size. Although I wanted him to be something of a “Free Spirit,” he has wholesome values, a love of country, a belief in God, and an appreciation for the traditions of rodeo. I picked his name with care in that I chose “Chance” because as an amateur detective things happen, clues come to him, etc. by chance. He’s not Sherlock Holmes, nor is he Hercule Poirot using the little gray (sorry, the British form is grey) cells. For his last name, I chose a name that would be unpronounceable for most people. It’s pronounced Bet’cher. I’ve seen other protagonists with such names and liked the idea. I think it helps make them more memorable.
I’d like to address your concern with the 1st person novel. I think I understand where you’re coming from. To me, it seems that in school we were required to read some of the most unreadable books ever written. They may have been great stories but impossible to read. Many of those books were written in the first person and contained long paragraphs with little dialogue. What a bore they were. I believe that if the author sees no need to go outside the POV of his/her main character, first person is the appropriate choice. Saying that, the author should still try and write the book in a readable, keep it moving, lots of dialogue form. That done, the book is just as readable as if written in the 3rd person. And, of course, not all 3rd person tomes are readable.
I’m with you that fitting POV to your story, character, and author voice is so important.
Another thing I liked about your novel was its “ring of authenticity.” I was not only taken right into the story from page one, but also into rodeo culture. And a big surprise for me was all the places in the PBR circuit. Since you’ve followed the rodeo for years, did you still need to do research? If so, what kind?
I’m glad you picked up a “ring of authenticity” with Murder At The PBR. I did engage in a great deal of “research” before setting down to write the novel. However, except for a book on the history of bull riding that I read cover to cover, it was mostly in the form of in-person observations while at rodeos and PBR events. Equally, I paid close attention to numerous television broadcasts of both rodeos and PBR events. Along the way, I was also able to interview a few rodeo people. With that, I’m sure there are PBR insiders who can say, “He got this wrong” or “That’s not the way it is.” My goal was not to depict the PBR with total objective accuracy. Instead, I wanted to convey the spirit of the PBR while making adjustments for the convenience of my story.
I know what you mean about the “convenience” of your story and balancing the “real world” and the “world of fiction.” Back to your website for another question—your picture with Shige Yamada’s “Storyteller” on Waikiki Beach, Honolulu Hawaii made me curious if you have a storytelling-philosophy? Specifically, what are the elements you think are important for a good story?
I wish I could say I could add something new to the idea of what makes a good story. I can’t. Still, over the years I have read many “How To” books on writing and have come to believe in much of what they offer. For me plot, character, and setting are the main triumvirate. For years, I fought the notion of character, believing plot should reign paramount. When I accepted the importance of character, and combined plot and character with setting, things started to click for me. After these three, however, the storyteller needs to pick his/her person carefully. Not every story should be a first person one, or, alternatively, told in the third person. When it comes down to it, the writer has to give at least fleeting attention to POV, voice and time and every other element out there. In other words, no element should be left to chance
You’ve had short stories published before, but this is your first novel. You should be very proud getting this far! We share a publisher, Aberdeen Bay[iv], who has given both of us—and several other good authors I now know—their “first shot.” Now that you’ve passed that big hurdle, could you tell us about your promotions efforts? And what do you think about the promotions aspect of being an author?
I have been enjoying answering these questions. However, this one will probably be the most fun for me. I’m guessing (I emphasize “guessing”) that most writers don’t want to have thing one to do with promoting. We don’t want to go out and ask (beg) people to buy our books. Writers want to write. We want to sit at our word processors and punch out stories. After all, the story is about who we are. When we give someone a spiel and he/she decides not to buy, we feel a measure of humiliation. Pile up enough of those humiliating experiences and all we want to do is retreat to the comfortable solitariness in front of the computer screen.
I have had a number of careers over my life. For twenty-five years, one of those careers has been as a writer. Now during that time, I also engaged in other careers until I reached the supreme career of all: Retirement. So, while in glorious retirement, a tome of mine gets accepted for publication. That was wonderful. A life high. But despite that up beat life achievement a couple of old maxims come into play. 1. Be careful for what you wish for. 2. There are pluses and minuses to everything. For with my wonderful accomplishment, now, I had to learn another career. Promotion.
For me, promotion is a love/hate thing. I love when I’m actually out there doing something. I hate it when I’m trying to figure out what I need and want to do, or when I’m anticipating doing something that has been arranged. Now, I have something not too many other writers have. I have a niche market. True, my market includes mystery readers. That’s a pretty big market and is tough to crack because of all the competition. But I’ve written a book that falls into an untapped niche. The rodeo world. As far as I know this world has never had a mystery set within it. It has had fiction other than mysteries depict it, but I think mine is the first mystery to be set in that world. Ever. If there is another one, I’d like to know what it is. All right, I’ve got a niche market. So what? Does it do me any good? First, on the positive side, through my efforts at marketing so far, I see this market as far larger than I originally thought it to be. Second, on the negative side, most of the people who populate this market do not read. However, the truth is most people in all markets do not read. Accordingly, it’s tough for every writer.
So, the goal for me is to tap into those people within my market who do read. They are there. I’ve yet to encounter a reader of my book from the rodeo world who did not like it. Several friends, who can in no way be considered of the rodeo world who have read it, had problems with it. Okay, I know it’s not for everyone. Still, I appreciate those friends of mine who bought it and read it. They did me a huge favor.
Next, while I believe in singles and doubles, I also believe in some home runs too. According, I’m seeking out speaking engagements, individual rodeos and all those possibilities that go with singles and doubles. But I’m also trying (I emphasize “trying”) to hit some home runs in that I’m advertising my book in three bull riding publications, one of them in Australia. Moreover, I believe I’ve lucked into something that should help me greatly. Humps N’ Horns Magazine (that is not a pornographic publication but one dedicated to bull riding), one of the magazines I’m advertising in, has contracted for me to write short stories for it. This magazine goes all over the US, Canada, Mexico and Australia, all the places where rodeo and bull riding are popular–with the exception of Brazil. My first story will appear in the July issue. This should help give me some name recognition all over the bull riding world. Hopefully, it will translate into sales for the book, i.e. some home runs. Now, I’m truly enjoying writing those stories. I’m good through February. So in this sense promotion is fun.
It is not fun to pay a hundred and fifty dollars to sell five or six books at a rodeo. I’m doing that though and considering it paying my dues. But, too, I’m getting to know a number people in the rodeo/bull riding world and I am enjoying that process. Fortunately, I have some cheap outlets for promoting the book and I’m soaking those to the hilt. So the bottom line is I’m doing what I can, realize I have much to learn about the process, love some of it, hate some of it, reject nothing.
Ah, the world of promotions! Is there anything I haven’t asked about that you would like to share—like writing anecdotes, lessons learned, or advice?
As a story person looking back on his life, I see that at some point I was just going to have to take up the pen (actually the computer keyboard) and write. Since my youngest days in elementary school, I was a reader, and I’ve read and read and read all my life. While in school, I assumed everyone was reading like I was. It was only much later I realized they were not. From that awakening I’ve come to accept that not everyone is a story person. Anyway, for me, a writer must first be a reader. When I did finally start writing, I read how-to books, took out subscriptions to writing magazines, joined a critique group and enrolled in a creative writing class. I believe every budding writer should do all of those too. However, I believe that after a couple/few years the writers should cut the cord to all of that and just write. So I guess my lesson learned/advice to any writer is simply READ and WRITE.
Couldn’t agree more—write, write, write!
Okay, my last questions may sound a little silly—but there actually is a writing point. I particularity like your picture on your book cover and website. The “hat” is great! In my current novel (in editing and rewrite), a Stetson comes into play for a couple characters—the cologne and the hat!—so your picture piqued my interest. Does “your” hat have a story behind it?
There is no real story to the hat. I picked it up on one of our drives to our home in Texas. I had been searching for a felt hat that would fit me. My head shape just wasn’t right for all the ones I’d tried on. Finally, we stopped at a western wear store on US 50 in Indiana and lo and behold, I try one on and it fits. I bought it then and there. It’s the one in the picture. I have about a dozen cowboy hats, three of them made out of buffalo leather. I keep several cowboy hats of one material or another in Texas, the rest in Pa. I’ve bought a couple in Mexico. Actually, I don’t wear a cowboy hat all the time, mostly the baseball style. I guess that’s the “story.”
Thanks, Al for taking the time to visit with me, and congratulations, on your first novel. I like being taken into worlds I know nothing about—then having a story interesting enough to keep me there for three-hundred plus pages! Well done.
Murder at the PBR is available at Amazon (includes Kindle), Barnes & Noble, Books A Million and in e-book formats at http://www.smashwords.com. M. Albert Morningstar’s website is www.murderatthepbr.com.
[i] Professional Bull Riders (did you already know or guess?)
[ii] John Henry, Cauy Hall, Lane Lowick are also cool names—all in the first paragraph. Great hook for me! Later, there’s a list of international bull riders—loved those names too.
[iii] Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and National Finals Rodeo.