Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Where the Seat of the Pants Sits by Chester Campbell

Chester Campbell likes to say he was born in the midst of the Roaring Twenties and hasn’t slowed down since. With time off for service in World War II and the Korean War, he pursued a journalism career that included work as a newspaper reporter, free-lance writer, magazine editor, speechwriter for a governor, advertising and public relations staffer, and finally manager of a statewide trade association. He is the author of five books in the Greg McKenzie mystery series and one Sid Chance mystery. He lives in suburban Nashville, where most of his books are set.


Where the Seat of the Pants Sits
by Chester Campbell

Kaye says the subject of an author’s workspace has been a popular one. As I thought about that, I wondered does the workspace have any effect on your career? Let’s take a look at the evolution of mine and see what it might mean.

Except for a rather amateurish effort while I was in journalism school, working nights as a newspaper reporter, I wrote my first mystery novel back in the sixties. At that time my home office was a walled-off area in a corner of the garage. I barely had space for a homemade desk to hold my Royal typewriter and a metal two-drawer file. It was smaller than a walk-in closet. I had built the room a few years earlier while writing free-lance articles for magazines. The book was a Cold War espionage thriller, a genre I read avidly during that period. It took a year or two to write. I sent it off to a couple of publishers and one, Avon, kept it for six months before returning it. The editor said he couldn’t convince his colleagues to buy it. Back then I didn’t know the necessity of continuing to submit. I put the manuscript away.

After tearing out the garage to add a den, bath and bedroom, having been blessed by then with two daughters and two sons, I moved my office to the former boys’ room. My desk became a wooden door that rested on two filing cabinets. Though the workspace was adequate, my new job eliminated the concept of spare time, causing me to shelve my fiction writing plans for about twenty years. When I retired from my post as an association manager in 1989, I vowed to get serious about novel writing. Instead of the usual watch, my retirement gift was the rolltop desk I had used at work and its matching chair. I installed them in my home office and began plotting.

Over the next decade, parked at my rolltop desk, I pounded out eight novels, including a trilogy of post-Cold War spy stories and four thrillers featuring ordinary guys caught up in nefarious schemes. I was represented by a succession of four agents who, for various reasons (another story, alas), sold none of them. In early 1998, my wife of forty-five years died of Parkinson’s Disease complications after more than a year in a nursing home. That November I joined my brother and a church group on a tour of the Holy Land. This resulted in a plot for what soon became Secret of the Scroll, the story of a retired Air Force OSI agent’s struggles to save his wife from terrorists after a trip similar to mine.

Thirty or so query letters later, this one landed on the desk of an agent who liked the story but suggested I get a professional editor to help polish it.  This used up a few more months before I could return it to the agent. After another agonizing lapse of time, she replied that she no longer handled fiction but had passed the manuscript on to her husband who was a small press publisher.  He offered me a three-book contract.
This was a career-changing event and came on top of a life-changing event that moved me into a new workspace. In the fall of 1999, I re-married. Sarah and I both had houses, which we sold and bought a smaller but more modern home with a bonus room over the garage. I installed a new wrap-around computer desk that accommodated computer, scanner, and printer, and settled down to the job of being a published author.

Before the book came out, we started the habit of spending a couple of weeks each March and October at my brother’s condo on the beach at Perdido Key, FL.  That gave me the plot for my second Greg McKenzie mystery, about a balcony collapse at a high-rise condo on the beach. I bought a laptop to take on trips and used it to write some of Designed to Kill “on site.”

After publication of the third book and problems in collecting royalties, I acquired a new publisher to continue the series. My workspace underwent a major change around this time. I had joined way too many Yahoo groups and become addicted to things like Facebook and Twitter. Working at my desk in the office, I found myself spending an inordinate amount of time checking email (every twenty minutes of so, an annoying computer voice would say “Mail Truck”), plus wandering about the internet following various links.

We have a pair of side-by-side recliners in the living room. My wife sits by the window in hers and reads or watches TV. My chair on the left has a small table beside it, handy for holding books, notes, cappuccino cups, etc. I took my laptop down to the living room and started doing most of my creative writing there. As a newspaper reporter many years earlier, I had learned to concentrate on writing and ignore all the noise around me. Sarah sometimes complains that I don’t always pay attention to what she says, and she’s right. But the method works. I’m not tempted to stray from the story since I only receive emails on my PC upstairs.

This arrangement has allowed me to complete three more books and about half of a seventh. The current project is the second Sid Chance mystery tentatively titled Good, Bad and Murderous. It came out of the news, dealing with Medicare fraud and a man freed after fourteen years in prison for a murder committed at age twelve. The upstairs office now has a PC, an all-in-one printer/scanner/copier/fax, a laser printer, and an extra-wide printer that will handle various sizes and lengths of paper. I create all of my promotional items there, business cards, post cards, promo folders, etc.

Which leads us back to where we started. Has all that variety of workspaces affected my
progress as an author? My editors and colleagues seem to think my writing has improved over the years, but if it hadn’t I’d be following some other line of retirement. How much of that progress can be credited to my workspace may be questionable, but the increase in comfort and efficiency must have contributed something. And writing in a recliner sure comes in handy at nap time.


Eve Barbeau said...

I wrote the first draft of my last novel in a recliner. For me it takes away the performance pressure. It feels like curling up with a good book.

Julia Buckley said...

The workspace is important, and it has obviously helped you fine-tune your writing, since THE SUREST POISON was a most enjoyable read!

This reminds me of Virginia Woolf's assertion that a writer needed "A Room of One's Own"--or at least a recliner of one's own. :)

Mason Canyon said...

Chester, it sounds like your writing process has been an intriguing one. No matter where you write, the main goal is to continue writing your wonderful books. Wishing you much success and a comfort chair to continue writing in.

Kaye, another great interview. Thanks.

Thoughts in Progress

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Welcome, Chester!!

I love following the progress of your writing and the evolution of your office. It tells me that "office" is a state of mind, and comfort is key. Who needs a desk when you can sit in comfort next to the one you love, doing what you love. I think you have it "just right."

And a big welcome to Eve, Julia and Mason - thank you for coming by!

Beth Anderson said...

Chester! That's a brilliant idea, going somewhere away where the Internet can't grab your attention.
I've been thinking about doing that myself. Now I'll think harder about it. I have your first book in my bookshelf and I loved it. Time for another, yes?

Great blog. My compliments to the chef. '-)

Jill said...

Love that last sentence. I think that I need a recliner at my desk.

Chester Campbell said...

Thanks for all the comments. I'm glad my recliner "office" has struck a chord. And Beth, it's not just time for another book, it's time for five more. :)