Monday, December 17, 2012

Stephen L. Brayton Talks About Writing

This week I welcome mystery writer Stephen L. Brayton to my blog. Heres a chance to find out more about this interesting author.

Please start by telling us a little about yourself.
If you and your readers promise not to turn me in to the FBI, I'll tell you a little secret. I'm actually the leader of an organized crime family. I run operations in Chicago, New York, Houston, and I'm about to move into Los Angeles in a couple months. Mostly embezzlement, stealing cars, and a huge marijuana farm located in... Well, maybe I shouldn't tell ALL my secrets.

Seriously, I'm a Fifth Degree Black Belt with a club in Oskaloosa, Iowa. I work in hospitality and dabble in graphic design. I drive a 2001 Tracker and my thirteen-pound cat whines every time I'm on the phone. I mean he'll come from a different room to bug me while I'm talking. If you read my Mallory Petersen stories, you'll see many similarities between Mallory and me

Why did you become a writer? Was it a dream of yours since you were younger or did the desire to write happen later in your life?
I thought radio would be the career path I'd take and for a while I was in broadcasting. I realized that unless I received some major lucky breaks, I'd never go anywhere. So I turned to writing and discovered the same thing. Now I'm thinking astronaut and plan on being next up in the space shuttle. What? They canceled that program? Crap!

My parents will tell you that I started writing as a child. I wrote skits and short stories. After college and working my first real job, I had a lot of time to write. My first radio job was boring since the computers did most of the work. If it weren't for some periodic joking around with coworkers, I would have gone crazy. When I moved to Oskaloosa and started martial arts, the writing bug hit me again. Around 2000, I joined my first critique group which really started me learning the craft of writing.

Please tell us a little about your newest release without giving away too much of the plot.
Alpha - Fourth Degree Black Belt and private investigator Mallory Petersen discovers her boyfriend dead in front her Des Moines office. Despite the police ordering her to stay out of the case, she becomes involved. Her subsequent investigations uncover devastating secrets about the man she thought she knew and stirs up a host of troubles from crooked cops to inner city gangs. She has to use her wits and martial arts skills to keep herself out of danger and to bring the killers to justice.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Marketing. I love to write. Writing is easy and fun. I'd rather sit in my room without any connection to the outside world and as long as the cat doesn't bother me, I'll write. It's getting out of the house and promoting. It's contacting people via the Internet and phone calls and emails trying to garner some attention that's the tricky part.

Second hardest is the editing. I never catch all of the mistakes the first time around. Or the seventh or the thirty-first. I was catching errors and writing clunks on Alpha a week before publication.

What comes first: the plot or the characters?
For Night Shadows, my first book, the plot came first, but then the characters were fairly easy to develop. For Beta and Alpha, I created Mallory first and outlined the plots later.

What was the most interesting research you had to do for any of your books?
I like to visit the places I use in my stories to add a better sense of reality. I'll fictionalize some interiors and change the name of the business, especially if there's crime involved. For Alpha, the best memory was when I visited the Val-Air Ballroom for the scene where Mallory is searching for a lost woman. It's a summer Saturday afternoon and I'm wearing shorts and a polo shirt. The parking lot is packed full of cars and I'm wondering what's happening. Walking up to the front door, I notice all these beautifully dressed Mexican women and handsomely dressed men. Inside a circle of women in red are discussing some dance routine. Near the door of the main ballroom, I meet a security guard. We eye each other because we both know I don't belong. The ballroom is filled with hundreds of Mexicans, streamers, balloons, a band, food cooking and dancers on the floor. I discover it's a quinceanera, a birthday party for a teenage girl.

After meeting with the manager and obtaining information about the Val-Air, I leave, knowing I'd put this experience into the story. The original scene called for Mallory to enter an empty building, but that would have been boring. So, I changed it to where she also crashes a quinceanera. Sometimes, the scenes write themselves.

Do you plan all your characters out before you start a story or do they develop as you write?
A little of both. I have the main and secondary characters pretty well profiled. Sometimes, during research I'll meet people who go into the book because of the way they greeted and treated me when I explained what I was after. I met a wonderful woman who ran the office where they deliver the Des Moines Register. Her business and her personality went into Beta. Also included were the rude secretary and the flighty office person I met at other places. So be careful how you treat people, you might end up in a book.

Do you have a ritual when it comes to writing? For example, do you get coffee, blanket, paper, pen, laptop and a comfy place?
After downing a fifth of whiskey and smoking three joints, I strip down to my undershorts and plant myself in the middle of the mall... Wait a minute, that's what happened last Saturday. The cops were sooo nice, though.

Uh, scratch that. Didn't happen. No cops, no mall. Actually, I like it quiet except for some classical music. Since I work the graveyard shift, I usually write in the wee hours after all my duties are completed. When it's warm outside, I'll head down to the river or the local park and write. I write longhand with pen and paper then type it onto the computer as my first edit. I'll write until my hand starts aching, which means I'm in the Zone and writing some good material, or I finish a chapter and ready to shift to something different.

Do your books have a common theme and recurring characters or are they all different?
Night Shadows, my first book dealt with a homicide investigator and a federal agent. I use the homicide cop in Beta and Alpha. Mallory Petersen is my main heroine and I use recurring characters in each book.

How long does it take you to write and then edit a story?
The time varies for each story because I switch to other projects in the middle of one, especially if I'm having problems. I started Alpha back in the middle 90s, let it sit while I wrote Beta and Night Shadows, picked it up again in 2009 and took a year and a half to rewrite and polish it up.

How do you go about naming characters?
For many of the main characters, I've chosen names that sound good to me or reflect the type of person he or she is. For instance, Edward Brougham, the drug king, is sophisticated and suave and devilishly handsome, so he gets an aristocratic name.

However, many of my character names (mostly the surname, but sometimes the full name) are taken from a certain list which nobody has been able to figure out. The agent's last name in Night Shadows was taken from this list along with most of the other names. I've told only a couple people where I get my names, but they keep forgetting. I'm still waiting for someone to guess from which list I take my names. Anybody up for the challenge? I'll give you two hints. There are over 700 names on the list and the list grows longer every year.

What are you working on now?
Planning the next bank heist. I'm running low on grocery money. See, me and the boys got it all figured out. We hit the place on a Friday, take out the guard and disable the security cameras... Uh, I'd better not give all the details. Somebody might decide to play stool pigeon and turn me in.

Oh, you mean writing projects. Well, I'm more than half completed with the next Mallory Petersen mystery, Delta. I'm also struggling with the sequel to Night Shadows and I need to get serious about editing and the rewriting of New Year Gone, which is another mystery involving a world-weary private investigator in the noir style.

What do you like to do when youre not writing?
I date famous celebrities. In the last month I've taken out Kristen Bell, Maggie Lawson, and Elisabeth Harnois.

Oops, actually, that's what I dream I could be doing. In reality I have a pretty boring life (so if Miss Harnois is available for dinner...) Two to three times per week I don my uniform for taekwondo instruction. In the summer I'll do some fishing. I read a lot and have a book review blog. Though I haven't played in years, I enjoy racquetball. See, pretty blasé. No mountain climbing or race car driving or lion taming.
Stephen L. Brayton owns and operates Brayton’s Black Belt Academy in Oskaloosa, Iowa. He is a Fifth Degree Black Belt and certified instructor in The American Taekwondo Association.

He began writing as a child; his first short story concerned a true incident about his reactions to discipline. During high school, he wrote for the school newspaper and was a photographer for the yearbook. For a Mass Media class, he wrote and edited a video project.

In college, he began a personal journal for a writing class; said journal is ongoing. He was also a reporter for the college newspaper.

During his early twenties, while working for a Kewanee, Illinois radio station, he wrote a fantasy based story and a trilogy for a comic book.

He has written numerous short stories both horror and mystery.

His website is:


  1. Stephen, thank you for joining me this week.

  2. Stephen: I learned a lot about you today. The biggest thing was what an incredible sense of humor you have. Gave me a much needed laugh!
    W.S. Gager on Writing

  3. Great interview. Which book should I start with?

  4. Thanks for having me and thanks to those who visited. Anneg, you may start with any of the books. Beta introduces Mallory, but it's not necessary to read it before Alpha.

  5. Loved this interview--particularly nice since I've actually met you.

  6. I can always count on you to write an entertaining post, and you didn't let me down this time. Love learning new things about you and your books/characters.
    Marja McGraw