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  • Writer's pictureConnie Lacy

Like thrillers and mysteries? Let me introduce you to author William J. Cook and "sneaker waves."

Oregon thriller author William J. Cook
Oregon thriller author William J. Cook

From his perch along the scenic coast of Oregon, William J. Cook has written some really fine novels and short stories. I recently finished his latest, Dungeness and Dragons The Driftwood Mysteries Book 4. Some of the scenes had me on tenterhooks. This guy can write! (And it was free in ebook last time I looked.) Or you can start with Seal of Secrets, Book 1 of The Driftwood Mysteries. (Only $1.99 for the ebook.) Bill and I have a virtual friendship through a Goodreads author group. We sat down (virtually) for a little chat about his writing.

Connie: Thanks for joining me, Bill! I’ve read all of your Driftwood Mysteries, which are set along the Oregon coast. You’ve got likable small-town cops battling some dangerous bad guys. Do you get inspiration for your plots and characters from real life?

Bill: I do. The inspiration for my first Driftwood Mystery, Seal of Secrets, came from my seminary experience as a child and all the news about the Catholic Church and sexual abuse by priests. Mind you, I had no idea at the time that I would be writing a series. This was just my first attempt to write a crime novel. The only reason I wrote the short story, Eye of Newt, was that several friends had told me they thought Seal of Secrets ended too abruptly. So Eye of Newt was to be the epilogue to the novel. The idea for the plot came to me while on the Lincoln City annual “Art on the Edge Tour” with my artist wife Sharon. We visited the studio of a local artist commissioned to do some wildlife paintings for a museum in Bend. She showed me a drawing of the Rough-skinned newt, a common salamander in Oregon. When she explained that it was the most poisonous amphibian in North America, with the same neurotoxin as the Japanese Pufferfish, I knew I had to use it in my story. Woman in the Waves was inspired by a January trip to the beach with my daughter and her family. We started collecting agates right where the waves were breaking. It occurred to me later just how dangerous that behavior was. In the winter months, Oregon is notorious for the random “sneaker wave,” a wave with much more volume of water than the waves preceding it. A sneaker wave roars up the beach, sweeping away everything in its path. Every year several people are drowned by sneaker waves, their bodies never recovered. It was only after I started writing it that I realized it was another Driftwood Mystery, and that the murderous professor from Eye of Newt was the villain of the piece. Finally, the initial inspiration for Dungeness and Dragons came from the tragic loss of a crabbing boat off Newport in January of 2019.

Connie: Some of the action is set on or near small college campuses. You make that environment believable. I assume that’s because you, yourself, have taught at such colleges?

Bill: Yes, I did a fair amount of teaching as an “adjunct professor” during my social work career. I taught for Boston University, Rhode Island College, Willamette University, and George Fox University. (“Adjunct” can sometimes be a fancy way of saying, “We don’t have to pay you much money, we don’t have to give you benefits, and you can save our butts by teaching these classes.)

Connie: Gradually, over the course of the series, the reader gets to know Officer Charley Whitehorse pretty well. He’s Native American and is known by his friends as “Tracker” for his sixth sense. Does this character resonate with your readers?

Bill: I can only hope he does, but the reader is the judge of that. Thankfully, I’ve not heard anything to the contrary. I’m not Native American myself, but there is a significant population of Native Americans in Oregon. I wanted my treatment of Charley to be sympathetic and not to be a caricature.

Connie: You’ve written a good bit of short fiction as well. Which do you prefer: novels or short stories?

Bill: I think it can be refreshing to write some short stories after doing a novel. It takes a different skill set, and you have the pleasure of seeing a finished product in days or weeks rather than months. The opposite also holds true: after doing a string of short stories, it can be rejuvenating to get back into a novel, in which you can pursue things in so much greater depth.

As with my novels, inspiration for my short stories usually comes from some real event. The title story from The Pieta in Ordinary Time and Other Stories came to me on a vacation trip to San Diego. While sitting at an outdoor coffee shop, I heard church bells and followed some people into a nearby church. On the wall to the left of the altar was a painting of the Pieta. When a woman at the lectern explained that we were in what the Church calls “Ordinary Time,” the idea hit me like a thunderbolt, and I had to get back to my hotel room and jot down some notes. In Catch of the Day, the idea for “The Yellow Card” occurred to me while standing in line at the Post Office to hand in a “Notice to Hold Mail,” since we would be going away for a week. I thought, “What if the postmaster is part of a gang, and he feeds them intel about which houses are vacant and when, making them easy targets for burglary?” Sometimes a single word can be an inspiration. Each year The Northwest Independent Writers Association publishes an anthology of members’ stories around a one-word theme. Asylum led to my story “The Last Refuge,” about the unjust persecution of Muslims after the destruction of Seattle by a nuclear bomb. Artifact triggered “The Paleographer,” about a man who translates an ancient document which will change the history of the world. Bridges inspired my story “The Affect Bridge,” in which a female psychologist recovers the lost memories of her mother’s murder.

Connie: When you begin a new project, do you have a particular theme in mind that you want to expound upon?

Bill: Not necessarily. I’m an inveterate “pantser,” not following an outline, allowing my stories to grow organically. They usually start with just the seed or kernel of an idea that may have come from anywhere. I’ll start writing with that and see how it develops. The quintessential moment for me comes when my story hits “critical mass.” Suddenly, the characters start talking back to me, telling me what they’re going to say and what they’re going to do next. At that point, the choices are: reach for the bottle of medication, the jug of whiskey, or the keyboard. I’ve found that the keyboard has fewer side effects.

Connie: What are you working on now? Will Officers Charley Whitehorse and Tony Esperanza be back in action soon? Or will you pivot in another direction?

Bill: I’ve just completed my submission of a new short story “The Sword” to this year’s NIWA Anthology, Escape. It will be released in November. I confess I haven’t done much writing at all during the pandemic, except for reviews of other people’s books. My real project now: I’ve finally bitten the bullet after much pressure from my wife—I will start producing my own audiobooks. I’ve begun an online how-to class, downloaded the necessary software, and have just ordered the requisite hardware from Amazon. I hope to start recording within a month, beginning with the short Eye of Newt to get my feet wet. Wish me luck!

Connie: I do, indeed, wish you luck! Thanks, Bill, for talking with me about your writing and for the lowdown on "sneaker waves." I'll be on the lookout if I ever make it to the Oregon coast.

More about Bill and his books on his website or you can find him on Goodreads


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