This holiday season, I’ve decided to promote some of my writer friends and ask some of the questions that folks ask me. Today’s guest/victim is:
First, a little something about Tom.
Veteran sports writer and copy editor Tom Wood has covered a wide variety of events, ranging from Nashville universities to boxing, from the Iroquois Memorial Steeplechase to the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games—for the Tennessean, where he also wrote a number of entertainment features. After his retirement from that newspaper, he has continued to contribute freelance articles for several news outlets.
At what age did you start writing or know that you wanted to write?
I’ve been writing since I was five years old, a story about my Grandmother coming for a visit. The story ended with a knock at the door and me opening it wide. The final line was … “And there stood dear, old Grandma.” Not bad, considering my age. She kept it all her life and gave it back to me a few years before she died. I worked on my high school newspaper in Atlanta and on the college newspaper, yearbook and creative magazine at Middle Tennessee State University. That experience helped me land a part-time job in the sports department at The Tennessean, which I was able to turn into a 36-year career as a sportswriter and copy editor. I primarily covered local universities. I also wrote about boxing, covered the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and spent a couple of summers writing entertainment features for the paper. The last half of my career I devoted to writing headlines and editing. I’m enjoying creative writing again.
Where do your ideas come from?
Sometimes from the news, sometimes from books/other media, sometimes … the universe? I often feel like I’ve been led to an idea, being in the right place at the right time. In Vendetta Stone, for example, the novel is completely fictional, and not based on a true case as I am often asked. But I did get the idea for the novel from a Nashville murder several years ago. A teen-ager was murdered in a restaurant robbery and the father was being interviewed on the local TV newscast. The man was very angry and after the segment ended, I turned to my wife and said, “Wow, he doesn’t want justice. He wants revenge.” Then I added, “And so would I if something like that ever happened to you.” Then I thought to myself, “That’s a pretty good line,” and couldn’t let it go. An hour later, I was writing and trying to figure out how Jackson Stone would go about seeking vengeance for the murder of Angela. I don’t have those skills, but Jackson does. It just took off from there. But the point is, if I hadn’t seen those couple of minutes of that particular newscast, I might never have gotten the idea for the book.
My first Western short story, “Death Takes a Holliday”—gambler/gunfighter Doc Holliday plays his last poker game against Death himself—came after reading an anthology called “Stagecoach” while I was sick. Every story had a stagecoach theme. All great stories, and after finishing, I thought, “I bet I could write one of those.” I turned on the TV, and Tombstone was playing. I’d always been fascinated with the Old West, particularly Wyatt Earp, Doc and the Gunfight at OK Corral, and the story just flowed out of me. Again, right place, right time.
Do you base your characters on people you know or know of? Family or celebrities?
Having spent my working career as a journalist, I was privileged to meet some great characters in The Tennessean newsrooms. John Seigenthaler, John Bibb, Al Gore, Larry Woody, Jerry Thompson, Gale Kerr, Sandy Campbell, Nick Sullivan, David Climer—the list goes on and on. Wonderful reporters and writers, rich personalities—and all with great stories to tell. And you get to meet and interview some amazing personalities in the news business, both on and off the field. And I come from a family of great jokesters and story-tellers, my dad especially. He kept all us kids rapt with ghost stories and tales of growing up in North Carolina. Ditto for the TV reporters and editors I’ve known over the years. All of my characters have bits and pieces of all of us, but none specific. You want your characters to live and breathe on their own.
How much of you is in your characters?
A lot of readers think Vendetta Stone narrator Gerry Hilliard is me—except with hair. We both worked (he still does) for Nashville’s morning newspaper, so that’s a natural assumption. Gerry has character traits of a lot of newspaper folks I’ve known over the years. Ditto for the TV reporters and editors I’ve known over the years. The biggest difference between me and Gerry is that I spent my career in sports, not the crime beat. But there are overlaps in sports writing, when an athlete gets in legal trouble or when he gets hurt (medical writing) or a new pro franchise (business). Journalism is a great training ground for novelists.
My protagonist, Jackson Stone, is also a lot like me in that we’re both Christian. We share similar values and beliefs, in some respects, but differ in many others. He was a lot better athlete than I ever was, for one. And as a former Marine, he’s a heck of a lot tougher than me. I could not (and would not) do or make some of the choices he makes in Vendetta Stone. The book explores Jackson’s plan for revenge against his wife’s murderer, how he reconciles his faith and his motives. And he has to deal with backlash from the media, the police, his friends, co-workers and family, and his Pastor and Church family. Brother Robert Armstrong uses the Sunday pulpit to talk about the case. So there are a lot of subplots. But it’s basically a fast-paced revenge/redemption story.
If you could live the life of one of your characters, who would it be?
Since I’ve pretty much lived Gerry’s life as a journalist, there’s a new character in the sequel I’m writing that I really like. His name is Mitch Westman and everybody calls him Cowboy. He is a former Marine sniper who is descended from a long line of Texas Rangers. His role was initially a minor one, but it has grown substantially—so much so that I may do a spinoff with him as protagonist. Cowboy’s had a hard life, but has lived it on his rough-and-tumble terms. We have little in common, so it’s been fun exploring his personality.
Do you plot out your stories or just make it up as you go?
I’m about 50/50 on plotting. Once I figure out the basic plot—the start, then mid-point and the finish—then I let the story tell itself on how to get from point A to B to C. Occasionally, I will run into a brick wall when writing this way, something doesn’t make sense or whatever, so I just back up and take the story in a different direction. Some writers plot chapter by chapter; it’s just whatever style works best for you. I have done more plotting for the second novel.
Do you listen to music while you write and if so, what do you listen too?
I grew up doing my homework with the stereo record player at full blast (driving my parents nuts). The volume’s not as high as today, but I do like having background music. Mostly last century music, generally 1950’s-70’s rock that I grew up on, some 80’s. I like new music, but not when writing. Occasionally soundscapes or country or big band or whatever it takes to get into the spirit of the scene I’m writing. When I was writing about the serial killer in Vendetta Stone, I would play heavy metal, darker lyrics. It worked.
Is Writer’s Block ever a problem for you? If so, how do you deal with it?
Not really, because of my journalistic training. I rely on the time-tested Five W’s and an H—Who, What, When, Where, Why and How—to answer every plotting question. Who’s the protag, the love interest, the killer? What happened to Baby Jane? When is the story set, last week, next year or next century? Where is the setting, the sea, the mountains, or in the dank basement of the house next to you? If so-and-so said or did this, what are the consequences? Why did it happen? Answer those questions and you’ll work through any blockage.
What is your funniest/ awkward moment at a convention/signing event?
At one signing, a little boy came in with his parents. They headed to the back of the store while he lingered over a book, thumbing through it. I smiled and said very pleasantly, “That’s my book.” His eyes grew wide, horrified, and he dropped the book and ran off to find his parents. I’ve had people tell me they don’t read books; I usually answer, “Well, they make great gifts for somebody in your family who does.” It works sometimes.
How much do you write each day/week?
Not as much as I should. When writing Vendetta Stone, I was still at the newspaper and wrote 2-3 hours before going to work, then wrote 8 hours on my days off. Since I self-published, I have to do everything, from booking appearances and doing promotion to keeping up with the financial end to, well, everything. As one writer friend put it, “writing is art and everything else is business.” And everything else cuts into the writing time. It’s been sporadic, but I am cutting back on PR aspects until the next book is finished. I need to write several hours each day to knock it out. Then the cycle will start all over again.
Favorite authors? What book do you read over and over the most?
I just finished re-reading I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane, one of my favorites. Mike Hammer was as tough as they come. I loved anything by Alistair MacLean, Mark Twain, Stephen King, John Grisham, Mario Puzo, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clark, and so many others. I enjoy re-reading The Godfather and Stranger in a Strange Land. And I am a big fan of Louis L’Amour.
What is your latest project/release? What are you working on now?
Vendetta Stone (2013) was my first full-length novel, and it is the first in a series about Jackson Stone and his friends (and enemies). The sequel, tentatively titled Turn to Stone, is near completion and will be released sometime in 2016. I’ve mapped out five books in the series, but will keep writing about Jackson and his friends (and enemies) as long as people are interested. I’ve written a screenplay based on Vendetta Stone, and it made it to the semifinals of the 2015 Nashville Film Festival screenwriting competition, so we’ll see where that goes. I mentioned the Western short stories; I also have an ongoing Western anthology project with four other authors.
Thanks Tom. You can find his books here.