Monday, May 3, 2010

Chester Campbell's Surest Poison

Chester Campbell was born in Nashville, TN in the midst of the Roaring Twenties. During the Depression-era thirties, he loved to read short stories in magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Liberty. He never thought about writing until shortly before he was discharged from the Army Air Corps at the end of World War II. He was in the first class (1949) to complete the journalism curriculum at the University of Tennessee. Since then he has written for newspapers, magazines, public relations, advertising, and the fiction market. He currently writes two series of PI mysteries, one featuring retired Air Force investigator Greg McKenzie, the other starring former National Park ranger and small town police chief Sid Chance. Chester lives in the Nashville suburb of Madison, TN.

Welcome, Chester.Tell us about your latest book.
The absolute latest isn’t out yet. It’s A Sporting Murder is due for release by Night Shadows Press in October. The fifth Greg McKenzie mystery, it deals with the consequences of a rivalry between a group seeking to bring an NBA team to Nashville and ardent supporters of the Predators NHL hockey team, who want to keep them out. My newest book in print is The Surest Poison, the first Sid Chance mystery. Three seemingly unrelated murders crop up during the investigation of a decade-old chemical dump that plagues a rural community west of Nashville. Sid Chance, whose law enforcement career was cut short by malicious accusations of bribery, pursues the case after being coaxed out of self-imposed exile by Jaz LeMieux, a wealthy ex-cop. Sid finds himself tailed and threatened. When Jaz helps with the investigation, she is awakened by an explosion behind her mansion. The person responsible will stop at nothing to remain hidden. As the tension mounts, Sid finds himself confronting the unsavory people responsible for his past troubles.

Do you think your writing has improved since your first attempt?
Definitely. I wrote my first novel in 1948 while a journalism student working nights as a reporter for The Knoxville Journal. It was a murder mystery. The plot didn’t sound bad, but the writing had plenty of amateurish errors. I did much better with one I wrote in the sixties, though it, too, needed considerable improvement. When I retired in 1989, I started writing novels with a passion. The first seven failed to find a home, but number eight was published by a small press. The same editor handled the next three books and said each showed improved writing over the previous one. In my earlier efforts, I was guilty of such things as overwriting and too much POV shifting. I have pared down my style to one as lean as a greyhound. Like the celebrated breed, it speeds up the pace.

How do you develop characters and setting?
For a major character, I start with a personal sketch. This includes basic information such as age, location, family, job history. While puzzling this out, I get into where the character fits in the general scheme of things, which helps with development of the story. I flesh out the character as necessary to keep the plot moving. I build minor characters as they pop into the story, giving only enough detail to make them stand out from the crowd.
I enjoy handling the setting and do quite a bit of research when required. Since my books are mostly set around Nashville, and I’ve lived here virtually all my life, it’s only necessary to bone up on areas I haven’t visited in a while. When my characters hit the road, like visits to Israel and Jordan in Secret of the Scroll, it becomes a bit more complicated. In that case, I used my experience as a Holy Land visitor in 1998, where I shot three hours of video. I used several tour books to supplement my memories. Where necessary, I invent locations but work hard to make them realistic. Good old Google helps a lot.

Do you have specific techniques to develop the plot and stay on track?
I’m a seat-of-the-pants plotter, so the stories come out mostly as a stream of consciousness. I have a general idea when I start, then let things go wherever the whims of the characters take them. I’ve used several methods to keep things organized. In one book with several potential killers, I did a detailed timeline for the night of the murder, showing where each suspect was and what they were doing. Most of the time, after I’ve written several chapters, I start a list of actions by chapter, which makes it easy to go back and find places to make changes. That’s what I love about fiction. If the story isn’t going to suit you, change it. Wouldn’t it be nice if real life was that way?

How does your upbringing and environment color your writing?
I grew up in Nashville, TN in typical urban middle class surroundings. The fact that it was during the Great Depression colored things a bit. We were poor, but we didn’t think of ourselves as poor since everybody else was in the same boat. My dad was a small businessman who struggled to stay afloat, and my mother worked at a secretarial job. My grandmother lived with us and looked after the three boys. My parents were staunch churchgoers and raised me to be the same. I’m sure all of that background colors my writing, as well as my experiences during a lifetime of working at various writing jobs. I served in the Army toward the end of World War II, in the Air Force in Korea, and with the Air National Guard until retirement. That led to creation of retired Air Force Lt. Col. Greg McKenzie.

Where do you write? When? What do you have around you?
I do most of my research and some writing on a PC in my bonus room office over the garage. It’s the only upstairs room, which keeps me running up and down steps forty times a day. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it helps keep me in shape. Most of my books are written on the laptop while sitting in my recliner in the living room. That’s where I am now. After spending quite a few years working in noisy newsrooms, I learned to block out extraneous sounds and concentrate on the words I’m typing. Sometimes my wife, in the twin recliner beside me, will comment on something said on TV and I won’t have a clue to what she’s talking about. I write mostly afternoons and evenings. Not every day, however. Domestic requirements and other responsibilities get in the way.

What are your current projects?
As mentioned above, the fifth Greg McKenzie mystery, A Sporting Murder, is in the pipeline. I should have a cover and a publication date shortly. In the gestation stage is the second Sid Chance mystery. It will probably have a link back to Sid’s eighteen-year career as a National Park Service ranger. Most of my other projects involve trying to scare up readers for my books. A long-time writers group colleague, Beth Terrell, and I are setting up appearances at various outdoor events, such as the Buttercup Festival in Nolensville, TN and the RC-Moon Pie Festival in Belle Buckle, TN. As an interesting aside, I’m the reserved, withdrawn type. I virtually never speak to a stranger unless spoken to first. But at book signings, I stand and hail people with the question, “Do you read mysteries?” If they say “yes,” I pitch my books. Guess that makes me a part-time outgoing extrovert.

Yes, I met Beth at Killer Nashville a couple years ago.
Where can folks learn more about your books and events?
Info on all my books, including sample chapters, reviews, where to buy, where I’m appearing, etc., is included on my website: I blog weekly at and semi-monthly at My personal blog at, titled Mystery Mania, has been neglected lately, but I plan to reinvigorate it.

Thanks for the interview, Chester, and I'll see you in Nashville in August.

Thanks for the opportunity to be here, Susan.


Laura Elvebak said...

Great interview, Chester and Susan. Looking forward to seeing you both at Killer Nashville.

Susan Whitfield said...

Laura, I'm delighted that you're going to be at Killer Nashville! WOOHOO! And Chester, I love the cover of this book. It really pops.

Chester Campbell said...

Thanks, Laura. Glad you like the cover, Susan. I thought the little skull and crossbones bouncing about the green sand ws really cool.

Susan Whitfield said...

I can already tell you, Chester, that this cover will be competing for the Whitfield Cover Award in December.

Zillionsb said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.