Interview with Tom Crowley, author of “Shrapnel Wounds”

Your most recent book is titled Shrapnel Wounds. What is the nature of the book?

Shrapnel Wounds is my Vietnam war memoir. It covers my service as a rifle platoon leader in the Vietnam war, beginning with my entry into the army and training several years before going to Vietnam and extending to my return to Vietnam many years after the war ended.

Can you tell me why you took so long to write this book? It’s now over forty years since your time in Vietnam. What triggered you to take this on now?

Several things came together, first I had, over the years, put many of the stories included in the book down on my computer and saved them for myself. When I started writing action/adventure novels, several years ago, some writing friends pushed me to go forward with a book containing my experiences in Vietnam.

What was your goal in writing the book?

My goal was to tell the story from the point of view of the every day guys on the ground, the guys I served with. The guys I led in my rifle platoon. The guys carrying the rifles in the jungle that other soldiers call the “Grunts.”

That was the most important factor, but I would say that another important factor was in recent years seeing history repeat itself in the gross errors American politicians committed in their recent Iraq adventure. It struck me that we had not learned any of the lessons from Vietnam and had thus failed again in Iraq. That and having the chance to speak with young veterans of the war in Iraq and learning of their disillusionment with their service experience brought our failure home to me very strongly.

You mentioned you have previously written several other books. What type of books are those?

When I started writing for publication my first book was Bangkok Pool Blues a non-fiction book that covered the counterculture of the Bangkok pool scene. After that I wanted to try my hand at fiction and started an action/adventure series featuring an ex US Army ranger living in Bangkok. My goal is to continue the action/adventure series going forward.

Are we to understand that the hero of the action/adventure books draws on your experiences in Vietnam?

That’s true. I think I can develop the characters and their actions in dangerous situations, shoot outs with the bad guys and such, with a touch of realism based on my experience. I think that gives the stories the edge the readers look for.

Have those books been well received?

Well the development path for any new author is a slow one but all my books are on Amazon and Barnes & Noble with good reviews and I’m happy to be able to say that my book, Murder in the Slaughterhouse, won a 2015 Bronze Medal award from the Military Writer’s Society of America.

All of your books have had publishers behind them. Did you consider self-publishing?

I looked at self-publishing but at the end of the day I suppose my lack of confidence came out. I felt I would know I had something worth while when a publisher who knew the book world was willing to pay to put out my book. It took a bit of ground work, going to writer’s conferences and such but I was able to find worthwhile indy publishers who took me on and encouraged me.

So you would say that attending writer’s conferences is an important step for a new writer to take to get started on the path to have his books published?

Definitely. Whether you are looking for a publisher, an agent or information on self-publishing these conferences can be fruitful hunting grounds. Go, meet and talk. It’s hard work but necessary.

What are the conferences you attended and the ties that you made at them?

I started by joining the Mystery Writer’s of America and attending their annual conference. This group has all the big names in mystery writing involved and as a newbie you’ll definitely feel like a small fish but don’t let that put you off. It was at my first conference in Cleveland in 2012 that I made the connection with Down & Out Books the publisher of my action/adventure series. The second group I joined was the Military Writer’s Society of America, a smaller but very supportive group of experienced writers and they led me to the connection with Pacifica Press, the house that published Shrapnel Wounds.

What about the writing process itself? How do you get your ideas and decide what theme you’ll follow?

I don’t think this can be manufactured in the sense that you can have somebody assign you a topic. At least to me it seems that you have to have something bugging you or a set a story elements swirling around in your mind. As an example with my first book, Bankok Pool Blues, I was sitting around having a drink with some established writers and we were telling stories about our unusual experiences in Thailand. One of the writers liked my stories so much that he encouraged me to put them down on paper and then to string them together into a book. He guided me along the way as my first editor and before I knew it we had published. Write about something you know and that interests you.

You mention writing on an area that interests you but what role does research play?

Research is very important. Nothing turns a reader off when he’s enjoying your book as much as coming across a real nugget of misinformation. Do your research. Have as many people look at your text as possible to help find any errors in fact or grammar. Get the best possible editor, two if you can. Once the book hits the public realm you can’t go back.

Do you have a set method of how to proceed once you have the concept fully in mind?

Well, first do get the concept fully in mind. Write your synopsis carefully and then re-write. It from there I write a list of characters I envision populating the story, you can add or subtract from it later as the story develops. Next I do an outline looking to mark the highpoints and low points of my main characters progression. Only then am I ready to begin writing.

You make it sound as if it’s a lego blocks construction or an assembly line process. Is it all that structured in reality?

No of course not. That structure is important but that is only the starting point to let your imagination go. I don’t know about other writers but every thing I’ve ever written has taken on a life of it’s own once the process starts. As a story teller, you want to strain to let in any elements that drift across your subconscious even if you have to throw most of them out later. Be open to discovery.

Do you have a set schedule for writing?

Once I’ve fully started I want to work every day. My personal timing is to try and put in a 10am to 2pm schedule and not let outside matters interfere with that if at all possible. After four hours of writing I’m beat and that’s enough.

How about output? Do you target the length of a novel and the number of words you write per day?

I expect writers differ greatly in this area and don’t forget publishers have the ability to interfere also. I personally shoot for a book about 80,000 or more words in length. Some publishers look for a 100,000 words or more but I really don’t see why. As for daily production my goal is 1,200 words but I must say many days I don’t hit that. I have a writer friend who puts out 2,000 words a day which quite amazes me. I always start with re-writing the previous few days production and many times I get tied up in doing that and don’t forge forward very far. There is a saying, writing is re-writing and it’s very true.

Do you read much? Who are your favorite authors?

I am and have always been a voracious reader. I believe all writers have to be readers first. It is the most intimate way to study the writing process and I’ve found the more I learn about writing the more I get out of reading novels and understand the process the author is going through in his story.

My favorite all time for his simplicity and impact is Elmore Leonard. I very much enjoy John Connolly the Irish writer who has tremendous imagination and bases much of his stuff in the U.S. I like also Michael Connelly the LA based crime writer. More recently I read some things by Dennis Lehane, especially Moonlight Mile, which I thought were excellent.

What is the most important thing about a book in your opinion?

For me it’s simple, I want to entertain the reader. If they come to me and say they learned something that’s nice, but what really rings my bell is if they say ‘I couldn’t put the book down.’ I hear that and I go home a happy boy.

How would you feel if no one showed up at your book signing?

I actually had the experience early on at which I had an event for Viper’s Tail at the Bangkok Foreign Correspondent’s Club. I believe four people showed up. It taught me how important promotion is. Now I was lucky enough that two of the people who did come liked the book enough that one of them promoted a speaking appearance for me before the Pattaya Expats Club at which I spoke to 100 people and sold 27 books and saw the beginning of a fan club based in Pattaya. The other fellow turned out to be a German reporter who interviewed me over the following week and ended up writing a two page article about me appeared in the German magazine Der Spiegle (the mirror) which is their equivalent of Time magazine. So it wasn’t a total loss.

Can anyone write a worthwhile story?

I believe writing is a craft just as is cabinet making. I’m lousy with woodwork but I believe I have a fair ability at crafting words and stories. Not everyone can write. I do believe and tell my audiences everyone has a story. I always offer to look at something that some one is writing and to help them if I feel they have the makings of a good story. I’ve found many people don’t want to be published. They just want to write their story down and that’s okay.

What about the movie world? Do you want any of your books made into films?

I’ve registered my books with the Screen Writer’s Guild East to protect my rights to the stories. I have written and am re-writing a screenplay for Viper’s Tail and will enter it into a screen play contest in the next year. It would tickle me to see one of my books made into a film but I have no real ambition in that direction. I’ll just keep writing action/adventure novels.

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