Friday, June 7, 2019

Frank Zafiro and Colin Conway, Authors of Charlie-316

I always thought of myself as an ensemble player when I was a musician, so a collaborative effort is nothing new to me. That said, I’ve always been a little in awe of writers who can collaborate well, as I can’t imagine doing it. The thing is, collaborating in a musical is a simultaneous thing; collaborative writing is much more of a taking turns thing. The rough edges don’t disappear after a fleeting second as in music. They live forever.

That’s why I was so knocked out by Charlie-316. Frank Zafiro and Colin Conway have created a seamless, fast-paced, and engaging police procedural/thriller that kept me engrossed throughout. I wondered how they did it—all of it—and it was a pleasure to get them both to sit and pull back the curtain a little.

One Bite at a Time: Charlie-316 is an officer-involved shooting story with a couple of twists, so I don’t want to say too much about it. Why don’t you fill us in?

Colin Conway:  Charlie-316 is the lead character’s patrol designation.  It was also my call sign for a year while assigned to a power shift team on the Spokane Police Department. 

As a writer, I always liked the sound of that call sign – Charlie-three-sixteen.  Not only does the name ‘Charlie’ have a nice sound to it, but the numbers “316” are very familiar to most of us because of the biblical verse John 3:16 which states that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have ever lasting life.”

It was the marriage of those two ideas, the police officer and sacrificing a loved one for the sins of others, that became the germ of this story.

Frank Zafiro: Colin had this great idea to start with, and we really built on it (and continue to build on it in the remaining three books in this arc). We knew we wanted to show how all kinds of different people reacted to a controversial shooting – the officer himself, his peers, the investigators, the brass, the media, different interest groups, and city hall, just to name a few.

Throughout the whole book, we kept to the ideas that a) everything is not always as it seems, b) perspective matters, and c) people are complex, gray creatures, not a good or evil archetype. Most of them, anyway.

OBAAT: Officer-involved shootings are now a hot topic. (The next book I have planned for the Penns River series revolves around one.) You took this one down a wholly unexpected path. Or two. Three, even. Did you get together and plot everything out like The Wire or Ray Donovan, laying out all the story beats in advance so whoever writes each episode knows what needs to happen? Or was it more organic?

Frank: Colin had a pretty good skeleton of a plot when he brought the idea to me, and we expanded on that considerably. As I remember it, we developed a fairly detailed bullet point outline, so we both knew what was coming. That said, we discovered a few surprises we didn’t expect.

We also flipped the script to explore the scenario in a different way. Spokane is over ninety percent white, so the racial dynamics are different than in some of the cities that have seen controversial shootings. By reversing the races of the officer and the civilian/suspect/victim (depending on how you see it), it opened a different way of discussing the event.

OBAAT: I had to keep reminding myself this was a collaboration. No seams at all. What was your writing process? Did you edit each other’s work? Take turns chapter by chapter?

Colin:  Thank you for the compliment on seamlessness.  I think a lot of
that came from how we prepared for the story.  After drafting our outline and developing the character whose POVs the readers would see, we both selected a couple of characters that would be “ours.”  After that, we shared the writing duties on several characters and tried to evenly distribute the workload.

For example, I would write a character’s POV, then send it to Frank for his review/addition/subtraction, then he would write his chapter and send it to me.  I would then go back to my original chapter, review the changes he made and approve/add/delete, then edit his chapter, and write my new one.  Afterwards, my work would be sent to him.  The result would be a long snake of edits which would get cleaner as we moved deeper into the story.

When we finished the first draft, it was the cleanest I’d ever seen.  It was a wonderful experience.

Frank:  I love our process for several reasons. It keeps us both involved
in 100% of the work. There’s no mine/yours, just ours. By the time a passage has been written and revised and revised again, it’s no longer mine or Colin’s, but something separate. That’s probably why it seemed seamless to you – there was only one voice, in the end.

The other great thing about our process is that it spurs some great discussions and ideas that can really improve the work. We hash out suggestions, ideas, and resolve differences of opinion pretty fluidly this way.

From a technical standpoint, the extra revision as we go also means that by the end of the first draft, it’s very tight.

OBAAT: How did you two get together?

Colin:  We first met when I was on the department while we were working patrol.  Frank was a corporal and I was a rookie on his team.  Neither of us knew the other wrote at that time.  I was just trying to make sure I showed up on time, did my job professionally, and went home safely at the end of shift.

Fast forward a few years, I ended up in an administrative gig across the hall from Frank, who was a Sergeant at the time.  We began talking and somehow writing came up.

Most of my writing then was short stories.  I was essentially learning the craft and spent hours alone (as most writers do) creating weird and odd crime fiction tales.  They were fun to write then, but they are painful to read now.

Frank was much further along in his writing when we first met.  He had a vision and really understood what he was doing.  It was great to have someone like that around who I could bounce ideas off.  I always felt motivated after one of our writing conversations.

Frank: I have to credit Colin with really super-charging my desire to get back to my writing, and to write crime fiction in particular. I’d written a draft of Under a Raging Moon (River City #1) back in 1995, but it went into a drawer. These were the days when it literally went into a physical drawer because it was printed out on a dot matrix printer… Anyway, in 1996, I was working full time as a cop, and I went back to college full time. From 1996-98, I wrote a lot of police reports and a lot of papers for my history degree, but no fiction. Then, in 1999, I got promoted to corporal, so I was busy learning a new job. In 2001, I made detective – new job. Same in late 2002 – made sergeant, new job. By 2004, though, I’d settled into that role and got assigned to Volunteer Services, where I oversaw five different volunteer programs with about 140 total members ranging from fourteen years old to ninety. It was a challenge, but it was an office gig… so my hours were a little steadier, and I could stop and grab coffee or lunch with Colin, and we talked a ton of writing. It really spurred me on, and from 2004 onward, my output has been pretty good, with a few minor dips due to life events.

I think this illustrates how important it is to find people in your tribe, and to support each other. With technology today, those connections don’t even have to be in person. One of my earliest and best writer friends (and a hell of an editor) is Jill Maser in New Jersey, and we’ve never met face to face. This is someone I’ve exchanged Christmas gifts with, but never hugged. It’s weird, but that’s our world, right? I finally got to meet Eric Beetner in person at Bouchercon in 2018, and will meet Jim Wilsky (and hopefully Larry Kelter) at Bouchercon in Dallas in 2020. I’ve written books with these guys!

I’ve also written a book with Bonnie Paulson, and we’ve met, so that’s more normal. And then there’s Colin and I. We’re good friends and there’s something uniquely powerful about that friendship/collaboration connection that really drives the creative process. When we’re able to get together in person and brainstorm or outline or just talk about one or the other of our solo projects, it is such a positive thing for me.


Frank Zafiro writes several different series by himself (River City, Stefan Kopriva, SpoCompton) and teams up with other authors like Colin Conway, Eric Beetner, Jim Wilsky, Larry Kelter, and Bonnie Paulson for additional mayhem. He is a retired cop and a tortured guitarist.

Colin Conway is the author of The Side Hustle, the first book in 'The 509 Crime Stories' series.  He is a former police officer and currently works in the commercial real estate industry.

1 comment:

Frank Zafiro said...

Thanks for having us on the blog, Dana!