Author Revisited ~ Donn Taylor

Donn Taylor led an Infantry rifle platoon in the Korean War, served with Army aviation in Vietnam, and worked with air reconnaissance in Europe and Asia. Afterwards, he completed a PhD degree at The University of Texas and taught English literature at two liberal arts colleges. Before his latest novel, Rhapsody in Red, he published a suspense novel, The Lazarus File (spies and airplanes in the Caribbean), and the poems he published in various journals over the years are collected in his book Dust and Diamond: Poems of Earth and Beyond. He is a frequent speaker for writers’ groups and has taught poetry writing at the Glorieta and Blue Ridge conferences. He and his wife live near Houston, where he writes fiction, poetry, and articles on current topics. For more on Donn, check out The Christian Suspense Zone, where Rhapsody in Red is featured as the book of the month.

Tell us a little about your latest release:

Rhapsody in Red, published by Moody, is a light-hearted mystery set on a college campus. The hero (if you can call him that) is a reclusive history professor with musical hallucinations. The heroine is a newly-hired professor of comparative religions, headstrong and determined to succeed on her own. They stumble onto the body of a murdered colleague and promptly get suspected of committing the murder. Though they’re completely ill-matched and often in conflict with each other, they decide toteam up and find the real murderer before the police can pin it on them. That task requires them to prevail against the police, the murderer, organized crime, and (worse yet) an unsympathetic college administration. Along the way, there’s some light satire of college life. I hope the exchanges of wit and the protagonist’s interior music score make the novel sufficiently different from those with similar plots.

How did you come up with this story? Was there a specific ‘what if’ moment?

Not a single moment, nor even several. Over time, a number of things converged: I’d been planning to write about a professor who stays in trouble because he actually says what many faculty would like to say but don’t dare. Then I read a newspaper article about musical hallucinations, researched it further, and decided afflicting my professor with them was a good way to give the novel interesting reinforcements and ironies. Historically, many Christian colleges tend to become more and more secular. Many of the smaller ones are pushed that way for economic survival. And, as a member of the National Association of Scholars, I’m aware of the ridiculous lengths to which colleges will go to further the “diversity” myth. That last is how my Wiccan ended up on the religion faculty of a nominally Christian college.
Tell us a little about your main character and how you developed him/her:
I think of hero and heroine as equals. He, Professor Preston (Press) Barclay, had to have a specialty I knew something about, so I made him a specialist in Renaissance history of ideas. (My academic specialty was English Renaissance literature approached from that perspective.) After that, it was a matter of finding eccentricities to signal his reclusiveness—little things like not owning a home computer and big things like mourning his deceased wife. And the heroine, Professor Mara Thorn, has characteristics of extreme independence. She had her name legally changed and she abhors being touched, but she has an inborn drive to discover truth regardless of the consequences. I suppose you could get a similar result by putting a dog and cat in the same box and shaking it.

What did you enjoy most about writing this book? Least?

I most enjoyed working out the wit and interplay of hero and heroine as they develop mutual respect for each other’s mind and character. I enjoyed least the laborious details of shaping the basic premise into a well-developed plot.

What made you start writing?

I guess it must be part of my genetic code. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t trying to create something. I began writing music at age 14. Two years later I entered college as a music major, studied piano with an instructor on leave from Cincinnati Conservatory and played some of my classical compositions in her recitals. But at age 18 I got interested in poetry—the Romantics, of course—and began writing poetry and some very bad short stories. Since then, writing is just something I have to do, though there have been long periods when professional and family requirements pushed it far into the background.

What does your writing space look like?

The writing space usually looks like a combination library and paper mill that’s been hit by a tornado. My wife and I share a small office in our house. I have a wrap-around computer desk squeezed into one corner—computer under it and monitor on top, backed up against the room corner. File cabinet at one end of the desk. A photo of my wife, Mildred, between the monitor and printer. On the other side of the monitor, references like Webster’s Dictionary (Second edition, thank you, and you can keep the third), thesaurus, Chicago Manual of Style, etc. In another corner of the room, a closet with the door removed, where I keep a book case full of literary books and a selection of writing books. That’s about it, except that I keep a digital voice recorder and a flash drive with backups of essential documents with me all the time.

What would you do with your free time if you weren’t writing?

I don’t think of writing as free time. I look on it as my job, just as I looked on the Army, grad school, and college teaching as jobs. I’ve always spent free time from my jobs with my wife and/or children. Until the wheels came off, I also found time for competitive basketball and running 10Ks. Now Mildred and I walk the woodland trails in our neighborhood whenever we can. We also enjoy attending church and prayer meeting.

What’s the most difficult part of writing for you (or was when you first started on your novel journey)?

It always was and still is: taking the premise and wrestling it into a detailed and workable plot.

Do you put yourself into your books/characters?

Not really. I suppose there might be some overlap here and there, but I try to let each character be himself with his own set of values and mannerisms. Then I let them bounce off of each other like billiard balls after a vigorous break. At that point, they tend to develop themselves.

What message do you hope readers gain from your novel?

Let’s be clear that the novel is written mainly to entertain. But embedded in the entertainment is the message that Christianity is the only religion that adequately explains the undeniable reality of evil. There’s also some light-hearted satire of the educationist world and its obsession with the “diversity” myth.

Briefly take us through your process of writing a novel—from conception to revision.

I’d have to be a sadist to take you through it in any detail, and as a writer I’m only a masochist. The process starts with searching for a premise, which consists of characters plus situation. That found, it takes a bit of research to see if the basic idea will work. Then I look to the ending, still thinking in general terms. After that, I look for the standard three or four disasters to form the major plot points. (However, I tend to use a stair-step sequence rather than any of the textbook plot patterns.) I’ve learned long since that I can’t begin with a chapter-by-chapter outline that’s worth having. So I start with the precipitating event and write toward the next plot point, then from point to point until I reach the end.
Along the way I do further research and keep notes on needed revisions and ways to enrich the text. (Good ideas for the first part of the novel often come during the last part.) I do outline the chapters when the first draft is finished and print out a 5 X 8 index card for each chapter. I make pen notes on the cards of what needs to be done to each chapter. Then I re-write the text as necessary. Mildred and I both do a final read-through to be sure everything works the way it should. I also talk with her a good bit during the drafting because she gives good advice, and a colleague reads and critiques each chapter.
The process reminds me very much of distance running: it’s pretty painful while you’re doing it, but there’s a lot of satisfaction after you’ve finished and done it well.

Tell us what we have to look forward to in the future. What new projects are you working on?

In fiction, the current project is a sequel to Rhapsody in Red, further developing both protagonists and giving them a different kind of problem to solve.
In poetry, I have a continuing crusade: Contrary to what’s being done in college creative writing programs, I teach and encourage the writing of good-quality poetry that can be understood and enjoyed by ordinary educated readers. That’s also what I write in my collection Dust and Diamond, and if enough of us begin doing that we may be able to bring the rich experience of poetry back to ordinary readers. I’ve written about this idea at greater length on my Web site,

Do you have any parting words of advice?

For aspiring writers? Three important items. The first is patience: it always takes longer than you think it’s going to. Second, learn the craft: don’t be too proud or too stubborn to learn basic rules of grammar and punctuation. Third, if you’re driven to write, keep writing: even if you’re never published, it will bring a great deal of satisfaction.