Today, I’m delighted to present an interview with writer Steven Houchin. I met Steve at a writers group that I first attended about three years ago. Among the two dozen or so participants, Steve stands out not only because he’s tall, but also because he’s always pleasant, attentive, and gives expert feedback on the weekly writing submissions. When I needed a Beta reader, he graciously consented to read and critique my first novel, for which I’m very grateful.
NN: What sorts of things have you written?
SH: I write novels and short stories in the realm of suspense and mystery. Although, my only publishing success so far is a non-fiction article for Columbia Magazine (published by the Washington State Historical Society) that resulted from research for my second novel.
NN: Why did the mystery genre click with you?
SH: Mysteries, thrillers, and suspense novels are my favorites to read. It feels natural for my storytelling mind to dream up similar things. Maybe it’s a chicken and egg thing: do I write what I read, or do I read what I’m destined to write? Romance or touchy-feely prose comes out stilted and unbelievable whenever I’ve veered into it.
NN: How long have you been writing?
SH: In grade school, I wrote goofy things for class assignments that were well received. But, I don’t recall any encouragement to pursue writing, so nothing came of it. It wasn’t until 2004, in my late 40s and unemployed, that I jumped in with both feet. As an avid reader, I’d say to myself, “I oughtta be able to write this stuff.”
NN: Which authors do you like to read?
SH: Martha Grimes’ mysteries used to be a favorite, but her writing has fallen flat in recent years. I enjoy the Douglas Preston/Lincoln Child mystery/horror novels and their great protagonist, FBI agent Aloysius Pendergast. I like the historical novels of David Liss, such as The Coffee Trader. Anything Raymond Chandler. I’ve read all of Patrick O’Brien’s Aubry/Maturin novels. I love Janet Evanovich’s comical Stephanie Plum mysteries. I’ve started reading John Mortimer and Clive Cussler.
NN: What inspired you to write that first story?
SH: I wanted to accomplish something new after years of writing software. I had become the “go to” guy for writing technical documentation on the job because I seemed to be the only engineer that enjoyed writing English (as opposed to C++). I didn’t know how to get started on a novel, though. I’d heard that you must outline a novel before beginning, but I simply couldn’t think it all through that way. Then I heard author J. A. Jance speak, and she revealed that she can’t outline either. Many authors don’t. The proverbial light bulb blazed to life over my head. You mean I can just sit down and write without knowing all the details? So I did. Plots and subplots and characters poured out of me as I pounded out my first novel.
NN: Where do you get your ideas?
SH: I started out with “write what you know.” That was the genesis of my first novel, Linear Descent, which was inspired by my interest in genealogy and history. My second novel grew out of my historical research for the first. Other sources have been movies and online writing prompts. I maintain a simple text file of ideas.
NN: What do you like about writing?
SH: It has opened up avenues for meeting new people and forging relationships where we have writing as a common bond. I enjoy creating stories that receive recognition or that succeed in entertaining readers. I like surprising myself when a scene or plot or character suddenly pops out of nowhere and propels the story in directions I hadn’t considered.
NN: What’s the most challenging thing about writing?
SH: Continuing to write after numerous rejections, tough critiques, or when ideas have dried up.
NN: What’s the easiest part?
SH: None of it is easy. It’s hard work. I suppose if I had publishing success, cashing the royalty checks would be easy.
NN: In what ways have you gained recognition for your writing?
SH: My second novel, Double Fire, won the 2007 PNWA Literary Contest in the Mystery/Thriller category (a total shock). My third, then titled Snowbound, was a 2009 finalist in the same contest.
NN: What are you working on now?
SH: Lots of editing on the third novel, now titled A Suitable End. I’m writing a series of short stories that feature a slacker named Elliot Klopfeld and his goofball adventures.
NN: What have you learned about writing?
SH: Where do I begin? As far as the craft goes …. Show don’t tell. Use action verbs. Set the scene. Make dialog interesting and realistic. Avoid backstory dumps. No long monologues. Make characters distinct. Describe things in unusual, compelling ways. Keep the story moving forward. Don’t write in isolation—have your work critiqued and take the criticisms seriously.
NN: What advice do you have for beginning writers?
SH: Read many authors in your genre/field. Read some outside your genre, especially literary fiction. Read some of the acknowledged masters. Join a writers group with other authors who aren’t all newbies. Attend writers conferences and workshops (if you can afford them). Take a beginner’s writing class at the local community college. Recognize that there’s a lot to learn.
NN: Thanks, Steve, for taking the time to answer my questions. I wish you great success in your writing career!
Steve Houchin is the author of three unpublished novels, several short stories, and is the editor of Weekly Review, a newsletter for the Lake Forest Park Writers Workshop critique group. His second novel, Double Fire, won the 2007 Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s Zola Award (Mystery/Thriller category). When not writing, Steve works as a freelance software developer and is the owner of Forest Park Lab, a Seattle-area software consulting company.