A Conversation with Richard McKeown
Author of State of Redemption
What inspired you to write State of Redemption?
Reading others’ books was my primary inspiration. I have always been fascinated by writers who are able to craft a time and place, create characters and tell a story that is not only entertaining but carries underlying themes and offers food for thought. My favorite example of an author who was incredibly good at that is John Steinbeck. His books also appealed to my love of history. So, he was one source of inspiration
But there are other less renowned storytellers out there, too. In reading them, on the one hand I would think “Maybe I could do this” and on the other hand think “I need to do this” given my background as a journalist. In reading books, I developed an admiration for those willing to take the time to write a story and a willingness to put themselves out there and open themselves to critique. Those were the inspirations behind State of Redemption. I was able to use some of my experiences as a child in Vermont to set the scenes in the story and build a plot and develop characters around them. While I do draw from some personal experiences as a child living in Vermont, the story is not autobiographical, nor do I appear as a character or anything like that.
What is State of Redemption About?
Broadly speaking it is about coming to terms with and receiving redemption from events and experiences that occur in our lives. The nature of the events and experiences in State of Redemption differ from character to character but their need for redemption all revolve around a 30-year-old cold case murder in a small town in Vermont. In different ways and to different degrees, the main characters’ lives have been impacted and shaped around the murder of a young girl from the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak. Through a series of events, one of the characters comes to learn an assault he witnessed as a child was in fact a murder, and an unsolved murder at that. Further, he comes to discover who the murderer is. What he does with that discovery in bringing justice to both the killer and the victim provides the suspense or ebb and flow of the book. In the process, redemption is found by the innocent and the guilty, the good and the evil and those in the community’s and state’s power structure. Hence the title State of Redemption.
What Did You Learn in Writing State of Redemption?
There are a few of things that were impressed upon during the writing process. First is the importance of character development. As I was writing it, someone told me readers read novels as much or more for the characters than they do for the story. Initially I was focused on the story, which I thought was a good one. My writing training at that point was rooted in my education and experience as a news reporter. News reporters by definition provide facts about events; who, what, where, why and how. It’s all pretty straightforward. But with storytelling, you create characters and determine how they think, how they react, what prompts them to say and do certain things. I wanted readers to relate to and connect with the characters on some level.
Beyond that, the writer who creates those characters has to be mindful as story unfolds that things they think or say or do is consistent with the personality and psyche of the characters. For example, based on how the author has developed a character, how that character might react to a 2
certain situation would be different than how another character reacts to the same situation. One character might react with irritation, but not with the anger of another character based on how each has been developed and fleshed out by the author. So that was one learning point for me.
The other was the importance of letting the story be “revealed” to readers as opposed to “told” to them. It’s like the difference between implication and inference. It’s okay for readers to fill out a scene as they are reading a story without the author “peeking out from behind the curtain” to describe each and every detail of what is in the scene and what is happening. Some scene architecture is needed, of course. But sometimes it’s best to leave it to readers to pick out the drapes and the carpet colors, so to speak. One person who shared their perspective on my story counseled me to let the dialogue speak for the characters and not try to explain and interpret what they are saying. That had a real impact on me. I am not sure I have mastered it, but it does inform my thinking and creative process.
A third thing I learned is that if I am not enjoying the writing on a given day, or if it becomes difficult for me to write to a scene, to walk away from it for a bit. Some authors and writing coaches talk about the importance to forging ahead and through roadblocks. For me, that was counterproductive and usually ended up in writing a scene that had to be heavily edited, rewritten or scratched altogether. Having said that, it’s important to also have a timetable for returning to it after having reflected on the source of the difficulty. In that respect, there is a difference between a scene or chapter being challenging to write and it being frustrating to write. I found when I became frustrated I was not going to be successful in writing at that particular time.
How did you develop your characters? Were they based on real people?
In the case of State of Redemption, I developed the characters based on what they were before I developed who they were. For example, I needed a character who at a young age saw an assault without realizing it was actually a murder. He made that discovery thirty years later through a series of life experiences and events that led him back to the town where the murder happened. After establishing what he was, a ten-year-old boy, I then created who he was in personality, appearance, temperament, experience, and so on. For another character, I established a chief investigator who led the investigation. He appears throughout the book at various phases and stages throughout his career in law enforcement. I spent considerable time thinking about him and impact of the murder itself as well the frustration that followed him throughout the rest of his life, frustration rooted in this single case and the people surrounding it.
That was the approach I took with each character, or the main ones, and giving voice to their thoughts and emotions, their ups and downs and interactions with others. And I did try to visualize them in terms of height, weight, hair, clothing styles, etc. Were any of the characters’ appearance based on actual people? No. Not in this story, at least.
Can you share with us what happens to the characters after the finish of State of Redemption?
Actually, that is covered in the book so I will leave that for readers to discover.
What is your writing process like? Is there a certain time you set aside? A certain place? 3
I don’t have a formal or rigid writing process. I do try to anticipate a time or a specific time to get back to writing on a story. Sometimes that works and sometimes life gets in the way. But for me it is important to know when I am going to write next. Once I start, I try to give it at least a couple of hours, or commit to writing a certain a portion, be that a chapter or a scene. Or in some cases I might spend the ‘writing time’ outlining a chapter or scene and then flesh it out later.
In the case of State of Redemption, I would write in different places at home or when traveling to work for one of my clients. I find an airplane a good place to write.
One thing I did with this first book was write it out in longhand on a specific style of notebook. One spiral notebook per chapter. I tried not to leave home without one. Having written and then keyed in 122,000 words I do not necessarily recommend that approach to everyone unless it serves them much better than keying it in. My plan is to key in my second novel and I have so far, although I am not far into it. Frankly, keying in my handwritten writing was very tedious. I want to avoid that the second time around if at all possible, and only if I can be as creative keying it in rather than writing it down. We’ll see how that goes.
Who are your favorite authors?
In addition to John Steinbeck who I mentioned earlier, a favorite author of mine has been Larry McMurtry who wrote Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show and several others. He was a master storyteller and wonderful at not just character development, but memorable character development. I still remember some of the lesser characters in Lonesome Dove based on how he described them and their personalities. And it’s been 15 years at least since I last read Lonesome Dove.
Another favorite author is H.W. Brands who is a writer of history. His biographies of Franklin Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt are just great. I admire Brands’ skill at writing about historical figures who come alive in the pages of his biographies. You not only learn about history, but also about human nature and what made his subjects tick.
I also admire the writing of, Charles Portis. I once heard him described as “the novelists’ favorite novelist”. I think there is truth in that. He was a literary treasure, as are some of his books like True Grit and Norwood.
What has been the best compliment you have received from readers of State of Redemption?
Nearly all of the feedback has been favorable and kind and for that I am very grateful. The best compliment is that someone has taken the time to read my book. It takes an investment of the most precious commodity we have, time.
A comment that comes up consistently in feedback on State of Redemption that is gratifying is that readers want to know ‘what happens next.’ I think the phrase ‘a real page turner’ is more hype and hyperbole than it is truth. And it probably applies to fewer books than such comments might suggest. It’s nice to hear, but for me having someone say they were curious about the characters and how my book was going to turn out is a big compliment to me. That means they 4
are enjoying the story and not merely enduring it. It suggests that the characters are in a sense ‘real’ to them and that the story is plausible and one they can relate to on some level.
What would be your advice to aspiring novelists?
To the extent that the author of one novel is in a position to give advice to others I would say if you want to write, write. Don’t get bogged down in planning a story at the expense of writing the story. That’s not to say you shouldn’t outline the story. You should. But if my experience is any indication, the story will take some twists and turns you didn’t even know were coming until they did. In my case, I found I needed to write the last chapter before I could make substantial progress. I was about halfway through at that point. I found it important to have the ending pretty well established without it being set in stone so that I knew what I was writing toward. Once I did that, I was able to make much more progress in actually finishing my book.
The other advice I would offer is to realize that every chapter is not going to be a gem or come easily. Don’t be deterred or discouraged by that. Write it and move on to the next chapter or scene or section of the book. You may well find that what you write in following chapters will inspire you to make previous chapters better. That was the case with me.
To that point, be prepared to ask yourself about each chapter, “Is this chapter necessary to the story?” Or put another way, “What if this chapter was not in the book? Would it matter?” That’s especially true if you have a difficult time writing and finishing a chapter. I can tell you that there were two chapters I took out of State of Redemption before I published it. Some of the information in them was rolled into other chapters. But I found that the reason a couple of difficult chapters were so difficult was because they were not really critical to the telling of the story in the first place.
Richard McKeown is also the author of “Leave the Last Cookie for Someone Else”, a collection of insights and observations about life, success and relationships that can be applied at home, work, school and in the community. Leave the Last Cookie for Someone Else” is available on Amazon in digital format and will be available in print format in the Summer of 2021.