Episode 66: Mark S. Bacon

Lyle Deming braked his Mustang hard and aimed for the sandy shoulder of the desert road. Luckily, his daughter Sam had been looking down and didn’t see the body.

He passed a thicket of creosote and manzanita and pulled onto the dirt as soon as he could.

“Stay in the car,” he told Sam in a tone that precluded discussion.

He trotted 200 feet back on the road, around the brush, to reach the parked vehicle—and the unmoving, bullet-riddled body he’d seen next to it.

— Mark S. Bacon, Desert Kill Switch

Mark S. Bacon is a prolific writer, first as a reporter — and yes, that included a stint as a police reporter, be still my heart! — then as a nonfiction writer, and finally in the realm of fiction. You can keep tabs on him (and read sample chapters and even some of his flash fiction stories) on his website, right here.

Speaking of flash fiction, Mark gives a shout-out to some practitioners of the genre, including Margaret Atwood and Ernest Hemingway — that’s some pedigree! In fact, if you yourself want to give the genre a try, there is an annual competition in Hemingway’s honor presented by Fiction Southeast.

Be warned: it’s addictive to write as well as to read. If you’re looking for more, Mark has an entire book filled with only flash fiction, and in our preferred genre as well: Cops, Crooks & Other Stories in 100 Words

As always, below you’ll find a transcript if you’d rather read than listen.


— Laura


Transcript of Interview with Mark S. Bacon

Laura Brennan: Mark S. Bacon is no stranger to crime. In addition to writing his Nostalgia City mystery series, Mark worked as a police reporter and is a master of the ultra-short story: his collection Cops, Crooks and Other Stories is full of murder and mayhem, all in 100 words each.

Mark, thank you for joining me.

Mark S. Bacon: Thanks for having me, Laura.

LB: So you have been a writer for a long time. Not necessarily of mysteries, but you have made your whole career
as a writer.

MB: That’s true. I went to journalism school and started working for newspapers, and then I moved into advertising. And I became a copywriter, writing TV commercials, radio ads, that sort of thing. Then I went into marketing and at the same time I started writing nonfiction books and did that for quite a while. I’ve always been a fan of mysteries, I’ve always read mysteries from the time I could learn to read virtually. Finally the chance came to start writing mysteries, which is the kind of thing I read all the time and really enjoy that.

Some writers say they write to entertain themselves, and I think that’s partially true with me. I enjoy getting my characters into tight situations and figuring out how they’re going to make it out.

LB: You have a journalism background, but the journalists in your novels are not necessarily the easiest people to get along with.

MB: Ha! That’s an interesting observation. Yes, newspaper and broadcast news people tend to be kind of nosy and they want to find out everything they can. And I was that way when I was a reporter. So, when you’re trying to solve a mystery, solve a murder, and in the case of Nostalgia City where there’s a lot of issues involved with the public image of this theme park, my characters are kind of at odds with the news media even though one of them was actually a reporter for a short time.

Yes, I make my reporters pretty nosy.

LB: Yes, you do. Well, when you were a reporter, was that fodder for you? Was that grist for the mill for being a mystery writer?

MB: Oh, of course it is. And the biggest part I think was doing police reporting. I showed up at the police department every morning and read reports and talked to cops and went out at crime scenes and learned the lingo of police. I learned what the procedures are and that kind of gave me the background so that when I talk about what the police, or in the case of Nostalgia City it’s often the sheriff, is doing, I try to get it as accurate as possible.

Now, it’s been some time since I was a police reporter, so since then I’ve consulted with various police officers, detectives who are currently working now to make sure that I get everything right.

LB: My gosh, you were living the dream, man!

MB: [Laughter] Being a police reporter?

LB: Absolutely!

MB: Actually, it can get routine after a while. If you’re always going out on top murder cases, that’s one thing, but a lot of police reporting is routine robberies and assaults, burglary and stories that you’ve written probably a hundred times.

LB: But at least one of your cases was a very important murder case.

MB: One of my cases was amazing and I really wish I had time to write a book about it. I could talk to you about it all day long. In summary, I wrote a story about some children who were neglected and abused. Decades later, I got a call from the Public Defender’s office asking me if I was a reporter who went to this house and visited these children. And I was. As it turned out, one of those children became a murderer. And a murderer more than once.

To round out the story, I wound up in court in Los Angeles last year, sitting in the same courtroom that OJ Simpson was tried, testifying at a murder trial, talking about how this person’s background and his upbringing might have brought him to the point of being a murderer.

LB: There is that whole idea of a murderer — especially a serial killer, or someone who kills more than once — is raised, not born.

MB: Yes. It’s the old nature versus nurture, right. And which is it? I don’t want to opt in on that one, but I’ve seen it both ways.

LB: You decided to go from covering murders and writing nonfiction and working in advertising and marketing, and you decided to write murder mysteries. So, before we leap into the Nostalgia City series, I want to know about these hundred-word stories that you write. You have so many, you must’ve been writing them a long time.

MB: I have. It’s called flash fiction. And flash fiction is a recognized genre with 100-word stories possibly the most common, but there are many different lengths for flash fiction. Many different writers will tell you what the definition is. Some will say, oh, it’s only stories under 250 words, some will say thousand words, I say it’s 100 words. Margaret Atwood writes flash fiction, Ernest Hemingway wrote flash fiction. I got onto it, strangely enough, a friend of mine was teaching a writing class and he used a 100-word story as an exercise and I thought well, I can write 100-word story. And I found out I could, but it actually was about 250 words and it took a lot of work to get it down to 100 words. And I kind of got hooked on it, and I started writing them like one or two a day. It was really good practice because you want to talk about being succinct and using every word that’s necessary? Writing a 100-word story teaches you that, teaches you to be direct and to take out anything that’s extraneous and to make your writing very tight, which is what most writers want to do.

LB: That’s a fascinating genre. You have them collected, but a lot of them have also been published in various magazines and around… That’s just such a neat thing.

MB: There’s a lot of opportunities, actually. I’m good to be teaching a class in writing flash fiction next year at our local community college. There’s a lot of places where people can get their flash fiction published. Would you like to hear one?

LB: I would love to!

MB: Okay. This one is called, “Honor Among Thieves.”

The darkened home looked empty. Pete tried the front door. Locked. Round back, he jimmied open the patio door with a credit card. Immediately, he saw a man holding a pillowcase full of something.

“Shit, you startled me,” the man said. “First time I ever seen two guys break into the same house. I came in the window, but hey, I believe in professional courtesy. I’ve got the jewelry and laptops, the rest is yours.”

Pete opened a drawer, reached inside. “Hold it!” Pete said, pointing a revolver.

“What about professional courtesy?”

“I forgot my keys,” Pete said. “I live here.”

LB: [Laughter] That’s wonderful. I can see how 100-word story packs a lot of punch.

MB: Yes, it does. I can’t say that I model my novels after these because they are tens of thousands of words longer, but writing in this genre teaches you to include the important details.

LB: So let’s talk about your series. It’s the Nostalgia City Mystery Series, and before we start talking about the books themselves, can you give me just a little bit of background. What is Nostalgia City, your backdrop for your books?

MB: Nostalgia City is an unusual theme park in central Arizona, north of Phoenix. It is a re-creation of a small town as it would’ve appeared in the mid-1970s. It is a precise reproduction of a town with period clothes, cars, music, hotels, restaurants, food, fads, hairstyles. It’s just like you turned around the corner and all of a sudden it was 1975. So it’s a retro theme which carries throughout the books and the focus is on this theme park and then my two protagonists who actually work there.

LB: Let’s talk a little bit about them. Tell me about Lyle, your ex-cop.

MB: Lyle has a few problems. He has an anxiety disorder which is hard to say whether it caused him to leave the police department or was a result of being at the police department. But in any event, he worked as a detective in Phoenix for a long time, for the Phoenix city police as a homicide detective and after a while his caseload rose and his time to be able to help victims of crimes diminished. He became frustrated, he became anxious. He always talked to himself, but it was never really a part of his anxiety, it was just who he was, but some other detectives asked him to do something he didn’t want to do and as a result they alleged to the higher-ups that he was essentially crazy and needed to leave the department. That is kind of a long argument that happens in the first book, but the result is that he does leave the department somewhat under a cloud.

He searches for a job that is the least stressful possible, and what does he find? He finds driving a cab in a theme park. What could be more fun than that? Talking to tourists who are on vacation. So that’s what he does. Looking for something that’s going to take the stress away, take the tension away and he does that.

Unfortunately, as the one person of whole theme park with homicide experience, when bad things happen in the park, they start looking for someone to help them out and Lyle is one of those people.

LB: Yes, the best-laid plans. There Lyle has his whole easy-going life and murder finds him instead.

MB: That’s right. And in investigating the first crime in the first book, he is looking for help. He finds the help in a sort of unusual place: the director of public relations for the park winds up helping him out. Her name is Kate Sorensen and she is a former college basketball star. She was a forward and played for a Division I school. She’s 6 feet two-and-a-half inches tall and blonde and dropdead gorgeous, which is an advantage and disadvantage when you are starting to investigate crime.

LB: Yes. Hard for undercover work.

MB: Indeed, yes.

LB: There’s such a neat and interesting dynamic between the two of them. In addition to the mystery and the plot, nothing is ever easy for either of them, really.

MB: No, it’s not. Kate is certainly more stable, well-balanced I guess you might say, than Lyle, who is prone to anxiety attacks. But Kate has her issues as well. One of those is with commitment that sort of evolves over the first couple of books as to what her commitment levels are.

LB: Yes.

MB: Commitment meaning love interest.

LB: Yes, their relationship is developing, shall we say?

MB: Yes. They don’t always look at things the same way. Lyle is very much into the theme park, which is one of the things that attracted him to the place. Growing up, his older brother was more than a decade older than he was and his older brother was into cars and music. So Lyle is almost kind of a throwback because growing up he was interested in things that kids his age weren’t even into yet. So Lyle is really with the ’70s retro feel of the park and is very comfortable with it, and Kate is kind of putting up with it, you might say, because she’s younger and that’s sort of history to her in a way. But she also has to go with the theme of the park and that’s what she’s promoting, is enjoying a blast of the past.

LB: Where did you get the idea for the theme park?

MB: I got it from two different places. One of the things I did earlier in my career when I was a copywriter is work for Knotts Berry Farm. Knotts is a large theme park that was just down the freeway from Disneyland in Southern California. And even though I was a copywriter and spent most of my time writing ads, I also did work out in the park for special events and I met a lot of the costumed characters who work in the park and interact with customers and found out what a theme park is like from behind the scenes. You could really describe it as controlled chaos, because there are so many things going on that the public doesn’t see, that the theme park doesn’t want the public to see. On the front it can be seamless and things are going on very well — unless something bad happens, which is what happens in Nostalgia City.

The other influence on Nostalgia City for me was where I live. I live in Reno, Nevada, and the biggest special event here is called August Nights. It’s a classic car festival where they literally get five, six, seven thousand classic cars from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s in town for people to go to car shows and show off their cars and listen to old-fashioned rock ‘n roll. It’s one of the biggest car shows in the country. So when I started to think about doing a mystery novel, I thought back to my theme park roots and thought a theme park — actually when I was working at Knotts, I thought the same thing but I didn’t have time to capitalize on it. I thought a theme park would be great for murder mystery scene. Imagine being at a theme park after dark, there aren’t many people around, it can be a real scary place.

So I thought about that and then I thought, well, what kind of a theme park I want to do? Well, I really wasn’t interested in the roller coaster kind of theme parks, it didn’t seem to have enough nuance for me, and Disney has really exhausted a whole lot of possibilities. But then I looked around and I saw all these old, classic cars and I thought, how about a theme park that is set back in the ’70s? And we have all these old cars, we have the old food, the hairstyles, the music and everything. It would appeal to an audience who was also one of the biggest audiences of mystery novels. And so that’s how Nostalgia City was born.

LB: I really enjoyed how, while that was, the theme park was very much the focus of the first book, in the second book, in Desert Kill Switch, you keep the theme of retro but we leave the park. Now were looking at retro cars.

MB: Yes. We keep the theme of the park, we move to Nevada and Kate is involved in a classic car festival. The classic cars become almost a character in the book in some respects. I did a lot of research on this and got some help from some experts. Part of the book is about auctioning classic cars and finding out what is an authentic classic car. When I say classic cars, I’m first talking about, in the book, I’m first talking about muscle
cars from the ’60s and ’70s. Things like Ford Mustangs, Plymouth Barracudas, Dodge Chargers. Cars that were made with big engines to beat everybody off the line. Further into the story, we’re talking about real classic cars going back to the 1930s. Whereas the muscle cars may be worth $100,000, these other classic cars are worth more than $1 million. And as the price goes up on the car, the incentive for dirty deeds increases.

LB: One of the things that just fascinates me is the creative ways that people can be criminal.

MB: [Laughter] That’s true, and making a counterfeit million-dollar car sounds kind of crazy, but it actually happens. My books are fiction, but I try very, very hard to make everything as realistic and as authentic as possible. Obviously, my characters and the crimes are made up, but things like counterfeiting classic cars actually happens. Cars can sell for a million, a million-and-a-half dollars, two million, and they can be not what they are advertised as at all. They can be part of one old car the rest of the parts are manufactured and put together and they’re really not a 1932 Mercedes or a 1939 Renault. There something entirely different. It would be just like buying a counterfeit oil painting. It’s the same thing.

LB: It’s just crazy. People are crazy. But not only are they counterfeiters, or the car forgers if you will, they are obviously criminals, but regular businessmen — you have very intricate ways in which they managed to skirt the law.

MB: Let me preface this by saying the descriptions of car dealer practices in my book are based on fact. They do not represent the majority of car dealers, they don’t represent any particular segment of them. But there is a practice among some car dealers to install GPS trackers and kill switches, meaning switches that will stop your car in the cars of people they consider high risk borrowers. And they do this to hedge against somebody defaulting on the car loan. Because if that happens, they have the GPS, they know where the car is, they have a kill switch, they turn it off. And they can go get the car.

This is true, this is actually happening. A New York Times story a few years ago estimated that there were 2 million kill switches and GPS trackers in cars that were purchased in the United States now. I don’t know what the number is today. But I researched further into that found car dealers in different parts of the country that use that. Others think it’s not a good practice, but that’s what’s happening.

When I read about this and did some more research into it, I thought, wow. Somebody can throw a switch and your car is dead. This sounds like a perfect subject for murder mystery.

LB: Well, it’s horrific. And people don’t know they have a kill switch in their car?

MB: Well, they’re supposed to. And I think in most cases, they are told that it’s there. And in fact, it wouldn’t be much of an incentive if they didn’t know — incentive for them to pay their bills — if they didn’t know was there. Because they could just go along and all of a sudden the car is not working. There were some lawsuits over this, I don’t want to get into the details of that, some of them were settled out of court. But this has been a subject of some debate.

LB: I just think it’s fascinating how you find the neatest, most unexpected ways that people manage to break the law and you incorporate them into your murders.

MB: Murder is the ultimate breaking the law. I think that’s why the murder mystery has become such a foundation of American literature. But I like to bring in other aspects of crime, other than just bumping somebody off. In some cases it’s, the murder is what’s wanted to be done; in other cases, it’s accidental, it’s collateral damage, it’s murder during the progress of another crime or sometimes it’s payback. There are a lot of different ways and reasons for people to be killed in a murder mystery. I try to explore many of those as possible.

I’m working on the third one right now. I’m just about ready to send it to my publisher.

LB: Oh, that’s terrific. I was just going to ask, what is next for you?

MB: Next, Lyle and Kate are — I don’t want to give too much away. But they are, the marijuana trade in Arizona where Nostalgia City is becomes the focus of the book. Legalizing marijuana and what impact that might have on the theme park.

LB: Oh, how neat. We can hopefully look forward to this book next year?

MB: Indeed yes.

LB: Terrific. Where can people, if people want to keep up with you and all the wonderful things you’re doing, where can they find you online?

MB: They can find me at BaconsMysteries.com. That’s my website. I have a weekly commentary, I write about things going on in mystery writing. They can read sample chapters of my books and they can read some of those flash fiction stories as well.

LB: Terrific. Mark, thank you so much for joining me today.

MB: Thank you for having me, Laura.