A long-term relationship ended and David Hagerty wasn’t sleeping well. He survived on four hours of sleep each night for about six months in 2001, plodding through his days teaching in Alameda County jails.
“Then I had an aha moment. I thought, ‘I’m 32 years old, and at 16 I decided I wanted to be a writer. If that’s what I want to do, I need to start writing.’”
So he started writing when he woke at 3 each morning. “I finished my first novel in six months,” he says. That novel is still on a hard drive instead of bookstores.
Still, he kept writing every day. Perseverance along with good mentoring at grad school paid off: More than 15 of his mystery/crime short stories are now in print and his debut novel, They Tell Me You Are Wicked, was published in 2015.
The book is the first in a series of novels based on actual crimes in David’s hometown of Chicago. The second and third books in the series are now in print, and he is writing the fourth.
David credits his focus on crime stories to his time as a police reporter and years as a teacher in jails. He worked for the Benicia Herald from 1990 to 1995; one of his short stories is based on the killing of his East H Street neighbor, Terry Lynne Hutcheson. He went on to teach in Alameda County jails and at Sacramento City College. He is now the manager of Disability Support Services at Diablo Valley College.
In addition to writing about crime, David leads the High Crimes Mystery Book Group at Bookshop Benicia. The group reads literary crime fiction and meets every other month, with its next session scheduled for May.
David, 49, lives in Martinez with his wife, Diane, who teaches at Turner Elementary in Benicia.
How do you find time to write when you work full-time? I wake up early and write every morning. I walk the dog and at 6:30, I’m at my desk. I write from 6:30 to 7:30 when I’m working on a first draft. I don’t quit until I have 500 words.
I usually don’t come back to it later in the day. But when I get inspirations, I’ll email or text myself.
What actual crimes inspired your book series? The first book is based on U.S. Senator Charles Percy, whose daughter was killed shortly before his election. The case is still open and under investigation after 50 years.
Having it unsolved worked to my advantage. There was a great opening chapter and nothing thereafter. I could let my imagination take over. The (main) character of Duncan Cochrane also is an industrialist who runs for office and whose daughter is killed, but he’s a combination of several politicians. It’s that intersection of crime and politics that’s interesting.
The second book is based on the Cabrini Green sniper. That didn’t get much press outside of Chicago. The mayor moved in, and the shooting stopped. Again, it was the perfect setting for a story about politics and crime.
The third book is about the Tylenol killings.
Chicago provided a lot of story ideas for you … Between that and the jail, I should never run out of material (chuckling).
This series started as a trilogy, but now you’re writing a fourth book. How did that come about? The publisher asked for another book. I’d like to think that he likes the work. I’d like to think that he likes the story. I’m good at meeting deadlines. It’s not that we’ve sold a lot.
Also, I thought the character of Duncan Cochrane deserved some redemption. He’s brought pretty low by the end of “They Tell Me You Are Brutal” (the third book in the series). As a friend says, in noir, the characters are screwed at the beginning and it only gets worse.
The next book is “They Tell Me You Are Cunning” and it’s inspired by the Innocence Project. It will come out at the beginning of 2019. I have a lot of work to do.
Do you prefer writing short stories or novels? I like them both. They are different art forms. In a novel, the challenging thing is the long form, to have everything fit together over the length of the book. …
You’re always concerned you’re going to paint yourself in a corner when you live with characters for so long. I find it’s the opposite—I find it opens things up. The ethic in mystery writing is to torture the protagonist. You’d be surprised how much Duncan can take. …
With a short story, you can do things that people would not put up with for 200 pages. I once wrote an 80,000-word manuscript about a hike on Mt Whitney. I turned it into a 5,000-word story that was a more compelling read.
How long does it take you to write a book? I do a pretty extensive outline before I start the draft. I figure out plots, characters, settings, then I can write a chapter. I usually have half to two-thirds of everything figured out when I start the first draft, but I always end up changing and embellishing as I write.
I slog through the first draft. That’s the hardest part for me. I figure if the first draft is done and I die tomorrow, someone could look at it and say, “It sucks but I see where he was going with this.” The first draft takes about six months.
Then I review it. I track every character (for consistency). I check all the verbs; check every description of major characters and major settings. That takes about three months.
Then the editor and I go through it. Twelve months on, we’re done with line and content editing, and we send it to the publisher.
Any advice for aspiring writers? Whenever someone asks me how to be a novelist, I tell them to spend an hour every day and write 500 words. Every day, even when you’re on vacation. …
I thought writing was about talent. I’m finding out it’s about butt-in-seat. You have to work at it. I remember my dad saying to me when I was growing up that you’re going to have to work. I thought he was saying I didn’t have talent, but he was saying something about my work ethic. Even (Olympic track star) Carl Lewis had to work hard.
What do you do to relax? I love reading.
I’m a recovering exercise junkie. I was on crew in college; in my 20s, I was a bike racer; in my 30s, I was a cross-country ski racer. In my 40s, I’m either a has-been or a never-was—I’m trying to decide.
I hike each year with my friends in the Sierras. We get out of cell phone range. My wife and I go to the Southwest every year. I’ve written several short stories set in the Navajo area.
What’s next for you? I’m writing book No. 4 in the series, and I’m working on melding the Navajo stories into a novel. I’m contemplating an historical novel. I’ve got a bunch of oars in the water—I’m not sure which one to yank.