Dynamic Duo: An Interview with Colin Conway and Frank Zafiro

I had the opportunity to speak with Frank Zafiro and Colin Conway, the authors of the stellar Charlie-316 series published by Down & Out Books. Here’s what David Zeltserman has to say about the first novel in the series: “Riveting and compulsively readable, Charlie-316 is an ambitious book about many things including honor, the murkiness of politics, corruption, and a good man searching for the truth. Any fan of Don Winslow’s critically-acclaimed The Force needs to be searching out and reading this book.”

The second book in the series, Never the Crime, is available for pre-order and is scheduled to be released June 22.

ADR: Charlie-316 begins with an officer-involved shooting that’s far more complex than it first appears. Where did the idea for this book come from? When did you first know it was a series and not a standalone?

Colin: Charlie-316 (pronounced Charlie three sixteen) is a police call sign.  It was my call sign for a year while I was on the Spokane Police Department and I always thought it had a cinematic ring to it.  Charlie is a likeable sounding name and the “316” portion of the call sign reminded me of the biblical passage John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…”  The call sign prompted an idea about a city offering up their best and brightest officer to (metaphorically) die for their sins.

Frank:  The concept and the original bones of the plot was all Colin’s idea. He asked me to collaborate based on my longer police background and the positions I held. Once we got started on the brainstorming, a lot of the details changed and a couple of characters emerged differently than we’d planned, but the bones of his original idea remained intact. I just loved the idea, the question of whether a city or a police department would be willing to sacrifice their favorite son on the altar of public opinion.

We envisioned Charlie-316 as a single book. It tells one story and there is an ending to that story. But the book was well received and the characters really resonated with readers. We started talking about it, and realized that while we had written an ending, that didn’t mean the story really ended there. I mean, no story ever ends, right? There’s always something that happens after. But in this instance, there were some big threads still hanging, and we realized we could ambitiously try to weave those together into a more definitive ending. So we mapped it out, and it became a four-book arc:  continuing in Never the Crime, then Badge Heavy, and ending in Code Four. Code four is fairly universal police code officers give to indicate a scene is under control and no more assistance is required. Hearing that over the radio often signals that the high danger moments have passed.

ADR: Both of these books use multiple POVs very effectively. What are your dos and don’ts when it comes to writing from more than one character’s perspective?

Frank: My don’t is on the technical side, my pet peeve is head-hopping. That is, even if you’re writing a book with many points of view, each scene should be from one particular point of view and stay with that viewpoint throughout the scene. There is the rare person who can pull off a mid-scene switch that isn’t jarring, but 99% of authors can’t. So remember whose head you’re in, because if you jump around, the result is usually to remind the reader that she is reading a book – the last thing you want to do is take someone out of the story.

My do is to remember that each of these characters is a very separate person. They have their own voice, their own ways of seeing and interacting with the world. I think you have to write the character accordingly. In Charlie-316, for example, the narration scenes from Wardell Clint’s viewpoint are quite different from those from of Cody Lofton. Much like an actor has to slip into a role and get into character, the writer has to take the time to do the same when writing different character POVs.

Colin: Dovetailing on Frank’s last comment, each character should stand apart by way of their POV narrative.

For example, Wardell Clint is extremely smart while being hyper-paranoid. He’s a deep thinker and is often looping back to earlier suppositions to verify they still ring true.  His chapters will read wildly different than those of Chief of Staff Cody Lofton who is smart but politically motivated.  Lofton makes gut decisions and is often impulsive. We could remove the characters’ names, but the reader should still be able to tell which character’s POV they are reading by how the narrative was delivered.

ADR: I’m not typically a fan of twists, but the one in Charlie-316 feels believable and necessary. What do you think makes a good twist? 

Colin: Thank you for saying that.  It means a lot, especially since we built the story on the idea of that twist.  Without it, we felt our story would have been good, but run of the mill.  For a twist to work, it needs to be powerful.  There are plenty of twists in episodic television shows that we all forget because they lacked the “wow” factor. Yawn. Move on to the next episode.

One of my favorite twist endings occurred in The Planet of the Apes when Charlton Heston realized he’d been on Earth all along.  No one forgets that ending because it was damn impactful. The same occurred with The Usual Suspects. Good Lord, I came out of my seat the first time I saw that movie.  Those twists hit you in the gut, and you can’t stop thinking about them.  That’s what we tried to accomplish with Charlie-316.

Frank: I think you have to play fair. The clues have to be there for the astute reader to pick up on. The twist can’t just jump out of the closet with no set up. People like a good twist if they can look back and see where they were fooled. They don’t like it if they were unfairly tricked. See The Sixth Sense for the former and The Walking Dead’s Glen fake-out for the latter.

Also, the twist has to be organic to the story you’re telling. It can’t be some soap opera twist that you come up with at the eleventh hour and shoehorn in without regard to the story. It should be something that is true to the characters and be a part of the story, albeit a camouflaged one, from the beginning.

ADR: The cop novel genre has a deep history. Were you looking to set yourself apart from the crowd? Conversely, are there any writers you sought inspiration from? 

Frank: I think the only way to set yourself apart is to be true to your own voice. I’ve occasionally gotten teased for most of my crime stories being dark, and eschewing the happy ending for what I think is a realistic one more often than not. But I don’t do that to set myself apart. I write what I feel is the true story, and it goes where it goes.

With this book in particular, Colin had a great premise to set the book apart. While it is about a controversial police shooting, he flipped the script by making the police officer black and the suspect/victim white. It makes sense, given the demographics of Spokane, but I think that change also allows for the conversation to happen a little differently than the knee-jerk reactions that people all along the political spectrum tend to have when one of these events occur.

As for inspiration, every cop-turned-procedural writer owes a debt to Joseph Wambaugh, right? I also drew on the example of W.E.B. Griffin’s approach in the Badge of Honor series. That is, showing a police story in a vertical fashion, from the mayor’s office down to the street. It allowed us to explore such a variety of perspectives and motivations. A chief of police and a patrol officer have some wildly different world views, but they also overlap. Giving the reader this vertical slice really opened the amount of this story we could tell.

Colin: I think everyone wants to set themselves apart somehow. That’s what we’re all shooting for (no pun intended).

When we wrote Charlie-316, I wasn’t thinking other writers or books as much as I was thinking television shows.  Thematically, I kept coming back to The Wire and The Shield, my two favorite cop dramas.  They are radically different shows, but both wildly entertaining. 

As we planned the book, Frank and I often discussed scenes as how it might look on a screen. Then we wrote them that way.  The opening of the book (the officer-involved shooting) is one of those moments that were written with the screen in mind. 

If a reader can picture a movie playing inside their head (which many have said they could with Charlie-316), they’re apt to race through the book.

ADR: What’s your process like writing as a team? What are the biggest challenges you’ve had face in writing a novel with another person?

Colin: Charlie-316 was our second collaborative process.  The first (Some Degree of Murder) was a bit messy and undisciplined even though it ended in a solid product.  It taught us what worked and what didn’t. In that novel, we each wrote one main character in the first person. Frank wrote the police detective and I wrote the mob enforcer. We alternated chapters, so the reader got the story from two different perspectives.

With Charlie-316 (and its sequels), we discussed at the length the overall story, then the characters and their motivations.  After that we outlined like crazy before laying out how the chapters would progress.  We had to be disciplined with the process due to the many viewpoints the first book had.  Since we put a ton of work in before actually writing, the creation of the book went extremely smooth. Far faster than anything I’ve ever written alone.

Unlike our first book together, this series is written with multiple third person viewpoints. There were a couple of viewpoints that we both wrote or that shifted throughout all four books, but for the most part, we were each responsible for writing the viewpoint chapters of a specific character. I won’t say who wrote which character, as a little bit of mystery is a good thing. But one of our points of pride with this series is that readers overwhelmingly describe that element as seamless. If they didn’t know it was written by two authors, they’d never guess by the narrative itself.

Frank: Let me first say that I’ve been fortunate in that all five of my collaborating authors have been fantastic to work with. One of the differences in working with Colin is that we spend some time collaborating in person, as well as via email. Our brainstorming sessions are usually in person. There’s an energy that two writers generate in a live discussion that I think is very conducive to the planning stages. Finer points of outlining, the actual writing and revising, are more cerebral and are perfectly suited to getting banged out separately.  But the formation of a story, and getting excited about it, is more of a communal experience.

Colin: Since I’ve only collaborated with Frank, my challenges are limited to those experiences.  What I’ve noticed is that I will stop all other writing work while in a collaboration.  Nothing else gets done, even while I’m waiting for Frank to return his next chapter(s).  The writing process is so intense that it’s hard for me to jump from project to project.  I want to hang in there and enjoy the journey until it’s finished.

If that’s the worst thing I experience, I’m pretty damn lucky.  I know that.

Frank: There a ton of potential challenges, but if I’m being honest, I’ve ran into very few of them with any of my collaborations. With Colin, we communicate really well and are very honest. If something sucks or one of us doesn’t like it, we say so. If we think it is outstanding, we’re clear on that, too.

But above all, we both agreed early on that our individual egos had to take a back seat to what was best for the story. The story is everything. This isn’t anything new to writers – there is always some form of preaching that you must kill your darlings in any discussion of writing. But when someone else does it, it isn’t killing – it’s murder. That other writer is murdering your darlings! But that is how we’ve been successful in our partnership. We each gave the other absolute authority to murder any darling that must go, regardless of its origin. I think that’s a big part of why the experience is so seamless for the reader. While Colin or I may have originally written a POV chapter for Character X (Say Tyler Garrett, for example), the editing process brings both our hands to bear on that chapter. In the end, you don’t end up with my voice or Colin’s voice, but an altogether different one, a third voice. That voice sets this series apart from anything Colin or I write alone.

The last thing I’ll say is that there is something about a partnership (or a team) that brings out your best effort. Whenever I got the draft back from Colin, I wanted to give my best revision effort at what he’d done to my earlier chapter. I wanted to give my best editor effort on his new chapter. And I wanted to give my best writer effort to putting the next chapter down on the page. Above and beyond my own desire to write a good book, I didn’t want to let him down. I know that was a mutual state of mind, and it made for a great experience all four times.

 

Frank Zafiro was a police officer from 1993 to 2013, retiring as a captain. He is the author of numerous crime novels.In addition to writing, Frank is an avid hockey fan and a tortured guitarist. He lives in Redmond, Oregon. You can keep up with him at http://frankzafiro.com.   

Colin served in the U.S. Army and later was a police officer. He has owned a laundromat, invested in a bar, and ran a karate school. Along with writing crime fiction, he is a commercial real estate broker. Find out more about him at https://www.colinconway.com.

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One Comment

  1. Wonderful interview. Gives the reader more understanding of how a collaboration like this works. Charlie-316 started out as a two chapter read. A couple of days later I started again and couldn’t put it down until I finished it 4 hours later. My heart was racing and I wanted more. June can not come soon enough for book two. Thank you Colin and Frank for an exciting story and future adventure with your awesome characters.

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