The Mysterious Book Report would like to extend a warm welcome to Denver native and acclaimed award-winning fellow crime fiction writer Manuel Ramos, who’s put a Hispanic twist to the hard-boiled genre with an ex-con turned private eye named Gus Corral, whose sardonic voice narrates his stories. It’s a pleasure and an honor to speak to you Manuel, so let’s get right to the first question:
When do you write?
I write whenever I can. Mornings, evenings, vacations, sitting in the car waiting for my wife to finish her shopping. I most often use a laptop, but I also scribble notes, dialog, and ideas in a notebook. I don’t “make time for writing.” When I am in a long-term writing project, writing becomes a part of my daily ritual, like breakfast. It’s not an afterthought, hobby, or time killer.
Do you plot-outline or wing it?
For the most part, I’m what is called a pantser, a writer who writes by the seat of his pants. I prefer to say that my writing is organic, i.e., it develops and grows along the way, taking on its own identity. I also think that since I write crime fiction, which usually involves a mystery of some kind, I should write stuff that surprises me. If it doesn’t, how can I surprise the reader? Surprises are more likely if I go with the flow, let her rip, as they say. Of course, it still has to make sense and not cheat the reader. That’s often a difficult balancing act.
What’s your advice for aspiring writers?
The best advice I’ve received is simple but true: to be a good writer, be a good reader. Read, read, and then read to succeed. Read everything, and while you’re reading, pay attention to what the writer is doing, or trying to do. A very successful writer once said in a public talk that good writers steal good habits and techniques from other writers. And then make those habits and techniques your own, in your own way. To do that, read.
What makes a character compelling?
Fictional characters are compelling for the same reasons that real people are compelling. They lead interesting lives. They’re three-dimensional, not stereotypes or prone to clichés. They exhibit traits that make the rest of us care about what happens to them, even if we don’t approve of their behavior, or, often, like them. As a reader, I am drawn to characters that are unique in some way, and that uniqueness may be positive or negative. I don’t want the same old thing.
Where do you get most, some, or any of your story ideas from?
A great place for ideas is my neighborhood, the place I’ve lived in for forty years. I’ve seen tremendous change, especially in the last few years as the remaining traces of the old neighborhood are destroyed, bulldozed, and built on by the gentrification of what used to be a diverse, working-class neighborhood, several blocks around my house have morphed into a homogenous, expensive, and rather challenging place. But the changes have created conflict between the old and new, and that conflict is loaded with human drama, which makes a perfect backdrop for my crime fiction and noir stories. My character in my most recent work, Gus Corral, is a guy raised in these streets, and he has to deal with the changes at a level that, I hope, creates plots and capers that will attract readers. So to get ideas, often all I have to do is go for a walk and pay attention to the people, dialog, and situations I encounter.
Are you more comfortable writing in the first, or third person POV?
I most often write in the first person, although I’ve also written in the third. I prefer the first person mainly because it puts me in direct contact with my main character. It’s limiting, of course, because the reader can only know what the main character knows, and the story often has to be moved forward through dialog involving the main character. But I think first person is the most effective and affective way to get to a reader’s heart and mind. The reader sees the world from the perspective of the main character, and that’s one of the main things I want to pull off as a writer — the ability to transport a reader to another world, to put the reader in someone else’s shoes.
How can we, as writers, promote and encourage more people to read?
First, write the best possible books we can. Don’t shortchange readers, and they will read your books. Use proper grammar, avoid useless tropes and outdated stereotypes. Come up with new types of characters and settings. In other words, be creative. At the same time, participate in library events, book festivals, book store happenings. Visit schools if the students are in your reader demographic. Finally, don’t be shy about letting folks know you are a writer. Talk up your books, and books that you like. Inform people that there is more to entertainment than cell phones, Netflix, and craft beers.
After writing, which is our main and most important job, I think that the promotion of reading is the most significant thing we can all do. And in that vein, here’s an aphorism from Confucius that’s 3500 years old, but just as relevant now as then:
“You must read or surrender yourself to ignorance.”
Thanks Manuel for sharing your thoughts, insights and tradecraft with our audience today, as well as making the time to do so. And please, keep us informed about your next project—we can’t wait to see what Gus Corral does next…
Manuel Ramos is the author of ten novels and a short story collection. He has received the Colorado Book Award (twice), the Chicano/Latino Literary Award, the Top Hand Award from the Colorado Authors League, and Honorable Mentions from the Latino International Book Awards. His first novel, The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz, was a finalist for the Edgar® award. He is a co-founder of and regular contributor to the award-winning Internet magazine La Bloga (www.labloga.blogspot.com), which deals with Latino literature, culture, news and opinion. His latest crime fiction novel is The Golden Havana Night: A Sherlock Homie Mystery.