Mandible noir: Interview with Dan Stout

May 19, 2020

I met Dan Stout a couple of years ago at the World Fantasy Convention and we immediately bonded over a love of noir and James Ellroy novels. Fast forward a couple of years and the second book in his Carter Archives has just been released. Titan’s Day is the sequel to Titanshade, and if the first novel is anything to go by, we’re in for a real noir treat.

Titanshade is the perfect blend of hardboiled, fantasy and the occasional tough-guy cop drama, with a mean plot to boot. Set in the oil boomtown of Titanshade, the books follow the homicide investigations of Carter, a classic jaded cop with a heart of gold. He’s partnered with a fresh recruit – a Mollenkampi named Ajax. And in case you’re wondering what a Mollenkampi is, check out the cover… they have mandibles.

Interview with Dan Stout

Kat: How is Carter going? He got pretty beat up in Titanshade.

Dan: Ha! Yeah, he definitely took his share of noir-hero beatings.

Happily, he’s still chugging along. His days are still spent listening to music, making unhealthy choices, and viewing the world with intense scepticism.

Kat: What I really loved about Titanshade was how much I could tell you were a crime reader. I find a lot of cross-genre work tends to rely heavily on genre tropes, but this feels like a fully realised crime story. Who are your crime influences, and who do you think writes cross-genre mysteries well?

Dan: Thank you so much! Finding that balance was a big goal for me, and I love hearing that it paid off.

I have so many influences from the crime fiction world. The ones that jump to mind are Dashiell Hammett, Megan Abbott, Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake, and Joyce Carol Oates. In Titanshade, Carter’s name is a nod to Westlake’s Parker books, since Parker’s name always changes in the various media adaptions, and Carter’s rumpled brown suit is a definite tribute to Columbo.

I do read a lot of cross-genre works, but in all honesty what helped me the most was reading historical mysteries. A great example is Lindsay Faye’s The Gods of Gotham. Set in mid-19th century New York City, it’s a setting that’s so vastly different from the modern NYC that Faye has to do as much world-building as many fantasy novelists. Other historical mysteries go through the same steps, and studying them let me see how the bones of a mystery structure could support world-building even before I brought in the speculative elements.

Beyond that, reconciling noir’s ever-darkening spiral with fantasy’s sense of wonder took a little doing. I wanted to be sure I didn’t slip into full-on Grimdark mode; for me, noir works best when the darkness and light feed into each other.

Kat: Now I suspect from how well the book was plotted that you’re a plotter. What’s your process for planning a book? Do you have any plotting tips for other writers?

Dan: I am definitely a plotter! I tend to find a story structure I like, create my key scenes, and then let the characters run through the maze. For me, it’s vital to be sure that the characters are responding in a natural way to every obstacle that’s placed in their path. Their reactions are the fresh and exciting elements that propel me forward and keep me surprised as they dig deeper into the plot.

I also like to step back on occasion and imagine reading the book with fresh eyes (though I don’t actually read it). That lets me find spots that aren’t compelling enough to get the reader to have those, “Just one more chapter before bed” moments.

But the best tip I could give someone who’s dipping their toe into story structure would be to keep in mind that there are many different terms and structures, they’re all just different ways of describing the same thing. Arguing about 4 Act vs. 3 Act, or Hero’s Journey vs. 7 Points is like arguing whether a stick is 2 meters or 6.5 feet or 2.1 yards. It doesn’t matter how you measure it, it’s still the same damn stick.

Kat: I saw online that you’d attended some police procedural training seminars in the US. Could you tell us about those experiences, and how that was helpful to you working on these books?

Dan: I attended a “Citizen’s Police Academy” which was massively helpful to my writing. Many police departments offer programs along those lines, and I strongly recommend checking them out. The one I attended was 40+ hours of procedure, first-hand experiences, visits with mounted units, K9 units, SWAT, and more. I even had the opportunity to get tased, which was interesting!

I attended the courses during final edits of Titan’s Day, so most of what I learned will be more influential in the third book, and my future writing. The Titanshade Police Department isn’t an exact recreation of any real-world police force, but the right details can really add a sense of realism, and there aren’t that many ways to find out how it feels to walk onto a crime scene with almost no foreknowledge of what’s waiting for you, or what you can and can’t see when squeezed into a police helicopter.

Kat: Titan’s Day has just been released. What can we expect next for Carter and Ajax?

Dan: Carter and Ajax went through a serious new-partner learning curve. But by then end of the first book they’d found some common ground, and managed to work together as a team.

It was important to me that I didn’t just hit the ‘reset’ button on their relationship, and start them off as though they were meeting again for the first time. In the sequel, they have definitely found a way to work together, but new cases and new discoveries mean that they have new problems.

There’s been big changes in his city, and while Carter may wish it was business as usual, he’s got to learn how to operate under new political and social constraints if he wants to find justice on the streets of Titanshade.

Kat: Finally, will Carter ever fully embrace disco music?

Dan: In Book 3, Carter has a brush with a pop music sensation, and gets fully immersed in all things disco. We’ll have to wait and see whether his grip on sanity holds out!

Titan’s Day is now out and is available at these retailers.

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