Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The McNair Mysteries: An Interview with Author Don McNair

Today I'm pleased to welcome author Don McNair as we discuss his romantic mystery novels. Learn about McNair's real-life experiences in "Magnolia Mansion" and how it all began. Welcome Don!

What inspired the idea behind Mystery at Magnolia Mansion?
Actually, I lived in “Magnolia Mansion” for several years.  It was a landmark house built in Magnolia Springs, Alabama in the late 1890s as a hotel for northerners to stay in while they bought area timberland. It had run down over the years, and when my wife and I found it in the 70s we saw it as a jewel ready to shine.  So when I decided to write a romance novel I had my book’s heroine, an interior designer, fix it up exactly the way we did it.
What kind of research was involved for your other romantic mystery, Mystery on Firefly Knob?
Actually, I did a great deal.  The story’s about what a young antiques dealer who visits just-inherited property on a Cumberland Gap knob in Tennessee, and finds a handsome scientist there studying exotic fireflies. She needs to sell the land to a condo developer fast to finance her business, but he fights her to keep the land pristine for the fireflies.
I wanted to write about what I knew, so I put her home in Glen Ellyn, Illinois because I’d lived there for several years. I made her an antiques dealer because I’d also dealt in antiques.  Bingo! That part of the research was done.
I actually found the knob on a trip through Tennessee, so wrote about its real environs. I made the scientist an employee of nearby Oak Ridge National Laboratories, and visited that facility to walk its halls and absorb its ambiance. And I studied that rare firefly, which glows in unison with its neighbors instead of blinking individually.  I made the book as authentic as I could.
What has been your greatest pleasure or personal success as an author?  

I’ve been fortunate in my career, which included eleven years as a magazine editor, six as a PR professional for a major agency, and twenty-one years as head of my own marketing communications business.  At the agency I won four Golden Trumpets from the Chicago Publicity club and the nation’s top PR award, the Silver Anvil, from the Public Relations Society of America.  But my real pride is the fiction I now write.  In a way I think of the prior forty years as a training that let me finally “be what I wanted to be when I grow up.”
My newest project, a self-editing book titled Editor-Proof Your Writing: 21 Steps to the Clear Prose Agents and Publishers Crave, is my newest way to give back.  It will be published on April 1, 2013, by Quill Driver Books, and help new writers polish their work for publication. 

Will you share with us a short preview of Mystery at Magnolia Mansion?
Certainly.  Brenda Maxwell’s new interior design client tells her to “paint, wallpaper, whatever” his hundred-year-old landmark mansion, “but for God’s sake, don’t go overboard.” When she figures her grandiose plans will fit handily into his edict’s whatever” section, they’re launched into a constant head-bumping mode.  Brenda’s poor money management skills (that’s his view, but what does he know?) and lawyer David Hasbrough’s ridiculous need to control her life (that’s her well-reasoned evaluation of the situation) combine to keep the battle going. Is this couple’s romantic goose cooked? Well, she can’t be near him without sparks flying and goose bumps popping out everywhere.  But that mansion has to be done right!
When did you decide to take that step that made you a published author?

Actually, I’ve been published all my working life.  I went directly from college to a magazine’s editorial staff, and spent those many years writing for others.  I had three non-fiction how-to books published in the 80s, subjects I wanted to learn about. I wanted to build a workshop, for example, and wrote a book titled Building and Outfitting Your Workshop. I was attracted to holograms, and wrote a book titled How to Make Holograms. And when I fixed up that Magnolia Springs house,” I wrote House Craftsmanship: A Guide to Restyling and Refurbishing. Then realized I wanted to write fiction, and have since authored six novels.
What appeals to you most about your chosen genre?
I don’t think of myself as being stuck with just one genre.  My love for fiction-writing comes from creating conflict that keeps readers engrossed, and you’ll find conflict in every selling novel, regardless of genre. I picked romance and young adult, but believe I can work in any genre.  I think the proof of that lies in my writing those how-to books, and in the hundreds of articles I wrote for clients in very diverse industries. 
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve received?
Probably, “Write what you know.” What many newbies don’t realize, though, is that you don’t have to know it all before you start.  I knew certain things about the subjects I wrote in my romance novels, but reached out for new knowledge. Look at the types of research I did for my how-to books, for example, and for those many articles on all kinds of subjects.  Learn how to research and interview, and don’t be afraid to enter unknown territory.
Is writing a full-time career for you? If not, how else do you spend your work day?
Writing has been the backbone of my career, but it’s morphed into editing for others.  I oversaw other writers’ works in the corporate world, so this was a natural step. Today I teach two online editing classes, and on April 1 next year Quill Driver Books will publish my self-editing book, Editor-Proof Your Writing: 21 Steps to the Clear Prose Agents and Publishers Crave.  I generally edit in the mornings, and do promotional things and work on my WIP in the afternoons. 

What challenges did you face in getting your first book published?
I had few problems with my how-to books, because they were an extension of what I did in “real life.”  As a writing consultant and PR person I traveled the country interviewing my client’s industrial customers, then wrote articles on how they used my client’s products to save time, money, whatever. I then used my experience as a magazine editor to place those articles in publications read by the customers’ peers. After so many hundred such articles I was primed to write those books, and they were quickly accepted. 
But fiction writing is a different animal.  I took classes, read books, and talked with the pros, and slowly built up my fiction-writing knowledge. Finally I completed The Long Hunter, a young adult novel, after months of research, writing, and tearing up pages.  I sent it to a publisher positive that I’d receive their check soon, and waited.  Well, you know the story.  I eventually got thirty rejections.  When I finally sold it, I was floating.  That first acceptance is a real high.
How old were you when you wrote your first story?
I remember that day vividly.  I was in grade school, and the teacher asked us to write a story about Mother’s Day.  I turned mine in and the next day the teacher told the class what a great job I’d done, and proceeded to read it.  After class a cute little girl with brown curls came up to me and said, “Donnie, I loved your story.” My brain turned to mush and dribbled out my ears, and I was afraid of girls for years after.
Laptop, desktop or notebook and pen for writing?

Definitely, a laptop. My wife and I sell antiques at regional weekend antiques shows and, after helping set up our booth, I return to the hotel to write and edit.  It’s a “surf and turf” thing that works very well.  A notebook would work equally as well, of course.  And if one never leaves the home to write, a desktop would work fine.  I strongly suggest, though, that writers cut their umbilical cord to their pen and paper. Computers are easy to use, eliminate having to write things twice, and provide a window to today’s publishing world.  That first day might seem weird, but before long a writer will wonder how on earth she or he ever got by without one.   
 Do you believe in writer’s block? Has it ever happened to you?
I can certainly see how some writers face this problem, but thankfully I never have.  Here’s why. When I started working with the PR firm I was hit with a thing called “billable time.”  After all, how else does one charge for creativity? All I had to sell to my clients was the time I spent on their work, broken down into fifteen-minute chunks. The problem was that I had to justify how I spent that time. I didn’t have the luxury of working a crossword puzzle or dusting the credenza while waiting for the muse to visit.  It didn’t take long to ignore any “blocks” that tried to creep in, because I couldn’t afford to feed them.  
Have you ever literally deleted or thrown away a book you’ve written?
I threw away my first effort years ago, before it could stink up the place.  I got the idea I could write a Western.  Hey, how hard could that be?  I’d read them for years, and even seen them on TV.  So I sat down to write the Great American Western.  Long story short, I bogged down in chapter five, after throwing in every cliché I could think of.  I sent those chapters to a critique service and, in nicely couched words, was informed to run away fast, and never look back.  I put it into my file cabinet and didn’t try writing fiction again for years.  
 The Books
Mystery at Magnolia Mansion
Brenda Maxwell’s new interior design client tells her to “paint, wallpaper, whatever” his hundred-year-old landmark mansion, “but for God’s sake, don’t go overboard.” When she figures her grandiose plans will fit handily into his edict’s “whatever” section, they’re launched into a constant head-bumping mode.

Brenda’s poor money management skills (that’s his view, but what does he know?) and lawyer David Hasbrough’s ridiculous need to control her life (that’s her well-reasoned evaluation of the situation) combine to keep the battle going. Is this couple’s romantic goose cooked? Well, she can’t be near him without sparks flying and goose bumps popping out everywhere. But that mansion has to be done right!

NOTE: Don McNair actually lived in this house, and did the very things to it that he has heroine Brenda Maxwell do.

Mystery on Firefly Knob
When Erica Phillips visits choice inherited property on a Cumberland Plateau knob overlooking a beautiful valley, she finds scientist Mike Callahan camped there to study unique fireflies. She needs to sell it fast to buy a new building for her antiques business, but he freaks out when a condo builder offers her a contract. Miffed, she tells him, “If I have my way, this place will be sold within the week. And, Mr. Callahan, I will have my way!” 

Their budding romance plays out before a background of a murder mystery, distrust, and heart-racing hormones. Will it blossom into a lifetime relationship?


“Don’t paint those walls! All they need, David, is mineral spirits. And—like you said—elbow grease.”

She started to say more, but stopped. He stuffed his hands into his pants pockets and rocked on his heels, clicking his change together and glaring at her the whole time. She could picture him doing that in a courtroom somewhere, melting a suspect into a quivering blob of protoplasm, or at least a confession. She backed away, turned, and ran into the kitchen. 

“It’s my house,” he called after her. “If I decide to paint it puke pink, I will.” 

Oh, that man!  She made a Wonder Woman effort not to run out of the house and slam the door in his face. Instead, she stood motionless and studied the kitchen wallpaper. Very carefully. 

She heard him behind her. A squeaky board—she’d have to have that looked at—and then a touch on her right shoulder told her he stood only inches away. Why, if she used her imagination enough, she could imagine he was breathing down her neck. 

Hey, he was!  

Her goose bumps got goose bumps. Something moist touched her neck, now brushed it ever so slightly. She stiffened and turned quickly. His lips were only millimeters away from hers. 

“Mister Hasbrough . . .”

He backed away. “David.”

“David, I—”

The Author

Mike stepped aside, and she saw a clearing. The treetop canopy opened to let in sunlight and blue sky. Grass, kept at bay by constant shadows in the deep woods, covered an open area the size of an average yard. Weeds and wildflowers sprinkled the ground, and sapling maples and vines fringed the woods. 

“This is it?” she said. 

“Yep. The original site. See if you can spot where the cabin stood.”

She saw nothing but the woods and grass. To her left she noticed a stone outcropping. Beyond it was blue sky, and the hazy distance of Sequatchie Valley. 

“Why, we’re right at the knob’s edge,” she said. 

“That’s right. If you jumped off that big rock you’d fall almost two thousand feet."
As she approached the rock she gazed about the clearing. And then she saw it—a vertical stone chimney that at first glance resembled the tall trees surrounding it. Now she made out its individual stones. She stepped closer and saw beneath it the stone foundation of a one-room cabin. The chimney rose from one corner, with its hearth opening toward the center. She stared at it in awe. It was the precursor of the cabin her father lived in. Perhaps it was even built by Rymer himself, the knob's namesake, in the early eighteen hundreds. 

The sun's slanting rays streamed through the tree canopy and threw light patterns on the chimney and foundation. She touched Mike’s arm. “It’s like a shrine,” she whispered. “I feel like I’ve just stepped out of a time machine.”

Don will giving away reader's choice of a copy of one of his books on to one randomly chosen commenter.

The Author
Don McNair, now a prolific fiction writer, spent most of his working life editing magazines (11 years), producing public relations materials for the Burson-Marsteller international PR firm (6 years), and heading his own marketing communications firm, McNair Marketing Communications (21 years). His creativity has won him three Golden Trumpets for best industrial relations programs from the Publicity Club of Chicago, a certificate of merit award for a quarterly magazine he wrote and produced, and the Public Relations Society of America’s Silver Anvil.  The latter is comparable to the Emmy and Oscar in other industries.  McNair has written and placed hundreds of trade magazine articles and three published non-fiction “how-to” books (Tab Books). He’s also written six novels; two young-adult novels (Attack of the Killer Prom Dresses and The Long Hunter), three romantic suspense novels  Mystery on Firefly Knob, Mystery at Magnolia Mansion, and co-authored Wait for Backup!), and a romantic comedy (BJ, Milo, and the Hairdo from Heck). McNair now concentrates on editing novels for others, teaching two online editing classes (see, and writing his next romance novel. 

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  1. It's wonderful to have you visiting with us today Don! Both books sound great and I like the idea that you actually lived in the house.

  2. MK...

    Thanks for having me as a guest blogger! I enjoyed the visit.

  3. How wonderful that you lived at Magnolia Mansion. I have always loved old houses.