The clues are everywhere. If you’re interested in discovering where longtime New York Times bestselling mystery writer Archer Mayor gets his ideas—among his fans’ favorite questions—you might start by taking a peek into his office in Vermont.
This post is by bestselling author Robert Kiener.
Kiener has been an editor and staff writer with Reader’s Digest in Asia and Europe, and now writes for the magazine and freelances from Stowe, Vt.
His book, Presumption of Guilt, is available wherever books are sold.
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 Writer’s Digest.
Where Ideas Come From
On a bookshelf is a copy of a well-thumbed medical reference book, The Pathology of Homicide. Nearby is a collection of the Journal of Forensic Sciences. Atop another shelf are numerous embroidered police force badges and caps. But the real giveaway is a sign that sits near the 66-year-old author’s vintage oak roll-top desk. It reads: “The Corpse Stops Here.”
Mayor—a lean, fit, gray-haired six-footer—laughs as he holds up the sign and explains, “My daughter gave me that. She has almost as black a sense of humor as I do.”
As many of the devoted readers of his 27 well-researched, cleverly plotted police procedurals know, Mayor comes by his expertise from personal experience. He is a medical examiner for the state of Vermont, and is regularly called to investigate unattended, sometimes suspicious, deaths. “Technically, my official title is ‘death investigator’,” says the Yale graduate with a sly grin. “But that sounds too gloomy.”
He points to the beeper hanging from his waist and explains he is on call around the clock for a week each month. Just last night he was called out to look into the death of an 80-year-old man, and wasn’t home until after midnight. Still, he is jovial for someone with death in his job title.
Mayor is quick to explain that he never uses the exact details from any of his investigations in his novels. “That would be unethical. Not kosher,” he says. “The people I meet have already suffered enough and the last thing I want to do is exploit them.” What he will do, however, is what he describes as mining the details of a case.
“My work as an examiner means that I am continually meeting people in crisis and under stress, and that offers me emotional content that I can incorporate in my writing,” he says.
Mayor, who has been called “the boss man on procedures” and “one of the most sophisticated stylists in the genre” by The New York Times, published the first book in his series, Open Season, in 1988. Since then he’s published almost one a year, the latest being Presumption of Guilt. All feature super sleuth Joe Gunther of the fictitious Vermont Bureau of Investigation, and take place largely in the state Mayor has called home since the early 1980s.
“People often ask me, ‘Why Vermont?’ They think we just have a lot of maple syrup and contented cows here,” Mayor says. “But we’re just like everywhere else; we have our share of bad guys … and girls.”
Of course, Mayor has an inside track on the seamier side of the Green Mountain State. In addition to being a medical examiner, he worked as a local police patrol officer and as an investigator for the sheriff’s office for nearly a decade. He has also volunteered as an EMT and firefighter. Mayor was offered the patrolman and investigator jobs long after he’d been writing novels. “The law enforcement folks realized I’d learned a lot about the field from my years as a medical examiner and all the research I’d done for my books over the years,” he says.
He is now retired from all but his medical examiner gigs, but even with 2,000-plus emergency calls under his belt to draw on for fiction fodder, he still conducts extensive research before embarking on a new book. “I admit I just get a real kick out of research,” Mayor says. “I am a historian by training and nature. Maybe I like research more than writing!”
Blending analysis and creativity is almost innate in Mayor, who grew up in a family of scientists, majored in history in college and published two history books in the 1980s before turning to fiction. “Credibility is very important to me,” he says, picking up a legal pad to show me a list of the 16 interviews with experts in various fields he conducted for his work-in-progress.
“For example, I needed to interview a police dog handler to make sure I got my details right,” he explains. “I sent him the 10-page section I wrote involving the police dog and he got back to me with corrections, telling me things like, ‘The leash is too short,’ or, ‘You wouldn’t take the dog off the leash at that stage in the pursuit.’”
Mayor is off and running, excitedly relaying how a forensic anthropologist once helped him understand what would happen to a body entombed in concrete for 40 years. His hazel eyes light up as he remembers how he spent days tracking down an obscure study of “concrete intubations.” “Great stuff!” he says. “Getting details like that right gives my writing a firmer foundation, more gravitas.”
The art of writing matters to Mayor, who confesses to having “a filing cabinet full of failed novels … that taught me how to write. Now, if I can write elegantly enough to occasionally sneak up on a reader so that she or he can pause and say, ‘Wow! That was well said,’ that gives me an extra boom!”
Mayor says it took him awhile to learn the importance of “not getting in the reader’s way.” As he explains, “I was leading a writing workshop once when I thought, What makes a happy reader? It’s all about being invited in by the writer. If a writer begins showing off with obscure or precious writing, that gets in the readers’ way. They begin to say, ‘He won’t let me in.’ The job of the writer is to ignite a fictional daydream in the brain of the reader and then step away and become invisible so the story becomes the readers’ own. You don’t want them to even know you are in the room.”
Working without a formal outline, Mayor enjoys the chance discoveries and the element of the unexpected his method of writing offers him. He continually self-edits: “As I write, I pause after each paragraph and look at how I am saying what I am saying. I have multiple goals to achieve in each paragraph. Sometimes it’s clarity, sometimes humor, content or giving the reader nuts-and-bolts information to take away. I am trying to write the best-written mystery book the reader has read all year long.”
His first editor is his wife and publishing partner, Margot. “She’s also my most vicious editor,” Mayor says with a smile. “We have the most intimate of editorial relationships.” He also sends a completed manuscript to a group of friends who read for everything from style to grammar to content. He does about 20 rewrites on each book.
“Archer is a very, very, very good writer,” says Keith Kahla, executive editor at St. Martin’s Press and Mayor’s longtime editor. “I know that may sound simplistic, but he is so good at everything from characterization to plot to using the English language. Not all writers are. These are the things that make him so successful. His manuscripts never need more than, at most, minor polishing.”
Although Mayor won’t offer even a clue about the subject of the 28th Joe Gunther book, to be published next fall, he does say this: “Like all my books, it’s a whydunnit as opposed to a whodunnit. I’m not interested in merely solving puzzles; I want to find out why someone did what they did. That’s the real mystery.”
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