Stephen Morrill was born into an army family, served there himself, and wandered the world for thirty years, living in twenty-one cities in six countries. He tried his hand as a reporter for a wire service, penned several thousand magazine articles, worked as a magazine editor, and wrote several Florida travel books.
“When it came time for me to pick a place to settle down, I wanted water activities and beaches,” Morrill said. “I also decided to live and work in a place everyone else dreams of retiring to. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted.” And settle down he did, “like a barnacle holding fast to a piling in Florida,” he proudly quipped.
A modern-day Hemingway, Morrill lives alone and writes on the Florida shores, where he sails almost every day, canoes the waterway, and scuba dives on just about every reef and shipwreck in the area.
With a veteran pen, he writes about a small Florida town called Mangrove Bayou, located in the heart of the Ten Thousand Islands/Everglades National Park region. DEATH AMONG THE MANGROVES (the second book in a series after Mangrove Bayou) promises to enthrall a loyal following with its plot twists and quirky characters. Troy Adam, mixed-race, ex-Army vet, is fired from his job as a Tampa cop. Mangrove Bayou’s reluctant town council hires him on probation. After surviving a hurricane and solving a crime involving a local citizen’s death, Adam figured the council would have a positive opinion of him, but they remained circumspect. Determined to prove his merit by solving a case involving a missing vacationing college student, Adam is forced to deal not only with a skeptical town council but also overwhelming press attention and a powerful judge.
In the following interview, Stephen Morrill shares with readers of The Big Thrill different aspects of his exotic personal and creative life.
DEATH AMONG THE MANGROVES is the second in your police procedural mystery series. How many more books do you foresee Chief Troy Adam starring in?
No idea. I have four more in the pipeline and I only paused because I was outrunning my publisher. I see no reason to stop at six, though. I collect news stories that I use to plot future books. Most of the plots are things that actually happened and I just save stories from the newspapers and modify them to my needs. In Florida there’s no need to invent crimes; there’s no end to odd crime or Florida weirdness. I also have a P.I. series in the works but not yet published, and that has some crossover with the police procedural series.
Could you describe for readers Adam’s internal struggle as he faces the challenges of how he is viewed by others in the town? How do you see him changing from the first installment to the current one and in future books?
In the first book, Mangrove Bayou, he’s introduced as suffering from psychological trauma, bad dreams, vomiting, and so on, all stemming from his having shot several people in his previous police job. That continues in the second book and gets more complicated. But he will eventually heal, aided by a psychologist and weekly visits. He’s also shown to be an orphan, abandoned at birth by a black prostitute, and he’s a mix of Caucasian, black, and Asian. The mayor of Mangrove Bayou says he’s “Beige. A good color that goes with any furniture.” As for the townspeople, they were not terribly happy to see a mixed-race police chief at first. But over time they just got accustomed to him. And he is so much better than his predecessor that they do appreciate that. The town council also appreciates that he has upgraded the professionalism of the department. Troy Adam also has a serious girlfriend. I made her a pilot with her own small charter flight business because I wanted him to have transportation of that sort when necessary. Will they get more serious? Marry? Only time will tell. Stay tuned.
This was a Kickstarter project. Could you explain what that means? And how do you feel about the publisher dealing with “finance” in this way? How successful was it?
This book was not a Kickstarter project. You must have seen a reference to that on my website. I did try that as an experiment—for book #6. But nobody ever noticed or donated any money. So much for that idea…
The town of Mangrove Bayou sounds magical. Is it a real place? Or did you change the name of another small town that inspired you?
Ah. Good story: First off, it’s a combination of Cedar Key and Everglades City, both in Florida and both towns I visit frequently to canoe or sail. I even tried moving to Everglades City but had to give it up because they had no Internet access—at least back then. Seriously. The reference in the books to the microwave tower standing in a circle in the middle of the main access road is a direct description of the tower at Everglades City.
When I wrote the first two book manuscripts, the town name was Mangrove Bay. Then I thought it would be a good idea to have a website. But MangroveBay.com was taken. I was bummed out but discovered that if I added two vowels—O and U—I could have the URL of MangroveBayou.com. So I did that and did a search-and-replace of the town name in the book manuscripts.
The author Fannie Flagg once said, “Strangely enough, the first character in Fried Green Tomatoes was the café, and the town. I think a place can be as much a character in a novel as the people.” In Bull Mountain, the author Brian Panovich made a similar statement about the mountain. Does this also ring true of Mangrove Bayou?
I certainly think the town is a character in itself. I made up a large map showing of the town and I refer to that often when writing. But it’s not just the physical town layout. A town is buildings and residents. The characters that people Mangrove Bayou are all odd in one way or another. And I usually try to write ”against type” to make them more three-dimensional and interesting. A police chief in a southern town who’s not a dumb cracker but a high-IQ reader of ancient history books. An owner of a restaurant who calls the animals he catches as the town trapper ”chicken” and who doesn’t eat in his own restaurant. A redneck fishing guide who references Joseph Conrad or Charles Dickens in his speech. In a later book I introduce a black gang leader with a Ph.D. in Shakespearean plays. He quotes Othello a lot. That was fun to write.
Do you take liberties with your setting? Or do you try to be true to its Everglade geography and local environment?
The geography and plant and animal life are accurate. I have spent a lot of time on the Everglades sawgrass prairie, in the mangrove forests along the coast, and in cypress swamps around Florida and southern Georgia. I know them all well. I used to guide canoeing parties through the Ten Thousand Islands area or down the Wilderness Waterway from Everglades City to Flamingo. Here’s a tidbit: I’m one of the few people to have been attacked by an alligator. I fought back by banging her head with my paddle, which, as it developed, was a poor career choice. She bit holes in my canoe and chased me up into (as I learned later) a lot of poison ivy. She then ate my $40 Tilly hat; I hope she choked on it.
Along a different but related line, I have a tendency to want to over-describe the settings and one friend advised me to ”cut out all that Mutual of Omaha wildlife stuff.” I still leave some in.
Tell us something about your series or you as a writer that isn’t mentioned in the publisher’s synopsis.
Let me re-read the publisher synopsis. Hummm…Seems fairly good. It’s all true, both paragraphs. I wrote the books because Robert B. Parker died. Parker wrote the Spenser series and also, later, the Jesse Stone police procedural series set in Paradise, Massachusetts. I loved them both. When Parker died I was bereft. No more Jesse Stone, police chief of a small imaginary town in Massachusetts. I moped around for a while. Then I thought, ”Steve, you’re a writer. You’ve been a reporter and spent some time around cops, police stations, and courtrooms. You could do this. If you no longer have Parker’s books to read, then get busy and write your own.” So I did. I blatantly stole the small-town setting and the odd characters in the town and the police chief hired on from a larger city. If you liked the Parker/Jesse Stone books, you’ll like these.
How much of you or your experience is in your novels? How close are the characters to your own experience?
Most fiction is autobiographical to some degree. I’ve never been a cop or an orphan but Troy Adam is, more or less, what I would be if I were the police chief. Incidentally, the Tampa Police Department will put me through their multiweek “citizen academy” course later this month. They thought that, if I wrote police procedurals, I should learn more about police procedures. Go figure.
What aspects of the series have you had to fact-check, if any? And what was your most exciting topic to research?
I fact-check everything, and all topics are exciting. One thing I have learned in 30-plus years earning my living as a writer: any time you don’t bother to fact-check because, well, you just know what’s true—you’re wrong. I look up Florida statutes. I research weapons, boats, trucks, whatever. If it’s mentioned, I’ve looked it up. And I love the Web. It’s a Godsend to me. I’ll also use the Google-map functions to describe buildings or scenery I’ve not actually visited. This is seriously helpful to a writer. I do take some intentional liberties with some things. A criminal case, in reality, takes months years even, to be processed. We all know that. When my guys send something off to the lab for analysis, they get a response in days, not months. But this time-scale compression is standard in books and TV shows too. I think the readers understand.
Describe your writing process. Are you a plotter: Do you outline your plots or create biographies of your characters? Or are you a pantser: Do you let the story develop as you write? Does your expected cast of characters expand/contract as you write the story?
Outline. Outline. Outline. Did I mention outline? I don’t understand writers who say their characters just tell them what to write. My characters work for me. They do as I tell them. If they don’t then I take them outside and beat the living daylights out of them. I write using three large monitors, with the manuscript open in the center, a very detailed outline (I use a wide spreadsheet for this) in the right monitor, and my database of characters in the left monitor. There may also be open a web browser or a folder with my collection of weird Florida crimes or the description of the girlfriend’s airplane or something like that. (In fact, I use a flight simulator program to actually ”fly” around in an accurate-to-FAA standards model of her airplane.) Police procedurals like the Mangrove Bayou books revolve around the daily work of a police department, not one single case as with a P.I. book. Each book has a major crime and three or four minor plots/crimes too. Some are just amusing, even silly. Some are a way for me to comment on social problems. But interweaving four unconnected plots is tricky and outlining is an absolute. I also count words for each chapter—even tracking that in the outlines—and try to keep chapters short. My 70,000-word books run to 40-50 chapters as a result. I think that helps the pacing. I also toss in, usually, one or two ”breather” chapters. Troy and his girlfriend go sailing. Or they celebrate Christmas. I like to take a break twice in each book to show the reader Troy’s other life. I get criticized for “pacing issues” but I don’t care. That’s the way I like to write the books. Troy is a three-dimensional person, not just a police chief, and I like to show that occasionally.
What specific authors or books influenced how and/or what you write today?
Robert B. Parker, obviously. But also Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories, Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police books, John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee stories, dozens of other mystery writers from Agatha Christie to John Creasey, even one odd one, Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, Arthur W. Upfield’s half-aboriginal Australian policeman.
You have vast writing experience as a reporter, author of travel books, and writer/editor of magazine articles. When did you first get the writing bug? What was your first writing gig and how did that come about? What is your favorite writing modality?
Never heard it called “vast” before. That’s better than “half-vast.” I never wrote so much as a postcard before 1982. But at that time I was working at a fascinating job in the port of Tampa, spending days on ships or tugboats or around longshoremen. Alas, the company went out of business. I decided to try writing and soon was writing for all the local and regional magazines. Did reporting for Reuters for ten years. Along the way I wrote books. I had to count those recently for a writers’ meeting and was astonished to see I had written seventeen in total or in part. Most of those were nonfiction, and all of the magazine and newspaper work was nonfiction. I suppose my ”favorite” writing is these mysteries. I mean—I get to make stuff up! After thirty years of needing a second source for every fact, this is like mainlining heroin. (Still need sources for every fact, as it turned out. That was a major disappointment.)
What are your writing days like? How often and where do you write? How difficult is it to sit and write in such a beautiful area where you live?
This is my job. I report for duty at 8 a.m., five days a week, and work until 8 p.m., but with three hours off midday for errands, yard work, a nap, whatever. (My “exercise program” is to do yard work for not only myself but also several elderly neighbors. Beats going to the gym and my doctor says that if I can still dig ditches, I don’t have heart disease.) I’m not slavish about my schedule; if there’s a swamp needing my presence, I would take off a day, and I sail about every other weekend. I’m not married (any longer) and that means no need to bend my schedule around another person. I’m pretty much a hermit, which is a good thing for a writer to be. I do not get lonely, and I can go days without using my car.
The writer, Dorothy Parker, once said, “Writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat.” When the summer weather beckons, what strategies do you use to keep your “butt glued to the chair”?
Not a problem. In Florida, in the summer, your butt is pretty much glued to the chair by sweat. I live in a 90-year-old bungalow, which means you could throw a cat through the cracks and the central air conditioning system runs from June 1 to October 31 and pulls ten gallons of water out of the inside air each day. (True: I have a five-gallon bucket under the drain outside and it fills in twelve hours.) Thanks to all the computer and associated machinery, my office is the warmest room. I wear shorts and go days without donning a shirt. But so what? This is my job. Writing is my job. And, actually, it’s the winter months that are more attractive here in Florida.
I notice you have done a lot of traveling. If you could travel anywhere in the world to do research for your next book, all expenses paid, where would that be…and why?
Aha. Thus my private investigator series I’m working up now. Look for Cord MacIntosh and his sailboat. Stole that notion from John D. MacDonald. His protagonist, Travis McGee, lived on a houseboat. Mine lives on a sailboat. I can move the “office” around to different locales. Those books will be set in different towns around Florida, in the Bahamas, and in the Caribbean. Make the IRS pay for my research. I’ve been to many of those places already with my sailing club or on my own. But that’s a book series for another day…
Many readers have a mental image of what Troy Adam looks like. If your book were to be adapted for television or film, who do you see play his role and some of the other character’s roles?
Hah. If anyone is actually willing to option those books, they can hire Caitlyn Jenner for all I care. Seriously, there’s no point to any opinion on my part. Hollywood people decide all that. In fact, I just completed a ghosted book for a man who is trying to break in out there and the stories he told are horrifying. It’s absolutely true that nothing is real in Hollywood. But, then, nothing is real in Mangrove Bayou, either.
Stephen Morrill was born into the Army, served there himself, and wandered the world for thirty years, living in twenty-one cities in six countries. Finally he settled, like a barnacle holding fast to a piling, in Florida.
“When it came time for me to pick a place to settle down, I wanted water activities and beaches,” Morrill says. “I also decided to live and work in a place everyone else dreams of retiring to. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted.”
Since then he has canoed and sailed almost every Florida waterway and SCUBA dived on almost every reef and wreck. He has been a reporter for a wire service, written several thousand magazine articles, edited several magazines, and written books including several Florida travel works.
“I suppose I’m a native now,” Morrill says. “As the locals like to say, ‘I have sand in my shoes’.”
To learn more, please visit his website.
Bryan E. Robinson, author of LIMESTONE GUMPTION: A BRAD POPE AND SISTERFRIENDS MYSTERY, won the New Apple Literary Award for Best Psychological Suspense, the Silver IPPY Award for outstanding mystery of the year, and the Bronze Award for best mystery from Foreword Reviews’ INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards. He is the Coordinator of International Thriller Writers’ Debut Author Forum, a consulting editor for The Big Thrill, a member of Mystery Writers of America, and author of thirty-five books, which have been translated into thirteen languages. Robinson maintains a private psychotherapy practice in Asheville, North Carolina, and resides in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his spouse, four dogs, and occasional bears at night. His latest books are Don’t Murder Yourself Before Finishing Your Mystery and the thriller Bloody Bones.