MUSIC & MYSTERY – Guest blog by RJ McDonnell

The purpose of this blog is to show you how I relate my series theme to specific marketing and plotting efforts in hopes that fellow writers will find an idea or two that will help build readership. Most of these concepts apply to standalone novels as well.

I write a mystery series that features private investigator Jason Duffy, who worked as a club musician for 10 years before earning his PI license. Although he’s handled a diverse range of cases in his first few years of private practice, I focus exclusively on the ones relating to the music industry in the Rock & Roll Mystery Series.

Writing about music can be tricky business. In an ideal world most of my readers would be fans of the music I write about, enabling me to share insights that expand their understanding of one of their passions. Had I started my series when I was a child, that ideal might have been achievable. Rock & roll had a much more homogeneous audience during the American Bandstand era. Granted, there were those who favored rock and others who preferred Motown. But most radio stations of that period carried everything that appealed to a young audience, and most radio listeners were not inclined to abandon their favorite channel when a less desirable tune came on the air. Today, there are 51 subgenres of heavy metal alone. Music fans have grown accustomed to highly specialized programming.

For that reason I try to focus on common areas of the music business and the day-to-day life of musicians rather than attempt to capture the mindset and topical preferences of particular subgenres. In addition, I always try to include unique or cutting-edge plot elements to spark the interest of readers who are not fans of the genre portrayed.

For example, my first novel, Rock & Roll Homicide, featured a half-US, half-UK heavy metal band. Had I opted to delve into the inner workings of one of those 51 sub-genres, dropping clues that would be clear only to fans of that music, I would have alienated most of the readers I was trying to attract. Instead, I focused on a record company with an unhealthy tie to the Russian Mafia. The novel was written about 10 years after the breakup of the USSR. While the outline was being formulated I met a man at a college alumni association function who just closed an electronics manufacturing business in Russia because half of his UPS shipments were being hijacked. Prior to that day I had never heard of the Russian Mafia. The bent-noses of the Borscht Belt aspect of the book got a lot of attention in the pre-e-book era, enabling me to get placement in stores across the US. The fact that Rock & Roll Homicide has been on two Amazon Top 100 lists ever since June of 2014 tells me the subplot has held up well over time, even though the Russian Mafia is getting more exposure today than its Italian predecessor.

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The 2nd book in the series, Rock & Roll Rip-Off, featured an emo band that failed to live up to expectations on its first album. I wrote the book on the assumption that most of my readers would be unfamiliar with the genre. Rather than spend time trying to get them to like or even connect with emo, I focused on something of interest to all music fans. The industry was forced into a sea change on how it made its money as a result of pirated MP3 files. Many record companies were struggling to stay alive. There was no money to give a high potential band a second chance after failing to gain traction on its first try. The rip-off noted in the title occurred to fund a record company executive’s bribe, which could have happened in any genre.

The whodunit was the unique element in that book. The reader learned in the opening that one of the members of The Tactile Tattoo engineered the rip-off. Careful clue analysis was needed to figure out which one. This is the darkest novel in my series. It’s also my least favorite. And, it’s the only one to win a Mystery/Thriller of the Year Award. Go figure.

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The next novel, The Concert Killer, is my favorite. A serial killer tried to shut down the concert industry by dropping bodies at venues throughout California. The concerts featured a variety of different genres. From a series arc perspective we saw an extension of the sea change mentioned above. Since pirated downloads cut heavily into album earnings, musicians now earn most of their livelihood from concerts. The Concert Killer built a dam across that earnings stream. Concert-goers stayed home in droves. The novel climaxed as the killer was about to expand his territory to a national audience.

Like with the emergence of the Russian Mafia in Rock & Roll Homicide, The Concert Killer featured a cutting edge element. Unlike its predecessor, this cultural phenomenon won’t get hot until later this year when the US begins exporting liquefied natural gas for the first time. I’m hoping it gains the same kind of lift that Rock & Roll Homicide experienced in June. One of the advantages to being an indie author is that we don’t have to limit our windows of opportunity to the six week shelf life afforded most traditionally published authors at chain bookstores. Theirs is a “do or die” situation where failure to sell five to ten thousand books in that period usually results in a parting of the ways with the publisher. The indie route enables us to build a platform before jumping into those shark-infested waters (or opt out altogether).

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The Classic Rockers Reunion with Death saw a major convergence of the story plot and the series arc. Jason’s father, Jim, is a retired San Diego Police detective. He opposed Jason’s career as a musician from day one, supposedly because of working too many musician OD cases. In this novel, Jason’s estranged Uncle Patrick from Pennsylvania asked for help after his former bandmate was murdered a few weeks before a reunion show for his ‘60s club band. Jason filled in for the slain rhythm guitarist as they prepared for the classic rock show. A 40-year family feud between Jim and Patrick played out while the murder was investigated.

My favorite part of writing that novel happened while researching the venue for the climax, which took place at the Scranton Cultural Center (formerly The Masonic Temple). I was given a two-hour tour of the ten story facility that was built in the late 20s by the Masons, and continues to serve as a Masonic Lodge. I was shown secret passageways, hidden staircases, spaces below stages, and enough intriguing architecture to inspire a Dan Brown novel. I used a “best of” selection for the climax, and saw a nice return from incorporating that fact into my local marketing efforts. I think it’s important to look closely at thematic and marketing possibilities after completing a novel’s first draft. Then, try to develop them during the editing process.

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My 2014 release, Diamonds, Clubs, and Rock & Roll, also featured classic rock music. I did that for two reasons. First, it took place at an undersea club that was part of a resort for billionaires and millionaires. Demographically, classic rock fits better than any other genre considering that most people accrue wealth over time, and classic rock is popular with the 50+ crowd. Second, I wanted to bring Uncle Patrick to San Diego and needed him to work undercover with Jason in the club’s house band. I’m thinking about starting a second series that features Uncle Patrick and felt that the additional exposure would help ensure crossover among my readers.

The music got a boost from an alternate source in this novel. When live music was not playing in the club, the sound system was synched to a holography show on the floor of La Jolla Cove.

Songs like “Barracuda,” “Octopus’s Garden,” and “Yellow Submarine” were synched up with what was happening outside the club and sometimes inside the plot.

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I’m a firm believer in the benefits of cross marketing. As a former band manager and musician, I do all that I can to bring a back stage pass to each murder mystery. My best newspaper exposure came from a library/bookstore tour AFTER I started bringing my guitar and PA system to the events. On site book sales quadrupled and feature articles appeared in four newspapers. The idea of including live music came after reading a social media post by a cozy mystery author who did knitting demonstrations during her tour. Authors with a particular theme would do well to brainstorm as many ways possible to engage readers with similar interests either in person or online. Hopefully, one of those ideas will help you chart in the Top 40.

Many thanks to Lisette Brodey for inviting me to pen a guest blog at her Writers’ Chateau. I am a fan of her novels, and of the effort she puts into helping her fellow writers. Hopefully, one of the marketing tips that I shared today will help you too.

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Thank you, RJ! It’s been a pleasure having you back at my writers’ chateau! I hope readers will check out your wonderful books, starting with a free copy of Rock & Roll Homicide.

(Links below)

Rock & Roll Homicide (FREE)

Rock & Roll Rip-Off

The Concert Killer

The Classic Rockers Reunion With Death

Diamonds, Clubs, and Rock & Roll

RJ’s June 2013 Writers’ Chateau Interview


Comments

MUSIC & MYSTERY – Guest blog by RJ McDonnell — 3 Comments

  1. Thank you RJ, for a delightful and highly informative post. I heard a whisper that you will be visiting the Chateau soon. As always, RJ, you are selfless in providing assistance to your fellow writers.

    I have been a fan of your highly entertaining novels for many years and it is difficult to choose a favourite. However, the one which has stayed with me and provided many conversations is, The Concert Killer.

    I wish you great success now and in the future. Thank you for providing sheer reading enjoyment.

    Best regards,
    Ross

  2. Thanks so much for your kind words, Sheri and Ross. I means a lot coming from two people who have consistently demonstrated poise and determination in the face of major adversity.

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