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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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




Hello, Friends:

Thanks for visiting my writers’ chateau. Every Monday, I chat with a new author and have been very lucky to have so many talented wordsmiths visit my humble abode.

My staff, especially Henrietta (“Cook”) and Claude (my esteemed butler), work very hard to ensure that all guests get star treatment and that everything runs smoothly.

But…I have just learned that Henrietta and Claude have eloped (it was bound to happen!) and will be returning from a three-week honeymoon on July 7th. (Oh, dear…I should have paid more attention to the rumors going around.)

In the meantime, while Henrietta and Claude luxuriate in Luxembourg, dance their last tango in Paris, and waltz in Vienna, please check out my wonderful past guests whose interviews you may have missed the first time around.

And join me in wishing Henrietta and Claude a very happy marriage.




Peter Carroll

Pat Bertram

Ann Swann

Cassius Shuman

Lorna Suzuki

Mike Roche

Brenda Sorrels

Dionne Lister

W.M. Driscoll

Raine Thomas

Stacy Juba

Deb Nam-Krane

Simon Hay

Amy Sue Nathan

Uvi Poznansky

RJ McDonnell

Delia Colvin

Check back on July 7, 2013 when the Monday author interviews will resume.



RJ McDonnell is the author of the Rock & Roll Mystery Series. He worked full-time as a non-fiction writer for 17 years, spent two years writing scripts for a comedy television series, two years as a Careers columnist, and the past six years as a novelist while continuing to write non-fiction.

Time to chat with RJ!

What is your latest book?

My latest novel is The Classic Rockers Reunion with Death. It’s the 4th novel in my series, and may be read as a stand-alone. My protagonist, Jason Duffy, worked his way through high school, college, and grad school as the lead singer and rhythm guitarist for a club band in San Diego. After working in the counseling field for two years, Jason completed an internship with a private investigator and opened an agency in La Jolla, CA. He’s the son of a retired SDPD detective with whom he’s had a very strained relationship since purchasing his first electric guitar at the age of 14. Since Jason entered the family business, their relationship has improved, but that progress has been a two steps forward, one step back type of progress.

In the new novel, Jason travels to Northeastern Pennsylvania in mid-winter to help his 59-year-old uncle, whose best friend was murdered just as they were about to play a reunion concert for their 60’s rock band. Jason agrees to fill in on rhythm guitar while conducting his investigation since the clues all relate to the reunion show.

Jason’s father has been estranged from his hippie, rockstar brother since the Vietnam War. Jason is forced to arbitrate their feud while dealing with his depressed, pot-smoking uncle. He also deals with being in the crosshairs of the killer in this hardboiled mystery.


Do you write anything besides novels? Care to share?

I am the sole proprietor of Affordable Quality Resumes (aka, I was formerly the Regional Director of the largest resume writing service in the United States, and co-author of a manual used to train professional resume writers at over 500 offices across the country. Experts fielding questions on and Career Ladders continue to quote my contributions to the manual on a fairly regular basis.

In addition to writing resumes, I continue to write about issues relating to the job search process that have a significant impact on job seekers. Last week I posted a blog about how more than half of all resumes are screened out at the computer level through Applicant Tracking Systems. In it, I drill down into specifics on how it works, why the average job seeker is behind the curve on important screening technology, and how to make the new innovations work to their advantage. Here’s a link to the article if you’re interested:

Were you “born to write” or did you discover your passion for writing later in life?

I was definitely born to write. I could be the poster-boy for right brain/left brain asymmetry. When I reached high school, I was allowed to skip 9th grade English while being treated to an encore performance of Algebra I.

Is there a question I haven’t asked you that you would like to answer? If so, what is it?

[What life experience helped you the most in creating your novels’ characters?]

I tend to spend a great deal of time getting to know my resume clients. Having written over 5000 resumes in my career, I have a very good feel for the range of motivations that lead people to significant career choices. In addition, I have a firm grasp of the day-to-day responsibilities of most professions. When one of my clients comes home from a long day at the office (or assembly line) I know exactly what he’s been dealing with and why he is in his current state of mind. I also have a good feel for how perspectives change over time in many fields. I use this information to bring a genuine quality to my characters.

For example, Jason has developed a strong working relationship with a 55-year-old homicide detective on SDPD. He also frequently deals with an ambitious younger detective who is focused on climbing the ladder via political connections, and who serves as an antagonist. Once it became known in San Diego that I was the son of a police detective, I received numerous referrals from cops trying to help coworkers advance to the next level. Invariably, the higher the position that the cop was seeking, the more value he placed on communication skills. Conversely, the lower the cop’s rank, the greater the emphasis on physical confrontation. I work those attributes and attitudes into my novels on a regular basis.

Do you have complete control over your characters or do they ever control you?

I try my best to control my characters by developing fairly detailed outlines, but they still tend to surprise me. The creative process is just that – a process. Outlining has become a bigger part of my process with each succeeding book. But I never exclude the notion that an even better idea could be right around the corner.

I took guitar lessons five years ago after a long layoff due to injury. My teacher played in a band with Noel Redding of The Jimi Hendrix Experience. He once told me that almost all songs have an “outside chord” that falls outside of the key. Because of that, it’s the most difficult to suss out, but frequently the part of the song that listeners like best. I view new ideas that don’t fit my outline as my outside chords. It’s imperative that I give them serious consideration. I wouldn’t want to ignore something that could prove to be the best part of my story because it didn’t fit neatly into my outline.

If you were to write a non-fiction book, what might it be about?

One of the saddest patterns I’ve noticed in my years in the resume writing business is that almost half of my clients sought jobs that they really weren’t interested in doing. They usually pursued those job objectives because they felt it gave them the best chance for earning the most money. Most people never take the time to realize that they bring the drudgery of a bad job home with them every night, and it can have a profound effect on their family life and free time.

If I had to put my finger on one root cause it would be the fact that, as a society we expect 18-year-olds to know exactly what they want to do with the rest of their lives. About half of the resumes I prepared for people with a college education were for job objectives that had nothing to do with their degrees. Some of the folks who pursued jobs in their field were doing so only because they felt the need to get a return on their educational investment.

My non-fiction book would be directed to the parents of high school students, and aimed at helping them guide their children to career/education decisions that are consistent with the child’s interests and aptitudes, while also factoring in the realities of the job market.

How would you define your style of writing?

I write hardboiled mysteries with a bit of humor. I would describe my style as reality-based. Many of the books that I read in my genre tend to feature a lot of coincidences and “barely-in-the-nick-of-time” climaxes. Yes, I’ve been guilty of the latter on a few occasions, but I try to not make a habit out of it. Just as I do my best to purge my books of clichés, I also try to avoid hackneyed formulas. No one wants to read a murder mystery that has already been done to death.

Have you received reactions/feedback to your work that has surprised you? In what way?

A couple of years ago I gave myself a Saturday afternoon off from my writing schedule to watch my alma mater play football. As I was about to settle onto my couch to watch the kickoff, my mailman dropped off a package at my door. At the time, I had my books in record stores across the country, and as they closed their doors, many were kind enough to return unsold stock. The package I received was about the size of one of my books. I tossed it on my kitchen table and watched the game.

By halftime, I was feeling guilty about slacking off, so I decided to process the return during the break. When I opened the package, instead of finding a returned book I discovered a plaque with my name on it, declaring my novel “Rock & Roll Rip-Off” the 2010 Mystery/Thriller of the Year.

I was shocked. The football game continued to play on my TV but I don’t think I even noticed who won. The recognition fueled my passion for writing and inspired me to do a bookstore and library tour that included relating several classic rock songs to my characters and series storylines. I don’ think I would have put in the time and effort to write and learn and hour-long presentation along with practicing a dozen songs every day for months were it not for the emotional B-12 shot I got from that plaque.

What might we be surprised to know about you?

Several of my high school friends went off to war after graduation. I opted for college instead, but always felt an obligation to contribute in some way. A couple of years after writing the resume manual, I volunteered to write an article for the Military Press designed to help military personnel to make the transition to the civilian world. The newspaper liked the article so much that they talked me into writing a column that appeared in all of their issues for the next two years.

What music soothes your soul?

I’ve always enjoyed both hard rock and acoustic rock. When it’s time for soothing music I turn to Clapton’s blues albums, John Mayer, Sheryl Crow, and Jack Johnson, to name a few.

Have you ever played a practical joke on a friend?

When I was in my mid-twenties, I set my alarm for 5:00 AM on April Fools Day. My sister was the target of my ruse. I called and told her I was in Las Vegas, and that I had just gotten married to a girl I met earlier in the evening. For my wedding present I wanted her to break the news to our parents. Despite the hour and obvious lack of caffeine, she went into a rant that lasted 15 minutes. When she finally calmed down enough for me to get a word in, I said to be sure to tell them one more thing – happy April Fools Day! Friends of my sister might be surprised to learn I’m still alive to tell that tale.