Bill Zahren: Author Sets Mystery Series in Sioux City

Author Bill Zahren

I met Bill Zahren at an author’s event in central Iowa where our tables were set up next to one another. He had to leave early so we didn’t get much of a chance to connect, but he very kindly reached out to me afterward to get a copy of my novel, Murder by the Slice. I proposed a trade and he sent me a copy of Officer Involved, the first book in his Kingman and Reed series.

A case could be made that I was the winner in that trade, because Officer Involved is a tautly written thriller/mystery set in Sioux City featuring two likeable protagonists—newspaper reporter Tom Kingman and assistant county attorney Hillary Reed—who form a tenuous alliance that grows into something more.

Zahren answered questions via email.

Rob Cline: I know you, like your character Tom Kingman, worked for a paper in Sioux City. Tell me more about the origin of the first novel, Officer Involved, and the lead characters.

Bill Zahren: Honestly, the inspiration for Officer Involved was the quest to write a novel, which, for me, was the pinnacle for a writer. When I got out of the newspaper business, it seemed a good time to give it a shot. . . . I’ve always liked murder mysteries that have recurring characters, and I liked the idea of having an opposites-attract romantic element as well. At first I was going to have Hillary be a cop, because how opposite is that? But then I wanted her to be more intellectual and contrast to wisecracking Tom, so I made her an assistant county attorney. There were several female assistant county attorneys when I was a reporter, so Hillary is a side of my personality wrapped up in an amalgam of all the female attorneys I observed as a reporter.

What challenges arose as you wrote about Sioux City? Did you have any concerns about how your portrayal of certain institutions might be received?

I think setting your book in an unusual place can be an advantage. There are thousands of books set in big cities, but not that many set in smaller towns. John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers character runs around southern Minnesota and he makes it work. The Flowers character inspired a lot of Tom Kingman. Since I liked living and working in Sioux City, I was a little sensitive as to how it would be taken. I just try to be fair, I guess. Not every cop in my books is a bad person; sometimes they save the day. Ditto for the county attorney’s office. I think as long as you do that you’ll be okay.

The former Sioux City police chief read a few of my novels and said he liked them and took no offense. I was a bit nervous while he was reading them, though. I like to use real landmarks in my books, which lots of people have said they enjoy. I always make up places where bad things happen, like a restaurant whose owner is a drug dealer. But if Tom and Hillary go out to lunch just to talk something over, it’s going to be a real place wherever the book is set.

Writing an ongoing series comes with its pleasures and challenges. Do you have a sense of how many adventures you might write featuring the duo?

Continuing a series has been harder than I expected. The hard part is knowing how much background to put into each book about the main characters. . . . I probably err on the side of under-developing Tom and Hillary in every book because if you take all five books as a whole, you know a lot about Tom and Hillary. The pleasure is being able to slowly develop their relationship over five books. . . .

I told my wife the madness ends with book 10. So 10 is the limit. Not sure I’ll get there, but there won’t be a #11.

Why did you decide to self-publish?

Waaaaay back in 1999 or so when I finished Officer Involved, I did the dance and tried to find an agent. I still have a file full of rejection letters that resulted from an 18-month effort. Finally, I decided that it just wasn’t worth it. Even if I did find an agent, traditionally published authors, aside from the Grishams of the world, get zero marketing help. So I thought to myself, all this effort and I’ll still have to sell books out of the trunk of my car. Gonna pass.

Fast forward 15 years—and now you can do everything a publisher would do for you. I hire a freelance cover designer who also lays out the interior of the book and someone to convert it to an ebook. I have friends who generously read and proofread my books; Amazon KDP makes it brainless to upload a finished PDF of your book. So instead of paying an agent to find a publishing house to do all that for me, I pay for it myself, and then I keep all the royalties.

I still don’t make money and have to sell books out of the trunk of my car, but I’m getting 100 percent of the meager profits. I like the control of self-publishing—it’s the only writing I do that I have total control over—and the feeling of sort of investing in myself. . . .

You should only write a book if you take pleasure in the process and will take pride in the accomplishment. There’s no money in it. . . .

Your family has been in Iowa for generations now. Do you think of yourself as an Iowa writer?

I do. Even more obscure, a Western Iowa writer. To me, it just means I’m from Iowa and I write things set in Iowa. Western Iowa is sort of a minor character in my books. Tom, who is from Council Bluffs, has a chip on his shoulder because he says Des Moines faces east and takes little notice of Western Iowa. Iowa has a brand. It’s the agricultural, hard work, nice people state. I call Iowa the state you’d feel comfortable leaving your kids with in an emergency. Responsible, dutiful, trustworthy, solid. So having murder in Iowa, of all places, is (I hope) intriguing.

I love bringing attention to Iowa in general and the home side of my state in particular.

The fifth book in the series, Traffic, came out in May 2019. When might we expect another?

Good question. I am not sure. Book #6, Ornament, is all outlined and plotted out, and I have four chapters drafted. I wrote my first five books while I was working as a freelance marketing writer, so that gave me a ton of flexibility to work on them. Now I have a full-time job as a marketing writer and, after nearly three years on that job, I’m still trying to figure out if and how I will write Ornament. . . . My former book-a-year pace is history.