Author Interview: D. P. Lyle
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 movie Dial M for Murder spins a tale of someone trying to plan the perfect murder. The killer miscalculates and his plan goes awry. If anyone could get away with murder—forensically—my money would be on author Doug P. Lyle. He’s a practicing cardiologist in Southern California, written several non-fiction books on murder and forensics for writers, and authored several mystery novels. He knows how to write about murder.
Author D. P. Lyle, MD is the Macavity Award winning and Edgar® Award nominated author of the non-fiction books, Murder and Mayhem, Forensics For Dummies, Forensics and Fiction, and Howdunnit Forensics: A Guide For Writers as well as the fiction thrillers, Devil’s Playground and Double Blind. His next medical thriller, Stress Fracture, will be released in April, 2010. He has worked with many novelists and with the writers of popular television shows such as Law and Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, and 1-800-Missing.
MARK: Your next novel, Stress Fracture, is scheduled for release in April. New York Times bestselling author James Rollins writes about your novel: “If Michael Crichton had written an episode of Law and Order, here might be the result.” Is this a fair assessment? Give our mystery readers a taste of what to expect in this Dub Walker series.
DOUG: Those were very kind words from Jim and I greatly appreciate them. The story is a fast-paced thriller with little downtime for the reader. It has a brutal and confusing killer, a lot of forensic science, and hopefully it will give the reader some entertaining hours of reading and maybe a sleepless night or two. The story deals with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD and its effect on an unstable individual. The reader knows the killer early on but he does not know why he is doing what he is doing. And of course Dub Walker must not only interpret the forensic information but also get into the mind of the killer in order to track him down.
MARK: Tell us about your main character, Dub Walker? What is his background? What are the demons he’s battling?
DOUG: Dub is a character with a history. He was a good high school athlete and a very bright student who did well in college and attended medical school. Before completing medical school, in fact only months away from graduating, he failed to meet his younger sister in a parking lot near the medical center as he had promised. He was an hour late and when he arrived he found only her purse and a single shoe. She was never seen again. This happened some 12 years before this story begins, but this is the life event that will haunt him forever as he feels responsible for not being there for her. This is what drives him to solve cases. This is what drives him to figure out the criminal mind.
After his sister's disappearance, Dub became despondent and ultimately, to shake himself from his depression, joined the Marines and served as an MP for two years. After his discharge, he returned to Huntsville and worked for several years in the forensic science lab, where he gained his expertise in forensic science. He spent time with the Behavioral Assessment Unit of the FBI as an observer and student and learned more about criminal behavior. He then became an author and wrote many books about forensic science and criminal psychology. He also possesses an innate ability to read crime scenes and evidence and to dig inside the mind of the bad guys. His current role is that of consultant on difficult cases around the country. It is the murder of an old friend that drags him into the case in Stress Fracture.
MARK: Is Dub Walker a reflection of D.P. Lyle?
DOUG: I would have to say that he has many of my characteristics and some of his own. I think most authors are that way when they create a protagonist. He has a love for science and is fascinated by abnormal behavior. He likes problem-solving. He has a strong sense of justice and personal responsibility and doesn't believe that anyone should get away with a crime. Those are the things that he and I agree on.
MARK: Tell us about the killer. Is there anything about this guy that might generate some empathy with the reader or is this villain pure evil?
DOUG: I don’t want to give too much away because this story is not so much a whodunit as it is a whydunnit. That said, even though the killer is totally out of control, there are parts of him that I believe the reader will empathize with. I'll just leave it at that and let readers decide for themselves if the bad guy has any redeeming qualities.
MARK: In terms of genre, where would you classify Stress Fracture? Police procedural? Medical/forensic thriller? Combination of these and others?
DOUG: Genres are always hard to peg and that seems to be getting more difficult every day as one bleeds into the other. But if I had to classify Stress Fracture I would say that it was a medical and psychological thriller.
MARK: You’ve authored an array of non-fiction books on forensics—Forensics and Fiction, Forensic Science for Writers, Forensics for Dummies, and the ever-popular Murder and Mayhem: A Doctor Answers Medical and Forensic Questions for Mystery Writers. Tells us a little about your background and how you’ve become a medical forensic expert to writers.
DOUG: If you are a physician and go to a cocktail party people ask questions about their cholesterol or their gallbladder, but if you are a physician and go to a writers conference you're immediately asked questions about how poisons work and how to kill someone with a gun. So I simply began answering questions for writers on medical issues and that immediately bled into forensic issues, which in turn led me to educate myself in that arena. I was a chemistry major in college with a minor in biology and have a medical degree and specialty training in cardiology, which is what I practice here in Orange County. So my love of science has been since childhood. I never considered doing anything else but medicine and in fact knew that cardiology was the field that I would practice even before I started medical school. Forensic science is also fascinating to me. My self-education in forensic science was actually quite simple. You can't get through medical school and specialty training without being well-versed in all the “ologies.” Pathology, physiology, pharmacology,bacteriology, anatomy, physics, etc. Forensic science is simply each of these sciences viewed through the eye of the law. Pharmacology becomes toxicology; physics becomes ballistics; anatomy becomes forensic pathology. So it was simply looking at things I already knew from a different angle. The science and the vocabulary are the same questions from writers. I realized that these would make a good book and that writers would enjoy reading about how other writers approach storytelling and the science behind their stories. This is where my two question-and-answer books, Murder and Mayhem and Forensics and Fiction, came from. Then I came up with the idea of Forensics For Dummies and approached Wiley to pitch the idea. I discovered they were already thinking about doing a book with that title so it became a natural fit. Subsequent to that Writers Digest Books contacted me about doing the Howdunnit: Forensics book in their revamped Howdunnit series. That's a thumbnail of how it transpired.
MARK: As a medical and forensic expert, you’ve been sought for consultation by writers/producers of such television shows as Law and Order, CSI: Miami, Monk, Cold Case, House, and Medium. Was this an intentional direction in your career, or did it come about by accident? What have you found most interesting in working with these folks?
DOUG: This was totally by accident. I met various screenwriters at writer’s conferences around the country and again they asked questions just as novelist do. They were simply writing for TV shows rather than writing novels but the concept is the same. They also need to know the medical and forensic aspects of their stories so they can get the science right. All writers should do this, that is, seek out people who know what they don't know so they can get the stories right. Everybody is smart in something and not so smart in other areas. Writers need to ask about what they don’t know. Unfortunately, all too often I see on TV or read in books things that are totally erroneous. All it would take is a little due diligence to prevent that from happening.
The screenwriters that I personally most enjoy working with are Lee Goldberg, Matt Witten, and Paul Guyot. They are always well prepared, know what they need to know, are very bright and understand things very quickly, and as I said do the background work so that their stories ring true.
MARK: Mystery writers looking for forensic answers might want to know about your column, ForensicFiles, regularly published in The Third Degree newsletter by the Mystery Writers of America (a members-only publication). Are the questions raised in this column an extension of your efforts to help writers through your web site? What is one of the most interesting questions asked in this column?
DOUG: The column also appears in the newsletter of Novelist, Inc. It is simply an extension of my question-and-answer books. It contains the same types of questions. Writers ask about medical and forensic issues in their stories and my goal is to give them the science that they need to craft the story accurately, explain that science in simple terms, and hopefully offer them some suggestions for how to use it in the scenario they’ve outlined.
As for interesting questions, they're too many to choose from. I am always amazed at the creative mind of writers. They can come up with some wild and bizarre scenarios. Vampires and werewolves are big right now so I get more questions about them then I did say two years ago. I've had questions about how a body would decompose on Mars (it wouldn't simply because it's too cold), about what a body would look like after it tumbled down a river for a day or so, about how David slew Goliath, about how obstetric complications were treated in the 1800s, about what poisons were used in ancient Egypt, and it goes on and on.
MARK: Your web site lists an array of workshops under the heading of the Killer Fiction Workshop series. How can writers connect with these workshops?
DOUG: That is actually a DVD I did as part of the series. There are several other good DVDs in the series. Mine is of course on forensics and it is five hours of lectures on things such as time of death, cause and manner of death, toxicology, and other forensic issues. Anyone interested can visit my website and there is a link that will take them where they can purchase my lectures as well as the others in the series.
MARK: Can one commit the perfect murder?
DOUG: No. Ask OJ. Ask Scott Peterson. They both thought they had planned it very well when in fact they made so many mistakes that they both should have been convicted several times over. At least one of them was.
MARK: Tell us a little about your writing journey. When did you starting writing fiction with an eye toward publication? What were some of the highs and lows that come to mind?
DOUG: I grew up in the South where you have to tell a story or they won't feed you. The South has a great storytelling tradition and so I grew up with stories and yarns on almost a daily basis. I could always tell a story but I didn't know if I could write one. I always said that I would attempt writing once I retired from my medical practice. About 15 years ago I said "If not now, when?" I love my practice and have no desire to stop, so if I was to write The Great American Novel anytime before I was old and decrepit, I decided I should just get to it. I took some classes at the University of California, Irvine and joined a couple writing groups and simply began writing. It is interesting that Stress Fracture was the first novel I ever wrote, some 12 years ago. Of course you would never recognize that book now because it is changed locations twice, protagonist once, and shortened by at least 50%. The only thing that didn't change was the bad guy and the basic storyline. But as with most writers, my first iteration of it was my learning—means it was a piece of crap. But as I wrote more and learned more about the process and became a better writer, I kept revisiting the story simply because I couldn't let it go. So now after 23 revisions it will see the light of day.
Also, in July, International Thriller Writers is coming out with another anthology titled: Thrillers: 100 Must Reads, and I have an essay on Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island in there. Verne is special to me as his books were what led me to reading when I was young. And reading is critical to writing so I’m thrilled to be able to write an essay on one of his most famous works.
I haven't had any real lows, though no one likes rejections, but once you’ve been to medical school you develop a thick hide so even those don't bother you too much. Learning medicine at the feet of some very smart people is a humbling experience. The highs are many. Seeing your first book in publication is definitely one. Winning the Macavity Award and being nominated for an Edgar Award are way up there. Meeting all the incredible people in the writing world is a huge plus. But for me, the real high is sitting at my desk and writing—particularly when it's one of those days that things just roll along. Every writer knows exactly what I'm talking about.
MARK: Your life seems to be very complicated—writing, consulting, teaching, and medicine. What is a ‘normal’ writing day for D.P. Lyle? How do you squeeze everything in?
DOUG: I get asked that a lot and my answer is always that I have cats so I don't sleep much. I'm also fortunate in that I don't need a lot of sleep. Five or six hours a day is enough. The rest of the time I'm always doing something. I have no set schedule because I don't like them. Too much of life is scheduled out of necessity and so I refuse to schedule writing. But like most writers, I'm writing all the time. Driving down the street, sitting and having dinner with friends, even seeing patients in the office, part of my mind is working on a scene or some bit of dialogue or some stupid thing I wrote yesterday that needs to be corrected today. That's just the way writers are, I think.
But I do write something every day. It might only be an hour or it might be three or four hours. It might be a page or it could be 15 pages. It might be a fictional story or some nonfiction project. I do something every day in the writing arena.
MARK: What books have most influenced your writing?
DOUG: There are many but my favorite authors are James Lee Burke (the best American writer living today and maybe of all time), Elmore Leonard, and Thomas Harris. A lot can be learned from these gentlemen. I also read a wide variety of people including T. Jefferson Parker, Robert Crais, Harlan Coben, Jim Rollins, Tess Gerritsen, Michael Palmer, Lee Child, and many more.
MARK: What books are on your shelf to be read in the near future?
DOUG: Right now I am rereading The Alienist by Caleb Carr—great book. Next I plan to reread another one of my favorite book—Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, a terrific, disturbing, and truly groundbreaking novel. Then I'll start working my way through some of the new books by the authors I mentioned above as well as those on the bestseller list.
MARK: What is one piece of advice you’d give aspiring authors today?
DOUG: Write, write, write. You learn by doing. I also recommend reading books on the craft of writing and attending writing conferences where you can learn from other writers and meet some very interesting people. This writing is a lonely business in that you spend hour after hour alone with a blank page, trying to squeeze some words on to it. So get out and see and do and meet interesting people. But at the end of the day, you must sit down and write.
The great Bryce Courtenay said that the key to writing is "bum glue." Glue your bum to the chair and write. That is absolutely true.
Once you do that I think the best advice is to write the story fast. Don't let the details get you stuck in the weeds. Don't be afraid to write badly. Bad writing leads to good writing through rewriting. Writing is an art and a craft. The art is the storytelling; the craft is making it pretty and publishable. Don't get bogged down in the details of good writing in the first few chapters because you'll never get to the end of the story, you will lose the heart and soul of the story, and your voice will falter. Sit down and write the story from beginning to end and tell it the way you want to tell it. Then go back and rewrite it over and over until it's clean and is good as you can make it.
APRIL 12: New York Times bestselling author Tess Gerritsen joins us to discuss her next novel, Ice Cold (UK title: The Killing Place), to be released in July and a new TNT television show Rizzoli and Isles debuting this summer based upon this author’s novels about two Boston crime fighters—Rizzoli, a homicide detective, and Maura Isles, a medical examiner. Tess’s novels have continually topped the bestseller charts in the U.S. and abroad, with her books translated into thirty-seven languages and more than twenty million copies sold around the world.
APRIL 5 and 19: Use of deadly force investigations will be our next police topic on Monday, April 5. Our guest will be Investigator Brian Davis from the Sonoma County (CA) District Attorney’s Office. Brian recently joined the DA’s office after thirty years with the Santa Rosa Police Department. While at SRPD, he rose to the rank of lieutenant after serving as a homicide investigator and supervisor for the Violent Crimes Unit among many other assignments. Brian participated in a number of use of force investigations and he will share with us where reality and Hollywood part paths on this issue.
APRIL 26: Author Camy Tang will join us to talk about her latest novel, Deadly Intent, a romantic suspense novel set in Northern California’s wine country. This novel—about a murder in an exclusive Sonoma spa—is a major change in genre for Camy, whose previous works included the chick lit Sushi Series novels Sushi For One?, Only Uni, and Single Sashimi. Camy—who worked as a biologist for nine years before becoming a full time writer—will share with us her writing journey and her move to this new genre.