Saturday 14 January 2023

The Story Behind the Story with Mark Scott Piper of Santa Rosa, Ca.


The Scribbler is beyond pleased to have Mark back to tell us about his new novel.

I received my copy by courier yesterday and I am anxious to dig in. Mark is an award-winning author and a fine storyteller.

He’s been a guest before and if you missed his interview, please go HERE.


Let’s see what Mark is up to.



Mark Scott Piper has been writing professionally his entire adult life. He holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Oregon and has taught literature and writing at the college level for several years. His short stories have appeared in Short Story America, The California Writers Club Literary Review, and several online literary magazines, including, Scrutiny, Writing Raw, Fabula Argentea, Animal, and Slurve. In addition, two of his short stories have been Honorable Mention selections in Short Story America Prize for Short Fiction contests. At the age of 76 he published his debut novel, You Wish, which was the 2019 American Eagle Book Awards first-place gold winner. To date he has released two other novels, The Old Block (2020) and Until Proven Innocent (2022). He is currently at work on his fourth novel and a collection of stories.



Working Title: Until Proven Innocent: A Mystery



Synopsis: Recently retired English professor Mac Faulk returns to Headley University to teach one more creative writing class. Among the first batch of student stories, he comes across an anonymous dark tale describing a heinous crime. He thinks little of it—until the story’s details begin to come true.

When the unknown author of the story submits two, even more disturbing stories, Mac is caught up in a web of intrigue and mystery that makes him the chief suspect in the eyes of the local police. The only way for Mac to prove his innocence—and to try to save the life of the next victim—is to find and stop the perpetrator. But the odds are stacked against him ... and he’s running out of time.



The Story behind the Story: My debut novel featured a 14-year-old protagonist, and the main character in my second book was 24. This time, I wanted to create a protagonist who was older. Mac Faulk is 62 and retired, but that doesn’t mean he’s too over the hill to deal with life’s problems and pitfalls. When I first started to think about the novel, I was close to Mac’s age and experience. I didn’t want him to be some kind of spokesman for our generation, but I felt there was a perspective us older folks have that was worth exploring. I’m certainly not the first author to do that. But the thing is, Mac Faulk is a lot like me. We’re both old farts, we both taught English in college, we both played recreational softball into our 60s, we both have a sarcastic sense of humor, and we both have trouble understanding women (not an issue that applies only to older guys).


When I sent early versions of Until Proven Innocent out to critique groups, many readers, especially women, reacted negatively to Mac. They thought he was arrogant, misogynistic, and generally unlikeable. Imagine my consternation. Mac is me! Not what I was expecting, since readers who know me and my sense of humor thought Mac was hilarious. Clearly, sarcasm doesn’t translate well on the written page. It was a wake-up call for me. 


Mac Faulk is a first-person narrator, so readers are privy to his thoughts, opinions, and worldview. I had to find a way to cut back on Mac’s sarcastic thoughts and clarify his true feelings toward others, especially women. And I had to accomplish that without undermining the humor of the piece or turning my protagonist into a complete wimp. The character needed more than fine-tuning. It took me several rewrites, and more than a few ardent discussions with my female editor-partner. Based on early reviews of Until Proven Innocent, though, Mac is no longer as offensive to women readers. But he’s still a lot like me.


Main character aside, I had another problem with Until Proven Innocent from the outset. I wanted to write a mystery, even a thriller, but I hoped to for a humorous undertone. After all, that’s a huge part of my voice, my style. Many readers of the mystery/thriller genre expect certain things: a dead body in the first chapter; immediate tension that builds rapidly to the end; and a savvy detective-like protagonist who steps in and solves the crime. That wasn’t my vision for Until Proven Innocent. Yes, I know not all mysteries or crime stories are the same. Not every protagonist is a cliché, and certainly not every mystery novel features the same tropes. Until Proven Innocent is just one that doesn’t follow expectations. I’ve never been able to color inside the lines when it comes to my forays into genre fiction. Doesn’t make me unique, but it does make me a little nervous about how readers might react. 


Since the story is told exclusively through Mac’s point of view, the mystery unfolds only as quickly as Mac is able to figure it out. The result is a slow burn, as tension builds tentatively at first and increases exponentially as the plot develops. At least, that’s my goal.


And finally, Mac is no Sam Spade. Again, not unheard of in mysteries and thrillers. He’s just an ordinary guy who’s thrown into a bizarre, dangerous situation he may not be equipped to deal with. Overcoming those obstacles is what, I hope, helps Mac emerge from the novel victorious, if not actually heroic.






A question before you go, Mark.


Can you tell us about the perfect setting you have, or desire, for your writing? Music or quiet? Coffee or tequila?  Neat or notes everywhere?

I have a home office dedicated to my writing. My alarm goes off at 5:00 each morning. That gives me four hours or so of calm until the rest of the house wakes up. And that’s when I get the most writing done. I find background music distracting. As I'm often reminded, I'm easily distracted most of the time. I try not to let anything come between me and the fictional world I’m forging. Like a lot of authors, writing for me is a personal, private activity, one that I share with the characters I’m channeling. For me, silence is golden when I’m working. That said, my current protagonist likes music playing in the background when he reads student papers. In that regard, he’s more like Stephen King than me.


I may be breaking a writers' code here, but I’ve given up coffee in favor of chai latte. Slightly higher pretentiousness quota, but I do live in Northern California, and it’s popular here. Besides, it’s still caffeine, just not so enough to get me wired. 


My writing environment isn’t exactly “neat,” but it stops short of chaotic. I do all my writing on the computer. Editing is a bit different because I most often print pages and mark them by hand. It’s a method that works best for me, but it can add to the clutter. When I make notes preparing to write a piece of fiction, I do that at the keyboard or with a digital recorder when I’m away from home. 


On the other hand, when I'm reviewing another writer's novel, I tend to jot down points and ideas on a notepad before I compose the review (and all its edits) on the computer. Mine isn’t a work environment that works for everyone, but it does for me. 



Excerpt from Until Proven Innocent:

With Jim Morrison meandering through “Riders on the Storm,” I hunkered down at my dining room table. Time to take on the first stack of student short stories. Tolstoy, my golden retriever roommate, strolled over for a vigorous head scratch. He made three clockwise turns, settled himself at my feet, and promptly fell asleep. He had his rituals; I had mine.

When I read student work, background music makes the experience feel less like a chore. My other paper-grading indulgence is a glass of wine, today a very nice cabernet sauvignon. I never drink more than one glass while reading student submissions. A second glass is my reward for getting through the pile. Besides, red wine is supposed to be good for you. I read that on Yahoo.

I studied the stack, puffed out a sigh. Thing was, I wasn’t even supposed to be doing this. I’d retired at sixty-two, after three decades teaching English at Headley University in Reymond—a small Northern California college town. Some years ago I’d managed to publish a couple of short stories, but I wanted to know once and for all if I had a novel in me. If I did, I hadn’t found it in the ten months since I’d retired.

My writer’s block was kicked to the curb when out of nowhere a former colleague, Kay Whitfield, decided to join her husband in Mississippi—two days before spring term started—and I was coerced by a panicked English Department chairman into taking over Kay’s Community Outreach creative writing class. Headley offered these noncredit classes to locals at a reduced cost, essentially a PR move. It could have been worse. I had only eight students. Besides, teaching this class counted as legitimate avoidance behavior. The alleged novel would have to wait.

As the Doors glided into the extended instrumental of “Light My Fire,” I rechecked the stories. All seven of the students who’d attended the first two classes were accounted for. But I had eight stories. The eighth one not only didn’t follow the manuscript format spelled out in the syllabus, and the writer hadn’t even put a name on it. I checked the roster again. Must be the work of Roger Cole, the one student who hadn’t shown up for either class and, therefore, hadn’t seen the syllabus.

We had an agreement. You don’t attend class; I don’t read your work. I shouldn’t even look at the thing. After all, rules are rules. I shook my head, then heard my brain screech to a halt.

Wait. Rules are rules? Where the hell did that come from? What happened to the rebel spirit I’d painted onto signs back in my civil rights and Vietnam War protest days? Had I really become some unbending old guardian of the rules?

I glanced down at Tolstoy. “So what do you think, buddy? Should I read it or not?”

Tolstoy looked up at me for a couple of seconds and laid his head back down next to my feet. Close enough to a nod. I decided to see what Mr. Cole had to offer.




Thank you for being our guest this week, Mark. Thanks for the tantalizing excerpt. Wishing you continued success with your stories.


And a big thank you to our visitors and readers.

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