Author Stephen Moss brings musical mysteries to Milwaukee
West Lafayette-based author Stephen Moss only lived in Milwaukee for a little while, maybe five years or so, but he makes sure to drop by all the time nowadays – at least in literary form.
Moss is the man behind the Paul Kingston mystery series, a set of novels introduced late last year about a freelance bass player who finds himself wrapped up in solving murder cases (as is typical with most freelance bass players). There are currently two novels in the series so far, "The Sweetest One" and "Autumn Leaves," with a third one in the works and aiming for a December release. The case and the main genre of music change in each novel, but one thing that's stayed the same so far is the setting: Milwaukee.
OnMilwaukee.com recently got to chat with Moss to solve some mysteries of our own, including why he writes mystery novels, why he picked Milwaukee and why he made his Sherlock Holmes a freelance bass player.
OnMilwaukee.com: Were you originally from Milwaukee?
Stephen Moss: I was born in Madison and lived in Sheboygan for the first 10 years of my life, and then I was in Chicago for quite a bit. Grew up and lived there all the way into my mid-30s. My father has lived in Milwaukee since – my parents were divorced when I was quite young – so I grew up quite familiar with Milwaukee, and then my family and I actually moved there and lived there for five years, from the end of 2004 to 2010, and since then, we've moved on. My wife is in grad school, so we've been in a couple places around Oregon for a couple of years and now here in Indiana.
So I only lived in Milwaukee for just five years, but it remains one of my favorite places to have lived.
OMC: I was going to say: Why decide to set these novels in Milwaukee then?
SM: When I started the first one, I still lived there, so I decided to keep it there. Now, for me, it's sort of a fun excuse to return – at least virtually – to Milwaukee, because I do miss living there everyday. So at least now I get to write about it.
OMC: Any important landmarks you wanted to make sure to get into these novels?
SM: Yeah, I lived in the Bay View section of town when we were there most recently, so my character lives there, as well. I just love that sort of character of that part of the city and the sort of twisty-turny streets and the proximity to the lake. So put quite a bit of that into the first book.
OMC: Also: Why a freelance bass player for your main character? That's such an unusually specific job to give a character.
SM: Well, I am a musician myself – I'm not bassist; I'm actually a guitarist – and I wanted to bring a musical element to the story. I chose the bass because, for one thing, I love the bass. I used to play the tuba in high school, but I always loved bass players.
Secondly, it's a very versatile instrument. A bass player can often switch from one genre of music to another quite easily because it's a fairly easy instrument in a lot of situations. So I thought if I had a bass player, it would be easier for me to jump around from one genre of music to another. That's what I've been doing; the first book is concerned with a kind of country rock milieu, and the second one is jazz. The third, which I'm rewriting right now, will be more bluegrass focused.
OMC: Do you tie the genre of music into the overall story as well then?
SM: I try to bring a character and a sense of the kind of people that play the different kinds of music to each one, a sense of that flavor. It doesn't necessarily tie directly into the murder mystery element of each one, but it's definitely a strong presence. I try to give two different … I don't want to say separate stories, but I try to give a lot of flavor of the type of music, as well as the intrigue and suspense of a mystery.
OMC: Now, you said you're currently rewriting the third book right now?
SM: Yeah, I've got the first draft done, and I'm working through it and making changes.
OMC: What's the story on this one?
SM: Instead of staying just in Milwaukee, this one does a little bit of touring around. I've got the bluegrass band doing some bus tours around the Midwest. It's set in the middle of winter, so the title – "Footprints in the Snow" – is after a famous bluegrass song.
The story there is that during the tour, one of the musicians is found dead. It's not clear if it's a suicide or an accidental fall from some backstage rigging, but Paul Kingston suspects foul play might be involved, so he gets to asking questions and tracking down the truth.
OMC: With three books released basically in one year, you've been really cranking these books out.
SM: Yeah, to be honest, the first one took a lot longer and spent a lot of time not being written. I think it happens to a lot of writers: You can get discouraged by the whole "Oh, thanks so much for showing this to me, but we didn't really want it" rejection cycle. So there were a few times when it got set aside, but I finally got my will in order and got it finished and put it out.
Once I did that, I thought let's keep that energy going, so I just started immediately into the next one. Now I'm shooting for two a year. It's a lot of fun to do. I really like it.
OMC: Why decide to write mystery novels?
SM: I read quite a variety of genres of fiction. I really like mystery and science fiction and horror; my favorite author is Stephen King, who doesn't really write mysteries, but it is definitely one genre that I read quite a bit, and my wife as well reads it a lot. So I think I had her in mind when I started. I thought I wanted to write a book that my wife would like, and fortunately she did. (laughs)
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