Co-writing Police Procedurals with Frank Zafiro and Lawrence Kelter

Writing a book is hard enough. Writing one with someone you’ve never met? I would have said that was impossible, until I met Lawrence Kelter and Frank Zafrio.

55 Frank Zafiro and Lawrence KelterTwo very experienced and prolific writers have come together to write a gritty, New York City police procedural that one fan says, “…has it all: a solid mystery, action, suspense, humor, sex appeal, gripping drama.”

You’ll hear me ask Frank and Larry how they managed to make this collaboration work, because collaborative creative projects are something that fascinate me. They mention that one key to their success for The Last Collar was worshiping at the alter of the creative project rather than bringing a lot of ego to the project. In other words, they always did what was right for the project itself.

I think you’ll enjoy hearing from these two lovely gentlemen about the book they’ve brought to life together. Luckily for their readers, they enjoyed working together so much that they’re doing it again! Stay tuned for the next Kelter / Zafrio collaboration in 2019.

Today we talk almost entirely about Larry and Frank’s co-written book, but both authors have other mysteries available. Below are the links to their websites where you’ll find more information about those books.

You can find out more about today’s guests, Frank Zafrio and Lawrence Kelter, and all their books on their websites FrankZafiro.com for Frank, and My-Cousin-Vinny.com for Lawrence. On Twitter, Frank is @Frank_Zafiro and Larry is @LarryKelter

Press play (above) to listen to the show, or read the transcript below. Remember you can also subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts. And listen on Stitcher.

You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.

Transcription of Interview with Frank Zafiro and Lawrence Kelter

Alexandra: Hi, mystery readers. I’m Alexandra Amor. This is “It’s a Mystery” podcast. I’m here today with Frank Zafiro and Lawrence Kelter. Hi, guys.

Larry: Hi. How are you doing?

Frank: How is it going?

Alexandra: Very well. How are you two today?

Frank: Pretty good.

Alexandra: Good. This is my first dual interview. So, I’m looking forward to it very much. Let me introduce you guys to our audience.

Frank ZafiroFrank Zafiro is the author of over twenty novels including, the “River City” series of procedurals and “Stefan Kopriva” mysteries. He spent 20 years in law enforcement, an experience that brings grit and veracity to his crime fiction. In addition to his solo work and his collaboration with Larry Kelter, he has written novels with writers such as Eric Beetner, Colin Conway, Bonnie Paulson, and Jim Wiksky. His “Ania” trilogy with Jim Wilsky will be reissued by Down and Out Books very soon and will include a fourth novel, a prequel entitled “Harbinger.” Frank lives in central Oregon with his wife, Kristy. In addition to writing, he’s a hockey fan and a tortured guitarist. Oh, my.

Lawrence KelterLawrence Kelter never expected to be a writer. Well, times change and he now has authored several novels including the internationally bestselling “Stephanie Chalice” thriller series and “Back to Brooklyn,” the authorized literary sequel to the iconic film comedy, “My Cousin Vinny,” which is very cool. Early in his writing career, he received support from none other than literary icon, Nelson DeMille, who reviewed his work and actually put pencil to paper to assist with the editing of his first book. Larry tries hard to make each novel quick-paced and crammed full of twists, turns, and laughs.

Frank and Larry’s co-written book, The Last Collar, is a gritty police procedural with a twist set in New York. Oh, and there it is. Awesome. Thank you, Frank. And that’s why we’re here today. We’re going to talk about “The Last Collar.” Let’s go right back to the beginning though before we do talk about the book.

Maybe, Frank, you could tell us how you guys met.

Frank: Actually, I think Larry would be better to share that since he initiated that.

Larry: Sure. Pass the buck. Why not?

I think where it started was, I had this idea for a novel, but I didn’t have the real world chops, so to speak, to make it a gritty police procedural. So I was looking for a co-writer, somebody like Frank who had real world experience with the police department or law enforcement. I had a character. I had a crude outline for the story, but I needed somebody to add the dimension to the story to make it solid and real.

Frank had contributed to an anthology that I was involved in and I said, “He’s a good guy to talk to.” And we seem to hit it off on the phone right away. I mean, with 3,000 miles away, we’ve never met, never shared a cup of coffee, but it was easy communicating with Frank. He’s the real deal.

Alexandra: Frank, when Larry approached you, did you like the idea right away?

Frank: Yeah, I did.

the last collarAt that point, I’ve been involved in some other collaborations, and so, I was pretty comfortable in that kind of work and I knew my way around it. I knew what pitfalls to try to avoid and what works for me. And I liked Larry’s writing.

And, actually, I was, to be honest with you, a little bit humbled by the fact that he reached out to me. And so, when he brought the story line together, it was kind of a bare bone skeletal, you know, “what if this, this and this” sort of approach and it was intriguing.

New York is kind of a quintessential cop location. NYPD is the biggest agency in the entire country, at least, per municipal agencies. And so, it was an exciting idea. And then, as soon as I got excited for it, then Larry threw me a curve ball right off the bat.

In my other experiences, we always wrote these books from a dual first-person narrative with two main characters. So I would write one character and my collaborator wrote the other character, and we present both in alternating first person chapters. Half of the book or so when you do that, you’re really writing the book by yourself and then you’re reading what the other person’s doing for their half. And only when the two characters merge together in either conflict or collaboration do you have to be really careful in how you write the other person’s character.

And so, when Larry started talking about this project and I said, “Yeah, this sounds pretty good. I’m excited. Let’s give it a try. Here’s what I’ve done before.” He said, “Yeah, that’s really cool and all, but I don’t wanna do it that way.” I was like, “What?!”

So, I said, “Well, how do you wanna do it?” And he goes, “Well, it’s a procedural and you seem to like first person. So, I’m cool with that. But I really want to just write one character.” And so reluctantly, or with some trepidation, I should say, I gave it a try and we moved forward.

Alexandra: Wow. Okay.

Larry, did you have an idea about how you would go about this going in when you approached Frank?

Larry: I had this half-witted idea about us taking a bat at the same characters, which gave Frank some pause, understandably so. But it worked out because, I think, where I have a general idea police procedure and I do my due diligence either by interview or by taking advantage of Google, Frank was able to add the bones to the body.

Without Frank’s real world experience, we just have a mass of flesh and organs that couldn’t stand up. I think in many cases, I would give him a sketchy chapter. And he’d come back and say, “Now, read it.” And I’d look and say, “Wow, this is so much better.”

And also, it gave us a choice to start chapters or to render chapters originally. We didn’t adhere to a structure so carefully that we had to just say, “Okay, we want this. We want that.” Everybody had a perspective.

And sometimes, you know, I’d offer perspective and he’d say, “That’s great.” Sometimes he’d say, “Well, maybe you should do this from somebody else’s point of view.” And it kind of rules you in and I like that.

Frank: I think Larry’s referred a little bit more to our second book together where we had multiple third person perspectives. The Last Collar, it’s a first person book.

The perspective, the point of view, is all from the perspective of John Mochaccino, a character that Larry created. And the thing that was interesting about it was, we didn’t even alternate chapter for chapter writing the same character. Well, sometimes we do two, three chapters and then pass it on, and somebody do a chapter send it back, or…you know, it really wasn’t…it was more by feel. It was very intuitive. We very much just kind of played it by ear literally.

And I was afraid that writing one character with two authors, you’d have a real schizophrenic voice that John Mochaccino, the Mocha would sound like he needed to get some therapy or something. And by the end of the process, we found out that…well, we reached a place where the voice of Mocha or the narrative voice, it wasn’t quite Larry’s voice and it wasn’t quite my voice, but it was its own voice.

It was a singular voice, though, which was my one big fear, And really, the only thing that was a little nervous about was that we wouldn’t have a singular voice.

And at the end of the day, we really, really did. In fact if Larry had to tell you if he had this experience as well, when we were doing the final reproofs and doing the little polishing and preening and last-minute fixes before you turn it over to Down and Out Books, there were times where I couldn’t tell, “Did I write this chapter or did Larry write this chapter?”

I think I know I revised parts of it, but…and then I come across the phrase and like, “I know I wrote that. But did I write this whole chapter?” And so the voice became so singular that, for the most part, I couldn’t tell you right now if I opened up at random and read a paragraph who the original author of that paragraph was. I don’t know, Larry, if you had that experience as well.

Larry: Yeah, I actually did. Now, of course, I can’t remember which book I’ve written, you know, as evidenced by that mistake I made. But, yeah, it was the same kind of thing.

I would read a chapter or review a chapter. And for a couple of sentences or paragraphs feel damn certain that I’d written it. Then I’d say to myself, “Or did I?” And both Frank and I have our, I guess they call them beta readers today or close associates of friends and family who read all our stuff.

We tested the waters with them and many of them said the same thing, “I can’t tell there’s two authors engaged in the process.” You know, my wife would say at times, “I couldn’t tell you.”

Every once in a while I will pick up on something which I know is one of your peccadillos, like you will make, you know, a political comment or a moral comment, then I could tell that’s you. But, yeah, by and large, no one could tell who the words came from.

Alexandra: Oh, that’s very cool. And it obviously worked out because it sounds like you’ve written another book together or you’re working on one. So maybe, Larry, you can answer this.

What did you do if you ever had disagreements or you didn’t agree on where the story was going? Did that ever happen?

Larry: Yeah. Frank’s got a gun. I always defer to him.

Alexandra: Okay.

Frank: I just threaten to rage quit on the whole project.

Alexandra: Well, it works for two-year-olds, so it should work for authors as well, right?

Larry: Yeah, especially for authors.

No. I think there were little choices rather than big disagreements. I might say something and Frank will review it and say, “That’s not the character’s voice. You went off-character on that,” or “It’s not police procedural enough,” that kind of thing.

But by and large, I don’t think we had a lot of disagreements or really any disagreements. It kind of reminds me of my relationship with my wife, you know. Talking the other day, married 37 years, we can count, you know, on the fingers of one hand all the major blow-ups we’ve had and most of it was about stupid stuff. So, you know, I think, yeah, Frank, it’s kind of a good relationship going on.

Frank: I agree. And I think a big part of it is, and I’ve had this experience with my other collaborations as well, if you check your ego at the door and both of you are worshiping the altar of what’s best for the project, the possibility of those disagreements really diminishes.

Larry was very open to my constructive criticism. I’m very open to his. And I think both of us, when we saw things differently and we advocate for our position or discussed why we saw it that way, if the other person was more compelling or made the point that this would be better for the project in each and every case, whoever was on the other end of that relented. And it went both ways on quite a few different instances. So, that’s really how it went, both in that book and in the second book that we wrote together.

Alexandra: Did you know where you were going? You said you had kind of a rough outline.

Did you both know ‘who dunnit’ or were you working toward a surprise?

Larry: In The Last Collar, I think it evolved organically. I don’t think we knew until pretty far into the book who was the responsible party. We had different people who could have been the antagonist. And each chapter changed a little bit. This guy is looking a little bit more like the antagonist or this one’s looking a bit more, but it evolved organically. And I think it surprised us as well when we decided who the bad guy was.

Hot FuzzAlexandra: Nice. Oh, that’s great. And I remember seeing a few years ago…I don’t know if you guys are movie fans, but there’s a duo, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. And Simon Pegg’s an author…an actor and a writer, and Edgar Wright is a director. They’re British, and they’ve written several movies together. But they live close by.

And so, when they write together, they have one of those big easel things with paper on it. And they draw in markers and you can see the whole story kind of coming out and they work together.

With the two of you so far apart, how did it work? Were you e-mailing back and forth?

Frank, maybe you can answer this one. And, I guess, there’s a second part to my question. It sounded like maybe you were providing feedback to one another during the writing process. Maybe you can talk about that a bit as well.

Frank: Sure. You know, with The Last Collar, we started with a pretty good, at least, a premise and a map halfway to the buried treasure.

Larry came to the table with some defined ideas and then, we worked together to flesh those out. I’m trying to remember because now, I might be doing the same thing Larry did and kinda melding the two in my memory. But we plodded through to a certain point. And I’ve done that with the other collaborations as well, at least, to the midpoint of the book so that you both know where you’re going at that point.

And then, the actual writing process, whoever was the active writer for that section, you know, write the chapters, send it to the other guy. When you get your chapters from the other guy, the first thing you do is open them up. You read through what that guy did. Make your track changes. Make your comments and adjustments and so forth. And then, dive into whatever you’re gonna write. And then send it back.

When you get it back on the other end, first thing you do is look at what that guy corrected or suggested or changed with what you sent. Then, go through and look what he wrote and do your constructive criticism, and then write the new chapter.

And so, as it goes back and forth throughout this process, you’re really doing three stages every go around: the review of what you wrote before, the review of what the person just wrote, and then your new work. And as a result of that, any issues that cropped up, we email back and forth about them or handle them in the comments in the document.

And, really, you’re getting…I have to do the math here. Math is not my strong point. But it sounds like at least three passes on every section that gets written before you get to the end of your first draft. And so as a result, we didn’t rewrite this four or five times.

We had one solid second draft and a third passover. And that might have been after the beta readers even, but no more than four revisions because of this. It worked really well because at any time you started getting mission drift or you start pulling off too north, or you run into a problem or an issue that the other person catches, you can resolve it at the point of origin instead of downstream or maybe it’s completely torched your entire project.

Alexandra: Right. Yeah. Yeah. And so, Larry, we mentioned in the intro that Frank has done a bunch of different collaborations with different authors. And this is your first collaboration, though, correct?

Larry: I am a collaborating virgin.

Alexandra: Yes. Well, not anymore, but you were. Yes. And so you’re doing it again with Frank.

Would you want to do it again with another author?

Larry: Well, the answer is yes, provided it’s another author who thinks like Frank does and who is able to, as Frank said, approach it from the point of view that we just want the best book and it’s not an ego-driven process, who’s going to write more, who’s gonna take more credit, you know. So, yes, I’m open to it. I’m not looking for collaborators. I mean, unless James Patterson gives me a phone call. Not likely.

I enjoyed cooperating with Frank. I feel that together, we have this energy where I’ll send off a couple of chapters and then Frank will respond with his own work. And it energizes me. It gives me a new starting point because it changes the perspective slightly. It nourishes the overall book.

And sometimes when you’re writing on your own, you get this head of steam and you could blow out 50 pages and it’s like, “Now what?” But I find that working with a like-minded collaborator, you don’t have to worry about that because there’s always a give and take that kind of pushes you forward.

Alexandra: Yeah, that’s such a great point. The energy sort of keeps going around rather than just kind of going forward and getting stuck maybe sometimes when we’re working on our own. Yeah, that’s a great point.

Frank, did you guys agree on a timeline? Did you have at the outset how long you wanted this project to take or how does that work?

Frank: I don’t remember us nailing anything down very precisely. When you’re working with somebody else, there’s a feeling of responsibility that maybe you don’t feel towards your own work. The sense of urgency, you know.

Larry is waiting for these chapters or he’s waiting for this chapter and I can’t just sit on it. I need to get at it. And you put on top of that the fact that you have that energy that Larry was talking about. And really, I never felt like I had to motivate myself to get into it. I was excited.

I’d get those chapters back from Larry and I’d read them. And I’d be pumped and I’d want to dive right back into that world.

It’s the same way second book, maybe even more so because we developed more of an affinity for each other’s rhythms and so forth. But it’s like when you go to coffee with another writer. And you sit and you drink your coffee, and you each talk about your project. And you’re super excited about it and you both draw energy from that that fellowship, and you go back to your computer and write by yourself.

Well, imagine if you’re having coffee with somebody like that every day. I mean, this really keeps you going. It’s very synergistic, for sure.

Alexandra: Larry, maybe you can tell us about the book you’re working on now and what and what that’s about? It’s not the same characters?

Larry: Our second collaboration? Is that what you’re talking about?

Alexandra: Yes. Yeah.

Larry: Okay. Interesting. You know, I think with The Last Collar Frank and I were kind of learning how to collaborate with each other. And then, and this is not a shameless plug but I guess it’s a plug.

I was doing the research for Back to Brooklyn the My Cousin Vinny sequel. And in the movie, maybe a little known fact to this day, law professors will use the film as a tool in the instruction of courtroom procedure because the screenwriter and the director went to great lengths to try to get the sequences right and do it all by the book.

I felt that in writing the sequel I had that responsibility. I undertook to interview attorneys and judges. And I met with a local Supreme Court justice, basically, because I wanted some, not only some information about courtroom procedure but to see if he had any clever anecdotes or stories he could tell me about things he had seen on the bench over the years. And it was the darnedest thing. He didn’t offer me any help at all.

I sat down with him and, basically, he gave me his biography, an autobiography. He started out as an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan County, New York City, during the ’80’s when the New York City was the murder capital of the world, when they had all the cocaine and the crack dealers in Washington Heights.

And, basically, he gave me a book while I was sitting there in the hour, an hour and a half that I was working with him. And I get so excited. I emailed Frank. I said, “Frank, I got the next book.”

And I think maybe because the bones were all there, it wasn’t so much of an organic process. I don’t know. And maybe because we had already worked together, it was like…I don’t know, it was like catching fire, you know. I described the story to Frank as it had been told to me. We created characters in the hierarchy of law enforcement officials and I can’t tell you how quickly we wrote that book. I mean, it was a blur.

Alexandra: Wow. Do you have a title for it yet? Do you know what it’ll be called?

Larry: We have a working title and that’s Fallen City.

Alexandra: Okay. Great. And any idea when that one will be out?

Larry: Your guess is as good as mine. We’re doing that song and dance that authors often do deciding where and how we want it published versus who is willing to publish it. So, it’s a work in process. I would say at this point, probably, 2019.

Alexandra: Okay. All right. Well, Frank, maybe you can give us a little plug for The Last Collar just as we wrap up. Tell us a bit about the book, about Mocha.

Frank: So The Last Collar, which is published by Down Out Books is…well, let me just read from the back of the book for you here.

The demons that drive John Mocha Moccia to obsess, to put absolutely everyone under a microscope and scratch away every last clue, make him the best hardnosed detective in Brooklyn homicide. But these same demons may very well write the final chapter of his career. He isn’t the kind of detective to take no for an answer. But in his most recent case, answers were damn hard to come by. Partnered with a conscientious detective Matt Winslow, Mocha endeavors to solve the mystery of the wealthy and beautiful Jessica Shannon, a woman who had every reason to live. As Mocha and Winslow strive to push forward the hands of time and solve the murder, their imposing Lieutenant breaths down their necks. Suspects are scarce and all the evidence seems to be a dead end. With the last precious grains of sand falling through the hourglass, Mocha pushes ever forward, determined to make an arrest even if this collar will be his last.

Frank: So, a couple of quick things. One is Larry is responsible for at least 90% of that. He wrote the blurb and we did tweak it a whole lot. So, we did a great job there.

Larry: I don’t remember that. I think it is…okay. But thank you.

Frank: It’s true. It’s true. And then secondarily, for those who may not be familiar, the term “collar” is slang for an arrest. I think it originated more as an East Coast term. And then, the idea, I guess…I can’t…I haven’t traced the entomology of it, but I suspect it’s cops grabbing people by the collar and hurling them in. And so, that’s my guess.

And then lastly, the thing that’s different about this, I mean, it’s just straightforward, murder mystery, police procedural, whodunit, and it hits all of those notes as you might expect.

But there’s something more going on here that readers will key in to pretty quickly, certainly, in the first quarter of the book and they’ll know by the first half of the book. There’s something else going on in Mocha’s life that’s even bigger than solving a murder. And so, it could have some pretty profound impact on his life and those around him. So, just something lurking in the background. I won’t say any more than that.

Alexandra: Okay. Well, thanks for the teaser. That’s great. So, we’re almost out of time.

Larry, why don’t you tell us where our listeners can find out more about your books?

Larry: The easiest way to find out about my books is to go to my-cousin-vinny.com. That’s my-cousin-vinny.com. You will find information about the new book and about everything I’ve done. I’ve kind of melded it all into one website where they can follow me on Facebook. I’ve always said something stupid on Facebook. Something I’m gonna get in trouble.

Alexandra: Okay. Awesome. And Frank, what about you? Where can we find out more about your books?

Frank: My website is pretty straightforward, just frankzafiro.com. And there’s books there and pretty much anything you didn’t know.

Alexandra: The Last Collar is available on all the online retailers, correct, in e-book in paperback?

Frank: Yes. It’s available at downandoutbooks.com or anywhere you get your e-books or paperback.

Alexandra: Awesome. Okay, great. Well, thank you so much for being with me today guys. I really appreciate it.

Larry: Thanks for having us.

Alexandra: Take care. Bye-bye.

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