Interview with Christian Belz by Melissa Brooks
Christian Belz has been an architect in Detroit for more than 30 years, which he uses as inspiration for his Ken Knoll Architectural Mysteries. He also wrote the first chapter of Chasing the Codex. I interviewed him to find out more about what inspires him, his writing process, and his future writing plans.
1. Have you always been interested in writing?
When we were children, my younger brother and I wrote a comic book together. He did the illustrations and I wrote the words. Later, I wrote a neighborhood newsletter. In high school, I bought a typewriter and read a book about how to write a novel. I worked hard at it, primarily to impress a girl. I did finish the book, but she ended up with a football player. During those years, I submitted mystery stories to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen. None of the things I wrote back then ever saw the light of day, but I collected a bunch of rejection slips and didn’t give up.
2. What inspired you to start writing mysteries?
As a kid I read all the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys’ mysteries. They were so engaging! Once I started reading a book, I became so involved in the story I could not put it down. I love solving puzzles, and mysteries are the best kind!
3. What kind of experiences from your career as an architect has contributed to your writing of the Ken Knoll series?
All of it: shopping center construction, meetings with contractors in job trailers, clients who bring their little dogs to meetings. Co-workers. Bosses. Liability insurance agents. I’ve drawn from life, and of course embellished quite a bit. It’s so interesting to me how scenarios grow out of the familiar and then take on a life of their own. Once I sketch out a scene, it develops quite quickly.
4. What is your writing process like? How does writing a story start for you?
I rely heavily on index cards. The blank page for me is like kryptonite to Superman. It’s impossible for me to sit and grind something out from nothing. Years ago I ran across a technique of developing a story by writing a word or a phrase or snippet of dialog on an index card. Writing down four or five words is so non-threatening! Then I write another card, and another. I shuffle through them, which sparks additional thoughts. I arrange the thoughts into scenes, and the scenes into chapters, filling in as I go. The cards are super easy to spread out on a table, rearrange, remove, shuffle, and turn into a story that flows. Once I have a chunk figured out, I sit at the keyboard and type it in. Having this kind of outline makes the first draft fast and easy and gets me over the blank page fear. Once something is in the computer, it’s all revision. And I love revision.
5. Do you get writer’s block? If so, how do you deal with it?
Not really. My biggest issue is the blank page, and the index cards take care of that. I even use index cards to write poetry.
6. How did writing your second book compare to writing the first one?
There’s more relationship in the second book. What I read always affect what I write. I was in an Emily Giffin streak while I was writing Civic Center Corpse. She wrote Something Borrowed. I saw the movie first, loved it, and read the book. I was hooked. The relationship stuff worked its way into the story.
I refined the index card process for the second book. In writing The Accused Architect, my first mystery, I spent a lot of time after the first draft rearranging clues and weaving in additional details. It proved to be a frustrating task inserting them into scenes which were already written. For the second book, Civic Center Corpse, I completed the entire book in index cards before I wrote anything in the computer. This enabled me to get all the details in the right order while it was still easy to move things around. I ended up with 1200 cards, which I carried around in a manuscript box, each chapter rubber banded together, with sequences of chapters bundled. The other thing I love about the index card process, is it allows me to write the chapters out of order, since I know what’s in each. I can pick the chapter to write based on what I’m in the mood to write that day.
7. How did the character of Ken Knoll develop as you wrote him?
That’s a tough one. The first two came pretty close together, so Ken is largely the same from one book to the other, except for his luck with women. Likely he will evolve a bit in the next mystery.
8. Are you working on anything right now? Do you have any ideas for future stories? Any plans to add to the Ken Knoll series?
This year I’ve been distracted from novel writing by shorter pieces, stories and poetry. Recently I wrote Chapter 7 for the new Cozy Cat group mystery, Wheel of Death, which is coming out at the end of the year. Bart J. Gilbertson wrote the first chapter, and wow he started us off with a bang! I’m so happy to be a part of that project.
Right now I’m taking a break from the Ken Knoll stories to write something different, a love story suspense, involving a serial killer. Ken Knoll will be back after that, with Blood on the Balustrade. One of Ken’s clients in Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula hires Ken to design a house for him in a quiet retirement community. After the client moves in, the house collapses, killing him while he’s sleeping, and Ken’s off on the next mystery.