It’s been two years since Robert Colton published the first of an historical mystery series that takes place in and around ancient Pompeii. Since then Colton has published four more books in the series, and has moved on to a (somewhat) more contemporary setting in the first of his Mrs. Xavier Stayton mystery series. All in all, he has sold well over 11,000 books, which is an impressive feat for a writer without the benefit of a conventional publishing house working for him. Oh, did I mention Wordpill author-coached Colton through his first novel, Pompeii: A Tale of Murder in Ancient Rome? We check in with Colton from time to time to trade advice, commiserate, and congratulate. But why keep it all to ourselves? Here’s an interview with Colton on some of the secrets to his monumental success.
WP: What’s happened since the publication of your first book? How does it feel to regularly be on the Amazon best-seller lists?
RC: When I wrote the first book, it started out just for me. Once I had established the main characters, it became a strange partnership. I felt like I owed these fictional friends an audience. Now the partnership has grown with each book – I not only need to stay true to the characters, I have an audience who I want to entertain and leave feeling satisfied.
WP: What’s your writing routine?
RC: I wish there was a routine. I’m like a crocodile, fasting for a while and then gorging without end when my prey is at hand! Evening after evening will go by and I can type away, then one day I need a break from being in someone else’s head and these breaks can last anywhere from a few days to a week.
WP: You have moved centuries, from the ancient Pompeii and Rome to the 1900s (England?) in your writing. How did that come about? Tell us a little about the new series.
RC: I wrote the last two books from my Pompeii series back to back, and they were both high-energy books. Like an actor who stays in character even between takes, the characters stick with me. I was taking a needed break and I started binge-watching Agatha Christie’s Poirot. After an evening spent watching three episodes, a “new” voice in my head asked, “What is so special about that detective from Belgium?” I let the voice ramble on until it became a very tangible character. The TV went off, and the laptop went on.
The new books feature Mrs. Xavier Stayton, a young wealthy American widow who lives in London. The year is 1927 and she sets off to write a “whodunit,” but instead becomes embroiled in an actual murder mystery. She’s no sleuth, but she thinks otherwise.
I wasn’t sure if I could write first person as a young lady, so the project started out as an experiment. Mrs. Stayton turned out very easy to voice, as she is a composite of some of my favorite heroines. Clichés fit her, as the story is very much a respectful tongue-in-cheek whodunit from a bygone era.
WP: How much research do you put into your books?
RC: I have studied Rome my entire life, and I focused on Pompeii for close to ten years as I wrestled with composing my first book. I think I know more about day-to-day life in Pompeii than in today’s world where celebrities receive more news coverage than current events and trends are replaced in an instant by the next trend. For my new series, I’ve had to brush up on the 1920s, but it is a time that I am familiar with and one that has always appealed to me.
WP: What’s the most effective tool you have in marketing your books?
RC: Currently, Amazon’s “Customers who have bought this have also bought…” function has put my books in front of more book buyers than any advertising that I could buy. I have been helped along the way with book review blogs and some Facebook ads, but nothing beats free and perpetual. What’s really helped me find an audience with my first series is that it is a niche market, so if someone is shopping for Lindsey Davis or Steven Saylor on a regular basis, at some point they are going to scroll down and see my books listed as well. Once the cover(s) becomes familiar, curiosity strikes.
WP: Any interest in making the jump to conventional publishing?
RC: Yes. I’d love to see my books in libraries and in a store. I don’t know that my current series are destined for traditional publication. I think I have a few stand-alone fictional tales to tell that might find their way to an agent’s overflowing desk.
I have to admit that I really value being either an indie author or “self-published” depending on what you want to call it. I have been helped by a few really talented people to transform my terribly typed Word documents into six books that have sold all around the globe. This is an accomplishment that I somehow made happen, and it gives me a lot of confidence that I can get my work into the hands of more and more people who I hope will enjoy it.
WP: Which of your characters is most ‘Robert-like’?
RC: Marcellus! He’s just a little bewildered by the world around him. I can laugh now, but the first few book reviews I received that described Marcellus as annoying, or as a wimp, did hurt my feelings. His morals, his emotions, his questions, they are mine – just set in Pompeii nearly two thousand years ago. As the series progressed, so has Marcellus. I envision him as a dynamic character, but he can only become a better person step by step, and I suppose that’s a cliché about myself as well.
WP: What’s the most interesting thing a fan or reviewer has said about your work?
I mention before that I wasn’t sure I could pull off writing from the point of view of a young lady. Well, here is a quote from a very recent review, “Told in the first person of a clever, resourceful widow, it’s hard to believe this mystery was written by a man.” This really gave me a good chuckle followed by a sigh of relief.
You can see Robert Colton’s author site here.
Matt Henderson Ellis is an author coach and manuscript editor at Word Pill Editing. Have a look here for an affordable Manuscript Critique.