Real-life courtroom drama informs mystery writer’s work

Colin T. Nelson
Colin T. Nelson

Colin T. Nelson’s years as an attorney have provided ample source material for his mystery and suspense fiction.

His three decades as a trial lawyer are evident in his debut trilogy of novels, beginning with “Reprisal,” whose central character is a prosecutor.

“I have worked with every imaginable type of person, criminals and the court system people,” he said. “It has taught me the wide variety of humans that occupy our world and given me tolerance for all types of people and behavior.

“In a sense, a writer is a social commentator and my work has given me a great and valuable perch from which to observe all of humanity — at its worst and, often, at its best.”

Nelson, of Edina, is set to speak at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21, at Rosemount’s Robert Trail Library as part of the Meet the Author series presented by the Rosemount Area Arts Council. Admission is free.

He plans to discuss his novel “Up Like Thunder,” about an American finance expert who disappears in the southeast Asian nation of Myanmar, at the event.

Nelson spoke with this newspaper recently about his writing habits, the allure of mystery fiction and how his courtroom experiences have been incorporated into his books.

At what point in your life did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I imagined myself as a writer somewhere in law school. I had been asked throughout my school years to write columns for the school newspapers. I wrote humor and, particularly in law school, found that I had created a following of people who liked what I wrote. It gave me a hint of what I might be able to do if I worked hard at it. In my 30s, I finished a novel and worked with an agent in New York. About the time we were negotiating with a publisher, my wife and second child almost died in childbirth — so I put everything on the shelf and worked, instead, at being a father. When the kids left home, guess what popped up again?

What is your writing strategy? Do you have any writing rituals?
Ideally, I would write every day, even Sundays. I have too many other commitments on my time, but it is important to always be trying to get back to the computer. It’s a sort of mental discipline that forces me back there as often as I can. There is no such thing as “writer’s block,” since a writer sits down and writes. Not much different than a quarterback going out and throwing balls — whether he’s inspired or not.

Have you incorporated any of the court cases you’ve handled into your books?
Many of the people and cases I’ve handled are in my books. Like cop shows, people are fascinated with courtroom stories. I use many of them in my books. I often tell people these stories couldn’t be used on reality TV — they’re too real. No one would believe them. What a rich vein of drama and humor I’ve had the privilege of recording and sharing with my readers.

w-author-nelson2-2-10What is the research process like when you are working on a book?
I love to do research for my books. Personally, when I read fiction I like to learn “real” facts contained in a make-believe story. So, I try to do the same for my readers. One of the greatest aspects of being a writer is that you can let your curiosities go wild. For my books that take place in foreign locales, I actually travel to those places, research the history and culture, take copious notes, and try to recreate the sense and feel of the place for the reader.

What initially sparked your interest in mystery fiction?
When I was 10 years old, I used to spend part of Christmas vacation with my widowed grandma. In her small apartment, we became good friends. One day, she gave me a copy of my deceased grandpa’s copy of “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” the Sherlock Holmes mystery. I was hooked. Since then, I’ve loved the mystery genre.

What are you working on now? Any book projects in the works?
I am finishing my new novel called “The Inca Code,” which I hope to have published by this spring. I have a small group of readers who critique my first drafts. I’m in that process now. It’s a mystery set in Ecuador, Peru and Machu Picchu. I traveled there about a year and half ago for fun and to do the research.

What mystery novels, other than your own, would you recommend to readers interested in the genre?
I don’t have any specific books to recommend, except to encourage writers, and everyone, to read widely. We’ve become a nation of tweeters and clichés. It’s important to force yourself to read things that stretch your mind and attitudes and cause you to think — maybe even in ways that make you uncomfortable.