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VOL. 37 | NO. 10 | Friday, March 08, 2013

No mystery to former software developer's career change

By Brad Schmitt

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Chapter Two: Nashville Ledger is running an occasional series on local professionals who switch careers or take on a new challenge. If you or someone you know is enjoying a successful Chapter Two, email csmith@nashvilleledger.com

Ever read those popular crime mystery paperbacks and think, I could write those?

Nashville businessman Tom Collins did, and after selling his company to LexisNexis in 2007, Collins had the time – and the money – to give it a try.

He released four novels that star private investigator Mark Rollins on the not-so-mean streets of Music City, the latest being The Claret Murders, for which Nashville’s 2010 floods provide the key plot turn.

Collins’ books have yet not enjoyed Dean Koontz-like sales figures, but Collins, through a powerful Nashville-based agent, says he is flirting with a major Hollywood studio about film rights to his novels.

Not many people can say Elvis was a childhood friend.

Collins laughs: “Or, a teen-aged friend. It would almost be better to say we were creek buddies. I wouldn’t say we were close friends, but we were from the same ’hood, the neighborhood. His mansion is in the White Haven area, and I grew up in a subdivision called Graceland, which is on the grounds of the Graceland plantation.

“He was there, [had his] hair cut the same place I did, we both walked on Beale Street, we both wore purple pants and duck tails. That was a time.’’

Tell me about your pre-writing career.

“I started my career as a CPA. I served with Price Waterhouse.

Nashville author Tom Collins

That’s where I spent most of my career. There was a management buy-out, and we created a new company called inData. Out of that, I left inData back in ’86, and started a company called Juris, which was a company that developed software for law firms.

“It was software they used in their business operations. In 2007, I sold the company to LexisNexis, and by that time, about a third of all the multi-attorney law firms in the U.S. were using Juris.

“All through my career, I’ve written, but it’s all been business related. One of the first things I ever had published was a paper I had written in graduate school at the University of Alabama called “Sufficient Competent Evidential Matter,” which was a real grabber.

“At any rate, I’d written in business journals and other publications.’’

How did you find out that you liked to write?

“I don’t know, I just did, which was rather ridiculous. I can’t spell, so anything I write has to go through an army of editors to get the letters in the right order.

“And that’s because of a couple of reasons. I’m dyslectic. I had trouble putting the “e-d”s and the “i-n-g”s on the words. I have problems capitalizing the wrong things. I write one word thinking I’m writing another. Any two-letter word will substitute for any other two-letter word. Those are pretty big handicaps for somebody who writes a lot.

Nashville author Tom Collins

“My wife and my secretary used to protect me from the public by cleaning my stuff up. But then along came the computer and word processing and spell check. I couldn’t live without those tools today.’’

I assume that LexisNexis transaction was a prosperous one for you?

“Yes, it was very prosperous, which meant that I could afford to write. (Laughs.) I don’t have to depend on it for a livelihood.’’

So you could have done whatever you wanted after that point.

“Well, including nothing. Sitting under a tree and letting coconuts fall on me. But that’s not very exciting. I often say, after selling the company and hanging around the house for several months, my wife began to say, ‘Don’t you have something to do?’ So that supplied the motivation to get going again.

“Since 2007, I have four books and I’m working on a fifth one now.’’

So how did you pick the genre, and how did you pick Nashville as a background? Tell me how you evolved into Mark Rollins.

“I traveled an awful lot in connection with business. The procedure was, at the airport, in the bookstore, I grabbed a mystery book and got on the airplane and passed the time away at 30,000 feet reading a mystery.

“So really, I guess you would just say after 30 or 40 years of doing that, I’d read enough of them that I thought I could do it. It was what I enjoyed reading for pleasure, and therefore….’’

Who were your favorite authors?

“Tony Hillerman is a favorite of mine. He’s dead now. James Patterson. Typically, I would go in and see what’s on the bestseller list, No. 1 through No. 5. And I’d pick those authors. But I liked the books that were geographically based.

“And I think fiction has to start from reality. There has to be some truth that the author then begins to exaggerate and add a little water and a little fertilizer to. So you kind of write what you know. And I knew Nashville.’’

Tell me the process of how you write.

“I typically write in the early morning. I get up around 5 o’clock and start writing. I usually write pretty seriously ’til about 7 o’clock and then I hear my wife beginning to stir. So I’ll stop and have breakfast and so forth.

“The truth of the matter is, when you’re not writing, when you’re in the process of a book, the mind is working back there and you’re still thinking and so forth. A couple of times a day, I might go back and write a little more.

“It takes about four to six months to write a book. It takes that long or longer to go through the editing or polishing process. That’s not as much fun.’’

Do you have an outline of what happens to your characters before you start writing?

“I absolutely do not have an outline. The story takes over for me. The characters often take over for me. I very often don’t know exactly where things are going to go until I start writing and the characters take over. I find it a marvelous thing that writing a sentence leads to a paragraph leads to a page, and to a chapter and so forth.’’

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