Robert D. (Bob) Calkins has been a volunteer search and rescue (SAR) dog handler in Kitsap County, Washington, for more than dozen years. He and his dogs have responded to everything from routine lost hiker cases, to homicides, to the horrific 2014 mudslide in Oso, WA that claimed more than 40 lives.
He also teaches classes in the community on what to do if you become lost and, more importantly, how to avoid becoming lost in the first place.
Prior to retirement, Bob spent more than 15 years as a Public Information Officer in two very high profile organizations. He was the media spokesman at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for three major events—the 9/11 attacks, the crash of Alaska Airlines flight 261, and the Nisqually Earthquake. Bob later moved to the Washington State Patrol, where he was the agency’s spokesperson on sensitive topics such as employee conduct, major uses of force and line-of-duty deaths.
In 2015, Bob began writing stories for all ages based on his experiences with search dogs. While many authors produce “series” of books around the same lead character, Bob set out to produce what he calls a “spectrum” of books. His stories all have the same characters, but are written for different reading levels from pre-school to adult.
His first book, “Sierra Becomes a Search Dog,” is intended to be read aloud to children who can’t yet read for themselves. Once the little one is asleep, adults can sit down with “Digger,” a very grown-up murder mystery about sweet dogs and serial killers. Soon to come will be more books for pre-schoolers, and chapter books for elementary-age readers.
Bob lives in Olalla, Washington with his wife Mary Ann, and Ruger, his third search dog.
BMH: What is something you wish someone would have told you before you became an author?
BC: Editors are your friend, not your enemy. I came from a world (journalism) where editors would routinely degrade news stories in the name of improving them, usually without asking after the reporter had gone home for the day. These “improved” stories would contain errors of fact or context. Not only did the audience get bad information, but the source of the story would lose trust in the reporter. I had to completely change my view of editors when I moved into the literary world.
BMH: You can go back in time, meet and chat with anyone, who would it be? What would you talk about?
BC: The day after the 9/11 attacks I wanted to go back in time and talk to my parents about the day after Pearl Harbor. So much has been written about the specific days of 9/11 and Dec. 7, but what was the country’s mood like on Dec. 8, 1941?
BMH: Why crime fiction?
BC: With more than two decades of in and around law enforcement I know it well enough to craft believable fiction.
BMH: Have you written in other genres?
BC: In a way. I’m doing something unique by creating children’s books and crime fiction all with the same characters. My next book will be a chapter book, aimed at elementary students, also about the world of K9 search and rescue. My crime fiction work is really just one end of a spectrum with age-appropriate stories about search and rescue.
BMH: What is something you’ve never written about, but hope to some day?
BC: I’d love to write a political thriller with local governments, city and county councils, as the antagonists. As a reporter I saw local elected officials trying to solve every problem and right every wrong. In the end, they were injecting themselves far too deeply into the lives of their citizens. For example, in one county near me it’s illegal to pressure-wash your driveway. Elsewhere, several cities are mandating the kind of bag one must use to bring home their groceries. I think it would be entertaining and perhaps though provoking to write about people who get fed up with such detailed meddling by officials.
BMH: How big a part did your upbringing have on your writing?
BC: My parents insisted that I speak properly, and that just translated into my writing. I really work hard to “write as I speak.”
BMH: Who is you hero/heroine? Why?
BC: (I trust you mean in life, not in my books.)The man I most admire is John Batiste, the Chief of the Washington State Patrol. He is a natural leader, treats everyone with respect, and is loved by his officers. He manages to uphold high standards for the agency, without being draconian and losing the support of his employees.
BMH: What two words best describes your writing style?
BC: Like Talking.
BMH: How do you create your characters?
BC: I develop the plot first, and then create characters who advance that plot. I don’t model characters after specific people, but I do develop them based on behaviors I’ve seen—both good and bad. So if you ever think “that’s me!” then you’re admitting you engage in those behaviors—good or bad.
BMH: Outliner or seat-of-your-pants writer?
BC: I outline the general plot but very vaguely, and then write freely. As a journalist I developed the skill of being able to watch an event and describe it live as “breaking news.” I applied that skill to my writing. I watch a scene unfold in my mind, and then describe it.
BMH: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
BC: I consider myself a story-teller, and writing is just one form of storytelling. I come from a chatty family and we can make a good story out of opening a can of beans. Some stories you tell, and some you write. What I like about writing is that you have the ability to edit, and if you do it correctly you can make a little money while maintaining a very flexible life schedule.
BMH: Do you have a daily writing routine?
BC: It’s rare for me to write more than 1000 words per day, unless I’m in the middle of a complicated scene and need to complete the thought. After 1000 words I deliberately step away and do something completely different so that I don’t burn out. Ideally that involves physical exercise, but occasionally I’ll do other tasks related to book publishing. I believe that’s the reason I’ve never experienced a problem with writer’s block.
BMH: How do you handle research?
BC: As a daily journalist I learned that one should never rely on a single source regardless of their credentials. I’ve sometimes angered people by asking a question, and then being overheard asking someone else the same question. You’d be surprised how often the answers are different! A wide variety of sources is my key to good research.
BMH: How much editing do you do as you write your first draft?
BC: A lot. I want an editor to get my best work. If I can catch most of the routine typos and confusing scenes, then the editor is more likely to catch the ones I miss. If I overload the editor with junk, then they’re more likely to miss something.
BMH: How do you use social media to promote yourself?
BC: I find I get the best response from my personal Facebook page, though I have a FB page for “Sierra the Search Dog,” as well as Twitter and Instagram accounts and a blog. I am moderately pleased with paid boosts of posts on Facebook. I need to learn more about Goodreads, and probably need to find a consultant to help me with that. Frankly, Goodreads is so confusing it makes my head hurt.
BMH: What do you think of the new faces of publishing….ebooks, POD, indie-publishing?
BC: The fact that ANYBODY can publish a book means that EVERYBODY is trying to. That makes it hard to stand out from the crowd.
BMH: Do you blog?
BC: Not nearly as often as I should. I am trying to find guest posters so that it’s not just me pontificating. I’m at www.sierrasearchdog.com.
BMH: What comes first for you, characters or plot?
BC: You’ve got to have a plot in order to have any context for the behavior of your characters. The plot doesn’t need to be laid out in great detail, but you have to know where things are going.
BMH: How about some hard-earned advice.
BC: After you’ve made corrections to the first ARC, completely re-read the new version. Do not merely check to make sure the mistakes you identified previously have been corrected. When my typesetter corrected one layout error she introduced another layout-related typo further down the page. I looked to make sure the original typo had been corrected and never noticed the new one. We printed a lot of books I can’t sell.
BMH: How did you celebrate when you held your first book in your hands?
BC: Kissed my wife and thanked her for her support of my work.
BMH: Tell us about your first appearance as a author.
BC: I did it in a pet store as opposed to a book store, and was surprised at how well it went. The particular pet store is an independent, and the owner is a local expert on canine nutrition. The people who frequent the store are very dedicated pet owners, so a book with a search dog as the hero was very appealing to them.
BMH: Have you had any strange fans you can tell us about?
BC: I’ll know I’ve succeeded as an author when I have such stories to tell.