By Josette Keelor
WINCHESTER -- As a former government agent with the Office of Special Investigations who now consults with a security firm on anti-terrorism matters, TJ O'Connor is in his element writing murder mysteries and thrillers.
"Except that real life is not as exciting as what books are," he said.
A plot line in his mystery "Dying to Know" was inspired by an investigation from Ohio in the mid-1980s, when workers on a government installation uncovered human remains. O'Connor was called in to investigate the possibility of the bones identifying a missing WWII airman from the 1940s, while the state thought the remains could date to the prehistoric era.
"So we were running it as a 40-year-old homicide," he said. "The state was coming after the government as a historical find, and it turned out to be something totally different."
Instead it was the body of a mid-1800s farmer buried in a family cemetery. It was displaced as the land changed hands multiple times.
With similar nonconfidential stories from a career in anti-terrorism to incorporate into plotlines, O'Connor said his inclination is to write from life. His editor disagreed.
"You know that's really great, but it's a little boring," O'Connor recalled hearing.
Since being signed to a three-book deal by Midnight Ink, an imprint of Llewellyn books, he said he's learned to accept such editing advice.
When it comes to publishing, O'Connor said, "There's not really a rulebook."
For five years he shopped around his first three novels, all thrillers, with no luck until he took his daughter's advice to write down a recurring nightmare he had for about 20 years.
In his dream, he was killed and came back as a ghost to solve his own murder, exactly what his character Oliver "Tuck" Tucker does in "Dying to Know."
The ghost detective follows around his former fellow detectives while they investigate his murder and other strange occurrences, helping them as he can, but having trouble communicating with people the way he used to.
It's a murder mystery with a paranormal twist and a thriller aspect. O'Connor said it's been compared to the movie "Ghost," but he wrote his detective not to be the story but as a way of propelling the story. At times his readers forget Tuck is a ghost at all, and that's what O'Connor wants.
"And it's the one that got me an agent," O'Connor said. "I'm as surprised as anybody else."
He intended the book as a standalone, but when his agent told him she wanted another just like it, he rattled off a sequel called "Dying for the Past," which she accepted immediately.
"I just finished your book," he remembered her telling him. "It's terrific, and I'm not changing anything."
O'Connor, 53, said he doesn't know what's next for him. As his agent shops around two other mysteries he's written, he said he recognizes his three-book deal with Midnight Ink might be all there is for him.
So far the market has been fickle, and he recalled an agent returning one of his anti-terrorism thrillers to him, telling him he should write what he knows.
"At that time," he said, "30 years in the terrorism business, and she's telling me I don't know anything about terrorism." Either she didn't read his book, he said, or she thought it too real, too boring.
But he plans to keep at it, having broken out of his cycle of bad luck. He also completed his recurring dream.
"It stopped when I started writing the book," he said. "I haven't had it since."
TJ O'Connor will sign copies of his debut novel, "Dying to Know," at Around the Corner Books, 201 N. 23rd St., Suite B, Purcellville, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Jan. 25. There will be snacks, prizes and giveaways. He will be at the Winchester Book Gallery 185 N. Loudoun St., Winchester, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Feb. 1. His book is available at amazon.com. For more information, visit www.tjoconnor.com.
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org