Conversation with MB Dabney 

An Untidy Affair is MB Dabney’s debut novel and a murder mystery worthy of this seasoned writer. He is an award-winning journalist who has spent a lifetime reporting the stories that matter most. The author of several published short-story mysteries, Dabney is also the co-editor of Decades of Dirt and Murder 20/20, both anthologies of the Speed City chapter of Sisters in Crime. The father of two adult daughters, he lives in Indiana with his wife, Angela. To learn more about the author, visit his website here.

Can you tell us about your background as an award-winning journalist and how it influenced your transition into fiction writing, particularly in the murder mystery genre?

DABNEY: I’m a retired journalist and have worked for a national weekly business magazine, both UPI and AP, the Indianapolis Star, and two Black newspapers, The Indianapolis Recorder and The Philadelphia Tribune. It was while working on the editorial board at the Tribune that I won awards for editorial writing from the National Newspaper Publishers Association and the Associated Press.

As my journalism career was winding down, I was looking for new writing challenges, which led me to crime fiction. I have loved murder and suspense novels since as far back as high school. Therefore, writing murder mysteries seemed a good fit. (I do dabble occasionally in magical realism as well.)

Can you share a bit about your writing process? How do you approach crafting a murder mystery?

DABNEY: I’m a pantser by nature, as opposed to plotting out a story with an outline. I prefer writing by the seat of my pants. I enjoy finding out aspects of a story as I go along, much like the reader will. And when writing a short story, that is generally my approach.

However, a novel is a far more complex creature and, for me, requires more detailed thought in advance. So, I generally write an eight- to 10-page narrative in longhand before I start. And occasionally, I never look at it again.

Your debut novel, An Untidy Affair, is a murder mystery set in 1985 Philadelphia. Can you share what inspired you to write in this particular time and place for your first novel?

DABNEY: I was a reporter in Philadelphia for 20 years, including at United Press International in the 1980s and 90s. And I covered the deadly MOVE bombing and fire.

When I start a novel, I think: Who is the protagonist, what do they want, and what stands in their way of getting it? But with An Untidy Affair, my first thought was setting, in this case, Philadelphia. What was the city like in the 1980s I immediately thought of MOVE. And while the novel isn’t about MOVE, it does play out in the background of the murder mystery story.

An Untidy Affair is set against the backdrop of the 1985 MOVE house bombing in Philadelphia. How did real-life events influence the narrative, and what kind of research did you undertake to accurately depict the historical context in your storytelling?

DABNEY: I was a reporter at UPI in Philadelphia and covered events leading up to – and the aftermath of – the MOVE bombing and fire that destroyed 61 homes, killed 11 people and left 250 people homeless. While I did some research to refresh my memory of some aspects of the MOVE controversy, I also used my first-hand knowledge to frame several scenes in the novel, especially those in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, to show how it affected those in the neighborhood and how some people in the city reacted to the event.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

DABNEY: Read a lot. Reading helps you define what you might want to explore as a writer. Continue to hone your craft. Take helpful advice and reject, without guilt, advice that is not. Finally, but most importantly, be persistent. Keep writing and keep expressing yourself.

As a Hoosier writer yourself, how would you describe Indiana’s literary landscape now and how do you hope it will transform in the future?

DABNEY: Despite legislation in the General Assembly this Spring that, if enacted, could hamper local libraries, and efforts in other states to ban books, I feel Indiana’s literary landscape is quite hopeful. Big, national brick-and-mortar bookstores may be struggling somewhat but I have witnessed the opening of at least four new, small bookstores in the Indianapolis area in the last two years. And it’s also happening in other parts of the state. People are reading and remain hungry for good books. As long as we encourage easy access to literature, the future will remain bright.