The Journey of William Dean

How a Career in Journalism Shaped a Novelist’s Craft

William Dean, an award-winning journalist turned novelist, writes suspense novels inspired by real-life characters and events, balancing concise journalism with creative storytelling. He explores heavy themes and manages multiple writing projects.

William Dean is an award-winning writer and editor who had a lengthy career as an investigative journalist before becoming a novelist. He is the author of three suspense novels set in the Pacific Northwest: Militia Men, Dangerous Freedom and The Ghosts We Know.

Dean feels a need to be close to water, a desire likely rooted in his bicoastal upbringing that he later echoed in his career. His family left Brooklyn when he was in kindergarten, settling south of San Francisco, where his father taught biochemistry and his mother worked as a nurse.

Dean graduated from San Francisco State University with a journalism degree and went on to blaze a trail at a half-dozen newspapers, including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Newsday in New York. Many of the in-depth investigations he led as a reporter or editor resulted in major reforms. One project examining selective enforcement practices spurred a governor to fire his top law enforcement official. Another exposed incompetent attorneys defending Death Row inmates and prompted the state’s high court to boost minimum standards.

After leaving Newsday as a senior editor in 2018, Dean began writing novels inspired by the many interesting characters he’d encountered.

What inspired you to transition to writing suspense novels? How did your background in journalism influence your fiction writing?

 I’ve always wanted to try my hand at writing novels. My longest pieces for newspapers and magazines were in the 5,000-word range, so I imagined it would be fun to finally be able to give a story all the length and substance it deserved. As it turned out, the concise writing style that had been drilled into me was my biggest hurdle. I had to overcome that in order to become a novelist.

 On the flip side, my journalism background proved to be invaluable in terms of researching complex subjects, which is essential even for fiction writers with vivid imaginations. The many interesting people I encountered as a reporter frequently appear as characters in my books. Bonus!

 Your novels feature complex characters with deep backstories. Can you share your process for developing these characters, particularly those in Militia Men and The Ghosts We Know?

Ghosts featured protagonists loosely based after my father in his final years and his male caregiver, so I already had a pretty good picture of who they were in my mind. I just needed to develop compelling back stories for each. And, of course, pit them against an assassin and other villains.

 The paramilitary leader in Militia Men, however, required extensive research – to the point that I became certain the FBI would knock on my door one day, asking why I was spending so much time in militia chat rooms. The immersion into that world, while scary, helped me create a compelling, memorable character.

How do you balance real-life inspirations with fictional storytelling in your novels?

 I’m a big consumer of news, a habit I just can’t shake, even with all the soul-crushing negativity of late. But I’m constantly riffing off those headlines, imagining scenarios that would be intriguing and suspenseful.

For example, I’m putting the finishing touches on a tale about a radical priest who leads a takeover of one of the world’s wealthiest enclaves. That was inspired by a speech railing against the evils of the One Percenters. As I listened, I wondered, what if …?

Your books tackle heavy themes such as extremism, community fear, and personal redemption. What core messages do you hope readers take away from your stories?

 In my books, the protagonists often go astray, but they usually end up doing the right thing in the end after plenty of soul searching. I think if there’s a message, it’s that we all face tough moral choices at some point in our lives. It’s how we deal with adversity that separates us as human beings.

Living in Astoria, Oregon, and maintaining a blog and newspaper column, how do you manage your time between different writing projects?

Oh boy! I’ve also now added a regular magazine column, which makes me ask: Why am I doing all this while I can be on a white-sand beach somewhere sipping a frosty margarita?

 Seriously, I’ve learned to toggle between my book writing and craft beer journalism, setting aside time for each. For instance, I’ll work on a novel in the morning for a few hours, take a lunch break, then hit it again until mid-afternoon. Then I’ll pivot to a beer column and do some interviews or whatever. Evenings are my time to connect with friends and family, and just enjoy life!

So far, it seems to be working. For the record, I’m not opposed to lounging on a sandy beach from time to time.

Are there any new genres or themes you’re excited to explore in the future?

Funny you should ask that because I’m excited about exploring a challenging new genre, starting this winter: Literary fiction.

The novel as outlined is a bitter-sweet love story – about a couple who makes a pact to commit suicide together, side by side, rather than succumb to a crippling illness. Inspired by a true story, naturally. Can’t wait to get started!


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