True Confessions

By John Gilstrap

I don’t think any creative person follows a straight line to a creative career. Motives and motivations and inspirations come from all kinds of angles. We bring our childhoods with us, along with our triumphs and lost loves. Recently, I’ve found myself in a more pensive mood than usual.

Last week, I binge-watched a few episodes of “Mannix“, starring the always-cool Mike Connors. As a kid, I thought that was one of the most riveting shows on the air. For those who are not old enough to remember, Mannix was a Los Angeles private investigator who got thoroughly beaten up pretty much every episode, and was shot more than 20 times in the same shoulder. He lived above his cool office in a cool neighborhood. His super-capable secretary, Peggy (Gail Fisher) was, I believe, one of the first African American characters of any real substance on television.

As I watched, I got smacked with a realization that came out of nowhere: Joe Mannix and Peggy are the inspiration for my characters Jonathan Grave and Venice Alexander. Even down to her race and the fact that she’s a single mom of one son! Honestly, this had never occurred to me, but now that I’ve seen it, I don’t think there’s any denying it. Jonathan lives below his office, but still. The subconscious stirs quietly and for a long time, I guess.

But wait, there’s more. With my brain primed for nostalgia, as I watched “Stand By Me” for the scumpty-seventh time (it’s one of the movies from which I cannot turn away), I was hit with another writing revelation. But first, some background . . .

After graduating from William and Mary in 1979, I got a terrible job working for Construction Magazine, a trade journal that was all about making advertisers look good. I was in a dark place writing-wise, and had pretty much abandoned my childhood dream of becoming a novelist. As the years progressed, I got consumed by grad school, the explosives business and the fire and rescue service and husbandhood and fatherhood. I’d say that writing went to the back burner, but in reality, it was off the stove entirely.

ENTER: 1986 and the movie, “Stand By Me”. An anthem to boyhood, the movie is bookended with scenes of the unnamed narrator as an author (played by Richard Dreyfus), writing the story of his great childhood adventure. We see the author/narrator typing away on the very first word processor I’d ever seen. The sound of the keys was melodic to me. The writer is also a dad, who’s made promises to take his kid and his friends swimming. Dad is distracted by the story he’s telling, though, and his son gets annoyed. The boy explains to his friend words to the effect, “He gets like that when he’s writing.”

Then in one of the most inspiring movie scenes ever, after the roller coaster that is the story, the film closes without dialogue. We hear the wonderful clicking sound of the keys as old-school white letters against the blue screen type, “I never had friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve . . . Jesus, does anyone?”

That was my moment of clarity. The writer on the screen was living the life I wanted to have. Despite professorial opinions to the contrary when I was in undergraduate school, I was convinced that I had talent. I realized that the dream wasn’t going to just happen, though. The stories in my head were not going to write themselves.

So I pulled my grad school typewriter–a cheap electric–out of the closet and I wrote crap. Utter awfulness. I was rusty, I told myself. I forced myself to write that first book all the way to the end, and when I read it, I realized two things: 1) It needed a page-one rewrite, and 2) I didn’t like the story enough to do that. So, I wrote a second bit of drivel that was decidedly less terrible than the first, and it had some good moments. Number Three had more good moments than bad, but I knew it still wasn’t ready for prime time. The language was too stiff, too stilted. I don’t think I knew at the time that the problem had a label–voice–but I knew that that’s what was missing.

And I was really busy with life. By then–1994–I’d added CEO of a consulting company to the list of things I dealt with every day.

One night, feeling guilty about not writing, I re-read Different Seasons by Stephen King, the collection of novellas that included The Body, which was the source material for “Stand By Me.” No one on the planet has a stronger narrative voice than King, and as I was reading, it hit me: He doesn’t write like a writer. He writes like a fascinating friend telling you a story. He uses vernacular in his narration. I realized that King, the writer, is invisible in all of his stories. Even when we’re in the third person, every scene is narrated in the voice of the point-of-view character.

So, in August of 1994, I set to work on what would become Nathan’s Run. I wrote the story as if I were telling it to a friend. I kept my writerly vocabulary to a minimum and tried my best to bring characters to life on the page. Four months later, when the book was finished, no one was more startled than I that I liked the final product.

That was 21 books ago, and yes, I do zone out of the real world when I write. And even as I type this blog, I love the sound of those keys as they create words on the screen.

What say you, TKZers? Do you have unlikely inspirations that drove you to become a writer?


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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

39 thoughts on “True Confessions

  1. Ever since I was a child, I wanted to write. For many years, that took the form of wanting to be a reporter, to educate people and bring a new slant to what was happening around them. That dream went by the wayside. I didn’t want it badly enough. But stories…I’ve been writing those as long as I can remember. Stories that were crap to start out with, like your first ones, that gradually got better over time, stories that got under my skin and some that eventually became ones I really liked. I’m still writing stories, only these days, I’m trying to get them to the people I’m trying to entertain. King was an eye-opener for me as well.

  2. This might sound crazy, but it’s true. In my 20s I wrote children books for fun. Years went by with no writing at all. Then my husband and I started looking at houses farther north. And the second I stepped through the doorway of our house (the one we own now) an overwhelming desire to write washed over me. Maybe it was the nature that surrounded us, maybe it was heaven-sent. All I know is from that moment on, I started writing and never looked back.

  3. I read a bad mystery and said, ‘I could do better than that’. Also, in the back of my mind for perhaps a decade, I wanted to try writing a book. I think the biggest hurdle to get over was memories from high school and college English classes. Writing a story on demand and trying to sound ‘literary’ was very, very painful. To this day, I would fail almost any grammar questions on Jeopardy.

    However, all along in talking to an audience, I could always tell a good story, and so I gave it a try writing a ‘good story’. Now, I’m working on my 14th book. So rather than having a childhood dream prompt me, I had childhood school experiences stopping me.

    • That is how I wrote a screenplay! I watched “Dark Shadows” with Johnny Depp and a stellar, all-star cast and it was positively awful. I said, I can do better than that. I sat down and wrote a postquel of Quincy. Couldn’t interest Hollywood, but….

  4. Thanks, Mr. Gilstrap. It’s always so cool when we can hear the “backstory”, especially of an author.

    I wrote a play once-in 2013. It was pretty good, at least according to those who came to see it over two evenings. It was my first serious attempt at writing anything of real substance. Before that, I journaled some, and made up little stories for my kids when they were still shorter than me.

    But I wrote and produced the play. Then I thought, why not? So I started writing some chapters in what would become my first creative non-fiction book. Then, I looked up an editor’s website I’d heard about from a writer friend. I contacted her, she looked over a few chapters, then we formed a partnership. Three books later, I’m now turning that play into a novel. I can’t honestly say I’ve “always” wanted to be an author, but I’ve had a love affair with stories since I was about five. Since the first book released, the desire to write more and better has grown into a five-to-six hour daily experience.

    I thought about the motivation thing. For me, it’s not just about a love of words I’ve had since I was young. It’s about a very human desire to be known. My stories are infused with me-ness. It’s not arrogance, or self-importance. Humans are the only species that have the word “I” in their language (that we know of). I am the only me there is in the universe-and I contribute to the sum total of humanity just by being me. No one else can do it for me-or for you. That concept, think, really elevates the importance of “voice”.

    This desire to be known is why architects design, builders build, artists paint, musicians play and sing tunes, and writers write. Expression of “me” is at the core.

    A little philosophical, (sorry!), but there it is.

    • “That concept, I think, really elevates…” In too much of a hurry this morning to get to my “me” story… 🙂

    • Very insightful, Deb. “My stories are infused with me-ness” is a phrase I will likely steal.

      William and Mary, where I went to undergraduate school, had a twice-annual one-act play competition. Every year, I’d submit, and every year, my plays were rejected. Writing a play continues to be a bucket list item, but it’s been so long since I’ve even read a play–as opposed to screenplays, which are entirely different animals–the learning curve would be steep, I’m sure. It must be amazing to watch an audience watching a play you wrote!

      • Do not feel to bad. I will tell you about one of my high school alums. John Williams, c/o 1929. After high school he attended Washington University in St. Louis. He had an interest in writing plays but was thrown out of the drama department. He dropped out and moved south. When my mother in law was a student at the high school I later attended there was an English teacher who would tell classes about failing young Mr. Williams. Although, she referred to him by his nickname, Tennessee.

        So, don’t feel to bad about W and M never liking your plays. You are in good company.

      • “It must be amazing to watch an audience watching a play [I] wrote…”

        It was no less than cathartic. My 17-year-old grandson is, we hope, Olympics-bound in free-style mogul skiing, something that terrorizes gramma to watch. He tried to describe to me once what it feels like to know you’ve executed the whatever flip and grab maneuver and landed it perfectly.

        Watching my imaginary friends entertain the audience and make them think came within a hair’s breadth of that feeling he described.

        (BTW, you can use that phrase whenever and wherever you like…that’s what we do with truth.) 🙂

  5. I read a lot when I was a kid – a lot. I read a lot all of the westerns (Zane Grey) my folks had on bookshelves in the house. A friend (two years older than I was) recommended I read Stephen King’s The Stand. It was a new release at the time, a huge book, three or four times the page count I was accustomed to, but I gave it a go. I wrote my first story before I’d finished the book.
    I believe that reading nurtures the growth and development of creativity in the mind. I’m not talking about, “That’s a great story idea… maybe I could use something similar…” What I mean is that I think maybe the neurons firing in our brain-pans while we read a great book may be the same ones writers use to create their own ideas. Because I have thousands of ideas.
    I got into table-top role-playing games in my teens (and continued playing through my time in the navy and then college). I was, more often than not, elected by the group to be the “game master”. This is the guy who controls the game, presents the scenarios in an adventure to the players and adjusts those scenarios based on player actions as the game moves forward. The game scenarios (D&D for sure, but there were many, many others) often came in prepackaged “modules” and the game master’s job was to to guide the players through the published scenarios. I had two problems. We played so much that we soon exhausted our module supply. Also, most of them basically sucked.
    So I wrote my own. These were stories – everything from wizards, knights and princesses, to Soviet super-spies and time-jumping alien intruders. This is where I really cultivated my creativity and my need (not desire) to tell stories.
    I now have spy thriller, fantasy adventure, western and cozy mystery story ideas dancing around the inside of my head every day. It does make it difficult to focus on one story at a time.

    • I love the image of a bunch of sailors at sea gathered around a table in the mess hall managing Soviet super-spies and time-jumping alien intruders. It stirs memories of Orson Scott Card’s ENDER’S GAME. When the role-playing is over, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and there’s an aircraft carrier sailing with Ferdinand Magellan.

  6. I, too, have always had stories in my head, and was astonished when I found out not everyone did. Without my revolving cast of characters living out their lives in there, I shudder to think how empty my mind would be. Inspiration comes from everywhere, but songs are big. My first published novel was based on Gordon Lightfoot’s Sundown, though one would be hard-pressed to make the connection in the final version. Another was That Summer, by Garth Brooks. After a while, I even began writing songs that were based on stories in my head. And yet, unlike many writers, I absolutely cannot write while music is playing.
    It’s interesting how you discovered your subconscious inspiration to write Nathan’s Run and your Jonathan Grave series, all of which I enjoyed. I believe it’s true that if you give the same premise to a dozen different writers, you’ll get a dozen totally different stories, because they all bring a different life experience to the table.

    • I can write with music in the background–and often do–but it has to be exclusively instrumental, or with lyrics so familiar that I don’t really hear them. Beethoven and Mahler are among my favorite composers, and I also like listening to movie soundtracks.

      And you’re absolutely correct about the same premise triggering different stories. I teach a day-long course on writing suspense fiction, and in it, I provide two or three opportunities for students to take six minutes to write from a prompt I give them. The first time I tried this, I thought the prompt was so obviously geared toward one outcome that everyone was going to essentially write the same thing. Not only has that never happened, but rarely does anyone take the story in the way I was sure they would. (Hmm. Not sure that last part made sense.)

      • I remember those prompts. And the variety of responses. I get similar results when I do my workshop on voice. Similar meaning “no two are alike,” not similar in they all sound the same.
        And I’m so with you on how finding your voice frees you to write. I was invited to speak at a local book club, and some of the audience members had read one of my books. One came up to me afterward and said, “You talk just like your write.”

        • Early on, I got the same reaction, but in reverse. Friends who read NATHAN’S RUN would say how freaky it was to have my voice in their heads.

  7. I’ve been writing since I was able to hold a crayon. I’ve been writing ever since.

    I’m so glad some of you have mentioned life getting in the way, yet still you’re successful. I’ve never stopped writing but it always had to fit in around family and jobs that paid the bills. It gives me hope.

  8. For me, it was getting lost in Classics Illustrated comic books, and Westerns. Something about the loner coming into town and facing down the bullies (e.g., Paladin)…maybe because I had a couple of bullies to deal with in Jr. Hi. Thus, Mike Romeo is a loner who has to put the hurt on very bad people from time to time. It’s tremendously satisfying writing this series.

    • Ah, Classics Illustrated! The one I remember most vividly was the Count of Monte Cristo.

      I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to anyone who didn’t despise junior high school.

      • Hey, I TAUGHT junior high school. I like to think SOME of my students got something out of my classes. (I taught science, though. Adding sulfuric acid to sugar always hooked them.)

        • Okay, a highlight of junior high was IPS–Introductory Physical Science, taught by Mr. Garwood. We got to play with Bunsen burners and blow stuff up.

        • All I remember about Jr High was stammering. I couldn’t say anything to anyone, especially the big brawny types-and since I was 5’2″ and 100# give or take-that was everyone.

          I did enjoy English, though, but not for what you might think. There were 8 Debbies in my class and it was great fun hassling the teacher. A nod to you, Terry, for putting up with the likes of us… 🙂

  9. Mannix had the survival skills of an idiot. After the first time someone snuck up on me, I’d start paying attention to what was around me when I skulked. But, from what we know of concussions now, maybe his brains were scrambled in that area if that’s any excuse. Though, that trope says more about the laziness of the writers than the character.

    The TV mysteries of my childhood really weren’t an inspiration for me, the weird shows like TWILIGHT ZONE were, but the mysteries affect me to this day. I never, ever put on my seatbelt before I start the engine of my car. I want to get out when my car explodes! Plus, I avoid driving near steep cliffs, which is an easy thing to do since I live a good distance from the state’s mountains. Exploding cars going over cliffs! Aaargh!

    My first inspiration toward writing was the Southern storytelling tradition of my dad who told awesome bedtime stories about Bushy Tail Squirrel who always outsmarted Fox. Around the table back in ancient times when the whole family ate supper together every night, he and the older brothers would hold court with the stories, and quiet girl that I was, I never got a word in edgewise. Writing fiction in my head and on paper was my only outlet. So, yeah, I always knew I was going to be a writer, and I worked toward that goal with most of my life and education choices.

      • But Flipper would save me! With my memories of SEAHUNT, I wrote a scuba scene in my first novel, and I let my brother and BIL read it for accuracy since they were certified divers. Got it in one!

    • When I was a girl growing up in the 1960’s, I remember camping trips with the family. My Dad would tell stories of his job as a customs inspector to some of the other campers. Since I am a night owl, I was usually the only kid still awake.

      My favorite story was the one about a cruise ship where one of the crew had gone missing three weeks before. The unfortunate crew member was found in the fresh water tank on the ship. I still remember the description of the waterlogged body with the body coming apart from the bones.

      Perhaps that’s why I love mysteries, horror stories, paranormal stories, and thrillers.

  10. For me, it wasn’t books at all — it was movies. I grew up in El Paso, Texas and the old Crawford Theater was still in business. They showed old b-rate movies, a triple feature, for a quarter. In its hayday, the Crawford featured traveling plays and stage shows. Even Wild Bill Hickock made an appearance. There was a couple of bullet holes in the wall next to the stage. Down the street a block in what was in 1895 a saloon, John Wesley Hardin was murdered.
    So I sat in the balconyd alone with the old movies pouring over me. Stories. It wasn’t the glitter of Hollywood that got me, it was the stories. Then I discovered the library. How could I be anything but a writer?

    • Great memories, Brian. As a kid, was there anything more imagination-inducing than old bullet holes? I grew up in Northern Virginia, where damage wrought by Civil War bullets are still visible.

      I wish old school westerns would make a comeback.

  11. I loved reading the comments and everyone’s experience in coming to writing. I didn’t think about writing until I turned 35 and couldn’t sleep. One night as I lay in bed staring at the ceiling, the image of a man popped into my head. He stood staring out a window and then he turned to me and said, “My life wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.”

    I’d like to say I wrote his story, but at the time I didn’t have the first idea of how. But later that year, I did write a short story that Woman’s World bought. That was also when I learned there was a world of difference in writing a short story and a novel.

    • I think that short stories and novels use entirely different skill sets. That’s why always cringe when I hear people advising that people who want to write books should start first with shorts.

      • Short stories are a good way to learn craft and gain confidence in finishing something, but the pacing, etc., between the two are the difference between a sprint and a marathon.

  12. I think my father always told stories. I remember having him repeat over and again about the typhoon that hit Okinawa shortly after he got there (as a Navy chaplain). I didn’t realize till after he died how close to the end of the Battle for Okinawa he arrived there and how terrible that battle was. Wikipedia tells us near 150,000 Okinawa civilians died, about half the population. The Battle for Okinawa ended in June and he would have arrived there around the beginning of September. I wish I had thought to press him for what conditions he observed there other than typhoon and mud.

    I told my kids stories. In 1973 I told them the story of Wicked King Paprika and Chef Nathan, while we were in Germany. When we got back to Ohio I typed it up. It sat in various file drawers till I got the bug to start writing stories, about six years ago now. I tinkered with it some and put it up on my website.

  13. Your insight to Stephen King’s genius in storytelling is spot on. I didn’t realize what it is until you mentioned it. I’ve tried to stay in the POV and all the narrative nuances for that character and have managed okay, but now I’ll be paying closer attention and work at doing that intentionally. Thank you.

    Stand By Me is one of my favorite short stories and movies. That last line resonated for a long time.

    My dad was a storyteller. I am sure he was my inspiration for telling stories, even before I started school. After learning to write, I entered the second phase. I continued to write sporadically through those insane working/raising kids phase and didn’t think about publication until five years ago.

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