A Lot of Research Still Might Not Be Enough

By John Gilstrap

Happy Wednesday, everyone. Today, we take on the work of a brave writer who submitted his first few hundred words for some input. First, I’ll present the piece as I received it, and then my comments will be on the flip side, after the asterisks.

The Mirage 

Chapter One

Mexican State of Zacatecas

Chihuahuan Desert

The caravan of seven black SUVs drove through the empty desert. The road they followed was little more than a ribbon of heat-cracked asphalt winding through the barren, rolling hills.

Captain Jaime Barrios stood half-way through the open sunroof of the lead vehicle, a pair of binoculars pressed against his aviator sunglasses. His dark mustache hugged lips made puffy through hours of gun chewing. Scorching sun made the letters ATF gleam yellow against the back of his navy blue jacket.

A voice squawked from the radio bud he’d jammed into his ear.

“Captain Barrios. This holding mode is holding a little long, no?”

Barrios thumbed the mike button at his lapel before giving a curt reply.

“We’ll be going kinetic in another minute. Just sit tight.”

He looked to the three other cars in the front of the caravan. Two of them had Special Response agents also standing out of their car sunroofs. Each wore a bullet proof vest and carried an M4 assault rifle slung. The other agents inside the SUVs were similarly armed and armored.

The radio crackled in his ear again.

“Captain,” one of the agents complained, “No one said this raid came with a side of skin cancer.”

Barrios smiled mirthlessly as he continued to scan the desert. “Ha. The Chihuahuan desert welcomes your Boston ass, McKinney.”

“Shit. Who needs a fuckin’ border wall when you have this sun?”

A gleam from far behind caught Barrios’ attention. Dark dots appeared against the bright yellow landscape, growing larger with each second. His pulse quickened as he realized that their waiting was over.

“They’re coming up at six o’clock. Everyone, get ready. It’s game time.”

Barrios stamped his foot twice. At the signal, his driver accelerated. The force of the wind grew as he tucked away the binoculars and readied his assault rifle.

“Fuck,” he swore. “This looks like a lot more than eight bikes!”

“No kidding,” McKinney put in. “I count seventeen crotch rockets.”

The Hayabusa 950 motorcycles ate up the distance between them and the SUVs. Fourteen of the cyclists wore all black from head to toe. Three others had brown, yellow, or gray helmets.

Power windows rolled down on each SUV. Men poked their heads out or leaned out the windows, rifles or pistols at the ready. Barrios waited until the motorcycles were within range.

“Open fire!” he yelled into his radio.

*****

Gilstrap again. Okay, there’s a lot to like in this piece. I think the author chose an interesting place to start the story–certainly none of the throat clearing that I talked about in a piece I critiqued a few weeks ago. The prose is reasonably crisp, and the descriptions of the desert mostly work for me.

That said, I think are serious plot issues. This reads to me a bit like a reimagination of the 1960s television show, “The Rat Patrol,” where a tiny squad of six (?) guys, all in different (but very cool) uniforms drive aimlessly through the North African desert looking for fights with Nazi tanks. I loved it as a kid. I’ve since watched it as an adult. Lots of WTFing in every episode.

I’m kind of in that same place with these first pages of THE MIRAGE. I’ll stipulate that ATF agents are trolling the deserts of Mexico (though my ATF buddies tell me that such would rarely if ever be done). What bothers me most is the lack of planning and the lack of discipline. Federal agents of all ilk are buttoned down tight in these kinds of operations. The chit-chat on the radio would be a huge no-no. Even in the fire service, that was a no-no. The whole world listens in on radio traffic.

We don’t yet know what this mission is, but it is inconceivable to me that they would not have some sort of air assets in place to know what was coming at them. The SRT is one hell of a polished team. Like all such teams, they pride themselves in denying their opposition forces anything that remotely resembles a fair fight.

Then there’s the whole notion of firing without being fired upon. That’s just not done. And if it were done, shooting moving targets from a moving platform is a recipe for disaster, especially given the lack of clear firing lanes.

If this is the beginning of a serious book that the author wants to be taken seriously, lots of research remains to be done. A good place to start is to embrace the fact that anything you’ve seen in any movie in the “Fast ‘n’ Furious” franchise ranks high on the wouldn’t-ever-happen scale.

Now, let’s get down to some line-level stuff . . .

The caravan of seven black SUVs drove through the empty desert. The road they followed was little more than a ribbon of heat-cracked asphalt winding through the barren, rolling hills.

Details matter. Seven black BMW X5s paints a different picture and leaves a different impression than seven black Suburbans or seven black Escalades. Also, is there a way to combine these two sentences into one? Something like, “The seven-Suburban motorcade sped through the barren, rolling desert hills on a ribbon of road that was little more than crumbled asphalt.”

Captain Jaime Barrios stood half-way through the open sunroof of the lead vehicle, a pair of binoculars pressed against his aviator sunglasses.

This is pure “Rat Patrol.” Why would he do this? It’s hot and windy and car windows are clear. Also, the current tacti-cool look is Oakley shades. The aviators remain popular mostly among older generations. That said, it’s really hard to get a good image through binoculars while wearing any form of glasses.

Also, how far out the hatch is he? He’s standing on the center console, right?

Finally, how certain are you that the ATF has captains within their rank structure? As far as I know, they’re all variants of the rank of “special agent.”

His dark mustache hugged lips made puffy through hours of gun chewing. Scorching sun made the letters ATF gleam yellow against the back of his navy blue jacket.

For the sake of argument, I will assume that the author really meant “gum chewing” because gun chewing leads to explosions of brain pizza. That said, I’m not familiar with gum chewing causing swollen lips. Assuming that Barrios is wearing the ubiquitous G-man windbreaker, I believe the letters are yellow whether seen in the sun or by candlelight.

A voice squawked from the radio bud he’d jammed into his ear.

“Jammed” is the wrong verb here. That would hurt.

“Captain Barrios. This holding mode is holding a little long, no?”

Note the comment above about the captain thing. This bit of dialogue is exclusively for the reader. Everyone in the scene knows exactly how long they’ve been there, so what is the motivation in asking this? Also, it’s chit-chat. Finally, I don’t get the “holding mode” here. Seems to me they’re on the way to somewhere.

Barrios thumbed the mike button at his lapel before giving a curt reply.

The appropriate spelling is “mic” when you mean microphone. I’m getting conflicting information throughout this piece about their wardrobe. Assuming they’re wearing ballistic armor, “lapels” don’t really exist.

“We’ll be going kinetic in another minute. Just sit tight.”

So, now the bad guys know the good guys’ plan–because they transmitted it over the radio. I’m confused as to how Barrios knows this already. If what we’re reading here is a mission to murder the folks on the crotch rockets, you’d do well to set it up in some narrative.

He looked to the three other cars in the front of the caravan. 

There’s a lot here. From one paragraph to another, the SUVs became cars. How?

Two of them had Special Response agents also standing out of their car sunroofs.

This paints a picture of two sedans, each with multiple agents standing out to the sunroof. I’m think clown car.

When you write “Special Response agents” I presume you mean agents assigned to the Special Response Team, the elite of the elite within ATF. If so, I would point that out.

Each wore a bullet proof vest and carried an M4 assault rifle slung. The other agents inside the SUVs were similarly armed and armored.

“Bullet proof vests” do exist in the real world, but I’m certain that’s not what your guys are wearing. Your team is probably wearing “ballistic armor.”

Let’s talk about those slung M4s. Question One: Why are they slung? When you’re driving into a gunfight, you want to enter it with your weapon fully prepared for deployment. “Slung” generally means “at ease.” Question Two: Since slung rifles are carried with muzzles facing down (remember, our guys are doing the prairie dog peek out of their vehicles), I see the muzzle pointing at the driver’s ear. That would be disconcerting.

The radio crackled in his ear again.

This could be merely stylistic, but to my ear, radios haven’t “crackled” in decades. To my ear, they “pop” or “break squelch.”

“Captain,” one of the agents complained, “No one said this raid came with a side of skin cancer.”

I think the author is going for lighthearted banter here, but it comes off as whining.

Barrios smiled mirthlessly as he continued to scan the desert. “Ha. The Chihuahuan desert welcomes your Boston ass, McKinney.”

Now I see the source of the lack of discipline. It starts at the top. For the world to hear. And surely there’s a better word than mirthlessly.

“Shit. Who needs a fuckin’ border wall when you have this sun?”

Got it. Maybe they’d be cooler if they took off those jackets.

Most importantly: Beware the F-bombs. I did a whole video for my YouTube channel on the perils of using high-end profanity in popular fiction. It turns off an astonishing number of readers. I used to be an offender, but after literally hundreds of letters and emails from readers, I stopped. I haven’t written an F-bomb in probably my latest 15 books. These are hard-edged thrillers, and no one has ever complained that the bad language isn’t there.

A gleam from far behind caught Barrios’ attention.

Be specific. “Far behind” means nothing.

Dark dots appeared against the bright yellow landscape, growing larger with each second. His pulse quickened as he realized that their waiting was over.

I get that the author is playing coy here, but for me it’s too coy by half. I’d like to know who these people are–if not by specific identity, then by a throw-away reference to why it’s important to engage them.

“They’re coming up at six o’clock. Everyone, get ready. It’s game time.”

Barrios stamped his foot twice. At the signal, his driver accelerated.

So, everything else can go out on the air, but he has to stomp his foot to say “go faster”?

The force of the wind grew as he tucked away the binoculars and readied his assault rifle.

I have no idea what this means. Where did he tuck the binoculars? No one thinks of their weapon as an “assault rifle” and what readying does he need to do? He’s going to war here, so it seems a little late to oil the action. He’d probably think of the weapon as his M4 or his Colt (the manufacturer that supplies ATF with their M4s). By the time Barrios peeked his noggin out of the hole, he’d have the puppy chambered and ready to go. One quick move of his thumb against the safety lever, and he’d he ready to rock.

“Fuck,” he swore. “This looks like a lot more than eight bikes!”

“No kidding,” McKinney put in. “I count seventeen crotch rockets.”

The Hayabusa 950 motorcycles ate up the distance between them and the SUVs. Fourteen of the cyclists wore all black from head to toe. Three others had brown, yellow, or gray helmets.

Here again, the author is presenting information through dialogue that is really for the benefit of the reader. They’ve come a long way from seeing barely discernable black dots to a specific count of precisely 17 Hayabusa 950 motorcycles, plus a breakdown of their wardrobe.

But wait! As we’ll see below, McKinney got all of these details BEFORE they were in range of the M4s. That would put them at at least 200 yards. I want McKinney’s ophthalmologist!

Power windows rolled down on each SUV. Men poked their heads out or leaned out the windows, rifles or pistols at the ready. Barrios waited until the motorcycles were within range.

The clown car image has returned. Brave author, I urge you to go to your car and act this image out. The bad guys are screaming up from behind (from “six o’clock”). Imagine being packed into your vehicle with all the gear. Some people are “leaning out” of windows, others are only showing their heads. And they all want to shoot the same direction.

“Open fire!” he yelled into his radio.

Yelling into the radio does not extend the range of the signal, but it does garble the transmission. Yelling into radios is unprofessional.

Okay, Brave Author, I’ve been hard on you, but know that it comes from a helpful place. I’m on the record here and elsewhere stating that “write what you know” is perhaps the worst advice ever given, but this is an example of when the advice spot-on.

When a writer enters the world of weapons and tactics (or technology or space flight or any one of thousands of topics that people think they know but probably don’t), little mistakes add up quickly.

Okay, TKZers. Your turn.

+8
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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of 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 Fairfax, VA.

4 thoughts on “A Lot of Research Still Might Not Be Enough

  1. First off, Brave Author, you could not have asked for a better critiquer (not a real word?) for your tactical thriller than John. The man knows of what he speaks. That being said, his comments made me think of the relationship between realism and tone. John cited the Fast and Furious movies, but I’ve never seen any of them (except the first), so we’ll use another example from Hollywood.

    On the one end of the spectrum is a show like Bosch on Amazon Prime. It is an excellent, down-and-dirty police procedural firmly grounded in reality because the books it is based off were written by a man who spent decades as a crime reporter in Los Angeles. When I watch Bosch, I expect to see a story in which the characters behave very much as they would in real life, with only the slightest suspension of disbelief required.

    On the other end of the spectrum is the Bad Boys film franchise, which I love every bit as much as Bosch. Yet when I sit down to watch one of those movies, I could care less about how realistic it is. I want gun fights, explosions and witty banter between the heroes. That those heroes are police officers is almost irrelevant. It doesn’t matter to me that much of what they do goes against everything a real police officer would do in that situation, because I know that the situation they are in would never happen in real life. I WANT them to break procedure because it makes the story more exciting. Both are forms of escapism, but they take very different approaches to help me escape.

    Hard to tell from your first couple hundred words, but with the banter and bad guys on motorcycles, my guess is that we’re more in Bad Boys territory here than Bosch. In which case, most of what bothered John didn’t even register with me. (There are some exceptions. Too many agents in a car, and a guy’s gun hanging over his shoulder while he’s standing up through a sun roof would ring false no matter what type of story I’m consuming).

    Here’s the final caveat: My opinion my be so far in the minority that it doesn’t matter. If agents and editors are only looking for books grounded in the type of reality that John is suggesting, then that’s what you need to write or your work will never see the light of (traditionally) published day. In this area I once again defer to John. I am not a published author and the book I am currently querying is a very different type of thriller.

    In any event, you have me hooked. I’d turn the page!

  2. As John said, research is your friend dear author. John has gone over hanging out of sunroofs but I will add to it. Police SUVs don’t have sunroofs. While on the subject of SUVs, crank windows haven’t been a thing in a long time. They can just lower the windows.

    Cyclists pedal their machines. Bikers have engines for that. https://www.cjr.org/language_corner/cyclist-biker.php#:~:text=If%20you%20ride%20a%20%E2%80%9Cbicycle,%E2%80%9Cbike%E2%80%9D%20isn%27t. Besides, my motorcycle instructor buddy said so.

    The Hayabusa 950 is a street bike. Want the presumably bad guys to be in a chase on them, move this to the streets of Laredo. In the dessert it isn’t going very far. Perhaps a nice set of Suzuki GSX-R 1000s would do instead?

    Crotch rocket is a term usually for road racer style motorcycles. The Hayabusa 950 would certainly qualify. But the hunched over riding style would not work out in a dessert.

  3. I enjoyed reading the piece, and I enjoyed even more seeing John’s comments. What a wealth of advice John has provided for you, Brave Author. Now I know why I don’t write military thrillers. I’d never pass the Gilstrap test.

    I thought the author did a good job of setting the scene. Maybe the first sentence could be rewritten to grab the reader’s attention right away.

    From my decidedly non-military perspective, there were a few things that bothered me enough to make me stop and re-read the words. Two were mentioned by JG: the binoculars held against the sunglasses won’t work, and the “gun chewing” certainly must have meant “gum chewing.” At least I hope that’s the case. Also, “They’re coming up at six o’clock.” Isn’t that behind you?

    Having said all that, congratulations on your effort, BA. I’d love to see the revised version.

  4. Thanks, Brave Author, for letting us take a peek at your first page. My favorite line is when McKinney said there are 17 bikers. The guys in the SUV’s are in big trouble!

    I am ambivalent about this first page because I love the tension and the movement, and I can picture Barrios as a skilled guy with a swagger and a woman on every planet, what a fun protagonist. But the scene doesn’t seem real to me exactly for the reasons Gilstrap pointed out in his detailed and helpful critique.

    I figure with more research you could produce something spectacular. And if military/political stuff is not something you want to research, maybe there’s a genre that would entice you to research. A Western? A space fantasy? Because you already know how to setup an exciting scene.

    Good luck, Brave Author, in your continued writing journey.

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