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.

I Can’t Do Two Books Per Year Anymore

By John Gilstrap

From 2019 to 2022, I wrote two books per year–one Jonathan Grave thriller and one Victoria Emerson thriller. That’s six books in three years. Or, 200,000 words per year. During Covid. While building a house. And selling a house. And moving twice. It was exhausting.

Worse, it wasn’t fun. Don’t get me wrong–I’m proud of the stories and the characters and all the moving parts of the books, but as I age, sitting and writing for long periods of time has become uncomfortable. Thanks to a reckless youth and too many years of catching heavy burning stuff with my fire helmet have left my neck and back pretty creaky. When I stay active–say through gardening and yard work and playing with the dog–everything works fine. But after five or six hours at the keyboard, I feel like it takes an hour just to stand upright again.

And there was a mental strain to that writing schedule, as well. Taking all the unique life-stuff out of the equation, a two-a-year contract means that I was always writing one story while editing or proof reading another. It’s just more work than I wanted to do.

But I still want to explore new ideas.

If all goes as expected, I will soon sign a contract with Kensington Publishing that will advance my Jonathan Grave series to 18 volumes. I never dreamed that the momentum of those books would continue to build as it has, and while I’m very much in love with the characters and their mission to bring justice to bad guys, it’s fun to explore different characters and different plots.

Another new series.

I had just finished the page proof edits for White Smoke, the third book of the Victoria Emerson series, when my agent called to tell me that she and my editor had been talking about me over lunch. They think I should do another new series, this one a spin-off from Jonathan that would take a regular character from the series and spin her off in a new direction while at the same time knocking Jonathan’s world a few degrees off its axis.

The idea had occurred to me before, and I find the idea exciting, but see above. I don’t want to do two books a year anymore. I want to have a life outside of my office. It’s the nature of a popular series (and one that I hope will also become popular) that people want to see new books on a regular basis. I hear all the time from people who count on the new Grave book to entertain them at the beach every year.

So, we reached a compromise: One book every 9 months, each new volume in each series dropping every 18 months. That feels doable to me. I guess we’ll find out.

I’m being deliberately obtuse about the new series because no contracts have been signed. I’ll come clean when that happens, I promise.

So, TKZ family, do you find the act of writing to be physically tiring? Inquiring minds want to know . . .

Research Resources

By John Gilstrap

Google is nice and convenient and all, but I miss the multi-volume encyclopedias of my youth. I used to take a volume down and read it like a book–okay, it was a book, but work with me here. So many fascinating facts to learn, people to meet and places to visit, all from the comfort of the living room.

But that was different than what’s required to research a book. When you’re telling a story that is outside the real world of what you already know, you’ve got to find the way to inject the verisimilitude necessary to make the story resonate for the reader.

HEADS UP: At the end of this post, I’m going to ask the members of my TKZ family to help out. I know we have folks here who write about topics that are completely alien to me. In the comments, please share the sources and websites that help you with the details of the worlds you create.

Consider faking it–making stuff up.

Research and writing are two different tasks, though for research junkies they can feel very much the same. In reality, especially if you’re on a deadline, unnecessary research is an advanced form of procrastination. As you approach the opening to the rabbit hole, ask yourself this question: Does this part need to be real?

Many of my books are set in and around the areas where I grew up, in the suburbs of Washington, DC–Fairfax County, Virginia, to be exact. Given the nature of the stories, though, where local politicians are corrupt and incompetent, I decided to create Braddock County, Virginia, which, if you know the area and pay close attention, you’ll recognize to be parts of not only Fairfax County, but also of Prince William and Fauquier Counties.

Think of the burden I’ve lifted from my shoulders. If I wrote about the Fairfax County Police (as opposed to the Braddock County Police), I’d need to know their command structure, the weaponry they use, their shift schedules and the details of their uniforms. The Braddock County cops wear whatever I tell them to put on.

Remember, that you’re writing fiction. By definition, it’s okay to make stuff up if it doesn’t ruin the story.

Wikipedia and YouTube

Your novel is not a doctoral dissertation. The sources you use to write your fiction don’t need to stand up to academic scrutiny. Keep it as simple as possible. For the subject matter I write about–weaponry, military tactics, machinery operation, etc.–Wikipedia and YouTube do for me everything that needs to be done. Almost.

Develop your stable of experts

Nearly everyone is an expert at something. As a Type A extrovert, when I meet someone, I chat them up and get to know what they do. If their life’s work is in an area relevant to what I write, we exchange business cards. When I’m back to my desk, I send them a brief email telling them how much I enjoyed our conversation and promising/warning that I will be giving them a call if I ever need assistance in research. No one has ever said no. Not ever.

My virtual Rolodex is filled with the names and contact information for people I’ll probably never speak to again, but they’re there if I need them.

It’s hard to replace real exposure

“Hey, Loo, just got a call from EOC. They’re detailing the wagon and crew to Twenty-Seven.”

Translation: “Excuse me, Lieutenant. Just got a call from the Emergency Operations Center and their sending the pumper and its crew to Fire Station Twenty-Seven.”

Every group, like every geographic region, develops a patois that is unique to them. The only way I know of to actually learn those speech patterns and traditions is to immerse yourself in that world. How do you do that?

You make a phone call and ask. Whether it’s the police station, the local hospital or an Air Force base, there’s someone on staff whose job it is to give you a tour and answer your questions. While you’re there, you trade business cards with as many subject matter experts as you can find.

Write around what you don’t know

Jonathan Grave has access to vast amounts of intelligence data that is collected by his right-hand-gal, Venice Alexander. Venice is a master computer hacker, with cyber skills that rival any expert in the world. Like Jonathan, I don’t understand how she does what she does, but she’s able to take an order from her boss and return vast amounts of information. And she does it all off the page, presumably between the chapter breaks.

I’m not a technology guy. As such, I know that the deeper I research the topic and present my research on the page, the greater chance that I’m going to get a very important something wrong. So, I write around the holes in my knowledge.

Okay, your turn

It’s a big world out there, and we’re all chasing different research rabbits down different holes. Please share your tricks and sources and websites for the topics near and dear to you. Consider them to be virtual business cards to help other writers find the information they’re looking for.

The Other Side of Newsletters

By John Gilstrap

Two days ago, on May 1, our own Sue Coletta posted an outstanding article here about newsletters, with the promise of more to come. As I read her piece, I found myself dealing with a low grade sense of anxiety–not because I disagreed with her, but rather because I think everything she said was exactly right.

I’ve stated here before that social media in general is my Achilles’ heel. I deeply don’t understand Twitter, which seems bloated and toxic, and I don’t photograph nearly enough of my life to drive my Instagram account. My social media safe space is my Facebook author page, where I’ll post a few times a week with interesting tidbits and photos–leaning heavily into dog pix because Kimber is the cutest creature on the planet. I don’t post book news unless it is timely and new, so that leaves me with the daily chores, pleasures and ironies of life.

I never post anything negative about health or family because I’m aware that I live a very blessed life and people don’t need to add my burdens to their own. I’m in the entertainment business, after all, so I figure it’s best to be, well, entertaining.

My YouTube channel, to which I have not posted in a while, is dedicated to helping writers learn their craft, but I would guess that most of my fans have little interest in becoming writers themselves.

Which brings me to my newsletter, which has over two or three times the number subscribers as my Facebook page has followers. Here’s where I start thinking too much. To me, newsletter articles need to reach a higher bar than social media posts. I’m invading a busy person’s inbox, which is a lot more intrusive than having a post sit passively on Facebook for people to see or ignore as they amble by. I use my newsletter for significant announcements about book launches, signings, appearances, that sort of thing, but they tend to all concentrate around the date. At Christmas, I’ll send out a virtual card with a link to the family Christmas letter, if people want to read it.

I know I should do more, if only because everyone tells me that, but what am I supposed to talk about, beyond the topics mentioned above? Fern Michaels’s website is a wonderful mix of newsy newsletter, recipes, a touch of technology and flowers. I think it’s great, informative, and very Fern Michaels-y. Her books aren’t about blowing stuff up, killing bad guys and saving the world.

I could always write about what interests me, such as guns, politics, gardening and cooking, but those pose challenges. Certainly, politics are a non-starter, and guns fall close enough to that high-voltage wire that I don’t want to submit myself to long screeds and diatribes. As for gardening (at which I suck but am learning) and cooking (at which I’m pretty good, if I do say so myself), neither one of those topics does much to advance my brand.

My lovely bride and I took a trip to Alaska back in February, about which I posted extensively on Facebook, but again, is that worth invading someone’s inbox with a newsletter? Isn’t it self-aggrandizing to show people who may be slogging through their day that I have the time and the wherewithal to go mushing and snowmobiling?

It is in my nature to overthink just about everything, and perhaps that’s what’s happening here. Rest assured, though, that if I had a better idea of what to post (outside the confines of book stuff), I’d be much more active with my newsletter.

Finding The Beginning

By John Gilstrap

It’s rare that the Chapter One I start with when writing a new book lives on as Chapter One in the final version. Usually, it’s a structural thing. I’ll realize after I’m a couple of dozen (or a couple of hundred) pages that I set the story up the wrong way. Sometimes, this leads me to move existing chapters around, and sometimes it leads me to write whole new sections. It’s all part of the process.

The lure of the prologue.

We all know that in the suspense genres, readers expect something big, plot-wise, in the opening pages of a book, yet as authors we have twenty pages of setup and backstory in our heads that we want to reveal so that the Big Moment will make more sense when it arrives.

“I know!” the writer says to himself. “I’ll start with a really exciting moment from Act 2 that will pique the readers’ interest, and I’ll call it a prologue. After that, they’ll endure those twenty boring pages because they know something exciting is coming.”

Sounds silly, doesn’t it? It’s the same silliness that explains why prologues are largely reviled and spell real danger coming from a rookie writer.

Action wins the day every time.

Here’s the opening (for now) of my current Jonathan Grave WIP (with apologies up front for the formatting glitch that I don’t know how to fix:

            JoeDog growled.

Jonathan Grave snapped awake and snatched his cocked and locked Colt 1911 .45 from the edge of his nightstand. As his right thumb touched the safety, his left thumb depressed the button for the muzzle light, launching an 800-lumen disk that revealed the entirety of his bedroom. If there’d been an intruder, the bad guy would be dead now.

But the room was empty, save for Jonathan and the ever-flatulent 65-pound Labrador retriever that shared his bed tonight.

I write every series book with the assumption that it is the first time a reader has encountered Jonathan’s world. At this stage, the action of the scene is everything. Readers don’t need any of the backstory. They know that there’s a guy who’s cautious enough to sleep with a loaded pistol on the nightstand, likable enough to share his bed with a big dog, and that the dog senses danger. If the first paragraphs drive readers to read the succeeding paragraphs, they have done their job.

Lessons from Harry Potter.

An exercise I love to lead when I do seminars is to ask students to tell me when Harry Potter’s story begins. (Spoilers ahead for the 5 people on the planet who’ve neither read the books nor watched the movies.) Hands shoot up and invariably, someone says the story begins when Baby Harry is delivered by Hagrid to the doorstep of the Dursley home.


Okay, then it begins when Dumbledore sucks the light out the street lamps with his magical Zippo.


Those events do, indeed, mark the beginning of the book and movie, but not the beginning of the story. The story begins 10 years before Harry was born, when James and Lilly Potter–Harry’s parents–were mean to a teenage Severus Snape. The backstory that emerges from those bygone years ultimately have a massive impact on the overall plot, but Rowling had the good sense not to start with that backstory.

In Medias Res

A quick peek into Encyclopedia Britannica, in medias res translates from Latin as “in the midst of things.” It’s a phrase used by every writing instructor as the place to begin a story for maximum impact on the reader. It’s worth considering. If you hook the reader at the beginning, and you keep the journey interesting, readers will follow to wherever you want to take them.

What say you, TKZ family? Does the proper beginning elude you at times? How do you find it?

Into The Breech

By John Gilstrap

During a book signing event a couple of weeks ago, a gentleman named Don handed me his card and introduced himself as an official with the West Virginia Writers Association, representing the Eastern Panhandle–the slice of heaven where I now live. I have since joined that group, and plan to attend their annual meeting in June.

As a recent emigree to the Mountain State, I’m working hard to establish as many connections as I can as quickly as I can. Don told me that there’s a writing group in Charles Town (nearby city) that meets regularly and he suggested that I give it a try. I reached out to the nice lady who runs the group, and I was invited into the fold.

Not sure what to expect or what I was getting into, I went to the designated spot at the designated time and we were off and running. It’s a small group, and it’s dedicated to workshopping WIPs. (WsIP?) Among the members, the levels of enthusiasm are high but the command of the craft varies widely. About ten minutes in, I realized that I’d entered a potential minefield.

It’s not my group.

The lady who runs the meetings–we’ll call her Dorothy–has worked hard to wrangle participants from disparate backgrounds and abilities into what seems to be a cohesive group–of which I want merely to be a part. The last thing I want to do is steal anyone’s thunder. That said, I have the answers to many of the questions bandied about the members, especially with regard to the book business–stuff like copyright law. As the new guy to any group, my inclination is to sit quietly and get a feel for the room, but when people are guessing at answers, I feel an obligation to set things straight. I realize now that that’s a lot like stealing thunder.

Critique group etiquette is alien to me.

For a quarter of a century now, I have taught writing sessions and seminars in which I am the presumed authority. When those seminars have included workshop sessions, I save my input until everyone else has had their say, and then I express my agreement or disagreement with those opinions and then offer my own. I’m something of a blunt object when it comes to offering critique–never cruel but always direct. I point out what I like and dislike, and I give my reasons why.

The new group brings a different structure. First point out the good, and then lay out the critique smoothly and with light brush strokes. Listen as the writer explains what they meant to say, often couched in the tone of, “It’s all there, how could you not see it?” Apologize if the honest assessment has offended.

The phrase, “In my opinion”, must be stated aloud before a critique can be given.

“It’s only a first draft.”

When the criticism comes, an oft sought safe harbor lies in the act of pointing out that the sample people have dedicated time and effort to read and critique is only a first draft–the implication being that the writer could have done better if they’d cared to make the effort. I want to point out (but haven’t yet) that no, your submission is not a first draft. It is the final draft of the version that you chose to submit for input.

“I don’t care about ever getting published.”

Those were the words of one of the members of the group. She went on to explain that she expresses herself exactly as she likes, and is not all that concerned if it makes sense to others or if they like it. It hurts her feelings when she hears negative feedback, but has no intention of internalizing that feedback or making any changes. Being a writer is who she is, she says. It’s her entire purpose in life. I’m not getting in the middle of that one.

Soon it will be my turn.

If I have seemed a bit snarky in the above paragraphs, please find none in this one. I really do want to sink roots into the local writing community, and while I feel a bit like a fish on the shore with this new group, I enjoy the interaction. I will do my best to live by the rules. And among the rules: you’ve got to pay to play. If I’m going to critique others, then I must submit to critique myself. That’s one hundred percent fair. And it will feel really, really weird.

I will submit my best work on my work-in-progress, and I will receive blunt input from real readers–a live audience to what is usually a recorded performance. I will sit quietly and I will absorb what they have to say. I will learn some things, and maybe they will, too. Or maybe not.

What do you all think about critique groups? What works? What doesn’t? Is it helpful or harmful in a group to have a wide range of writing experience?

Anatomy Of A Book Signing

By John Gilstrap

With the publication of White Smoke last month, the third book in my Victoria Emerson post-apocalyptic thriller series–the past couple of weekends have been consumed with signing events. On March 11, I was lucky to be a part of the Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival in Suffolk, Virginia. Hank Phillippi Ryan was the guest of honor, and I was one of 50 other authors representing every corner of the mysteryverse. Then, on March 18, I hosted a public signing at Four Seasons Books in Shepherdstown, WV. I am pleased and proud to report that I sold out of books at both events.

Having been in this business for a long time, I have some observations to share about the art and science of book signings. What follows are my own experience. Anyone who disagrees or sees things through a different lens are heartily invited to chip in.

The purpose of a live book signing has less to do with the author making money on the day of the event than it does about making the bookseller pleased and proud to have been involved in the event. Think about it from their point of view. Irrespective of how much of the promotional burden you choose to carry on your own (and that should be a lot–more later), the bookseller has to order the books in, promote it within the store and do whatever they can to build buzz. You don’t want them to feel as though they’ve wasted their time.

My book signings look a lot like cocktail parties. In the case of the signing at Four Seasons Books, since I’m new to the community, I bought a gorgeous charcuterie platter from Graze Ful, a local caterer, and we brought in red and white wines from Grapes and Grains Gourmet, a wine merchant located a block away from the bookstore. My wife is instrumental in making tables look lovely. To that end, we bring our own tables, tablecloths, napkins, glasses, trash bags and cleaning solutions. When the party is over, we want the bookseller to be left only with profits–not with a big cleaning chore.

I always bring extra books–especially for the first event with a new bookseller. It’s always hard to estimate how many books is the right number for a signing, and for reasons that make all the sense in the world, booksellers often underestimate. If they run out of their stock, they can dig into my author’s copies, which they sell at list price and then just backfill my copies with the next order from their distributor. This saves a lot of embarrassment.

Show loyalty to your bookseller. I have it on good authority that when John Grisham was just starting, trying to sell A Time to Kill out of the trunk of his car, only a handful of booksellers would allow him to do live promotional events in their stores. Among them, I am told, were That Bookstore in Blytheville (Blytheville, AR), Burke’s Books (Memphis), Square Books (Oxford, MS) and Quail Ridge Books (Raleigh). There might have been a couple of others. But here’s the cool part: after his career went stratospheric, those were the only stores where he would hold signing events. In the lead-up to his live event, he would sign (maybe he still does, I’ve never met him) thousands of pre-orders from each of those stores. Think of the windfall for the booksellers!

Now, I’m a mere bottom-feeder compared to that other JG, but I love the fact of his loyalty. So, now that I have settled into my forever home, I now have a forever bookstore. Anyone who buys my books through Four Seasons Books can get a signed copy mailed to them. I’ll even do personal inscriptions.

Promote, promote, promote. I’ve got something like 4,500 subscribers to my newsletter, and another 2,500 Facebook followers (presumably with quite a bit of overlap there). About two months ago, I sent out a save-the-date announcement. Two weeks before the event, I sent out invitations for the world to attend, and then a few days before the signing, I sent out yet another invitation, this time with parking instructions because street parking in Shepherdstown can be a bit dicey on the weekends. From all of that, I figure we had about 50 people come to the signing over the course of two hours. In addition to that, I signed a healthy handful of pre-orders.

You don’t need swag. As one of 50 authors at the Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival, my job for the day (1-5pm) was pretty much to sit at a signing table and wait for attendees who paid $30 apiece to attend to choose which books they wanted to buy. As I mentioned above, I was fortunate enough to sell out, but the sales per unit of butt-numbness was pretty low. I had lots of time to observe my book-hawking colleagues, taking note of what seemed to work and what did not.

Three or four had massive, five-foot-tall banners with their book titles and the authors’ likenesses, which they set up next to themselves–as if their flesh-and-blood presence is somehow reinforced by a printed image. I don’t understand the theory. Frankly, I think it projects a weird desperation.

While everyone loves candy, I don’t believe that miniature Snickers bars–or even Twix, the gold standard for candy–have ever sold a book. I watched countless attendees snag candy out of authors’ candy jars without even slowing. Not once did I see an author use the passing instant of candy-grabbing to engage the grabber in conversation about their book.

Engagement is everything. In the mind of your readers, your status as an author makes you a celebrity. Because of your talent and hard work, you are engaged in an activity that others dream of performing, and that makes many people uncomfortable to even say hi. It’s perfectly normal, and extremely humbling. As the focus of a signing event–irrespective of the venue–the responsibility lies with you to engage with attendees. When I’m stuck behind the table signing, my wife works the room to greet people and make them feel comfortable. Would they like something to eat? A glass of wine?

The enormously talented Lisa Scottoline actually stands in front of her signing table and greets every fan personally, often with a hug. I’m not a huggy guy, so that won’t work for me, but it’s very impressive to watch.

So, is handing out candy your thing? Bookmarks, maybe? That’s fine. If you find yourself sitting at a lonely table in a big box store where people are avoiding eye contact so they don’t have to talk to the author they’ve never heard of, consider filling your pockets with the swag from your dish and personally hand it out to customers in the aisles. I do this with bookmarks. “Hi. I’m John, the author at the front table. No pressure. I write thrillers. Here are a few of my titles if you want to look me up. Have a great day.” Every single person went right to their phones to look me up. A few then went on to buy books.

Okay, TKZ family, what am I missing?



Planning For the Unthinkable

By John Gilstrap

Yesterday, February 21, 2023, marked the launch date for White Smoke, the third book in my Victoria Emerson trilogy about the courage and inspiration of an unwilling leader who helps to rebuild society on the heels of a brief by devastating nuclear war. Quoting Chris Miller’s review from BestThrillerBooks.com:

Gilstrap champions Victoria Emerson through grace and grit. She defies post-apocalyptic America expectations by delivering hope and unity in uncertain times. On the outside she’s the epitome of what every person should look up to and garner their strength from, while on the inside things are probably not the same. She is the model citizen as she forces everyone to come to a realization that the old world is gone and it is up to them to make the best of the future. She is rock solid while leading from the front and you can tell the character development has been a pained one for her, but something that the people of Ortho have come to depend on.


Victoria Emerson is a leader for a reason, and she doesn’t sugarcoat the truth. The equity that she puts into Ortho and its people is just the same that she puts into her kids and their responsibilities. This is nothing short of what kind of people we hope come to lead our country in rough times, while the real world still has a say in things. White Smoke has action, emotion, and every bit of unease you could ask for.

Pretty cool, eh?

As part of the marketing push for the release, Kensington Books asked me to write an essay to be inserted in various newsletters for distribution to booksellers. When I finished that project, I realized that I had something to share here on the Killzone Blog. It’s not exactly about writing, but I think it provides insight into how hopes, fears and concerns can morph into a story. Here we go:

Preparing For the Unthinkable

I’ve never admitted this in public before: Given the depth and breadth of political
divisions in the United States, I believe that the probability of massive civil unrest is higher today than it has been since 1861. I’m less concerned about international conflict of the nature represented in the Victoria Emerson trilogy, but there’s an unsettling amount of crazy going around.

I hope I’m wrong about all of the above, but beginning in 2017, my wife and I started
planning for the unthinkable. Without going into detail, we live in the country now, largely away from other people, in a place where abundant furry protein sources wander through my property every day. My freezer and pantry are well stocked, but if things go bad, we have a hedge against starvation. Our water comes from a well so we’re no longer dependent upon a municipal bureaucracy to survive. My next step is to become a competent gardener—which, if last summer is any indication, remains a distant if not impossible dream.

All these changes have bought me is time. By being prepared, I can wait out the worst of civil unrest.

Is Survival Important To You?

That’s not a trick question. I grew up in the crucible of the Cold War as a Navy brat. If
the balloon went up, Dad would be off to war and my mother proclaimed her intent to stand outside to be vaporized as early as possible. She wanted nothing to do with the deprivations of a postapocalyptic world.

I don’t share that mindset, though I do understand it. The life we live now, as hard as it
might be, is easy-peasy compared to life after a catastrophe. The constructs of good, dependable, honest governance are the only elements that keep our feral nature at bay. It wasn’t that long ago that people were shooting each other over toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Imagine how ugly things would get if the stakes involved whose baby gets the last vial of lifesaving medication.

The question on the table is, How far are you willing to go to ensure your family’s
survival? Your answer can be neither right nor wrong, but it does require some introspection.

Getting your head right.

Disasters come in all sizes, from a fire in your basement to an intruder in your home;
from an active shooter in the shopping mall to major weather events. Regardless of the scale of the disaster, certain priorities always apply:

1. Stuff doesn’t matter. Whether it’s your new Lamborghini or your grandma’s book of family recipes, stuff is just stuff. It doesn’t have a heartbeat, and it’s not worth sentencing your kids to an orphanage to save it from being harmed.

2. You and your family are all that matters. In the Victoria Emerson books, I refer to the concentric circles of relationships. When bad stuff happens, everything and everyone is secondary to the survival of my family. That might seem selfish at first glance, but it’s not. Fact is, everybody practices the concept, even if they don’t think of it that way.

3. Pets are important, too. But they’re not people.

4. Escape is always better than conflict. Every fight you walk away from is a victory,
whether it’s from an intruder in your hallway or a hurricane barreling toward your house.

5. If conflict is unavoidable, bring it fast and in a big way. And train your kids. If
someone touches them inappropriately or tries to grab them, train them to gouge out the attacker’s eyes with their thumbs or bite off their fingers. All you need to do is buy enough time to run away (see #4 above). Teach them to scream. Our message to our son when he was growing up was that it is better to die on the street than to get shoved into a car. I still believe that to be true.

6. Have an evacuation plan. What do you want your kids to do if they wake up to the
sound of a smoke detector? (Hint: wandering the halls of your burning house looking for Mom and Dad is a bad plan.)

7. Have a plan to reunite. During an emergency, you don’t want to waste valuable escape time looking for each other. Spend those critical first seconds seeking safety. Once the hazard is behind you, know where you can go to find family members from whom you became separated. If they are not present at that spot when you arrive, let the emergency responders know. In the Victoria Emerson series, this planning takes a long view. Because Victoria was separated from one of her children, they had a standing plan in place that if something catastrophic happened while they were separated, they all knew to gather at Top Hat Mountain for their eventual reunion.

Now that your head is in the right place, what’s next?

The first step is to prepare yourself, your family, and your pantry for tough times. Few
people have Rambo’s knowledge of survival skills, but a quick search will reveal dozens of books on the subject. Outdoor Life Magazine compiled as good a list of references as I’ve seen. I haven’t read them all, but I’ve read a few and they’re all helpful and interesting.

Do you plan to evacuate or shelter in place?

If you plan to evacuate, where are you going to go? If your first choice is to drive 500
miles to Grandma’s house, think harder. Weather events and civil unrest make roads impassable. Is there a place you can hike to, even if it would take a few days? You’ll need food, shelter, and a means to carry or create clean drinking water. The challenges of a long hike in the winter are entirely different than those same challenges in the summertime.

If you expect to shelter in place, plan to do so without electricity or running water. In an
urban environment, you don’t want to confront the desperate neighbors who are flocking to the grocery store to strip their shelves, so commit yourself to keeping five days’ worth of basics in your pantry. Even if it’s cans of tuna and jugs of water, it’s enough to keep you alive and away from marauders on the street.

How do you plan to protect yourself and your family from others?

In the immediate aftermath of the government’s emergency declarations regarding the
pandemic of 2020-22, panicked Americans flocked to gun stores to purchase unprecedented numbers of firearms. Many of those buyers made their purchases out of fear that the normal mechanisms of law enforcement would be unable to protect them from harm.

Most of those firearms are still out there in the hands of people who have received
precious little training in their use. More than a few will see taking stuff from you as an integral part of their survival plan. That’s a recipe for someone having a very bad day.

My plan for my family is to stay away from it all and mind my own business, in hopes
that others will do likewise. If you’re on the scumpti-fifth floor of a high-rise that is situated among other high-rises, your situation will likely be more complicated. I don’t have the answers that will work for you, but these are things worth thinking about and planning for.

What say you, TKZ family? Have you peeked down this rather frightening rabbit hole? To the degree you’re willing to share, what planning have you done for the unthinkable?


The Invisible Writer

By John Gilstrap

I spent last week in Las Vegas at the SHOT Show, the once-again-annual convention thrown by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF). Attended by roughly 65,000 people, the SHOT Show is to the shooting, hunting and outdoor adventure industry what the Detroit Auto Show is for cars. It’s the place where firearms manufacturers announce their new products. It’s also the place where I can meet up with the various subject matter experts who keep me from making huge mistakes. Good times.

On the flight out, I watched an episode of a documentary called, “One Perfect Shot,” which turned out to be entirely different than what I was expecting. The shots in this series refer to movies. Each episode highlights a different film director, who chooses his or her favorite shot, and reveals the story behind the story. I chose to watch the episode in which Michael Mann discusses the the bank robbery sequence from Heat–hands down, I believe, the best gunfight ever filmed.

The episode was interesting, but it featured a filmmaking quirk that is the point of writing this post. The director of the episode, whose name I cannot find in the brief time I am willing to dedicate to the search, chose to shoot much of her interview with Michael Mann in a wildly asymmetrical way. If you’ve studied filmmaking at all, you know about the rule of thirds, where the subject of an interview is rarely in the center of the screen. In this episode, which appears to have been shot in a black box theater and is formatted in wide screen, the subject spends much of the screen time in the lower corner, with his eyes looking off screen, rather than toward the center, which is the expected convention.

It was an interesting choice, but I think it was also a foolish one. I chose the episode because I wanted to hear the director’s story. The quirky filmmaking took away from that in a way that felt almost disrespectful. Mann was the man of the moment, yet the director decided to call attention to him/herself. It interrupted the story that it was trying to tell.

There’s an analogy her to writing for the page.

I strive to remain invisible in my writing. I want my readers to be fully aware of everything my characters are thinking and feeling, thoroughly immersed in Brother Bell’s “fictive dream.” The moment I draw attention to myself, I show disrespect to my characters and their tribulations.

Writerly affectations–lack of quotation marks for dialogue, impossibly long paragraphs, and the like–annoy me. They eject me from the story. Good writing isn’t flowery, it’s concise. This is why word choice matters so much. Why the flow of sentences matters.

If you’re reading this and you’re new to the craft, think twice–and then twice again–about the nature and structure of that oh-so-important first book. Adhere to conventions while still being interesting. I have repeated proclaimed that there are no rules in this writing game, and I always will. But there are expectations and human reactions.

On the rare occasions when I agree to critique rookie writing, I cringe when I see that the piece is written in present tense. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that, but it’s hard to pull off, and my Spidey sense warns me that there’s likely to be trouble ahead. The reason? Because the author is deliberately writing against the current and trying to draw attention to himself. One of the reasons I don’t read fantasy/science fiction (or many foreign novels) is the propensity for unpronounceable names. How am I supposed to keep the characters straight in my head if I can’t say their names?

Are you Mensa and have a giant vocabulary? Good for you. If you want to succeed in a commercial fiction market, check your brilliance at the door. Obeisance is a fine word, but respect is better recognized and known by more people. If you’re hoping to sell your stories, you’re hoping to break into a corner of the entertainment business. Everything you do is about your customer–your reader–not you.

When I mention this in seminars, I often field objections from students who are incensed that I expect them to write down to people. Inherent within the objection is a sense that writers are smarter than their readers. (One cannot write down without considering oneself to be above.) I don’t believe that to be the case at all. My job is to give readers a fun ride, and to make it feel effortless on my part. That effortless part is where the really hard work comes in.

So, TKZ family, what do you think? How easy is it for you to be ejected from a story? Do you like authors to show off, or do prefer for them to stay in the background?

Ringing Out the Old Year With Hate Mail

By John Gilstrap

Looking back on 2022, I confess I’m pleased by what I see. Two books and an anthology published, and two books written for publication in 2023. New house, new puppy, new radio gig, and a calming of pandemic panic that allowed the conference circuit to open up again.

For the most part, reviewers are kind to my books, to the point that I generally look forward to opening the emails I receive through my website. When I do receive the occasional negative email, it generally deals with the presence of too many typos or grammatical errors. Truth be told, the typos annoy me, too.

Then came Boxing Day, December 26, when I found this missive in my inbox from Mary Anne X:

I liked Stealth Attack right up until chapter 17, where Gilstrap once again revealed his proTrump mentality and his anti gun control stance. If he wants his protagonists to fight real corruption, he should have Jonathan Graves take on the Oath Keepers, or the Proud Boys, or the Trump administration itself. I don’t care if Gilstrap personally supports those criminals, but he’ll lose readers and profits if he doesn’t leave politics out of his novels. I’m done with his projecting such ignorance onto his fictional heroes. There’s better stuff to read. Can’t wait to write a review.

Okaay . . .

Stealth Attack hit the stands in July, 2020, which means I wrote it in 2019. When I read the email, I was confused. I couldn’t remember anything in that book that resembled anything that Mary Anne found so offensive. Recognizing that I am getting no younger, and that my memory isn’t necessarily as acute as it used to be, I pulled the book from my shelf and re-read Chapter 17.

To set the scene, Roman Alexander, a young man who’s very close to Jonathan Grave, has been kidnapped from El Paso by members of a drug cartel and spirited back across the border for reasons as-yet unknown in the story, though evidence is pointing toward human trafficking and child prostitution. Chapter 17 sees Jonathan and his team confronting cartel monsters in a bar in Sinaloa.

Best I could tell, this must have been the offending passage. As Jonathan muses about the challenge they face:

The U.S. State Department had had a travel advisory in place against most of the northern half of Mexico for the better part of a year now. Local gun laws were so draconian that possession of even a single bullet could get you put away for most of a lifetime, so no one was able to defend themselves against the gangsters who terrorized the country. The cartels owned the cops and the politicians, who cooperated by making sure that the populace was unable to resist or defend themselves.

By the time the chapter ends, a child prostitute’s pimp has a very, very bad day.

Let me stipulate from the beginning that every reader is 100% entitled to his or her own opinion. I read every email I receive and every review I can find. I never take offense from the bad ones and I try not to let the effusive ones swell my head. If someone feels passionate enough to share their opinion, I’ve at least made an impression.

The reason I bring this email to the fore at all is the underlying meanness it carries. Mary Anne’s intent, as implied in her concluding sentence, is to harm my career. It’s not that my writing is bad, it’s that I’m a bad person for writing it. It’s reflective of the times, I suppose. Oath Keepers and Proud Boys? I have no idea where that came from.

Here’s my big concern. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve built a following that trusts me to do my best to write a thriller that thrills. The one-off review like this gets counter-balanced by lots of others, so its impact on my career as a writer is negligible (at least I hope it is). For beginning writers, however, a screed like Mary Anne’s could be devastating. It’s mean spirited. I don’t understand the mindset.

I do think it’s interesting that in referring to “Gilstrap” in the body of her email, Mary Anne clearly doesn’t realize that she’s writing to me directly. I wonder if that bit of knowledge would have affected the tone of her missive. I’ll wager $100 that she would not have spoken that way to my face (no implied threat there from me, only suspected cowardice from her).

Now for my next challenge. While I never–NEVER!!!–respond to negative reviews, I promise on my website to always respond to every email. So . . . what to do? Here’s my response:

Hi, Mary Anne.

Thanks for your note. I promise on my website that I respond to every email, and I confess that most are more pleasing to address than yours. Sorry to push you away. I wrote Stealth Attack back in 2019, so I confess that you drove me to take another look at Chapter 17. You probably won’t be surprised that I don’t see what you saw, but that’s the nature of books. Once they’re launched, readers’ impressions are all that matters.
In today’s hyper-partisan climate, I think it can be too easy to project politics into places where they don’t exist. Fiction can cut close to reality, but at the end of the day, it’s still fiction. In Jonathan Grave’s world, Tony Darmond has been president for 14 years, and I don’t even know how long Irene Rivers has been director of the FBI. I don’t report on real government corruption, but rather create corruption that gives my cast of characters a reason to do what they do.
I intend to give my readers a thrill ride that may keep them up  at night, but I never intend to anger them. In your case, I seem to have dropped the ball.
I wish you a happy New Year.
If only you could read the first two drafts of that response–the ones that felt good to write but could never be sent.
Here’s to a terrific 2023!



Writing Out of Sequence

By John Gilstrap

Twenty years ago, I met Barry Livingston by way of helping him shop his industry autobiography, The Importance of Being Ernie. Barry played Ernie, the youngest Douglas child in the iconic My Three Sons television show. During my discussions with him–and through reading his book–I learned that MTS was the first television series to feature a bona fide movie star, in the person of Fred MacMurray. In those days, television was seen as a lower form of entertainment (and a huge threat to feature films). To cross over was to risk one’s career in movies.

One of the most fascinating details Barry shared with me was the fact that MacMurray’s contract stipulated that he would be on the MTS set for only a very limited number of days–this during a time when a television season ran up to 30 episodes a year! The schedule required a bizarre filming strategy. During his time on set, MacMurray shot only his scenes from every episode. If he wasn’t physically in the shot, the shot was not filmed. This meant that every angle on any scene that did not directly involve MacMurray was shot at a different time.

Think about that from Barry Livingston’s point of view: you’re six or seven years old and every reaction and every closeup of you is shot out of context and out of sequence. I haven’t seen MTS in many years, but my recollection is that he pulled it off pretty well.

Movies have always been shot out of sequence for budgetary reasons. You either shoot out a location or you shoot out a character so that you limit expenses. It seems to me that that’s much easier when the script is finished, the shots are story boarded and blocked, and all the actors have to do is, well, act.

In my most recent couple of books, I’ve experimented with writing out of sequence. In the past, I would write my books more or less as they appear in the final version, shifting POVs real time as the story unfolds. More recently, I’ve started to write straight through a POV character’s story arc, and then moving on to do the same for another POV character. At the end of the draft, I cut and paste to get the story to flow correctly.

The process works pretty well until I get to a scene where multiple POV characters are interacting. At that point, I have to decide to whom the scene belongs, and then I write the scene accordingly, giving myself an anchor point for each of the involved characters–a point to which they all must somehow arrive as I’m writing out of sequence.

A Throwback To Accident Investigation

One of my professors in graduate school was Ludwig (Ludi) Benner, who invented an accident investigation technique called Multilinear Event Sequencing (MES). In its simplest form, MES recognizes that at some point before an event, every injured person and every damaged object was at a point of stasis, where everybody and everything was okay. An instant later, an as-yet unknown event occurs (which itself is always the result of other sub-events) and the result is scattered debris and injured people.

In applying MES strategy to the investigation, every person and every bit of debris is considered an actor and is given its own timeline. If we know that a propellant mix was at normal temperature at 09:03:54:70, started to rise slowly at 09:03:54:72, spiked at 09:04:24:78, and went dark at 09:04:55:31 (followed by a big boom), we have a valuable frame of reference. The duration of the primary event was just over one minute, so that defines the timeline for the initial investigation. Every fragment of the building and the tooling will be mapped and examined. If the tooling shows signs of shear, then the explosion was low-order; if it is fractured, that points to a high order explosion, and that determination then leads to other conclusions and avenues of investigation. Bottom line: every bit of debris is the result of an identifiable force which is the result of some other definable force.

Let’s say that the explosion was the result of contamination in the propellant mix. Now, the investigation turns in that direction. With quality controls being what they are, someone somewhere made a big mistake. Every worker and outside player now gets their own timeline. If it turns out that every one of our own workers followed their protocols and procedures to the letter, we now have to turn our attention to the transportation company that delivered the components to us, and the manufacturer or distributor from which the transporter picked up the materials.

That’s a lot of timelines to keep track of, but if you’re true to the process and you’re patient, the intersections of the timelines always bring big reveals.

Plotting Is A Close Cousin To Accident Investigation 

In accident investigation, you start with a set of conditions that are the result of a story the investigators labor to unfold. As an author, I start with a premise and evolve it into a disaster by creating the multilinear events that all interact with each other to create the end result I’m looking for.

Using the propellant example above, let’s say we want our hero safety engineer (why haven’t we seen more of those in fiction?) to discover that the contamination of the mix was the result of Russian sabotage. How do we get there, and how do we do it in a way that is always engaging for the reader? Here comes the reverse engineering:

  • Why do the Russians want to create an explosion?
  • Why choose this route instead of, say, planting a car bomb?
  • How does the saboteur avert the internal quality control processes?
  • What is the plotting road map that leads our hero to discover the truth?
  • Once our hero learns the truth, why doesn’t he call the FBI and let them take care of things?

There are many more, of course, but the point here is that by choosing one character’s arc and writing it all the way through (or mostly all the way), you discover the data points that other characters need to find.

Is this something you’d try in your own writing?

On a personal note, this is my last post for 2022 as we head toward our Holiday Hiatus. I wish all of you a wonderful holiday season, and nothing but the best in the coming new year. If you’re into Christmas letters that run to the long side, here’s a link to the Semi-Decennial Gilstrap Christmas Letter.