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 Fairfax, VA.

The Virtual You Redux

By John Gilstrap

Back in October of 2020, I posted a piece here that I called “The Virtual You,” which Talked about some of the basic lessons I’d learned about Zooming. That article talks about framing and lighting and a little about set design. A lot has changed since then, so I thought I’d share some updates.

My New Set

Two months ago, we completed our move to West Virginia, which was two years in the making, the final 7 months of which was in a tiny apartment in an urban part of Northern Virginia. In moving into the new place I designed my office around the reality of video-oriented promotional opportunities. My office in the previous house was designed such that my desk was in front of a pretty bay window that looked out onto the neighborhood. I enjoyed having all that light coming in over my shoulders while I worked, but it made for a terrible video backdrop. As a consequence, I did all my Zooming from the bar in my basement. It looked cool, but was not appropriate for all audiences.

Now, in the West Virginia forever office, I can shoot video from my desk, and the backdrop is a bookcase loaded with my books. (Always be marketing, right?) It’s quite the relief not to have to go traipsing down two levels every time I need to do an interview.

Built-In Teleprompter

Because I can do what I need to do from my desk, I have the advantage of a second screen on which I can see the people I’m talking to without looking down, or, in the case of videos for my YouTube Channel, I can have an outline of what I want to say right there in my peripheral vision. In my old YouTube setup, I would have to tape cheat sheets to the walls and bookcases to keep the narrative on track.

Note The Angle Of The Camera

In the first iteration of “The Virtual You” I talked about my obsession about not featuring my various chins in the video frame–the curse of recording through my laptop’s built-in camera. What you see in the photo is a Logitech 1080p Webcam. Mine is a couple of years old, but the newer versions cost less than $60.

It’s a bit tricky getting Windows to recognize the external webcam as the default device. You have to go into settings and disable the built-in cameras. (That was about 45 minutes of research boiled down to a sentence. You’re welcome.)

New Lighting Design

The French doors you see on the right in the photo create interesting challenges for lighting. Those doors face due west. Without obscuring them with a blanket–something I don’t want to do–any camera work that happens in the last 30 minutes before sunset will be impossible to light properly. For the rest of the day, though, I find that if I turn on the overhead light, and crank up the ring light in the corner, I can live with what I get. The light is pointed toward the wall because the reflected light works better than straight-on.

Improved Sound

With the publication of Blue Fire back in February, I have been slammed with podcasts and radio interviews. One of the most enjoyable interviews was with David Temple, who hosts The Thriller Zone podcast. At the conclusion of the interview, I asked him specifically for suggestions on how to make my own performance (if that’s the right word) better. Reluctantly, he told me that my audio quality was substandard with lots of echo. At my request, he sent some recommendations for high-quality yet affordable sound equipment.

After a couple of weeks of due diligence, I decided on the Rode NT-USB Mini studio-quality microphone. For less than $100, I am very pleased with the results. Since then, several interviewers have commented without my asking that the quality of sound is very good. And let’s face it, when you’re listening to a podcast, bad sound is a turnoff. Through experimentation, I learned that closer is better when using the USB Mini, so I bought a mic stand that keeps the device about two inches from my lips while I speak, yet still below the lower margin of the viewing frame.

Anything Worth Doing . . .

You know the adage, and you know it’s true. Remote speaking and teaching and conferencing are a permanent part of our business lives. How are y’all embracing the new reality?

 

 

Flammable Liquids Don’t Exist

By John Gilstrap

Remember that scene toward the end of “The Bourne Identity” (a really good film) when Jason Bourne shoots the fuel tank in the backyard and it explodes? Yeah, no. Wouldn’t happen. Ditto the car that blows up after getting in a wreck or after the fuel tank is shot.

Somewhere, I know I’ve watch a scene in a movie where Character A douses Character B with gasoline and lights a Zippo, threatening B-boy with immolation if he doesn’t give up the wanted information. That won’t work either because they’d both be consumed by the same fireball.

Under tightly-controlled-don’t-try-this-at-home conditions, you can extinguish a match in a can of gasoline. This is because . . .

No liquids burn. And with the exception of some metallic substances, no solids burn either. Only gases and vapors burn.

Definitions Break:

Vapors are created as liquids evaporate (create vapor). They are the same chemical composition as the liquids from which they are derived, and if they are cooled, they will condense back into liquid form.

A gas is in a gaseous state at normal atmospheric pressure and temperature. When pressurized, gases will condense into liquids, but the instant the containment is breached, the liquid will convert instantly to a gas.

Flash Point

On the coldest day of the year in most parts of the world, if you put a match into a puddle of gasoline, you’ll get a fireball because the flash point of gasoline is about -50 degrees Fahrenheit. (“Flash point” has nothing to do with a visible flash of light. When a liquid evaporates [creates vapor], the technical term for that is to flash. The “flash point” is the temperature at which a liquid begins to create combustible vapors. Given the topic, it’s an unfortunate source of confusion.)

By comparison, the flashpoint of diesel fuel is between 125 and 180 degrees Fahrenheit. On that coldest day, you’d have a hard time getting diesel to ignite because there’d be no vapors to burn.

Back when my Big Boy Job had me teaching hazardous materials response classes to corporations, one of my best clients was a company that did hardhat diving into million-gallon tanks of flammable liquids like toluene to use cutting torches to fix plumbing deep inside the tank without emptying it. There was no chance of ignition because there are no vapors in the middle of a liquid. Along the surface of the tank, it gets a little dicey, though.

But The Sign Says “Flammable Liquid”

There’s not a lot of room for nuance or subtlety on a hazmat placard. The US Department of Transportation decided decades ago that first responders should know the difference between a milk truck and a gasoline truck. They came up with their Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG). By their definition, a “flammable liquid” is one that has a flashpoint below 100 degrees Fahrenheit. A “combustible liquid” is one with a flash point between 100 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Labels notwithstanding, liquids still don’t burn.

Vapors Displace Oxygen, and Nothing Burns Without Oxygen

When you fill the gas tank in your car, you don’t really fill it. You leave a vapor space in the top of the tank. Those vapors displace the ambient atmosphere inside the, bringing the oxygen levels down to nearly nothing.

In your story, when you shoot a car in its gas tank, the bullet tears through a lot of liquid and a lot of vapor, but since there’s no oxygen, there’ll be no explosion. More likely, the gasoline will leak out of the bullet hole. Once exposed to the atmosphere, the spilled gas will begin to evaporate and then the vapors can burn. As more liquid spills, the fire will get bigger, but it’s hard to conceive of the circumstance where you’d get a “bang” from the gasoline. A “whump” is more feasible.

Most Flammable Vapors Are Heavier Than Air

A lot heavier, in fact. When we create that puddle of gasoline, the vapors won’t rise. If we’re at elevation, they will flow down to the lowest point. If we’re on a flat surface, they will spread out, making the hazard area of the spill much, much larger.

Uncontained Liquids Will Evaporate

Let’s go back to the guy we doused in gasoline. All that liquid we poured on him is creating an invisible vapor cloud. If we’re close enough to talk, we’re enveloped in the same vapor cloud. When you thumb that Zippo, you’re likely to have as bad a day as your intended victim.

Does It Matter?

Here’s the question I struggle with when I address the real aspects of guns and hazmats: Does it matter? Should a film director care that the really cool scene couldn’t happen in real life, or should he just go with the really cool scene? After all, we write fiction.

What say you? Does it matter?

Making It Feel Real

By John Gilstrap

Fiction writers are sleight of hand masters. We create stories about people who do not really exist doing things that never happened in places that may or may not be real, all the while painting word pictures in readers’ heads. Sometimes with our eyes closed.

One question that comes up frequently when interacting with readers is some variation of “How do you do your research?” Depending on the audience, I have a lengthy, nuanced response that deals with building an extensive contacts list of people who not only know stuff, but will return my phone calls. That’s all true, but in reality, I don’t turn to the experts all that often.

For the most part, I cheat. I make stuff up. I can’t count the number of scenes that have played out inside the suburban house I grew up in. My wife grew up in a creepier house than I did, so that one has been featured many times, too. In Total Mayhem, Gail Bonneville and Venice Alexander break into the fictional Northern Neck Academy, which looks very, very much like the swanky private school where I worked during my college summers as a counselor at a day camp for overprivileged rich kids.

By knowing in my head what a place looks like–because I’ve been there and can report from memory to the page–making the settings real for the reader is a matter of reporting what I see in the pictures in my memory banks.

My research for Six Minutes to Freedom took me to the jungles and barrios of Panama, so every time a jungle appears in a book, those are the jungles I see. I have been in the West Wing of the White House exactly one time and even managed a peek at the Oval Office, so I know the feel of the place. (NOTE: Besides the Oval itself, the West Wing looks nothing like the version shown in the television show bearing its name.)

Google Earth is a gift to writers.

My book Final Target features a lengthy escape sequence where Jonathan Grave needs to get his team and a busload of orphans to an exfiltration point on the northern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula while pursued by cartel bad guys. In part because the cartel bad guys are very real and quite active in those parts, I had no desire and zero intention to visit the place.

So, I cheated. Google Earth offers a “street view” function that allowed me to “drive” Jonathan’s route to the exfil point. I don’t dwell on specific structures, but I did mention landmarks at different intersections, and I was able to see where and how the nature of the vegetation changes. I even pinpointed the big house where the final shootout happened.

Everything is research.

Back when I still had my Big Boy Job, my duties took me to Ottawa, where I fell in love with the city. (Actually, I’ve fallen in love with a lot of places in Canada.) In High Treason, bad guys spirit Jonathan’s precious cargo across the border into Canada, and I needed a location for the final conflict. I remembered from my visit that islands in the middle of the Ottawa River, very near the government buildings. Those would suit my purposes perfectly. But those islands don’t have the kind of structures I needed.

So, I cheated. I remembered from an earlier vacation trip to Ireland that we visited Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, and that would be perfect. I changed its name and planted it on that island in the Ottawa River. Then I blew a lot of it up. I did get a few letters from readers who felt it necessary to tell me that there is, in fact, no prison on those islands, but not as many as I had feared.

It’s okay not to be real.

Writers are inherently inquisitive people, I think, and our passion to do research too often takes us down rabbit holes where countless hours are wasted. I work to deadlines, so I often don’t have that luxury. I have to remind myself that fiction is merely the impression of reality. I don’t have to be able to do all of the things that my characters can do. All I have to do is convince the reader that the characters are able to do the stuff they do.

It’s all a part of going on the great pretend.

How about you, TKZ family? Any research shortcuts you want to share?

 

Behavioral Analysis Unit

By John Gilstrap

I have been a member of International Thriller Writers since the very first year of its existence. ITW is a great organization for writers in all stages of their careers, membership is free, and they have some terrific publications. Among these publications is “The Big Thrill”, the association’s monthly newsletter. A new feature within the newsletter is a column called The Big Thrill’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, which asks authors to answer 20 questions. My turn in the breach was last month, and I thought I’d share a few of the questions and my answers. I’m hoping y’all will take a stab at answering them for yourself.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I’m not sure that “perfect happiness” exists. We all have those thrilling moments—the birth of a child, the big success at work, or even a quiet walk in the woods with your best friend—but those are counterbalanced by the other stresses of life. Perhaps a parent is ill, or a sibling just lost his job. I think the real definition of happiness is finding the handle to balance the good and the bad, always trusting that even in the worst times, better times are coming.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

I overthink and analyze everything. Having spent many years as a safety engineer, cause-and-effect analysis is baked into my DNA. I don’t enter a place without noting where the exits are. When I drive, I’m always driving—I’m not taking in the beauty of the world. I can’t turn it off, and it can be exhausting.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?

Dishonesty. Lie to me once on a substantive matter and we’re done. Betray a confidence and we’re done. Trust is fragile. Once broken, I don’t know that it can be repaired.

What is your favorite way to waste time?

I can sit in one place for long periods of time and just watch. Whether it’s waves crashing onto the beach, or a breeze blowing through the forest, or people in a shopping mall, I find great contentment in sitting quietly and paying attention

What’s your favorite place in the world?

Well, home, of course, but I don’t think that’s what you mean. As a visitor, I have travelled all over. I’ve spent at least two days in all 50 states, and I’ve seen most of Europe, and a good chunk of Canada. That’s a lot of beauty. For natural beauty, Bryce Canyon, Utah and Lake Louise in Alberta are right up there, as are the Amalfi Coast and Italian Vineyards. My favorite cities are Paris, Prague, Lisbon and Reykjavik. But after visiting all of those, nothing beats the back porch, watching the deer and wild turkeys do their thing in the forest.

What is your favorite word?

My favorite word, if I’m being honest, is the F-bomb. While I never use it in my books, it’s a staple of my everyday vocabulary. It’s the only word cathartic enough to ease the pain of a stubbed toe, and it’s a universal modifier of every noun.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

This one’s easy: Shut up and write. Talking about writing, reading about writing, attending classes on writing is not writing. While those things may be beneficial, they are more likely just time sucks. Writing is the acting of committing words to the page—or to the screen, I suppose.

Okay, TKZ family. It’s your turn.

Home Invasion Redux (And A Bit Of Gun Porn)

By John Gilstrap

On Monday, Sue Coletta posted a gonzo good post on setting up a plan to prevent/cope with a home invasion. She called it “Easy Prey Dies First” and the title says it all. If you haven’t read it, you should follow the link and do it now.

In her pulse-pounding opening, Sue painted a picture of waking up at 2 a.m. to the sound of breaking glass followed by the sound of footsteps on the stairs. What would I do?

I’ll get to my answer below, but let’s think through some options first. Given that violence never comes with a Playbill, we can never know until after the fact if the stranger in your house is there to take your life or merely to steal your stuff. Where I live, in West Virginia, it’s a distinction without a difference. We’re a true castle doctrine state. More than a few states, however, punish a homeowner for a violent encounter unless an intruder poses a direct, definable threat to their lives–and then only after they have made a reasonable effort to flee and seek shelter.

In my former home state of Virginia, lethal force was considered justified inside the home, but only if there was a direct threat. If a resident hears a noise downstairs, away from the sleeping area, the law tips against him if he seeks out a suspected intruder and confronts the bad guy. Prosecutors will charge the homeowner with manslaughter because, in the eyes of the law, the homeowner started the fight. The bad guy was merely stealing stuff.

These are important points to consider when you’re putting your home invasion plan together. It would suck to go to prison for defending your home with violence and then see your family be sued into poverty by the bad guy’s relatives.

Now, let’s assume that going to guns is an option. There are other supremely important considerations:

Are all of your family members accounted for?

One of the strongest arguments against having a gun in the house is the reasonable likelihood that it will be used accidentally against a family member. It would be beyond tragic for a late homecoming or a 2 a.m. trip to the kitchen to result in homicide. In the circumstance posited by Sue in her post, the shattering of glass pretty much takes those mistakes off the table.

I believe the solution here is to educate and train all your family members on the safe handling and use of the firearms you have in the house. Most shooting ranges have a young shooter program.

Involve the entire family in your plan.

Specifically, what do you want your kids to do? My suggestion if they’re young is to tell them that if they hear or see dangerous things in the middle of the night, they should yell for help, but never, under any circumstances should they open their bedroom door. If the kids are older, consider giving them a more active role in the plan.

And about bedroom doors . . . Closed doors add over five minutes of survival time in a housefire. Of the times I pulled dead kids out of fires, 100% slept with their doors open. Correlation is not causation, but the physics of fire behavior is pretty clear on this. A topic for a future post, perhaps.

Is calling for help an option?

We’ve all heard the cynical wisdom that when seconds matter, police are only minutes away. There’s a lot of truth in that, but it’s always–ALWAYS–a good idea to place a call or text to 9-1-1 to get law enforcement on the way. It establishes for the record that a crime is in progress and it gets officers on the way.

In rural areas and in some understaffed cities, response times can be disturbingly long–a fact that puts more pressure on the home defender.

Running away is always the best solution.

A punch not thrown never hurts. But our hypothetical scenario has the bad guy on the stairs, which define my way out of the house. Now that I’m halfway through my sixth decade, a jump from the second floor is not in the cards. But if you can get away, do so. And stay away. Your legal standing gets really murky when you leave a place of safety to return to a fight. In many states, that makes you the aggressor and the bad guy the defender.

Again, remember to include the kids in your plan. Generally, society frowns on parents who flee a home invader and leave their children behind to fend for themselves. Be sure to have a designated rally point somewhere away from the house so you can count noses after the house is empty.

Sheltering in place is bad advice.

Feel free to disagree and yell at me, but I believe this with all my heart. When you hide in a closet or in a corner, your surrender all maneuverability and grant all the advantage to the bad guy.

If violence is your solution, try to bring the fight to the bad guy.

This brings me back to Sue’s original scenario. Stairways are God’s gift to home defenders, the best possible place to have your violent confrontation with the bad guy because he has no place to go. He’s stuck in a chute with little to no maneuvering room and no ability to establish a good fighting stance. I would move as quickly as possible to meet him at the top of the stairs, looking down on him, and there we’d have a very serious discussion about his future.

I tell people that they should consider the stairs to the sleeping level to be their Alamo. That’s where they make their stand. As long as the bad guy is rummaging around the house where there are no occupants, there’s plausible deniability that he’s just after stuff. Once he hits the stairs, though, the only reasonable assumption is that he has capital crimes in mind.

Choose your weapons.

Hand-to-hand combat is for young people, and then only for those who have been trained on fighting skills. Without that training, if the confrontation comes to the laying on of hands, you’re going to lose. Knives are an especially bad idea because not only are you fighting at bad-breath distance, you’re going to get cut. As for impact implements like baseball bats golf clubs, consider the logistics of a full swing in a narrow space. It’s not going to end well.

Guns.

It’s my post so you knew it had to come to guns, right? People often ask what I think is the firearm to use against home invaders. (Much of what follows will get you in deep trouble with the law if you live in certain states. Check your state and local regulations,)

Spoiler: There is no right answer as to which weapon is best, but irrespective of your ultimate choice, it’s all on you to make sure you know how to use it in a way that does not pose a risk to innocent people. This is a lot less complicated an equation when you live in a rural environment, a quarter mile away from your nearest neighbor, than it is when you live in an urban apartment complex. After the bullet passes through your bad guy, it’s going to find another target, whether it’s the stud behind the wall or the sleeping baby next door.

I am a fan of shotguns as home defense weapons. When you’re sleep addled and operating in low light, the spread of pellets out of a smooth bore weapon gives you the greatest likelihood of hitting the bad guy. The farther you are from your intended target, though, the higher the likelihood that some of the pellets are going to miss the bad guy and seek mischief behind him.

Shotguns also give you many options in terms of ammunition, and you should base your choice on a number of factors, not the least of which is where you live. (See above.)

When most people think “shotgun”, I believe they see the venerable 12-gauge shoulder buster that is featured in cop shows. Deployed properly, it’ll definitely do a number on the bad guy, but an apartment dweller needs to give serious consideration to the size of the shot and power of the loads he’s using. One of the commenters on Sue’s post on Monday posited the use of a 12 gauge slug against an intruder. Um, no. Not unless he’s fifty yards away and looks like an attacking grizzly bear.

In most circumstances, even 00 (“double-aught”) buckshot is too hot for home defense. Every trigger pull of 00 buck launches 9 to14 .33 caliber pellets down range at 1,700 feet per second, give or take. It will drop whatever you hit, and at short ranges will likely pass right through your target with little reduction in speed. I think that a .410 shotgun loaded with #4 shot (.24 caliber pellets) is a better choice. It’s got far less recoil, but plenty of umph to stop your intruder. Even the hotter versions of birdshot will take the invader out of commission, and will pose less chance of collateral damage.

If the shotgun in your closet is already a 12 gauge, consider “short loads”, which have considerably less powder, and therefore lessen the hazards to your neighbors.

This is really scary stuff to contemplate, but I think it’s important to do so. Know that your plan will never be perfect, so it’s probably folly to rehearse the physical movements of a confrontation, but I think it’s worthwhile to think through the emotions and the intent. How long are you going to lay in bed talking yourself out of believing what you know to be true? How much time are you going to lose trying to remember where you stashed the ancient pistol you inherited five years ago from Uncle Charlie?

I get that many people think that this level of planning–even the discussion itself–is silly because the chances of this ever happening are miniscule, and I’ll stipulate that the numbers are on the side of the naysayers. But by the same logic, there’d be no need for smoke detectors or seat belts.

The scenario Sue posted guarantees that somebody’s going to get seriously hurt. I’d rather it not be me or my family.

 

Owning the Stage

By John Gilstrap

This past weekend, I had the honor of judging the state finals of a national oratorical competition for high schoolers. First of all, cudos to the students–one of them only a 9th grader!–for showing the courage to step before their colleagues, families and us judges to deliver their presentations.

The format required each contestant to deliver a memorized presentation that could be no shorter than eight minutes, and not a second longer than ten minutes. To fall short or run long triggered penalty points. No applause was allowed. No notes, either.

After all of the prepared presentations were finished and scored, each contestant was allowed exactly five minutes to prepare remarks on a topic chosen out of a hat, and then deliver a speech that could be no shorter than three minutes nor longer than five minutes. Again, steep penalties awaited anyone whose remarks fell outside the timed guidelines. The assigned topics were chosen from a list of possible choices of which the contestants were all aware, all of which dealt with some element of the U.S. Constitution. So, they weren’t entirely blind-sided, but they had no idea which one they’d be hit with.

As an aside, I had good success on the debate and forensics teams when I was in high school–back when “public speaking” was the only definition I knew for the word, forensics. I cannot imagine the pressure these kids were under, and I applaud each of them for hanging in there–even during those horrific moments when they lost their place in their speech and the room full of adults bled silently for them while pretending not to notice.

As a judge, of course, I had to notice. I only regret that there was no opportunity to speak to the contestants afterward, and maybe provide some points they could work on. Instead, all they will see is their numerical scores.

We haven’t discussed public speaking much recently in the Killzone Blog . . .

Now that the world is pulling out of pandemic panic–at least my corner of it is–I think the time is near when we will once again speak to people’s eyes instead of just a webcam, I thought it might be a good time to share some of my observations on speaking essentials. Here goes:

Be prepared but don’t overcook.

Professionals–even the ones who don’t get paid–owe it to themselves and their audiences to know what they’re going to talk about before they start. If the presentation is a factual one–driven by statistics and such–it behooves the speaker to have that stuff down flat–or to have quick access to a cheat sheet.

I witnessed a couple of vapor-locks among the student contestants yesterday, and in each case, it was clear to me that the issues were not their problem, but rather that they had forgotten the order of the words they had memorized. In each case, even when they were on track, they were so intent on getting the lyrics of the speech right that they forgot that the audience was there to hear the music, too. They want to watch the speakers make their point in a passionate way, even if the words are flubbed a bit. That happens, and as soon as that spark of panic flashes, the remainder of those eight minutes last for-friggin’-ever, even for the audience.

Tell a story.

Every memorable speech has a narrative attached to it. While statistics are important, and a presentation may collapse in on itself without them, they carry much more weight when they are wrapped within a compelling story. The added advantage of having a story to tell, it’s much harder to forget where you’re going, and the specific words themselves bear less importance.

When I give a formal presentation, the only element that is truly memorized is the ending. I used to memorize the beginning, but I’ve learned that those first words offer a unique opportunity to connect with the specific audience.

Don’t pace, but use the stage.

My preference is to not speak from behind a lectern. I think it’s a barrier between me and the audience, and that is the antithesis of what I’m trying to accomplish. I also prefer a lavalier mic to have access to both hands. The competition this weekend had no lectern and no amplification. That last part was a real disservice to the kids because the acoustics of the room were far from ideal. At least they all had to face an identical challenge.

I will concede that many of the best speakers and performers ply their craft while their feet remain within a three-foot-diameter circle, and that that is probably the most effective approach. I am incapable of doing that. I need to move.

Recognizing my need to fidget, a speaking coach taught me to put the fidgeting to good use and use it as a tool to connect to more of the audience. I generally start downstage center, then move along the apron to the left and then the right and back again.

A couple of the weekend’s contestants–interestingly, the same ones who vapor-locked–paced aimlessly as they tried to squeeze their memories for the words they’d memorized. They looked as the floor, or perhaps as far as the apron of the stage, but they made no effort to make the kind of eye contact that is meaningful.

Own the stage.

In the competition, the introduction for each contestant was the same: “Ladies and gentlemen, Speaker Number One (or two . . .).” Remember, applause was forbidden. The student then entered through a door at the back of the stage and launched themselves. There was no countdown or nod. Their timer started when they uttered their first words. That’s a tough way to begin.

Think about it. When was the last time you watched anyone perform anything without at least a little crowd preparation. That biographical intro at the beginning of a conference presentation is essentially a transition that hands the stage over to the speaker, for which the speaker is rewarded with applause s/he hasn’t even earned yet.

Of the weekend’s contestants, most entered with their eyes cast downward, with every element of body language shouting how nervous they were. Some did better than others, but only one realy nailed it

A high school junior with the poise of someone far older, she entered from that back door with a bright smile. As she walked to her mark in the middle of the stage, she seemed pleased to see everyone whose gaze she met. When she hit her mark, she clasped her hands loosely at her waist, and continued to silently greet the audience as she settled herself. Before she uttered her first word, she had everyone’s attention. From that point on, she did everything right.

It wasn’t till afterward that I realized that she had assumed ownership of the stage from the first second she entered that back door. For all I knew, she could have been petrified with fear, but if she was, she flawlessly performed the first duty of public speaking: she made everyone feel comfortable.

So, TKZ family . . . Any other suggestions to share?

Saddling A Rocket

By John Gilstrap

“So, John, what’s new in your life since we last chatted?”

Well, let’s see. Blue Fire launched yesterday. It’s the second book in my Victoria Emerson series, and at the risk of sounding immodest, it’s really friggin’ good.

Two days after my last KZB post, we moved two moving vans worth of worldly goods from the storage bay where its been held for the past 7 months into our brand new shiny home in the woods. A week ago, we moved the worldly goods from the apartment where we’ve been squatting, into the new house as well.

And I started a new company for my writing.

Meet Kimber. She’s a Caviston–Cavalier King Charles Spaniel + Boston Terrier. A 3-pound bundle of love.

And we got a new puppy.

As you read this, we may or may not have an internet connection robust enough to support all the Zoom events attendant to the book launch, so I may be Zooming from an empty apartment.

Nowhere in here should you see even the hint of a complaint. None of these life change units are anything but terrific. In fact, they represent dreams coming true. I’m just a little surprised that they all came true in the same 10-day period. It’s a little like saddling a rocket. It’s an unforgettable experience, but you’d best hold on tight.

A Bit About Writing . . .

I’ve been doing quite a few interviews ahead of the release of Blue FireIn many of these cases, the interviews take the form of written questions to which I write my responses. Some questions are more engaging than others, and one in particular got my attention. It was quite a long interview, and at the end, after I’d talked about my career in general and Blue Fire in particular, I read this:

“Are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?”

Well, of course I am, and of course it was. But the structure of the question bothered me. The interviewer put effort and accomplishment on a collision course, as if outcome is the only measure of hard work. Here’s how I responded:

I’ll answer your question in the opposite order. Was it worth the effort?

TEACHABLE MOMENT ALERT:

The effort itself is the only thing to be proud of. My books have been successful and have made me a lot of money, but that’s never been why I write. I write to entertain, whether it was my mom when I was little, or the fans who read my work now.

I’m proud of the fact that I have stared down the blinking cursor on an empty Page One over two dozen times, and I’ve stayed with each of those stories even when the plot wasn’t working and the words wouldn’t come. Folks, it never gets easier.

I’m proud that time after time, for decades, I scribbled out stories that never had a chance of publication, and never will. Without that effort—without those “wasted” hours (which were anything but wasted)—none of my work would ever have been published.

This is a frustrating endeavor. Rejection is baked deeply into the cake, and success–defined however you wish–is capricious, driven largely by factors over which individual authors have little control.

What we do have control over is our commitment to the craft. If we write solely for the purpose of getting published and making money, we’re doomed because we’re aiming at the wrong target. We write because we love writing–most of the time. We write because we want to make a point or we want to entertain. Maybe we want to entertain by making a point.

The effort is all there is. We should all be proud of it.

Yo Hablo Espanol, Pero Un Poco Solamente.

By John Gilstrap

The title means that I speak Spanish, but only a little. (And don’t yell at me for not knowing how to put the tilde on the N. I tried, but it doesn’t work on WordPress the way it works in Word.) Are you impressed? I didn’t think so. Did it fire you up to read more? I wager it did not. For many, all the title did was cause confusion.

Which brings used to my topic this week: How to handle foreign words in fiction. More precisely, how I handle them in mine. Spoiler: avoid them because they stop the story. Consider the following exchange:

“Alto!” the guard shouted. Stop!

“Que ocurre?” I asked. What’s wrong?

“Manos arriba!” He raised his rifle. Put your hands up.

I’d write it this way:

“Stop!” the guard shouted in Spanish.

I answered in the same language. “What’s wrong?”

He raised his rifle. “Put your hands up!”

The secret to the fictive dream that Brother Bell speaks so effectively about is dependent upon keeping the spell alive in the readers’ minds. Foreign words are dams in the flow of imaginary images.

When the story is set in a different language . . .

Several of my Jonathan Grave thrillers are set south of the U.S. border with Mexico and everyone speaks Spanish only. I’ve established from the beginning that Jonathan and Boxers both speak fluent Spanish, thanks to the work they did for Uncle Sam back when they were still part of the Unit and involved in drug interdiction. Thus, while my writing is strictly in English, I establish early on that everyone is speaking Spanish. Done and done.

If the time comes when our heroes speak to each other in English, I write, “he said in English.”

Now here’s the tricky part: Because all dialogue is presumed to be Spanish, the reader will never see the gratuitous “Gracias” in dialogue. They’ll see “Thank you.” I learned this trick from Jeffery Deaver, where, in his fabulous book Garden of Beasts, which is set in pre-war Germany, everyone addresses Hitler as My Leader. That is the English translation of Mein Fuhrer, and it would be inconsistent to switch to German for the sake of an honorific.

When the POV character does not speak the language that is spoken to him . . .

Let’s go back to the first example, where the guard is challenging our hero. If the hero doesn’t know the language of the person shouting at him (whether it’s Spanish, Arabic or Swahili), I think it’s silly, and a bit distracting, to quote words that our hero doesn’t understand. In that case, I’d lean toward this kind of narrative:

The guard yelled at me. I guess the words were Spanish, but how could I know? When he yelled again and raised his rifle, though, I knew I was in trouble. “What’s wrong?” I yelled as I raised my hands.

If you’ve hung around this blog for a while, you know that I don’t believe that there are rules for writing. It’s all about giving the reader the best ride you can. So, TKZ family, what do you think about this foreign language stuff?

Are You Prepared?

By John Gilstrap

Last week, I had the honor of spending an hour or so with David Temple on his excellent podcast, The Thriller Zone. We talked about everything from the proper structure of a Martini to my approach to researching an writing my books. The timing of the interview had everything to do with the impending release of Blue Fire, the second entry in my new Victoria Emerson thriller series. For those who are unfamiliar with the series, this is a significant departure from other books I’ve written. It’s set in the aftermath of a nuclear war that lasted only eight hours and destroyed everything that we recognize as modern civilization. While hundreds of million people died in the holocaust, hundreds of millions survived. Among them is Victoria Emerson and her family. Victoria is a natural leader who unwittingly and unknowingly becomes the leader of people turn to in order to stitch society back together.

Like its predecessor in the series, Crimson Phoenix, Blue Fire imagines a world where precious few are prepared to last even a few days without supermarkets, gasoline, or electricity. As panic blooms, those who are even moderately prepared will sooner or later have to interact with those who are not. One needn’t think past the furious fight over hand sanitizer and paper products in the early days of the pandemic to imagine what would happen if life-saving medications and drinking water became scarce.

During the podcast, David Temple asked me how much my research for the series affected my own worldview on matters of survival. As we discussed this, I realized that I had stumbled upon the topic for my next Killzone post.

A Plan is the Antidote to Panic

My research didn’t change my outlook as much as it did reinforce it. I have always believed in preparedness, from filled and charged fire extinguishers and operable smoke detectors to proper flammable liquid storage to really good locks on the doors. My freezers hold weeks’ worth of food, and the emergency generator should ensure that it doesn’t crap out when I need it most. I carry a trauma kit in my car–two of them, actually, but that’s a long story–and I’m blessed to know how to use it. (Alas, if I’m the one who needs the treatment, things get a little complicated.)

Being prepared at home is easy. It just requires a little forethought and some inexpensive purchases. The real exposures we face every day are focused outside of the home. As crime soars and police departments contract, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see the potential for bad things happening to us good people.

Now, I’m not gong to suggest that everyone wander around packing heat (though I don’t think it’s a bad idea if you can do so legally), but I do recommend that everybody focus on being aware of their surroundings and to work with their loved ones on some basic universally-applicable planning. Whether it’s an active shooter or an earthquake, a plan goes a long way toward staving off panic.

Trust Your Instincts

It’s unsettling how many victims of crime and even natural disasters testify after the fact that they kinda knew something was going to happen before it did, but for any number of reasons didn’t act on their instincts. That group on the corner that makes you nervous? Avoid them. If your decision hurts their feelings, that’s their problem, not yours.

When you walk into a café or a theater or any other place that feels like a firetrap it most likely feels that way because it is, indeed, a firetrap. Turn around and go somewhere else.

When a crowd feels wrong–people are yelling at each other, or people start pushing each other–leave. Don’t check it out, don’t play peacemaker. It ain’t your problem (yet) and you don’t want that to change. Every fight you walk away from before it starts is a victory.

Know Where Two Exits Are

This one has been instinctive for me for decades. I always know the way out of a place before I settle into it. When I stay at a hotel, not only do I know where the exits are, but I know how many doorways there are between my room and it, because zero visibility is a given in a structure fire.

In a restaurant or a movie theater or other public spaces, not only do I know where the exits are, but I also have a plan for which one to use. As a general rule, the main entrance is a mistake. If a fire breaks out, or some asshat opens up with a firearm, that’s where everyone else is going to go. People get crushed in the panic, and the logjam at the door presents a bad guy with the mother of all target opportunities. Back doors can be problematic, too, because of the ridiculous security locks that don’t open right away. While I understand the desire to not have customers sneak away without paying, I’m shocked that they are legal. Even fifteen seconds is an eternity when fire is banking down on you.

Remember: In a pinch, glass breaks and drywall is frangible. “Exit” doesn’t necessarily equate to “door”.

Take The Buds Out Of Your Ears And Keep Your Head Up

Whether it’s a lion in the Serengeti or a mugger in a mall parking lot, predators like easy prey. Security experts all agree that one of the best ways to keep the focus off of you is to remain fully in the moment and aware of your surroundings. Instead of reading texts while you walk, or instead of listening to a podcast, walk with your head up and notice things. That simple action alone may be enough to make a potential attacker turn his attention to a different victim–probably one who’s reading texts while listening to a podcast.

A couple of Christmases ago, I was leaving a mall store on my way to my car. It was nighttime, and there weren’t many people around except for a young lady walking ahead of me. It was cold, and I wanted to get to my car, so I was walking faster than she and the distance between us closed. I was still probably ten yards behind her when she whirled and said quite loudly, “You’re making me nervous. Would you mind not passing me?”

A bit stunned, I saw right away that she had every reason to be unnerved. I apologized and did my best to reassure her that I was not a threat–but of course that’s exactly what a bad guy would say. I stood still and let her get a ten-second head start and then walked on more slowly. Good for her!

That scene–or one very similar to it–made into one of my books.

Better to Die On The Street Than Get Shoved Into The Car

That dismal bit of advice is exactly what I taught my son when he was little, during the stranger-danger years. Kick, scream, bite, throw elbows and tear out eyes when someone grabs you. Once someone places hands on you, they have declared their intent to commit a capital crime against you. Make them pay. The worst they can do is kill you, and that’s what they’re likely intending to do anyway.

Your single goal in that moment should be to end the fight. If you can do it by running away, that’s a win. You don’t have to render the attacker unconscious, you just have get enough distance between you to either get to safety or to make him change his mind.

Oh, Yeah. This Is A Blog About Writing . . .

I’m not sure if this really long post did anything to help people develop their writing skills, but I’m hoping there is some relevance to character development. Your fictional creations don’t have to have exceptional skills to survive in a crisis. They don’t need to have freezers full of food (though it’s not a bad idea), and they don’t have to learn ground fighting skills (again, not a bad idea). All they need to do is keep their head about them.

 

Whose Story Are You Telling?

By John Gilstrap

I’ve heard writing instructors over the years tout the three elements of storytelling: plot, character and setting. We all know what the words mean, and we know how they apply to creating entertaining fiction, but all too often, I think that new writers think of the elements as craft silos instead of the strands of a craft cable–intertwined elements that must work together if a story is going to resonate with the reader.

I prefer to think of the elements this way: interesting characters doing interesting things in interesting ways in interesting places. (If you’d prefer, you can replace “interesting” with “compelling”.)

Character is king. A plot by itself is merely an outline. It doesn’t come to life until the reader experiences the plot through the eyes and feelings of a character they care about. Setting is merely a descriptive essay until a character interacts with it.

Let’s say, for example, a section of your story is set in a desert on a hot afternoon. An English 101 professor would likely be happy to reward an essay that presents a mental snapshot of the bright sun, colorful rocks and sparse flora. That reporting of facts might please a newspaper editor as well.

But look what happens when we inject characters into the equation:

Bob pushed the door open and climbed out into the brilliant sunshine. Shielding his eyes, he scanned the horizon.  The beauty of the place took his breath away.  Rock formations glistened in shades of copper, gold and bronze. The vegetation, while sparse, seemed to vibrate with intense reds and blues and yellows.  He was stranded in an artist’s paradise.

The description, as presented to the reader, also lets us learn about Bob’s worldview. We don’t have to say that he thinks the place is beautiful, because that’s all in the narrative voice.

Here’s another description of the exact same scene, but filtered through the worldview of a very different character:

Opening the car door was like opening a blast furnace.  Superheated air hit Danny with what felt like a physical blow.  The desiccated ground cracked under his feet as he stood.  As he took in scrub growth and the rocky horizon, he understood that he no longer rested at the top of the food chain.  Now he understood why we tested nukes in places like this.

A desert is a desert, right? From a plot perspective, each description takes the story to the exact same place, but by filtering the observations through the characters’ souls, the reader gets to know them better, and they don’t have to endure a disembodied descriptive paragraph.

That voice of the character can infect every paragraph of every scene. I like to say that I make a point as the writer for MY voice to be invisible throughout every story. Every scene is presented to the reader through the voice and view of the scene’s POV character. This is less complicated (note I didn’t say easier) in a first person POV, I think, because the narrator tells the entire story. When writing in third person, one of the critical decisions the writer needs to make for every scene is to determine to whom the scene belongs.

Consider this: Your story requires a scene where a thirteen year old boy steps out the back door of a bar at midnight and lights a cigarette. Let’s say that the kid is signaling someone with the match.

If we present the scene from the kid’s point of view, if he chokes on the smoke, we have a character detail that is different than if he were to inhale deeply and find peace. Is his heart pounding, or is he calm?

If we present the scene from the point of view of the guy being signaled to, his voice will tell us whether he likes the kid or hates him. Is the signal a happy event or a troubling event?

Perhaps we present the scene from the point of view of a passing cop. That would put the story on a different path–unless, perhaps, the cop was the one being signaled.

Assuming that any of the points of view would advance the plot to the same point, we need to decide whose POV is most compelling for the reader. Let’s say now that the scene ends with the kid getting shot. Perhaps we start the scene from the kid’s point of view, and then switch after a space break to the shooter’s POV. Or, vice versa.

These decisions make all the difference between a compelling story and a ho-hum one.

So, TKZ brain trust, what are your thoughts? Do your characters drive every beat of your story?