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.

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.

What Day Is It Again?

By John Gilstrap

As I woke up this morning, and my wife and I were planning the events of the day, I told her that I needed a couple of hours to write my Killzone Blog post.

“I thought they went up on Wednesdays,” she said.

“That’s right.”

“Today is Wednesday.”

“No, it’s not. Today is Tuesday.”


“Crap. It’s Wednesday.”

Normally, I’m not an in-my-jammies kind of worker. While my office is just down the hall, it’s still my office, and if I’m at my desk, I’m dressed for the day. Except this morning. As I write this, the clock on the wall tells me that it’s 8:35 a.m. That tells me that I’ve already missed the eyes of commuting readers. And I’m bearing the burden of Reavis Wortham’s post from a few days ago, where he talks about the moral betrayal that is the missing of a deadline.

I choose to blame Thanksgiving. That Thursday holiday makes the days that follow all feel like Saturday or Sunday. Throw in the fact that we’ve been decorating the new abode for Christmas and I haven’t been near a calendar, and here we are. I’m writing, but let’s be honest. I’m not saying very much. Bottom line: I dropped the ball.

Just wait till next time, though. Maybe I’ll be brilliant.

Here are the discussion questions, now that Thanksgiving is in the rearview mirror and Christmas is fast approaching:

  1. Does your favorite whipped cream come out of an aerosol can or a tub?
  2. Do you agree that a satisfying Thanksgiving dinner must include jellied cranberry sauce?

Have the Courage to Ignore Expert Advice

By John Gilstrap

I might have mentioned in this space a few dozen times that I am a self-taught writer. I learned by reading and observing and spilling gallons of ink–real and virtual–on projects that never went anywhere. I have also mentioned here my belief that in this business, there are no rules. There’s well-meaning advice, and lessons that have worked for other writers, but there are no inviolable rules.

One clue that there’s a charlatan in the house is the use of absolutes when teaching the craft to new writers. Words such as never, always, and must should ring a bell in your head that the advice-giver/teacher is one to be wary of.

One caveat: If the teacher is grading your work, and that grade impacts your academic future, then you absolutely live by the teacher’s rules and you compliment his or her brilliance for having so enriched your life. Academics are all about the grade, after all. If you learn something along the way, that’s good, too.

Any discussion of the rules of writing ultimately circles around to Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules For Good Writing.” Here’s a refresher:

  1. Never open a book with the weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify “said” . . . he said gravely.
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  10. Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.

There is no denying Elmore Leonard’s talent or success as a writer, and these bits of advice have a lot going for them. Personally, I agree with 60% of his rules. The 40% I disagree with all begin with the forbidden word “never.”

I confess that I had not yet read Mr. Leonard’s rules when I wrote No Mercy, the first book in my long-running Jonathan Grave thriller series. Here’s how that book opens:

The fulness of the moon made it all more complicated. The intense silver glow cast shadows as defined as midday despite the thin veil of cloud cover. Dressed entirely in black, with only his eyes showing beneath his hood, Jonathan Grave moved like a shadow in the stillness.

Smart minds might disagree, but I like that opening. It sets the scene, and, frankly, weather is an important component of hostage rescue operations. I think the opening works, and I don’t believe mine is the only successful novel that begins with the weather. If there is a single exception, then “never” is the wrong word. It’s bad advice.

I never met Mr. Leonard, but I’m willing to wager that when he wrote his rules, he never expected them to be taken literally, but if you’ve ever taught a writing seminar, I think you’ll agree that many new writers take rules from such wildly successful authors as gospel. I think that’s a mistake.

I also sense, yet cannot prove, that one of the reasons that so many MFA graduates never publish anything is because they can’t get the professors’ rules out of their head, and as a result, they never discover their true voices as writers. But I digress.

The next “never” on Mr. Elmore’s list is actually the one that drove me to the keyboard this morning. To instruct writers never to use any dialogue tag other than “said” is just plain malpractice. There’s nothing wrong with whispered, hollered, yelled, bloviated, growled, parroted, or any number of dialogue attributions that might come to mind. To me, this advice is akin to saying that “walked” is the only descriptor for ambulation.

My critique group often chastises me for too many dialogue tags. While I respect their opinions, I reject the critique for the simple reason that a writer’s greatest sin is to confuse the reader. The fact is that dialogue tags become invisible to the reader, even as it keeps them dialed in to who’s saying what to whom.

I’ve learned that in addition to the reading audience for my books, I also need to write for the consumers of audio books, where the visual clues of paragraph breaks between characters’ dialogue are absent. Even though I’m blessed with Basil Sands as the voice of the Jonathan Grave books, there’s only so much real-time characterization that the narrator can do to differentiate between the talkers. Dialogue tags make that much easier for everyone.

The next one brings us to the ever-popular hatred of adverbs. I cannot and do not disagree in principle. That said JK Rowling never met an adverb she didn’t love, and her books did okay.

As for never using “suddenly” and “all hell broke loose,” well, I’ll grant Mr. Leonard the point.

I turn it over you, TKZ family. I will be on travel when this post lands on the page, so I’m afraid you’ll have to talk among yourselves. Enjoy!



Empty Brain Syndrome

By John Gilstrap

Woot! Another book is in the can! I was a tad late on the delivery of the manuscript, but Harm’s Way, #15 in my Jonathan Grave thriller series is in the hands of my publisher. In the next few weeks, I’ll get the editorial letter, and I’m sure I’ll have to tweak a few things, but I am officially on to the next thing.

Because I tend to write down to the wire on deadlines, those last weeks closing in on the final sentence are face-on-fire marathons of 12-hour writing days. For Harm’s Way, I believe I wrote about 50,000 words in five weeks. The good news is, I got it done. The bad news is, I never should have allowed myself to fall so far behind.

The outstanding, unbelievable news is that I really like the end product. It is admittedly replete with typos–though I tried to find all of them–and there’s likely a lot of they’re/there/their-level mistakes, but that’s easy to fix in post. I’m confident that I have further solidified my reputation for being clueless about what commas actually do, and that I did my part to underwrite  the “which” versus “that” mystery, but the story holds together. The dialogue snaps, the action sings. Yay me.

Now, here’s the problem: My brain is empty. I know there’s an idea for a new book out there somewhere beyond my grasp, but right now, all I see is the limits of my grasp.

This isn’t my first rodeo, so I’m confident that this brain seizure–like the 26 that have preceded it–will loosen its grip on my idea factory and allow me to go on yet another Great Pretend, but it’s always a bit discomfiting to realize that I literally don’t want to write again for a while. It’s as if my brain has been intellectually bruised and needs some time for the swelling to go down.

For most of my writing career, I have been committed to one book per year. For the past three years, however, I have been committed to two books per year (one Victoria Emerson book and one Jonathan Grave book). The fact that these expanded commitments coincided with multiple moves, family illnesses and a new puppy was nobody’s issue by mine. A commitment is a commitment.

But I’m never signing contracts for two books per year again. I do, however, expect to write more than one book per year. One of them, though, will be a spec book, sold to the highest bidder.

Brother Bell: Remember the Christmas book I told you about? (No spoilers allowed.) That’s my on-deck spec. I have a feeling that this is The One. I just have post-submission euphoria to die down. That said, it seems to me that this might be the perfect time of year to launch on the Christmas book.

TKZ family, do you look at the completion of a project as a prompt for a break, or a launching board for the next new thing?

Doing Good Radio

By John Gilstrap

A couple of weeks ago, I posted here about my great fortune to score an ongoing talk radio gig on WRNR Radio/TV 10 in Martinsburg, West Virginia. It’s strictly a talk format, with Rob Mario as host, and then two co-hosts, of which I am one a couple of times per week.

It’s interesting sitting on the other side of an interview. Having done more than a few of them over the years as the interviewee, being the interviewer has changed my perspective a bit. In recent weeks, we’ve interviewed a few authors. I thought I’d share some lessons I’ve learned that you might find helpful if you find yourself in the position to promote your book–or to promote anything for that matter.

Know ahead of time what the format will be.

On our show on Eastern Panhandle Talk Radio, all interviews are 22-25 minutes long, free from commercial interruption. That’s unusual in my experience for broadcast radio and television. Normally, the broadcast format runs 7-10 minutes, which requires an entirely different approach.

In shorter interviews, be prepared to deliver the vaunted elevator pitch, where you get right down the details of the book. There likely won’t be a lot of give-and take between you and the host. If there is, that’s great. Just don’t anticipate it.

Longer interviews, on the other hand, are much more conversational. If you launch right into the elevator pitch and stay with it, there won’t be much interaction with the hosts, and you run the risk of leaving little to talk about during the rest of the spot.

Anticipate the common questions and have stories to tell.

You know the low-hanging fruit: Where did the idea come from? What kind of research did you do? Which of your books is your favorite? What authors do you read? Tell us about the story.

The best interviews are with people who tell the stories behind the stories. Keep it light-hearted and entertaining. If you can make your book resonate with current events or current times, that’s always a good thing.

Another trait of great interviews is that they are conversational. Try to forget that YOU’RE ON THE RADIO!!! and concentrate more on having a casual conversation with the person across from you in the studio or on the other end of the phone call.

There’s a good chance that “radio” means TV, too.

In these days of video streaming, many (most?) radios stations also have a live feed to Facebook or other social media sites. Plan accordingly to avoid that awkward jammies and bed-head television exposure.

Send promotional materials ahead of time.

Remember that your interview is but one tiny slot inserted into a busy broadcast. People will not have had time to read your book, certainly on short notice. Be sure to send along a synopsis of the story, along with a short bio.

Suggested questions are always welcome because they give the interviewer a clue about what topics you are most prepared to cover.

In your promotional materials, be sure to include a headshot of you and the cover of your book. If there is a TV/Facebook live element, this is essential. One of the most recent interviews sent along a single image that is a combined cover and author photo. I’m going to steal that idea.

Avoid qualitative assessments of your own work.

This might just be my own bugaboo, but I find it vastly unprofessional for an author to tell the world how funny, inspirational or exciting his own work is.  Just as on the page, show, don’t tell. Let your enthusiasm for the project sell the book for you.

Mention the title. A Lot.

In a standard interview, you’ll be introduced as the author of [Your Book Title], and then again as such at the end of the interview. Remember that every time you refer to your baby as “my book” or “it” you’re missing an opportunity to burn the title into listeners’ and viewers’ brains.

Always close with your contact and social media information.

Rudeness is never okay, but don’t be afraid to be a little aggressive, especially at the end of an interview. Consider:

” . . . Thanks for coming on the show, John.”

“Real quick, please visit my website, John Gilstrap dot com for anything you want to know about me or my books.”

You’re on the show to market a book, so don’t be shy about marketing your book.

What say you, TKZ family? Have I missed anything?

Fire in the hole!

by John Gilstrap

Full disclosure: I’m cheating again. I owe a book to my publisher on October 15, and it gets all my attention for a while. So, I decided I’d test everyone’s patience by recycling a post from January, 2017, in which I wrote about one of my favorite topics, which is things that go boom. I’m confident that the laws of physics and chemistry have not changed in the past five years, so the content should still be reliable. Here we go . . .

I’m going to continue my quest to help writers understand some of the technical aspects of weaponry so that their action scenes can be more realistic.  Today, we’re going to talk about some practical applications for high explosives.  It’s been a while since we last got into the weeds of things that go boom, so if you want a quick refresher, feel free to click here.  We’ll wait for you.

Welcome back.

When I was a kid, the whole point of playing with cherry bombs and lady fingers and M80s was to make a big bang.  Or, maybe to launch a galvanized bucket into the air.  (By the way, if you’re ever tempted to light a cherry bomb and flush it down the toilet, be sure you’re at a friend’s house, not your own.  Just sayin’.  And you’re welcome.)  As I got older and more sophisticated in my knowledge of such things, I realized that while making craters for craters’ sake was deeply satisfying, the real-life application of explosives is more nuanced.

Since TKZ is about writing thrillers and suspense fiction, I’m going to limit what follows to explosives used as weapons–to kill people and break things.  Of course, there are many more constructive uses for highly energetic materials, and while the principles are universal, the applications are very different.

Hand grenades are simple, lethal and un-artful bits of destructive weaponry.  Containing only 6-7 ounces of explosive (usually Composition B, or “Comp B”), they are designed to wreak havoc in relatively small spaces.  The M67 grenade that is commonly used by US forces has a fatality radius of 5 meters and an injury radius of 15 meters. Within those ranges, the primary mechanisms of injury are pressure and fragmentation.

For the most part, all hand grenades work on the same principles. By pulling the safety pin and releasing the striker lever (the “spoon”), the operator releases a striker–think of it as a firing pin–that strikes a percussion cap which ignites a pyrotechnic fuse that will burn for four or five seconds before it initiates the detonator and the grenade goes bang.  It’s important to note that once that spoon flies, there’s no going back.

Claymore mines operate on the same tactical principle as a shotgun, in the sense that it is designed to send a massive jet of pellets downrange, to devastating effect.  Invented by a guy named Norman MacLeod, the mine is named after a Scottish sword used in Medieval times. Unlike the hand grenade, which sends its fragments out in all directions, the Claymore is directional by design.  (I’ve always been amused by the embossed letters on the front of every Claymore mine, which read, “front toward enemy.”  As Peter Venkman famously said while hunting ghosts, “Important safety tip. Thanks,Egon.”)

The guts of a Claymore consist of a 1.5-pound slab of C-4 explosive and about 700 3.2 millimeter steel balls. When the mine is detonated by remote control, those steel balls launch downrange at over 3,900 feet per second in a 60-degree pattern that is six and a half feet tall and 55 yards wide at a spot that is 50 meters down range.

The fatality range of a Claymore mine is 50 meters, and the injury range is 100 meters.  (Note that because of the directional nature of the Claymore, we’re noting ranges, whereas with the omnidirectional hand grenade, we noted radii.)

Both the hand grenade and the Claymore mine are considered to be anti-personnel weapons.  While they’ll certainly leave an ugly dent in a car and would punch through the walls of standard construction, they would do little more than scratch the paint on an armored vehicle like a tank. To kill a tank, we need to pierce that heavy armor, and to do that, we put the laws of physics to work for us.

Shaped charges are designed to direct a detonation wave in a way that focuses tremendous energy on a single spot, thus piercing even heavy armor.  The principle is simple and enormously effective.

The illustration on the left shows a cutaway view of a classic shaped charge munition. You’re looking at a cross-section of a hollow cone of explosives. Imagine that you’re looking into an empty martini glass where the inside of the glass is made of cast explosive that is then covered with a thin layer of metal.  The explosive is essentially sandwiched between external and internal conical walls.  The open end of the cone is the front of the munition.

The initiator/detonator is seated at the pointy end of the cone (the rear of the munition), and when it goes off, a lot happens in the next few microseconds.  As the charge detonates, the blast waves that are directed toward the center of the cone combine and multiply while reducing that center liner into a molten jet that is propelled by enormous energy.  When that jet impacts a tank’s armor, its energy transforms the armor to molten steel which is then propelled into the confines of the vehicle, which becomes a very unpleasant place to be. The photo of the big disk with the hole in the middle bears the classic look of a hit by a shaped charge.

Now you understand why rocket-propelled grenades like the one in the picture have such a distinctive shape. The nose cone is there for stability in flight, and it also houses the triggering mechanisms.

The picture on the right is a single frame from a demonstration video in which somebody shot a travel trailer with an RPG.  The arrow shows the direction of the munition’s flight. There was no armor to pierce so the videographer was able to capture the raw power of that supersonic jet of energy from the shaped charge.

Looming deadline notwithstanding, I will do my best to answer any and all questions, but I warn you all that I might be a bit slow on the keyboard.

1968 to 1972: The Awful Years

By John Gilstrap

At some point along the line, I apparently set a recording on my DVR for a retrospective of the Ed Sullivan Show and Rock and Roll. The other night, as I was trying to bore myself to sleep, I watched the episode that features the rock-n-roll hits from 1968-1970. I watched songs from The Beach Boys, The Carpenters, The Jackson 5, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and even Tom Jones’s Delilah. Everything about that show–from the fashions to the songs themselves–brought an unexpected feeling of melancholy.

I turned 11 years old in 1968. When that year dawned, we had already seen one president shot dead on the streets of Dallas, a neighbor of mine–the father of a classmate–had been gunned down at his front door by a stranger who remains at large to this day. Three of my heroes–the astronauts of Apollo 1 (and previous astronauts of the Mercury and Gemini Programs) had burned to death while trapped inside their capsule. More than a few of my neighbors’ dads had been shipped off to Vietnam. Five years earlier, I had been rescued from the roof of my grandparents’ burning apartment building in Pleasantville, New Jersey, the most egregiously misnamed city on the planet.

By the end of that year, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King would be dead, and just a few miles away, Washington, DC, would be set ablaze, just like so many other cities across the country. That was the year when civil rights-based busing came to my neighborhood, causing me to be shipped off every day to a school 35 minutes from my house in the midst of a culture where everyone was angry and nobody told us kids how we supposed to deal with such startling changes. I learned to fight, but I never liked it, and I was never very good at it.

1969 brought such protests to Washington that my father, a career Navy officer, was ordered to wear suits to the Pentagon for his own safety. Woodstock happened that year, but that was also the year when Charles Manson went on his rampage. Things at home were beginning to unravel between my parents, and I was still fighting a lot in school. The thrill of my lifetime occurred on July 20, 1969, when the crew of Apollo 11 conquered the moon. Five days later, another Kennedy, Ted, was in the news for his actions in Chappaquiddick. We closed that year with the news of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.

In May of 1970, soldiers from the National Guard opened up on student protesters at Kent State University. We actually had the discussion at our dinner table that perhaps the protesters brought it on themselves. In August of that year, our vacation at Split Rock Lodge in the Poconos ended after the first night when the lodge burned to the ground, taking all of our stuff with it.

By autumn of 1971, my brother had gone to college, leaving me to cope with family stuff as a solo.

As I write this post, that knot of anxiety returns to my gut as a ghost from the past–equal parts fear, anger, sadness and disorientation. It was during those years when I turned most desperately to fiction–both reading it and writing it. I escaped to places in my head where good guys always won and bad guys were always brought to justice. I rarely showed my writing to anyone back then, and I’m not sure why. Looking back with decades of space between then and now, I think I was afraid of people knowing just how twisted up I was inside. The “me” I projected was immune to such things as emotion. Back then, there was no greater embarrassment for a boy than to cry in public–or show any real emotion for that matter. In those days, I never had a friend who was close enough to let me lower the armor. Hell, maybe I wasn’t a good enough friend to anyone else to let them share with me.

Life in a bickering household can be very lonely. I think now, in retrospect, that the adults in the house were so wrapped up in their own unpleasantness that having me be quiet was probably a blessing. I know that it was a blessing to be relieved from my role as marriage counselor, listening to their grievances as they each tried to pull me to their side.

My high school had 4,500 kids. Talk about anonymity!  As a young teenager with less than zero athletic ability (or interest in such), the school library became my hangout spot. I have no idea how many books I read in those days, and how many stories I wrote, but they have to number in the hundreds. When I was into a book or writing a story, I was safe.

Life took a sharp turn for me when I was sixteen years old. I called a family meeting–the first in the family’s history–and I announced to Mom and Dad that I wasn’t doing this anymore. I told them that they were being unfair to me by airing problems that I could not solve, and that I was going to start taking chances at school. I was going to join things and risk the taunts of others. Since my parents wouldn’t drive me and we couldn’t afford a car for me, I told them that they would have to let me ride with friends. I told them that an 11:00 pm curfew was unreasonable on a weekend night. To bolster my argument, I had a long list of straight-A report cards to show them.

As I presented my case, they said nothing. I think they were shocked–in fact, I know they were because that night is still the stuff of legend among my extended family. But they didn’t argue. From that moment on, the “me” I projected moved closer and closer to the “me” I actually was. I don’t think the two will ever meet, but asymptotic is close enough.

I realize now that my imagination saved me from what could have been a terrible end. I don’t expect the demons ever to go away, but at least now they know their place. August 27 marked the 40th anniversary of my first date with my best friend, who would become my bride. Later this month, we will celebrate our 38th wedding anniversary. We have been blessed in countless ways, but had I not planted my flag on Mount Angst, and opened the spigot to honest emotion–which still flows much more easily through my stories than in real life–I don’t think I would have recognized the blessings for what they are.

As a society, while we fawn all over celebrity, we don’t show a lot of respect for the inherent virtue of artistry. I think that each of us needs an outlet to shorten the distances between the “me” we project, the “me” we know ourselves to be, and the “me” to which we aspire. Whether through music, dance, writing or perfecting one’s golf game, it’s the process that matters, not the sales record. It doesn’t matter if no one else in the world appreciates your art if it honestly reflects that slice of time in your journey.

Dare to try. Dare to dream.

Creative Spaces

By John Gilstrap

When I was growing up, immersed in dreams of one day becoming a writer, I romanticized what the process must be like. Where would one go to imagine new worlds and create new adventures? Movies romanticized the whole process, and I bought into it. Then I saw this now famous picture of a then less-famous Stephen King in his writing space. It seemed so . . . ordinary. Yet at the same time it seemed very special. The dog under his feet is a nice touch. This is a guy with a job. And his creative space is . . . an office. Just an office. But of course, it’s more than that. It’s Stephen King’s office. (As you’ll see below, it turns out that I was not the only budding young writer who was impressed by the photo.)

Offices are important–more important to some than to others. In some ways, creative spaces reflect the personalities of their occupants. They fascinate me.

Following up on a comment made on Friday’s Reader Friday post by our beloved Brother Bell, I sent emails to my fellow bloggers here at TKZ, suggesting that we let our readers into our creative spaces. My one caveat was a pinky swear to not clean up before taking the picture. Here’s what we came up with.

John Gilstrap

Our move to West Virginia presented a unique opportunity to design an office as an office–as opposed to a purloined bedroom. Now that I think about it, I suppose there’s not a lot of difference between the two. I wanted lots of light and direct access to the outdoors. That door leads to a deck that overlooks the woods. The orange helmet on the left end of the bookcase belonged to my father. A closer look will show that it’s quite banged up from the helicopter crash he survived on the deck of the USS Forrestal in 1959. The two yellow helmets are mine from the two jurisdictions where I ran fire and rescue. (I had to turn my white lieutenant’s helmet back in when I left.) Since the house is now run by a 12-pound ball of fur named Kimber, chew toys and water bowls litter the floor of every room.

Here it is from a different angle. This is messier than it normally is, but a pinky swear is a pinky swear. Note the studio grade microphone and the webcam–a new bit of ubiquity in office photos, I’ve found. All of those Gilstrap books stacked on the far end of the bookcase are the background for Zooming and YouTube videos (when I start shooting them again). The opened journal you see on the desk is one of many that I have stacked around the place (each novel gets a new journal). That’s where I scratch my way through difficult parts of the story that are somehow resistant to being typed. That green chair in the corner used to belong to me. Now it’s Kimber’s day bed and she gets very annoyed if I move the blanket from where she left it.

Kristy Montee (PJ Parrish)

When we moved out of Fort Lauderdale five years ago, it meant big downsizing. As some wag said (might have been George Carlin): You spend the first half of your life accumulating stuff and the second half getting rid of it.  We now live half the year in Tallahassee and half in Traverse City, Michigan. We don’t have the luxury of an extra “office” space anymore, so I store everything on line and cart my laptop around wherever the spirit moves me. Often it’s the sofa, but more likely my local coffee shop or after 4, the Traverse City Whiskey Co. where they make a mean whiskey sour. On spectacular days like today, the balcony will do.

Terry Odell

I’m fortunate to have a bedroom dedicated to me. This is my workspace, which doesn’t show my cluttered closet space or bookshelves. The desk is also a little less cluttered than usual, since the request for the photo came on Friday, and I clear my desk on Thursday for the housekeeper. The stacks of paper next to the printer and behind the monitor represent my method of ‘housekeeping.’ The stacks will eventually topple over, and I’ll attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Watching the wildlife is my biggest writing distraction. (The hummingbird feeder is just out of camera range, but not out of eyeshot if I’m sitting at my desk.)

Kay DiBianca

 Here’s my picture. Like you suggested, I just moved the chair out of the way and took the picture with things as they really are. No cleanup. Organized chaos. I know where (almost) everything is.

Sue Coletta

Attached are two photos of my office from different angles. The Holy Hands on my desk were made and blessed by a Cherokee chief. They hold tiny replicas of my Mayhem Series. Both gifts from a couple (readers) who said I touched their lives. Most of the crows, as well as the crow dreamcatcher hanging above, were also gifts from readers. All mean a lot to me. Constant reminders of why I write.




Elaine Viets

Here’s my office. I’m most comfortable surrounded by books, and many of these mysteries are signed by  friends. The box with the white rug is for my cat, Vanessa. She “helps” while I work.



Garry Rodgers

Here’s a shot of my mind lab. Brief description: “My creative place is a combination of old and new. Side-by-side, I have a Windows 11 laptop with audio/visual recording devices next to a retro 1920s private detective office with stuff like a pristine vintage typewriter and a cool rotary phone that’s tweaked to work in the digital age. Fun place. BTW, that filing cabinet is stuffed full of books.”

James Scott Bell

My desk, with microphone and sound foam. To the left, pics of Stephen King (with legs on desk), Ed McBain, and John D. MacDonald, all telling me to stop whining and write. My coffee mug with WRITER on it, which I bought a few days after I decided I had to try to become a writer. And a file folder for my first drafts.


As you read this, I will be on my way to Bouchercon in Minneapolis, my first large-scale book event since the Covid insanity. It’ll be nice to see old friends again.