About John Gilstrap

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

Let’s Talk Shotguns

By John Gilstrap

Let’s say you’ve got a character in your story who had no background in firearms, yet needs to engage an armed bad guy.  A shotgun may be your character’s best choice, especially at close quarters.  Because every pull of the trigger sends multiple high-velocity projectiles downrange simultaneously, marksmanship is less of an issue when it comes to killing the enemy, but more of an issue when it comes to shooting only the enemy.

In previous posts, I’ve talked about rifles and pistols, so this week, I thought I’d devote some time to shotguns.  As a first step, forget much of what you’ve learned about rifles and pistols.  The rules of Newtonian physics all remain the same, but much of the terminology seems counter-intuitive when you deal with smooth-bore weapons.

Okay, what’s a smooth-bore weapon?

Whereas modern rifles and pistols fire bullets, shotguns fire either pellets or slugs.  As a bullet is propelled down a rifle’s barrel, the lands and grooves that have been cut into the metal to form “rifling” impart a spin on the projectile that stabilizes it in flight and allows for greater range and accuracy.  Standard shotguns, on the other hand, have no rifling down the bore.  The barrel is simply a smooth tube.  (Note: there is such a thing as a rifled shotgun, but I won’t be addressing that here.)  Basically, a smooth-bore barrel is merely an extended pressure vessel that allows the projectile(s) to accelerate.

Think gauge, not caliber.  Think spheres, not bullet-shaped.

It’s common to refer to rifles and pistols by the diameter of the bullets they fire.  A “.30 caliber” rifle fires a bullet that is three-tenths (.30) of an inch in diameter at its widest point.  A “.45” fires a bullet that is 45/100ths of an inch at its widest point.

Shotguns, on the other hand, are referred to by their “gauge” and the term has nothing to do with linear measurement.  To understand the reason why, we need to geek out a little:

One characteristic of elemental lead is that when melted, its physical volume is a constant, relative to it’s weight.  Thus, a one-pound sphere of lead will always be 1.66 inches in diameter (assuming I did the math correctly).  From the days of the Napoleonic Wars through the American Civil War and beyond, one of the primary artillery cannons was the “twelve-pounder”, which, predictably, I suppose, fired a twelve-pound ball (also called a “shot”–as in the shot put event in track-and-field, get it?) out of a barrel that was 4.62 inches in diameter.

The concept of “gauge” is based on the same principle, but in this case dealing with fractions of a pound.  The bore of a 12 gauge shotgun is the diameter of a lead sphere that weighs 1/12 of a pound, or 0.727 inches.  A 20 gauge shotgun has a bore of 0.617 inches, which is the diameter of a lead sphere that weighs 1/20 of a pound.

Still with me?

One of the most counter-intuitive parts of discussing shotguns is the fact that unlike calibers, higher gauges actually mean smaller projectiles.

Buckshot, Birdshot, Slugs.

So, we’ve got our smooth-bore shotgun of a chosen gauge–for our  purposes here, we’ll assume 12 gauge if only because it the most common shotgun deployed by law enforcement officers.  The size of the bore is largely just a reference point; it has little to do with the weight of the projectile being sent downrange.

One of the strengths of a shotgun as a weapon platform is its versatility.  The same gun can be used to hunt doves and deer, and then when you come home, it can be a great home defense weapon.  Different applications require different ammunition, though, and here’s where things get complicated again.

Starting with the basics, each round of ammunition is called a “shell”, not a “bullet” or a “cartridge”, as would be case with rifle and pistol ammo.  Inside the shell, the pellets (or “shot”) are separated from the propellant (or “powder”) by a plastic cup that is call the “wad.”  Each pull of the trigger sends a “load of shot” or a “slug” downrange.  Once spent, the “hull” is ejected.

When the load reaches the muzzle on its way downrange, the pellets are tightly grouped together, but as they travel through the air, they separate to form a spray of projectiles.  The width of the spread and the terminal performance of individual projectiles has everything to do with their size and their weight.  “Birdshot” refers to smaller, lighter pellets that are designed to kill smaller, lighter prey.  “Buckshot”, on the other hand, is designed for larger prey.  Within, say, 10 feet, both are equally lethal.

Here again, smaller is bigger.  The size of individual pellets is described by industry-accepted numbers.  On paper, you might read “#4 buck”, but you would pronounce it as “number four buck.”  And #4 buck is smaller than #3 buck.

What most people think of when they’re talking about buckshot is #00 buck, which is commonly referred to as “double aught buck.”  (Note: It’s NOT double ought.)  Individual pellets are 0.33 inches in diameter (.33 caliber) and there are nine of them in an ounce.  By contrast, #4 buck pellets are 0.24 inches in diameter (24 caliber) and there are 24 of them in an ounce.

Bird shot is also categorized by numbers, but on a different scale.  For example, No. 4 bird shot pellets are 0.13 inches in diameter, and there are 135 of them in an ounce.

A slug is a single projectile that essentially turns the shotgun into a less accurate rifle and hits with enormous force.  Slugs come in many different forms and perform many different functions.  For example, when you hear of riots being dispersed by the use of “rubber bullets”, those “bullets” are really rubber slugs, or sometimes beanbag slugs.

Types of Shotguns.  

Double barrel shotguns have been around for a very long time, back to the days of the flintlock.  The classic arrangement for the barrels was “side-by-side”, as characterized by bird hunters and stage coach security guys.  You know that’s where the phrase “riding shotgun” originated, right?

The second configuration of a double-barrel shotgun is the “over and under” configuration, where the barrels are stacked.  As a bit of trivia, you’ll note that there’s only one trigger on the gun.  The act of closing the breech cocks the gun.  The lower barrel shoots first and the recoil re-cocks the gun so the top barrel will fire.

Semi-automatic.  As with its rifle counterpart, you can load the magazine to whatever its capacity may be, and every pull of the trigger sends a new load downrange until the magazine is empty.

Pump-action.  This is the mainstay of cop shows and sound effects crews.  Also called a “shucker”, this configuration requires the shooter to work the pump to eject one hull and put the next shell into battery.

So, there you have it, TKZers, this quarter’s offering of gun porn.  All questions, comments and observations are welcome.



You Never Feel Secure

By John Gilstrap

One of the questions that every published writer faces from time to time goes something like this: “Does it ever get easier after you’ve published your first book?”

The whole-truth form of the answer is yes, it does get easier, but not in the ways that people might expect.  The pressure never eases to produce a compelling story with interesting characters doing important things in interesting ways.  There’s no quarter for bad writing, flat storytelling or indulgent rants.  The mechanics all need to be there, and, I would argue, the bar for excellence only increases from book to book.

The confidence factor is where things get easier, I think.  I now realize that somewhere around page 200 in a book, I’m going to feel totally lost and I’m going to conclude that the only way to successfully end the misery is to give the book a ride in the shredder.  Having walked the walk 20 times now, however, I also know that somehow, I’ll figure it out.  The panic evaporates and the story resolves itself.

Yeah, but what if I can’t?  When creativity meets cockiness, a lot of bad things can happen.

September 15 has been my submission deadline every year since 2009.  Every year.  I’ve posted before about how much August sucks for me as I binge-write for 10-hours a day trying to bring the story in under the wire.  It’s total madness in the Gilstrap household during the month of August and the first half of September.

Beginning five or six years ago, my lovely bride, Joy, landed on an antidote for the madness: An exotic vacation that begins on September 16.  Two years ago, it was two weeks in Scotland, last year it was two weeks in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, and this year, as I write this post, we’re beginning our second week in Portugal.  The upshot of this, of course, is that with tickets bought and deposits put down, blowing my deadline is not an option.

Next year’s Jonathan Grave book is called Hellfire.  I clicked Send to launch the manuscript five hours before our plane left Dulles Airport.  I wrote it, read it and liked it, but was that because it was good or because I needed to like it?

This is where the insecurity always lives on.  My agent and my editor had copies, and all I had to do was wait for the results.

After a week, I had hear nothing from either.  If it was terrific, they’d tell me right away, right?  But they knew I was on vacation.  If they hated the story, they would say nothing, right?  They’d let me enjoy the trip before ruining my day.  Right?

whole week passed without any word.  What the hell?

As of yesterday, I couldn’t take it anymore.  I sent an email to my agent telling her that the silence was killing me.  She wrote back almost instantly with the news that she loved the book, but was terrified that Joy would kill her if she interrupted our vacation with a work email.  Then I heard from my big honkin’ New York editor, who told the same story.  Loved the book, scared of my five-foot-three bride.  Now, that’s respect!

The takeaway, though, is that I can now have a nice vacation.

And next year, I have every confidence that the paranoids will come hunting for me once again.

What say you, TKZers?  Can you keep your paranoids in the closet where they belong?


Swell Swag

By John Gilstrap

Up until about a year ago, I thought that bookmark swag was a waste of money and time.  I have since changed my mind.  I may have posted here before that on those awful occasions when a book signing is really just that–a table in the entryway where I wait for people to inquire why I’m there–I no longer just sit passively and wait.  I get up and wander the store, introducing myself as the visiting author, and inviting them to stop by and say hi–or buy a book–as they pass me yet again on their way out of the store.

More times than not, they’ll ask a few questions, and that’s when I hand them my bookmark. As you can see, the bookmark (designed by publisher–Thank you Kensington!) not only has contact information, but the titles of the most recent books and a bit about awards won and such.  Never once have I handed out one of these things without seeing the recipient going on to Google me.

When I was on tour for Total Mayhem back in July, I became truly shameless.  Because I dined alone, and spent a lot of time writing my next book long-hand, I knew that I was raising curiosity, so I made sure to put a bookmark in the check folder after I had signed the credit card voucher.  When you dine in the hotel where you’re staying, that can create an interesting buzz.

Business Cards

For the first time in the history of forever, I actually killed my entire supply of business cards.  As I approached the bottom of the box, I started paying closer attention to other writers’ business cards to see how they were handling what to include and what not to.  Because I pass these things out to pretty much everybody from the maitre d’ to the car mechanic to somebody I meet at a party, the information on the card needs to carry a lot of weight.

Things I considered included:

  1. Email address but no phone number or street address.  (Stephen King’s Misery continues to lurk in my head.)
  2. Standard design and style. This is one of my peccadilloes.  I get annoyed when business cards don’t fit easily into my wallet.
  3. All social media included for quick reference.  I chose not to include the Killzone Blog, however, because my every-other-week posting status would have required narrative.
  4. My entire bibliography.
  5. Had to have a clean look.
  6. Had to have space for people to write notes to themselves on the card.

I’ll let others judge the final product, but I’m happy with it.  I’m also happy with Vistaprint, which is the company I used to create and print the cards.

Special Gifts.

Most swag is intended as a kind of fan service or shameless self-promotion.  Or, merely business communication.  Sometimes, though, people can be so helpful to my research, or in their hospitality, that I offer them special gifts that I designed for just occasions.

Within military and other public service circles, challenge coins are very important.  They are a way of showing pride in one’s unit or department.  I figured that if Jonathan Grave were a real person, he’d most certainly have a challenge coin struck for his company, Security Solutions, so I did it for him.

In addition to offering them up as thank-yous, I also offer them in trade for those who offer similar coins for my own collection.  Over the years, I’ve picked up some pretty cool ones from some pretty spooky places.

So, TKZ family, what’s your swag bag look like?  What works for you as writers or fans or booksellers, and what doesn’t?


Violence Smells Bad

By John Gilstrap

Sue Coletta’s excellent post on Monday took us into the reality of murder.  When I finished reading it, I wished I could un-read it.  That’s no insult to Sue.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite.  Good writing makes you squirm.  (Or laugh, or cry . . .)  I read the piece to the end out of respect not just for the author, but for the victims.  It’s important for people to understand what those young ladies endured in their final moments (or, God help us, final hours).

If that same scene were included in a novel I was reading, though, written by someone I didn’t know, I’d have closed the book and banned the author from my shelf.

Having been a first responder for 15 years, I was eyewitness to the aftermath unspeakable acts of cruelty.  I’ve tucked in protruding viscera and I’ve bagged a few heads.

I’ve comforted the bereaved, but that was the part I hated the most.  I was fire and rescue, not police.  My job was to bring order to chaos–to stabilize dangerous situations–and then go home.  No one ever died on my watch or in my ambulance because back then, only a medical doctor could pronounce death.  Thus, people were either victims who were clearly dead when I arrived at the scene, or they were patients receiving life-saving care when I delivered them to the emergency room.

I was then–and am now–something of a Pollyanna.  There’s always a way to win, always a route to a positive outcome.  All I need to do is never give up.  If the first strategy doesn’t work, you throw that aside and try something else.  And then something else again.  If the positive outcome does not arrive, it won’t be because I didn’t do everything I could.  It’s a theme that drives my fiction.  There’s always a way for the good guys to win.  Or they die trying.

When I was researching my nonfiction book Six Minutes to Freedom (2006) and I finally got permission to talk to the Delta Force operators who performed Kurt Muse’s daring rescue, there was a common theme that drove every interview.  To a man, the operators I spoke with told me that come hell or high water, they were bringing Kurt home.  If he stayed, they stayed.  When Operation ACID GAMBIT was done, more than a few of those operators were shot to pieces–one of them amputated his own foot to escape his crashed rescue chopper–but they never stopped fighting.  And they delivered Kurt to his family five days before Christmas.

Victimhood makes me uncomfortable.  I have no desire to read torture porn, which is one of the reasons why I don’t like reading about fictional serial killers.  Those scenes with the suffering victims are all about hopelessness.  Yes, it happens in real life, and if I want access to real-life case files, I can gain it with a phone call.  It’s a call I’ll never make.

In reality, violence smells bad.  It’s sticky and it’s ugly.  It’s unnerving.  When I commanded a horrific auto accident or occupational injury, my standing order to my crew was, “If it’s ugly, cover it up.”  No one functions well in the presence of mangled people.  I bring some of that to my fiction, and I get occasional hate mail as a result, but that level of reality–the reality of the aftermath–doesn’t push me beyond my limits.

The irony is not lost on me that I write violent books, and that good guys occasionally die at my hand.  I can’t define where my breaking point is on how much is too much, but there’s a line there somewhere.  The knee-jerk response is to say that violence against children is the line not to be crossed, but I cross that all the time.  I don’t do it gratuitously, though.  At least I don’t think I do.  I will not write a scene with sexual violence against women.  Come to think of it, I don’t write much about sex at all.

What are your thoughts, TKZ family?  How much squirming are you willing to endure when reading books?  At what point do you send a book sailing?


Panic Attack

By John Gilstrap

I’ve done a lot of writing on the run these past few weeks.  My tour for Total Mayhem has spun out over the past month or so, keeping me away from home and away from my desk.  Yet my September 15 deadline hasn’t moved.  I’ve been spewing words from hotels and restaurants, and from moving platforms like trains and airplanes.

I’ve always written a fair chunk of my first drafts long hand.  Sometimes, the creativity flows better and the there’s the added plus of a built-in second draft when I transfer the handwritten text onto the computer.

Up until a couple of years ago, I did my home-based writing on a desktop computer, with a lightweight laptop reserved for travel.  More recently, the desktop has been mothballed and all my computing needs are served by my Surface Book Pro.   If I’m traveling any distance, it’s coming with me.

While it’s unlikely that my computer would be lost or stolen, I recognize the possibility, so I therefore store virtually no data on my hard drive.  Instead, I’ve come to depend heavily on external storage.   When I finish a writing session, I save the day’s work to a thumb drive that contains pretty much everything I have written in at least the past five years.  Once that’s done, I save the same document to my Dropbox account, and then, finally, once a week or so, I save a copy to my hard drive.  When I start a new session, I use the thumb drive copy as the primary document.

Before the days of cloud storage, I carried that thumb drive–or one of its predecessors–everywhere I went, always in my left front pocket.  My theory was if the house burned and the took the hard drive with it, I wouldn’t lose too much of my writing.

Nowadays, that thumb drive stays with the computer.  It only leaves the house if the laptop leaves the house.  When it does go on the road, it has its own dedicated pouch in the the backpack that doubles as my briefcase.  Routine.  A place for everything, everything in its place.

Until it’s not.

This morning I awoke ahead of my alarm in the fabulous Brown Hotel in Louisville, KY, ready to be home again after five days of being away.  I showered, dressed, packed my bag, and then as I was putting my backpack together, the thumb drive was gone.  Clearly, I had misplaced it somehow, even though I never before have done so.  I unpacked.  I dumped the backpack.  I re-searched the closet and dresser drawers.  I searched the pockets of previously-worn pants.  No luck.  It was gone.

Here’s where my accident investigation training kicked in.  It couldn’t, in fact, just be gone.  Matter can neither be created nor destroyed, remember?  That thumb drive was someplace, and I was confident that when I found it, I would remember that it was exactly where I had put it.  So . . . where?

I’d left the backpack behind for yesterday’s tour event at Fort Knox, so I knew it could be neither somewhere on post nor in the car of the escort who drove me there.  It had to be in the hotel.  But where?

I checked my backpack for a third time.  Nope, matter still had not been created.

Ah-hah!  When I’d returned from Fort Knox, I’d taken my computer up to the “club room” to transcribe my handwritten manuscript pages.  I must have left it there somehow.  Breaking from routine, I’d decided not to bring the whole backpack with me into the club room, so that was how it had transitioned into my pocket.

Thing is, there was no way I would leave the thumb drive behind.  Not after this many years of routine.  Still, I had to track down the lead.  No, the manager told me, no one had found a thumb drive.  Of course, that didn’t mean someone hadn’t picked it up and kept it as their own.  Or, maybe they’d turned it in down at the front desk.

Oh, yeah.  The front desk.  Tick-tock.  I had a rental car to return and there was an airplane with my name on it.  I needed to check out of the hotel and move on.

The lady at the front desk could not have been nicer.  After giving me my receipt, she disappeared into the back office to check lost and found.  Neither of us felt much hope.  While she was gone, I looked out onto the lobby bar where I had dined last night, and as I did, I pulled my phone out to check if the flight was still on time.

I pulled the phone out of my pocket.

My left front pocket–the same one that once was dedicated to my thumb drive back when I carried it everywhere.  My seat for dinner had been a nice one, next to a window with a pretty view of the street.  I remembered that as I sat at the table, I’d pulled my phone out of my pocket and placed it on the window sill because I’d been expecting a call.

With a growing sense of hope, I walked over to last night’s seat and pulled out my chair.  And there it was, a black-and-red plastic thumb drive hiding in the pattern of the plush black-and-red carpet.  Just sitting there, waiting.  It wasn’t where I’d put it, after all.  It was where I’d dropped it when it piggy-backed out of my pocket with the phone.

My morning got a lot brighter.

So, TKZers, how do you save and backup your work?  Ever lost a chunk of it?



National Shooting Sports Month

By John Gilstrap

August is National Shooting Sports month!

Okay, so it doesn’t rate a special tree in the living room or lights in the window, but National Shooting Sports Month provides unique opportunities for writers to familiarize themselves with the weaponry their characters use.

Sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF, the same group that puts on the massive SHOT Show every year), the month-long celebration encourages shooters, gun stores and range owners to make special efforts to introduce more people to hunting and the shooting sports.  Have questions?  Walk in and ask some questions.

There will even be special events.  On August 17, I will be giving a presentation on the weapons Jonathan Grave uses, at Elite Shooting Sports in Manassas, Virginia.  The details are still in play, but it doesn’t look like I’ll be able to do any live fire exercises.  That would have made the even really fun.

I’ve spilled a lot of digital ink here on TKZ over the years discussing gun stuff.  Guns handling and gun play are nearly impossible to describe accurately unless you’ve done some shooting.  There’s a feel to the grip and the recoil.  There are weight and balance issues peculiar to different weapons.  There’s a method to loading magazines.  National Shooting Sports Month will provide perfect opportunities for you to get hands-on training.

A couple of years ago, my publicity team from Kensington traveled from New York to Virginia–and then on to West Virginia with me–as part of a publicity plan to shoot copies of Scorpion Strike, whose cover featured a number of bullet holes.  These young ladies were as anti-gun as you’d expect from New York City.  As we entered the range complex at Echo Valley Training Center, they mocked the shooters they saw and cowered at the sight of firearms being carried out in the open.

When I got them on the trigger, though, everything changed.  After hundreds of rounds apiece, they were enthralled by the sport.  By the end of the day, I had them advancing and shooting at steel targets.  When their magazines ran dry, they dropped them and slapped in another.

In four hours at the range, their world view of shooting–and shooters–had changed.  They’d learned new skills and had had a fun day outdoors in the fresh West Virginia air.

Marksmanship is about precision.  Just like golf or tennis, your number one competitor is yourself, and experience combined with good instruction is the only way to advance your skills.  Here’s a website that will direct you to a shooting range in your area.  Even if you have no experience–especially if you have no experience–drop in and sign up for some beginner instruction.

If you’re afraid of the weaponry, embrace your fears.  A firearm is just a tool and your instructor won’t let you pose a danger to yourself or others.  Don’t worry about recoil.  It’s never as violent as what you see on movies or television.  (I know, right?)  Just hang on to everything tightly and keep a balanced stance.

For your first outing, shoot with either a small caliber or a big gun.  Preferably both.  Physics lesson: The heavier the gun, the less the felt recoil, and the smaller the load, the less energy to trigger that equal and opposite reaction.

So . . . Who’s game?


Book Tour!

By John Gilstrap

Total Mayhem, the 11th book in my Jonathan Grave thriller series dropped on June 25, and now I’m on the road meeting booksellers and fans and fans-to-be.  There’s something exciting and romantic in the phrase, “book tour.”  It’s a heck of a conversation starter.

“What brings you to town?” asks the desk clerk or Uber driver.

“I’m here on my book tour,” I reply.

“Oh, you’re really an author?  I love to read.  What’s your book about?”

And we’re off to the races.  “Terrorists are targeting Mid-American small towns, hitting high school football games and county administrative buildings.  We expect major targets to be hit in big cities, but when the carnage comes to soft targets that have always been considered safe, the nation is rocked.  When the FBI learns that one of the terrorists knows Jonathan Grave, it falls to Jonathan to root out the network and destroy it.”

And then I give them a business card (and a bookmark if I have one on me).

Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop

My first stop was Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop, in Mechanicsburg, PA., and that turned out to be my favorite format for these things.  People had to sign up in advance, and the outstanding management team provided soft pretzels and dipping sauces (as if there’s a better dipping sauce than mustard).  I spoke for about 45 minutes, then it was time for the ice cream social and book signing.

I had another nice crowd in Sea Isle City, New Jersey at the main library branch there.  Thanks to BAM for providing books for sale.

My lodging in New Jersey was a bed and breakfast in Cape May.  Here’s where it got a little weird.  (Full disclosure: I’m a Hyatt and Hilton kind of guy, but there’s a three-night minimum this time of year.)  Using AirBnB, I reserved a “room with a private bath.”  It had already been a long day when I arrived, and I was shocked to find that in a town that’s famous for its Victorian extravagance, I found myself in a suburban rambler.  My room was just the guest room in a lady’s house, and my “private bath” was down the hall.

The Brown Room at Congress Hall

That night, I Uber’d downtown to see the sights and enjoy the food in Cape May–which really is a gorgeous town.  After dinner, I wandered into Congress Hall, a stately old hotel, which features The Brown Room.  The picture leaves no doubt where the name comes from.  I got a comfortable seat on a sofa, ordered a martini, and took out my fountain pen and pad of paper, and started writing away on Hellfire, the next Grave book which is due to the publisher on September 15.  The lounge was crowded, a talented piano player was tickling the ivories in the corner, and I got totally consumed by the scene I was writing.

Here’s where it got really interesting.  Some people are unnerved, it turns out, when a guy sits by himself and writes page after page.  Three different people interrupted to ask what I was doing–but with a paranoid edge.

One asked, “Are you writing down what we’re talking about?”  Think about that question and the hubris it represents.  Truth be told, I had no idea what they were talking about because I was playing with my imaginary friends.  I told her, “No, I’m an author on book tour and I’m on deadline for my next book . . .” (See paragraph 2 above.)

Another was just the curious, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but you seem so intense.  What are you writing?”  See above.

But this was the craziest: “You’re writing a review of this place, aren’t you?  How are you qualified to do that?”  See above.

As I write this, I’m leaving Rehoboth Beach, Delaware on my way to Sykesville, Maryland.  After the Maryland event, I go straight home, where we’ve got to get the house ready for a launch party this weekend, where we’ll have over 100 people.  That’ll be a lot of signing.

Then, next week we’re off to New York for ThrillerFest.

Happy Independence Day, everyone!


What to Wear To A Gunfight

By John Gilstrap

It’s been a while since I’ve written any gun porn.  This is the day the drought ends.

Here’s the scenario: Your character, Detective Dan, knows that he is marching into harm’s way to confront at least two bad guys who he knows are armed.  For our purposes here, Detective Dan is part of a small force, maybe just a partner or two.  The smart move is to wait for backup, but they can’t do that because a family of four is being held hostage and things have gone very bad very quickly.

It’s almost certain that shots will be fired.  The good news is they have a pretty good arsenal to choose from. Just to make it interesting, they have to walk a long way to get in an out, and climb a lot of stairs.  And let’s put them in regular street clothes–nothing tactical.  Think business suits.

Choose Your Weapons

Simunitions are essentially medium-velocity paint pellets that can be loaded into real weapons. Yes, they sting when they hit.

There’s an adage among the tacti-cool crowd that the only reason to carry a pistol is to fight your way back to your rifle.  Having never been in a real gunfight I can’t speak to the veracity of the adage in the real world, but my experience having been a  bad guy in Simunitions training with law enforcement agencies, I can attest to feeling woefully outgunned when I brought my 15-round Glock into play against their 30-round M4s.

M4 carbine

If I’m writing Detective Dan, he’s going to want to have a rifle with him.  If his police agency is like most that I know, he’s got an M4 stashed in the trunk of his car, right next to his ballistic vest. An M4 is the rifle you see in most pictures of soldiers and SWAT team operators.

Right about now, when he’s kitting up for the fight, Detective Dan is going to second-guess his decision not to wait.  That vest he’s putting on will stop most pistol rounds, but it’ll be useless against a rifle bullet.  In an hour, he could have the State Police there with ballistic shields, dogs and a helicopter.  Best of all, he’d have a team that’s specifically trained to do the kind of entry that he’s about to attempt.

But hey, he wouldn’t be the main character in a book if he didn’t put his life on the line from time to time.

Now, Detective Dan has some thinking to do.  Of the weaponry available to him, what should he take?

Everything is heavy.

Loaded Glock 19 magazine

A Glock 19 (common pistol for police agencies around the world) loaded with a standard 15-round magazine weighs about two pounds.  Extra mags weigh a half pound apiece.  Detective Dan normally carries two extra mags, so that’s three pounds on his belt.  It’s no wonder so many detectives wear suspenders.

Loaded 30-round M4 magazine

His loaded M4 weighs 8.5 pounds and each extra 30-round magazine weighs about one pound.  Detective Dan decides to carry four extra mags to feed his M4. The good news here is that his vest–which itself weighs 5 to 8 pounds (or more)–has pouches specifically designed to hold extra mags with that weight distributed across his shoulders.

Single-point rifle sling. I think the rifle itself is an AR15.

Detective Dan will use a single-point sling for his M4 to help distribute that weight, as well.  Then there’s the radio, handcuffs and whatever other hardware Detective Dan carries.  All of it bounces around and rattles when he moves.

Tough choices.

Does Detective Dan really need 45 rounds for his pistol and 150 rounds for his rifle?  This mission would be a lot lighter if he cut back on ammo.  And he’d sweat a lot less without the body armor.  Suppose the fight degenerates to hand-to-hand?  He’s going to have a heck of a time maneuvering with all that stuff on him.

As the author, you have to balance what is reasonable for the character.  If you’ve established Detective Dan as a reformed alcoholic 50-something with a beer gut, the choices are much different than if you’ve established him as a 30-something ex-Special Forces operator who works out two hours a day.

The last thing Detective Dan wants is a fair fight.

This target highlights the most lethal impact points on the human body.

If Detective Dan had had the gift of time, he could have waited for darkness to fall and brought night vision into play as a force multiplier.  In any confrontation, when your team is the only one that can see anything, the odds of winning tilt decidedly in your favor. In the real world, there are no verbal warnings, and no warning shots.  When a bad guy points a firearm at a good guy, there’s going to be a gunfight.  More times than not, the shooter with the most training wins, and the loser is dead.  In that engagement, the trained shooter will aim exclusively at the bad guy’s head, torso or pelvis, because that’s where the major organs and blood vessels are.  If someone is hit in the leg or the hand, that’s because the trained shooter whiffed that shot.

Shots fired.

I don’t want to write a whole scenario here, but let’s talk about some practical considerations.  We’ve kitted out Detective Dan with lots of cool options, so when the shooting starts, he and his team can have the best possible chance of seeing dinnertime.

Once the SHTF (come on, you can figure that one out), Detective Dan does not have the luxury of panicking.  He needs to be keenly aware of the differences between cover (which prevents being hit by bullets) and concealment (which merely makes him invisible).  He needs to remember that he is responsible for every bullet he sends downrange, and that the four innocents are as susceptible to his gunfire as the unknown number of bad guys.

Every shot needs to be aimed at a known target.  And because Detective Dan is a dedicated professional, he won’t take even the perfect shot if one of the hostages is in the background and likely to get hit.  More on that later.

The bad guys, by contrast, don’t care who they kill, so they can feel free to shoot blindly.

Rifle or pistol?

The distance between the front sight and the rear sight is called the sight radius. The longer the radius, the more accurate the shooter.

There are many reasons why most people (everyone I know) shoots more accurately with a rifle than with a handgun, but mostly it boils down to the stability of the platform and the sight radius (the distance between the front and rear sights).  Holding a firearm against your shoulder is inherently more stable than holding one out at arm’s length.  That’s true of holding anything, right?

Past 15 yards for most shooters, and 25 yards for all but the most elite competitive shooters, a pistol shot is at least equal parts hope and marksmanship.  For that M4 Detective Dan is carrying, accuracy at 100 yards isn’t even a challenge if he’s had even a little bit of training.

Here’s the problem: Those rifle bullets love to fly.  That head, torso or pelvis it hit is just the beginning of its journey.  The bullet might break up, it’s trajectory will probably will destabilize and it might start tumbling, but it will still be going very fast.  The next few milliseconds could get troubling for others in the room.  Perhaps that’s not a concern if everybody in the room is a bad guy, but that’s not our scenario.  Again, those pesky hostages are the wildcard.

Given the weaponry he carries, Detective Dan must always weigh accuracy against collateral damage.  I imagine it will be stressful for him.

I cheated a little to make a point.

I gave Detective Dan weaponry he most certainly would have access to, but not necessarily his smartest choices.

The M4 I gave Detective Dan is the weapon that every cop seems to be carrying on the news during active shooter incidents.  I saw a DC subway cop carrying one on a train not too long ago.  It’s tacti-cool as all get out–makes for a badass photo op–but I think it’s the wrong gun.

A tactical 12-gauge shotgun.

If I were Detective Dan, I think I’d have taken a 12 gauge shotgun as my long gun. I’ve rarely seen a police vehicle that doesn’t have one, and it is a very effective weapon in close quarters, with less chance of over-penetration.


A lot of police agencies employ a hybrid weapon called a pistol caliber carbine.  The Uzi and Heckler and Koch MP5 are probably the most famous of these.  Certainly, they are heralded by Hollywood.  Also called personal defense weapons (PDWs), pistol caliber carbines provide the stability of a longer frame with the ballistics of a pistol.

H&K MP5. It’s hard to see, but the stock is folded forward.

Critics (and every tactical operator I know) argue that pistol caliber carbines are overrated.  Why carry two pistols?  If the bad guy has body armor, the good guys’ advantage is reduced.  A load of 00 buckshot probably would not penetrate body armor either, but getting hit with all 9 of those .32 caliber pellets would probably take their breath away long enough for a second shot.

Okay, it’s late and I’m tired.  We’ll talk about tactical reloads and deeper tactical considerations later.  Questions and comments are all welcome.



Let’s Argue!

By John Gilstrap

I thought I’d pull y’all in on a running argument I’ve been having with my writer-buddies.  Spoiler: I’m finding precious few to take my side.

Here’s the hypothetical: Let’s say successful thriller writer George Schwartz decides to write a historical romance novel through traditional publishing outlets.  To keep the marketing department happy, and to avoid confusing his existing audience, George decides to write under the pseudonym, Amanda Thomas.  (Apologies if there is a real Amanda Thomas in the romance space.  I couldn’t find her in my 30-second Amazon search.)

Just to get it out of the way, I believe that honesty is king.  Lying to anyone about anything is wrong.  Hard stop.

Here’s my argument:

Since George is writing FICTION under a PSEUDONYM, I don’t see anything wrong with him creating a fabulous, seductive, relevant bio for Amanda Thomas’.  She led a hardscrabble life in the Midwest, raising her three younger siblings because Mom and Dad disappeared in a twister.  As she worked her way toward a management position in some unnamed factory, she never took her eye off her real goal of becoming a writer.  This FIRST NOVEL is the culmination of her life’s dream.  She’s only thirty now, with nothing but future ahead of her.

Her cover photo would be gorgeous, that of a model who has signed a scary non-disclosure agreement.  Amanda flat-out does not do interviews.

Okay, you get where I am going with this.

One of my best friends in the writing world, a very successful author, was horrified at this possibility.  What if the readers found out?  They would feel betrayed, and no one would ever buy another Amanda Thomas novel.  And when they found out that George Schwartz was the purveyor of the betrayal, they’d never buy another of his books either.

But where’s the betrayal?  Where’s the lie?

Amanda Thomas is NOT REAL, and her book is FICTION.  There’s no analogy James Frey and A Million Little Pieces because his reprehensible action was to misrepresent a made-up story as nonfiction.  Amanda’s book is a novel–no one expects a word of it to be true.

If there’s a lie, it’s in the fact of the pseudonym.

To me, to object to a fictional bio for a pseudonym is to object to a pseudonym itself.  The only honest pseudonym in this case would be “Amanda Thomas, who is really George Schwartz.”  We don’t expect that, so why, if it’s okay to misrepresent the fact of authorship, is it not okay to give the fake author a fake background?

What say you, TKZ family?  Is it wrong to misrepresent a pseudonymous writer as a real person?  Should readers know that the name on the cover is not the writer’s real name?  Where are the lines that shouldn’t be crossed?


Use It

By John Gilstrap

Okay, first things first.  My most recent post dealt in some detail with a surgery I was facing to fuse three vertebrae in my cervical spine.  I am thrilled to report that even the doctor is surprised by the speed of my recovery.  There’s some post-op discomfort to deal with, but that improves every day.  Last weekend, I was able to attend a black tie event (Bond-era ascot in lieu of tie), and I made it all the way to the end.

And the nerve pain that triggered the procedure in the first place is entirely gone, save for some lingering numbness in my thumb, which I’m told will likewise go away with time.

Now, for the hard part.  The important part.  It comes as no surprise, I suppose, that my world view is a cynical one.  Blame it on decades with emergency services or a half century living in the Washington, DC are(n)a.  Blame it on a character flaw.  I don’t know why, but I don’t expect a lot out of people.  If nothing else, it’s an outlook that keeps disappointment at a minimum.

Then y’all went and shook my cynicism with unspeakable kindness.  Your posts and emails in support of me and my family and my stories were beautiful, heartfelt and deeply appreciated.  I wasn’t in a position to respond real-time, but please know that I read them all, and each one touched me.  Thank you so, so much.

I have never been an actor outside of a couple of high school performances but I’m fascinated by the concept of method acting.  As I understand it, actors learn to channel real-life experiences into the characters they play, thus finding the visceral compass that will lead them to the “truth” of a scene.  The Method teaches actors to create emotional vaults within themselves from which they are able to draw when the need arises.

I think one of the reasons The Method interests me is because it is exactly what effective writers must be able to do in order to make their characters–and therefore their stories–come to life on the page.

In my case, as my surgery date approached, I was forced into emotional and practical spaces that I don’t remember ever entering before.  The darkest of those moments for me came when I gathered my wife and son (32) on the sofa and had The Talk.  If things went badly, and there was a pull-the-plug decision, they were to pull it.  I have no desire to exist in a vegetative state and I looked them both in the eye as I said it.  I needed to give that permission directly, I thought, even though it’s all written down in legalese in my Advance Directive.  I gave specific instructions to exclude certain member of my extended family from that decision-making process because I knew they would introduce doubt.

As a threesome, we made light of it all, but I saw the looks behind the smiles and the fear and pain only reinforced the love I knew was there.  We had no reason to expect anything but the best, yet the worst needed to be considered.

Now, for the next few weeks, I am not allowed to lift more than 5 pounds, which means that I have to watch my lovely bride carry the heavy stuff.  Yes, I’m a believer in old school gender roles, and it hurts me to be the weak one.  It angers me.  And it motivates me.

Someday, in the near or distant future, all of it will inform a character or scene.  The indignity of the hospital stay, the non-breathable plastic mattresses, the pain of the first baby steps, the challenges of the first nights back home, the warmth of those oh-so-gentle hugs in the recovery room, the agony of learning to swallow again, the out-of-body weirdness of narcotic painkillers, the wonder of chronic pain being relieved.  All of it is there to be used.

For a writer, then, I guess all of life is one big research project.

Are you willing to share some of what’s in your vault?