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.

Chapter One

By John Gilstrap

I just submitted the manuscript for Stealth Attack (July, 2021), the 14th installment of my Jonathan Grave series. As I await the copy edits, it’s time to embark on the second book of my new Victoria Emerson thriller series.

Every book I write begins by typing the words, Chapter One, written in bold type, centered on the top of page one. It is the only chapter I number as I write. Subsequent chapters are labeled Chapter with a space next to it, pre-formatted in bold face type. My very last chore before submitting a manuscript is to type in the chapter numbers. And yes, inexplicably, it’s important to me that the number be written out, as in Chapter Thirty-seven.

I also type the phrase, THE END, all in caps at the bottom of the final page. It’s cathartic. And it guarantees the copy editor at least one line to delete–as if there aren’t many, many others.

There is one very practical reason for leaving all but the first chapter unnumbered: The first chapter of the next book appears as a teaser at the end of the most recently published book. And it’s a payment milestone.

Here’s the thing, though: That teaser chapter often does not survive my ongoing writing/editing process. It always changes–sometimes significantly–and if it survives it is often bumped to later in the book. I can’t remember if it was on Amazon or Goodreads, but one reviewer pummeled me for un-shooting a character who was shot in the teaser for Hellfire. A lot can happen in eleven months and 100,000 words.

I’ve learned over the years that it’s sufficient to submit a first chapter for the teaser. It needn’t be the first chapter.

We’ve established here before that I am not an outliner. But I’m not really a pantser, either. Before I type those first two words, I know basically where the story is supposed to go–what the stakes are–but when I start writing, I have no idea how I’m going to make those things happen. This is why that first chapter evolves so much or occasionally doesn’t survive final edits. If I’ve started a story in the wrong spot, I generally won’t realize it until I’m around page fifty or so.

I know going in that Jonathan Grave’s world is populated by four main characters, each of whom has to have something to do by way of progressing the story. Then there are a couple of very popular supporting players that I try to bring into each installment. And the dog. I always get a few emails from concerned readers if JoeDog does not make an appearance.

Chapter One provides limitless opportunity, but it also poses limitless challenges. Yesterday, PJ Parrish wrote about the importance of verbs. (A brilliant piece, by the way.) I concur whole-heartedly, but in the vast emptiness on the far side of those initial opening words, thousands of other words await to be chosen, embracing every part of speech that need to be selected from among what feels like an infinite set of variables. If writing a book were a math problem, it would be unsolvable.

My next move is to step off the cliff. To write something. At this stage, it doesn’t matter if the words that spill out are utter crap. That’s part of my process. For me, creativity in general–and writing in particular–is a flow. Typing those first words is like priming a pump. The process will cavitate and make ugly sounds at first, but then we’ll get the bubbles out of the system and good thoughts will start to flow.

Then, on the good days, I’ll be so inside the scenes I’m writing that I’ll merely be channeling thoughts through my fingers. On those days, the spelling is atrocious and words are often dropped, but the story is there. And by story I mean characters I know doing things I understand for reasons that excite me.

As I write this, I realize that I have discovered for the first time why I can write the last one-third of a book in thirty days or so. At that point, I’m no longer writing–I’m merely reporting what I see. And somehow, usually just a day or two before my deadline, it all works out.

And then it’s time to do it again.

What about you, TKZ family? Got any quirky superstitions or must-do habits when launching into a new project?

+15

My Cynical View of Titles and Covers

By John Gilstrap

Whoever coined the trope that you can’t judge a book by its cover had to have been an academic. Certainly, the trope-coiner was not a reader of novels. Yes, it is true that some great novels come encased in ugly wrappers, but few of them find a broad readership.

What follows is based on zero research and even less science, but it reflects quite a few decades of personal observation.

People buy books in steps.

First, they have to know to look for it. This is the unicorn hair in the mix. I don’t know what drives me to look for a book. Certainly, there’s word of mouth, and I read a lot of books for blurbs, but I don’t remember the last time I went into a bookstore blind–without a target I was looking for–and scoured the shelves, hoping to be attracted to a cover. I don’t think I’ve ever done that in the virtual world, where online bookstores are not, in my opinion, very browsable.

Next, there has to be an instant attraction. Perhaps it’s the author’s name—which highlights the importance of “branding”. But that instant attraction is just that—instant. It’s fleeting. There and gone. This is where the cover comes in, highlighting the reason that genres exist in the first place. The title is important here, too. A thriller has to look and sound like a thriller. Ditto a romance or horror novel. In that brief second of instant attraction, the artwork makes a connection and causes the reader to move to the next step . . .

They read the plot description. In just a few words, the pressure is on to pull the reader into the story. To make them gamble their hard-earned money that the ride you’re going to provide is worth the money. How do they make their final decision?

They read the first pages. Yesterday, PJ Parrish posted a terrific primer on the elements of a good opening. Here’s where that pays off. Boom! Decision made, one way or the other. There’s neither the time nor the real estate to flub the opening and make it better later.

So, where is the cynicism?

Okay, here it is: The covers and titles needn’t have much to do with the actual plot of the book. They work together to accomplish their jobs in a glance, and then they are forgotten. They work in tandem to convince a potential reader to take a chance, and if you, as the writer, do your job to entertain, no one will notice. Some examples from my own work:

Hellfire is the Jonathan Grave book that hit the stands back in July. What does Hellfire even mean? The story is about two kids who are kidnapped to keep their mom from revealing a terrorist plot after she has been arrested. The word itself–Hellfire–is an oblique reference to an air-to-surface missile system. And it sounds cool. It positions the book properly in the minds of readers who generally enjoy the types of books I write.

The red cover makes it distinctive on the shelf–unless or until red becomes the cover du jour for the current crop of cover designers. It also lends itself well as a Facebook cover image. But if you really look at the image and its various elements, it could be for a reprint of All’s Quiet On The Western Front, or it could be a story about Satan.

Other examples from my oeuvre (today is Pretend-I-Know-French Day): The second book in my Jonathan Grave series is Hostage Zero. It’s the title that broke the series out, and the phrase means nothing. None of the hostages are numbered, and none of them launch a plague, as in “patient zero”. It just sounded cool, and that’s why we went with it. The cover of Friendly Fire features the White House, yet neither the president nor his team are involved in the story. What we wanted to do is establish the book and its author as being “inside Washington”.

My point here is that storytelling and marketing are entirely different skillsets, with only distantly related goals. As an author, my job is to entertain my readers by giving them a helluva ride. To get that chance, I need to convince them (trick them?) into picking out my book from among all the others on the shelf.

Your turn, TKZers. Do you have any tricks you’re willing to share about how you convince readers to take the plunge?

+8

Writing In The White Space

By John Gilstrap

When I was in high school, dreaming that one day I might write a novel, I studied books that I loved. I tried to see beneath the skin of the words, and into the musculature of the characters and the skeleton of the plot. I wanted to figure out how the writer turned spots on the page into real emotion.

In April Morning by Howard Fast, 15-year-old Adam Cooper stands on the green in Lexington, Massachusetts, a squirrel gun in his hands on the morning of April 19, 1775, shoulder-to-shoulder with his neighbors and his disapproving father. They face down the column of British regulars who were sent to seize their weapons, and the slaughter begins. Initially, the American lines scatter, but then they reorganize and the remainder of the novel is about the running gunfight that is now the stuff of American legend.

Then the story shifts. In the final scene, with the day won by the colonists, Adam returns home filled with adrenaline and fear and excitement, to find his father’s body laid out on a table in the parlor. He was one of the first to fall. In that moment, Adam realizes that everything has changed. At 15, he is now the man of the house. The earth’s axis has shifted, and will never be right again. It was a very emotional ending for me. I have not read that book in over 40 years, and that moment still resonates with me.

Even at the time, I understood that very little of the emotion was on the page. “He felt sad” or a similar phrase didn’t appear anywhere in the prose. The author had ripped my guts out, but the words that did it weren’t in the black part of the printing. The emotion resided in the white space, in the words that weren’t written. The emotions were in my head.

Other books that had that effect on me include Lord of the Flies, Charlotte’s Web, To Kill A Mockingbird and many others. How did the authors manipulate me that way?

I don’t think there’s a formula to follow, but there are some thoughts to keep in mind:

Earn it. Emotional release requires emotional investment. No reader weeps for the person killed in Chapter One of a murder mystery. We don’t know the identity of the decedent, and even if we get a name, we still don’t have an emotional bond.

In April Morning, the clash on Lexington Green occurs on page 100 of the edition I read in high school. In the lead-up, we establish that Adam Cooper is a lazy boy who shirks his chores and clashes frequently with his father. After the first volley from the British, Adam runs for cover, a coward. Over the course of the story, he is driven to fight by the sight of so many friends and townsfolk dying, and then by the end of the novel, he is positively valiant. Upon returning home, he realizes that no one wants to hear of his gallantry in battle. Father is dead. That is all that matters. He realizes that he is alone in many ways, and that he can no longer be the boy that he is.

The emotion of the ending was earned by the emotional journey of the character. Because I experienced his journey, I felt his pain.

Keep the emotions locked down. In fiction, emotional release is boring. Drama lives within a character’s efforts to keep his emotions in check–to plow forward despite the pain. We’ve seen it at funerals as sons and daughters struggle to get through their eulogy, and we’ve seen it on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum–the pure joy of those surprise reunions in classrooms as dads and moms return from military service.

We know it when we see it, but how do we reduce it to words on the page?

Remember the white space. Trust yourself and trust your reader. If you’ve built their character well the reader won’t need your words to understand.

Here’s a true story from my own life that had immense impact on my writing (and yes, sorry, it’s another fire service story).

Very early in my career–I was maybe 24 years old–I was the officer on the ambulance for a particularly awful pediatric fatality. It came in late in the evening, and I didn’t get back to the firehouse till the wee hours. Everyone else was asleep. I went to the bunkroom and tried, but sleep was not in the cards so I went downstairs to the kitchen and poured myself a cup of coffee that could have doubled as ink. I wasn’t feeling particularly morose, but I’d seen things and done things that I needed to sort out.

Then Big Dave Millan walked into the kitchen, barely awake, his hair a swirled mess. Big Dave was a career guy–a paid firefighter–and he was probably in his 50s at the time. He was the grizzled no-shit fire dog who had done it all and was very good at everything. Early on, I was kind of terrified of him.

Big Dave poured himself a cup of rancid brew and sat on the opposite end of the long kitchen table. He didn’t say anything and neither did I, but he was there. He glanced at me a couple of times, but mostly he just stared down at his cup. After about ten minutes, he dumped the coffee, rinsed his cup and headed back to the bunk room. As he passed behind me, he gave my shoulder a squeeze and he patted my back. Just a quick tap. I took it as a silent, You’re okay, kid. We never spoke of that moment, but it was one of the most caring, special gestures I’ve ever experienced.

I tap that moment with Big Dave frequently as I’m writing what I hope are quietly emotional scenes. If there is a trick–if there’s a way to boil this down to words of advice–I guess it is to be honest with your reader. Tap that vein of memory and let the emotion flow into what you’re writing.

And, as with all things writing related, less is almost always more.

Okay, TKZ family, what are your thoughts? What scenes have gut-hooked you? How do you harness emotion as you write?

 

+10

The Virtual You

By John Gilstrap

Zoom, Webex and their conferencing cousins are a way of life these days. It’s how kids (pretend to) learn at school, it’s how business is conducted, and it’s how virtual happy hours are convened. More to the point of this blog, it’s also how book festivals and book tours are being conducted. I’ve even talked to a few book groups. (Send me an email if you’d like me to talk to your group.)

I’ve written in this space before about developing public speaking skills, but now that I’ve been a part of a bazillion virtual get-togethers, I’ve learned that many of the skills needed for addressing an audience in person don’t apply in the virtual world, and in fact may prove harmful to the presentation. So, for this week’s post, I thought I’d share some of the lessons I’ve learned:

First things first: A number of websites exist for the purpose of allowing you to test your webcam to play with the images. This is one of them.

Don’t look down on your audience. I mean that literally. Many of us (myself include) ply our trade via a laptop computer, where the webcam is at chest level or below–the least complimentary angle from which to be photographed. Find a way to raise that camera so that you’re looking straight at the lens.

If you do a lot of virtual conferencing–even if it’s for a big boy/big girl job–consider investing in an external webcam. With a simple click, you can disable the built-in webcam and switch to one that can be placed on a tripod (or anywhere else you’d like).

Design your set. Background matters, especially if you’re a featured speaker. My background during the day while I’m working is a beautiful bay window that looks great in real life, but looks terrible on camera. First of all, the lighting is all wrong (see below), and closed blinds are boring. My Zoom studio (aka a table in my basement) is set up in front of a pretty bar we built. When I address scouts or kids’ groups, I angle away from the array of booze bottles.

When setting up your zooming place, know that people are, in fact, paying attention to what’s behind you. That’s why the school district in my area does not require students to be on camera during their remote learning sessions. (What could possibly go wrong there?) Plan accordingly.

Avoid harsh backgrounds like unadorned dry wall. In a perfect world, textures like stone work or bookcases work better than plain.

Zoom (and maybe others) has a feature where you can turn a photo into a virtual background. I advise against using that feature simply because it never looks right. When people are trying to figure out what’s wrong with the picture, they’re not paying attention to what you’re saying.

Framing matters. Whether they realize it or not, your audience wants to see you as a close-up. Not a “60 Minutes” count-the-nose-hairs close-up, but a head-and-shoulders close-up. All too often, especially when using laptop webcams, people in virtual conferences become a pair of eyes and a ceiling. Alternatively, they become a distant whole person without clear features.

Zooming is performance art, and needs to be treated as such. Whether you’re the star of the show or an attendee, you should own your moment and be aware of the details.

Remember that EVERYTHING is bigger. The difference between speaking live and Zooming reminds me of the difference between live performance and television. Zoom is, after all, a close relative to TV. Every movement of your eyes, every scratch of your nose is big and noticeable to people on the other side of your webcam. That booming voice you would normally use to address a large crowd sounds harsh and angry through your audience’s computer screens.

The microphone that is built into your computer picks up every sound, and projects it out as tinny, un-nuanced audio. Coughs and sneezes happen, but when they do, show the courtesy of muting your audio for the duration of the event. If you’re in the audience, show the courtesy of staying muted unless and until you have something to say.

Because it’s all bigger, you have to do EVERYTHING smaller. Even if there are hundreds of people in your audience, the teleconference is a personal communication with each attendee. Speak more softly than you would–as if you were sitting across the table from them. As you gesticulate, remember that to be seen, your hands must remain inside the frame.

Focus your eyes on the camera lens. No matter how many faces are displayed in that Brady Bunch checkerboard on your screen, your only audience is the camera lens. If you talk directly to the image of the person whose question you’re answering, you will look to the questioner as if you are addressing the floor. Eye contact is more important in a teleconference than it is in real life, and the only eye you can contact is that camera lens.

Design your lighting. Lighting ads subtle depth to the image you project–literally and figuratively–via webcam. As I mentioned above, I don’t Zoom from my desk in part because the backlighting from my window makes it difficult to see my face, and it also adds unwanted glare to what the audience sees.

Front lights are probably the most important. You want to illuminate your face evenly–no sharp shadows–without reflection off of your skin or your glasses, if you wear them. Given my hairline (and my refusal to grant my wife giggle-rights by applying makeup to my head), lighting can be a real challenge, not just for video conferencing, but for my YouTube channel, as well.

Remember the importance of eye contact with your audience. If you wear glasses, consider removing them for your teleconference. If that’s not possible, work hard to design lighting that won’t be a reflection bomb that makes your eyes invisible. Because I do this stuff a lot, I buy my glasses with an anti-reflective coating that works very well.

Backlighting adds depth and personality to your image. You don’t have to buy anything fancy–you’ve probably got lamps hanging around that will do the job. YouTube teems with lighting suggestions.

Security concerns. We live in weird times. While weirdness may not thrive in your neighborhood, the internet knocks down all gates and fences. I’m probably more cautious than I need to be, but I’m very wary of what people can see in my frame. I don’t show doors or windows, and I don’t display anything of real value. I don’t have kids at home anymore, but if I did, I certainly would not allow them to be in the background. Particularly if you’re using a high angle for your camera, police the paperwork on nearby surfaces to make sure there are no bank statements or draft ransom notes visible.

What say you, TKZ family? Have I missed anything? Have you been Zooming a lot?

+9

Reigniting The Passion

By John Gilstrap

Let me get this out of the way first: I love what I do. I am privileged and honored to make my living by entertaining people with stories. People ask me if or when I intend to retire someday, and I don’t even know what that means. When a novelist “retires”, do the stories just go away? Do characters somehow stop appearing in his head? I’ve always figured that as long as readers keep reading what I write, I’ll continue to feed them with stories.

That said, 2020 has been a helluva year. Beyond all the other weirdness that’s been inflicted on all of us, this is also the year that I signed on to write two full-length thrillers. As always, my next Jonathan Grave thriller will hit the stands in July, but before that, February 23, 2021, will see the release of Crimson Phoenix, the first book in a new series that I’m confident I’ll hawk in a post that is closer to the publication date.

A few weeks ago, our buddy James Scott Bell wrote a post here on TKZ about how Erle Stanley Gardner churned out 100,000 words per month for fifty years. I’m not that guy. If I can pound out 2,500 words in a day, I’m thrilled. My record for one day was 8,000 words and that left me exhausted. I’m not cut out for that kind of production.

So, here we are, in the middle of the pandemic stuff, and as stress rose, avenues for relaxation were shut down.

As a relief valve, I got myself a Zoom account. Every Wednesday evening, I gather with two author buddies at a virtual bar for virtual happy hour. These are folks I’ve known for decades. Every meeting starts with a toast, and then we shoot the sh*t for a couple of hours. It’s surprisingly refreshing.

Because we’re writers, we complain a lot. There’s life, a little bit of politics, the state of the industry, and the ups and downs of daily life.

Sooner or later, we inevitably come to the subject of movies. We talk about some of the contemporary stuff that’s out there (thank God for Amazon Prime and Netflix!), but the real passion for all of us turns out to be Westerns. Tombstone is, of course, the greatest Western of all time–argue this point at your own peril–and there is considerable disagreement about The Wild Bunch being a close second. Shane is a favorite of one of the revelers, but I must confess that I don’t agree. I mean, Alan Ladd? Really?

Then it happened. I said, “We should write a serial Western.”

In that instant, a new project was born. Over the course of 30 minutes, we worked out the only rules: The story will be set in 1880, and each of us will write from the point of view of our own characters. My character is Jake Bristow, a grieving farmer from Virginia. Somehow, for reasons yet unknown, we will all end up in an Oklahoma town on the same date for what will be an epic and legendary gunfight against bad guys we have yet to determine.

Logistically, we each write a chapter in turn. I started the effort and passed it on to the next author in the line, who put brilliance on the page, and then Author #3 took his turn. The ball is back in my court now. In only 9,500 word, we now know who the characters are, what their motivations are, and they’ve already crossed paths. Hint: They don’t like each other very much yet. But we do know why they’re headed to Oklahoma.

At our most recent happy hour, we all revealed that individually, we haven’t had this much fun at the keyboard in a long, long time. The project is liberating. I’m writing in a completely new, different voice and I’m getting lost in new lines of research. Perhaps most refreshing is the element that is inherently missing in writing: the thrill of teamwork among friends. What I find most fascinating is how our vastly different writing styles work in a single stitched-together narrative.

And yes, I’m being deliberately circumspect about mentioning the other authors’ names. That’s not my place.

Now, to the point of this post. The cooperative Western project has reignited the passion for writing in all of us. It’s as if by shifting to another project that is strictly for fun, if only for a few thousand words at a time, the elements that stir creativity get a fresh swirl. That inures to the benefit of every other project on our plates.

I’ve stated in this space more than a few times that half of being a professional writer (a professional anything, really) is showing up to work every day. During the dark days of summer, I confess that showing up had become a drag. Now, I can’t wait. I’m getting up earlier, spending more time at the keyboard. I’m enjoying the process again.

So what about you folks? What are your tricks for reigniting the passion for writing that you know is there, but sometimes dwindles?

 

+12

Well Behaved Characters (Redux)

By John Gilstrap

FULL DISCLOSURE: The article that I originally planned to post today isn’t ready for prime time. It’s a nuanced look at writing in the white space–making what isn’t on the page resonate as clearly as what is. I’ll post it next time, I hope.

What follows is an edited version of one of my TKZ entries from 12 years ago(!). I called it:

Well Behaved Characters

Like all authors, I suppose, I teach a number of writing classes and attend my share of conferences, and one of the questions that always comes up goes something like this: “I hear authors talk about how there comes a point in every story when the characters take over and start writing the story for you. Does that happen to you?”

The short answer is no; and frankly, it sort of ticks me off. I’d love to cede the process of plot development to my characters. Hell, somewhere in the middle of the second act, where all the tedious stuff is being manipulated and I’ve got to keep the pacing going, I’d cede the process to a stranger in a grocery store if he could make it any less painful.

As it is, my characters just sit there and wait to be told what to do. Lazy bastards. Not an original thought from any of them. In fact, during those tough times when I’ve written myself into a corner and don’t know how to extricate myself, I believe I’ve seen them chuckling at my plight. If I didn’t need the characters to make the story work, I swear sometimes that I’d fire them all.

When I first wrote this post, I was staring down the throat of an approaching and I needed an ending. I mean, I already had an ending from the initial drafts, but I needed an ending. A kick-ass final sequence that would leave the reader exhausted and satisfied. The one I already had took care of the satisfaction part, but it didn’t have the roller coaster feel that I wanted.

So I shot one of the characters.

Don’t worry, it wasn’t a gratuitous thing. The shooting is organic to the plot, and it provides the twist I needed. It also wiped those sanctimonious smirks off their faces. Sometimes it helps to remind them of the power I have over their lives.

Seriously, though, when I found myself in this crisis-of-ending, I think I discovered what authors really mean when they talk about characters taking over. By shooting that character, I gave the other characters in the scene something to react to. Things started happening—things that I hadn’t planned for, which is really saying something for an author who is as outline obsessed as I was back then—and new twists occurred to me as I wrote. I got really into the scene. The characters’ reality became so much my own reality that all I had to do was observe and record what I saw in my imagination. It was one of those moments of high concentration that I think every writer adores. When I finished and went back and read the thirty pages I’d written, I loved it. I’d nailed it.

I submitted the manuscript a week early!

Back to this business of characters taking on lives of their own. I’ve decided that when I’m in the zone, writing fiction has a lot in common with method acting. As the creator of characters, I spend a lot of time in my characters’ head space. Every action they take is the result of some plot-related motivation, and over time I come to understand those motivations. As plot twists come along—triggered by the actions of other characters whose motivations I’ve come to understand even as the rest of the cast have not—the reaction becomes obvious.

It’s not about them telling me what to do; it’s about me drawing them clearly enough to know what they’d do on their own if they were real enough to walk among us.

I do love this job.

So, TKZers, are your characters lazy and wait for direction, or do they take over the story?

+9

Take A Long View on Research

By John Gilstrap

Some of the most common questions I encounter about the writing process involve research: Some version of “How do I find out about . . . ?”

We’ve talked in this space about ride-along programs for police agencies and other emergency response groups. There are some great conferences (when conferences are allowed to happen again) like Writer’s Police Academy, and many writer’s conferences feature tracks where technical professionals share details with the assembled group. But let’s be honest. The programs that have been cleared by the public affairs office are probably not going to give you the real scoop that you’re looking for.

Most people are afraid to speak on the record these days, especially to a writer. The fact that I’m not a journalist–people are never on the record with me–doesn’t necessarily loosen tongues, especially because the kinds of things I usually want to know are the things that public affairs offices specifically don’t want me to know. Still, I have a Rolodex filled with the names of Special Forces operators, federal agents, cops, intelligence officers, ex-cons, doctors, politicians and a host of other interesting people who will answer their phones when I call.

I thought I’d share my strategy for collecting sources.

Be 100% Trustworthy. I cannot emphasize this enough. In fact, I list it first because it is the only element of my research rules that is inviolable. These folks take a risk when they share inside scoop, and trust is as fragile as one misplaced word. I never drop names among my friends, and the Acknowledgements pages in my books never include sources who helped me unless I have received specific permission. More than a few of the names provided for those acknowledgements are are different than the ones I know them to be, and I never ask which is the pseudonym.

Try to meet everyone. True confession time. My personality meets the clinical definition of an extrovert. I enjoy meeting people and getting to know them. So, this bit of advice comes more easily for me than it will for many writers who exhibit the more typical introverted tendencies of an artist. But it’s doable.

Here’s the secret: Everyone is the hero of their own story in their minds, but most folks get few opportunities to talk about their jobs and their hobbies. And in my experience, most people are delighted to be asked. Just recently, I needed to get a document notarized on a Sunday evening in Martinsburg, West Virginia. The only notary we could find was one of the local bail bondsmen. I realized that I knew nothing about that business, so I started chatting him up. Given the hour and the day of the week–he left an evening with his family to help us out–I took a business card, gave him a challenge coin, and got permission to call him later if I had any questions. Two weeks later, he spent a half hour on the phone with me, explaining the ins and outs of being a bondsman. Fascinating.

When I chat with folks, I always tell them that they should free to push back if I ask a question that makes them uncomfortable, and I make it clear that we are never on any record–I’m just interested in what they do. With the exception of a couple steps too close to national security issues, no one has ever pushed back. (And there are ways around the national security push back, too.)

Avoid the cliches. Say you’re meeting a mortician. If you start with, “Eew, how do you work with dead people all day?” the conversation will likely be short and shallow. When I shared a hotel bar with a mortician a few years ago, I asked him why, at the last funeral I’d attended, the decedent’s fingertips had started to turn blue. He explained that there were several possible reasons, and that led to a broader discussion of embalming best practices. I’ve never had occasion to use any of that, but I still have his card, and I send him an email every time a new book comes out. I presume that if I call him sometime in the future, he’ll remember our chat and he’ll talk with me.

Hang out at the bar. When life returns to normal, find an excuse to hang out at a local hotel bar. Not the local watering hole where you know everyone and everyone knows you, but a bar where transients bide their time between the work day and bedtime. Sit at the bar–not at a table–and start a casual conversation. Something like, “Where are you from?” or “Stay away from the fried shrimp.” Sooner or later, if the spark of a conversation turns to something real, you’ll get around to “What do you do?” Bingo. You’re in.

They might not have a job that’s earth-shattering, but there’s something interesting to glean from everyone. Years ago, I was at a bar with a nurse who was attending a conference, and I asked, “What’s you’re most disgusting bedpan story?” It caught her off guard, she laughed and she shared an unprintable tale that involved geriatric incontinence and a slippery floor. I doubt I’ll ever put in a book, but at least I was more entertained than if I had sat there by myself.

Listen more than you talk. Back when I had my Big Boy Job, and more recently as I tour, I’m usually alone. Many others in a hotel bar are not. They are either part of a crowd, or they’re waiting for someone to go somewhere else. When two or more people are talking, there’s nothing wrong with eavesdropping. If what they’re talking about is interesting, don’t hesitate to say, “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help but overhear. Do you all really work for Space X?” They’ll either shut you down or be complimented. In my experience, there’s not much middle ground.

On the other hand, if the people having the conversation are very engaged with each other, and telling interesting stories, become invisible. A few years ago, I attended a week-long class in Arizona on pistols and carbines. The sessions were all taught by former Special Forces operators from various agencies, and after they got a few drinks down their gullets, they started reminiscing about past operations they’d been on. They were aware of my presence, I suppose (I was sitting in plain sight, after all), but they’d either forgotten or they didn’t care. The stories themselves were interesting in their own right, but those weren’t my big take-away. I absorbed the banter among these guys, and how much they adored what they did–and some still do as private security contractors.

Never take notes. Unless you’re a journalist, there’s no reason to take notes on a casual conversation. The presence of a tape recorder or a note pad is a quick way to get vectored back to the public affairs officer. You can always make notes to yourself after the fact.

Take the long view. The main point I’m trying to make here is that the best research is often passive. You don’t have to limit your efforts to the project you’re working on. Rather, always be in data collection mode. Never be afraid to learn more about people and what they do–who they are. Use your accidental audience with interesting people to talk about things you would never find on Wikipedia or from the public affairs folks.

Hand out and collect business cards. Back in the days of my Big Boy Job, I carried two sets of cards. If I was doing association business, I only handed out that card–even if the inquiry was about my books. I’d tell them to visit my website for more information. In every other event when a card exchange seemed appropriate, I exclusively handed out my I’m-a-writer business cards.

Lock in the contact with a friendly email. At my first opportunity after meeting an interesting person and collecting their card, I write them an email telling them how much I enjoyed learning from them, and I double down on my intent to maybe one day call them.

What say you TKZ family? Any research tricks you’d like to share?

 

 

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Beware Of The Throw-Away Line

By John Gilstrap

One of the most onerous tasks of this writing gig for me is the review of page proofs. The developmental edit is done, and the copy edits are done, often just a few weeks before the arrival of the final typeset pages. Page proofs provide the absolute final opportunity to catch any errors on the page. The problem for me is that the always arrive when I’m deeply into the flow of the next book–so I’m distracted to begin with–and I just finished reading the damn thing (for the scumpti-fourth time) a few weeks before. The stakes are high, and yet I have a hard time focusing.

Just yesterday, I finished the page proofs for Crimson Phoenix, the first book in my new series featuring Victoria Emerson, an unlikely leader in the aftermath of a devastating attack on the United States. (Pub date: February 23, 2021) It’s about 95,000 words long, and I love it, but I’ve pretty much memorized it. I allotted two days to the page proofs–not much time for me because I am a slow reader.

I’d plowed all the way through and thought I was done last night. I was going to scan the pages and send them back to my publisher this morning, and then, while in the shower, a thought popped into my head from nowhere. Luke’s father couldn’t have died when Luke was a baby. I know that doesn’t make any sense out of context, but the timing I’d set up in the narrative would make much of what follows impossible. Thank heavens I found the error. Readers notice that little stuff.

(SIDEBAR: What is it about showers that triggers creativity? Perhaps it’s just me, but I cannot count the number of times that plot issues have resolved spontaneously under the flow of hot water.)

Back to the error. Here’s the thing: The timing of Luke’s father’s death really has no affirmative impact on the plot. In this case, Victoria is talking to another character about the boys’ father, and she says, “he never got to meet Luke.” That’s it. It’s a throw-away line that could have derailed the entire timeline of the book.

And this isn’t my first time. Some horrible errors have made it all the way into print, thanks to throw-aways. Probably the most egregious in my case occurs in Hostage Zero, the second book in the Jonathan Grave series. Harvey Rodriguez is an important secondary character who suffers from some serious PTSD issues. For the plot to work, he needed to be a former military field medical guy. An Army medic. In a monologue that I’m still very proud of, he expounds on the horrors of fighting in Iraq during the battle for Fallujah. Then, I realized that I’d been an idiot. Fallujah was a Marine Corps operation, not an Army one. No problem. I just changed Army to Marine and made a few other references to the Corps and Semper Fi.

But I didn’t change the word, “medic.” The Marine Corps does not have medics. They have U.S. Navy corpsmen assigned to their operational units. Tens of thousands of copies of the book went out to the world with the phrase “Marine Corps medic” repeated several times. I must have written over 100 letters of apology to Marines and Navy corpsman over the years. Given the audience for that series–and the fact that I grew up a Navy brat who was frequently stitched up by Navy corpsman–the barefoot walk across broken glass is good for me. We were able to change the error in the eBook versions, but there’s no pulling back the print and audio editions.

In Scorpion Strike, there’s a throw-away line where Jesse Montgomery drops his ditty bag into the back seat of his father’s convertible Corvette. My goodness, there are a lot of Corvette owners out there, and many are anxious to inform me that the Corvette has no back seat. Again, that’s on me, but I’m far less embarrassed by that mistake.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that it’s not the stuff you research that bites you. It’s the stuff that you’re sure you know. Or, even more often, it’s the stuff you throw in without thought just to add a little spice to a character or a visual.

What say you, TKZ family? Got any cringe-worthy mistakes you’d like to talk about? C’mon, it’s just between us. . .

 

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Firehouse Slang

By John Gilstrap

I might have mentioned a few dozen times in this space that I spent 15 years in the fire and rescue service, at a volunteer department that ran over 14,000 calls per year. My name is on thousands of those reports. I’ve been burned, shot at, and threatened by one very large knife. I ran two plane crashes, uncountable car crashes, delivered two babies and performed CPR hundreds of times. In the end, I saved more lives than I lost, and I never got paid a dime for any of it. That’s a point of pride to me.

Every line of work has its own vocabulary–rhetorical shortcuts that relay information that others might not understand, but mean very specific things to insiders. I thought I’d take you inside the firehouse for a peek at our peculiar dictionary. (Warning: Some of what follows is . . . insensitive. If you’ve never been an emergency responder, it might be hard to understand, but trust me when I say it is entirely possible to be compassionate and insensitive at the same time. Sometimes, the humor is the only good part of a really crappy day.)

Now, in no particular order . . .

FNG: The full pronunciation of effing new guy, aka rookie. Also known as a red hat, because in my jurisdiction, FNGs wore red helmets on the fireground. I wanted them to wear cowbells, but they refused. We also called them wheel chocks, even though real wheel chocks always knew what they were supposed to do, and they never did stupid stuff.

Blue flares: There is no such thing as a blue flare, but FNGs didn’t know that. It was always entertaining to send them over to the farthest-away fire station with orders to bring back a box of blue flares. Of course, when they arrived at the target station, those folks would have just given them away to another station, miles away of course. That fun could go on for hours. It was like a cat chasing a laser pointer. Smoke shifters (either left-handed or right-handed) could be used in lieu of blue flares.

Box o’ Rocks: The intellectual assessment of someone who, say, didn’t catch on to the blue flares gambit after two or three stations.

Ticks: The name paid firefighters used for volunteers, purportedly because we were annoying and always hanging around. The fact that said volunteers built the firehouse and purchased all of the rolling stock they rode on and furniture they sat in often went unacknowledged.

Squirrel: This one had at least two meanings. One was another derogatory term for volunteers, but another dealt with enthusiasm. To “squirrel a call” meant either to drive to the scene in your POV (privately owned vehicle) or to respond from the firehouse with a spare piece of fire apparatus.

Paid maids: In the early days, this was the volunteers’ term for paid personnel. Among their daily tasks was to clean the kitchen and the bathrooms. (No, the two sides of the house did not always get along.)

Big eye: Have you ever encountered a challenge that was so huge and so out of the ordinary that you kind of vapor locked and didn’t know what to do first? That’s the big eye. When the world is on fire or people are screaming for assistance, it’s a bad thing to get. FNGs get the big eye a LOT.

Fireground: The general term for the scene of any emergency involving fire and rescue apparatus. In my jurisdiction, the senior OIC (officer in charge) of the First due (see below) wagon (see below) was in overall charge of the fireground, while the senior aide (see below) on the ambulance was in charge of patient care.

OIC: Translates to officer in charge, but is not necessarily tied to rank. In my jurisdiction, the OIC of any piece of apparatus was the person in the shotgun seat (right-hand front seat). If, for example, a captain was driving, but a sergeant was in the seat, the sergeant would be in charge of the fireground. It was a great way to train up-and-coming officers.

Fireground Commander: For larger incidents, command would be passed to a chief officer. Chiefs were the senior officer of their respective fire departments, but they rarely commanded individual pieces of apparatus. Chiefs had their own buggies but rarely wrested command from the first due OIC. It was, however, customary for the OIC to offer command to the chief, who then decided whether or not to take it. To be relieved without first offering would be a slap in the face.

Bugles: Fire officer rank insignia. Lieutenants wear one bugle on their collar points. Captains wear two . . . chiefs of departments wear five.

Wagon: This has changed in many jurisdictions, but where I ran, every fire station housed two pumpers (what you think of when you think “firetruck”). The first one out the door on a call was the wagon, and the second was the engine. Together, both the wagon and engine were called an engine company. Thus, Wagon 14 or Engine 14 were individual vehicles. Engine Company 14 was two vehicles, and when they were on the road, it was time for the fire to be very scared.

Aide: The OIC of the ambulance.

First due: The area to which a department or a specialty vehicle (ladder truck, hazmat truck, etc.) is dispatched first. The next closest is second due, and so forth. In my jurisdiction, for a commercial alarm, the dispatch would sound something like this: “Box 1404 for the structure fire. Engine companies 14,13 and 2, Trucks 14 and 13, Squad 2, Ambulance 14.” The first number of the box number (in this case 14) indicates who’s first due, the second part is a rough idea of how far the call is from the station. (Fire station 14 sits in the center of box 1400. Ditto every other fire station.)

Smells and bells: I can’t begin to imagine the number of dispatches that started with “odor of smoke” or “fire alarm sounding.” These calls got the full boat (full alarm assignment–see below), rousted a bunch of people out of bed, and left the beleaguered first due engine company officer with a complex report to fill out.

Working fire (or a worker): A real fire with real flames. The opposite of smells and bells.

Second alarm (or third . . .): Different types of structures have different alarm assignments. In my jurisdiction, a single family house fire had an alarm assignment of two engine companies, a truck (ladder truck), a heavy squad (think rolling tool box with lots of cool toys) and an ambulance. At the top of the heap, the hospital had an alarm assignment of four engine companies, two trucks, two squads and (I think) three ambulances. When the fireground commander strikes a second alarm on a fire, he’s ordering up a duplication of the first alarm. Remember this when you hear about a four-alarm fire.

Special alarm: Say the fireground commander only wants one more engine company or one more truck. That would be a special alarm, not to be confused with an additional alarm (see above).

Scratch: I think this one’s unique to volunteer departments. A piece of apparatus scratches when it fails to mark responding within three minutes after dispatch. When a house scratches, the next due piece of apparatus will be dispatched in its place. There is no greater humiliation.

Second (or third, or fourth) call: These happen quite a lot during weather events, when everyone is running their wheels off. Let’s say Wagon and Ambulance 14 are already running a call, when the station gets hit again for an incident. Dispatch knows that Engine 14 and Ambulance 14-2 are in the station, but they have no way of knowing if they are manned. So the dispatch would sound like, “Box 1425 for the auto accident. Engine Company 14 (your second call), Ambulance 14 (your second call), Engine Company 2, Ambulance 2.” Whoever got out first got the call.

To cut numbers: Occasionally, someone would walk into the station with an injury or illness, or we would wander up on something while in service (see below). In this case, because the dispatcher has no idea that there’s an incident, we’d radio in and ask them to “cut numbers” on a new incident, and we’d give them the address. This would make the incident official and take the appropriate vehicle out of service.

In service/out of service. This is counter-intuitive to a lot of people. A piece of apparatus is in service when it is available for a call. When on a call (not available for another call) it is out of service. It was common, when we were assisting an ambulance with a medical call, for the dispatcher to ask us if we could “go in service for a call.” If we were, then there no second calls would be needed.

Bidding a call: Say that Ambulance 14 is just clearing the hospital (which is in Station 13’s first due) after dropping off a patient when a call comes in for, say, an auto accident in Box 1313. If Ambulance 14’s OIC thinks he’s closer, he can bid the call. It would sound something like, “Ambulance 14, Dispatch. We’re closer. Put Ambulance 13 in service.” It’s kind of humiliating for Station 13. In the old days, on rare occasions, there were bidding wars, where neither vehicle agreed to go in service, so there’d be a race to the scene. Whoever got there first, got the call.

Tapped (or tapped out): To be dispatched. “We got tapped last night for a wreck on Walker Road.” “They tapped us out for worker at the Bates Motel.”

Putting a good stop: When a crew extinguishes a fire quickly and with minimum damage, they’ve put a good stop on the fire.

Cellar saver: Exactly the opposite of a good stop. When the roof ends up in the basement (i.e., the structure is a total loss), the fireground commander is credited with saving the cellar. That’s . . . bad.

Snot-slinger: A big fire. Aka, the big one.

Teeth-hair-and-eyeball: The kind of incident where the most useful pieces of equipment are body bags and tweezers.

DRT: Dead right there. (A play on DOA.)

Federal Q: That wonderful siren on the front bumper that sounds like an air raid siren on speed. Melting the Q meant to have it spun up really high. Combined with the air horn in rush hour, melting the Q created lanes out of stopped traffic where cars had nowhere to go. I had a driver for years who would melt the Q at oh-dark-early, shouting his mantra out the window: “If I gotta be up, you gotta be up, too!”

I’m sure there are many I’ve forgotten, but this is a good start. So, what about you, TKZers? Y’all come from interesting backgrounds. Give us a peek into your secret dictionary.

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One last thing. If you’re a teacher or if you’re with a book club, and you’d like me to Zoom with you, drop me an email at john@johngilstrap.com

 

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Courage in Fiction

By John Gilstrap

I’ve knocked around in my corner of the entertainment business for a quarter of a century now. Over the years, I’ve seen and heard a lot of snide talk and snobbery among authors and critics that belittles books, films and TV shows for their lack of . . . shall we say importance?

Snottery knows no bounds, it seems. Self-published authors take in on the chin quite a lot, but so do romance authors and those who write cozy mysteries and horror. When speaking a few years ago to a group of students in an MFA program, the professor who introduced me warned the assembled body to have an open mind even though I was “content to write nothing more important than commercial fiction.” If you’ve attended any of my seminars since then, you might remember that I now introduce myself as a writer of commercial fiction, whose work will likely never be taught in the classroom. I consider that to be something of a badge of honor.

I write and I consume the creative works of others for one primary purpose: to entertain or be entertained. Hard stop. If the material I’m consuming also educates, informs or instructs me at the same time, that’s terrific, but it’s not a requirement.

That said, I’m not an easy audience. The classics that I’m supposed to say I love because I make my living as an author–Hemingway, Marquez, Joyce, Fitzgerald, et. al.–for the most part put me to sleep. And Michener. Good God, James Michener. I stipulate that these authors are all brilliant, and that they have changed people’s lives, but I am unable to plow through their stories from beginning to end. Perhaps I’m a lazy reader.

Or perhaps I prefer to read great stories well told in voices that resonate in my head. Give me a Stephen King or Stephen Hunter or Tess Gerritsen or James Scott Bell, put me in a quiet room with a wee dram of smoky scotch, and I will be transported to wherever they take me.

What they write–what we write–may not be important (remember, that’s the word we agreed on), but the works inspire. Powerfully drawn good guys bring justice to powerfully drawn bad guys. Some leave more blood on the ceiling and walls than others, some present more moral ambiguity than others, but after the last page turns, right and wrong are sharply defined.

Last week, my fellow bloggers here at TKZ wrote of old television shows and old comedians. As I read those posts and the responses, it occurred to me that the common trait shared by writers, actors and comedians is a commitment to telling stories that move their respective audiences in some way. That’s what entertainment is, isn’t it?

And it works best when it surprises us. M*A*S*H was primarily a comedy, but who among us didn’t choke up the first time we learned of Henry Blake’s final plane trip? To this day, even though I’ve seen the episode a dozen times or more, the room still gets dusty every time I watch Andy Taylor open the window and tell Opie to listen to those birds that will never see their mama again.

Which brings us to the topic of courage (or lack thereof). Every week, my DVR records episodes of “12 O’Clock High”, starring Robert Lansing as General Frank Savage. I remember watching it as a kid, but all I remember are the scenes of aerial battle. The stories are really very complex and often quite moving. When you consider that the series aired when World War 2 wasn’t yet 20 years in the past, and that more pilots died in the 8th Air Force out of England than did all of the Marines in the Pacific theater, the story lines are particularly courageous. Battle fatigue (PTSD), cowardice, reckless bravery, loss of friends and the futility of war are all addressed in those episodes. They entertain because they resonate, and they resonate because we care about these young men who are forced to take exceptional risks for the benefit of others. We see courage in action. And it’s inspiring.

Fictional courage–whether on the page or on any size screen–starts with the writer, not with the characters. I tell myself that there are places I won’t go in my work, but that’s really a lie. I’ve harmed children and animals in my books, but never gratuitously. Still, I get hate mail whenever I do, and that’s fine. I figure that I moved that reader, and therefore I did my job. Sure, I moved them in a direction I didn’t intend, but at least they cared enough to write a note.

Plain vanilla stories are always safe, and they’re certainly not important. But if they’re not even inspiring, doesn’t that just make them irrelevant?

So what about you, TKZ family? What risks are you willing to take in your reading and your writing?

 

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