By Debbie Burke
In fiction, you often walk into different worlds. Perhaps you speak a few words of the language but you’re not fluent. You have a general idea of the architecture and geographic layout. But there are secret passageways in which you can become lost and unseen chasms into which you can tumble.
But you’re committed. You must go forward on your story quest. So, you seek out natives from those worlds to guide you.
Today, I’d like to introduce you to several insiders who shepherded me through unfamiliar terrain in my new thriller, Flight to Forever, which launches today.
The story takes place in the rugged mountains of the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana. I’ve hiked and explored the area but am far from a hardcore outdoorswoman. I needed to call upon experts in various fields to fill in the gritty details.
Here’s an overview of Flight to Forever:
Main characters: investigator Tawny Lindholm and her husband, criminal defense attorney Tillman Rosenbaum.
Inciting incident: When the pandemic prevents a Vietnam veteran from seeing his wife of 50 years in a memory care lock-down, he busts her out. Because an off-duty cop is injured during their escape, law enforcement is hellbent on capturing the aging fugitives.
The couple flees into the mountains where they’ve gone camping for years. Their daughter begs Tawny and Tillman to help her parents. The determined veteran won’t go down without a fight, increasing the urgency for Tawny to find them before the cops do.
Setting: The fugitives choose an abandoned fire tower as their hideout.
In bygone days, fire spotters spent summers in isolation living on mountain summits in small wooden cottages built on high stilts.
When lightning sparked forest fires, the spotters used a mechanical device called a fire finder to pin down the exact map coordinates. Then they called in the report and crews were dispatched to fight the fires.
Satellites and advanced technology have now rendered the towers obsolete. A handful are preserved and have been renovated into vacation rentals. For $50/night, adventurous campers pack in supplies and stay in a lookout with staggering views from on top of the planet. Most lookouts have fallen into disrepair or been destroyed by fire.
One of those abandoned towers becomes the hideout for my fugitives.
My guide into that remote world is retired Forest Service employee Kjell Petersen, a former fire spotter. He now volunteers to maintain the few surviving lookouts. Kjell is also a gifted photographer who’s snapped thousands of gorgeous mountain shots with wild critters and wild weather, taken during his career. He not only told me fascinating stories, he graciously offered a selection of his photos for the cover.
For hours, Kjell shared anecdotes full of details only a true insider knows. As he described being in a tower when it was struck by lightning, the hair on my arms stood up.
After the first draft of Flight to Forever was finished, Kjell reviewed it and fixed my goofs. At one point, I wrote that avalanches had destroyed many old lookouts. With a kind smile, Kjell gently corrected me. “Lookouts are built on top of mountains. There’s nothing above them. Avalanches happen below them.”
Thanks for the save, Kjell!
To research the setting, I could have slogged through grizzly territory in mud up to my artificial titanium knees.
While authenticity is important, with age comes wisdom. I know my limitations.
Instead, I tapped another expert, Susan Purvis. She’s a geologist, search dog handler, and former search-and-rescue volunteer with more than her share of risky escapades. She also wrote the bestselling memoir, Go Find.
Sue gave me a quickie course about sedimentary limestone and sandstone cliffs. Harsh weather shears the rock off in massive slabs that crash down mountain sides. When rock crumbles into loose, unstable rubble, it’s called talus or scree, which is treacherous to hike or drive on–turning Tawny’s search into a white-knuckle adventure.
In conversation, Sue happened to mention she’d once slid her truck off an icy bridge and wound up hanging over the edge.
That anecdote was too good to pass up. I appropriated Sue’s harrowing experience to inflict on poor Tawny.
Since the male lead, Tillman, is an attorney, legal conundrums happen often. For that, I consult attorney Phyllis Quatman, who writes suspense under the name P.A. Moore.
Sometimes dodgy actions are necessary to move the plot forward even when they push my characters into gray areas of what’s legal vs. what’s moral.
Phyllis is an author as well as a lawyer. She understands the need to achieve story goals while also keeping the heroes out of serious legal trouble.
If I’m ever arrested, I know who to call.
The unlucky folks in my thrillers get hurt a lot—drugged, beat up, knifed, shot, etc. Retired ER doctor Betty Kuffel has seen every injury known to humans. She is an encyclopedia of mayhem and murder methods. She also writes medical thrillers.
Paging Dr. Betty.
A subplot involves Tillman and his teenage son. While Tawny is busy tracking the fugitives up a mountain, Tillman must travel to the other side of the state when his boy is injured in an accident.
Betty upped the story stakes by suggesting complications that turned the son’s broken leg into a life-threatening crisis. She also infused realism with her insider knowledge of pandemic restrictions that keep frantic Tillman away from the bedside of his critically-ill son.
Sue, Phyllis, and Betty are my longtime critique partners and cherished friends. So it’s expected that we help each other.
But I’m constantly amazed at the willingness of complete strangers to assist a curious writer.
When I contact experts and introduce myself as an author doing research, they are almost always generous and helpful.
They’re eager to talk to an interested listener about their specialties. Plus, they like to be part of the creative process of writing a book.
As long as a writer is polite, respectful, and mindful of the expert’s time constraints, most pros are happy to go the extra mile to assist you.
A small gesture of appreciation is a customary courtesy. The people who help me are listed on the acknowledgement page and I always give them an inscribed copy of the book.
Today, I raise my coffee mug in a toast to the experts who helped with Flight to Forever: Kjell, Sue, Phyllis, and Betty.
TKZers: Have you consulted experts in your research?
What sort of assistance did they provide?
Today is launch day for Flight to Forever.
Now that you know what happened behind the scenes, I invite you to check the book out at this link.