Everything I Ever Learned
I Learned From Potboilers

My signed first edition of Arthur Hailey's The Moneychangers.

My signed first edition of Arthur Hailey’s The Moneychangers.

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” — William Styron

By PJ Parrish
We moved around a lot when I was a kid, and like a plant with shallow roots, I was always sending out feelers toward solid ground. I found it in libraries. I couldn’t always count on having the same address every year, the same classroom or even the same friends for very long. But I always could count on finding old faces and familiar places in the local library.

Paradoxically, it was in libraries where my love of exotic places and travel was born. No matter what was going on in my little life, I could escape to somewhere else by opening a book. My library card was my first passport.

Novels took me around the world, but they also taught me things — about history, religion, politics, philosophy, human psychology, medicine, outer space – filling in the gaps left by my spotty education. Even after I went to college, made my own money and settled down, novels remained my autodidact keys.

I learned about the American Revolution through John Jake’s Kent Family Chronicles. I studied medieval Japan through James Clavell’s Shogun. I was able to wrap my brain around the complex politics of Israel and Ireland after reading Leon Uris. James Michener taught me about Hawaii and Edna Ferber took me to Texas. Susan Howatch’s Starbridge series sorted out the Church of England for me. Ayn Rand made me want to be an architect for a while, or maybe a lady reporter who wore good suits. (I skimmed over the political stuff.)

And Arthur Hailey taught me to never buy a car that was made on a Monday.

I got to thinking about Hailey and all the others this week for two reasons: First, was an article I read in the New York Times about the Common Core teaching controversy (more on that later). The second reason was that while pruning my bookshelves, I found an old copy of The Moneychangers. This was one of Hailey’s last books, written after he had become famous for Hotel, Wheels, and that quintessential airport book Airport. I interviewed Hailey in 1975 when he was touring for The Moneychangers. I remember him as sweet and patient with a cub reporter and he signed my book “To Kristy Montee, Memento of a Pleasant Meeting.”

I had read all his other books, especially devouring Wheels, which was set in the auto industry of my Detroit hometown. Hailey, like Michener, Clavell, Uris et al, wrote long, research-dense novels that moved huge, often multi-generation casts of characters across sprawling stages of exotic locales (Yes, Texas qualifies). Hawaii, which spans hundreds of years, starts with this primordial belch:

Millions upon millions of years ago, when the continents were already formed and the principle features of the earth had been decided, there existed, then as now, one aspect of the world that dwarfed all others.

How could you not read on after that? But the main reason I loved these books was for their bright promise of cracking open the door on something secret. Here’s some cover copy from Hailey’s The Moneychangers:

Money. People. Banking. This fast-paced, exciting novel is the “inside” story of all three. As timely as today’s headlines, as revealing as a full-scale investigation.

Shoot, that could be copy written for Joseph Finder now.

Many of these books were sniffed off as potboilers in their day. (Though Michener and Ferber both won Pulitzer Prizes). But the writers were, to a one, known for their meticulous research techniques. Hailey spent a full year researching his subject (he read 27 books about the hotel industry), then six months reviewing his notes and, finally, about 18 months writing the book. Michener lived in each of his locales, read and interviewed voraciously, and collected documents, music, photographs, maps, recipes, and notebooks filled with facts. He would paste pages from the small notebooks, along with clippings, photos and other things he had collected into larger notebooks. Sort of an early version of Scrivener.

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For my money, these books were a potent blend of entertainment and information, and they endure today as solid examples for novelists on how to marry research with storytelling. In his fascinating non-fiction book Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers, James W. Hall analyzes what commonalities can be found in mega-selling books. One of the criteria is large doses of information that make readers believe they are getting the inside scoop, especially of a “secret” society. The Firm peeks into the boardrooms of Harvard lawyers. The Da Vinci Code draws back the curtain on the Catholic Church. Those and all the books I cited delivered one thing in spades — the feeling we are learning something while being entertained.

Which brings me to Common Core.

This is an educational initiative, sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers that details what K–12 students should know in English language arts and mathematics at the end of each grade. I read this week that as part of the Common Core mandate, English teachers must balance each novel they teach with “fact” material –news articles, textbooks, documentaries, maps and such.

So ninth graders reading The Odyssey must also read the G.I. Bill of Rights. Eight graders reading Tom Sawyer also get an op-ed article on teen unemployment. The standards stipulate that in elementary and middle school, at least half of what English students read must be supplemental non-fiction, and by 12th grade, that goes up to 70 percent.

Now, I’m not going to dig into the politics of this. (You can read the Times article here.) And I applaud anything that gets kids reading at all. What concerns me is that in an effort to stuff as much information and facts into kids’ heads, we might not be leaving room for the imagination to roam free. As one mom (whose fifth-grade son came home in tears after having to read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), put it, “If you look at the standards and what they say, nowhere in there does it say, ‘kill the love of reading.’”

One more thing, I then I’ll shut up:

There was a study done at Emory University last year that looked at what happens to the brain when you read a novel. At night, volunteers read 30-page segments of Robert Harris’s novel Pompeii then the next morning got MRIs. After 19 days of finishing the novel and morning MRIs, the results revealed that reading the novel heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, the area of the brain associated with receptivity for language. Reading the novel also heightened connectivity in “embodied semantics,” which means the readers thought about the action they were reading about. For example, thinking about swimming can trigger the some of the same neural connections as physical swimming.

“The neural changes that we found…suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” said Gregory Berns, the lead author of the study. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

Maybe those poor eighth graders just need to crack open some Jean Auel, SE Hinton or Cassandra Clare.

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London Calling

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne


I’m on vacation this week in my favourite city – London. It’s a place I love to visit and also a great place to get some research done:) 

I will have only sporadic Internet access but will report back when I return. 

In the meantime, I’d love it if you’d share the ‘dream’ city you want to visit to do research for your current (or future) WIP. Mine is St. Petersburg – one day I hope to visit and maybe even ride the Trans-Siberian railway…hey, a girl can dream!

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No Target Escaped Alive

By John Gilstrap

There are perks to writing in my little corner of the thriller genre.  Three or four weeks ago, I got an email from an active-duty U.S. Navy SEAL named Steve telling me how much he liked the Jonathan Grave books, and wondering how I did my research.  He said in his email that I was “spot on” the details.  Wow.  As compliments go, it doesn’t get a lot better than that.

This started an ongoing correspondence, and after I told him about the tour I got of the First Special Forces Operational Detatchment-Delta compound at Fort Bragg (the Delta Force compound), he offered me a tour of the SEALs compound in Virginia Beach, a mere three and a half hour drive from my front door.  He learned not to make such offers lightly.  I said not just yes but hell yes, and the details all came together last week.

First a few details about this amazing community of heroes.  Steve is now preparing for his fourteenth deployment since 2001, having only recently returned from Afghanistan.  He’s an E-9 (a master chief, the highest enlisted rank available), and he just won the Legion of Merit with Valor Device for an operation he’s not allowed to talk about.  When I asked him about it, his first concern was how I knew that he had won the award.  He seemed almost embarrassed.  They don’t do what they do for the glory of it; they do it for the honor of serving.  I know it sounds corny, but when you’re with these elite Special Foces guys for more than ten minutes, you know that they’re speaking from the heart.

Like the Unit compound at Bragg, the SEAL compound is the land of broad shoulders and no necks.  It’s also where you’re far more apt to see long hair and mustaches than the high-and-tight clean-shaven look.  Within minutes of checking into my hotel on Thursday afternoon, my cell phone rang.  It was Steve, asking me if I was in town yet (I was), and if I wanted to go watch a training exercise (I did).

He picked me up at the front door of my hotel and we drove into the hinterlands, through a couple of security chcekpoints, until finally we were in a simulated Iraqi village.  With snow on the ground–okay, there’s a limit to simulation.  Within a few minutes we met George (all of these guys go by nicknames–remember Maverick and Iceman?–but I’m not sure what’s appropriate to pass on, so none of the names are real), the guy in charge of running the training scenario.  George said, “Nice to meet you.  For the full training experience, do you want to be an insurgent?  We can get you the gear.”

“Sure,” I said.

“No, you don’t,” Steve said.  That brought a big laugh.  Turns out they use turbo-charged paint pellets, and it’s never pleasant.  They also deploy the god-awful meanest dogs I’ve ever seen.  Muzzles notwithstanding, I would have needed a change of trousers.  Still, I got to watch the training, and I learned a lot–much of which will appear in future Jonathan Grave books.  And I had yet to begin the real tour.

Friday began at 8:30, with a tour of the administrative areas, and then the shooting range.  I got to see the squardron team room where Uday and Qusay Hussein’s gold-plated weapons are on display.  There’s also a very cool picture of a SEAL team in the prison yard of Carcel Modelo in Panama City, taken within 24 hours of the events I wrote about in Six Minutes to Freedom.  That was very, very cool.

But let’s be honest.  The shooting range was the best of all.  My firearms instructor was a former SEAL who goes by Turbo.  A hero of the famed Roberts Ridge engagement in Afghanistan, he’s the nicest guy in the world, and has the coolest toys on the planet.

The attached videos show me shooting the Heckler and Koch (HK) MP-7 (4.6 mm/17 caliber) and then the HK 417 (7.62 mm/.30 caliber).  I also shot the HK 416 (the 5.56 mm/.223 caliber carbine that is replacing the Colt M4, which replaced the venerated M16 as a soldier’s best friend).  These are all very, very cool weapons.  The coolest weapon of all was one for which I have no video.  The .300 WinMag is a standard sniper rifle for the SEALs, and let me tell you it is a cannon.  It fires a .30 caliber magnum round that is deadly accurate at 1500 yards.  (I say with no small degree of pride that I shot the snot out of my target at 200 yards.)

Having never served in the military myself (no source of pride there, I assure you), whenever I visit those who do the nation’s bidding, I always leave inspired.  Cool toys aside, my new friend Steve will be heading into harm’s way in two weeks, and he won’t be home for his family again for four months.  Modern technology lets him communicate every day–with live pictures, even–but nothing substitutes for the touch and smell of the people you love. 

They do what they do because it is a job for which there is no comparison.  The nature of their jobs requires violence, but the violence is not something they crave.  They take solace in being the best of the best, and they, more than anyone else, pray for peace.

I’m a better person for being able to call a few of these heroes my friend.  I pray that they succeed in their mission, but more than that, I pray that they all come home safely. 

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What’s the Weirdest Thing You Ever Did… For Research, That Is?

When people ask me about the research involved in my thrillers, I usually focus on the really cool things I’ve done. My first experience was signing up for a Citizens Police Academy in my town where I participated in over 45 hours of presentations from key departmental supervisors, field trips to various law enforcement offices, a late night ride along with an on-duty officer, and I even had an amazing day at the firing range where we blew up stuff with the bomb squad, shot all sorts of weapons, and watched the K-9 unit go through its paces. I also met my first police technical advisor who helped me with police procedure and crime scene analysis for my first suspense book. And since he knew I wanted to use a flashbang grenade in my book, he set one off near me so I could “feel” it. (Only an author would think this is a good thing. And no, getting my hair blown back by a grenade is NOT the strangest thing I’ve ever done.)

Still solidly on the side of good things, I also have taken a tour of a state of the art crime lab. And last year, I visited Washington DC and toured the FBI at Quantico (where I shot weapons at the FBI firing range and heard a presentation by the only FBI Special Agent who interrogated Saddam Hussein before he was executed), the CIA at Langley, the US State Department and the US Postal Inspectors. Some very cool adventures.

But I’ve also done some peculiar things that I rarely talk about—until now.

My husband once found me stumbling around in a dark room—with the lights completely turned out—because I wanted to know what it would be like to move around with a hood over my head. One of my characters had a childhood tragedy that left him afraid of the dark. And his way of overcoming his weakness was to immerse himself in his fear and fight “sighted” attackers without the use of his eyes. He developed a 6th sense in the dark and I wanted to know if I could “feel” a wall before I ran into it. Most times, I could. Most times…

And one time, when I was stymied by my plot, I walked away from my computer to clear my head and found myself watching an old movie, Gleaming the Cube, a 1989 skateboarding flick with Christian Slater in it, when he was really, really young.



When my husband came home, he saw me sitting on the sofa in the middle of the day when I normally would be writing. He asked what I was doing—after seeing Christian Slater on the small screen—and I told him I was working. Yeah, right.























After he laughed–like he seriously didn’t believe me–I walked calmly into my office and outlined the rest of my novel. That book became my debut novel – NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM – and it sold in auction. I saw something in that silly movie that triggered the solution my brain had been searching for. The whole plot fell into place after that. Cool, huh?

The way I figure it, I owe everything to Christian Slater. I’m even considering putting together a research workshop on the Six Degrees of Christian Slater. I may have OTHER things that I’ve done that are so out there they may never see the light of day, but that’s for me to know, and you to find out.



So how far have you gone for research? Come on, it’s just the two of us. Tell me everything…




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