Archive for October, 2011

A book always starts with an idea.  Remember, idea is not story.  I used to call it the Original Idea.  Not that is an idea that had never been done, but it was your original thought that launched you down writing 100,000 words all alone in the dark.  Which isn’t normal.

 I was at Fort Campbell, home of 5th Special Forces, Task Force 160 (the Nightstalkers) and the 101st Airborne.  I was in the post library wandering the racks.  Remember libraries.  The neat thing was you never knew what you would see on the shelves.  As an aside, I think one of the problems with the Internet is it’s too focused.  Hard to just wander and see what surprises jump up.

I spent a lot of time in nonfiction.  Remember the Dewey Decimal system.  Do they still use that?  I used to know what the major numbers all met.  So I was in the history section and saw a book, spine out:  Japan’s Secret War.

So I pulled it off and started reading.  The basic premise of the book was that the author, after researching previously classified OSS (Office of Strategic Service, predecessors of both the CIA and Special Forces) documents, believes that there was a good possibility that the Japanese had succeeded in their atomic bomb program at the end of World War II and detonated one.  He had a lot of details, but no conclusive proof.

As fiction writers, such an idea is the fodder of story.  Because here’s something to consider as a writer and former covert operative:  the fact no one really talks about Japan’s atomic bomb program in WWII.  They did have one.  I knew about the heavy water plant raid in Norway, yada, yada, but had never heard of a Japanese program.  So the fact I hadn’t heard of it really piqued my interest.

With that idea as my groundwork, I then “what-iffed”.  Here’s something you have to consider as a writer:  how is your story relevant to the reader today?  Since I wanted to write a modern thriller, how could I connect this event over sixty years ago with a threat today?

There was a second bomb.  It wasn’t detonated.

So where was it?

More research.  I love research.  The best part of the writing process for me.  What major event was held in San Francisco in 1946?  The first meeting of the United Nations.

Hmm.  What if.  The second bomb.  San Francisco.  Golden Gate Bridge.  It’s still there.  With that refined uranium still on board a Japanese submarine.

I use a lot of facts in novels, to the point where when people ask me what I write, I tell them Factual Fiction.  The Germans did send two U-Boats when they surrendered, to Japan with all their processed uranium.  The Russians did seem in an awful hurry to get into Manchuria at the end of the world.  US Army pilots did see what looked like a mushroom cloud.

And off to the races.

But in retrospect, what did I do right and wrong and what lessons can I take from that?

  1. Once more I didn’t consciously know the theme/intent of my series.  What message was I sending?  It came out eventually in the writing.  But you can do a lot better if you consciously know it before writing.
  2. On top of that, in a lot of my early thrillers, hell, my later thrillers too, my theme was always too dark.  My endings were not HEA:  Happily Ever After.  It was often, life goes on and not much has changed.  That’s not a very good pay off for the reader who slogged through all those pages.  As far as story went, yes, there was a payoff, the day is saved.  But theme is different than story.
  3. A tad complicated.  I love to complicate things.  For a guy who can’t find swiss cheese in the fridge while my wife is making an omelet if the cheese is behind something, I sure make my stories complicated.  I love the double-triple-quadruple-back-flip-cross.  Our backgrounds shape our stories.  In Special Forces we were somewhat, okay, a lot paranoid.  So I wrote my books with a paranoid mindset.  One of my favorite lines for developing story is:  What if what appears to be isn’t?  Love it.  But over the years, while that often works, I’ve also forced myself to accept, more often than not, simpler is better.
  4. Introducing my protagonist in conflict and not in his normal life.  One weekend I decided to study writing.  By reading all 15 books on that weekend’s NY Times bestseller list.  Regardless of genre.  (I didn’t read them in a single weekend—I cut out the list and read them in order).  I figured those authors, even I couldn’t stand what they wrote, were doing something right and I could learn something.  I learned a lot.  Especially from authors I would have never read if they hadn’t been on that particular list.  So what did I learn about thrillers:
  5. Since the stakes are so high in a thriller, you usually lead with the problem.  Then you go to the protagonist.  I used to go to the protagonist in the midst of learning the problem or a crisis.  In this case my hero is stopping a nerve gas attack on the Golden Gate Bridge.  But what I saw in the thrillers I read was something slightly different:  the protagonist was usually introduced in his/her normal world for just a slice.  It could be a very, very short scene.  But the reader had to see who they were normally and also see some character trait that will come to the forefront in the story.  Then the protagonist finds out the world is about to end.

Overall, the main lesson is to learn lessons.  Everything that happens can be both an obstacle or an opportunity.  As far as craft goes, get all the good stuff out of your subconscious brain and into your conscious brain.

Readers Rule!


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In my personal life I try to be optimistic, but in my fiction I write about my fears. It’s been true since I sat down to write my first novel. At the time, Jeffrey Dahmer was in the news and my greatest fear was that a sexual predator would kidnap and kill one of my three young boys. So I wrote a story about a woman who tracks down her son’s killer. The experience was cathartic, and I continued the practice in future novels, because as it turns out, many readers share the same fears.

Being kidnapped and held against my will is another dominant fear for me and millions of other women as well—because it happens!—so the theme occurs often in crime fiction novels, including two of mine (The Baby Thief,  Secrets to Die For). Most of my stories though have elements of fears that are very personal to me. For example, when I wrote The Sex Club, the first book in the Detective Jackson series, my son was in Iraq and I worried constantly that he would die. My sister had just succumbed to cancer and I grieved for her and worried for other members of my family. So Kera, my main female protagonist, was dealing with those elements. Right or wrong, I couldn’t separate those emotions from my writing and they ended up on the page.

Soon after that, my husband was diagnosed with retroperitoneal fibrosis, which triggered all kinds of fears for me. He faced a life of pain, multiple surgeries, and likely an early death. Without being consciously aware that I was doing it at first, my Jackson character started having pain and health issues. Eventually, he was diagnosed with RF, and in Thrilled to Death, he underwent a surgery, very similar to the one my husband experienced. Readers tell me they enjoy characters who are realistic, yet unique, so incorporating true-to-life, frightening details adds richness to my stories while helping me work through emotional challenges.

In late 2009 when I was writing Passions of the Dead, I was dealing with unemployment: mine, my husband’s, my brother’s, and dozens of other people I knew. I witnessed the devastating effect it can have on families. That theme became dominant when I outlined the story. My Jackson novels of course are always about crime, murder in particular, and my main goal is tell a great story. But every fictitious crime needs a unique, complex, and compelling motive, and I look for those motives in the fear I’m experiencing.

Some of my fears are more social and universal. I fear that as a society we have wrongfully imprisoned hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent people. Dozens of news stories about the release of prisoners wrongfully convicted continue to feed this fear, so the issue is part of the plot in Dying for Justice, the fifth Detective Jackson novel.

Right now I fear for the future of our county if the economy doesn’t improve. I alo fear for our comfort and safety if the extreme weather patterns continue and grow worse. So I’m writing a futuristic thriller in which those fears come into play. Guilt and redemption are also prominent themes in The Arranger, my futuristic thriller that released in early September.

Soon I’ll start work on the next Jackson book. I have a list of ideas, many culled from true crime cases found in the news. Regardless of what I decide in the beginning though, you can bet that as the plot develops, whatever fear is most prevalent on my mind will surface in the story.

What are your greatest fears? What fears do you like to read about?

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When I started writing my crime fiction series featuring Laura Cardinal, a homicide detective with the Arizona Department of Public Safety, I depended on three not-so-fairy godfathers to help me—a former beat cop, a DPS homicide detective, and a sex crimes detective with Tucson Police.  Here are ten things I learned from them:

  1. My DPS detective expert, Terry, made the two-hour drive to and from Bisbee, Arizona, and we walked the “crime scene” for DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN. We covered a quaint and rather strange concrete area called City Park, which has a 1916 band shell, a perfect setting for a homicide victim.  Terry’s willingness to meet me there confirmed my belief that the majority of people who work in law enforcement are proud of what they do, and are generous with their expertise.
  2. Walking the crime scene with Terry, I learned a cute trick—keep your arms folded to avoid touching anything.
  3. I learned to walk the perimeter first, zeroing in slowly to the center of the scene, so as not to miss anything or corrupt any evidence.
  4. From my friend John, a cop-turned-pastor, I learned that a knife is even more dangerous than a gun if the knife-wielder is within 21 feet.  Every cop knows the 21 Foot Rule, and makes sure to maintain that distance from the bad guy.
  5. I learned that cops say, “bad guy.”
  6. I learned that when you’re in a bad situation, you first look for cover (something a bullet can’t go through), and if there is no cover, concealment (something to hide you), and third (and always) an escape route.
  7. I learned how to make a simple homemade bomb. In theory.
  8. I learned how to lure a sexual predator on the Internet from one of the best.  It helps if you text like a fourteen-year-old girl.
  9. I learned that people in law enforcement have deep loyalties.  First, you’re loyal to your partner. Then you’re loyal to your squad.  Then you’re loyal to your agency. Then you’re loyal to the other law enforcement agencies—you are brothers and sisters under the skin, and nobody else understands you. Then you’re loyal to your wife. (Or husband).  Then you’re loyal to the rest of your family. And so on.  When you get to football teams, you’re pretty much in line with everybody else.
  10. I learned that hostage negotiators and SWAT team members generally have two differing philosophies. The hostage negotiator thinks, “It’s only been seventeen hours, we’re close to a breakthrough.”  The SWAT team member looks at his watch and says, “It’s been ten minutes. Time to go in.”

J. Carson Black is the author of the Laura Cardinal Series, DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN, DARK SIDE OF THE MOON, and THE DEVIL’S HOUR.  It’s a mystery to her why on earth she is so attracted to the letter “D.”

Darkness on the Edge of Town


Barnes & Noble

Dark Side of the Moon


Barnes & Noble

The Devil’s Hour


Barnes & Noble

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Why is a crime fiction author writing a futuristic thriller? Because I’ve always wanted to, and I finally found the time, the story, and the courage. As a reader, my love of futuristic thrillers started long ago with a terrific novel by Lawrence Sanders called The Tomorrow File. For the record, he’s my all-time favorite author, and TTF may be one of the best books I’ve ever read, or at least that’s how I remember it.

The story was written in 1975—and takes place in the year 1998. I read it in college and was captivated by Sanders’ vision of the future, in which genetic classifications are based on whether one is natural, produced by artificial insemination, artificial inovulation, cloned, or otherwise created without the necessity for sexual intercourse. The objects (people) of tomorrow eat food synthesized from petroleum and soybeans, and enjoy unrestricted using (sex) and an addictive soft drink called Smack.

The new language took some getting used to, but the story was so engaging with so many twists that it was hard to put down. My husband isn’t much of a reader, but I suggested it to him (back then) and he read it in a weekend and loved it. Most important, the book triggered my fascination with well-told futuristic thrillers, which I distinguish from dystopian fiction, in which society has broken down.

Another of my favorite novels is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, published ten years after TTF and typically labeled dystopian. The book won numerous awards, was made into a film, and is so well known I won’t bother with the details, except to say it’s a feminist portrayal of the dangers of a conservative society. I admire Atwood immensely for tackling the subject. (I took a stab at that issue when I wrote The Sex Club…but that’s another story.) Reading The Handmaid’s Tale further inspired me to someday write a thriller set in the future.

I don’t mean to imply that The Arranger compares to either of those brilliant and creative works, both of which imagine a shockingly different future. My story is set only 13 years in the future, and I don’t consider it dystopian. It presents a bleak vision of the United States, in that the economy is stagnant, government has shrunk, and people without health insurance are left to fend for themselves. But all that seems quite realistic to me and didn’t require much imagination.

The Gauntlet, however, is an intense physical and mental competition that provides a backdrop for my novel and required me to create entirely fictitious scenarios. I had a blast writing those scenes, and my editor said they left her breathless.

The Arranger is predominately a crime story and a character study. Although it’s different from anything else I’ve written, readers familiar with my work will recognize certain elements that crop up in most of my novels: a strong female protagonist struggling to overcome a troubled past and a complex plot that moves at a rapid pace.

What are your favorite futuristic novels? What themes do like to see in futurism?

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Welcome to Readers Rule! This organization has been formed by authors who have earned the stamp of approval by the most important people in the publishing business: The Readers! Every author listed has had the honor of readers buying at least 100,000 copies of their books. The authors include Bob Mayer, J. Carson Black, LJ. Sellers, Joe Nassise and Ruth Harris.

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