Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Most Extreme Thing I've Done in the Name of Research

Well before 9/11, I had an interesting reason why someone who was not a terrorist would blow up airliners and thought it might make a good mystery at the heart of thriller about an airline in crisis.   On the basis of three chapters containing the fuzziest research, my agent managed to sell my first novel Hawks to a publisher.  

Knowing little more than the average traveler about airliners, airlines, plane crashes, and explosives, I spent several months learning everything I could.  Fortunately for me, a Congressional committee had recently published volumes of testimony delving deeply into the industry and how it operated; and radicals and others were publishing pamphlets on how to make bombs.  To get a sense of what it was like to be in the pilot's seat thousands of feet above solid ground, I took a flying lesson.  But once I had done all of that research and more, had created the characters and plot, I had to be sure that, at least in principle, one could actually plant a bomb in that part of the jetliner I had chosen for the book.  Making certain of that led to the most extreme thing I've ever done in the name of research.
While on a commercial jet flying to a vacation, I locked myself in a lavatory and using only a coin, as I recall, unscrewed a ceiling panel.  There in plain sight, in the area known as the plenum or plenum chamber, running the length of the fuselage above the cabin from cockpit to the stabilizers on the tail, were the hydraulic and other cables essential to flying that plane.  Today, smuggling the constituents for the kind of bomb my villain employed would be somewhat more difficult, but looking at those cables, I became assured that the bomb could destroy them and consequently the plane in flight while he was safely gone.  I had found the plane's Achilles heel.  It felt weird and frightening.  If a writer could figure it out, couldn't someone with single-minded evil intent figure it out as well?  For the briefest moment I debated the morality of revealing the method in print.  But then I realized that I wasn't revealing top-secret information because anyone could figure it out as I had and, to be practical, how many potential bombers are wide-ranging readers.

At that moment, my trepidation at having removed the ceiling panel turned into near panic as it occurred to me how guilty I would look to an airline official: WRITER CAUGHT IN ACT OF DESTROYING PLANE AND PASSENGERS. One of those passengers was my wife, which turned into a sub-headline: DEVIOUSLY AVOIDS COMPLICATIONS OF DIVORCE.  And a third: BOMBER'S OWN BODY NEVER FOUND (okay, survival is a primal instinct).  I'm exaggerating somewhat here, but the fear of being apprehended, with only a flimsy lavatory lock for protection was vividly real.

Heart pounding, I hurriedly replaced the screws, afraid I would drop and lose them.  Then I pocketed my coin and slipped out of the lavatory, too frazzled to remember to use the cubicle for its intended purpose and worried that if I slipped back in to relieve myself, a wary flight attendant would become suspicious: "Only bombers go back into lavatories so quickly!" 

Because of all my research, my publicity campaign centered on my expertise in air crashes.  For years, I was called upon to appear on TV and radio news shows to pontificate about possible causes of the latest crash, while I plugged my book.  Larry King and I spent hours chatting on his late-night radio show.  He wanted the company, and I wanted all the publicity my book could get.  However, my guru status led to my closest call in the talking-head trade.  I flew up to Boston for a TV show and, as we landed at Logan Airport, could see beside the runway the wrecked plane that had prompted my upcoming appearance.  When I arrived at the TV studio, I was surprised to learn that my "counterpoint" would be an airline pilot who was the pilot union's expert on plane crashes. 

For most of the hour, his smug technical assertions were giving him the best of it.   I desperately eyed the achingly slow minute hand on the studio clock.   Miraculously, his final assertion dealt with a crash over Paris with which I was familiar.  To prove that an incompetent foreign ground employee and not American airline expertise was at fault, he said the cause of the crash was the French door handler’s inability to read the directions on the door and close it properly because he was illiterate.  From some hidden synapse in my brain, a small fact wiggled its way into my consciousness.  I responded, "Actually, the door handler spoke four languages and read seven.  The plane took off from Paris.  Why weren't the directions on the door also written in other languages, one of them certainly being French?"  At that moment, the moderator intervened: "Time's up.  We'll have to leave it at that."  And I was out of there, my credibility intact and possessed of the realization that the research we writers insert in our books to make it appear we know what of we speak can sometimes save our asses.

Writing about Hawks has amped my excitement about re-issuing it in a new and updated edition later in the year.  But right now, my attention is focused on my legal thriller A Question of Proof, being launched this week in both digital and print at Amazon ( and, soon after, wherever books are sold online.  But that's a whole other story.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Do thrillers always need to play on a large canvas, or can an intimate story thrill?

            What matters isn't the size of the canvas, but the quality of the story.  That's as true in a novel as it is in a painting.  In the end it all comes down to how much we care about the fate of the participants, and that's always personal, whether we're talking about War and Peace or one individual's personal story.

            I think my courtroom thriller A QUESTION OF PROOF is a good example of a very personal story that grips the reader.  One reviewer, in fact, called it a masterpiece of suspense, yet the fate of all mankind does not rest on the outcome, only the fate of one woman and the happiness of one man.  It's the story of a disillusioned, burned-out lawyer and the woman he defends against the charge that she murdered her husband, a powerful newspaper publisher.  Not only is the lawyer in love with the woman, but he desperately wants to know that he is finally defending one person at least that he can truly believe is innocent -- his happiness depends on both answers.  But is she innocent?  What really happened? 

The lives of the people at the center of the novel are what make for a great story – and how much we care about them.


Sunday, July 1, 2012

Which Comes First Plot or Character?

               What sparks the creative urge in novelists is as individual as our books.  I’ve heard and read writers who said they couldn’t get a character out of their heads and began writing about them and plot followed.  Others will tell you they have a great idea for a book, which usually means “plot.”  In my own case it’s often a combination of a character I’m interested in who is caught in a situation that leads to suspenseful plot.

                In my first novel, Hawks, which was pre-9/11, I had an idea about why someone would cause a commercial jetliner to crash.  The story rose up around that central idea and became a novel about the airline industry and top executives in crisis at an airline.  A new digital version of that book will launch by the end of the year.
                In my legal thriller, A Question of Proof, the protagonist, a lawyer , was so much like me – same background, profession, concerns, values – that character was in many ways a given, so constructing an engrossing plot was uppermost in my thinking.  The plot about his lover charged with murdering her husband had to twist and turn and the stakes had to be the psychic equivalent of life and death before I could even think the character could become the basis of a novel.
                But what I find most intriguing is when an opening  line pops into my head and that starts me thinking in directions, both of character and of plot, I might never have considered before.  Who said it?  What was happening?  What could result?  That obsessive creativity is why we write.  For that and, of course, for money.