Trouble With The Curve

Through the first part of a rather inauspicious Little League career, I struggled to hit straight fastballs and was fortunate that young pitchers back then were discouraged from throwing the curve. When I graduated to Babe Ruth League, the first two curveballs I ever saw knocked me on my backside despite both being called strikes right over the center of the plate. The pitcher was an older kid from my neighborhood, and I will never forget the cocky look on his face as he wound up on the mound and delivered what I figured to be my third curve. Now if that kid had been Greg Maddux smart, I would still have a fastball stuck in my ear 40 years later. But the Fates were kind to me that baseball pitcherday, and when I closed my eyes and swung through the middle of the strike zone, the ball rifled through the box for a single (or maybe it was a bloop hit just beyond the infielder’s grasp–who can remember for sure?). I like to say I have never backed away from a curveball since, but truth be told I never saw another curveball until I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2010 at age 50.

The diagnosis didn’t floor me like my first two curves, but I let a few pitches go by before I started to swing. Parkinson’s disease is a progressively debilitating neurological disease that as of yet has no cure. My primary symptom was a tremor in my right hand that was first diagnosed as benign and then as Parkinson’s as it became increasingly suspicious. My doctors were slow to make the diagnosis because, in their view, there wasn’t much that could be done even if I had PD, so when they finally did get around to making the diagnosis I did what was expected–nothing. I kept writing. I didn’t get depressed. I just waited for the symptoms to progress until I was ready to medicate, a decision that is not critical because the drugs only mask symptoms, they don’t actually slow disease progression. It was–and still is–like living with a clock nestled in a corner of your mind, each tick marching you closer to a new symptom that will pop up like a nasty jack-in-the-box one day, only to disappear a few days later. But you know it’s going to come back and, eventually, linger. Tick, tock. You just don’t know when. You know the next symptom to emerge might be worse–but you don’t know which ones you’ll get because PD is a smorgasbord of symptoms and everybody’s plate looks different. Is that ankle cramp an early sign of painful dystonia or do you just need to eat a banana to boost your potassium levels? Is that right foot starting to drag or did you just trip because you were glancing through the latest issue of…Sports Illustrated while walking? Tick, tock. Time will tell.

So I let a few pitches go by; never even lifted the bat off my shoulder.

And that was a mistake.

There are thousands of developments in the medical community every year, and it takes time for consensus to build in the research community and time for word to trickle down to specialists and more time for generalists to learn the latest and greatest. Over the past decade, the evidence has been mounting that vigorous exercise may slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease. I heard this for the first time almost two years after first diagnosis, at a PD conference here in Atlanta. A renowned physical therapist urged us all to not just exercise, but to exercise at an intensity out of our comfort zone.

A reason to step up to the plate, right? So I took a swing, ratcheting up my normal exercise routine on my elliptical from “just get me through this Seinfeld re-run” to “sweat like a pig, you lazy…bum.” I felt better within three weeks. Not just physically fit better–my PD symptoms improved. The tremor took a few steps backwards. From time to time I’ve had to cut back my routine, and within a few days my tremor gets worse.  Not exactly scientific proof, but good enough for me when you combine it with the results of hundreds of clinical studies that are mostly pointing in the same direction.

So I spent the next year or so adding to my exercise routine and joining the many voices in the PD community touting the benefits of vigorous exercise, be it on social media or through my local support group. But it struck me that we were, for the most part, preaching to the choir. The folks in support groups and on Facebook groups devoted to Parkinson’s are the motivated patients who are out there swinging the bat. Many of them share the same story–it took them a while to find the PD community because their neurologists focused primarily on medicine and were not telling newly diagnosed patients about the things they could do now to live better with PD.

So now I’m ready to take a bigger swing at the curve I know is coming. For the moment, I’ve set aside a great idea for a third novel and have turned my attention to Parkinson’s advocacy. While many other good people are leading the charge for a cure, I am focused on helping newly diagnosed people with Parkinson’s learn how to live better with the disease, primarily by making community-based exercise programs available to people with PD. I’ll be absent from these pages except for the occasional rant, but you can learn more about my latest cause on the PD Gladiators website, where I will be blogging on a more regular basis. Thank you for your support of my writing endeavors, to which I one day hope to return.

DEAD MAN’S HAND: Guest Post by Author and Former Pro-Hockey Player Luke Murphy

Luke Murphy played six years of professional hockey before retiring in 2006. Since then, he’s held a number of jobs, from sports columnist to radio journalist, before turning to writing his debut novel, Dead Man`s Hand, a crime thriller that has been garnering excellent reviews. William Martin, the New York Times bestselling author of The Lincoln Letter warns, “You may want to give it the whole night, just to see how it turns out.” In today’s guest post, Luke takes another angle on a topic near and dear to my heart: Do all protagonists have to be GOOD guys? Take it away, Luke…

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Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000040_00067]Dead Man’s Hands is a crime-thriller set in the seedy underbelly of Las Vegas. It takes readers inside the head of Calvin Watters, a sadistic African-American Las Vegas debt-collector framed by a murderer who, like the Vegas Police, finds him to be the perfect fall-guy.

Many people have asked if I can make any real connections to the main character in my novel. The answer, as for my connection…no, I have never been involved in a homicide investigation, LOL. The plot is completely fictional. Although I am not a 6’5”, 220 pound African-American, I’ve used much of my athletic background when creating my protagonist Calvin Watters. Watters’ past as an athlete, and his emotional rollercoaster brought on by injuries, were drawn from my experiences. His mother died of cancer when he was young, as mine was. There are certainly elements of myself in Calvin, but overall, this is a work of fiction. I did not base the characters or plot on any real people or events. Any familiarities are strictly coincidence.

As far as characterization goes, Dead Man’s Hand’s protagonist Calvin Watters faces racial prejudice with calmness similar to that of Walter Mosley’s character Easy Rawlins. But Watters’ past as an athlete and enforcer will remind other readers of (Jack) Reacher of the Lee Childs series. The Stuart Woods novel Choke, about a tennis player who, like Watters, suffered greatly from a dramatic loss that was a failure of his psyche, is also an inspiration for Dead Man’s Hand.

When thinking about creating the main character for my story, I wanted someone “REAL.” Someone readers could relate to. Although it is a work of fiction, my goal was to create a character who readers could make a real connection with.

Physically, keeping in mind Watters’ past as an NCAA football standout and his current occupation as a Vegas debt-collector, I thought “intimidating,” and put together a mix of characteristics that make Watters appear scary (dreadlocks and patchy facial hair), but also able to blend in with those of the social elite. Although he is in astounding physical condition, handsome and well-toned, he does have a physical disability that limits his capabilities.

He’s proud, confident bordering on cocky, mean and tough, but I also gave him a softer side that readers, especially women, will be more comfortable rooting for. After his humiliating downfall he is stuck at the bottom for a while, but trying hard to work his way back up.

He has weaknesses and he has made poor choices. He has regrets, but Watters has the opportunity to redeem himself. Not everyone gets a second chance in life, and he realizes how fortunate he is.

Calvin Watters is definitely worth rooting for.

I truly believe that the major character conflict in my story is Calvin vs. himself.

Luke Murphy

Author Luke Murphy

Watters was on his way to NFL stardom when a sudden, selfish decision destroyed any dream he ever had. He remembered when the rich had welcomed him into their group as a promising, clean-cut athlete bound for glory. Now he was just an outsider looking in. Just another thug.

Pain bolted through his right knee, but the emotional pain from a shattered ego hurt even worse. He was the only one to blame for USC’s humiliating loss and his own humiliating personal downfall.

The press, always ready to tear down a hero, had shown no restraint in attacking him for his egotistic, selfish decision and obvious desire to break his own school record. One minute he was touted as the next Walter Payton, the next he was a door mat for local media.

Looking at him now, no one would believe that back then he was a thousand-yard rusher in the NCAA and welcomed with open arms in every established club in Southern California. Hell, he had been bigger than the mayor.

That the resulting injury had ended his college football career and most importantly, any chances of a pro career, didn’t matter to anyone. By making the wrong, selfish, prideful decision, he’d made himself a target for the press and all USC fans.

The devastating, career-ending knee injury wasn’t the quarterback’s fault for missing the audible, or the fullback’s fault for missing the key block. It was his and it had taken him some time to understand and accept responsibility for it.

After he spent three years building a reputation as the toughest collector in Vegas, no one even knew he’d been one of the greatest college running backs ever. To them, he was just “The Collector.”

Now Calvin has to rebuild his life and his future, eliminating the thoughts of his downfall, picking himself up, dusting off, and trying to live a respectable life he can be proud of.

But has his time as a leg-breaker made him corrupt beyond redemption?

So do you think this is someone you could root for? You’ll have to read it to find out, but I would bet on it.

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Luke Murphy lives in Shawville, Quebec with his wife, three daughters and pug. For more information on Luke and his books, visit: www.authorlukemurphy.com, ‘like’ his Facebook page www.facebook.com/#!/AuthorLukeMurphy and follow him on Twitter www.twitter.com/#!/AuthorLMurphy.

The Law of Small Numbers Repeated Many Times

I mentioned in my last post that I have some history as a deliberate thinker. As a writer, I craft my plots carefully, working out details early in the story to lead seamlessly toward the end game. You will rarely catch my protagonists relying on coincidence to solve a mystery. It’s harder and takes longer to churn out a novel that way, but I think it leads to a more satisfying reader experience. In my prior life as a lawyer, I always tried to anticipate as many future problems as I could envision when drafting contracts, and my clients were often pleasantly surprised to find that an issue that came up years later was already resolved in their favor in the agreement. That tendency to over-analyze the present to forecast the future seeped into my private life and led me to formulate what I call the “law of small numbers repeated many times,” the mastery of which could change your life.

This law is so simple and universal that your first instinct will be to discount it as obvious. Pay attention to the little things. Sweat the details. A truth so common that it has been reduced to clichés. But you’d be surprised how many people make habitual assumptions that have life-changing impact and don’t even know it.

This truth is so self-eUnhappy Coffeevident that I’m going to give you two examples to ponder and then, uncharacteristically, shut up.

The human body produces and burns fat at the rate of about 3,500 calories per pound. Consuming 120 calories more (or less) per day adds (or subtracts) fat at the rate of one pound per month or 12 pounds per year.  Now imagine the impact of a daily serving of potato chips, soda, ice cream, candy, beer or a Starbucks latte over the course of a lifetime. Conversely, think about how much more effective adding a daily half hour walk to your routine (100 to 150 calories burned) would be in controlling lifetime weight than starving yourself for a few weeks every year. Viewed only as a one-time activity, the effect of that snack or a short walk is negligible; viewed as a lifetime habit, the overall effect of beginning or ending the activity is life-changing.

Now let’s revisit that latte. A little $5 treat seems like a reasonable reward for a hard day’s work, whether put in at the salt mine or at home tending the kiddies. But when this reward becomes a lifetime daily habit, that latte turns into $1825 per year, which could have yielded over $100,000 in a low-interest bank account (3%) at the end of 30 years if saved instead of spent. (You could double that if the money earned 8% invested more aggressively in the stock market!) Nobody would suggest a hard-working person should save every dollar like a miser and buy nothing of enjoyment. But before driving up to the Starbucks window, a deliberate thinker must consider the lifetime impact of a habit added—is the daily latte or pack of cigarettes or after-work brew worth delaying your retirement by an extra year or two?

The Great Reservoir of Unfinished Business

With rare exception, I have used this space to blog about my novels and the occasional political rant. Both topics expose my progressive ideals which, in my view, reflect the better part of me. But as I integrate my newest role—person with Parkinson’s disease (PWP)—into my being I have been engaging in a great Reservoir Braindeal of introspection about who I am and how I will be remembered. I am struggling with a loss of control over my personal identity, a sense of self I have crafted out of the millions of random thoughts and impulses my brain has generated over a half century.

I find this bout ironic because one of the themes in my novel, King of Paine, relates to the notion of personal identity in the modern electronic age. My protagonist, Frank Paine, suffers from inappropriate impulses but is hopeful he will be judged by the words and actions he shows the world and not by the wicked thoughts he has the discipline to filter out. His quest for self-identity is complicated by the availability of anonymous electronic communications, an innovation that allows individuals to test their darker impulses with relative impunity in cyberspace, but introduces the risk that thoughts committed to the digital record might ultimately be traced back to the author. As a few politicians and celebrities will attest, this risk is significant.

This issue has become real enough to me, too, as I research the drugs that will sooner or later be prescribed to treat my Parkinson’s symptoms. The rate of progression and variety of these symptoms differs from patient to patient, and my case is mild enough to allow careful deliberation of my course of therapy, a trait that characterizes me as a lawyer, as an author, and as a man (or so I let the world think?). The results of my research scared the crap out of me.

With medication, I will likely have several good years left to enjoy and many more tolerable ones impaired by a steady decline in my mobility, balance and cognition. There will likely be painful symptoms and uncomfortable side effects. Surprisingly, that’s not what scared me. I’m not looking forward to the pain and discomfort—or the burden I may become to my family—but I accept my fate and will deal with it as it comes. What freaked me out was a recent clinical study that showed 17% of patients taking one class of drug often prescribed for younger PWPs, like me, suffer from one or more impulse control disorders (e.g., uncontrolled gambling, drinking, sexual activity, shopping, eating, hoarding, etc.). I’ve personally met one PWP who bought a string of Hummers (the SUV—get your minds out of the gutter, people) and found himself alone on a vacation cruise without even telling his wife. Other anecdotes I’ve heard involve PWPs–with no unusual predisposition–gambling away their retirement nest eggs. One can only imagine the humiliation and guilt from sexual indiscretions because nobody talks about it.

I am a guy with ordinary pleasure-seeking urges and very fine-tuned ethical and budgetary restraint. I believe in the Golden Rule not because some god or icon commands it, but because it’s the only way we can all live happily together. I believe in progressive ideals not because they benefit me, but because they tend to spread the benefits and burdens of our resources in a way that maximizes their enjoyment by society as a whole. I believe in saving today to buy my freedom tomorrow.

These principles I live by and want to be remembered for were not born from natural impulses but from a lifetime of deliberate thought and painful learning experiences. I would not be the man I want to be if my actions were governed by my unfiltered impulses. Needless to say, I had some questions about the risks and rewards of taking certain Parkinson’s drugs.

Great collector of wisdom that I am, I made an appointment with a shrink. Old “Doc G,” a white-haired gent who peppers his psychiatric patois with literary wit and wisdom, threw me a curveball on the second pitch. After offering some comfort that it was unlikely any dark impulses would result in life-altering behavior without first manifesting in a less humiliating progression, he then asked me why I cared so much about damaging my reputation. Citing the “great reservoir of unfinished business” that subconsciously drives our actions, Doc G sent me on a journey to discover what my parents “did” to me to make me irrationally fear my own bad behavior.

Well, I’m sure there have been defining moments throughout my life—lessons learned from family, friends, mentors, colleagues and historical icons—but after much reflection at considerable cost I remain convinced of two things: (1) my parents did nothing to me that any of us should regret, and (2) my fear of losing control of my fiscal and ethical filters is quite rational. Eventually, I told Doc G he was scuba diving in the wrong reservoir. I presented him with results from clinical studies and shared some of the anecdotal evidence I’ve heard through my growing network of fellow PWPs. I think I convinced him.

I know I convinced myself. I decided to put off the high-risk drug in favor of another that might make me twist and shake in unnatural ways a few years sooner but is far less likely to result in the destruction of my good name, valued relationships or financial freedom. For better or worse, the world will, hopefully, experience my thoughts on a filtered-only basis, with the possible exception of the ones I sneak into the minds of my characters.

But I liked Doc G’s “Great Reservoir” thing. It might make a catchy book title someday. Dibs!

Crafting Intricate Plots: My Writing Process

I’m not one of those writers who can sit at the keyboard and let his characters take over completely–not that there’s anything wrong with that. Many people enjoy a fast, light-weight story, but I prefer to read more intricate plots, so that’s what I write.

Intricate PlotsThe premise for my first novel, The Jinx, had been brewing in my mind for years: could a conspiracy theory explain the “20-year jinx“–the phenomenon that saw U.S. presidents elected every 20 years from 1840 to 1980 either die in office or survive an assassination attempt? From that spark, I began brainstorming how such a plan could be perpetuated across generations, how it could avoid detection. What could have motivated such a passionate hatred?

At the same time I was hatching this nutty scheme, I searched for a protagonist who could unearth it in a natural manner, without relying on coincidence, yet still a rare enough occurrence to explain why nobody else had ever stumbled upon it. I came up with a raw Trust & Estates lawyer, Benjamin Franklin Kravner, who discovers a clue among a dead client’s sealed papers when he makes a rookie mistake.

This brought me to a critical decision, one that could end in a disastrous false start if I failed to think through the key twists before writing. Would the clue Ben found turn out to be merely a mad conspiracy theorist’s ramblings or a road map for a real assassination attempt? I won’t tell you the route I chose, but The Jinx would have been a vastly different novel had I gone the other way.

Once my path was set, I began to outline the main plot, focusing on critical twists and then imagining the scenes that connected them. For each scene, my outline listed the setting, players, character developments, plot advancements, and a placeholder for later thoughts on incorporating themes. The outline took the form of a calendar–anchoring the story against a timeline helped me create the urgency that propels a thriller forward.

While still outlining, I figured Ben needed a high-placed source to help him confound the real or imagined conspiracy, so I created another character who also gives the reader an inside look at the presidential campaign. Her subplot introduces high-powered suspects whose political wrangling may or may not be indicative of a conspiracy that would place the life of her candidate, the sitting Vice President, in danger.

When I began to weave the subplots together, layering in connective details and themes, my ruminations about the passionate hatred necessary to motivate the conspiracy bore fruit. I saw a parallel between the way racism is passed down from generation to generation, one father to each son, and the way the conspiracy could have been perpetuated. The goal of the plot became grander–a second civil war–and a third point-of-view character, a pugnacious female reporter, was born to carry a subplot about growing hostilities between the white supremacy movement and a nascent black resistance.

So what started out as a somewhat whimsical tale about a bumbling lawyer chasing a conspiracy theory emerged as three intricately-crafted subplots woven together by a serious theme. While The Jinx still requires some suspension of disbelief, careful research, the credibility of the characters and their motivations, and the forethought that went into linking the plot lines earned the book excellent reviews and endorsements from civil rights leaders.

I developed the plot for King of Paine in a similar fashion. My brainstorming once again started with the underlying crime and the perpetrator’s motivation. The story follows two seemingly unrelated investigations, FBI agent Frank Paine’s pursuit of a stalker committing a series of kinky Internet crimes and a reporter, Roger Martin, tracking the disappearance of wealthy senior citizens across the nation. But as the perp’s unseen narrative is exposed, the two stories connect, with both men driven toward the same mysterious place. A series of twists leads up to a finale in which the main characters’ lives hang on resolution of a seemingly irresolvable dilemma.

It would have been impossible to craft this story without an outline because much of the mystery is created by the complex relationships among the characters and the precise timing with which pivotal facts are revealed. The two stories needed to unfold together at exactly the right pace over a two-week period, which I tracked using a timeline displaying daily advancements in character, plot, and themes.

But crafting an intricate plot is more than simply animating a detailed outline. As the characters and story come to life on the pages, opportunities are revealed for layering in subplots (the erotic cat-and-mouse game between Frank Paine and an old flame), themes (personal accountability of the terminally ill), and the little puzzles that sustain suspense even during lulls in the action.

I’ll close with an example of how a subtle thread woven into King of Paine‘s fabric helps hold it together. In chapter one, a victim utters an odd phrase as a cry of distress. Over the course of the story it’s revealed that the phrase is a line of poetry that has entered common usage, a main character authored the poem, and another significant character took life-changing actions because of its influence–actions that go to the heart of the story’s mystery. That simple, five-word phrase adds another layer of complexity that helps give the novel a polished, integrated feel.

Author Interview Roundtable

In connection with the launch of King of Paine, several fantastic book bloggers honored me with interviews posted on their websites. Here’s the best of the Q&A, which I like to imagine occurred with the five intrigued ladies peppering me with questions across a round table beside a roaring fireplace while I answered coolly between sips of hot cocoa. (I know, Hemingway I am not.)

Holly, Full Moon Bites: Hello Larry! Would you care to tell us a little bit about yourself?round table3

Larry Kahn: I’m a thriller/suspense writer who spent 20 years masquerading as an attorney. Remnants from those two decades of “research” tend to show up in my novels. I live in suburban Atlanta with my wife and have two sons graduating Georgia State University this spring.

Misty, The Top Shelf: What led you to writing?

LK: I was born to write. My life story is more about what led me away from it. I won book review contests as a first grader, always had a writing class on my schedule, and wrote for my college newspaper. But it was too hard to pass up Yale Law School for a sports reporting gig at a local rag. In the end, my 20-year legal career navigating the world of international mergers and acquisitions gave me the life experience to write more interesting novels.

Natalie, Purple Jelly Bean Chair Reviews: What books have most influenced your writing and why?

LK: The Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth, because I read it at an impressionable age and loved the way the author hid the critical clue in plain sight. When the protagonist revealed whodunit, I felt awe and not at all cheated. That’s a lesson I hope I apply in my writing–I want the reader to feel the suspense, struggling to solve critical puzzles along with the protagonist but then doing a classic palm slap to the forehead when the twist is revealed. “Damn, I should have seen that!”

The Firm by John Grisham, because the author showed that lawyers and the issues they address can thrill.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, because the author demonstrated that intelligence can be sexy, that suspense can be created with words as well as actions, and that fiction can be a medium for political philosophy. I think her philosophy is flawed, but that’s a topic I could write an entire essay about.

On Writing by Sol Stein, because this is my bible for novel mechanics. I re-read sections of it before I start each major draft.

Vanessa, Boekie’s Book Reviews: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

LK: That reminds me of the interview scene at the end of the movie Almost Famous, where William Miller, the teenage freelancer for Rolling Stone, finally gets to interview his rock hero and asks, “What do you love about music?” A smile comes over the guitarist’s face as he pulls up a chair and sighs, “Everything.” I find everything about writing challenging in a good way. It’s easy to put words on paper, as the proliferation of new fiction in the marketplace demonstrates, but it’s incredibly difficult–and rewarding–to craft an intricate, relevant, and entertaining novel. I love trying to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.

Kathy, Hampton Reviews: Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, what do you do about it?

LK: My process allows for writer’s block, even counts on it. While I’m writing I allocate time to three tasks, depending upon my creativity, sharpness, and mood. Writing requires the most creative energy. If I’m sharp but not creative I’ll spend my day researching. If I wake up feeling dopey, I edit. I do a lot of editing.

Holly: Can you tell us a little bit about your first novel The Jinx?

LK: A young estate lawyer discovers a cryptic poem among his murdered client’s possessions that hints at a 160-year vendetta against the American presidency. His skepticism wanes when he discovers an unusual phenomenon–the presidents elected every twenty years from 1840 through 1960 died in office, and Ronald Reagan barely survived an assassination attempt. His perilous journey leads him to the answer to his question: is the poem merely a dead man’s wacky conspiracy theory or is a powerful cabal primed to claim the White House as vengeance for their ancestor’s death?

Holly: What was your inspiration for this novel?

LK: My high school Civics teacher joked about the “20-Year Jinx” as the 1980 presidential campaign approached. It intrigued me, and when President Reagan was shot in 1981 the notion of a multi-generational conspiracy took root in my mind. I finally wrote the novel while on sabbatical in 1998-1999 so that it could be published before the 2000 presidential election.

Holly: Is The Jinx the first full length novel you wrote or just the first to be published?

LK: It was the first novel. Several prior works of fiction remain unpublished and are stamped “Legal Memorandum.”

Natalie: Is this book [King of Paine] part of a series?

LK: My original intent was for King of Paine to be the second book in a series, but my protagonist in The Jinx, a young lawyer, fell flat as an FBI agent. Paine finally came together when I went for the Hollywood upgrade, bringing in a former action star with a kinky past to replace my heroic, ordinary guy lawyer. Frank Paine’s history made the character motivations more authentic and freed me to explore more interesting (kinkier?) plot developments.

Kathy: Why did you write this book?

LK: King of Paine is a complex story with many inspirations. One of the first was my own musings about the personal accountability of the terminally ill. It’s natural for any of us to have a violent urge from time to time, but fear of God or imprisonment keep most of us from acting on it. I questioned what moral forces would keep a desperate patient in check if the law and religion weren’t enough. I set my “villain” loose to see how far he would go. He went pretty far. [For more, read my blog post, “My Inspirations for King of Paine”]

Misty: Were there ever moments where the story didn’t go the way you planned or personally wanted it to go? How did you deal with that?

LK: I’m a problem-solver by nature–I enjoy the little puzzles that constantly arise when you’re crafting a complex story. Sometimes I go down what seems like a great path and then come to a point where I can’t connect another path without relying on coincidence, so I either have to make an adjustment in one or both paths to set the stage for the intersection of the plot lines more organically or just scrap the idea and start over. That’s the beauty of outlining before writing, though–I never find myself in the awful spot of having to choose between scrapping great pages or relying upon a cheesy coincidence to make the story work. I hate when I’m reading a thriller and solutions magically appear. That’s bad planning.

Natalie: When you start to write a new novel, what is the process for you, do you start with a small idea and when you sit to write is that when the story starts to flow, or, before you start to write do you already have the whole story worked out?

LK: I like intricate plots, and they cannot be crafted on the fly. I brainstorm several main plot and character ideas and think through how they might fit together. I do a lot of my best plotting while I’m lying in bed, mind spinning wildly at 3am, 4am, 5am. It drives my wife crazy because I’m constantly running downstairs to write something in my notebook so I can get it off my mind and sleep. Then, when I’m on a roll, I use a mapping software program called Mind Manager to build characters and their motivations, plots and subplots, and imagine how they might intersect. Because I don’t want to be trite or irrelevant, I intentionally try out a few crazy ideas and see where they take me. I want my characters to dream big. I throw a lot in the trash, but some of the crazy stuff sticks and, I think, works in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way. When your followers read about “The Pit” in King of Paine, they will remember this question and chuckle. [See my guest post, “Crafting Intricate Plots“]

Vanessa: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?

LK: I do like to weave social themes into my novels, but I try not to be preachy. I include multiple perspectives through characters whose views are expressed organically, with a proper foundation layered into the plot and consistent with the characters’ established personalities and beliefs. Some issues are controversial, others less so. I’d like to think that the subtle call for a renewed emphasis on family and tradition in King of Paine is not. I think readers who see the book’s cover may be surprised to hear that’s the issue I want to talk about, but the story is about so much more than that provocative image suggests. [See my blog post, “Weaving Social Themes Into Suspense Novels”]

Kathy: Who is your favorite character in your books? Why?

LK: Angela del Rio–the “Angel of the River”–is a mysterious and brilliant woman in King of Paine who spreads joy like a contagion to everyone she meets. She’s my favorite because she’s inspired by my wife, who shares those qualities. [See my blog post, “My Hero, My Wife, and a Purple Donkey”]

Vanessa: Which character was the most fun to write?

LK: Frank Paine. I was able to shut the filters off and channel my inner jackass. One of the themes brewing below the surface of King of Paine is that we are who we let the world see through our words and actions, not our thoughts. When I was writing as Frank, I found myself thinking thoughts I ordinarily wouldn’t even dare to let myself think, never mind say aloud. And since Frank’s pre-FBI background is as a Hollywood actor, I also enjoyed creating his mindset, frequently drawing on well-known scenes from movies to inspire his reaction to obstacles he faced. There are a couple of passages that still crack me up when I reread them, like an unflattering image of Jack Nicholson at a Playboy Mansion party that Frank can’t get out of his head at an inopportune moment.

Vanessa: What was the hardest part of writing your book?

LK: The hardest part was trying to make Frank Paine, a deeply flawed man, a protagonist readers can get behind. He wronged the woman he loves, but he’d give up his life to earn her forgiveness. I hope his remorse, fundamental integrity, and determination to fight his darker impulses will ultimately win readers’ hearts. [See my blog post, “Rooting for a Flawed Protagonist”]

Misty: Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on right now if you’re working on anything at all?

LK: I’m still outlining my next thriller, tentatively entitled Hostile Takeover. My protagonist discovers a conspiracy by Asian sovereign investment funds to acquire vital U.S. companies and subvert the government. I’m still debating whether to have my protagonist take heroic action to save the American way of life or write the last third of the book in Chinese. I know, tough call, right?

When Eye Candy Fights Back: Adding Depth To a Love Interest

Frank Paine, the protagonist in King of Paine, is a former Hollywood stud who’s recently joined the FBI, a role that screams for a centerfold on his arm. As a former beauty queen and TV starlet, Jolynn Decker could easily fall into the “eye candy” stereotype, a conclusion not contradicted by our first look at her:

Time had faded his memory of Jolynn’s face, one that would drive a caricaturist mad for its lack of imperfections—fair skin, dainty nose, and mirthful, almond-shaped eyes. Her blond mane cascaded over a narrow-waisted, red winter coat like water flowing over a falls.

But as mentioned in previous posts, I rebel against stereotypes. As the story progresses, the feisty Atlantan alternates among suspect, tease, lover, sidekick, and victim, revealing more of her complex motives and nature with each new plot twist. I’m declaring this space a spoiler-free zone, so make assumptions about the order she takes on these roles at your own peril. My goal today is to share some of the techniques used to help Jolynn fight back against the eye candy stereotype.

I view “eye candy” as a character whose principal appeal is physical beauty, whether male or female, and these characters have their place in literature. Much of James Bond’s mojo derives from his legendary ability to snare the sexiest women with a wayward glance. Romance novels are rife with manly hunks with ripped abs and not much upstairs (so I hear). My own first novel, The Jinx, features several strong-willed and intelligent woman who tangle with my ordinary guy hero, but I couldn’t resist giving him one piece of sugar pie for dessert (call it a gift to ordinary guys everywhere).

In King of Paine, though, Frank Paine’s reformed womanizer needed a real femme fatale to tempt him, an attraction deeper than physical beauty, a chick who could drive him to play outside the FBI’s rules, maybe even sacrifice his life. So I gave Frank and Jolynn a passionate history, a true love affair that ended after a kinky Hollywood scandal destroyed her budding TV career but left him unscathed. Although Frank never stopped loving her, they haven’t spoken in three years when his new career in the FBI takes him to her native Atlanta.

Jolynn’s festering anger, the unknown depth of her emotional injuries, makes her reaction to Frank’s presence unpredictable. So when an anonymous online stalker threatens to reveal Frank’s kinky secrets shortly after he arrives in town, he’s forced to confront Jolynn. She expects (or pretends to expect?) an apology, so you can imagine the tension in that reunion when he accuses her of a crime. By building conflict into their history, I was able to magnify Jolynn’s emotional reaction to the accusation.

To add to her mystery, their story is told only from Frank’s point of view. Like Frank, you hear Jolynn’s words and gauge her actions, but her real-life erotic cat-and-mouse game with him eerily resembles the tactics employed by the stalker taunting the FBI. Her shrouded motives make her seem capable of both love and revenge, and she’s a clever enough actress to fool the Bureau–and maybe even you. Jolynn’s ever-changing role in Frank’s investigation and in his life places her at the heart of the story, not just on Frank’s arm and in his bed.

The Fiscal Cliff: A Return To Reason?

In the wake of the election, it’s nice to hear the usual DC suspects singing a tune of unity rather than obstruction. Time will tell if the principals in this stage show–President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Reid and Speaker of the House John Boehner–back up their words with action, but they seem to have received the message from the American people that politically-motivated inaction will not be tolerated as we march toward the so-called “fiscal cliff.”

Nobody expects the parties to come to the table with a final compromise already in hand, but the Republicans’ insistence on framing their opening gambit as a compromise worries me. While Speaker Boehner’s speech today carried a conciliatory tone, he made it clear that Republicans are still stuck on the same supply-side economic theories that have been offered up as justification for tax cuts for the rich. The argument goes that taxpayers in the highest tax brackets operate small businesses, these businesses are the engine for job creation, and lower taxes for these businesses will spur said job creation. Therefore, Republicans argue, if the government must raise revenue (insert huge sigh here), it should be done through “tax reform,” i.e., eliminating loopholes and limiting deductions. This approach, they say, will lead to economic growth, rising personal income for all, and (drumroll) an increase in tax revenues.

This has the political advantage of sounding really, really good. It suffers from the dual flaws of being false and unfair.

Let me be clear, tax cuts for the wealthy will (all other things being equal) lead to an increase in growth. The fallacy here is that tax cuts must be targeted to the wealthy to achieve this growth. The growth will be generated from increased spending on goods and services, whether that spending is by weatlhy, middle class or poor consumers. Think about it. Why would a small business owner hire a new employee just because the owner will get to keep an extra 5% of the business’s net income? The owner is going to keep the profits and spend the cash himself unless he needs the new employee because of increased demand for his business’s goods or services. Increased demand generates jobs; a mere increase in cash available to a business won’t. Look at all the cash sitting on the sidelines in today’s business environment!

What’s even more disingenuous about the Republicans’ broad tax cuts is that they way overshoot the target–only a small percentage of wealthy taxpayers are small business owners. Corporate executives, entertainers, athletes, doctors, lawyers, bankers, and investors fill these brackets and benefit from the lower rates even if they don’t employ a single person. Republicans also favor reduced or zero tax rates on dividends and capital gains, which disproportionately benefit the rich while having little or no targeted impact on job creation.

The bottom line is that tax cuts do spur economic growth but by increasing demand for goods and services by consumers generally; targeting the extra cash towards the wealthy provides no special job creation benefit. In fact, cash reaching the hands of consumers through government spending impacts economic growth in exactly the same way as a tax cut. Framing the debate over the budget deficit as a “spending problem, not a revenue problem” is perhaps the greatest deceit perpetrated by either political party. By definition, a deficit is an excess of expenditures over revenues, and it’s a mathematical truism that spending and revenues effect the deficit equally.

If the nation’s goal is to reduce budget deficits, the balance between raising tax revenue and cutting spending programs is simply a matter of choosing WHO will have less cash to spend at the end of the year. The net effect on economic growth will be roughly the same no matter who bears the pain of the fiscal policy directly, The allocation is purely about fairness and political might.

Note that if deficits are to be reduced, the net effect on economic growth will be negative, not positive. Jobs will be lost, not gained, as a result of the decline in consumption by affected citizens. If we’re deficit cutting, the Republican fixation on job creation is specious, and their attempt to place the entire burden on the poor and the elderly while preserving the unpaid-for tax cuts that created this fiscal mess borders on criminally fraudulent.

Policy-makers need to first determine how much the deficit needs to be cut over what period of time, and then they must decide who’s going to bear the burden. A detailed fiscal plan is beyond the scope of this rant, but the starting place should be the reversal of the Bush tax cuts. An additional ten-year surtax applicable to the highest tax brackets should be considered to pay back the unpaid-for tax cuts they received over the past ten years. That should still leave plenty of deficit reduction to place on the backs of the elderly and the poor–whose income stagnated during the Bush decade–through cuts in entitlement programs. Half the battle is determining the equitable starting place for determining a fair allocation of the tax burden, and I’d go back to the last time the nation was in surplus, before the unfunded Bush tax cuts and wars.

As a closing observation, many economists argue that deficit cutting is exactly what we shouldn’t be doing during a period of slow growth. They would prescribe a delicate balancing act, actually increasing the deficit temporarily with stimulus (whether spending initiatives or tax cuts) while passing legislation that would pare spending and boost taxes in the long run to achieve deficit reduction when the economy is healthier and self-generating more tax revenues. That may be a difficult gambit for the partisans in DC to pull off,  but perhaps a harbinger of things to come if our current leaders fail to reach a reasonable compromise is the arrival of Angus King on the national scene. The newly-elected Independent senator from Maine views himself as a moderate who might bridge the gap between extremists in both major parties. If our representatiives fail to overcome their fiscal divide, perhaps King will serve as a model candidate for a third party movement backed by independent voters and disenchanted moderates affiliated with both parties.

My Inspiration For King of Paine

I’m often asked about my inspiration for King of Paine because the story melds two wildly different story lines (and because one of them centers around some pretty kinky sex, and on first sight I seem about as vanilla as it gets). In the main story, Special Agent Frank Paine hunts an online stalker who’s taunting him with crimes hinting at the agent’s own kinky past. At the same time, reporter Roger Martin is guided by an angelic woman to investigate missing senior citizens across the country. Naturally, the two plot lines connect in a shocking way.

Many authors look to their characters for inspiration; I tend to become intrigued by a plot point or theme first and then build characters around that. Given King of Paine’s split personality, it’s not surprising that it was inspired by two distinct ideas.

After receiving nice feedback about the sex scenes in The Jinx, my mind was predisposed to pursuing an erotic theme in the next book, and a case study in Psychology Today piqued that interest. The details escape me, but my recollection is that a woman had met a man in an online sex chat room and, after establishing a relationship, agreed to reenact a bondage fantasy in a live meeting. During the encounter she attempted to withdraw consent. The article examined the effectiveness of prior consent as a legal defense when the ability to withdraw it is impaired.

That case study led me to build a plot line around the world of online BDSM chat and the mix of ordinary people and devious predators who inhabit it. Even the wary may find it impossible to distinguish an innocent geek exploring his or her dark fantasies from a warped freak intent on doing harm. It made me wonder where that line could be drawn, and Frank Paine navigates that issue as he sorts victims from suspects.

My second inspiration derived from musings about personal accountability of the terminally ill. It’s natural to have a violent urge from time to time, but fear of God or imprisonment prevents most of us from acting on it. I questioned what moral forces would keep a desperate patient in check when the law and religion were less motivating. Consider this snippet from a conversation between Frank Paine and his FBI colleague, the cyber agent Jeronimo Reyes:

Jero sipped his coffee, contemplating his response. “I think we rely upon the good faith of strangers for our survival every day. I’m less comfortable when strangers don’t believe in the salvation of their soul, and the law fails to act as a backstop. And, for all the wonderful things people say about Simone Perlow, until we have the chance to interview her, she’s still a stranger to me—as is your new girlfriend, by the way.”

Several characters stricken with cancer figure prominently in the story, including Simone Perlow, the co-founder of an organization called Doctors With Cancer. This gave me an opportunity to experiment with how different people react to the same stressors. An FBI profiler can analyze a crime and predict with some statistical accuracy many of the demographic and psychological qualities of the perpetrator. When faced with a stressful change in life like loss of health, employment, or a loved one, some people snap.

Yet the predictive quality of these triggers runs only one way. No profiler can foretell how any particular person will react. Like my characters in King of Paine, some snap, others take courageous action. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

The Chop, The Beast & The Infield Fly Rule

The knock on me as a sportswriter for the Albany Student Press back in the early 80s was that I wrote with my heart instead of my brain. After a December 7th triple-overtime loss by my beloved Great Danes to the national powerhouse Potsdam Bears (Albany played in Division III at the time), I evoked the memory of Pearl Harbor in my lead and an outpouring of passion took the story downhill from there. But I also wrote a column entitled “The Beast Lives” that captured the emotion of the crowd, when we all come together as one for a common cause, our energy forming a whole with greater power and heart than the sum of our individual passions. After thirty years of dormancy, The Beast came alive for me at Turner Field last night as 50,000 tomahawk-chopping fans first lifted the Braves to heroic heights and then transformed into a lynch mob a hair-trigger away from scalping an umpire for his errant application of the infield fly rule. Upon reflection, the experience makes me wonder what great or horrible things we could do if we breathed life into The Beast for something that really mattered.

As a lifelong sports fan whose recent outpourings of emotion have been limited to bongoing The Chop anthem from the safety of my recliner, being a part of the crowd at Turner Field for the Braves’ do-or-die Wild Card matchup against the Cardinals was the experience of a lifetime. Many baseball traditionalists mock The Chop, but I believe the attraction of attending a major sporting event is to become a part of something larger than ourselves, to pour our collective passions into a common cause. It’s a lot safer and easier to organize than a revolution, and nobody does it better than the Braves Nation.

With everything at stake for the Braves and their fans, we were ready, 50,000 strong, to will the home team to victory. Prompted by the electronic drumbeat blasted over the stadium loudspeakers, we chopped. At first we chopped with questionable synchronicity and our war howls were inhibited by the shackles of our proper selves, but soon our foam tomahawks began to sway closer and closer to unison, our whoops grew louder and fiercer powered by our collective soul. By the time David Ross clobbered the home run that broke a scoreless tie, we were rocking The Ted with a fearsome war chant that would strike fear into the hearts of any enemy. The Beast lived!

The crowd’s energy ebbed and flowed with the Braves’ fortunes, but with the home team down 6-3 in the bottom of the eighth and threatening to rally, we were chopping and chanting as one unified fighting force, a force that turned ugly when the leftfield umpire called Andrelton Simmons, the Braves shortstop, automatically out on a 225-foot “infield fly” just before the ball dropped untouched to the grass between two converging Redbirds. At first the crowd roared happily at the Braves’ good luck, not realizing the infield fly rule had been invoked (a natural reaction as we have since learned that this fly ball was about 50 feet deeper into the outfield than any other “infield fly” that had dropped this year). But when it became clear that Simmons had been called out, bedlam erupted. The Beast, once unleashed, could not be harnessed. The enthusiastic crowd became an unruly mob that rained beer cans and other debris onto the field amid shouts of “scalp the ump”! It was not Atlanta’s proudest moment.

My first temptation is to write a scathing analysis of this misapplication of the infield fly rule, not as a justification for the inexcusable behavior of the crowd/mob, but as an emotionally injured fan who happens to be a baseball wonk. The infield fly rule is designed to protect baserunners on a play where the fielder has an easy opportunity to intentionally let the ball drop to take advantage of the baserunners’ confusion to collect multiple outs. The umpire’s call must be immediate and clear to allow the baserunners to return safely to their bases and advance only at their peril. Yesterday, the ump waited until the last second on a play where the converging fielders were confused, relatively deep in the outfield, and the baserunners had no opportunity to retreat safely. That worked to the Braves advantage in that the runners were able to advance on the play, but they should not have suffered the automatic out when the baserunners bore the risk of being trapped off base if the ball had been caught.

Upon further reflection, though, I think the more interesting point to be taken in these uncertain times is that the power of the mob to create a force greater than the individuals that compose it can inspire heroics or magnify our worst impulses. It makes me wonder what great things we could accomplish as a nation if rather than waiting for our leaders to inspire us to rally around the common causes in which most of us believe–fiscal moderation, full employment, education, innovation, equal opportunity, a safe environment for future generations–we rose together as one to elect new ones who will end the current atmosphere of negativity and obstruction and compromise reasonably over our differences. Let The Beast live.

Buried Treasures: Treats for the Watchful Reader

For me, writing is a lonely sport, thousands of hours invested in a novel with only sporadic feedback from my critique group and beta readers. In early drafts, when I’m focused on building characters and weaving plots together, solving the puzzles that make a novel sizzle provides its own thrill. The grind of revising later drafts can become tiresome, though, and I find myself yearning for more entertaining tasks. One I particularly enjoy is planting buried treasures for watchful readers to find. (I’m easily entertained–ask me the capitol of any state!)

Some of these little Easter eggs are identifiable only to a limited audience (like significant dates, meaningful numerology, and “coincidental” character names or descriptions), but others take the form of homages, themes, and trivia I hope will intrigue others.

For example, movie fans will like the way Frank Paine, my protagonist in King of Paine, thinks. He’s a former Hollywood stud who’s joined the FBI in search of redemption for his excesses. He draws inspiration from his old acting mentor and the way respected actors have handled various predicaments on film. In one scene, Frank throws a punch at an armed adversary and then has immediate regrets:

Hand stinging, Frank bounced on his toes like a boxer, poised to deliver another blow if Zack wanted to duke it out. The big guy’s surprise showed in his blue eyes, the only feature he shared with his kid sister. He looked like a denim gorilla. An angry denim gorilla with a forty-five caliber, FBI-issued Glock.

Frank recalled the famous scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where an Arabian swordsman dazzles Indiana Jones with his ferocious blade work until Harrison draws his pistol and slays him with a smirk and a single shot. Maybe we should’ve thought this plan all the way through, old man. His mental image of Lee Fields shrugged. That’s why we have rewrites, Frankie Boy.

I love movies, and these homages to notable actors and films are littered throughout the story. Frank’s status as a former insider also created some irresistible opportunities to poke fun at the Hollywood scene. I crack up every time I re-read his troubling flashback about Jack Nicholson in a Speedo at a Playboy Mansion party. (As mentioned earlier, I’m easily entertained.)

Tributes to authors who have inspired me also dot my writing. While my novels read at contemporary thriller pace, some themes and devices are drawn from surprising sources.

Umberto Eco’s Foucalt’s Pendulum can be dense at times, but the story is amazing (spoiler alert). When an intellectual’s research unearths a medieval list which could be interpreted to describe a centuries-long conspiracy, or not, a group of pseudo-conspirators take up the ancient cause with tragic consequences. In my first novel, The Jinx, a young lawyer inadvertently discovers a cryptic poem hinting at a 140-year conspiracy against the American presidency. In case Eco’s influence was not apparent, a character in my novel recognizes the similarity of the presidential conspiracy to Eco’s contrivance and speculates that the poem may be the work of pseudo-conspirators like in Foucalt’s Pendulum. This uncertainty whether the scheme is real or imagined propels the suspense in the early going.

King of Paine more subtly honors another favorite, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. While that story rants against the alienation of wealth producers who ultimately rebel against over-taxation by fleeing to a hidden free market commune, King of Paine suggests that focusing on achievement and greed at the expense of family and tradition can lead to alienation of a different sort. Lonely seniors are drawn to another secret haven where a reclusive biochemist is either curing or killing them with a mysterious new drug. See if you can spot my own take on Rand’s classic “Who is John Galt?” line, a literary device that creates suspense without any action or threat whatsoever.

Another understated theme in King of Paine takes cues from classic fiction. I’ve been running a contest on my website in which a $50 Amazon or Barnes & Noble gift certificate will be awarded to the first reader to correctly identify all three literal and figurative references to a legendary novel buried within King of Paine. One is easy, but no one has found all three yet. Can you?

Hiding Easter eggs in books may seem trivial (okay, it is trivial), but few things give me more pleasure than when a reader gets excited about finding one. After I left my first law firm in 1992, I lost touch with several valued colleagues. A few months after The Jinx came out, a senior lawyer called me out of the blue after recognizing an expression he invented (look for my hero’s “clong”–the sickening feeling of one’s stomach accelerating into the throat–and the stunning twist that prompts it). My old friend’s joy in being honored this way was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had as a writer.

So if you read one of my books and discover a buried treasure that makes you smile, drop me a note. Maybe I’ll name a character after you!

 

Researching An FBI Story

King of Paine is a complex story with many subplots and themes, but at heart it’s about a flawed man, Frank Paine, seeking redemption by joining an organization striving to recapture its own fabled mojo after a string of historic failures. With the ghosts of Waco, Ruby Ridge, and 9/11 whispering in his ear, Frank’s first case forces him to bridge the divide between the FBI’s Old School dinosaurs and a new breed of agents personified by the debonair Jeronimo Reyes and his Cyber Squad cohorts.

The Bureau is in fact reinventing itself to combat 21st century challenges like terrorism and cyber security, creating another set of challenges for an author intent on providing an authentic reading experience. While I took a few liberties, several amazing resources helped me paint Frank Paine’s FBI with true colors. My research covered several areas: Bureau history and organization, federal laws and jurisdiction, agent mindset and anecdotes, investigative procedure, authentication of details, and settings.

The best introduction to the FBI is a visit to the agency’s own website. Volumes of pages detail the Bureau’s history and organization and provide a treasure trove of data for the curious reader.

As a lawyer myself, I’m a stickler for getting the law right in my novels (or at least the appearance of right!). One mistake some aspiring crime writers make is inserting the FBI into their stories without first confirming the crimes in question fall within the Bureau’s jurisdiction. Generally, the FBI only enforces federal laws, so they wouldn’t be called in to investigate a murder or sexual assault. One of the first conflicts in King of Paine is over jurisdiction–Frank attempts to exclude the Atlanta police from a sexual assault case by arguing federal cyberstalking laws apply. His personal connection to that case–a link to his secret past–fuels the main plotline, so his control of the investigation is critical to the story.

An author has leeway in developing characters in any profession, and avoiding stereotypes is something I strive to do. Frank Paine is a former actor, not the typical FBI career path; I describe him as a tennis player in a locker room full of linebackers. That said, I wanted to capture the lingo, unwritten rules, and cliques unique to this locker room. Several memoirs by former special agents and Internet forums populated by them gave me a peek into the Bureau mystique. Through their anecdotes, I picked up procedural tips, jargon and hints at the agent mindset that add spice to King of Paine.

Then I dove inside the belly of the beast. Okay, it was more like an appointment with a couple of linebackers, Special Agents Stephen Emmett and Jerry Reichard of the Atlanta Field Office, but the adventure still made my heart pound. (I don’t get out much.)

The meeting was arranged by Chris Allen of the FBI’s Investigative Publicity & Public Affairs division based in Washington, whose office provides a liaison between field agents and authors and screenwriters interested in adding realism to their projects. These are the guys who make TV shows like Criminal Minds and Numbers ring true. To prepare for my interview, Allen relayed answers to my detailed questions from agents in the field and at the FBI Academy in Quantico, filling in many gaps in my knowledge–details about the Bureau’s new case management system, arrest procedures, funeral arrangements for an agent killed on duty (hint or red herring?), and much more.

Then Agents Emmett and Reichard showed me around the Atlanta Field Office and patiently answered my follow-up questions over the course of an exhausting day. The tone ranged from serious (a dramatic retelling of Emmett’s wounding in the course of a shootout with bank robbers) to arcane (Reichard’s explanation of the mechanics of tracing instant message communications over the Internet) to tongue-in-cheek (when asked why he was going to Iraq, Emmett deadpanned, “waterboarding”). Besides immersing me in Bureau culture, the visit enabled me to create a mental picture of the setting for much of my story (although Emmett requested I obscure details of the office layout for obvious reasons).

I go through many drafts as part of my writing process and had to cut some fantastic material to get King of Paine‘s dramatic pacing right. I hope the remaining nuances make for an action-packed Bureau experience grounded in reality.