…by Karna Small Bodman
My great Rogue colleagues here have recently been writing about where they found inspiration for their novels — some ideas came from a rich family heritage, some from particular authors, others were gleaned from unique travel and experiences — or all of the above.
When it comes to my own family history, my father’s ancestors were English and arrived in this country over three centuries ago, fought in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars and traveled in wagon trains. Somehow I just never got the hang of writing historical thrillers, so put some of those scrapbooks aside.
My mother’s parents came here from Sweden (her maiden name was Larson — you can’t get much more Swedish than Larson – right?) There are indeed many very talented Swedish authors. I recall when Stieg Larrson’s novels were all the rage, I saw a cartoon in The New Yorker of an editor pouring through a manuscript and saying to the author, “Great premise, terrific dialogue, wonderful tension . . . but could you make it Swedish?” But, alas, most of those Swedish thrillers, while very well done, were a bit “darker” than what I might create.
I decided I wanted to write contemporary (even “prescient”) thrillers, if I could pull that off, and I do remember getting a great deal of inspiration from several wonderful authors as well as from some of my personal experiences. Many years ago I became a great fan of one particular writer, Nelson DeMille, when his terrific story of international intrigue, The Charm School, set in Russia was published back in 1989. I never forgot it. DeMille often takes a headline and does a “what if?” American soldiers are taken prisoners-of-war — what if they are stashed in a complete replica of an American town and forced to train Russian spies to speak and act like Americans so they can infiltrate our country? What a great premise.
A later inspiration came from a former operative in the CIA who (in addition to my fellow Rogue writers) produces some of the best espionage fiction around. It is Charles McCarry, author of a number of wonderful novels, including my favorite, Shelly’s Heart, about a Presidential election fraught with trouble and nefarious plots. One thing I learned from this great writer is that it’s a good idea to put a List of Characters in the front of the book. I did that too and received so many comments from readers that they loved being able to refer back to refresh their memories since they often had to put down a book, pick it up later and try to recall who-was-who. And by the way, Charles McCarry has been a frequent speaker at our International Thriller Writers annual conferences at the Grand Hyatt in New York.
When I actually sat down to create my first novel, Checkmate, I was inspired by an experience I had serving on the National Security Council staff in the Reagan White House. I had a vivid recollection of the night the President gave his (literally) ground-breaking address to the nation calling for the development of a missile defense system — his Strategic Defense Initiative or SDI (later referred to by columnists as “Star Wars.”)
I became fascinated with the concept of a “bullet hitting a bullet” to protect us from a missile attack and wanted to write a story about it. So I created a character, Dr. Cameron Talbot, who works for a defense contractor and invents a new technology for a defense against cruise missiles. (I love to write about women way smarter than I am, accomplishing way more than I ever could!). But then, every thriller needs villains. Who would be my villains? I did a ton of research and finally came upon a (then) rag-tag militant group operating over in Kashmir…a disputed area between India and Pakistan…the group called themselves “Lashkar-i-Taiba.” I named them in my story and wrote that they were planning an attack on India. Of course, my heroine has to use her technology to stop the mayhem. The thing is, certain aspects of all of my thrillers came true sometime after publication — and that kind of freaks me out. In fact, two years after Checkmate came out, there was indeed an attack on India — in the city of Mumbai by none other than the militant group Lashkar-i-Taiba. And remember Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber?” It’s because of him that we must take our shoes off at airports. Well, that character was trained by the same Lashkar group.
I’m sure there are many other thriller writers who have created a scenario that later seemed to play out in the news. As for the characters we create, I’m reminded of a quote from the great writer, Ann Tyler. When asked, “Why do you write novels?” she replied, “Because it means I can experience more than one life.” Now, think about it. We are creating heroes and heroines, villains and all sorts of others with clever or nefarious schemes. And yes, we do have to “get inside their heads” to get them inside our chapters.
However, I have one other motivation. When I put together my own thrillers, each one focuses on a different national security threat to our country — at least the way I see them, and I’m trying to call attention to these possible scenarios. I recall another great quote from George Bernard Shaw who said, “The best way to get your point across is to entertain.” And that’s what I, along with our other Rogue Women Writers, try to do.
Now, thanks for visiting — please leave a comment and tell us about your favorite thrillers and if some of those stories came true too — we’d love to know.
…Karna Small Bodman
This is way awesome; thank you. Regarding "a different national security threat to our country," human-caused climate change used to be #2 following corporate greed running Congress. Now it's #3.
It's always inspirational to hear how other authors got their start. We all came to writing on different paths. Thanks for sharing your story. Inspirational!
Love the insight into your personal background – and that you write thrillers based on different national security threats. Thanks for the great post.
I really enjoyed the way you pulled so many threads together to explain how a writer works. And such wisdom in this post, too! Thanks, Karna!
Great blog, Karna! I keep thinking present day politics is right out of a Tom Clancy thriller. 🙂
An insightful blog, Karna. Enjoyed reading about the life's experiences that brought you full-throttle to thriller writer mode. Also delighted to see you favor one of my favorites–DeMille's The Charm School. A great read!
What an interesting post. I too loved THE CHARM SCHOOL by DeMille. It never gets lost among all the spy thrillers I've read.
Thank you, Chris, L. Lee, Gayle, Sarah, Jean, KK — for reading and for all of your great comments. While we all can see a veritable "petri dish of plot points" in every newscast, many of us know that "being there is even better" – and sometimes we try to write about those experiences. Now I look forward to more posts by my Rogue colleagues on their inspirations too.
I am always struck by authors that seem to be able to "see into the future" and anticipate what geopolitical mess is ahead. You and Tom Clancy have a lot in common!
Karna, this is so interesting! And I love the Ann Tyler quote–how true! What a glorious occupation we have: exploring geopolitics and espionage from the safety of our home offices. 🙂