Submitted by Karna Small Bodman
Where do authors get the inspiration to write great novels? From history, headlines, personal experience? Of course it is often all of these, and I’d like to highlight some of my favorite novels and show how those authors were able to create characters, dialogue and descriptions that mirrored certain events and turned them into terrific reads.
When I read the previous post by my Rogue colleague, K.J. Howe, about security on airlines, it reminded me of the thriller, Nightfall by the popular author, Nelson DeMille.
The story obviously was based on the crash of TWA Flight 800 that went down off New York and was investigated by all sorts of agencies. But the mystery of the crash was never really solved. Enter the author who created characters who happened to be making love on a beach and saw the plane go down. They try to determine whether a missile shot it down — something the government types refused to consider. What a great story.
DeMille used another incident several years ago to create not just one but a trilogy based on the US bombing of Libya. In his thriller, The Lion’s Game, he does a “what if.” What if there’s a young militant type in Libya who is so furious about the bombing of his country that he manages to come to the US, and attempt to identify, target and kill the members of the bombing squad.
I remember first meeting DeMille at the big publishers’ annual trade show, Book Expo, at the Jacob Javitz Center, many years ago. I told him that when I served on the Reagan White House staff, I happened to be in the Situation Room the night we bombed Libya — and when I read The Lion’s Game it all came back to me.
Then, as I said, he followed up that story with two more thrillers featuring the same characters in The Lion and The Panther.
I kept in touch with him and when my second thriller, Gambit, came out, he very graciously read it and gave it a great “blurb” that my publisher printed on the front cover. I’ll always be grateful to him for that.
Another author I met at Book Expo was Dr. Philippa Gregory – an extremely accomplished writer who specializes in English history. One of her series features the wives of Henry VIII – and she brings that entire period to life so that the reader can visualize being right there in the court, watching the dramas play out. In fact Dr. Gregory has been dubbed the “Queen of Royal Fiction.” King Henry’s first wife is vividly described in Katharine of Aragon, followed up by The Other Boleyn
Girl, the story of his initial affair with the 14 year old sister of Anne Boleyn who actually bore him two children. We know they never married — however, if he had worked it out to marry her, think about it — he would have had an heir and would not have had to marry (and kill or exile) all those other wives. In fact, that particular novel was so popular, it was turned into a movie.
If you like to read historical novels as I do, I’d like to recommend one more bestselling author, Robert Harris, who was a TV correspondent with the BBC in England, and has written about many different events throughout history — and I have to say I learned so much about other parts of the world and what happened there so long ago — I thought you might like to check out his stories, if you haven’t had a chance to do that yet. One in particular came out several years ago, but it made such an impression on me, I wanted to highlight it here. It is Pompeii.
Harris created characters who were vacationing at the seaside resort, leading their carefree lives, never having an inkling of a cataclysm to come…..except for one young engineer who examines the famous aqueduct, sees cracks and tries to warn about a looming disaster. This author truly recreates a city on the brink of destruction.
So, yes, these and other fine authors have managed to take recent or historical events and create not just great fiction but what we should probably call “Faction.”
But what if it happens the other way around?
When I wrote my first thriller, Checkmate, that was published a decade ago, it was inspired by President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative — his program to develop missile defense.
I was so taken with this concept that I developed a character, Dr. Cameron Talbot – a brainy scientist working for a defense contractor who invents a brand new defense against cruise missiles. The only problem is that a few years AFTER that book came out, several elements of that story actually came true — which kind of freaked me out. Now, so many years later, my new publisher is planning to re-release my entire backlist beginning with Checkmate on June 1. But I said, “Wait! I have to completely revise and edit that story because the ‘bad guys’ actually carried out an attack I wrote about. So I went back to rewrite and update that thriller (I’ll tell you more about it as soon as it is released). But here is the cover art that their graphic artist created:
What are some of the novels based on current or historical events that you have enjoyed and would like to recommend to our readers? Please leave a comment – we’d love to know. And thanks for checking in here at Rogue Women Writers.
….Karna Small Bodman
It's fascinating how fact and fiction become blended in novels. Even more interesting is when real life catches up to fiction writers. Great post. On historical writers, one of my favorites, of course, is our former Rogue sister, the great Francine Mathews whose thrillers, Jack 1939 and Too Bad to Die, blend fictional stories around the real historical figures of JFK and Ian Fleming, and as Stephanie Barron wrote the historically accurate Jane Austin Mysteries.
I love blending fact with fiction, and put a note in the back that tells you where it's blended or what is actually true. Cussler, of course, is known for his historical prologues that start his adventures, which are usually tweaking history. I've known a few authors, though, who have come up with a story, on the brink of being released, then real-life events happen that mirror the novel so closely that the publisher won't release it for fear that it'll offend or affect sales or… well, hard to say. And, of course, after 9/11, the government actually approached some of the best thriller writers to ask their opinions on where a terrorist might strike. That they approached authors was fascinating, because who thinks outside the box better than someone with a great imagination? Writers!
I just finished The Poisonwood Bible, which completely obsessed me for the past few days (I was sneaking peeks on my phone when out at dinner). It describes Africa in the most detailed way I’ve yet encountered and at the same time explains why Europeans and Americans trying to impose their systems of farming, infrastructure and government only worked to create a morass if corruption and starvation. This sounded familiar to me after reading about ‘economic hit men’ for my current work in progress.
On a related (and non literary) note, I wonder if this lesson that sometimes ‘primitive ‘ cultures know too many things we don’t may apply to where I live now—Florida. We are a spot that has too much water for half the year and not enough for the other half. What to do about this is a constant debate—send the excess rainwater from Lake Okechobee down the Caloosahatchee where it conflicts with the salt water from the gulf? Let it flow to the Everglades over land like it used to and maybe flood anyone in its path? After reading The Poisonwood Bible I’m wondering if we should be looking back through history to see how the Seminoles handled it.
What a terrific post, Karna. I agree … there's something in the air sometimes, some kind of culture whiff of things to come. Your novels are always impregnated with facts that make the fiction even moreso believable. My favorite personal story is about my third spy novel, Mesmerized, in which I predicted an FBI mole in a character whose first name was "Robert." Guess who was unmasked at about the same time? FBI mole Robert Hanssen. 🙂
Yes, glad you mentioned Francine Mathews' thriller, JACK 1939 — that was a terrific novel that also "brought to life" so many interesting members of the Kennedy family!
Robin – I heard about The White House national security staff inviting in thriller writers to paint terrorist scenarios — in fact I believe Brad Meltzer was one of them — engaging in what we've called "Red Team/Blue Team" exercises. I would certainly love to know what those scenarios were.
Since I'm also a Florida resident, Robin — I agree you have certainly nailed our state's water issue! At least our Florida members of Congress are pushing for funds to remedy the whole situation (not sure what the Seminoles will think though). And thanks for your suggestion of THE POISONWOOD BIBLE — sounds like a terrific read!
I meant to address the previous comment to Lisa, of course — who made such excellent points about our Florida water challenges. Thanks for raising that truly important issue!
And then there's James Michener, who goes so overboard with the history in the beginning of his books that many of us simply skip the first 60 to 100 pages to get to where the "real" story begins. I think it takes a deft hand to weave history into and through a great novel. Kudo to all the Rogue Writers.
Yes, Gayle, your great novel, MESMERIZED, certainly was prescient….and I remember Robert Hanssen well — one of the worst traitors our country has even known. Now, I'll just bet that your next thriller will be super timely as well.
You are right, Chris, to point to our Rogue colleagues who all write such great historical as well as current thrillers. Hope our readers will check out each of their websites to discover novels that should be on their bedside tables.