Today it's my great pleasure to introduce a blog by fellow crime and thriller writer Eric J. Gates. He is a writer with a background more interesting than most who writes contemporary thrillers and is highly successful at it, too. He is also a great friend to writers, promoting them on his own blog and through a tweeting regime second to none!
As the theme of this blog is What crime writers do, and how they've done it, I asked him to write something about the process of writing. And I hope you'll agree he's come up with a fascinating approach.
Write what you know? – the Menu Method
Jumping between the roofs of two skyscrapers, decoding a cryptographic text using just paper and pen, rappelling down a cliff face. These are just a few of the things I’ve done in real life that haven’t appeared in my thriller novels… yet. Then, on the other hand, I’ve never shot a Javelin shoulder-fired anti-tank missile (one of my bad guys did in ‘Full Disclosure’), had a wound cured by genetically modified blood (yep, that happened in ‘the CULL’ series) or used an ancient artefact to modify Destiny (the ‘Outsourced’ series, though I used mine to have Keith invite me to this blog. Shh – don’t tell him) so I guess things have balanced out nicely.
Not everyone has had the crazy life I’ve had. My incessant travelling and peculiar profession has allowed me to accumulate a wealth of thriller-esque experiences (and a particular set of skills) I can draw upon for my novels, yet I’m sure I am not an example of the ‘typical’ author in this respect. Many scribes, especially when facing their first books, look at their mundane jobs and life experiences, and despair. ‘Where is the material to populate the pages of a bestseller?’ they ask themselves. Well there’s a little trick I use which might help here, and would probably surprise them in the process. I call it the Menu Method.
Take a blank sheet of paper. Draw a line vertically down the middle. Now on the left hand portion, list out the things you know how to do, not the usual stuff shared by most (making a good cup of tea doesn’t count), but things that you’ve learnt because of what you do and who you are. Can you drive an articulated truck? Do you know how to fly fish? Are you a painter? Do you read ancient manuscripts as a hobby? Think hard, there are bound to be items to include in your list.
Now move over to the right hand side. Here you should list things you would like to do. Sorry, travelling on a one-way trip to Mars as a colonising astronaut may not fit the bill. Keep the items here reasonably practical. Once you have listed a few, go back over them and note down why you’ve not done this already; why is it on the right side of the page not the left?
But what you have just created is a menu for your writing. Take something, anything, from the left-hand column and contrast it with anything from the right. What would you (or a character) need to do to go from the you of today to the one that is reflected on the right? Whatever you come up with, that’s an idea for a novel right there!
To make the right-hand column entries sound convincing when you include them in your novels, you should mix them with some of the stuff from the left-hand side (even superheroes need to iron their capes, right?). Then to flesh out the items on the right you have two options: learn how to do it (skydiving, ocean swimming, motocross racing etc) or research it in-depth. If the former is not possible, you should start the latter by finding an expert you can contact. Over the years I’ve been constantly surprised just how many people are willing to give of their time and knowledge to help out us poor scribblers. I’ve had University experts in ancient tongues (‘the CULL’ series), even the Dalai Lama’s Head of the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives in Dharamsala, India, provide me with information in response to my emails. Just offer to acknowledge their contributions in your books and many will provide you with far more data based on their own knowledge and experience than you could ever use in a story.
You see, you have missed out one important item on the left-hand side of the page.
You know HOW to have people help you when you come up against a problem. That’s something all successful writers do and nothing is stopping you from doing the same.
“Write what you know” may have worked for Samuel Clemens on the Mississippi back in the day, but remember he also said “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education”.
Eric J. Gates - Biography
Eric J. Gates has had a curious life filled with the stuff of thriller novels. Writing Operating Systems for Supercomputers and teaching cyber warfare to spies are just a few of the moments he’s willing to recall. He is an ex-International Consultant who has travelled extensively worldwide, speaks several languages, and has had articles and papers published in technical magazines in six different countries, as well as radio and TV spots. His specialty, Information Technology Security, has brought him into contact with the Military and Intelligence communities on numerous occasions.
He is also an expert martial artist, holding 14 black belt degrees in distinct disciplines. He has taught his skills to Police and Military personnel, as well as to the public.
He is the author of ten thriller novels, drawing on his experiences with the confidential and secret worlds that surround us.