[Note from Jodie Renner: I'm away on holiday so my client and friend A.M. Khalifa is entertaining you today with a great blog post and is also giving away two print copies and two e-copies of his new thriller, Terminal Rage. To enter for the giveaway, leave a comment at the end. Good luck!]
The story idea for my debut novel, Terminal Rage, came to me in the shower four years ago. I was living in Manhattan at the time working on a film project and still unsure of my writing ambitions. But the idea came to me fully-formed, with all the major plot lines, twists and turns, and main characters clearly defined, so I knew immediately this was the story I needed to tell. And I felt I was the most suitable person to chaperone it from a humble idea to a novel.
Terminal Rage is an international political thriller about two seemingly different men, a former FBI agent and a hostage-taker, on course for a head-on collision. But as the intricate story unfolds, the differences between them become blurred, challenging many of the readers’ perceptions. Nothing is what it seems.
My friend, the talented science-fiction writer, J.L Forrest says, “Be fearless with your writing, then be humble.” Even before I wrote the first outline, my biggest concern was my lack of technical knowledge of the FBI, which features heavily in my story. It’s the lead investigating agency in the narrative, and most of my characters are connected to the Bureau.
How does one write a convincing thriller about the FBI with only superficial knowledge of that entire universe? Like most people, what I know of the FBI is gleaned from what I read and what I see on screen. And since much of that is highly fictionalized to start, I didn’t want to write a book based on watered-down pop culture.
My first instinct was to read as much as I could. I devoured whatever I laid my hands on. I started with all the publicly-available information the FBI puts out. They have a decent website with ample information. Then I moved to reference books, biographies, and some of the bigger case files. Gary Noesner’s Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator, helped me a great deal to formulate my main FBI character. I highly recommend it for anyone writing about critical incidents and the men and women who try to defuse them.
Armed with what I thought was enough knowledge to weave with convincing authority a story featuring the FBI, I wrote “fearlessly.” It wasn’t until I completed the first draft that I realized once again I needed to go back to being “humble.” A million questions were still swimming in my mind about FBI procedures, career paths, jargon, subcultures, power struggles, and gender roles. To name but a few. I was hungry for the sort of nuanced details I appreciate as a reader. I felt I owed it whoever would read the book to construct an authentic world populated with believable characters. In my mind, I always imagined an FBI agent picking up a copy of Terminal Rage at an airport ahead of a long flight. And how disappointing it would be if they were turned off by any inaccuracies or flagrant stereotypes in my writing.
Fortunately, I happen to work in the film industry. One of my contacts was Ernest J. Porter, who for many years had served as the former Chief of the Investigative Publicity and Public Affairs Unit of the FBI. I approached Ernie asking for his help, and he graciously accepted. Looking back, I know now that along with hiring an outstanding editor, Jodie Renner, working with Ernie as an FBI technical expert was one of the best publishing decisions I made.
Like any other organization, let alone one that depends on secrecy to conduct its work, it’s almost impossible to gain critical insight of the FBI without getting into the mind of a person like Ernie who had dedicated his life working there.
To start, Ernie did a first pass and we discovered that quite a few of the technical details I thought I had nailed were in fact still not exactly accurate. When that was fixed, Ernie provided a number of other suggestions I hadn’t even thought were required. For instance, we did a comprehensive name check with the FBI to ascertain that none of my characters’ names matched existing or former agents. Or indeed real criminals.
And that was just the start. Through Ernie, I was able to dig deeper into the psyche of FBI agents and hostage rescue operators to better understand the characters I was creating and sending in harm’s way. What amazed me was how the tiniest or seemingly trivial facts or anecdotes can give your character more depth, more humanity, and even broaden your plot options as a writer. The more you know about your characters, the more compelling action and honest emotions you will be able to extract from them. Now that my book is published, I see how this is paying off. Many of my readers write to tell me how much they appreciate the little nuggets of insider information about the FBI and the people who work there.
I was fortunate to have direct contact with an FBI veteran. But does that mean I think all writers must go the extra mile and work with a technical expert on subject matters they know little about? The practical answer is, “it depends.”
There’s never been a better time to be a writer. The research tools and free information sources available to us would have been unfathomable only a few decades ago. With Google and Wikipedia, anyone can write somewhat intelligently about pretty much anything. I don’t believe the extra effort I exerted to better research the FBI will ultimately help me sell more books as far most readers are concerned.
But what it came down to for me was a question of pride of craft. As a reader, nothing ticks me off more than when I am able to see through an author’s infallibility by way of bad writing or ill-researched subjects that I happen to know a thing or two about. More importantly, I’m one of those old-fashioned authors who still believe that even the most exciting, the most thrilling, and the most adrenaline-laced stories should also serve to teach you something. To expose readers to new concepts, ways of life, or types of people they wouldn’t otherwise come across. It’s what makes reading such a magical experience.
Authors: Tell us about your experiences researching and writing about settings and subjects you were unfamiliar with.
Readers: How do you feel when authors don’t get the details right?
BOOK GIVEAWAY: A.M. Khalifa is giving away two paperback and two eBook copies of his debut novel, Terminal Rage to readers of Crime Fiction Collective who leave comments here, to be chosen at random.
A.M. Khalifa, author of international political thrillers, writes exhilarating stories pulsating with life and unforgettable characters. Khalifa speaks three languages, and has lived, worked or studied in fifteen countries across five continents. Many of the larger-than-life characters and plots he writes about are inspired by people he's actually met or events he's been privy to. He currently divides his time among the cities of Los Angeles, Rome, and Sydney. Terminal Rage is Khalifa's debut novel.