Sunday, September 22, 2013

Write fearlessly, then be humble

 by A.M. Khalifa, thriller author

[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.


  1. Great post, A.M.! And I can confidently testify that Terminal Rage is a top-notch thriller that will definitely hit the best-seller list! A riveting ride, with complex characters and an unforgettable plot!

  2. Great advice Mr. Khalifa, and germane to any wordsmith who spends an inordinate amount of time pondering, weighing, scheduling, and delaying the act of writing itself. Simply getting to it is in itself a substantial step into the reality of making the work real. Too much time thinking about it tends to allow distractions and deviations to compromise the irreplaceable flow of thoughts and words as the writer's ultimate duet on paper.

    Gregory B. Gallagher

  3. Great post. You've inspired me to do more research into the FBI.. as I continue to include agents in my stories. Of course, I've interviewed local agents, but there's so much to know. And all of it interesting. Best wishes with your novel!

    1. Thanks! I'm honored that you've read my work and gave it a shout out. Your story sound intriguing...but not clearly "effortless." You've done your homework. :)

  4. Thank you so much for this post. Best of luck with your novel!

    I'm a firm believer of researching. To that end, I'll get up at odd hours to drive around and see what that area of town looks like at a particular hour. I'll call, use the internet, and even drop by to ask questions. I hope you enjoy an article on my blog I wrote: The Joy of Research:

  5. First, the nosey Texan in me is itching to know what those removed comments said! Second, I'm about 1/2 way through Terminal Rage and I can't put it down. I am a bit of a snob when it comes to my wine, my perfume, and my reading, and though I love and respect you as a friend, I am happy to say that my admiration for your work has nothing to do with you as a person. You have a gift, and I am thrilled that you have shared it with the world...and our book club this coming Saturday!

  6. I never thought about character name searches for specific professions, or for criminal names, before I read this. Thanks for this informative blog post.

  7. A combination of field research and library or online research works best for me. Usually, a reader can tell when the author has done sufficient research (or not). An author who has done their homework is much more likely to be rewarded with a review :-). Best of luck with your novel. It sounds like my kind of read.

  8. Wonderful post!

    I have books I'm unlikely to need again any time soon sitting in a bookcase. THE SWAMP, THE CAJUNS and THE DILOGGUN are three books that provided great information when I needed it, are loaded with margin notes and stickies, and now quietly gathering dust. On the other hand, I have the FBI HANDBOOK OF CRIME SCENE FORENSICS and BODY TRAUMA that sit in the bookcase behind me within easy reach.

    Even with the books and the internet, it's through personal interaction with experts that I can find those little nuances to sprinkle in and give my stories a feeling of authenticity.

  9. Your book sounds very intriguing and interesting. I wish you much success with it.

    I, too, am wiring a book involving the FBI and know nothing about the agency. You have given me some ideas for research, which is very important. I know an author who does not travel anywhere for her research and gets all her information from reading other books and travel magazines, and I was surprised because she had me fooled. I like to experience, to some extent and degree, the places, people, settings and talk to people who do know if I certainly don't.

  10. Similar issues here. Completed a local Citizen's Police Academy class. Now in middle of an inaugural FBI Police Academy in Lexington (great stuff - recommend it in your area). Consulting with two retired FBI agents though they were not at the staff level of your Mr. Porter. Still looking for some FBI reference books, pamphlets, etc. to back up my knowledge base. If you know some I can access, let me know.
    One question: if you conjured your concept in the shower, how do you keep your story from reading like a soap opera?

    1. Thanks for dropping by, Ray. I'm sure Aymen will answer your question when he wakes up. I think he and his family are in Rome these days. :-)

  11. I almost forgot to announce the winners of the four copies of A.M. Khalifa's riveting thriller, Terminal Rage. Here they are: Peggy Kassees, LJ Sellers, Gregory Gallagher, and Tamara Pizzoli. All four books have been delivered! Thanks for entering, and enjoy the book!


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