Article originally for Simon & Schuster website/Dark Pages
WRITING FOR REAL
By TERENCE STRONG
“Fill an overnight bag and grab your passport.”
These would normally be the words I’d want to say to anyone buying one of my books, warning, “You are in for the white-knuckle ride of your life.” I could, but wouldn’t add, “But don’t worry, you’re in a safe pair of hands.”
Because that is what thriller writing and reading is all about and always has been. Being led by the hand into an unfamiliar and dangerous world where no one and nothing is quite what it seems. Yet knowing that the person taking you – however tough things get – will let you come to no harm. Although if your habit is to read last thing at night, you could be in for a restless sleep.
That is the way I safely travelled the world as a child, flying with Captain W.E. Johns’ famous creation, pilot James Bigglesworth. With him I went everywhere from the jungles of South America, the Gobi deserts of Mongolia and even Syria, so much in the news today. Later I changed companions to Ian Fleming, Hammond Innes, Desmond Bagley and Graham Greene. Sven Hassel tended to get me shot at quite a lot. Not sure how safe I felt with him.
But none of it did my Geography, General Knowledge and some History any harm at school. I wrote my first proper book at the age of 16 and my second when I was in my very early twenties.
Neither was seriously submitted for publication, but it was to be only a matter of time before it was my turn to take readers by the hand and lead them into another more unfamiliar and dangerous world beyond the front door of their cosy town house or suburban semi.
Work in journalism and a bit of military research had shown me there were other places you wouldn’t necessarily want to go and people you wouldn’t want to meet. I developed friends and contacts in the British and American military, including Special Forces, spying and counter-espionage, terrorism, narcotics and assassination. And it isn’t always the good guys I am having a drink with.
Thriller writers are a bit like media reporters that way. Their job is to report the facts, not to be judgemental. Writers do, however, have a licence to tell it how it really is and how it feels. We can look at characters and the effect of events on the human condition.
Countless times I have found that, on examination, commonly-held beliefs about people, places and events are misplaced or misjudged. That can come as quite a shock sometimes, but makes for interesting reading.
Desk research is as important as travel research. After the first Gulf War, a huge-selling British writer had his hero break into one of Saddam Hussein’s bunkers – into a broom cupboard! I had a similar occurrence in Stalking Horse. It took me just one phone call to bunker architects in Northern Ireland to establish how it can be done…It can’t – you have to have an accomplice on the inside! Normally with research, if you knock on a door – however secret – and ask nicely, someone will open it for you.
For SOME UNHOLY WAR you won’t need your passport. Together, we’ll recount deadly black ops by the SAS with their American allies in Iraq and in Afghanistan. We’ll experience again the sultry heat and the dusty desert air. Remember the sights, the sounds and the smells. We’ll feel again the adrenalin rush of relentless combat, the unaccountable elation and the terrible fear.
But most of our action will be on the streets of home. Did I say home? Through the eyes of the veteran soldier it won’t feel much like home. More like an alien planet. When you’re down on your luck and on the streets, you make new friends. And new enemies.
To fight them will take deep resolve. You’ll need to kick the black dog that keeps following you and deal with the pit bull that the drug-dealer has on a leash in front of you. It won’t be a walk in the park, I promise you.
But like all the other trips we may have made together – on the borders of Northern Ireland, chased by the Russian Spetsnaz in the Scandinavian mountains, fighting child soldiers in Mozambique, the narcos in the South American jungles, the hostage takers and ship hijackers in Arabia – we’ll get through safely in the end.
And recount our tales of derring-do down the pub, until we’re ready to go again.
© 2013 Terence Strong