My first book contract was a fluke of good timing. Al-Qaeda, Muammar Gaddafi, and French Special Forces are all, in part, responsible for my writing career. But I’ve since discovered that it’s risky, and probably unwise, for a novelist to chase current events too closely.
Let me explain. I left the State Department in late 2008 and wrote a thriller, The Golden Hour. It’s set in West Africa, where State Department crisis manager Judd Ryker fights to reverse a coup d’etat and save the US embassy from terrorist attack. The plot was inspired by a real coup in Mauritania, but I set the story in a neighboring country, Mali, on the assumption that more Americans would recognize Timbuktu than Nouakchott.
As I was finishing the manuscript and trying to find an agent, I caught a very lucky break: Mali had a real coup. In early 2012, the country’s president was overthrown by his own army, and the coup was immediately followed by an incursion from Libya by well-armed fighters who had lost their jobs after Gaddafi’s death. Al-Qaeda-aligned extremists then took advantage of the chaos and seized the northern half of Mali to create an Islamic caliphate the size of Texas in the middle of the Sahara Desert. A few months later, the French military invaded, pushing the radicals out.
I hadn’t predicted a coup or a war against jihadists in Mali, but it sure looked like I had.
The troubling chain of events in West Africa helped me because an agent, Josh Getzler of HSG Agency, watches BBC News before going to bed. One night, he was surprised to see French troops battling terrorists in the Sahara. He remembered he had recently received a query about a debut thriller remarkably similar to the events he was witnessing on his television. A few days later he offered to represent me, and within a few weeks he sold my novel to Putnam Books. The Golden Hour was published in September 2014.
When Putnam asked for three more books in the series, I tried to ride the news cycle again. Bad idea.
In my second novel, Minute Zero, the hero, Judd Ryker, lands in the southern African country of Zimbabwe just as an aging dictator is clinging to power in a chaotic election. The story was inspired by a real-life election in that country in 2008, when a then eighty-six-year-old Robert Mugabe “won” re-election via cheating and intimidation. As I laid out the plot on my kitchen table in the late spring of 2013, in the back of my mind I was anticipating that Zimbabwe might be in the news by the time the book was published. Perhaps Mugabe might even be gone?
Minute Zero was published in September 2015. For those of you not closely following obscure world politics, Mugabe is still in charge. He celebrated his ninety-second birthday last month, and he’s planning to run again (!) in 2018. I haven’t given up yet that Zimbabwe could still hit the news, but the timing of Minute Zero is looking less prophetic and more like wishful thinking.
In the spring of 2014, I sat down to decide where to set book three in the Ryker series. I wanted a country ripe for major political change and a place Americans have a strong interest.
Cuba was perfect. I laid out a detailed plot for Ghosts of Havana, which opens with four dads from suburban Maryland fishing off the coast of Florida when they’re captured by the Cuban navy. Judd Ryker is sent to Havana to negotiate their release, but he discovers his mission is a smokescreen for secret talks to find a breakthrough with the Cuban government.
I was halfway through the first draft when, in December 2014, President Obama announced surprise plans to normalize relations with Cuba. The White House revealed that the half-century-long diplomatic logjam was broken during secret talks.
As with Mali, I was as surprised as anyone. I didn’t have any inside information, and I haven’t had top-secret security clearance since I left government. But I quickly had to adjust my book plot to accommodate this breaking news. As Cuba policy has sped along—embassies reopened, travel barriers reduced, the Pope’s arrival, and now a Presidential visit next month—I’ve been playing catch-up in the final revisions.
On one level, it’s fantastic that Cuba is all over the news. Yet Ghosts of Havana won’t be released until September. If Minute Zero looks like it came out too soon for the news cycle, Ghosts of Havana might be too late.
Reflecting on all of this, and thinking about writing realistic contemporary thrillers in the future, I’ve drawn a few conclusions.
- Remember that timeless beats timely. It’s probably best to use a topic or location that will be in the news regularly and often, rather than a one-time flash that requires luck to align with your release date. I like to believe that setting a thriller in a place like Mali or Zimbabwe is unique, but it also could limit your audience. I’m still searching for just the right balance between originality and familiarity.
- Anticipate the pivot. The world is unpredictable. But when I’m outlining a novel, I now try to imagine how potential world events might affect the plot and the book’s long-term relevance.
- Plan for long lead time. From initial outlining of the story to release date is twenty-four to thirty months for me. This includes nearly six months at the end when the book is locked down and few changes can be made. I’m just now, in March 2016, starting to think about a plot for a thriller that won’t be out before September 2018. Who knows what the world will look like by then?
I’ll continue to write thrillers set in unusual places and tackle topics I hope will grab people’s attention. “Ripped from the headlines” is still the dream. But I now anticipate the news cycle with extreme caution.