The Stories Behind the Stories

Vulcan’s Forge

 It was the night of February 7, 1988 that I got the idea for the book. I know this because I kept the two pages of notes I jotted down. I was working on another novel at the time, an unpublishable heap of six hundred pages that still makes me cringe whenever I think about it. The idea was about an undersea volcano that is artificially accelerated. My plot was a straightforward KGB villain verses a straight-out-of-central-casting CIA agent in a cold war thriller with a newly discovered element called bikinium, after the Bikini Atoll tests, as the prize.

A couple of years went by during which time I finished college before I began to seriously think about turning those couple of pages into a book. By this time the Soviet Union had collapsed so before writing a single word the story was already dated. The concept was still sound but needed a new hero, hey, ex-KGB villains were still doable. Because so much of the book had to do with geology I turned my CIA agent into a mining consultant.

There were two things I knew about the name I wanted. Number one it had to be fairly short because I am to this day a four finger typist so Obadiah Theadoracropolis was out. The next thing is that it seemed most heroes, at least in Hollywood just use their last names so I wanted something that would work there as well. I was doing a lot of driving between Florida and Vermont around this time and from an interstate in New Jersey came the name. Emblazoned on the side of a water tower were the words Mercer County.

Mercer was born.

The plot evolved around him and came out much better than had he remained a spy. I wrote two rough drafts of what I had titled Vulcan’s Aide and was confident enough to send it to a publisher. The rest, as they say, is history.

I usually throw the names of friends into my novels, changing them a little just in case one of them wants to sue me. If you knew my friends you’d understand. For Vulcan’s Forge it was my brother who got that treatment. Ivan Kerikov’s henchmen Evad Lurbud is actually my brother’s name, Dave DuBrul spelled backwards.

 

Charon’s Landing

I was still writing Vulcan’s Forge when I had the chance to spend a month in Alaska with my father and brother. After seeing the Alaska Pipeline and the oil terminal at Valdez I knew they would make great terrorist targets. With aspirations of becoming a full time author already deeply entrenched I knew my second book would take Mercer to the Land of the Midnight Sun.

I was toying with the idea of having Mercer face the same adversary in each book so the reader could watch the two grow together reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes and his arch-nemesis Dr. Moriarty. So along with Mercer back came Ivan Kerikov. It would have been easier to just have him hire himself out to some oil sheik to disable the pipeline in order to drive up prices but that wouldn’t have been convoluted enough. By adding an eco-terror group the plot could have double and triple-crosses galore.

Vulcan’s Forge was based mainly on things I already knew about, however Charon’s Landing demanded a great deal more research, research that seems to have become a trademark in all my books. And I admit I love doing it if for no other reason it never ceases to amaze me how much I don’t know about the world.

Charon’s Landing was optioned by a Hollywood production company for a time, however the option lapsed. I think two key scenes are what intrigued them. First was when Mercer and Aggie tip over an oil rig in order to escape it and the second was the commando assault on a sinking supertanker in Puget Sound. Both scenes would have looked fantastic on the big screen but I think that the production would have bankrupted a studio. Computer Generated Imagery has come a long way since then so production costs would be considerably less and I still get the occasional whisper out of Hollywood but for now Mercer lives on only in the minds of the readers.

I had just finished writing Charon’s Landing when Vulcan’s Forge was published. One of the most consistent things fans mentioned in letters is how much they like Harry White. I think everyone has had an uncle, or neighbor like Harry, rough around the edges but with a heart of gold, okay Harry’s is silver, or maybe copper but you get the point. I felt badly that Harry plays only a small role in my sophomore book so I went into outlining number three with one thing in mind. More Harry.

 

The Medusa Stone

After this book was in the stores for a while a reader commented on the internet something to the effect “What’s up with the title? There’s no stone in the book.” I want to address this by saying the original title was Medusa’s Glance and was changed by my editor for marketing reasons.

My degree from George Washington University is in international affairs with an emphasis on the Middle East and Africa. Given my lifelong fascination with Africa, thanks in part to reading everything Wilbur Smith has ever written, and the fact that so much of the world’s mineral wealth is found there, I knew it was time Mercer head to the Dark Continent. Setting a book in Africa also gave me the excuse, and tax write-off to sightsee from Cairo to Nairobi.

If Mercer was going to go to Africa there was only one thing I knew he had to do and that’s find the Legendary King Solomon’s Mine. But again that would have been too straight forward. To muddy the waters I needed something else. I had just heard a theory that the Ark of the Covenant was in a monastery in Ethiopia, taken there by the son Solomon had with the Queen of Sheba, and guarded there for thousands of years. I had my second plot element, which allowed me to bring in another set of villains, Israeli extremists. And while I hate the old ‘kidnap a friend to motivate the hero to do something’ cliché I was forced to use it here in order to launch Mercer on his adventure.

The number one comment I received about The Medusa Stone concerned Mercer and Salome crawling their way through he ancient mine workings and Mercer becoming stuck. It gave nightmares to the most mild claustrophobic and I have to admit the night I thought up that scene I had to get out of breath and take a couple of deep breaths myself because I was certain I was going to suffocate under the blankets.

It was after I sold this book and an as yet unwritten novel to New American Library that I hung up my hammer, quit carpentry, and became a full-time author, proving that indeed dreams do come true.

 

Pandora’s Curse

A tug-of-war between a submarine and a blimp. Man, that’s something I would like to see in a novel.

These are the kind of strange things that pop into my head on a pretty frequent basis. Some of these make it into books as small scenes while most of them get discarded but this one became the genesis of an entire novel. I couldn’t get the image out of my head so I had to come up with something to get Mercer on one vehicle and the villain on the other. How I was going to pull that off I had no idea. Meanwhile I was tinkering with an idea I’d wanted to touch on for a while — the famed 1908 Tunguska blast over Siberia. As I researched the event I learned that witnesses claim part of the object skipped off the atmosphere and continued on a westerly course. Tracing the route on a map showed it was conceivable part of the object could have hit Greenland.

What the hell, I thought Mercer had just spent time in the desert, why not send him to the Arctic.

Researching Greenland led me to the US Army’s Project Iceworm, a Cold War scheme to locate nuclear missiles under the ice. The elements were coming together. Mercer could be in Greenland to investigate an abandoned Iceworm base (to get him to go I invented the Surveyor’s Society, which while it hasn’t reappeared in subsequent books most likely will). Once there he can discover a piece of the Tunguska meteorite. And then I thought, so what! Who cares about a hundred year old inert rock? And how does this get me to my blimp/sub tug-of-war?

The last piece of the puzzle was to give the meteorite exotic radioactive properties. That’s when research really paid off. The scientist who did the first field research at the Tunguska blast site, Leonid Kulik, died as a prisoner of war in a Nazi camp. What if Kulik knew about the radioactivity and told his captors? Wouldn’t they have sent an expedition to recover as much of the meteorite as they could? Voila a secret Nazi submarine base carved under the Greenland ice sheet. The blimp was the easy part. Heavy-lift airships for hauling cargo to remote locations have been on the drawing boards for years.

As for a villain, made sense to me that a German company still in business today would do anything to make sure nothing of their Nazi past ever came to light, especially with the topic of reparations a hotly contested one. For an added twist I included an order of Russian monks who had been tasked by Rasputin himself to hide all evidence of the deadly radioactivity and whose work continues today. It took two solid months of research to pull all this together but just three days to write a fifteen page outline.

 

River of Ruin

A few years ago I read an article in the paper about how a Hong Kong company with purported ties to the Chinese military had just purchased the port facilities on either end of the Panama Canal. It was one of those little facts I store on the off chance I can use them in a novel.

Around this time my schedule worked like this. I would be editing one novel with Doug Grad at New American Library, writing another and thinking about and researching the outline for the next one to come. The old adage of publish or perish isn’t confined to academia. I was halfway through the first draft of Pandora’s Cursewhen I thought about the Panama Canal again. It stands as one of the greatest engineering marvels ever built and after reading a couple of books about its construction I knew it would make a fantastic location for a thriller — thousand foot long locks with huge tunnels running beneath them, tight shipping channels, impenetrable jungles. What more could a writer ask for? I couldn’t believe Cussler or Clancy hadn’t beaten me to it. And with the Chinese ensconced on both ends of the canal I had a ready-made adversary.

One of the trickiest parts to crafting a story is to give Mercer a legitimate reason for getting involved in the plot. I don’t like relying on him being in the right place at the right time. I’d used it before and it is really a rather lazy plot device. I think this is why so many thriller heroes are either soldiers or spies. Their superiors can just order them into a situation and off they go to save the world.

With Mercer I need to develop plausible reason why he should put his life on the line again and again. Finding it was another example of research paying off. Long before the canal was cut across the isthmus, Panama was an important trade route dating back to the days of the Spanish treasure fleets. Treasure? H’mm? What if Mercer was in Panama looking for treasure, I thought and realized he’d never do it. It didn’t fit his personality. Looking for lost diamond mines, yes, but I don’t think he’d fall for the get-rich-quick hopes of a treasure hunter. On the other hand it is well within his personality to help a friend in trouble who is looking for Spanish gold.

With that in mind and a few action scenes already sketched out, the plot came together quickly This was the second time I had written a compete outline for one of my novels and my advice for aspiring authors is to use them. That doesn’t mean you can’t change the plot as you go but having a framework in place before you sit down at the computer helps you avoid a lot of pitfalls.

Most authors claim they don’t read internet feedback. I personally think they’re lying. I check Amazon and a few other places nearly every day. One of the comments I see quite a bit is that River of Ruin contains their favorite scene of any of the Mercer books. It occurs when Harry is at the helm of a freighter rocketing through the locks after the flood gates had been destroyed. He’s blowing the whistle and laughing like a maniac through the entire wild ride. People ask me what is the favorite of my books, a question I can’t possibly answer. It’s like asking which one of your kids you like best. But I will agree with so many others that this scene takes the cake. I laughed my butt off when I wrote it and still chuckle when I re-read it.

 

Deep Fire Rising

This is one of those books that comes out of me watching science specials on the Discovery Channel. The particular episode detailed what would happen if the Cumbre Vieja Volcano on the Canary Island of La Palma were ever to erupt. The tsunami that would hit the United States would be hundreds of times more devastating than the one that destroyed so much of Indonesia and Thailand. The highest point on the Florida peninsula would be at least a hundred feet under water and every coastal city would be wiped off the map. Nearly every living thing in the Caribbean would perish.

So I have this earth shaking event that Mercer has to prevent but there was a slight problem. Who wants to read about a guy battling a volcano? Mountains don’t make good villains. You know from the beginning Mercer’s going to save the world so where’s the tension? I needed something more. I needed a group that had advanced knowledge of the event and either wanted to accelerate it or at least prevent Mercer from stopping it. Thus The Order was born. And to throw in an additional wrinkle I had one member so overcome by the enormity of the coming catastrophe that she wants to send out a warning.

In the first draft Tisa Nguyen had a secret crush on Mercer because she’d followed his career though she’d never met him, an idea my editor strongly advise I change but I thought fit better with the plot. Instead she approaches Mercer because he is the best in the world at what he does.

The event that brings them together, an experiment in teleportation that goes awry, is the most science-fictional element I’d ever put in a book and I was afraid fans would rebel at the notion. Same goes with the machine The Order uses to predict seismic events. I was relieved that few had a problem with either. The most common negative comments I received were about the last line. Readers hate it when the hero doesn’t get the girl in the end but sometimes fate isn’t that accommodating. Even though I knew it was coming I was actually teary-eyed when I typed out the last couple of paragraphs.

 

Havoc

In numerous interviews Clive Cussler answers the question of where he gets his plots from by saying he thinks up a “What if?” scenario. I can imagine him thinking “What if something of extreme value had gone down on the Titanic? From that simple question grew his break-out, and some would argue his best, novel.

For Havoc I had a question. What if the Hindenburg was intentionally destroyed? Okay, cool idea, but why and by whom? There’s a guy on board with a secret. What could he have back then that could be relevant today? By asking then answering a series of questions like this the basic plot grew. It was from an article I read years ago in a science magazine about the naturally occurring nuclear reactors at Oklo, Gabon that gave me what his secret would be and the hows and whys for Mercer’s involvement.

Since the fall of Communism thriller writers have had to stretch themselves to find worthy adversaries for their heroes. Gone are the days of East verses West, and KGB verses CIA. We had to be clever to find motivations for our villains to want to do despicable things to gain money, power, or a combination of both. Then came the terrorist attacks that culminated on 9/11 and authors had ready-made villains again. You don’t have to put any thought into their motivations. You just write that they are crazy fundamentalists who want to destroy the United States and you have an instant antagonist. In the post 9/11 world I have intentionally avoided using middle-eastern terrorists because I think to do so is laziness on the author’s part.

With that said, for Havoc I knew I had to use them, but I wanted to expose what I believe is the more sinister motives of the people behind the suicide bombers and jihadist. Those that see themselves as holy warriors and blow themselves up at bus stations and night clubs really do want to bring about the destruction of the West, but the powers behind them know this isn’t a feasible goal, especially through terrorist tactics, so what is it they really want and how do they see funding and training terrorists as getting them nearer to their goals. This is what I was more interested in and this is what Havoc touches on, albeit a little more subtly than what I just wrote.

As for the whole homage to Homer’s Odyssey sprinkled throughout the novel, it was my way of having a little fun. I’ve always wanted to write an adaptation of the epic poem, substituting modern day places and technology for the mythic events and monsters Odysseus faced in his struggle to get home. And maybe some day I still will but in the mean time I wanted to make sure I showed some reference to what I consider the first great thriller novel.

So where does Mercer go from here? Now that I am co-writing with Clive it takes me longer to complete one of my own titles but that doesn’t mean Mercer’s done. I have one more book in my current deal and feel pretty confident there will be more to follow.