It began with a simple notion: what if an assassin doesn’t kill the man he was sent to kill. The idea had been forming for many months. Maybe years, who can really say? But this is how my conspiracy thriller, Hard Road, began.
What I needed though was a complex narrative to make the story come alive.
As a former journalist, I’m a bit of a news junkie. I read everything I can. Politics, technology, international relations, it all interests me. One day, I came across an article about an experiment by the US government in New York that happened in the 1960s. Scientists tested biological pathogens in public places. In one experiment, a light bulb containing Bacillus globigii was dropped on New York’s subway system. The result affected people prone to illness and was known as the Subway Experiment. Based on the circulation measurements, thousands would have been killed if some bio-material was released in a similar manner.
The article really sparked my imagination and sowed the seeds for what became Hard Road.
And it got me thinking. What if someone working in a bio-lab smuggles out vials of a deadly pathogen and launches a terrorist attack on America?
The story began to take on a life of its own. Piece by piece, the jigsaw was falling into place to make a coherent and compelling thriller.
But every story needs characters.
My protagonist and anti-hero Jon Reznick, an ex-Delta special forces operative, began to emerge and form in my thoughts. He is haunted by the death of his wife in 9/11; Martha Meyerstein, an assistant director of the FBI who forms an extraordinary partnership with the assassin; a former computer genius who used to work at the NSA; and my bad guy, Lt. Col. Scott Caan, a scientist who had worked in biological germ warfare research.
The threads of the story were forming all the time and developing.
Here’s the thing. Every author works differently. Some plot endlessly like the great James Ellroy. Whilst others wing it from the off, having a sketchy overview of a story, and heading off, seeing where the mood and the narrative takes them.
For me, I guess it’s a bit of both. I like an outline of perhaps ten or fifteen pages to give me the broadbrush elements. But inevitably, when you begin to write, the story changes. It evolves. It takes hold and starts dictating wherever it wants to go.
And that’s just fine.
I don’t want to be restricted by a framework. Sure, let the framework keep you on the right track, but it should never curtail an author from heading off in different directions.
I headed to America and spoke to the FBI in Miami, police and hooked up with the FBI HQ who kept me right with regards procedure during investigations. Sure, I took artistic license. But every writer has to push the boundaries.
A reader doesn’t want a dull, tick-box thriller. It wants edgy, risk-taking and strong characters who at times teeter on the verge of going over the edge to reach their goals.
Someone gave me the name of an ex-Delta operator and he gave sound technical advice on several handgun and tactical queries I had.
The story was now motoring.
Then I read a series of articles in the Washington Post, Top Secret America, about the post-9/11 growth of the US Intelligence Community. It was fascinating and focused on the expansion of secret intelligence departments. It said an estimated 854,000 people had top security clearance. About a third of these were external contractors. A staggering number. The articles raised important questions about the sheer manageability, saying it had become “so large, so unwieldy, and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it, or exactly how many agencies do the same work.”
So my story was evolving once again. It was more paranoid. The over-arching influence of government was brought into play. Secret government programs.
And from this, my ex-NSA voice analyst, Thomas Wesley, began to form more clearly. A good man who had been sacked for incorrect analysis of a terrorist threat, but who is convinced he has uncovered a secret plot against America, except no one was listening.
Through each draft of writing Hard Road, I cranked up the tension, the speed and raised the stakes for all concerned. Reznick’s daughter is kidnapped for not assassinating the man he had been sent to kill.
Reznick plays a cat-and-mouse game with them and heads down to Miami against a backdrop of a developing bio-terrorism threat to America.
I have four separate point of view characters, so the reader is immersed in their worlds.
Ultimately, the thriller has to have a showdown. And Hard Road has the showdown and chase in Washington DC’s Metro as Jon Reznick is in a race-against-time to stop the bio-material being released only yards from the Pentagon, potentially infecting and wiping out everyone who works within the Department of Defense.
So, out of that simple notion, Hard Road was born. It’s tough, relentless and it’s borderline out-of-control.