Over at the excellent mystery and writing blog Murderati, Pari Noskin Taichert interviews Dirk Cussler who talks about how he got into writing, how he works with his father and what he thinks makes a good thriller. TG recommends heading over there for a read not only of this interview, but of the blog in general.
The Cussler's latest book is Crescent Dawn. TG reviewed this book and was decidedly underwhelemed. While TG likes much of Clive's work -- the man certainly deserves the Thriller Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement – but Crescent Dawn, while initially intriguing, quickly descends into an undistinguished compilation of subplots and ideas that have been around for years in one form or another, i.e. the Church of England attempting to hide details of the life of Christ; (at least it wasn't the Vatican) ships laden with explosives headed toward familiar targets; an attack on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (snore) and others. One has to wonder if the Cusslers have fallen into the trap that snares so many thriller writers today -- not keeping up with what other writers in the genre are doing. But realistically, TG has to ask if a writer was as successful as these two guys, father and son, are, would you be spending your time reading the work of others? Especially if your readers didn't seem to care? If it were TG, he would be driving fast cars, diving the seas, drinking, eating at fabulous restaurants, buying his wife expensive baubles and generally living the good life someplace warm. Which is probably what the Cussler's do with their well-earned cash. But that's the subject of another blog.
When asked about Crescent Dawn, Dirk describes it thusly on Murderati:
“ As with most of the Pitt books, a historical element provided inspiration for the story. In this case, there were actually two events. I became interested in the loss of the H.M.S. Hampshire, a British cruiser that sank under mysterious circumstances in World War I, while transporting Lord Kitchener to a secret meeting with the Russian Czar. Dozens of rumors and theories abounded after the sinking, including speculation that the ship was sunk by the IRA or even the British government, rather than a suspected German U-boat. It all seemed to me like good fodder for a fictional sub-plot. At the same time, Clive was intrigued by Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who traveled to Jerusalem in 327 A.D. to search for relics of Christianity. The trick was then to tie the two events into a contemporary-staged thriller.”
TG finds several points of interest here. The loss of the H.M.S. Hampshire with Kitchener aboard is an interesting plot device, one which has been explored before but still remains a fresh subject for thriller writers. Then there's his father's interest in early roman relics of Christianity. These relics (paintings of Jesus, the writings of Jesus, etc.) are a mainstay of religious conspiracy thrillers and are becoming pretty shopworn, which is one of the reasons TG found the book unoriginal, which is not a word one often uses in the same paragraph with Clive Cussler. What is instructive here is the way the two men took two wildly dissimilar topics and set about finding a way to bring them together. TG will now define this as the Seven Degrees of Separation for Developing Plots. The linking of two disparate plot ideas in the same way it is possible to connect Kevin Bacon with any other human in the world. All one needs to do this is to sit down with a pal, set a bottle of booze on the table along with two shot glasses and get to work. Don't forget pen and paper to take notes; trust TG, you're going to need them.
Taichert asked several other questions that are of interest to TG and the readers of this blog:
What's the division of labor? “ Most of our joint work is at the front end. We'll meet together regularly over the course of several weeks to kick around plot ideas and then hash out an outline. Once that is set, then I'll go off and do the bulk of the actual writing, with my father editing along the way. I would say the challenges of working together are few, beyond the normal struggles of writing a book. It's a real pleasure picking the brains of my father, however, as his creativity seems to have no bounds.
What do you think are the essential elements of good storytelling? “ I might say that the three C's of Character, Conflict, and Compulsion are at the heart of any good story. Writing action adventure tales, we don't necessarily delve too deeply into the psyche of the characters, but it's always important that the reader can empathize with one or more of the main figures. Some measure of action is required, typically driven by a conflict or odyssey of some sort that leads the characters forward, either physically or mentally. And it all must be done in a compelling manner that keeps the reader turning the pages, be it by mood, dialogue, style elements, or the conflict or action itself.”
Add Dirk's Three C's to TG's Four B's and you've got the basic formulae for developing a winning thriller. Now just make sure you're reading what others are writing so you don't bore TG with shopworn retreads. Oops, TG has run out of space once again.
Next: Those three new interesting plots that TG keeps promising.