As an author whose stock in trade is telling exciting stories and, hopefully, keeping you up past midnight (the way a great thriller always keeps ME flipping pages till dawn), I love it when you guys are interested enough in the backstage machinery to ask how I come up with plots like LOCKOUT. I could be flippant and say it takes a lot of scotch and cigars sitting on the back deck, but in reality, it’s more of an orderly procedure.
First, I spend a good bit of think time just brainstorming through the current and future state of aviation to distill out what the major challenges are going to be in the next ten or fifteen years (over-automation, crowded skies, air traffic control challenges, drones, pilot shortages, misbehaving passengers, terrorism, etc.), and then (this is where the scotch gets uncorked – usually a bottle of Oban), I focus on what generically could go wrong, and what everyone really needs to think about. The reason for this line of noodling goes back to my position with ABC World News and Good Morning America and the fact that when I come on air to talk about a new book, I always want to be able to relate it to high-interest and current aviation topics, and especially
those I think are going to be in the news in the near future! In the case of LOCKOUT, by the way (because some of you have asked), the plot was not a reaction to the disappearance of Malaysia 370 (the Boeing Triple-7 that was hijacked and crashed into the vast Indian Ocean on a flight to Beijing). I’d already created the basic plot line for the book the year before. But, given the question of whether and how much the aircraft’s automation contributed (or didn’t) to the disappearance, it put increasing pressure on me to write the book before something frighteningly close to LOCKOUT’s plot actually happens.
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Please don’t misunderstand: I write these books to be entertaining, heart-pounding thrillers, not works of cautionary non-fiction. But since I’m a veteran airline captain and Air Force heavy jet aircraft commander who has been deeply involved with flight safety over the last thirty years, I’m all but incapable of presenting you with something that’s outside the realm of possibility, or referencing things or procedures in the cockpit that don’t exist. So, in addition to being a true thriller, every book also has a lot to offer in terms of accurate background, accurate dialogue, current concerns and the realities of aviation – especially the airline business.
And, yes, we pilots do talk funny on the radio and in the cockpit, and use terms like “roger,” “wilco,” “alpha” “bravo” and “Delta” (with no reference to the airline of a similar name).
Armed with the keel beam of a plot, then, I start figuring out what characters would be most interesting, how they would interact, and figure out the ancillary plot lines and how they intertwine. I then work on accelerating the tension and the timeline and developing the characters within the scope of the story, but what I don’t do is exhaustively outline the book. I may know how it ends (sometimes I do), but as the writer, it’s important to not necessarily know how we’re going to get there. I need to be dynamically engaged with the suspense of the story I’m creating and have to be surprised at times too. No, the story doesn’t write itself, but what’s always a joy to experience is when two or more of my characters are interacting and the dialogue and action suddenly veer away unexpectedly. That happens when you realize, as you’re typing, that your characters would never say or do what you had planned. Those moments are fun, and sometimes that leaves me sitting at the laptop after ten or fifteen exciting pages wondering how the heck that happened? And, ultimately, if the author is surprised and pleased, there’s a good chance you will be as well.