I am honored to have Lance Charnes as this week’s Great Writers on Writing. Lance wrote the critically acclaimed Doha 12, a chilling and realistic terrorist thriller, and just released South, an even more chilling look at America’s potential future.
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Mr. Charnes’s Doha 12 stands alone in a crowded field not just because of his excellent writing, but also because of his accurate and realistic portrayal of his characters. His realistic fundamentalists had families and children and morals that made them even more conflicted and chilling than any other bad guys in today’s thrillers. Here he explains how he organized and created his debut masterpiece as well as his newest book.
Lance Charnes: The Israelis pulled off a very similar assassination in Dubai in 2010. They, too, used third-country passports belonging to real people, the Emiratis figured it out, and suddenly more than a dozen innocent Israeli dual-nationals had their names on an INTERPOL Red Notice. I remember watching this unfold in the news. It was a ready-made spy thriller. I gathered up the news stories as they came out and started writing Doha 12 a few months later. I figured if I didn’t do it, someone else would.
Q: How did your background as an intelligence officer help make Doha 12 seem so real?
My area of specialty was East Asia, specifically Korea, so there’s no classified info in Doha 12. The main thing intel taught me was empathy. A good analyst has to be able to not only understand the adversary, but also be able to think like him. That’s the only way you can come up with good estimates of the adversary’s possible courses of action. More than once I had to counsel an analyst working for me who was absolutely convinced he/she could correctly analyze a situation through the lens of a very American political or religious viewpoint.
The other thing intel taught me was a very structured system for gathering, organizing and analyzing information to come up with a coherent narrative. With what I write, discipline and organization are pretty important.
Q: Virtually all your reviewers remark about the realism of the bad guys in Doha 12. Did you write with that in mind, or did they grow organically as you wrote?
A: I didn’t want to do crazy Muslim terrorists. It’s been done to death, and it’s lazy. I wanted to make sure all the characters – Arab and Jewish – had real motives and feelings and thoughts. In my mind, the best bad guys are the ones who not only don’t think they’re bad, but who have some level of justification behind their actions. I think the greatest compliment I got was when someone told me they sometimes couldn’t figure out which side was supposed to be the villains.
Q: Doha 12’s leading characters were thrown together by circumstances with a romantic potential. Did you edit some out? Will there be another pairing of those two?
A: Are you asking if there’s a discarded chapter where Jake and Miriam get it on? Sorry. One of the things that drive me nuts about a lot of thrillers is that no matter the circumstances, the male and female leads have sex around page 200. Stuck in a swamp, dying of malaria, surrounded by murderous psychopaths and hungry piranha…off come the clothes (and it’s always great sex). You know what? The good guy doesn’t always get the girl. Neither Jake nor Miriam were in a place (emotionally or physically) where it would be even remotely appropriate for them to hop into bed.
I didn’t set out to do a series with Jake and Miriam, but people keep asking about it. There might be one more adventure left in them. After that, they’d leave New York forever and hide in a cabin in the Rockies so no more trouble could ever come find them.
Q: South is a futuristic world very different from our country today. What drove you to write it?
A: The rise of the Tea Party and the breed of anti-government ideology it promotes. After the 2010 elections, I started paying closer attention to what they were saying, paid them the compliment of believing they’re serious, and tried to figure out what their stated goals would look like in practice. It turns out to be the America of 1890, or China at the turn of the 21st Century. That’s when the pieces started falling into place for South.
I wish I could believe that South’s America is very different from the one we have now. Unfortunately, we’ve been working on this tear-down-the-government-all-power-to-the-1% project since 1980. The biggest problem I had in writing South was keeping ahead of the real world.
Q: South has a high concept. How much of it did you visualize before you started?
A: Once I had the setting down, it didn’t take long to hang a plot on it. I tend to work out the first draft in my head – if I can get through it without losing interest or the story turning to crap, I know it has potential.
Q: Did you outline either book? What do you think of outlines?
A: I outline and timeline heavily. The kind of writing I do – moving large numbers of people all over the place to come together at a particular place at a particular time – is impossible to shotgun. Once I get the basics of the plot straight in my mind, I start laying it out day-by-day, place by place, making sure the travel times are right and that each player’s actions are a logical part of each sequence. By the time I’m done with that, I have the story nailed down pretty well and I can spend my writing time working out setting and character rather than mechanics.
Q: When you write dialogue, do make any preparations, special outlines, or notes? Or does it flow naturally?
A: I usually know my characters pretty well by the time I start the actual writing. I know where they’re from and how much of what kind of education they’ve had. That tells me how they speak. They do surprise me sometimes and send things spinning off in a direction I hadn’t expected, especially when they start fighting me when I want them to do something and they have other ideas. Sometimes a critique partner will mention something that suggests a whole different path to take; I know it works when the characters can pick it up and run with it.
Q: Your locations are well defined. How many locations have you been to, and how do you handle the places you’ve never seen firsthand?
A: I’ve usually been to or near some (but not all) of them at some point. It may not have been anytime recently, though, or exactly that place. In any case, I start planning a story with just enough knowledge about a location to know I want to use it. When the time comes to write the scene, I deep-dive into the research about the setting so the information is fresh in my mind. This is getting pretty easy to do with all the resources out on the web; Flickr, YouTube and Google StreetView are invaluable for most places in the Western world.
Q: How do you set the scene in the reader’s mind for any given location?
A: I play the movie in my mind and describe that. If you look at some of my big scenes, you’ll see the camera work: establishing shot, crane shot, MC enters left, two-shot with villain, and so on. It tells me what to focus on, so I can tell the readers what to focus on.
Q: Do you subscribe to the screenplay plan (for lack of a better phrase) where there are three acts with four parts (Act I, Act IIa, Act IIb, Act III)?
A: I do. Alexandra Sokoloff has written a lot about the three-act, eight-sequence model on her blog, and as a long-time film and theater fan, it makes organic sense to me. Even more, I think readers understand it and feel it even without knowing about it, because it’s such an ingrained part of Western storytelling. It imposes a discipline on me that helps me keep my plots on track and sort out what’s necessary and what can be sacrificed.
Q: What part of writing do you feel is your strongest?
A: I think I do well with settings. It’s probably because I’m a frustrated wannabe architect and I’ve always spent a lot of time observing the built environment.
For some reason, I also seem to be able to come up with secondary characters who stand up and take over whatever scene they’re in. Gene Eldar was that guy in Doha 12, and Special Agent McGinley looks like that guy in South.
Q: What writing lesson have you learned in the last few weeks that amazed you?
A: In South, I tried writing a couple of the characters’ points of view using their voices for the narrative as well as their dialog. I was surprised how well it worked. The only example that survived is McGinley, but I have to wonder if readers’ reactions to him are colored by how strongly his voice comes out. If there’s ever a sequel to South, he’ll probably be a major character in it.
Q: What was the last book you read that blew you away?
A: The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. I’d read it when I was in my mid-twenties and just didn’t get it. I couldn’t relate to Alec Leamas, the sad-sack title character. I recently re-read it, and now that I’m his age, I totally understood Leamas. Le Carre did a masterful job of creating a character who was not the typical spy-novel hero, but instead is a real person of a specific age and nature who is instantly recognizable to any of his peers.
Many thanks, Lance!