By John M. Wills
Editor’s Note: Today’s guest blogger is a man of many talents and experiences. John M. Wills is a retired FBI agent and former Chicago police officer with military experience. He is also a writer—a subject John shares with us today. In short, he writes from experience. Mystery writers: Tuck away information about this guy as you slog your way through another crime mystery manuscript.You may need his help someday to make your cop character emerge as more than a comic-strip figure, or need a law enforcement scene to read like the real thing.
I’m a writer. I finally feel comfortable saying that in response to people who ask me what I do. It wasn’t always that way, and I would venture to say that many of us who write may be reluctant to describe ourselves as such. Why? My sense is that there is no clear definition of a writer, no bright line of delineation that marks the point when one may claim the title of writer.
If you’re expecting me to make clear the ambiguities as to when one becomes a writer, let me disabuse you of that notion immediately. I don’t know the answer. I do know that there are many questions from not only ourselves, but from others, as to what makes someone a writer. Is it when one is paid for a particular work? Or is it perhaps, when one becomes published, regardless of whether compensation has been received? Again, I don’t know.
I tend to think that being a writer is a state of mind. Sure, there are those who write for a living—technical writers, columnists (I’ve written monthly articles for Officer.com since 2004), freelance writers who are published in magazines and online. But what about so many others who write and perhaps are never paid or published? Are they writers? I would say yes, they most certainly are. They create works of art, just as an artist who paints and never sells one painting is still considered an artist.
Being a writer is a persona one creates. Certainly, someone who has been writing since childhood is a writer. He has probably shared his poetry or prose with family members and friends. He becomes known as “the writer in the family,” or “my friend, the writer.” Writing doesn’t necessarily have to be your career, but it must be your passion.
I write fiction, thrillers, to be more precise. The third book in a series I created, The Chicago Warriors™ Thriller Series, is called TARGETED; it will be released April 6th. My ability to write convincingly about police work is a product of my thirty-three years in law enforcement. Working the streets as both a Chicago cop and FBI agent, allowed me to draw from experience and not have to invent characters and situations. It’s a perfect example of having not only talked the talk, but having walked the walk.
As with the first two books in the series, TARGETED contains plenty of action but it also has its share of emotion. On more than one occasion while I was writing this series, I had to take a break. My characters had become real to me, so much so that when I was forced to cause them pain and anguish, or even have one killed, it affected me emotionally. Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” He’s absolutely correct. I found myself grabbing for tissues as I wrote, indeed, even as I did rewrites, the words on the page brought me to tears.
Perhaps I’ve turned into a softy in my later years, but some of my readers have told me that they’ve had the same reaction—they’ve had tears in their eyes as they read some of my work. Priceless.
Writing has been cathartic for me. I’ve been able to work through some of the darkest moments from my past and come to terms with them through my characters. My experiences in life, both good and bad, have allowed me to create interesting characters and stories. I’m reminded of a quote from Ernest Hemingway: “In order to write about life, first you must live it.” Good writers are those who write from experience, and those of us who have experienced long, full lives will have much to share.
My novels are full of suspense, it’s an element that makes the reader want to continue to read and not stop simply because the hour is late. Suspense can be included in any genre; it ramps up the readers’ interest. So how does one create suspense? Last summer, I attended a writers conference in which this element was discussed on at least two panels. On one of those panels, Simon Wood, a well-known author, provided some simple guidelines.
Give the reader a lofty viewpoint. Provide your audience with both points of view: protagonist and antagonist.
Use time constraints. Time should favor the bad guy, while the clock works against the protagonist.
Consequences or high stakes. Some dire consequence must be the outcome, one that will devastate the hero.
Creating dilemmas. Constant challenges laid down in front of the hero, causing him to make tough decisions and costing time to solve.
Unpredictability. The protagonist should be unable to solve every problem he faces.
These are some of the elements that go into the mix of creating a story with suspense. And, if you're able to pull it off, using first person POV will allow your reader to get inside the heads of your hero and bad guy.
Another key element that adds to the value of suspense is authenticity. I can’t tell you how often I’ve paused while reading an otherwise good mystery or thriller, to question a term or technique. As a writer you must strive to ensure your terminology, lexicon, vernacular is/are correct. Example: writers who are describing a scene with a pistol (not a revolver) and write the word “clip,” rather than the proper term—magazine. Anyone familiar with firearms or law enforcement will blanch at that word. Do your homework. Consult someone in law enforcement, or go to a local gun shop or range to ask if what you’re describing is technically correct. Small things like incorrectly describing a weapon or technique will detract from the flow and stop a reader in their tracks.
Now, if I may, a bit of shameless self-promotion. I am working on a non-fiction book, Women Warriors: Stories from the Thin Blue Line. I am seeking submissions from women in law enforcement, active or retired, to share their true stories in a book that will be published this fall. I’m including not only police officers, but corrections officers, dispatchers, chaplains, and prosecutors. The stories will be written by them, and will include ones which are funny, sad, oddball, tragic, in other words all of the interesting things and people that women encounter on the job. If anyone knows of a woman who might like to share their story, please have them contact me through my website: http://johnmwills.com
Writing is a gift that should be shared with as many people as possible, It’s a way in which we create a legacy, a tool with which we help craft not only our own history but that of our country. Writing allows us to pass on to others certain traditions and practices that sometimes might never be known to future generations if we don’t memorialize them by writing them down. I hope those of you reading this will take time today and write something, anything. Writing: priceless!
John is a retired FBI agent and former Chicago Police Officer who also served in the Army. He is a freelance writer, book reviewer for the New York Journal of Books, and an NCAA authorized speaker. His experience teaching street survival around the world has allowed him to publish more than 100 articles on law enforcement wesbsites and magazines. He has created The Chicago Warrior Thriller Series, consisting of three novels. He's published a story in the book, True Blue To Protect and Serve, and is an award-winning writer of short stories. In the Fall of 2010 a devotional, Stories of Faith and Courage Cops On The Street, will be published; John has several stories contained therein.