I marvel at the capacity of those authors who can pinpoint that precise moment when inspiration struck. There they were, waiting in line at Starbucks, or shampooing their hair, or staring out over the South Rim of the Grand Canyon at sunrise with their legs twisted in some impossible yoga position, and then, suddenly—Bam! Huzzah! Thank you, Buddha!—that compelling idea for Their Next Great Book hit them, fleshed out and fully formed, like some baby whale at birth.
Alas, I can barely remember what I ate for breakfast, let alone where I was or what I was doing when any one of my four Cordell Logan mystery-thrillers was hatched. What I can say with certainty, however, is that my latest book, The Three-Nine Line, sprang from no specific story in mind and only the vaguest idea for a setting: Vietnam. It began this way:
A former reporting colleague from the Los Angeles Times, Scott Duke Harris, has lived in Hanoi for several years with his wife, journalist K. Oanh Ha, and their three kids. Scott had extended me an open invitation to come visit and I had long wanted to, but things always seemed to get in the way—deadlines, sick dogs, a sick hot water heater, my lovely partner’s inability to take time off from her clinical psychology practice. And, oh yeah, there was the issue of money. Traveling abroad is hardly cheap. But we only go around once in life, as they say, and the last time I checked, I wasn’t getting any younger. So, after finding a modestly affordable airfare-hotel package online, I decided to set out. Three weeks in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. How cool is that?
The notion occurred to me early on that I might be able to get a book out of the trip and a legitimate tax write-off to boot for research expenses. Vietnam seemed like an intriguing setting, inherently mysterious—a perfect locale for Logan, my protagonist, an acerbic former Air Force fighter pilot and government assassin-turned-struggling civilian flight instructor. But no viable ideas for a plot came readily to mind. That was before I traded my author’s thinking cap for the one I often wear as a freelance magazine writer.
I’ve been fortunate in recent years to report on assignment for Smithsonian’s top-notch Air & Space magazine. I was exchanging emails with one of my editors there a few weeks before my trip to Vietnam and asked if there were any stories she might be interested me covering during my stay in Southeast Asia. “We’ve always wanted to do a piece on North Vietnamese missile crewmen who shot down U.S. aircraft during the war,” she said. “Interested?”
Interested? You bet I was interested! It sounded like a terrific story. There was only one hitch: aside from Scott and his family, I knew not a soul in Vietnam. I had no sources. Not to worry, my editor said. She introduce me to retired Air Force Brigadier Gen. Dan Cherry.
Dan, who lives in Kentucky, is a former fighter pilot who shot down a North Vietnamese MiG in a dogfight over Hanoi in 1972. Though badly injured, the MiG pilot, Nguyen Hong My, had managed to parachute to safety and survived the war. Years later, the two one-time enemies would be reunited to become inseparable friends. If anyone knew of anybody in Vietnam who’d served as a missile crewmen, Dan assured me, it was his buddy, Hong My, As it turned out, Hong My, a charismatic ladies man who rocks a shaved skull and a weightlifter’s physique, seems to know just about everybody in Vietnam.
Operating on the assumption that any friend of Dan Cherry’s is a friend of his, Hong My flew me all over Hanoi on the back of his motorbike, introducing me to virtually everyone I needed to interview for my Air & Space story, including former high ranking military officers who’d never before spoken publicly about their wartime experiences. Hong My also took me sightseeing. Thus was The Three-Nine Line born.
At my request, we went to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” where American prisoners of war were tortured and kept in conditions that can only be described as brutal and inhumane. Many captured U.S. servicemen died there. The Vietnamese government insists today that all of the POWs were treated humanely at the Hanoi Hilton, which is now a museum, but you can still hear and feel their ghosts once you step inside its iron gates.
I thought a lot about those ghosts in the days that followed as I became more acquainted with Hanoi. Only then did the crux of what would become my new novel hit me:
More than 40 years after the end of the war, three former American POWs return to Hanoi at the behest of the State Department to make peace with the prison’s most brutal former guard, and also to help solidify a big trade agreement between the U.S. and Vietnam. But when the guard’s body is found floating in a lake in downtown Hanoi after a big reconciliation dinner, the Americans are accused of murder and placed under house arrest. Logan is sent in to get them out before they can be tried on politically trumped-up charges and imprisoned once more
Like I said, I can’t tell you today what I was doing when that idea came bubbling up or floating in from wherever it is all inspirational ideas hang out before they decide to come visit. All I know is that the idea that lent itself to what became what I believe is my best book so far did come because of where I was at the time and where much of the The Three-Nine Line plays out.
We writers tend to focus on character and plot, those two great elements essential to the craft of storytelling, and rightly so. But there’s a third component no less vital to any tale well-told, and that’s the setting of the story. Sometimes, if you’re fortunate, you can find virtually everything you need in one location to write a book. And you don’t even need to shampoo your hair.
Thanks so much for being here today, David. I’m a fan of the Cordell Logan series and look forward to reading The Three-Nine Line.
You can learn more about David and his novels at his website. He can also be found on Facebook and Goodreads. If you haven’t read the Cordell Logan series, you can find the first three books (Flat Spin, Fangs Out, and Voodoo Ridge) at online booksellers and through your local bookstores. The Three-Nine Line is scheduled for release mid-August.
Allan Emerson says
I’m always amazed when I read that combatants on opposite sides became friends after hostilities, particularly when one caused direct injury to the other. An interesting situation in real life, and an intriguing theme to explore in a story.
Margot Kinberg says
Thanks, Pat, for hosting David.
Thanks, David, for sharing how your trip to Vietnam inspired you. Thanks, too, for sharing how your story developed, and how you got the background you needed. I think places – physical settings themselves – really can spark a great story.
Alex J. Cavanaugh says
But if you hadn’t gone to Vietnam, the idea would never have hit.
And I don’t remember what I ate yesterday either…