I’ve never been much for outlining. Respect to those who can do it, but writing from a treatment has always seemed a little too much like work to me. Anyway, I like being surprised. Usually it’s my characters doing the surprising. Sometimes, though, writing off-the-cuff can lead to some spectacularly unintended consequences for me, the writer, as well.
I sat down to write The Professionals, my debut thriller, with a basic idea. A group of kidnappers set loose on America, kidnapping rich businessmen at high volume, for low ransoms, from sea to shining sea. I didn’t know who my kidnappers were, or where they came from, or even how many they numbered. I knew their MO, and I figured they’d tell me the rest.
I set the first scene, somewhat arbitrarily, north of Chicago. A kidnapping at a commuter train station, seen from the point of view of the victim. By the second chapter, my kidnappers appeared. Arthur Pender and three friends, disenfranchised college grads from Seattle who’d turned to crime in the face of a shrinking American job market.
Pender and his gang were nomadic by nature. They’d crossed the country pulling kidnapping scores for nearly two years. They needed somewhere to go after Chicago, and I closed my eyes and pointed at a map and—voila—sent them north to Minnesota. It seemed like an innocuous decision at the time, but two and a half years down the road, it’s turned out to have a pretty big influence on my writing career.
Minnesota, see, is where the cops first cotton on to Pender’s scheme. First person to pick up the trail is Kirk Stevens, a middle-aged state policeman with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Since Pender and his gang run an interstate crime ring, I figured out pretty quickly that Stevens would need help. Enter Carla Windermere, a tough and enigmatic FBI special agent recently transferred north from Miami.
Stevens and Windermere partner up. They chase Pender and Co. around the country. Bad things happen. Gunfights. Explosions. Bad people chase Pender. It’s a heck of a roller-coaster ride, and it pretty well wrote itself. I hung on for dear life as Stevens and Windermere and Pender told the story themselves.
And when it was finished, I sent the book away to Stacia Decker, my wonderful agent, and she sent it around to a few editors. One day she came back to me. “An editor at Putnam wants to talk to you,” she said. “He wants to make the book into a series starring Stevens and Windermere.”
This was the first I’d thought of a series, I’ll freely admit. I liked Stevens and Windermere quite a bit, though. I liked their rapport and their chemistry together. The more I thought about a series, the more I liked the idea of hearing more from my two cops.
Except Stevens and Windermere both lived in Minnesota, thanks to my arbitrary decision to send Pender north after Chicago. And though I’d passed through the Twin Cities a few times, I was hardly an expert. Had I known I was going to write a series about cops, I thought, I might have set them up in Detroit, where I spent plenty of time as a kid and which I know pretty well.
As it turns out, though, I’m happy I don’t write from an outline. I’ve had experiences stemming from that innocuous decision that I never would have had otherwise. This summer, for instance, I took a fact-finding trip to Minnesota. I drove the streets that Stevens and Windermere drive, visited the BCA headquarters and the FBI building. I found Stevens’s neighborhood, and his house, and half-expected to see his wife and kids and his trusted old Jeep in the driveway. I had dinner with Kristi Belcamino and her local writer’s group, who welcomed me, showed me the Twin Cities, and set me up with a ridealong in a patrol car in Minneapolis’ Fifth Precinct. It was a wonderful visit, and it didn’t take me long to fall in love with the Twin Cities.
I’m happy that circumstance and serendipity led me to Minnesota. I loved sitting down with Stevens and Windermere again and fleshing them out for a second adventure. As I write this, I’ve just finished the first draft of a third Stevens and Windermere novel, and I hope I get to write about them for many years to come. I still have respect for those who outline—and I imagine I’d be happy enough had I set Stevens and Windermere in Detroit—but me, I’ll keep letting my two cops tell the story. Writing and publishing The Professionals has been a thrill ride in a hundred ways, not least of which is because I never really knew what was coming—for me, or my characters—around the next bend in the road.