Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Public Service Announcement: How to Spot a Suicide Bomber

I live in New York City, so a certain amount of paranoia is reasonable. How much is too much? Great question. However, given that the New York City skyline has a relatively recent hole in it, I don't think it's too much to consider that someone, sooner or later, might want to consider rendering more damage to the city.

Over the past few years, I have come to the conclusion that most people—even those with limited knowledge of weapons, tactics, explosives, or anything harmful—can plan a better terrorist attack than some of the “masterminds” currently operating out in the world.

For example, one of the most likely scenarios in any major urban environment is suicide bombing. Load some people with bombs onto the A and the 6 trains in rush hour, or in the midst of time square—then you can start seeing examples of terror.

Suicide bombers are easy to spot. They give out all sorts of signs for the simple reason that they are, by definition, all first timers. Israeli counterintelligence wrote the defensive playbook, using pragmatic observation and psychological insight, and came up with a 12-point checklist, 11 for women—you'll see why. If you want to see the list being applied, I recommend Lee Child's novel “Gone Tomorrow.”

Now, the twelve signs that you might be looking at a suicide bomber.....

Monday, April 26, 2010

A note on religion, characters, and who do you trust.

Not too long ago, a friend of mine read through the first fifty pages of A Pius Man. She was struck by something odd. The first priest who made an appearance was rather shifty looking. Her note was “is he supposed to look that menacing?”

Answer: Yes.

It occurred to me that I should address something: there might some people who think that, because I'm Catholic, means that A Pius Man is going to have an easy answer: Pope Pius XII was a saint and an action hero who could do no wrong.

This goes double for those who believe that, just because I go do church every Sunday, I must be super Catholic. (I have a disturbing vision of me in a cape that's Lenten purple. I then desire to acid wash my brain) Believe it or not, I have had people tell me this, to my face, even though it's more or less a minimum requirement.

If you fall into any of the above categories, then, good, that means you'll be surprised for most of the book.

Monday, April 19, 2010

On The Pope and the current "Scandal"

Some Common Sense on the Catholic Church in the News.

Recently, there have been some accusations of a coverup by Pope Benedict, back when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Office for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The New York Times has posted a little story. As Maureen Dowd has accused, "Now we learn the sickening news that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, nicknamed 'God's Rottweiler' when he was the church's enforcer on matters of faith and sin, ignored repeated warnings and looked away in the case of the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, a Wisconsin priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys."

Fr. Murphy, hereby known as "Scumbag Priest A", served from 1950-1974 as a priest at a school for deaf boys in Milwaukee. There had been accusations of abuse, but no evidence--DNA had not existed before the late 80s. Without more than “he said/he said” to go on, he was later forced into "temporary sick leave." Superiors couldn't convict him, but they could isolate him.

Fast forward 22 years. In 1996, The Archbishop of Milwaukee now has victims asking him to take action. A letter is sent to Cardinal Ratzinger. There was no reply, and no one can tell if the letter ever made it to him. Ratzinger's deputy approved charges against Scumbag Priest A, waving its own internal statute of limitations on pressing cases against priests, despite the fact that the limitations in the state of Wisconsin had well since passed

In June, 1998, Scumbag Priest A wrote to Ratzinger, citing the fact that he had suffered strokes and asking to live out his days as a priest. Ratzinger's deputy suggested letting Scumbag Priest A accept banishment, a step short of full defrocking, if he admitted guilt and expressed remorse. The Wisconsin bishop who had taken the case refused.

In August 1998, two weeks before Scumbag Priest A's impending death, the archbishop of Milwaukee reported to Rome that he had suspended the trial and would try to get letters of apology from Scumbag Priest A. The suspension order was never conveyed to the priest that headed the trial panel. He says he would have fought such a command and that Scumbag Priest A died while charges were still pending.

The theory: somewhere, in there, is a coverup, and that Ratzinger is at that heart of it all.

Now, given that I live in the United States in America, the accused is innocent until proven guilty. Unless you're a Catholic priest. You're accused, therefore, you're cooked.

In this case, I don't refer to the pederast. I assume that Scumbag Priest A is guilty, hang him high, skin him alive, in public, and I can devise some creative things with a spoon if I put my mind to it.

I'm referring to Cardinal Ratzinger.

Writing A Pius Man, Part 5: A Love Story?

Part 5: Love Among the Spooks

In my usual description of A Pius Man, things slip through the cracks. It's a thriller. It's a war story. It's apologetics with bullets. It's a political techno thriller. There's a shootout down the Spanish Steps. We shot up the Vatican, blew up a hotel, blew up an airport, waged war against mercenaries, the Swiss Guard, killer priests, a dozen nations, have some fun with the UN, the World Court, and everything short of killer robots.

Oh, yeah, I have a love story in there too.

Don't look at me like that. I wasn't going to fill every page with shootouts, chase scenes, and explosions. None of my characters remotely resemble Bruce Willis. They all have hair, for one. Also, each character is a fully three dimensional, red blooded person, not some sort of bloodless, passionless plot device—none of them look like Tom Hanks.

As strange as it might seem, I am a romantic at heart. That said, if someone hands me something that even has a mild tinge of a romance novel, it better have a fantastic, original plot, or I will smack that someone with the novel. And possibly make them eat it.

I am uncomfortable and suspicious of any book that has a hero and heroine fall in love inside of one book. It has to be done well, or take place over a good period of time. That said, there are circumstances I can believe. It's common knowledge that high stress situations can lead to intense emotional bonding. In Stockholm syndrome, it happens over the course of hours, if not days. And that takes place between terrorists and their hostages. It shouldn't be too unreasonable that it should happen between two allies.

I had one character I had designed previously—Scott “Mossad” Murphy, first member of the Goyim brigade of Israeli Intelligence. I wanted his attention dragged to Rome from a tip by a German intelligence officer.

Designing this German was easy—I wanted the exact opposite of Murphy. Scott Murphy, the perfect spy, was short-ish, pale, with almost no distinguishing features. Slap on some makeup, he's whatever he wants to be. Therefore, physically she had to be beautiful. Drop dead gorgeous.... which made them a perfect fit. All eyes could be on her while he slipped into the background.

But how do I create a woman who was believably beautiful without turning her into something out of a fantasy novel? Simple—I use the physical features of someone real. I used the features of someone I knew. And what do you know, the previous year in college, I had someone who matched that description perfectly. Her name was Manana.

Enter Manana “Mani” Shushurin of German intelligence... she was raised in East Germany, hence the last name.

Murphy could blend in and disappear. However, when I made him, he had a disdain for weapons. He was spy—he was not Jason Bourne, he was not James Bond, though he could pass for George Smiley. He didn't do weapons. If he needed a weapon, he didn't do his job.

Therefore, Shushurin had to be the expert in weapons and hand-to-hand combat.

I would bear no idiots in my books, so they were both smart, capable professionals, with complimentary skill sets and equal intelligence.

And somewhere along the line, two people who existed in a very lonely profession wound up falling in love in the middle of my thriller. Obviously, they weren't busy enough getting shot at. They were too good at keeping their heads down.

Ironically, this was part of the story I hadn't planned.

Joseph Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5, author of a slew of comic books, tv shows, and novels, once wrote about characters in his work. Sometimes, they take one path when you tell them to take another. And sometimes you have to drive back along the path and take the route you wanted to take originally, with them pouting in the back seat.

Timothy Zahn, the only Star Wars novelist I will acknowledge anymore, mentions a similar phenomenon. He cites one instance of his character, Talon Karde, kidnapped and held hostage, and being led to a sinister temple of doom—as Zahn tells it “Karde had his men slowly surrounding them, and I had to pull them back because he had to go into the temple for the story to progress.”

Yes, for those of you who are wondering, writing fiction has been described as a form of schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder—usually by the authors themselves. Then again, when you generate an entire character biography in your head, have to decide what is perfectly in character for them to do at any given moment, make their reactions consistent... having another person in your head is the easiest way to put it.

Thankfully, I managed to tie the romance subplot into the overall story fairly easily. It even became critical to the book. How can two people falling in love save the world?

Well, you'll have to read the book to find that out.

Hey, it worked for Terry Goodkind.

Writing A Pius Man, part 4: Selling yourself.

A Pius Man was done. The time had come. Sell the book to... anyone, really.

For those of you who have never researched how a book goes from the pen of the author to the hands of the reader, a quick sketch of the process.

Agents represent the author. 
Their mission: sell your book to a publisher for the highest possible value. Agents make between 10%-15% of the money the author gets. Which isn't bad work if you're the agent for Stephen King. Having 10% of however many millions of books sold adds up to real money. However, 10% of a ten thousand dollar advance isn't much, and ten thousand isn't a common opening bid for an advance on a book.

Advances are made by the publisher, and tend to be broken up into three parts: signing with the publisher, the arrival of the first draft; prompt delivery of the final draft. The publisher is the one that buys the book from you. That's where the money comes from, that's how the book is distributed.

Editors work for the publisher, and goes over the manuscript with a fine tooth comb. They are generally the people who are the feelers for the book. The agents have to cultivate contacts, pitch the book to editors, convincing them to at least look at it.

Simple, right? The author pitches to an agent. The agent pitches the book to an editor in a publishing company. The editor pitches the book to the company s/he works for. The publisher sells the book to you, the audience. The agent doesn't make money until the author does. The publisher doesn't make money until the books fly off the shelves.

But wait, there's more.

How A Pius Man came to be: Part 3. Writing

Part three: The Creative process—AKA: Writing the darn thing.

During a winter break, I had gone through great pains to finish my thesis. It had been more or less a cultural analysis of Irish Rebel songs, which, like my books, had a lot of property damage, and fighting, with merry and bouncy tunes and boy, were these people having way too much fun.

That made up three credits of a semester where I had only two other classes, and no social life. The paper was mostly finished before the semester had even begun. I was even more finished when I pounded out two term papers before the first month was out.

What part of “no social life” do you not understand?

I started writing A Pius Man in February, 2004. I was finished with it by April. There were a lot of nights where I was up until three in the morning. The story wouldn't get out of my head or leave me alone. For the first time in my life, instead of making it up when I went along, I did an outline. I drew sketches and diagrams.

The sad part is, I kept footnoting the darned thing.

And it all came naturally to me. Two spies would follow the lead of a dead terrorist looking in the Vatican archives, and discover yet another dead researcher from the archives—a crime investigated by Giovanni Figlia. They would have to find Giovanni Figlia and his entourage from the Secret Service and the Egyptian police. And with modern technology, it was easy for the spies to know what the primary investigators were doing. “Sinister looking priest #1” would have to keep up as well, to make certain that nothing inconvenient would be discovered. The Interpol cop from Ireland would have to fly in and confirm that all this was, yes, linked together to Pope Pius XII.

And, thanks to maps on the internet, I can make the bus terminal arriving from the airport be one point on a straight line from the Vatican to the Spanish steps.

Should any of my other books see the light of day, you'll note that I have a pattern of property damage at public places. A gunfight in a science fiction convention; a battle at the Cloisters; a shootout at a Fireworks factory in Long Island; the Muir woods in San Francisco; a hostage situation at a Barnes and Noble bookstore; a chase with MacGyver moments in CostCo. Been there, done that, blown it up.

And for some reason, I couldn't get one image out of my head—an armored SUV going down the Spanish steps.

After that, the characters had to connect the dots, do the research, find a personal connection to the situation, and most of all—what is worth killing over for a secret over sixty years old? No offense to anyone on any side of the “debate,” but if someone proved that Pope Pius XII was a Nazi, or that he was a hero, who would kill for that?

End result: the book was eight hundred pages long. Two hundred thousand words, when the average novel was only one hundred thousand. And I had brought in EVERY, SINGLE, CHARACTER I had ever written, over a dozen books, excluding the science fiction ones. Because what had started with a simple and straightforward murder turned into an all out war, and I needed every person I could conceive of to support what protagonists I had standing. A very small army of light against a large army of darkness, and I didn't even have Sam Raimi.

From 2004-2007, there were several variations on the story. The first had an additional character. One had a character introduced from the very beginning who was used to bring in most of the history; he didn't disappear, but he was shifted. One version took out about 50% of the story and made it around five hundred pages.

Then there was the easy version. Split it up into three books. One character gets deleted, one gets transferred into book two, several sequences get shifted so that the character moments aren't all in one place or another, and ta da, instant trilogy.

Two major plot points in the story became a matter of what intelligence agencies call “blowback.” When someone fires a gun, gunpowder residue gets on the shooter's clothing, even though the gun is pointed away from the shooter.

In the world of intelligence, blowback means that an operation has come back to bite you on the ass: either an assassination went wrong and the target wants to return the favor; some dictator dislikes you blowing up his favorite weapons research facility and would like to bury you, that sort of thing.

If I used the blowback as the basis for completely different books, then dang, book one is only over a hundred thousand words. Excellent. Fill in details and character in books two and three, not to mention “previously, in A Pius Man” moments that I can use to pad the book.... or keep the audience up to speed. Either way....

And then, after all this was done, it was time for the hardest part of all. I had to sell it.

After all, it was only one book, being marketed to a publishing industry that was swamped with hundreds of manuscripts per day, manned by people who had to slog through this slush of paper.

How hard could it be?

Don't ask.

How A Pius Man Came to be: Part 2

Part 2: Now what?

So, you're going to right a history novel that's both thrilling and accurate, without resorting to something over the top fantastical in the meantime?

The answer there is: that's nice, wake me when you're done.

Oh, darn, wait—I want to write it!

Now what?

How A Pius Man Came to be: An essay in five parts

How A Pius Man came to be: Part 1

I read a book once....

Anyone who knows me is aware that this isn't new.

However, it was written by an author who I had just gotten into. I was a history major, it was a history book written by someone who taught philosophy and wrote novels on occasion. It was on Pope Pius XII and his history during the holocaust—essentially: what did he do, what did he know, and when did he know it.

The interesting thing is that it was less of a researched book and more like a composite collection of primary documents. The major source was from a book written in the 1960s from an Israeli Diplomat to the Vatican, who had also fought in World War II with the British. The second collection of sources were from contemporary newspapers. Most specifically, the New York Times.

Okay. Interesting book.

Two months later, I started a graduate course called the History of Total War. The term paper was supposed to be about the events of a major conflict.... Hmm, let's work on Pius XII. I read one book, time to work on another.

And it was insane.

The primary material all pointed to one, glaring and obvious conclusion. Everything written from the 1940s-1960s pointed in one direction. Testimony from Jews in the camps, in Rome, in positions of power within the global community, the newspapers, the books by journalists, the books by diplomats in Rome, even statements and documents from the Nazi hierarchy pointed one way and one way only.

Then we hit the 1960s, and everything from the previous twenty years was chucked down the memory hole so fast, you would have thought Rod Serling had put it as a twist to a Twilight Zone episode.

Since then, we've had a “debate.” One side believes that Pope Pius XII either: did nothing about the Holocaust; said nothing about the Holocaust; or was actively responsible for the Holocaust. On the other side, you have folks who think Pius XII was a saint, spoke out against the Holocaust, acted against it, was a grand spymaster. In the middle—and there are few in the middle—refer to him as “cautious and prudent.”

Along the way, I came across authors who were not historians. I've come across people who had used proven forgeries from criminals convicted for the forgeries used as “evidence” in this debate. I've even come across historians who had done jail time for publishing their lies. And I've come across some deliberate liars: for example, one idiot said that “X person should have done Y thing”... but cited articles where it was STATED that X did Y, making the author either brain dead or a liar.

One of the most interesting things about this is why I refer to it as a “debate,” in quotes. One side of this conflict doesn't acknowledge the other. One side will take the opposition's statements and theories, vivisect them with a scalpel, the end result looking like shredded wheat, and the second side acts as though there are no alternate theories, interpretations or evidence.

And some of these people are hilarious. Both sides have biases. Cynthia Ozick, for example, is an eighty year old Jew who thought that nuns would kidnap and convert her when she was young, and her opinion hasn't changed much. St. Margherita Marcchione is a Catholic nun. John Cornwell hates his father, his seminary, his country, jumped over the wall of the priesthood in Britain (for which he has my sympathy), and more or less hates Church theology, the entire hierarchy, and possibly every Catholic. James Carroll wants the Catholic church to become the Unitarians. Though there is one lawyer from Missouri with a degree in history—I'm not sure where his bias comes in.

Anyway, by the time I was finished reading both sides, I thought it was fairly clear who was right. Hell, I had enough primary documents to work on that alone. I left motivations alone, because I wasn't going to break out my Ouija board and try to have a séance with a dead pope to ask him what he was feeling or thinking at the time. These are the actual events; to the best of our knowledge, this is what happened, and this is how the people reacted to it AT THE TIME.

For example, Mit Brennender Sorge, a papal encyclical condemning Fascism, released by Pope Pius XI, was unequivocally pointed at the Nazis. How do we know this? Well, check the title. Most encyclicals are written in Latin. This was written in German, not Italian, not Spanish. No one was going to mess with the translation when it hit Germany's borders. It had to be smuggled into the country after it had been banned from the press. When the Hitler Youth beat up parishioners coming out of church, attacked priests, went after Catholic groups, and banned the encyclical all together, one can possibly conclude that the Nazis took it personally.

The average reader is probably looking at the above paragraph and thinking “this guy needed a masters degree for that sort of thing? Duh.” The average reader would be right. No, I wasn't going for high intellectual value. Much of the paper was a plain, simple, narrative telling of events, and many of the conclusions were as “duh” worthy as the above paragraph.


I won't tell you the name of the book that started this whole mess. But after I finished the paper, it was good night and good luck. End of Fall semester.

Then came some of the other books. Novels where the history was so bad, it was painful to read. “What sort of idiot thinks Churchill was a Catholic?”

Or “An entire convent of nuns commit mass murder, and can keep their mouths shut with that secret for sixty years? What?”

The Da Vinci CodeAnd there was The Da Vinci Code. Yes, you know I had to get there. That anyone was getting their history from it was... interesting.

It had been a theory of my family for years that we are better informed by our fiction reading than by our news media.

Tom Clancy had airplanes running into buildings in the early 1990s.

David Hagberg sent his protagonist assassin after Osama bin Laden before anyone considered bombing him.

Dale Brown, in 1990, came up with unmanned aerial drones armed with missiles—twelve years before predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles started wiping out terrorists.

But people were getting their history from fiction? And they were getting it from a man who wanted to be a songwriter when he grew up, took one art history course, and whose major was in literature. Huh.

Did that inspire me on a rampaging crusade? Sadly, no. Didn't care. It was an odd little book, and even ignoring the “history,” I didn't find it entertaining. In fact, I prefer James Rollins as far as historical puzzles go—he gives me some grounding in why he's saying what he's saying. Simply, Dan Brown just wasn't fun for me. My problem, no one else's.

Then I read a completely different novel, also using historical events as a background to the primary action. Premise... nothing new, really. Evil Nazi Catholic church, blah blah, snore. Okay, so what? Big deal.... But, hmm, wait, I know that character's name. It's historical. I know that name too. Hmm....

Skip to the back of the book to read the author's note, which collected the works used to create that novel. I had normally assumed that this author had read one side of the argument, and wrote another evil Catholic church story based on that. But, no, I had read these books. All of them. He had done his homework, and had completely and utterly come to the wrong conclusion, directly contradicting details that both sides agreed on, then saying it was true. I could take it if he had just said “I'm writing fiction, not commenting on a historical debate.” But he took a side and lied about facts that everyone agreed on.

Dominoes fell in my brain. People not only read this crap, they believed this crap. Most readers would have almost no intellectual background to separate the wheat from the chaff (seriously, how many people have history degrees focusing on the religious and cultural activities of Europe in World War II?)

My reaction was somewhere akin to the quote of the eminent physician and research scientist, Doctor Bruce Banner. Hulk smash.

Fine. Simple. Easy. Two could play at this game. If people got their history from entertainment, I would take up the strangest project ever imagined. I would write a thriller that was (a) thrilling, (b) factually accurate about the Catholic Church in the Holocaust.

Now how the HELL was I going to do that?

That's covered in part two.

And So It Begins

Welcome to the official blog for the novel "A Pius Man," already finished (in manuscript format) and ready for publication by the first publisher fortunate enough to snag it.

And welcome to the first post.

You can see the synopsis for the novel in the right hand side of the page, so feel free to take a gander at it when you like.  You can also look it over on Facebook or Myspace if you prefer. 

Coming to this website will be promos, and blogs about writing. And blogs about creating this one book.