Cathy West here, chatting with our newest ICFW member, Zondervan author, Don Brown.
CW: Based on the information on your website, you’ve got an interesting history. It’s easy to see where your story ideas come from. Can you give us a brief rundown, and explain how you ended up writing fiction?
DB: I never had a desire to write fiction until about seven years ago. It all started when I attended an “Epiphany Party” in early January of 2003. After the party, I sent a handwritten note to the hostess, complimenting her on the party. She wrote back and said, “That was the best thank you note I ever read. You should write a book!” So the next day, I got out my laptop and started banging away on a yet-to-be published historical fiction. I had no clue what I was doing, but it was a barrel of fun. True story!
CW: For those of us not familiar with the US Army/Navy terms, would you tell us exactly what a JAG Officer is?
DB: Put most simply, a JAG officer is a lawyer serving as an officer on active duty in the United States armed forces. JAG responsibilities can range from trying courts-martial, to preparing wills for soldiers and sailors, to giving advice to a commander on international law issues. My last job, at the Pentagon, was to draft legal recommendations to the Secretary of the Navy on officer personnel issues. So the jobs can vary within the JAG Corps. Each of the five branches of the military has its own JAG Corps, although Navy and Marine Corps JAGs are often interchangeable.
CW: Did you begin writing with the goal of pursuing publication or did that come later? Share a bit about your writing journey with us.
DB: Well, I mentioned the “Epiphany Party” experience around January of 2003. I really just started writing based on that note I got, and discovered that I loved it. I wasn’t specifically thinking about getting published. About two months after that party, as I was working on my first manuscript, I saw an ad in a newspaper in about a writers conference at Ridgecrest, near Asheville, NC. With a partially-complete manuscript, I attended the conference and met some interesting people, including Chip MacGregor, a crackerjack literary agent who at the time was with Alive Communications, the group that represented Jerry and Tim in the phenomenally successful Left Behind Series. Chip wanted to see my scraggly manuscript, which wasn’t near completion, and I reluctantly agreed. After reading through it, he said, “This is a good idea. You should finish writing it, hire a professional editor, and come back next year.”
That’s exactly what I did. I finished the novel, hired an editor, Anna Fischel in Winston-Salem North Carolina, and did everything hat Anna suggested that I do. When I came back the next year, with the novel complete, all excited about selling it, Chip was not there! By happenchance I struck up a cord with Al Gansky, an exciting military novelist who at the time was under contract with Zondervan. Al wanted to look at my now-complete novel, a WWII Historical Fiction entitled “Destiny.” He read through it and said, “This is pretty good. I think we can get this placed.”
I was stunned. Then Al asked, “What else ya got?”
I said, “Al what do you mean what else? It just took me 18 months to write this thing.”
He said, “You’ve got to have something else to show to the publisher.”
So on the spot, I said, without much thought, “Well I used to be a Navy JAG officer, so maybe I could write a JAG series.”
Immediately, the light bulb went on with Al, and he snapped his fingers and said “That’s a great idea!”
So to make a long story short, Al pitched the idea to Zondervan, and they liked the JAG idea, although the novels had not yet been written. So I started writing, and then was awarded a two-book contract for TREASON and HOSTAGE, the first two books in the NAVY JUSTICE SERIES.
TREASON, book one in the NAVY JUSTICE SERIES, was released in 2005, about two years after the Epiphany Party. So for me, it was a relatively fast track to publication, and rather unexpected. I was blessed and fortunate.
CW: Why Christian fiction over the secular market?
DB: I have three objectives when I write. I’ve shared these before, but please permit me to share them again. First, as a novelist, I have an implicit contract with my readers to entertain. To do that, my goal is to build tension on every page in a way that will make the reader want to turn the page, and feel satisfied with the ultimate resolution.
Second, I want to educate readers about geo-contemporary issues that are relevant to our world today. For example, in MALACCA CONSPIRACY, I hope that my readers can, in a fun way, learn about a part of the globe that is both exciting and also strategically important to the United States, and the free world, but that is at the same time, largely ignored in our public schools and our universities.
Finally, I want my stories to be saturated with a biblical world view, one in which biblical truth is manifested throughout, subtly, and in which my readers leave inspired to do what is right. One of my favorite life verses is Deuteronomy 6:18. “Do the right thing.” I want to place my characters in a position where they must ultimately, chose what is right in accordance with Biblical teaching. I hope this will inspire my readers to do what is right when facing trials in life that, as James says, we all must face. This is where my Christian beliefs come in as a novelist. Even still, I am not targeting just the Christian market per se, but rather all markets where readers enjoy stories of international intrigue.
CW: Your books take us to places like the Middle East, Europe and Russia, and your last release, The Malacca Conspiracy (Zondervan, June 2010), takes place in several intriguing settings – Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia as well as the US. Have you been to these places yourself?
DB: I’ve been to Europe and the former Soviet Union. Not to Asia yet, and I’m hoping that’ll come with the first NYT Bestseller! ;-)
CW: What do you enjoy most about creating stories that take place in other parts of the world?
DB: To be honest, I love the research and I love learning. For example, when conducting research for my latest release, MALACCA CONSPIRACY, I learned a lot about the powerful and devastating Boxing Day (December 26 for our American Readers ;-)Tsunami that struck in the Andaman sea in 2004, when it struck the region of Aech on the Indonesian Island of Sumatra. The epicenter was in the Andaman Sea, near the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean off the Western coast of Sumatra. But the quake was so powerful that tsunami waves shot to the west, over a thousand miles, all the way across the Indian Ocean to the coast of Africa.
Interestingly, though, when the tsunami passed the strategic Island of Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean – which is featured in the novel – because the waters around Diego Garcia are so deep, people swimming in the water off Diego Garcia barely even noticed it, even though the tsunami was swarming around the island on its way to Africa, where it killed people in Somalia and other places in Africa.
As it turned out, this research did not become a major part of the storyline, except as part of the peripheral backdrop for setting up scenes in Sumatra and Diego Garcia. This sort of thing happens very often during the course of writing a novel, at least it does for me. You research something that turns out to be fascinating, but it does not become a major part of the storyline. I still enjoy this sort of thing because I guess I’m a compulsive trivia nut.
CW: It sounds like some of your books would make great movies. Is that a possibility?
DB: Thanks for saying that. I’ve heard that a bit. We came pretty close a few years ago with TREASON and HOSTAGE. Part of the issue, I’m told by film people, is that my books would translate into very high-budget movies, because of all the actions scenes and various venues around the world. We’ll see what happens.
CW: What are you working on now?
DB: THUNDER IN THE MORNING CALM, due out in hard copy in the summer of 2011, is the first book in Zondervan’s PACIFC RIM SERIES. Set largely in North and South Korea, it’s about a US Navy intelligence officer, Lieutenant Commander Gunner McCormick, who is haunted by the fact that his grandfather, who he never knew, disappeared in the Korean War more than sixty years ago. When in a classified meeting he learns of TOP SECRET rumors that the North Koreans may still be holding some elderly Americans from the war, he decides to do something about it. For a number of reasons, I’m more excited about “THUNDER” than any book I’ve had released so far!
CW: Looking back on your journey to publication, what advice would you give to not-yet published authors?
DB: Three things. First, I heard Davis Bunn once say that you can’t be a writer unless first you are a reader. So it’s important to make the time to read different authors, to get a feel for how others who have been successful approach the craft.
Second, you must write every day. The adage that “practice makes perfect” is true. And just like a basketball player can’t get better without constantly practicing jump shots, a writer can’t get better if writing is only a once-a-month endeavor.
Finally, I advise every writer serious about publication to find at least one good writers conference and attend at least once a year. At a good writer’s conference, the aspiring writer has a chance to intermingle with literary agents, published authors, and acquisitions editors from major publishing houses. Prepare for the writers conference. Compose a sharply drafted proposal, then take that proposal to a conference and shopping it among decision-makers who have the power to help you get that contract. The writers’ conference is an absolute must in my judgment, and don’t stop if at first you don’t succeed.
CW: What can we find you doing when you’re not crafting your next legal thriller?
DB: You can find me doing a lot of things. Going to court. Fishing. Church Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings. One of the things I love most is coaching my son’s youth basketball team. We’re undefeated and tied for first right now, and playing the defending conference champions this weekend. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes!
CW: And finally, the question I’m sure we all want to know – do you still get to wear that uniform?
DB: I wish I could still squeeze into it! That’s my New Year’s resolution!
Thanks so much for being with us Don, and we look forward to hearing from you again here at ICFW!
Don Brown, a former US Navy JAG Officer, is the author of the bestselling novels TREASON, HOSTAGE, DEFIANCE, BLACK SEA AFFAIR, and MALACCA CONSPIRACY. On Thanksgiving Day of 2009, four years after it's release, and in the wake of tragic events at Fort Hood, TREASON soared to #1 in the world on the prestigious Amazon bestselling list for fiction, where it remained for ten days. In August of 2010, Brown's latest release, MALACCA CONSPIRACY, rose to # 2 on that same list. His next release, THUNDER IN THE MORNING CALM, is due for release in the summer of 2011. Click here to view the trailer for THUNDER IN THE MORNING CALM. Don lives with his family in North Carolina.
Educated in Bermuda, England and Canada, Catherine holds a degree in English from the University of Toronto. When she’s not at the computer working on her next story, you can find her taking her Border Collie for long walks or tending to her roses and orchids. Catherine and her husband live on the beautiful island of Bermuda, with their two college-aged children. Catherine is a member of Romance Writers of America, and American Christian Fiction Writers, and is a founding member of International Christian Fiction Writers. Catherine’s debut novel Yesterday's Tomorrow, will release in March, 2011, through Oak Tara Publishers.