Winner of the 2014 Shelf Unbound Writing Competition for Best Independently Published Book
Shelf Unbound: From the opening scene with two drug-crazed gunmen holding up a corner store, Death Never Lies is a nonstop page-turner that unfolds like a movie. It’s your 15th novel—what have you learned about creating a complex, tight plot in the course of your writing career?
David Grace: The question for me always is: From what direction should I approach the construction of the story?
You can start from:
1) a character, which is where I began thinking about Death Never Lies (Greg Kane) and Death Never Sleeps (Big Jim Donegan);
2) an emotional situation (someone thought dead is rescued alive), which is where I started with The Concrete Kiss and Stolen Angel.
3) a plot structure, e.g., a chase or search. In Shooting Crows At Dawn I started with the idea of three killers racing across Texas for the Mexican border while relentlessly pursued by an old-fashioned East Texas sheriff.
4) a gimmick of some sort—some dangerous technology is on the loose (The Forbidden List)—or a dangerous situation—the Secretary of State has learned that the President is a traitor (The Traitor’s Mistress).
5) A shocking crime and an unusual victim or suspect, which is where I started A Death In Beverly Hills.
I think John Connolly is a terrific writer and I would urge people to use his Wrath Of Angels as a model of how to construct characters and plot a book. Also, The Godfather and The Silence Of The Lambs are wonderfully plotted and written books.
No matter where you start—character, threat, emotional situation or a crime—you need to spend a great deal of time on plotting the story itself. I first write a narrative description of the story from beginning to end. That’s usually five to ten single-spaced pages. Then I build a chapter-by-chapter outline consisting of one paragraph for each chapter in the order in which those chapters are to appear in the book. That will easily run ten to fifteen single-spaced pages.
Lastly, when all that is done and I actually start writing, I have to let the story evolve; characters appear and disappear and I need to be flexible in adding or deleting scenes and chapters so that the story grows and evolves and so that it works from an emotional and pacing point of view.
Shelf Unbound: Homeland Security detective Greg Kane is a great character with the deductive smarts of Sherlock Holmes and the physical bravado of an action hero. How did you come up with this character?
Grace: I’d been thinking about writing a book based on someone like Kane for a long time. I liked the first two or three seasons of the TV show House and I initially thought about writing a novel with an obnoxious but brilliant detective as the main character. More than five years ago I actually wrote the first three chapters of such a book, but I could see that it was turning into a pretty ordinary crime/thriller novel and I didn’t want to write that kind of a book. It was rapidly becoming more about who the villain was and how the hero was going to catch him than about who the hero was. The more I thought about it the more I became convinced that I didn’t want to do a detective version of Dr. House, so I abandoned that idea. Years went by. I knew there was something there but I didn’t know what.
The breakthrough came when I realized that Greg Kane didn’t want to be the pain-in-the-butt, angry guy he had become and that his struggle to be a more normal person made him a more compelling and interesting person than just a brilliant jerk who solved crimes. Once I understood not only what skills Kane had and who he was but also who he wanted to become, I was able to turn Greg Kane into a more interesting and more heroic character than I had originally envisioned.
Shelf Unbound: In your career as an attorney, you were authorized to argue cases before the Supreme Court. How much of your actual legal experience and knowledge winds up in your novels?
Grace: A bit of honesty here—although Chief Justice Warren Burger did admit me to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court I never did so. After trying a few cases in state court I found that I preferred business law to litigation, and I spent the rest of my legal career in the more sedate area of contracts and corporations. However, my legal training, the habits of organization, inventive thinking, understanding how people acted and reacted in various situations, helped me a great deal in planning and plotting my novels.
Shelf Unbound: You’ve written screenplays for a number of your books. Which one of them would you most like to see turned into a movie?
Grace: My favorite screenplays based on my books are, in order: True Faith; Daniel; The Concrete Kiss; A Death In Beverly Hills, Shooting Crows At Dawn and Stolen Angel. My good friend’s sister ran into Dean Norris a few weeks ago and I thought: “He would be perfect for Harvey Ingersoll in The Concrete Kiss and the perfect actor to play Sheriff Jubal Dark in Shooting Crows At Dawn.”
I told her to tell her sister that if she ever met Dean Norris again to let him know that I had two great scripts for him. Unfortunately, I suspect that he has heard that same boast from waiters, dental assistants and random strangers five or ten thousand times already.
Nevertheless, I still get a little emotional when I close my eyes and imagine Dean Norris as Harvey Ingersoll telling a room full of hysterical people: “I told you! I told you Amy is alive!”
Read an Excerpt:
“Afghanistan or Iraq?” Kane asked after the girl had taken their order.
“Afghanistan—Kunar Province mostly.” Foy’s eyes clouded over for a second then snapped back into focus. “Nothing like this over there,” he said glancing around at the vinyl benches and Formica table tops. “How about you?”
“I never served,” Kane said in an almost embarrassed tone.
“Then how come you recognized my tattoo?”
“In my job you run into a lot of guys with tattoos. It pays to learn what they mean. …And a lot of guys who claim to have served and never did. You get to learn how to recognize the fakes pretty fast.”
“I wish I was a fake. I wish I’d never joined up,” Foy said staring at Kane with sudden heat, then he looked away. “Do you want to know what happened to me? How I ended up here?” Not knowing the right answer, Kane just shrugged.
“Nothing,” Foy said with a sudden, bitter smile. “I didn’t get shot. I didn’t get blown up. Not one damn thing.”
Kane started to speak but then the girl brought their food. The way Foy tore into his burger Kane wondered when he had eaten last. When the shake was down to the dregs and all that was left of the fries were broken crumbs Foy looked back across the table and smiled.
“Thanks. That’s the best meal I’ve had in a while. Man, I miss those shakes.”
“Sure,” Kane said. “My pleasure.”
“You want to show me that picture again?”
Kane slid it across the table. Foy glanced at it and pushed it back.
“Yeah, I saw him. Eleven, eleven-thirty last night. I was up under the heat vent at Burger World. He passed me and went on up the block, away from the titty bar.”
“Any idea where he was going? Did you notice if he turned down any of the cross streets?”
“You know,” Foy said as if the idea had just occurred to him, “maybe I could look around for him. You know, walk the neighborhood, keep a watch out.”
“Keep a watch out?”
“Sure. Twenty bucks?” Foy asked with a different kind of hunger in his eyes.
“I could get you into a program,” Kane said. “Help you get off the sauce.”
“Nah,” Foy said, smiling. “That won’t work.”
“Because you can’t get straight unless you want to get straight, and I don’t.”
“Maybe some counseling—”
Foy waved Kane’s words away.
“Do you have a pill that will make me forget, something that’ll let me unknow what I know?” Foy’s face grew hard then he forced himself to relax. “It’s not what you think. I didn’t get shot or get blown up, not me, personally. …Look,” Foy said, struggling to explain, “you meet a guy, have some beers, find out where he’s from, how he met his girl and then, boom, some asshole blows his arm off and he’s gone and a new guy gets his bunk and he tells these stupid jokes and you find out that he likes olives on his hamburger and the next thing you know they’re shoveling pieces of him into a body bag and then the guy who sleeps in the rack across from you and three down who looks like Opie and can draw like a son of a bitch goes out one morning and comes back without a face. And it never fucking stops. You just sit there and watch these guys get fed into the meat grinder day after day and pretty soon you don’t want to know them. You don’t want to talk to them. You don’t want to hear about their girlfriends or how their little sister wants to be veterinarian or that their mom makes this great fucking blueberry bread pudding. You don’t want to know anyone, but you can’t shut them out. They just keep coming and they just keep dying, or worse, and it never stops.”
Foy covered his face with his hands and shook his head as if that might drive the memories away. A few seconds later he wiped his eyes with a napkin and gave Kane an embarrassed little smile.
“So, thanks for the offer and everything, but what I was and what I am…fuck, it’s like loving hot dogs and then taking a tour of the sausage factory. You can never go back to what you were before you knew.”
“The booze will kill you, Randy.”
From Death Never Lies by David Grace, Wild Side Press, davidgraceauthor.com. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.