Today I am taking down the war board for my newest novel, Dead Too Soon (out May 12, preorder now). The war board is a tool for keeping track of the overall plot for the novel-in-progress, see the examples below. When writing a story that's 75,000 words (Burned Too Hot), 85,000 words (Dead Too Soon), or a really outrageous 150,000 words (Codename: Chandler's THREE), it helps me to write a brief description of each scene on notecards. I use a different color card for each character's point-of-view, so I can see the direction of the story with just a glance. I always have liked maps, and this is my way of mapping my book before and as I write it.
When fighting fires in rural areas, firefighters have to bring in their own water. As part of my local fire department's citizen's academy, I not only got to see how this was done, I got the opportunity for a little hands-on learning. Good thing, since Lund and the Lake Loyal Fire Department had a rural fire to fight in Burned Too Hot. Check out the pictures and how I used what I learned below.
Excerpt from Burned Too Hot:
Next to Pumper One, Dempsey, Johnson, Blaski, and Sandoval spread out what looked like a giant kids' swimming pool made of thick yellow rubber. The portable tank was used to hold water in rural areas that weren't equipped with fire hydrants. Each truck would empty its water tank, and then race back to town to fill up. Even now, Lund could hear two more sirens on the air, another truck from their district or one from a neighboring district bringing more water.
A truck-sized bucket brigade.
They caught up to Jerry Fruehauf as the fire chief circled back in front of Engine One.
"The fire is pretty far along. I don't think we'll be able to save the second floor," the fire chief said.
"There's a chance we can salvage whatever's downstairs and the outbuildings. But the fire is spreading, and with this drought..."
Lund stared at the house that was more a torturous prison for Kelly Ann growing up than a home until Lund had talked her into accepting his ring and getting the hell out. From here, he could see the farm yard where Old Man Meinholz used to keep his burning barrel, the one where Lund had discovered the scorched bones he'd thought belonged to his then estranged wife. A tilt of the head, and he could also see the rickety front porch where he'd gotten his last glimpse of a woman he knew only as Chandler—a mistake he'd been lucky to survive.
"Lund? Did you hear me?" the chief asked.
"Keep it from spreading."
"You realize that means—"
"Let it burn."
He could feel Val's eyes on him. "You sure?"
"Down to the fucking foundation."
Read the rest in Burned Too Hot.
Don't Play with Fire...
As part of my local fire department's citizen's academy, we experienced a live burn. We prepared for this for weeks prior to the event. First we had to get outfitted with equipment that fit us, then we practiced putting it on and using it during search and rescue scenarios. Finally the big day came, and we performed our searches in a burn building with a live fire. Talk about exciting. And hot!
I've used this experience in my writing many times since. One of the most dramatic scenes is the opening of Burned Too Hot. Check out the photos and excerpt below.
From BURNED TOO HOT:
David Lund's gut clenched. No matter how long he'd been a firefighter, gasping for air in a vacuum always brought the same, visceral, thoughtless panic—then a whoosh from the SCBA filled the void. His breathing settled into a rhythm.
Vision limited by face mask and helmet, Lund turned to Kyle Blaski. "Ready?"
Still adjusting his air flow, the young firefighter nodded.
In this middle-of-the-night house fire where victims were likely inside, Lund would prefer to go in with a veteran like Dempsey. But thanks to an accident at one of the rash of small arson-set fires in recent weeks, Dempsey was limited to duties he could perform with a sprained wing.
At least what the young guy lacked in experience, he made up for in enthusiasm, showing up to every one of the recent fire calls, usually arriving before everyone but Bix Johnson. And it didn't hurt that the kid was strong as a mule.
A second truck screamed up the street and then a third. Soon the place would be swarming with firefighters, but there was no time to wait. Not when a fire doubled in size every fifteen to thirty seconds.
The clock was ticking.
He and Blaski headed for the house, the teams covering the basement and first floor following behind. Adrenaline dumped into his bloodstream, and the little tremor that said his body knew this was life or death hummed through his body. Too relaxed and he wasn't taking the situation seriously. Too tense and his hands shook, his reactions turned sluggish, mind dull. Over the years, he'd learned to handle the stress, compartmentalizing emotions, balancing himself, striking just the right note between fear and calm.
On the other hand, Blaski seemed nervous.
"We got this, man. Trust your training."
"Damn straight." Blaski said, nodding like a bobble head.
Lund looked back in time to see a car jolt to a stop behind the security tape strung across the driveway. A woman jumped out and raced for the house, until she was intercepted by Dempsey. Light brown hair, pretty, she thrashed against the grizzled firefighter's chest, tears streaking her face.
There was someone inside all right. At least she thought so. Time to get them out.
Lund pulled open the door.
Smoke and heat swept out in a wave. Coats lined the right side of the small landing. Straight ahead, concrete stairs stretched into the basement. On the left, two steps led up to the main floor and into smoke, thick and black.
Movies and television depict structure fires with dramatic shots of flame. Although flame was there, running up the walls and spreading along the ceiling, in real life smoke was the devil a firefighter most often had to face down.
The devil that most often killed.
Lund took the two steps and dropped to the floor, ceramic tile hard under his knees. One hand tracing the wall, he moved at a crawl. Blaski fell in behind, his right hand keeping contact with Lund's boot and his left leg sweeping out into the room, feeling for what couldn't be seen.
Lund felt his way along the side of a refrigerator and a row of kitchen cabinets before reaching a corner, the hard tile under his knees suddenly replaced with pile carpet. A barely discernable glow of flame cut through the smoke at the back of the house. Lund noted the location and direction it was moving then followed around the corner to the right, his gloved fingers skimming built in bookshelves and steps leading to the second floor.
"Stairs," he called to Blaski.
Wasting no time, he started up, the kid on his heels. A child gate spanned the top of the staircase, and Lund ran his hand over its top rail until he located the latch.
Opening it, he moved through, then Blaski took position behind him, and they searched the landing. The smoke was thicker up here, leaving them to grope in the sweltering dark, even the bright lights firefighters had set up outside choked to a dim shimmer. Lund pushed a loveseat out of the way, groping behind it and underneath.
Satisfied the landing was clear, they headed down the hall to the bedrooms. With no furniture to contend with, they moved quickly through the narrow space, blind and on their hands and knees. Seconds and Lund reached the first room. "Door," he called out.
Following the wall around the jamb, they crawled inside.
"Is anyone in here?" he yelled. Holding his breath, he listened for an answer.
His respirator resuming its whoosh, he moved on, right hand tracing the wall, left sweeping the darkness. A chest of drawers, the leg of a piece of furniture, the drop gate of a crib. Lund pulled himself to his feet and swiped a hand over the mattress.
Nothing but a blanket.
In Lund's experience, frightened children often hid from the smoke and darkness in a place where they felt safe. If the little one wasn't in his bed, he was curled up somewhere else. They had to find where. Fast.
He dropped to the floor, checked under the crib, then moved on to the rest of the room. A diaper pail. A changing table. A bookshelf filled with books. Another filled with bins of big Legos and wooden blocks. He announced the closed and unbroken window to Blaski then encountered what was likely a closet.
He opened it and followed the perimeter of the tiny space. Except for a collection of stuffed animals and a jumble of plastic cars, it was empty.
Where was the kid?
Lund continued the search. Methodical. Thorough.
Stick to the wall.
Every hall. Every nook. Every closet.
Any place a frightened child might hide.
Lund crawled back down the hall, Blaski's hand still on his boot. He reached another door, bathroom this time, tiny. Sink, toilet, tub, closet, and they were back in the hall, on to the next room.
"Door." Lund turned into a bedroom. Hard wood floors. Bigger this time. He combed a walk-in closet filled with shoes and clothing, a woman's and a man's. Resuming his trek around the perimeter, he examined around, under, and on top of everything.
"I have a stuffed animal here," Blaski shouted. "Center of the room."
Lund continued forward, his hand hitting the side of a platform bed. No space to hide underneath. He rose to his knees and ran a hand over the sheets, touching pillow, touching flesh. The hair was short, and he could feel the rasp of a beard against his gloves. Under the blankets, the man's chest rose and fell in shallow breaths.
"Adult male. Unconscious." Lund said, both to Blaski and into his radio. He reached over the guy, rifling the rumpled sheets, expecting to find a little body.
Read the rest in BURNED TOO HOT, available on Amazon in ebook or paperback.
Research: Both Virtual and Live
FIX is a story I wrote with J.A. Konrath and F. Paul Wilson. It combines the worlds of Konrath/Peterson's Codename: Chandler with F. Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack. Although we have all been to New York City many times (especially Paul), we did a lot of the specific research for this book online, using Google Earth to virually run around the streets of the city while we all wrote in the same Google Docs document.
I can't tell you much about this scene without giving away twists in the story. But if you read the book, you'll understand the significance of all these photos. My favorite is the one of me with my two sons doing a little in-person research in the museum.
An excerpt from FIX:
Exhibit Temporarily Closed to Public
Closed because the meeting was supposed to take place here? Or would the meeting take place here because it was closed?
I checked the doors. Locked. I couldn't see around the corner into the gallery where the meeting was set to take place. I listened, couldn't hear anything.
This didn't feel right.
I pulled the map from my pocket and saw only two entrances into the exhibit on the first floor. Not ideal for getting the drop on someone. But the second floor had possibilities.
I backtracked a few steps back into the American Wing and climbed the stairs. There I discovered a wide array of musical instruments, from woodwinds to strings to drums. I reached a balcony displaying a beautiful pipe organ cordoned off to prevent curious fingers from touching. I crawled onto the balcony, holding my breath, and peered through the marble railing, spying the colorful flags and shining armor one floor below. Life-sized models of horses stood in the center of the large gallery, fully decked out in armor, knights on their backs. Glass cases filled with weaponry and more armor rimmed the room's periphery.
And standing in the middle of the room, their backs to me, two men.
Read the whole story in FIX, a Codename: Chandler/Repairman Jack thriller!
As part of my local fire department citizens' academy, I learned how to rescue people who have fallen through ice. I used this research in the opening scene of my first Val Ryker thriller, Pushed Too Far.
An Excerpt from Pushed Too Far:
David Lund had trained for this moment and visualized it a thousand times. But his legs still vibrated as he toed off his shoes and pushed a stocking foot into yellow rubber.
He shook the thermal suit and worked his foot deeper, finally seating it into the attached boot. Shoving his other foot home, then pulling the suit up his torso, he squinted at the skin of ice covering much of Lake Loyal.
He couldn’t see a damn thing.
Not a spot of colorful clothing, not a dark shape against the flat expanse of gray. But a police officer on a routine patrol of the park reported a woman had fallen through the ice. And she wouldn’t last long. Not in Wisconsin’s early December chill.
He had to hurry.
Activity buzzed around him, fellow firefighters, EMTs, cops yelling out orders, getting into position. They all had their role, a well-oiled machine.
He only hoped it would be enough.
Lund shimmied his shoulders into the suit, tucked in his sweatshirt, and pulled the hood over his head. The rubber was meant to fit tightly, to protect him from frigid water. Once finished dressing, he'd be encased in yellow and black, only his eyes and nose showing. He could float in the lake for hours, buoyed by the air left in the suit, his own body heat protecting him from the chill.
Of course, getting into the damn thing was a trick bordering on magic.
Dempsey and Johnson raced past, carrying the pontoon raft from Unit One to shore, their boots crunching on the frozen pea gravel path circling the lake. Wind thrashed leafless trees and spun the merry-go-round in the park, as if it were ridden by ghosts.
Lund raised the zipper as high up his chest as he could, then stuffed his arms into the sleeves.
The newest addition to the Lake Loyal PD, a part-time cop named Schoenborn, ran up the sloping shoreline toward him, her cheeks pink with the cold.
"You see her?" he asked. "I can't from here."
“You'll spot her when you get on the water. She's just on the other side of that clump of cattails. I haven’t seen her move.” Her voice soared to a higher pitch than usual, making the rookie seem even younger than Lund suspected she was.
“You the first one here?”
"Yeah." Wind tore a few dark strands from her ponytail and whipped them across her face. “After I called it in, all I could do was wait. I’ve never felt so useless in my life.”
Lund had tasted that feeling more often than he wanted to admit. He'd like to tell her it would be all right, but sometimes people couldn't be saved, no matter how much you wanted it, no matter how hard you tried. If anyone knew that, it was him.
He pushed his hands into the attached rubber mitts and eyed the cop. “If you want to feel useful, you can help zip me up.”
She sprang toward the zipper and worked on tugging and tucking until it was up to his neck.
A second later, Dempsey joined them, lending his experienced hands to the task. "Okay, let's get some of this air out, and you're good to go."
Lund crouched into a ball, the suit puffing up around him like a balloon.
The weathered firefighter patted him down, pushing out the extra air. He snugged the zipper the remaining inches over Lund’s chin, pulling the rubber hood tight around his face until only his nose and eyes were exposed to the cold. "That's as good as it's going to get."
Lund stood, the suit sucking to him like thick plastic wrap. His breath rasped in his ears, the sound magnified by the hood.
Dempsey clipped the tow rope to Lund's back, and he started down to shore feeling every ridge and bump of the frozen ground through the rubber boots, as if walking outside in socks. He stepped carefully. A tear would only slow him down, force him to start over with another suit, and he had no time to lose.
The woman couldn't last long in the freezing water. Her body would shut down, muscles refusing to move, reflexes slowing until she could no longer stay afloat and sank under the slushy waves.
But in cold water, drowning didn't necessarily mean death.
For about an hour after breathing stopped, maybe more, she could be rescued and revived without suffering brain damage. Lund wasn't sure how long the victim had been in the lake, but if there was a chance of pulling her out within that golden hour, he would grab it.
The ice rimming the lake was thick enough to support weight, and Lund skidded out to the spot where the pontoon raft rested. A tow rope connected it to the firefighters on shore, just like the one on his belt, enabling Dempsey and Johnson to tow him back once he had secured the woman to the raft.
Until then, it was up to him.
The rescue craft was made up of two foam board pontoons with an aluminum tube rail running along each. Leaning forward, he grasped the rails, stepped into the space between, and shuffled over the ice, carrying the raft as if driving Fred Flintstone's car.
Twenty feet from open water the surface started to creak beneath his feet.
He took a step, then another, his third plunged through, water over the ankle.
He lifted onto the raft, straddling the open water and bracing the outsides of his knees against the rails. The lake rolled and shifted under him, chunks of ice and swirls of water. He grabbed the paddle from its clamp and dug into the slush between bright orange pontoons, moving out into the lake.
Squinting against the wind, he could see her now, between the remnants of cattails and open water, just where the cop had indicated. Light pink jacket. Long brown hair encrusted with ice. The victim wasn’t moving--no flailing, no struggling--just lying face down in the water, bobbing with the movement of the waves.
He paddled hard, the burn settling into his arms, his shoulders. Shifting side to side, he used his weight to steer toward the woman like a kid riding a skateboard.
How much time had passed since she entered the water? What in the hell had she been doing this far out on thin ice?
Sweat slicked his back. His throat ached with the chill air, his ears, his jaw. He pushed his muscles, closing the last few yards.
A foot or two away, he fitted the paddle back into the clamps and moved to the front of the pontoons. He grabbed the nylon straps at the front of the craft with one hand and reached for the woman with the other.
His awkward, rubber mitts slipped off her head, her shoulder.
He tried again.
On his third attempt, he snagged a hank of hair and pulled her toward the craft. Scooping his hands under, he coaxed her torso to rotate.
Her face tilted skyward.
Pale skin. Blue lips. White eyes staring into the overcast sky.
Lund’s legs started to shake.
He couldn’t move. He couldn’t think. He could only stare.
His wife had died two years ago. Her body burned until there was nothing left but shattered bone and ashes.
And yet here she was, staring up at him from the icy water, her beautiful face frozen in a scream.
Pick up PUSHED TOO FAR to read the rest.
I do a lot of hands-on research for my thrillers. Take a look at some of my adventures and how I've used them in the books.