Thursday, March 20, 2014

Write the Book You Want to Read, a guest post by Thomas Pluck

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I owe my discovery of Thomas Pluck to my husband. I was at the bar at last year's Albany Bouchercon when Ross came up with a tote bag full of novels from the book room. "Look at this," he said, thrusting BLADE OF DISHONOR into my hand. "This has got to be the best book ever."

"What's it about?" I asked.

"Who cares? Look at that cover!" Ladies and gentlemen, behold the power of connecting the right cover to the right audience. As it turned out, BLADE OF DISHONOR was a terrifically fun read; pulpy, page-turning and action-packed. Thomas Pluck is going to tell us how he put together the pieces to create the book he wanted to read.

Of all the writing advice out there, my favorite is "Write the book you want to read." When writing BLADE OF DISHONOR, I took this to heart.

Growing up in the late '70s, I was bombarded by over the top pulp, adventure, and exploitation films, my favorite of which is Raiders of the Lost Ark. It has crazy action, a brisk storyline that moves so fast we never have time to question it, and it introduces us to rich characters we want to see again and again. It continues to make us think today. For example, did Indiana Jones actually have to do anything, when the Ark would kill the Nazis all along? (more on that later).


When Beat to a Pulp's David Cranmer came to me with the idea of an MMA fighter named Reeves fighting ninjas over a legendary sword, I dived into research. When I learned that perhaps the most legendary of all Japanese swords, the Honjo Masamune, disappeared at the end of World War II, I had my story. Masamune was the most famed swordmaker throughout Japanese history, and that particular sword was handed down among the Shoguns of the Tokugawa family. Shrouded in rumor, its last appearance had it with an American soldier, confiscated during the occupation. And then it vanished.


Where would such a sword go and not be found? Collectors are notorious braggarts, so if it was sold into a collection, it would be shown enough that eventually someone would blab. What if it were disguised as a simple officer's sword, the common trophy of American soldiers who fought in the Pacific? It could be right under our noses in Grandpa's attic… now I needed a grandfather to give the sword to, and a reason to protect it. Grandpa Butch practically wrote himself. I internalized a lot of grumpy old WWII vet personality from my great-uncles, and I dedicated the book to them. The story fell into place. Reeves would learn that Grandpa Butch had that legendary sword, sworn defend it from a clan of ninja and Yakuza who wanted it for their own nefarious ends.

I grew up surrounded by great-uncles who all served in World War II. I wanted to write an adventure tale that would tell a realistic and human story, to share their experiences in the war. I've been to Tokyo, where I filmed my friend Peter's first shooto fight, and I trained at a dojo and fell in love with the city's constant flow of energy. But I also saw Nationalists blaring messages from their black vans, wanting to recapture the greatness their Empire had before the war. The locals don't take the Nationalists (uyoku dantai) seriously, but the groups have become more intertwined with the Yakuza, and the more I read, the more they reminded me of that staple villain of '40s pulps: The Black Dragon Society. 

The Black Dragons are based in reality, and were a quasi-governmental group of spies who infiltrated Korea and China prior to the invasion, and believed that Japan was destined to rule Asia. And what better symbol to rise back into power than the sword of the Tokugawa Shogunate? The name alone conjures images of a shadowy martial arts organization dedicated to evil, the perfect bad guys for martial arts adventure films and pulp paperbacks such as The Destroyer and The Rat Bastards. Those super fast reads with cartoon villains and ridiculous plots that throw us right into the action. 

 The books are often guilty pleasures, because they were written to be a quick read, not to be lasting. But we readers ate them up anyway. I wanted to combine the sense of fast-paced fun those novels gave me, but deliver memorable characters and write fight scenes that my trainers and fellow fighters would enjoy and find believable, that were still exciting for folks who don't watch boxing, much less get in the ring themselves. Having trained in Kachin Bando, a martial art developed by the Kachin tribesmen of Burma, I was lucky enough to have a fight gym full of enthusiastic fellow wackos who were happy to choreograph fights with me, and a teacher- Phil Dunlap- who was glad to answer questions like "what's the fastest way to break someone's clavicle?"

Another thing that those guilty pleasure pulp paperbacks often lack is strong female characters. And by that I mean characters who matter to the story, have their own designs and desires, and aren't puppies following the main character around. Between Tara the hot-rodding ambulance driver and Jean-Marie Dundee the Montana rancher whose land abuts the training grounds of the Devil's Brigade, the 1st Special Service Force of commandos from the U.S. and Canada, I had that covered. And in Japan we've got Yumi the journalist in deep cover, and Oki the deadly commando assassin…

So when MysteryPeople called Blade of Dishonor "the Raiders of the Lost Ark of pulp paperbacks," I do declare, I felt I might be overcome with the vapours. The book accomplished what I wanted it to do. And when one of my literary heroes, Andrew Vachss said, "You want interwoven plots running parallel between WWII and Right Now? You want violence mixed with romance? You want sacrifice, courage, and honor? Truth-based fable? Or maybe you just want hardcore-clean writing delivered at warp speed. Look no further—it’s all here," I did in fact faint and my wife had to revive me with smelling salts and a smack upside the head, because she's from Louisiana, and says that we Yankees can't really get "the vapours."

Personally, I think any writer can get the vapours. And as for Indiana Jones, Spoiler Alert! If he hadn't been there when the Ark did its melty-face lightning show, it would have fallen into Nazi hands again, instead of being secreted away to the famous vault at the end. Or the Allies would have tried to use it, and maybe Ike would have been a pool of melted Ike-cream.
So there!

In penance for that awful pun, I'm giving away one digital copy of Blade of Dishonor to a lucky commenter. What's your favorite adventure story? 

Thomas Pluck writes unflinching fiction with heart. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and two cats, where he powerlifts and trains in mixed-martial arts. He's a computer geek now, but has worked on the docks, at construction sites, and has flipped burgers, washed dishes, and even cleaned the bathrooms of the Guggenheim museum. His work has appeared in The Utne Reader, [PANK] Magazine, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Criminal Element, and numerous anthologies. He is also the editor of Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT, which includes "Runaway" by Dave White, which was chosen as a distinguished story in Best American Mystery Stories 2013. You can find him on the web at and Twitter as @thomaspluck


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  2. Favorite adventure story? For pure all-out pulp fiction fun, it’s got to be anything E. E. “Doc” Smith . . . there’s a Skylark of Space series, the chronicles of the Lensmen . . . I don’t think it’s possible to pick just one favorite.
    But I do know I’m going to have to add “Blade of Dishonor” to my teetering to-be-read pile. Granted, I know next-to-nothing about martial arts and even less about boxing, but how could I possibly pass up anything that sounds so Indiana Jones-worthy?

  3. Not only does this book sound like rollicking fun but so does the author! Thomas, based on your life's experiences I can bet there are a ton more action packed pulp tales to tell. And yes - tell the story you want to tell for if you want it, so will others. And isn't that from where we write the most passionate tale we can? From the deepest desire to do so.

  4. Raiders of the Lost Ark still impresses me. I remember going in to see the movie and feeling like I didn't breathe again until the final credits. What a ride!

  5. Definitely a case of telling a book's worth by its cover! Thomas, your book sounds like grand fun.

    Did you know that Raiders of the Lost Ark was based on a series of pulp novels by Rob McGregor? The first one, Young Indiana Jones and The Mummy's Curse, was written in 1908, followed by 41 more novels, into the 1930's. My nine-year old grandson was just here visiting me and we went on an odyssey to find the books for him, since he's a voracious reader. No local bookstore has them, but they are available in paperback via Barnes & Noble.

    We defaulted to watching "The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones" on Netflix.

    I think my grandson is the kind of reader who enjoys books like Blade of Dishonor (along with his grandma!).

  6. Yay, Tommy! Welcome to Jungle Reds!

    One thing Sir Thomas won't tell you about himself is that he's done yeoman duty editing an anthology to raise funds for a wonderful organization called PROTECT that's aimed at helping law enforcement agencies to catch child abusers and protect those child victims. He's also one of the pillars of that noble organization that's been helping strapped police departments get training and equipment to deal with the sophisticated rings of child pornographers and traffickers that have sprung up. So, in his way, he's a real-life hero himself. Right out of one of his books.

  7. As I read this post, all I could think of was that bit in "Kill Bill, Part 2," in which a priceless katana was found stuck in a golf bag. Maybe the lost sword will be found in a flea market like that Faberge egg? Or on "The Antiques Roadshow?"

    Gosh, I have to pick just one adventure story? Everyone will groan when I mention "The Black Stallion," but it's still a fine adventure story with a shipwreck, a desert island, and the taming of a wild beast. Later, when my library ran out of Nancy Drews, I enjoyed Alistair MacLean's "Ice Station Zebra," "The Guns of Navarrone," and "Where Eagles Dare." One of my all-time more recent faves is David Morell's "Creepers."

    I just realized I haven't been reading enough adventure stories lately. Thanks for the reminder, Thomas.

  8. I have to admit I have a particular fondness for the pulp adventures I read as a girl: Edgar Rice Burroughs' tales, H. Rider Haggard, Baroness Orczy (the Scarlet Pimpernel and others) and the Ruritanian romances of Anthony Hope. They were all old when I got my hands on them, and I wonder if any kids read them now. I know my children have seen the movie versions of many of these stories - and let's face it, pulp fiction often makes the BEST movies.

  9. I must admit that asking for favorite adventure novels was my lazy way of putting together a new reading list. You always find old favorites and new stories you've never heard of, when you ask for faves! I'll be picking up Doc Smith, and some of the Young Indiana Jones novels. I believe those are modern- but I may be wrong! A good read is a good read.

    Alistair MacLean is an influence, I found him first through the movies. I have been told that the World War II sections remind people of his military thrillers, and I take that as a great compliment!

    And thank you Linda, for mentioning PROTECT. They are the real heroes- I am just their banner-waver! If you want to know some of their victories, drop by or their facebook page. We actually help train and fund a group of veterans known as the H.E.R.O. Corps, who were instrumental in a recent bust that rescued 251 exploited children.

  10. Thomas, the Indy books are listed here:

    Not modern at all, unless you consider early 20th century modern.

  11. I'm not sure if you can call it adventure, or just fantasy, but the action within Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood is truly epic. It's set in and around an ancient English wood where folk imagination creates warped visions of mythic men and creatures, including Stephen's love. Except, his brother's imagination created her first. Just because he killed her, doesn't mean he doesn't want her back. He kidnaps her and goes back into the woods where Stephen, left for dead with his mate, Harry, hunts him down through a haunted forest which holds depths going back to the ice age.
    The sequels were a bit rubbish though.
    Blade of Dishonor is on the list.

  12. Thomas, so glad to "meet" you here at Jungle Red, and your BLADE OF DISHONOR sounds like great fun!

    My favorite adventure stories include the cold war spy novels written by Ludlum, Le Carre, Forsyth and DeMille.

  13. It's great to "meet" you hear. Honestly, I would probably never be attracted to your book otherwise. But now... It's on the TBR list.

    I (probably oddly) enjoy some of W.E.B. Griffin's books and some Cussler. I've read all of Ludlam's and Clancy's books.

  14. My favorite adventure writer will always be Alistair McLean! His books definitely take you completely out of your commonplace life and on the edge of your seat all the way through. Second favorites would be The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Prisoner of Zenda. I will definitely look for your book, Mr. Pluck. It sounds like a wild ride and lots of fun.

  15. Such fun! And so great to meet you!

    Favorite adventure story--it's silly, but you know the movie The Seven Per Cent Solution? I LOVE that!

    Also--Nelson DeMilles Charm School, and oh, Day of the Jackal. Book and movie! And Romancing the Stone, does that count?

  16. Hi Tommy--such fun!I love adventure movies (Raiders is one of my all-time faves)and adventure novels. Yours is going on my list. Very favorite adventure novel? Can I pick any Harry Dresden novel by Jim Butcher? I dare anyone to put one down once they read the first two pages...

    Joan Emerson, so glad someone else read the Lensman series! The writing was probably terrible, but I remember I just gobbled them up. Ditto all the Black Stallion books. Now those were adventures!

  17. Nevil Shute, Alistair MacLean,and Ludlum, and Forsythe, and DeMille, and I could go on and on! It is so interesting to see how many people here like the same books, both old and new. Reading today's post has refreshed my memory on the names of some of the authors I read long ago.

    Thomas, I love your sense of humor! Your pun made me groan, as all good puns do!

    Can someone tell me how to find time to read everything I want to read and still have time to go to work, and meet all my other obligations, etc? (I did not mention trying to find time for fun; reading IS fun. I just want time for MORE of it. Not much to ask, huh?)

  18. So many great suggestions... and Romancing the Stone definitely counts! What writer doesn't love that movie?

  19. Okay,you had me at "Indiana Jones and ninjas." I loved Indy. I wanted to go adventuring with him. Heck, I think I still do. I train in taekwondo, and when I need realistic fight ideas, I go to them and say, "Here's the scene. What would you do?" Gotten some compliments from that approach.

    Personally, I'm a sucker for Frederick Forsyth thrillers.

    I remember struggling with my first novel, then hearing "write the book you want to read." Well, I read procedurals, suspense, and thrillers. Once I changed my approach, the writing was much more fun.

  20. Raiders of the Lost Ark: a Saturday matinee with a theater full of little kids, all of us sitting on the edges of our seats! What a ride that was! Favorite book: Alastair MacLean's Night Without End, also loved Helen MacInnes' spy thrillers!

    Great advice, great authors, such a treat to check out this blog!!

  21. Oh gosh. The Ethan Gage books are a hoot. Loved Flashman, that rascal. Harry Dresden, certainly.
    Richard Sharpe. Tons of others, but my brain is shut down right now. Anyway your books sounds like a must read to me!

  22. Welcome to JRW Thomas--I swear you had so much fun writing this, it makes us want to read! Wonderful post, thanks for visiting!

  23. Honest, why don't they do revival showings of Raiders? Probably because it would make most of the new stuff look bad.
    Thank you all for the kind words, and for adding to my adventure TBR pile... the next adventure on my plate is Satori by Don Winslow (more of a spy novel, but plenty of adventure. A sequel to Trevanian's classic SHIBUMI, which I highly recommend).

  24. I got to know Thomas at Bouchercon Albany too!

    Thomas, I'm as LCC but I wanted to drop in to say a big "hi"!

  25. I loved BLADE OF DISHONOR. I recommend it to anyone who loved fast, funny, exciting action stories.

    It's such a blast to read and probably one of the most genuinely unpredictable books I've read. I never had any idea where it was going.

    Great stuff.

  26. And the winner is... Rhonda Lane! I found your email on your site, so I'm contacting you there as well. Thank you all for the kind words and recommendations!

  27. What an inspiring, as well as darned entertaining, post! I must thank you for the Ike-cream because one student I tutor asked me yesterday what a pun was, and this is a much better example than I came up with on the spot. It's going into my English Language and Literature notebook right away.
    Rebecca B