By David Healey
Thriller author William “Willie” Nikkel was out fishing one day when he caught a good idea. He just happened to wonder, what if that didn’t turn out to be a big fish on his line, but a body?
Thriller writers love a good “what if” to get a story going. Nikkel was hooked, so to speak, and that idea evolved into the first chapter of his newest novel, SHIPWRECK.
This is his sixth novel to feature Jack Ferrell. Nikkel is now at work on his seventh novel about the Hawaii-based hero. The former SWAT officer and veteran thriller author took some time out recently to talk about the writing life.
Considering that he divides his time between Maui and northern California, with plenty of fishing, gold panning, and the occasional casino visit thrown in, at first glance it might seem like there wasn’t much time left to write. However, Nikkel keeps a fairly strict schedule, thanks in part to the hot weather in Hawaii.
“If you don’t fish or lay on the beach, there’s not a lot to do in Maui,” he said, a comment that may disqualify him from being a spokesman for the tourism board.
It is, however, a great place to get down to business as a writer.
“I get up early in the morning,” he said, noting that he’s at his desk by 5 am. “It’s nice and cool.”
He breaks for breakfast with his wife, Karen, around nine. Then it’s back to work. “I write all day. When I’m writing that first draft, I put in six to eight hours, seven days a week.”
There are a few perks, of course, to being based in Hawaii.
“At sunset, I’m up on the lanai, watching the sun go down. I rarely miss a sunset.”
For part of the year, he lives at his brother’s home in northern California. There, brother Ray helps him bounce ideas around for plots when the two of them aren’t out shooting, panning for gold, or enjoying a boys’ night out at the casino in Lake Tahoe. With those ideas piled up, Nikkel returns home to Hawaii to get some serious drafting done.
Considering all that these two locales have to offer, it’s no surprise that a sense of place is apparent in his novels. His first three Jack Ferrell thrillers, starting with Glimmer of Gold, were infused, interestingly enough, with Hawaiian mythology. Another thriller, Murrieta Gold, featured legends from that California Gold Rush country he calls home for part of the year.
Recently, he also launched a series of steampunk zombie westerns, including Devil Wind.
When it comes to developing a novel, it’s that first scene, or even the first line, that hooks him. “I’ll begin a story based on a first line. It’s kind of a ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ thing,” he said.
He likes to start with a good idea of where the story is going, but outlining only takes him about halfway through the book.
“I love crafting the story. I sort of outline until I scrap the outline and write the story. Your mind starts rolling with the story and takes it where you didn’t know you were going to go. Then I just run with it.”
Nikkel said he “got serious” as a writer back in 2002, when he started attending the Maui Writers’ Conference. Writers such as James Rollins, Tess Gerritsen, and Bob Mayer were strong influences there. He has also been to every Thrillerfest, learning all he can. And he credits best-selling authors such as Steve Berry and fellow Californian Allison Brennan as being inspirational and supportive.
A recent Berry blurb states, “The tension ratchets up degree by degree in this smart and cleverly told adventure. William Nikkel definitely knows how to kick butt and take names. He’s a gifted storyteller.”
Brennan says of Nikkel’s new novel, “SHIPWRECK is the perfect blend of mystery and adventure. An engaging, fast-paced thriller with a fascinating and fun hero.”
It’s clear that Nikkel’s character follows the tradition of a long line of smart tough guys such as Dirk Pitt and Travis McGee. Nikkel’s character has a boat called Fast Times and his supporting cast of characters, just as McGee has the Busted Flush and his loyal sidekick Meyer from the John D. MacDonald thrillers.
“What thriller writer hasn’t been influenced by those?” he asked rhetorically.
Like those well-known protagonists, Ferrell is one of the good guys, but he’s also willing to step over the line—just a hair—in search of justice.
In SHIPWRECK, it’s quickly evident that Jack Ferrell navigates his fishing boat—and his conscience—according to a strong moral code. He stands up for what’s right and doesn’t back down. Instead of fancy weapons or tricky martial arts, he tends to wield a Mossberg 12-gauge and throws a mean punch. He gives would-be assassins fair warning, then lets them have it.
He’s a tough guy, but not invincible. At the same time, you can be pretty sure that anyone who goes up against him is going to come out the loser.
“I like to believe that Jack Ferrell is the embodiment of what most men would like to be,” Nikkel said.
And it sure doesn’t hurt that Jack Ferrell tends to have his adventures in paradise, whether it’s the Hawaiian Islands or California’s Gold Rush country. Just like the idea that caught Nikkel during that fishing trip, readers will be hooked on SHIPWRECK.
William Nikkel is the author of six Jack Ferrell novels, a Jack Ferrell novella, and a steampunk/zombie western series featuring his latest hero, Max Traver. A former homicide detective and S.W.A.T. team member for the Kern County Sheriff’s Department in Bakersfield, California, William is an amateur scuba enthusiast, gold prospector and artist, who can be found just about anywhere. He and his wife Karen divide their time between California and Maui, Hawaii.