From The Big Thrill: An interview with Shipwreck author William Nikkel

Shipwreck by William Nikkel

shipwreckBy 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.


williamWilliam 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.

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Fathers, sons, and survival from The Big Thrill …

Patriarch Run by Benjamin Dancer

patriarchrun_front_final_rgbBy David Healey

In our connected age, it’s usually easy to reach an author for an interview, unless that author happens to be leading a group of teens on a backpacking trip in the wilderness. When Benjamin Dancer returned to the things we take for granted—such as electricity, running water, and the internet—he answered a few questions about his new thriller, PATRIARCH RUN. Dancer’s book just happens to envision what could occur in a world where we might all be on a kind of extended backpacking trip if civilization’s infrastructure falters.

Thrillers such as yours require a fair amount of research to make them plausible. What fact did you discover in your research that stood out for you?

That’s a great question. PATRIARCH RUN won high praise from Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, the author of On Killing, for getting the psychology of combat right. The story also won praise from national security experts for its realistic depiction of an underreported, existential threat to America. That threat is what stands out most to me.

One of the things I learned in writing this story is that our civilization has unwittingly evolved to become absolutely dependent on a vulnerable critical infrastructure. What I mean by that is that if the power grid were to go down today and not come back up again most of us would die.

To contextualize a statement as bold as that it might be helpful to go back a hundred years to when there were only 76 million Americans. At that time, you didn’t need electricity to meet the basic needs of the population. Food was grown outside the urban centers, and just about everybody ate locally.

Fast forward to today. There are 325 million Americans and that number is growing. Many of our urban centers have outstripped the carrying capacities of their surrounding landscapes. As a consequence, food and basic goods are shipped over long supply lines, all of which are powered by refined fuels which, of course, are manufactured with electricity.

So how is it we’ve managed to expand, in the last 100 years, the carrying capacity of the planet from about 2 billion to about 7.5 billion people? Ironically, the answer is electricity. The advent of reliable, widely-available electrical power has made possible several key technologies that have allowed us to expand Earth’s carrying capacity. Those technologies include fertilizers, pesticides, mechanical irrigation, refined fuels for farm machinery and transportation, infrastructures for clean drinking water, infrastructures for sanitation, advanced medical care, etc. Everything in that list is made available through electrical power.

So imagine a large urban center devoid of electricity. No food. No safe drinking water. No sanitation. No transportation. What we’re talking about is an apocalypse.

What’s really scary is that there are several mechanisms of destruction that have a realistic potential of bringing about that apocalypse, including a sophisticated cyber-attack, which is what the bad guy is up to in PATRIARCH RUN.

Apocalyptic themes seem to have a continuing popularity. Why do you think we are so fascinated with the idea of how humanity might carry on? 

I think most people understand at a very deep level that we could easily bring about our own demise. The collective power of 7.5 billion people trying to make a living and creating security for themselves is profound. The amount of resources required to sustain so many people is almost unfathomable. So we have made ourselves vulnerable. You could look at the vulnerability through the lens of sustainability, with issues like climate change. Or you could look at that vulnerability through the lens of national security, with issues like the threat to the grid or a nuclear holocaust. National security and sustainability are two sides of the same coin. We have unwittingly made our civilization quite vulnerable. People sense that. So perhaps they are attracted to themes that play out the apocalypse.

By the way, I do think it would be easy to avoid such an ill fate. If we pay close attention and are intentional about our collective behavior as a people, we could enjoy a long prosperity.

You said that you set out to write a story about fathers. Why is that important to you? 

I wanted to tell a story about two types of fathers, one who sacrifices his family for his mission and another who sacrifices himself for his son. I think that’s the spectrum on which all of us, as parents, have to decide who it is we want to be.

In addition to writing, you work as a school advisor. Are there any sly ways that you encourage teens to expand their horizons through books?

I’m always looking for ways to get kids to read. They all love learning, even if they don’t all know it yet. I’ve taught The Hunger Games in a bow making class, where we crafted our own bows and arrows. I’ve also taught classes based on food and cooking with Michael Pollan’s books. I also use a good thriller to get kids engaged.

Do you plot extensively or are you more of an organic writer?

I plot the entire outline before I begin. I want to be able to visualize the whole world and all the characters before I write the first chapter.

Tell us something about your writing schedule and workspace. Do you write in the mornings or evenings? Do you have to work at a desk, on the sofa, or at the local coffee shop?

I write alone in my office and in silence. I wake up at 4 am, when the house is quiet, and write until 7. Those three hours feel like three minutes every morning. Then I get the kids ready for school, and we all head off together. All three of them attend the school at which I work. We serve preschool through 12th grade at my school.


benjamindancerBenjamin is the author of the literary thriller Patriarch Run, the first book in a series that will include Fidelity and The Story of the Boy. He also writes about parenting, education, sustainability and national security.

Benjamin works as an Advisor at a Colorado high school where he has made a career out of mentoring young people as they come of age. His work with adolescents has informed his stories, which are typically themed around fatherhood and coming-of-age.

To learn more about Benjamin, please visit his website.


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Exploring Civil War Lore from Maryland and Delaware

The moat at Fort Delaware, on Pea Patch Island, source of more than a few Civil War legends.

The moat at Fort Delaware, on Pea Patch Island, source of more than a few Civil War legends.

Most of us know the “greater story” of the Civil War—the battles, the politics, the leaders. We’ve heard of Grant and Lee, Gettysburg and Antietam, Abe Lincoln and Jeff Davis.

But it’s the “little stories”—the quirky ones about people and events–that make this time period so fascinating even today. Some of these tales of Civil War legend and lore are funny, some sad, but they all bring a very human side to the war 150 years later.

These stories will be the focus of “Civil War Legends and Lore” at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 27, at the North East Branch Library. We’ll classify these stories as “legends and lore” because local tradition and folklore have filled in the blanks between the known facts.

Our region has no shortage of Civil War legends and lore, much of it spiced up by the fact that Cecil County residents had divided loyalties. Maryland itself was a border state, even though it is located south of the Mason-Dixon Line. In Cecil County and the rest of Maryland some were fiercely pro-Union; others were pro-Confederate to the point that they fled South to take up arms against the United States. Once war was declared, Cecil Countians for the most part supported the Union and its new president, even if they hadn’t necessarily voted for him.

Some of the other legends and lore we’ll touch upon that evening:

  • How “mule skinners” took over the mansion and grounds at Perry Point, where the owners were pro-southern. The owners complained that Yankee officers banged up the elegant staircase with their swords.
  • The C&D Canal played a huge role in the early days of the war, enabling Lincoln to bring loyal troops from “up north” to occupy Maryland after Federal troops traveling by train were attacked in Baltimore. The nervous canal superintendent in Chesapeake City constantly feared attacks by Confederate raiders.
  • George Alfred Townsend spent his summers as a boy in Cecil County. The war made him famous as an Anderson Cooper-type newsman of his day who went on to be friends with Mark Twain. We’ll take a look at a story he wrote with a touch of dark humor about the topic of undertakers making their fortune after the battle of Antietam.
  • A newspaper editor whose pro-Southern editorial got him marched out of town at bayonet point by Union troops and locked up in Fort McHenry.
  • A Civil War romance that started when a Chesapeake City girl met a captured Confederate officer on his way to the prisoner of war camp at Fort Delaware.

As divided and cantankerous as the two sides could be here in Cecil County, one of the impressions that stands out is how people seemed to have put aside their differences after the war. It’s a lesson that shouldn’t be lost on us today as we struggle through difficult, sometimes divisive times of our own.


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Greats Storms talk set for Cecilton Library

Great StormsThis Tuesday, Aug. 30, I will be talking about Great Storms of the Chesapeake at the Cecilton Library in Cecilton, MD. The talk starts at 6:30 and we will look back at some of the most intriguing stories about people caught up in the worst weather that the Chesapeake Bay region could dish out.

It’s interesting that since the book came out, there really haven’t been any major storms in the region. Tropical Storm Sandy missed us, and we are currently experiencing a hurricane drought that has gone on for several years now. We will talk about all that, and invite folks to share their own stories of hurricanes, blizzards, fogs, and freezes. Hope to see you there!

Great Storms website pic

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Ellicott City flood of 1868 devastated town

The Ellicott City flood of 1868 as depicted in Harper's Weekly. A flash flood destroyed dwellings and warehouses, claimed lives, and nearly shipwrecked a tugboat. Image from author's collection taken from original edition.

The Ellicott City flood of 1868 as depicted in Harper’s Weekly. A flash flood destroyed dwellings and warehouses, claimed lives, and nearly shipwrecked a tugboat. Image from author’s collection taken from original edition.

The following chapter comes from Great Storms of the Chesapeake and describes the Ellicott City flood of 1868.

One of the most devastating floods ever to strike the Chesapeake Bay region took place on the morning of July 24, 1868. Before the day was over, downtown Baltimore and Ellicott’s Mills (today known as Ellicott City) would be badly damaged, with bridges and houses swept away. As many as fifty lives would be lost. And yet not a drop of rain fell before the flood struck.

The cause of the flood remains something of a mystery today, though there is little doubt that a tremendous storm was taking place to the west of the city. Residents of the mill town of Ellicott City on the Patapsco River described how a strange darkness seemed to fall across the Patapsco Valley. Flashes of lightning punctuated the darkness, though the storm was so far off that thunder couldn’t be heard. So the people of Ellicott’s Mills and Baltimore went about their business, keeping an eye on the weather.

Baltimore at that time was a major city, while Ellicott’s Mills was a busy up-and-coming industrial center located fifteen miles upriver. The Patapsco was only navigable to Elkridge just a few miles downstream, so Ellicott’s Mills was not a port town. Instead, Ellicott’s Mills had become an important railroad town for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The tracks followed the Patapsco River west through the narrow river valley toward Frederick and then the Appalachian Mountains beyond, linking east to west. In fact, the town had been the setting for the famous race in 1830 between the original Tom Thumb steam engine and a horse-drawn rail car. (The horse won the race.)

Vessels could not navigate the river at that point because it was too shallow, but the town did rely heavily on the river to power several flour and cotton mills. The mills employed hundreds of workers, many of whom lived in cottages and row houses within a stone’s throw of the river.

According to an account in The River of History: “At approximately 9:15 a.m., the westbound mail train steamed slowly from the railroad station and disappeared into an almost eerie darkness which had crept almost unnoticed eastward through the River Valley. The darkness intensified, interrupted by brilliant flashes of lightning illuminating the stone mills and houses lining the river’s edge.” According to witnesses, it became so dark that the millworkers had to stop work. Birds stopped singing.

The strange gloom and silence was like a warning. By 9:30 a.m., the Patapsco River had silently risen nearly ten feet. And then a terrible roaring sound. Villagers described a “wall of water” sweeping down the Patapsco. It was unlike anything they had ever seen. The normally quiet river continued to rise at the rate of one foot every two minutes. Soon, the river rose sixteen feet higher than ever before. The river that could normally be waded across with ease during a dry summer spell was now forty-five feet deep. It was described how spray and waves shot twenty feet into the air by the rushing flood. Trees and railroad ties bobbed like corks in the rushing water but struck with the force of battering rams.

The waves struck the mills along the shoreline and carried them away like matchsticks. Workers who had been too slow to get out disappeared in the current. Some of the mills were quite substantial, reaching several stories high and with stone walls reported to be as much as twenty feet thick, but they could not withstand the surge of the flood.

A group of thirteen millworkers’ houses near the Frederick Turnpike bridge was soon the scene of a terrible drama. Trapped by the flood, the families living there climbed to the rooftops. Their older children had been off at school; now these children watched helplessly from higher ground with the other villagers as one by one the houses crumbled in the flood. As the houses gave way, the survivors managed to cling to the roof of the next intact house. Finally, just one house stood with as many as thirty-six people—mostly women and very young children—shouting for help from the roof. But they were beyond rescue, separated from the shore by too great a distance. And then the last house washed away. Bodies would turn up downstream for days.

“Every tree and street, the conservatory, the fences and out-buildings are swept away,” wrote John F. Kennedy, supervisor at Gray’s Cotton Mill, in describing the aftermath of the flood.

A great part of the dwelling house is in ruins, a deposit of three or four feet of white sand spread over the grass plots; quantities of stone brought down the river from the mills destroyed above, strew over this deposit, porches carried away, my library entirely taken off, leaving no vestige of books, prints, busts or other articles with which it was furnished. Mr. Bowen’s house is lifted from its foundation and borne bodily away upon the flood. The devastation has so completely altered the aspect of the place that I should not know it.

Other, smaller villages along the Patapsco were caught by surprise, with more houses and mills destroyed. In the years that followed, many such homes and businesses were never rebuilt.

A small steam tugboat that plied the upper reaches of the river found itself nearly shipwrecked by the normally placid Patapsco but managed to ride out the swells. The flood swept on toward Baltimore, where it wrecked bridges and filled the streets and then the harbor with debris such as trees, stones and lumber.

In her 1972 book Ellicott City: Maryland’s 18th Century Mill Town, Celia M. Holland estimates the damage at more than $1 million by the time the floodwaters had ebbed. Accounts vary as to the number of lives lost, but most sources state that between thirty-six and fifty people died in the flood, making it one of the deadliest weather events in Maryland history.

Even now, it’s hard to say why the flood took place under such odd circumstances, considering that no storm of any consequence struck Ellicott City or Baltimore. The only flood of similar proportions took place in 1972 as a result of Tropical Storm Agnes, which was understandable, considering that the entire Chesapeake region was affected by heavy rainfall. Unfortunately, the flood of July 30, 2016, was another one for the record books.




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Writing lessons from the newsroom


My trusty and dusty 1926 Underwood typewriter.

The newspaper where I used to work recently turned 175. They asked me to share a few memories about working there for 21 years. This newspaper has the peculiar name of The Cecil Whig and covers community news in the extreme northeastern corner of Maryland. It used to be a daily newspaper, but isn’t anymore. Here are a few recollections that focus on what I learned about writing from my newspaper days.

When I look back at the newspaper business, I feel lucky to have experienced the real “paper and ink” days before the internet changed journalism so fundamentally. The Whig at 150 years old was a print product not so different from the one Palmer C. Ricketts produced in his log cabin back in 1841. By the time the Whig’s 175th anniversary arrived, something called the Internet had come along and changed the world.

 The front page news got the most attention, but in those days before Google, even a local daily like the Whig contained so much information in every issue—tide tables, horoscopes, lottery numbers, the firelog, the local weather forecast … what a tremendous effort to assemble all that information every night. It helped to be young and heavily caffeinated!

 You know, I literally still have anxiety nightmares about it being past midnight and the paper not being back to the presses yet. You could call it Post Traumatic Deadline Syndrome or something like that.

 Overall, reporting the local news seemed like such an important job, especially when there was really only one source for the news. Whenever there was a big story, such as the night a tornado hit the town of Elkton, or maybe on election night, everyone really came together as a team—reporters, editors, photographers, pressmen—to get the paper out.

 A couple of memories stand out. One night, I ran out to cover a fire in Elkton and just as I got there, the whole place went up. Whoosh! I jumped out with my camera and shot some photos. Black and white film only in those days! Well, I was so excited that I locked my keys in my car with the motor running. There was a guy in the crowd who just happened to have a wire coat hanger, and he popped that door open in seconds. You could do that with cars back then. That was awfully nice of this guy, but I had to wonder why he was so skilled in the use of a coat hanger to unlock a car. People in Elkton have skills!

 Then there was election night at the county courthouse (the old one on Main Street, not the new one on the state line in Delaware). The election board workers would tape big sheets of paper up in the hallway and write down the precinct results in Magic Marker. There would be this huge crowd gathered to see the results and it was a real party. The last time I covered an election for the Associated Press, all I did was refresh the results on my laptop. Where was the fun in that?

 In many ways the Whig was a training ground for a parade of writers, editors, and photographers over the 21 years I worked there. Editor Terry Peddicord and I used to try to remember all of them, but we would lose track after listing 50 people or so. I am sure there are many people who are successful in their fields today who have “Cecil Whig” buried somewhere in their resume.

When you write for a newspaper, there is no such thing as “writer’s block.” There is no hand wringing about “inspiration” or whatever. You get your writing done. On deadline.

 One of the great teachers there was editor Don Herring (the editor before Terry), who remains one of the smartest people and best writers I’ve ever worked with. He taught me a great deal about writing honestly and accurately. Don would actually ask you to read your bad sentences out loud in front of the newsroom, which was terribly embarrassing. Being a good teacher by nature, however, Don would offer some guidance, but he wanted you to come up with your own solution to that writing problem. Writing class was in session every night in the Whig newsroom.

 Since then, I’ve kept on writing. There are still days when my sentences don’t quite make sense, so that’s when I read them out loud, just like I used to do in the newsroom.

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Feeling energized by Thrillerfest XI

There is yours truly (third from left) as part of the time management for writers panel at Thrillerfest, along with (from left) Matt Richtel, Marti Green, Michael Kardos, Adam Mitzner, Mike Pace, and Peter Swanson.

There is yours truly (third from left) as part of the time management for writers panel at Thrillerfest, along with (from left) Matt Richtel, Marti Green, Michael Kardos, Adam Mitzner, Mike Pace, and Peter Swanson.

Joanne and I spent a few days in New York for Thrillerfest XI … or I should say that I spent a few days at Thrillerfest and she spent a few days exploring the city. She has been there many more times than I have and is always trying to surprise herself with a new neighborhood.

One new place we enjoyed was the Morgan Library and Museum, where I found a small but fascinating display about J.P. Morgan’s life. He was something like the Bill Gates of his day, enormously wealthy, but a dedicated patron of the arts. Morgan died in 1913 while traveling overseas, so this museum (and Morgan bank!) may be his greatest legacy. I think I could have spent all night just gliding up and down in the glass elevators!

Oh, but what about Thrillerfest, you say? Once again, it was a gathering of some amazing writers who were good enough to share their insights into the craft.

I did take part in a panel on time management for writers. In other words, how do we get our writing done? Almost every writer had a different answer, and yet in so many words they gave the same answer—determination. Day by day, the pages pile up.

Hello from Times Square!

Hello from Times Square!

One of the craft books I mentioned as part of the panel was Stephen Pressfield’s excellent THE WAR OF ART, which is all about owning your creative project. He writes about how this force called “resistance” works to prevent us from completing our work. Once you acknowledge the existence of this force, it is much easier to overcome.

My own determination story that I shared was about REBEL TRAIN. I wrote that one working almost exclusively between midnight and 2 a.m., writing in longhand on legal pads, because it was literally the only free time I had to write due to work and baby schedules. Take that, Resistance!

I had a chance to meet some fellow writers and writers in progress. And thanks to the many panels and interviews (with the likes of Lee Child, David Morrell, Gillian Flynn, and C.J. Box, to name a few) I always return to writing feeling energized and reassured that others are out there pursuing this same crazy business of putting stories on the page.

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From the July issue of The Big Thrill: Earthquakes and a tsunami in this eco thriller

Cascadia by H.W. Bernard


H.W. “Buzz” Bernard has just the sort of resume you might expect from an author of weather-related disaster thrillers. He has a degree in atmospheric science, spent a career in the Navy as a weather officer, was a senior meteorologist for The Weather Channel, and has gone in search of tornadoes with professional storm chasers. He has even flown into a hurricane aboard a hurricane hunter, an experience that helped prompt his best-selling thriller, Eyewall.

Now, Bernard has decided to shake things up.


His newest novel is CASCADIA, set in the Pacific Northwest town of Manzanita. The plot focuses on Dr. Rob Elwood, a geologist who makes a startling prediction. Not only will a cataclysmic earthquake strike the region once again, but the event will be followed by an epic tsunami. Elwood knows this from his study of the geological record, which indicates that another “big one” is on the way.

Elwood puts his career, and even his marriage, on the line by making a very specific prediction: disaster will strike the Cascadia Subduction Zone over the busy July Fourth weekend.

The scariest part of the story may be that Bernard’s book, like his others, is based on fact.

“I try to stay within the realm of possibility,” Bernard explained.

Much of CASCADIA is based on current geoscience, he said, which points toward a natural disaster much like the one imagined in those pages.

“Unfortunately, that is a worst-case scenario that is going to happen someday,” he said. “When it happens, it’s going to be the worst natural disaster in the United States.”

For someone who has written several novels about super storms and natural disasters, Bernard is far from an alarmist. However, he does say it helps to be prepared for disaster. After all, the best time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining—or in this case, before the earth starts quaking.

“At least be minimally prepared for when it hits,” he said.

One of the really fun aspects of CASCADIA is a subplot about the hunt for treasure on Neahkahnie Mountain. This well-known Pacific Northwest legend purports that treasure buried by Spanish explorers in the late 1500s lies buried somewhere on the mountain.

“That mountain has been dug up from top to bottom,” Bernard said. “As far as I know, nobody has reported finding treasure on the mountain.”

(Then again, who would report finding the treasure?)

Bernard got his start as a fiction writer after authoring several successful nonfiction weather books.

When he started, “I just sat down and wrote—how hard could this be?”

Pretty hard, as it turns out.

An encounter with best-selling thriller author Steve Barry at a conference in 2005 was a particularly humbling experience.

Bernard went into a one-on-one manuscript review session with high expectations. He was sure the novel would inspire awe and excitement. Maybe Barry would even recommend his agent!

But after reviewing the first 10 pages and synopsis, Barry handed them back with the words: “You’ve got a lot of work to do.”

“I don’t think I heard anything else he said. I was just crushed,” Bernard said.

That’s when Bernard got serious about learning the craft of thriller writing.

“That’s why you go to these conferences. You go to learn.” Also, there are many personal connections, and encouragement. “It keeps you going as a writer.”

His advice?

“You have got to learn the craft. That’s why the Southeast Writers’ Association was so valuable to me. I went to seminars and had people discuss the craft of writing. You’ve got to learn the craft.”

As the lessons sink in from attending workshops and seminars, he said, you can begin to pick and choose advice based on what works for you: “You kind of develop your own style that way.”

After 10 years of learning the craft, and four different manuscripts, his personal “perfect storm” arrived with Eyewall.

He is now taking the reins as president of the Southeastern Writers’ Association, the organization that was so helpful to him in learning to become a thriller writer.

“I attribute a lot of my success to them,” he said.

In addition to running the writers’ organization, he is busy marketing and promoting CASCADIA. These days, his writing schedule is flexible, and he carries his shih tzu upstairs to keep him company in the office.

“I don’t keep a hard and fast schedule,” he said with a laugh. “I’m supposed to be retired!”


buzzH. W. “Buzz” Bernard is a best-selling novelist, retired Weather Channel meteorologist, and a USAF veteran.  His debut novel, EYEWALL, was released in 2011 and went on to become a number-one best seller in Amazon’s Kindle Store. His next two novels, PLAGUE and SUPERCELL, won EPIC eBook Awards in the suspense/thriller category. His fourth novel, BLIZZARD, led to his nomination as a 2016 Georgia Author of the Year. CASCADIA, his most recent thriller, will be released in July 2016.

Buzz has penetrated the eye of a hurricane with the Air Force Hurricane Hunters, chased tornadoes, and provided field support to forest fire fighting operations in the Pacific Northwest. He also spent a summer working on Alaska’s arctic slope, and served two tours in Vietnam while on active duty with the Air Force.

He’s native Oregonian but now calls Roswell, Georgia, home. To learn more, please visit his website.

You can read the original article (and a lot of other great articles) in the July issue of The Big Thrill, published by the International Thriller Writers.

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Meet Ben Blackshaw and Robert Blake Whitehill

Robert Blake Whitehill speaking with other writers at the Queen Anne's County Library.

Robert Blake Whitehill speaking with other writers at the Queen Anne’s County Library.

Thriller author Robert Blake Whitehill was the speaker at Saturday’s gathering of Eastern Shore Writers. Robert shared his own success story with writing and publishing his Ben Blackshaw series, which has not only been a hit with readers, but has been optioned for film and is currently in the development process.

Whitehill grew up in a Quaker family in Mardela Springs (Wicomico County) but now lives in Montclair, N.J. Those Eastern Shore roots tugged at him in creating and writing his novels.

Earlier in life, he didn’t set out to be a writer, but an actor. However, he soon found a knack for writing personalized audition monologues for other actors, and then screenplays. He even found a gig writing for the “True Crime” TV series.

Both were good training grounds for how to write action and emotion: “For the monologues, whatever made them breathe faster and brought color to their cheeks, that was the subject of the monologue.”

For many years, Whitehill also worked on the ambulance crew in Montclair, which was a real eye opener into the many facets of how people really live—and die.

“Any experience you give yourself like that is tremendously helpful,” he said.

But the ambulance work took its toll emotionally and physically—hauling stretchers up and down staircases isn’t easy on a back—and he turned his attention to writing fiction. The result was his first Ben Blackshaw novel, “Deadrise.”

Blackshaw is one of those characters in the vein of Jack Reader or Travis McGee. And while McGree in particular is associated with Florida, Blackshaw is a Chesapeake Bay man.

Whitehill got to the core of his character: “If he learns of an injustice, he has to set it right. He is outside the firelight and working in the shadows, for good or ill.”

To help him in writing the books, Whitehill has assembled a team of experts on everything from firearms to the “emotional truths” of combat veterans to editing and cover design.

One unusual tip he suggested for writers is that they take a class in improv comedy. “It will take the stiffness and formality out of the dialogue you write,” he said. “Also, it will help you find your inner funny person. We all have one of those.”

The next step for the Ben Blackshaw character may very well be to the big screen. The stories are currently in the development phase, with the author taking time out to work on the screenplays. While a movie would definitely bring Ben Blackshaw to a wider audience, for now there are four popular novels where the character leaps off the pages.

Whitehill said his goal is for the reader to be entertained on every page.

“If a reader is going to give that time to me, I’m going to respect that to the utmost,” Whitehill said.

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Latest from The Big Thrill

Warning Order by Joshua Hood

By David Healey

warning-order-9781501108280_lgJoshua Hood may be a relative newcomer to the ranks of published authors, but he is one of those rare thriller writers who has lived more than a few of the experiences described in his military fiction.

Jumping out of airplanes? Check.

Duty in Iraq and Afghanistan? Check.

Combat experience? Check.

He served with the 82nd Airborne for five years, which included missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was decorated for valor in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Now out of the military, his day job still involves its share of excitement as a full-time member of the Memphis SWAT team.

Even while living the life of a thriller character, he never gave up on wanting to be a storyteller.

“I’ve always wanted to be a writer,” he said in a recent interview. “Very early on I developed this love for the written word. Being from the South, I think we’re all kind of natural storytellers.”

In WARNING ORDER, protagonist Mason Kane and other covert operators are in Syria, battling ISIS operatives. It is hard to know who to trust and where loyalties lie. This seems to be true among the American military operatives as well—the plot twists will keep readers off balance. Bullets fly off the pages of the urban combat scenes, described in graphic detail with the accuracy of someone who has been there. It’s worth noting that Kane has a particular skill with a custom-made combat knife.

The action is fast-paced, realistic, and tells a story that begins where the headlines end.

“There is no clear path to victory,” the author noted of the real-life situation.

At the same time, he wanted to create authenticity in his writing and pay homage to the soldiers who are fighting these battles today.


The writing desk that Joshua Hood built for himself and where he is now writing his military thrillers.

“I wanted Mason Kane to be as realistic as possible,” he said. His character  can have a hard time readjusting to “normal” life after a violent mission. “It’s kind of a dark place to go, but there are people out there who have shared this experience. To paraphrase Nietzsche, ‘If you spend enough time hunting monsters, you become one.’ ”

Growing up, he read anything he could get his hands on, thanks to a library card and a family that encouraged reading. Before joining the military, he was an English major at the University of Memphis.

The first thriller he read (if you don’t count The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Scarlett Pimpernel, all of which he read as a kid) was Eye of the Storm by Jack Higgins. “He is so good at taking these things that happened (such as the IRA mortar attack on Number Ten Downing Street) and building a story around them,” Hood said.

Drawing on an amazing knowledge of military history, Hood makes these same connections with current events. He posits that the current war on terrorism is repeating a cycle of conflict that began as far back as the Crusades.

The books he read in his youth, and his experiences in the military, have been encouragement to write his own thrillers. Before his new book, WARNING ORDER, there was Clear by Fire. He said that he learned a lot about the craft of writing with that book, particularly the need to create at least a rough outline of where the story is going.

“If I don’t know where I’m going I tend to get lost,” he said. He also carries a notebook to jot down ideas.

“Writing is a lot like golf,” he said. “Just when you think you’re good at this, you go out and have a terrible day.”

Hood said he has focused a lot on improving his craft as a writer, particularly because he wants readers to have a great experience with one of his books.

“I’m making a contract with every reader,” he said.

His efforts are being noticed. One of the bestselling authors who provided a blurb for WARNING ORDER was Ted Bell, who is no stranger to action and international intrigue in his own bestsellers. Bell wrote: “There are the guys who’ve been there, and the guys who haven’t. Joshua Hood’s been there, and it shows on every page. Helluva fine writer.”

Such praise set Hood’s head spinning. “It’s still a daydream,” he said of his writing success.

It also turns out that the particular skill set of this 36-year-old, polite and soft-spoken author includes woodworking. Before he settled down to write, he built his own desk from scratch.

“In my mind, it’s all about being a craftsman,” he explained. “I have a connection not only to what I’m writing, but what I’m writing on. It’s like a grounding principle.”


Joshua Hood graduated from the University of Memphis before joining the military and spending five years in the 82nd Airborne Division, where he was team leader in the 3-504 Parachute Infantry Regiment. In 2005, he was sent to Iraq and conducted combat operations in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2005–2006. From 2007 to 2008 he served as a squad leader in the 1-508th Parachute Infantry Regiment and was deployed to Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom. Hood was decorated for valor in Operation Furious Pursuit. He is currently a member of a full time SWAT team in Memphis, Tennessee, and has conducted countless stateside operations with the FBI, ATF, DEA, Secret Service, and US Marshals.

To learn more about Joshua, please visit his website.

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