Friday, June 26, 2009

Inspirations That Didn't Pan Out

By Chester Campbell

My colleagues Mark Troy and Ben Small recently wrote about inspiration, so I thought why not (thoughts are usually italicized, aren’t they)? Mark wrote about things that inspired his plots, while Ben wrote about locations and music and such that inspire his muse. I decided to make mine a trip down memory lane, to use an appropriate cliché, and cover works never published.

Going back into ancient history, 1948 to be exact, my first mystery novel was inspired by the reading of No Pockets in a Shroud by Horace McCoy. The book told the story of a crusading newspaper reporter fighting crime. I was 22 at the time, a neophyte reporter for The Knoxville Journal at night, a journalism junior at the University of Tennessee during the day. In my spare time I pounded out a mystery on my little Smith-Corona portable about a reporter solving a murder. I later learned McCoy was born near Nashville, my hometown. Dear old Kirkus called No Pockets his worst book. They won’t get the chance to say that about Time Waits for Murder. It rests peacefully in the brittle brown envelope in which it was returned by THE EDITORS at David McKay Co. in Philadelphia.

Following an all-expense-paid vacation in Korea during the early fifties, courtesy of Uncle Sam, where I worked as an Air Force intelligence officer, I shifted my reading preference to Cold War spy stories. Helen Macinnes, John Le Carre, Graham Greene and Len Deighton were my favorites. And my inspiration. In the mid-sixties, while editing Nashville Magazine, a slick paper monthly, I squeezed in time to write a novel dealing with a Russian plot to foil U.S. radars in Iran that monitored the Soviet Union’s airspace. I got the idea from my familiarity with radar, having gone on active duty in 1951 with the 119th Aircraft Control & Warning Squadron of the Tennessee Air National Guard. This manuscript also resides in the historical section of paper piles on my office floor.

After retiring from the Air Force Reserve and from management of a statewide trade association, I turned to writing fulltime (more or less) in 1990. The Cold War was coming to an end with the Soviet Union going down the tubes, and I penned my first spy thriller. Actually, I didn’t pen it. Anything I write by hand is undecipherable a few hours later. I had upgraded my computer and bought a rudimentary word processing program that would only hold a few chapters in a file. The inspiration for the character was an ex-FBI agent I had met during my magazine days. His almost unbelievable experiences provided the protagonist’s background. The story involved a plot to save the Soviet system by killing the American and Russian presidents.

Titled Beware the Jabberwock, that was the first book in a trilogy. Number two came out of my service in Korea and a visit there shortly before my retirement. The plot involved the assassination of North Korean President Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il. It would surely have saved us a lot of current trouble if the plot have proven true. My character from the Jabberwock was set up as head of a company that was a CIA spinoff. He made a business trip to South Korea to coordinate the operation.

Book three found ex-KGB agents working to thwart the governments of Russia and its former satellites and re-establish the old Soviet state. The inspiration for that one came from my habit of watching the Independence Day symphony concerts on the Mall behind the U.S. Capitol. As I watched the canon fire during the 1812 Overture, I thought what if somebody used that as a cover to fire nerve gas mortar shells into the crowd? This manuscript got me a contract with John Grisham’s first agent, who he later sued. I didn’t sue but wound up canceling the contract after they let this one and the next two gather dust on the shelf. When they had finally sent it to Tor Forge, the editor liked my writing but said the manuscript was “dated.” If it had been picked up and published when I first submitted it, the book would have come out about the time of the subway nerve gas attack in Japan.

A son and daughter who graduated in computer science and pursued careers in computer programming led to the story of a young programmer working on a voice synthesization program that would mimic a person’s voice enough to fool a voice print analysis. He gets involved with an investment firm I modeled after a famous Depression Era case. It winds up with a chase around Nashville by the bad guys and an attempt to eliminate my hero by funneling carbon monoxide into a sealed-off computer room.

The next book was inspired by stories told by my younger son who served for several years in Army Special Forces. A former Green Beret officer comes across a document that indicates a paramilitary outfit is preparing to bomb critical installations in two weeks. He talks to a former FBI agent who turns up dead. He winds up on the run from both the police and the secretive militia organization.

After that came a story that mirrored a trip I took with a church seniors group to New Orleans. In my version, one of the passengers is a former investment advisor to a Mafia family. He testified against the mob and went into the witness protection program but left it to pursue his own path. After several years, a mob enforcer finds him just before the bus leaves for the Big Easy. There are a lot of complicating factors, but it ends during a hurricane just outside New Orleans. The touring events on the trip are exactly as I experienced them.

I wrote one other manuscript during this period which I won’t go into for personal reasons. Suffice it to say after nine unsuccessful tries, I finally hit the shelves in 2002 with Secret of the Scroll, my first Greg McKenzie mystery. I now have five books out, but I’ve run out of space to talk about them.


Jean Henry Mead said...

I guess that's why most successful novels are from older novelists, Chester. All those experiences to draw from make for interesting and believable reading. :)

Chester Campbell said...

That's a nice way of looking at it, Jean. If I live to be 100 I might be a best seller.

Morgan Mandel said...

Sometimes the smallest thing can set off a chain reaction in your mimd, resulting in a novel. When I think of a good idea, I like to jot it down,sometimes even on the back of a bank receipt or whatever is in my purse at the time.

Morgan Mandel