Firsthand Experience from a Distance

Firsthand Experience from a Distance

The Writer’s Corner: The Craft of Writing Political Thrillers

One of the reasons I was drawn into the whole realm of geopolitics is my fascination with other cultures. How do people from other parts of the world live? What is their history? What do they believe, and how do those beliefs affect the way they relate to one another and to the rest of the world?

Two of the best ways for uncovering these cultural differences are through study and story.

Studying another culture can include, among other things, reading nonfiction books and articles, listening to speakers, watching documentaries, and interviewing experts. Probably the best way to learn another culture is to immerse oneself in it, living for a time among the people. Experiencing a culture firsthand opens doors to learning subtleties that are often not available through secondhand sources. However, uprooting oneself and moving to another part of the world is not always possible, and it is certainly not practical if your goal is to expand your knowledge to many cultures rather than just homing in on a single one.

That brings me to story. The advantage that fiction has over nonfiction when it comes to learning other cultures is the ability to reveal those subtleties. For instance, a nonfiction writer may list a series of common idioms that are used within a certain people group. While interesting, it is very likely that they won’t be retained because they are simply more informational droplets in a stream of data. However, if a fiction author is able to season their work with these idioms, then the reader will be able to experience them in their context. For many learners, that is where knowledge, understanding, and retention are born.

Think of it this way: December 23, 2022, was the fiftieth anniversary of the Immaculate Reception, considered by many to be one of the greatest plays in the history of American football. It occurred during an AFC divisional playoff game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland Raiders. The Steelers were trailing the Raiders, 7–6, with only 22 seconds left in the game, Pittsburgh’s postseason on the verge of ending.

If I want you to understand why what happened next was so amazing, I could write about how Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw launched the ball downfield, how it ricocheted backward off the helmet of Raiders safety Jack Tatum, and how Steelers fullback Franco Harris snatched the ball up just before it hit the ground and ran the ball in for a game-winning touchdown. Or I could let you watch the play and experience the emotion and excitement for yourself. Which method do you believe will stay with you longer?

A good fiction writer can take you one step beyond a YouTube video. They can place you on the field. Maybe you’ll watch the play develop from the sidelines. Or maybe you’ll be in Jack Tatum’s uniform, feeling the pigskin bounce off your silver-and-black helmet, then reeling in disbelief as you futilely chase Harris into the end zone. Or maybe you’ll feel the shock and determination of the amazing Franco Harris, a Hall of Famer who passed away just three days before the half-century anniversary of his miraculous catch, who incredibly found the ball plummeting to the ground right in front of him. You’ll experience his elation as you race into the end zone to seal the victory and you’ll feel the adulation of his team as it surrounded him, soon followed by all the fans who jumped out of the stands and flooded onto the field.

As a lover of cultures, one of my goals in writing is to let my readers learn through experience how other people live around the world. I may place you in the Third Reich during WWII, the authoritarian Eurasian conundrum of modern Russia, the Hezbollah-saturated “Wild West” of Lebanon, or the current political train wreck of Libya (as I do with my next Marcus Ryker thriller, The Libyan Diversion, now available for preorder). Whatever the setting, I will make sure that by the time you finish the book, not only will you be breathless from the action, but you will also have a much greater grasp of what makes that nation and its people tick.

—Joel C. Rosenberg