Until 2001, I spent my career as a research meteorologist, delving into areas as diverse as cloud physics and weather modification, numerical weather prediction, and artificial intelligence. Over a span of more than thirty years, I’d written numerous technical articles. But nearly seven years ago, I retired from my job with the Naval Research Laboratory.
Why did I retire? At the time, I was doing some of the most fascinating research I’d ever done. However, I knew that unless I quit then, I’d miss a dream I’d been harboring for decades: that of writing fiction. (At my retirement luncheon, several colleagues jokingly suggested I needn’t have retired to claim that distinction.)
For years prior, in association with author/mentor Arline Chase, I’d written short stories to learn storytelling skills. It’s one thing to write a story, but quite another to write one that is enthralling and keeps the reader riveted. Regrettably, most of what we write in technical journals – although less so for the Bulletin – is hardly stay-up-all-night-turning-the-page material. Another way to put it is that fiction has to be fun, at least for the genre of fiction that I chose for my first novel.
After retiring, I spent another year writing short stories exclusively. But in 2002, I tackled a novel. Those of you who read fiction know there are various genres. During my short story period, I tried many of them: humor, fantasy, young adult, romance, mystery, and thriller. I concluded that I had the most success and fun writing thrillers. What is a thriller? Here’s a good definition: A novel of suspense with a plot structure that reinforces the elements of gamesmanship and the chase, with a sense of the hunt being paramount. The common thread is a growing sense of threat and the excitement of pursuit. Those of you who enjoy books by Tom Clancy know that he writes thrillers.
So, with genre in hand, I had to choose my topic. In fiction, a common saw is to write what you know. What did I know? Meteorology. And so, for months, with coconspirator Robin Brody (a meteorologist who continues to be my primary reader), we debated ideas worthy of a thriller, together with a plausible premise. After months of discussion, we had the makings of a story.
As the author, I had one nonnegotiable requirement: Enough of James Bond-like spies – I wanted the protagonist to be a meteorologist. If the world had to be saved (and it often does in a thriller), I wanted our discipline to be up there – in lights. Why choose a meteorologist? The choice is obvious. The qualities that manifest our ranks are many: intelligence, attention to detail, the ability to integrate and make sense of disparate sets of data, training in both theoretical and numerical processes, and a thorough appreciation of science in general. One other important quality is our ability to accept frequent failure, and criticism; who among us who has made a forecast wouldn’t agree? What more could you want from a protagonist who must decipher complex clues and save the world in the process?
Of course, I gave my protagonist, Dr. Victor Mark Silverstein, a few added gifts: I gave him a photographic memory (I’ve always wanted one of those) and a genius IQ (something I could have used). The most fascinating characters are not perfect, however. They become interesting and more human because of their faults. Silverstein is arrogant because he knows he’s smart, and he often uses his talents to manipulate people. As you might suspect, this combination can get him into trouble. There to save him is his associate, Dr. Linda Kipling, also a meteorologist, who possesses complementary skills – and is fearless.
Fiction is either “plot driven” or “character driven.” The best books are both. I tried for a balance. You can imagine that meteorology shows up in the plot, whereas human interactions (often involving moral/ethical dilemmas) provide the character-driven aspect.
Two-and-a-half years later, I completed Category 5 (iUniverse, 2005). Obviously, the plot concerns hurricanes. I won’t give away the premise; suffice it to say, the bad guys are doing bad things with hurricanes, and it’s up to the good guys to stop them.
As an aside, I’ve concluded that it is impossible to publish a book with no errors. Readers have spotted a few. I’m proud to say, however, that not one of them (yet) has been meteorological. I can’t take the credit. Robin Brody and several other meteorologist reviewers saved me from embarrassment. (Note, however, my fortuitous forecast for 2007’s Hurricane Noel, for which my book’s east coast track is close to the observed, including “…threading the needle between Cuba and Haiti…”)
To make my story more realistic, I visited all chapter locations except for two remote sites (Christmas Island and the Suez Canal) and the CIA. For example, at the end of Category 5, considerable commotion breaks lose in Bermuda. My wife Becky and I spent a week there scouting appropriate sites (someone had to do it) and taking their GPS coordinates (they’re listed at the beginning of chapters). If you use Google Earth (or go to my Web site, where I’ve summarized the images), you’ll see where I imagined the action occurred. Enter the coordinates for chapter 6 (32°22′02″N, 64°40′39″W), and you’ll find yourself at the Bermuda Weather Service (where the staff was most helpful). Do the same for chapter 3 (41°01′03″N, 28°58′17″E), and you’ll be looking at the approximate location for the Pandeli Restaurant, located in the Spice Market in Istanbul, Turkey. My wife and I had a nice lunch there. In other instances, I “construct” a building in a location I’ve scouted. The chapter 8 coordinates (32°18′20″N, 64°47′20″W) in Bermuda identify the concrete fortress where the final showdown occurs.
Following Category 5, I wrote a sequel called Prophecy (iUniverse, 2007), published in July. Although this time the problem facing the world is not meteorological, I chose to keep my meteorologist protagonists. The skills that make us what we are transfer easily to other areas of science – in this case genetics, DNA, and the genome.
However, I must say I feel guilty about deviating from meteorology, and have decided to make amends with the third book in the series. Because it seems to be the meteorological topic of this decade, I’ve decided to tackle global climate change. Robin and I have developed a premise worthy (we think) of a complex thriller. And, if a fictional character is going to be doing the heavy lifting in resolving a climate crisis, I’m going to make darn sure that he or she is a meteorologist. We deserve the recognition!
(This article by Paul Mark Tag was published in the December 2007 issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society and is reprinted with permission).
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