BEGINNINGS

Iím a writer. Among others, Iíve written books, articles, television shows and movies. This is about that writing, a little behind-the-scenes on my career that you wonít find on Google. Writing is a solitary business. Despite much meaningful instruction about it, you basically have to write a lot to become good. But maybe something you read here will help.

I started my career as a cub reporter for The Miami News, a great newspaper that eventually folded. In those days, you learned from hardened rewrite guys yelling at you. "How many shooters! Where was he born! Go back and get it!Ē It was intimidating. These guys were gods - word magicians who made sense and drama out of anything.They didnít tolerate fools or errors. I covered crime, general assignment, whatever the editors dictated. One day after giving them enough information to write three front page stories, they invited me to lunch. I was accepted. Eventually, I began to write my own stories - floaters, jumpers, organized crime - I wrote about it all. We were an afternoon daily sold on the streets. You needed a headline to entice passersby.

After awhile however you want to write something needing more thought. Our little-old-lady religion editor died and I shocked some by asking for her job. I felt history and religion were great sweeping subjects not just bulletin-board items as the newspaper was treating them. A year into the job - and to my surprise because my editor entered my writing - I was judged the best religion editor in the nation by my peers. Believe me, I didnít have a clue. But I wrote with passion and I think thatís what tipped it.

FIRST BOOK

The Supple Memorial Award gave me a big head. I decided real writers write books. I'd looked for a story that might be my ticket. Iíd run into one about the Shroud of Turin. You might know of it today but back then - in the 1970s - few outside of Turin, Italy had heard of it. Basically, itís a burial cloth reputed to have wrapped Jesus. Sure, I know, relics are a dime a dozen. There are holy foreskins and enough splinters from the True Cross to build an apartment house. But the Shroud is different. It was the scientists who were intrigued. To begin with, the photographic-like image of a crucified man on it was at least 600 years old. But photography had only been invented 150 years ago. Iím not going to give you the whole story because it takes a book. But itís s a terrific mystery.

By this time Iíd become a stringer for the New York Times, which gave me some clout. I went to New York, where most of the big publishers are. An editor at Macmillan, bought the idea. I told him I might solve the mystery. I think he just liked the story. I got a small advance. To me, it was a kingís ransom. I quit the News, and my first book, Shroud, was published two years later. It was the first modern book on the ancient cloth and did well. I had a great time writing it, went all over Europe and America researching and became an expert on the mystery. The shroud is inexplicable. You may have heard that it was found to be a fake. Donít believe it. The press hasnít got a clue. Itís just as mysterious as itís always been. But back to the point: Iíd published my first book.

I was a book writer!

WHATíS NEXT?

After the high, comes the low. Whatís next? Itís the writerís dilemma. Wishes donít pay bills. Fittingly, newspapers gave me my next book. There, blaring out from all of them that summer of 1975 was a story about perhaps 100 patients being murdered in the Ann Arbor (Michigan) Veterans Hospital. I had recently read Gerald Frankís award-winning Boston Strangler about a city in terror. I saw the Ann Arbor story as a hospital in terror. Thatís how I sold it - over the phone to Popular Library, a publisher of paperback originals. They gave me a fairly large advance. I rushed out to Ann Arbor as the investigation got going. Because it was a federal hospital, the FBI was in charge. Someone was injecting patients with Pavulon, a muscle relaxer used in operations on patients anesthetized. But without anesthesia, it was a conscious nightmare. It paralyzed every muscle in the body and most organs like the lungs. But not the brain. Victims who could still hear and think, couldnít lift an eyelid or call for help. In minutes theyíd suffocate Ė silently screaming.

When I arrived in Ann Arbor, the killer was still loose. I was from Miami and Michigan was cold and dark. As I researched, I wondered if the maniac was stalking me. Creepy things happened. But it was exciting. I lived in Detroit, a city destroyed in parts from the 1960s race riots but beautiful in surrounding areas. The Mysterious Deaths at Ann Arbor was published the same year as Shroud - just a quirk of publishing schedules and the fact that Mysterious Deaths was rushed out. It was 1977 and with two books suddenly published I figured I was fat. Visions of mansions danced in my head.

It didnít happen. Shroud did well, but Mysterious Deaths died mysteriously. One day, Popular Library had the big tout on my book. The next day it was dumping it. I never knew what happened. Nobody had the courtesy to tell me. It got good reviews but something went wrong. Like the movies, if it doesnít click quickly, its see you later kid. I always thought the University of Michigan, which ran the hospital for its student doctors and therefore was culpable, squelched it. They didnít want the bad publicity and had the power. All it would have taken would have been a high-level phone call. Publishers have abandoned costlier books under less pressure. But I couldnít prove it. Meanwhile, the advance ran out.

What are you going to do next?

FIRST NOVEL

I always wanted to write a novel. That was the true test! Because of Shroud, I had some money in the bank. I could afford a risk. Iíd been writing for Tropic Magazine, the Sunday supplement of The Miami Herald. Iíd done a story for Tropic about a psychic who saw crimes. He was a commercial artist. While drawing, heíd occasionally have debilitating visions of a murder taking place. He didnít know who it was but he could see the violence in his mindís eye. His impulse was to tell the police, but theyíd invariably decide that he knew so much that he must be the killer. He was never arrested but often suspected.

Now thereís a novel. I changed him into a her, gave her a background of coming from Armenia and the Armenian holocaust and wrote Fatal Glimpse, which was published by Leisure and later Tower paperbacks. I got a small advance but I never saw a royalty. First novels usually donít sell well. I loved the cover they put on the book. It showed an evil eye with the devil for a pupil. To get a novel published was satisfying, but not very lucrative - at least this first one wasnít. But no problem. I had another idea. And still a little money left over from Shroud.

Donít worry. Iím going to lose it.

My wife is a Basque. They are the people of the Pyrenees Mountains between Spain and France Ė a mysterious people who speak a language unrelated to any other and are anthropologically unique. I began to research them and slowly a story emerged. I would tell the saga of the Basques who came to America. It would start in the 19th Century during the Carlist Wars and end with the descendants of my main character becoming the senator and governor respectively of Nevada and Idaho, a scenario based in fact. It would have love, hate, jealousy, revenge, struggle and triumph. I was hyped. The Basques are fascinating people; the oldest race in Europe. The Romans wrote how tough they were. They didnít want to fight them. Good stuff. My wife and I went to the Basque Country. I interviewed many, walked where Hemmingway walked. I was shadowed by the ETA, the Basque separatist group. But my outline didnít sell. Which leads me to an important point. Writers get lots of rejection. Donít worry about it. Put the story away and go to the next. It can be resurrected later and be your masterpiece!

But back to reality.

JAPAN

After the Basque excursion, I was nearly out of money. What next Ė and fast! Iím a World War II buff. I happened to read a story in the New York Times about Japan possibly making an atomic bomb during the war. Iíd never heard that. Was there a story or was it just a footnote? I made inquiries. I was led to a prominent scholar, Derek deSolla Price, a Yale historian of science, who told me there was much to be uncovered. I sold the concept for Japanís Secret War to a publisher who will go unnamed because it went from them to Morrow, who published it in 1985. I went to Japan. Fascinating. The Sword and The Chrysanthemum. Ferocity and delicacy. Thatís the Japanese dichotomy. For a month, I sipped tea and tried to extract information. The story was a sore spot for the Japanese who had only been portrayed as victims of the bomb. Like pulling teeth, the story unfolded. Yes they did have a program. It was more developed than most know. They would have used the bomb on us in a Hiroshima minute had it been ready. It almost was. The story was as much as I had hoped and more. I told it through the scientists and soldiers who lived it. If the Japanese and Germans had not been so suspicious of each other and had cooperated, they might have made the bomb before we did Ė a very controversial story. I worked so hard in Japan that I fell ill when I returned. Writing can be physically demanding. I exercise every day.

HOLLYWOOD

In 1983, we made a big decision. My wife and I and our two children moved from Coconut Grove, Fla., to Los Angeles. Iíd done some film writing in Miami and had a friend who had done quite well in Hollywood. The money, I was told, was very good there. It is - if you can get it. Itís not easy. My friend was gracious, my literary agent introduced me to a film agent, and I wrote some spec scripts. These are showcases of your work. I chose Hill Street Blues which I thought was the best drama on television at the time. It got me into Hill Street to talk to one of the producers but I didnít get a job. At a crucial moment, he asked me for a story idea. He didnít actually say, "Give me a story idea." But thatís what I think he was looking for. Well, duh, I didnít realize it.

See you later Charlie.

A few weeks later, I was offered a script assignment by Simon and Simon, a really great detective show. From there, it got easier. After several script assignments, I became a story editor on The Famous Teddy Z and The New WKRP in Cincinnati. The show won some Emmyís so naturally the network cancelled it. I made good money. I donít know where it went. Writers should always save their money. Unfortunately I didnít heed my own advice.

But Iím getting ahead of myself.

WAR AND FIGHTER PILOTS

As I tried to make it in Hollywood, I ran into a story I felt would be a good book: Topgun. Weíve all seen the movie. Well, I saw the story that inspired the movie. This was well before the movie was made. It was a magazine article. And deep in it was a little paragraph that said something to the effect that Topgun was started because the US was losing dogfights in the Vietnam War.

Now thereís a story.

Paramountís movie was a contemporary piece, one that showed Topgun as it was in the 1980s. But the story I wanted to tell was how Topgun got started in 1969 Ė not during peace time but during the Vietnam War when things were tough! I made my inquiries and was introduced to a group of men who, over the course of about a year, told me how it had happened. It was a great story; a real victory won in Vietnam that not many people know about. The men who started it were exemplary and courageous and great fighter pilots. I loved researching and writing it. Iíd been an air force officer during the Vietnam War. I didnít fly but I saw those big, nasty airplanes. The men who started Topgun were navy flyers. They flew off carriers. It was my first airplane book. I say that flippantly. The truth is it is not about airplanes. It is about the men who flew them Ė always more important than the machines - and how they rose to a challenge.

Scream of Eagles was launched on Good Morning America. It did quite well. It was a main selection of the Military Book Club and Pocket Books bought the paperback rights. It got some terrific reviews. I was proud of it. I still am. Several producers tried to make it into a movie but they couldnít. Someday someone will. Iím ready with the scenario.

With the success of Scream, I sold another fighter book. In this one, I would find the nationís best fighter pilots and tell their stories.Wings of Fury basically picks up after the Vietnam War and follows certain fighter pilots through the 1980s and into the First Gulf War. I had a great time writing this one too. I went to fighter bases, like Nellis outside of Las Vegas, and Oceana in Virginia Beach, Va. I was able to profile some really interesting flyers and also chronicle the moment-by-moment story of the air war in the Gulf. One of the great moments for a writer doing non-fiction is when the person you are interviewing tells you something really dramatic and you can visualize it. You know it is going to be a stirring part of the book. I had lots of those moments researching Wings of Fury. It got a couple of book club sales and is still selling Ė as is Scream of Eagles in a new edition.

After Wings, I had a drought. Things got so bad I had to take a second job which Iíve done from time to time. Mostly, Iíve been a salesman. I do well at sales but itís always just to pay the bills and keep the family together until Iíve got the next writing project. When the Kosovo War started, I had my next ticket. Iíd always wanted to do a book about a fighter squadron at war. Lots of drama there. And I wanted it to be on a carrier. Iíd heard that the navy liked Scream of Eagles. I asked them if I could go on a carrier during the Kosovo festivities. They let me do it. I was lucky to get to spend some time with the VF-41 Black Aces, an F-14 Tomcat squadron, while they fought. Black Aces High was published in 2002 and is still selling.

BUTCH VORIS

My fighter experience won me the privilege of writing my next book, First Blue, a biography of Butch Voris, who started the Blue Angels. Butch was a man amongst men, a big, strong, dedicated World War II ace who was in his 80s when I met him. What a guy! Imagine flying upside down at 600 miles per hour barely 100 feet from the asphalt. Even breathe too hard and youíre history. Butch did that in starting the Blues. Or imagine being a young man right out of flight school, shipped to the South Pacific and knowing youíve got to shoot down experienced Japanese pilots or your carrier will be sunk. Forget the fear and death. Itís your duty to stop the hordes and he and others like him did Ė three thousand miles from home, nobody else to help them. Win or die. Butch is an example of the Greatest Generation and it was wonderful interviewing him, a perfect gentleman with a steel-trap mind that remembered almost everything. First Blue is still selling and should be an inspiration to anyone who strives to be the best.

PATTON

My latest book Ė number nine - is Target Patton, an investigation into the mysterious death of Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., our greatest fighting general. I believe he was assassinated. You be the judge.

In the meantime, Iím looking for my next book. Let me know if you have a suggestion.

P.S. I rewrote this three times. Writing isnít easy. You can always do better.

©2009 Robert K. Wilcox