It makes for beautiful symmetry when an author’s drive to make his writing better comes together with a strong cast of characters and an action-filled story line. Such is the case with Jon Land and Strong at the Break, his new Caitlin Strong novel.
Strong at the Break is the third novel in the Strong series featuring the Texas Ranger and continues the tradition of interweaving current events with historical ones as seen through the eyes of her Ranger father and grandfather. In this recent offering an event twenty years in the past forms the basis for today’s predicament facing Caitlin. Her father gunned down a radical separatist church leader two decades ago and now the fanatic’s son is seeking revenge. Over the years, the son has become the leader of a violent militia, and now he holds the power to wreak chaos and carnage throughout the country. The only problem in his way is Caitlin Strong who stands ready, with guns blazing to prevent a possible civil war.
One of the features of the Strong series is the use of flashbacks to events that occurred in the past of the Texas Rangers and that of Caitlin’s father and grandfather. It gives and added dimension to the multi-layered stories.
Jon admits he loves writing about Caitlin. In following the progression of Jon’s writing, it is easy to see her as the embodiment of an action hero. That, Jon says, is no accident. In a previously published interview, Jon describes Caitlin: “Like all great heroes, she’s a loner, but she struggles with that.”
For him, attributes common to great heroes transcend male or female. “I don’t believe heroism is gender-based. What makes a person a hero, what defines a hero, has nothing to do with whether or not they’re a man or a woman. Men have been cast in the vast majority of these roles because they are normally able to handle the heavy lifting better. That’s the main reason why I made Caitlin a Texas Ranger. Because being a Texas Ranger immediately affords her the kind of credibility as not just a hero, but an action hero. That’s very rare in the thriller genre indeed.”
Other attributes a hero should have, according to Jon, follow Classical Greek mythology in that “all heroes make great sacrifices to be who they are and normally lead their lives alone, by both choice and necessity.” This tradition, he finds, has been a staple of American literature since the very beginning citing Natty Bumpo in James Fennimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans. “One of the things I love about the thriller form, in fact, is basically it’s a reinvention of the old western.”
Strong at the Break required a great deal of research for two very contemporary story lines: the actually more lucrative drug smuggling occurring over the U.S.-Canadian border and fanatical right-wing militias. Jon calls himself the “king of Googling” as much of his research is done at his computer.
“A sense of place and authenticity is very important in my work,” he said. “One of the best pieces of advice I ever got about writing a scene was ‘always know where the light is coming from.’ Do that and you’ll describe everything you see and feel without becoming boring. The key for me is to always do it through the limited viewpoint of a character as opposed to the omniscient narrator which I never use.
“Writing isn’t hard when you let your characters do the work for you. What is hard is continuing to challenge these characters emotionally and keep giving readers a reason to care about and root for them. With Strong at the Break I had a much easier time than usual because I was dealing with a child’s kidnapping and a looming confrontation between Caitlin and a villain, the militia leader, hell bent on destroying her. The key word is conflict – and the more personal the conflict is, the more effective the book will be.
“Writing is hardest when you don’t know what’s motivating and challenging your characters emotionally. Plotting and storytelling have never been an issue for me, so once I have the emotional core of the book nailed everything else falls into place, and that happened very early in Strong at the Break.”
Jon followed his usual schedule when writing the Strong series. He typically writes in two sessions and by going to the gym in between he keeps himself and the writing fresh. He observes two important rituals. First, when ending his writing sessions, he always leaves off in the middle or beginning of a scene that gives him a running start at the next bout of writing. The second ritual takes place before he starts writing, it is then he picks up a book by one of his favorite authors and reads about ten or fifteen pages to get him in what he calls “the proper mind set.”
First drafts are written full tilt and take about six weeks. Then the rewriting, reworking, and editing happen. His editor gets what Jon considers a polished first draft and from there it is “truly a collaborative process” – one Jon thrives on. He said, “I often tell people I’m not the world’s best writer, but I might be the world’s best re-writer.”
In Strong Justice (the second Caitlin novel), he shares that the main villain of the piece did not even exist in the first two drafts. He credits the creation of Colonel Renaldo Montoya to “my editor talking and me listening.”
The first book in the series, Strong Enough to Die, sets up the resulting relationship between Caitlin and Cort Wesley Masters, which began when she was responsible for sending him to jail. Another character found in the series is Paz, who started as a killing machine but found his destiny tied to that of Caitlin’s. Readers can keep track of his progress as he visits church confessionals.
Jon is on schedule with Blood Strong featuring Caitlin and currently has no plans “to abandon her.” Plans are afoot for a new paranormal thriller with his good friend Heather Graham. And The Eighth Sin, a follow up to Seven Sins, is in a holding pattern until the film version of Seven Sins is further along.
For recent (and not so recent) fans of Jon’s, I am happy to report that Open Road Media has reissued the Blaine McCracken/Johnny Wareagle novels that started it all. Even better, expect a new McCracken novel, Pandora’s Temple, appearing early next year as an e-book.
Meanwhile, Jon wants Big Thrill readers to know Strong at the Break “is the perfect book for a summer vacation, a day at the beach, a long airplane flight, or hours spent waiting to board that plane. I’ve written a lot of characters and strong books but never one I felt as much as Caitlin and Strong at the Break is her biggest adventure yet.”
Visit Jon’s website for more detail on his previously published works.