Keeping Characters Fresh in a Recurring Series
By J. H. Bográn
Despite its shabby looks, many people would give up a limb for a ride aboard the Oregon. In fact, its captain, Juan Cabrillo, lost a leg in his introductory story, the Dirk Pitt adventure Flood Tide. Since then, there have been 14 new adventures in Clive Cussler’s Oregon Files series.
The Oregon Files is unique among Cussler’s series because it has a fairly large cast of recurring characters. Several of them have died as the series has progressed, which keeps it fresh by allowing the introduction of new characters to take their places. This fear of the unknown increases the suspense and raises the stakes because, as opposed to other series, the reader can never be certain the character’s going to survive.
Starting with the 2015 hit novel, Piranha, Boyd Morrison took over the co-author role in the Oregon series.
In their newest adventure, titled FINAL OPTION, Juan Cabrillo and the crew of the Oregon are framed for murders they didn’t commit, and they must clear their names by facing Juan’s greatest enemy, a vengeful ex-CIA agent named Zachariah Tate, who is hunting them down in a duplicate of their own spy ship. Yes, there are two “Oregon” ships navigating the sea.
One of the fan-favorite features in any Clive Cussler book is the globe-trotting aspect. With more than 70 books, though, the world has become small and Morrison surmises there is no region on Earth that hasn’t been used—even the moon served as a location once.
“FINAL OPTION primarily takes place in South America,” Morrison says. “Often I’ll suggest a location and Clive will say, ‘Graham Brown is using it in the NUMA Files series,’ or ‘Robin Burcell plans to go there in the Fargo series.’ To find somewhere fresh, we have to get very specific and make sure it hasn’t been used recently in one of the series.”
Morrison affirms that research is one of his favorite parts of writing. To create this book, the research included, but was not limited to, the design of World War I U-boats, hiking trails on Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro, the escape procedures for a Los Angeles-class submarine, deep fake technology, the geography of the Amazon River basin, temporary causes of deafness, warships of the Chilean Navy, and the biology of a humpback whale song.
“When I see a list like that,” Morrison says, “I’m reminded of the show Iron Chef, where the chefs are given a funky list of ingredients and have to make delicious dishes using all of them. If someone came to me with all of those elements before I got started and said to make a coherent thriller novel out of them, I’d say Iron Chef writing was impossible. In my case, however, I discover my ingredients as I write.”
One difference with Iron Chef is that novels are a collaborative effort, and the process for working with co-authors is a tricky business in itself.
“When we’re planning a book,” Morrison says, “I go down to [Cussler’s] home in Phoenix and we brainstorm the plot at a high level: where does it take place, what is the villain after, what’s the historical element, and maybe a few of the major action set pieces. Then I come home to write 100 pages, which I polish and send to him. He revises and sends it back to me. We keep going like that until the book is done.”
Then again, if Morrison needs to run something by Cussler, he just picks up the phone and calls him, which he still finds hard to believe considering he’s been a fan since he read 1976’s Raise the Titanic. “If you told my younger self that I’d someday be sitting in Thriller Master Clive Cussler’s office brainstorming plots with him, I would have laughed you out of the room,” Morrison says.
During their first collaboration, Piranha, Cussler suggested that they include characters from Morrison’s Tyler Lock series. “My own readers seemed to appreciate that little Easter egg for them,” Morrison says.
But that’s not the only instance where worlds have collided.
Cussler started inserting himself into the Dirk Pitt novels as an inside joke in Dragon, a literal deus ex machina to rescue the hero at a key moment in the story. To his surprise and delight, the publisher let him keep the reference, and it has since become a beloved feature of that series. However, he hasn’t yet made an appearance in an Oregon Files story…
“Clive’s too busy saving Dirk Pitt’s hide,” Morrison says.
Morrison came up with the idea that it would be fun to have two series interact. He talked with his friend Graham Brown, who writes the NUMA Files series with Cussler. He suggested that each write a scene in their respective books where the main characters run into each other. Needless to say, Cussler loved the idea and it materialized in the form of a fight scene in a Maltese warehouse that was featured in both The Pharaoh’s Secret (NUMA Files) and The Emperor’s Revenge (Oregon Files).
“Graham wrote the scene from [NUMA Files main character] Kurt Austin’s point of view,” Morrison says, “and I wrote the exact same scene from Juan Cabrillo’s point of view. It was a fun challenge because I don’t think something like that had ever been done before. It was ridiculously difficult to get the scenes to match up perfectly in our respective stories, with the dialogue word-for-word identical in each book. In the end, Clive’s faithful readers seemed to enjoy the character crossover and seeing how the same scene impacted two different stories.”
Morrison wishes he could be one of those authors who can crank out a solid 1,000 words per day, but he says his brain doesn’t work like that. He thinks long and hard about a plot before it makes sense in his mind. Afterwards, he works out all the kinks and details—it’s nothing short of a choreographic endeavor.
“Then I can write very quickly,” Morrison says. “Sometimes I write one or two whole chapters a day out of a 60 to 70 chapter book. I prefer writing that way because to me, each chapter is a short story with a cliffhanger at the end. Those short stories are strung together to make an entire novel. Writing in fits and starts like that, it takes about nine months to complete the book.”
He’s currently working on the 15th Oregon Files adventure with Cussler, and also developing a standalone story of his own.