In graduate school, I was a history major, and I did a paper on Pope Pius XII and his history during the holocaust—essentially: what did he do, what did he know, and when did he know it. I went through the standard procedure: primary documents (papers of the day), and secondary sources (books written later by people who weren't there at the time). Along the way, I came across non-historians, forgeries from convicted criminals, historians who had done jail time for slander, and deliberate liars (for example, one idiot said that “X person should have done Y thing”... but cited articles where it was STATED that X did Y, making him either brain dead or a liar).
One of the most interesting things about this is that one side of this conflict doesn't acknowledge the other. One side takes the opposition's statements and theories, vivisect them with a scalpel, the end result looking like shredded wheat, and the second side acts as though there are no alternate theories, interpretations or evidence.
Anyway, by the time I was finished, it was fairly clear who was right. I had enough primary documents to work on that alone. I left motivations alone, because I wasn't going to break out my Ouija board to ask a dead pope what he was thinking at the time. “These are the actual events; to the best of our knowledge, this is what happened, and this is how the people reacted to it AT THE TIME.”
The average reader is probably thinking “Duh.” The average reader would be right. No, I wasn't going for high intellectual value. Much of the paper was a simple narrative, and many of the conclusions were very “duh” worthy. I finished the paper, game over.
Shortly thereafter came some … other books. Novels where the history was so bad, it was painful to read. And people were getting their history from these books; in some cases, more than from actual texts. Did these inspire me on a rampaging crusade? No. I was bored, I moved on.
Then I read a completely different novel, also using historical events as a background to the primary action. Premise … nothing new, really. Evil Nazi Catholic church, blah blah, snore … "But, hmm, wait, I know that character's name. It's historical …" Skip to the back of the book to read the author's note, which collected the works used to create that novel. I had assumed that this author had read one side of the argument, and wrote another “evil Catholic church” story based on that. But, no, I had read these books. All of them. He had done his homework, and had completely and utterly screwd up the history. I could take it if he had just said “I'm writing fiction, not commenting on a historical debate.” But he took a side and even lied about facts that everyone agreed on.
Dominoes fell in my brain. People not only read this crap, they believed this crap. Most readers would have almost no intellectual background to separate the wheat from the chaff (seriously, how many people read about the religious and cultural activities of Europe in World War II?)
My reaction was somewhere akin to the quote of the eminent physician and research scientist, Doctor Bruce Banner: Hulk smash.
Fine. Two could play at this game. If people got their history from entertainment, I would take up the strangest project ever imagined. I would write a thriller that was (a) thrilling, (b) factually accurate about the Catholic Church in the Holocaust.
Now how the HELL was I going to do that?
Before I continue, I should make something clear. I've wanted to write for a living since I was sixteen. By the time I had started A Pius Man, I had written almost a dozen other novels; a space opera; a thriller trilogy about a Secret Service Agent and a CIA assassin; a murder mystery in a Catholic high school summer camp, and another at a science fiction convention; a hostage novel; I won't discuss the short stories. They were not published, but I had other things to do—high school, two bachelor's in three years, a master's in one, I was generally busy.
My point: writing wasn't an issue. I had more or less taught myself keyboarding, and had developed a mental habit of innovation out of the weirdest little things, as well as the ability to write for thirty hours straight.
But now, a new project. Working on a thriller encapsulating everything I had learned about Pope Pius XII. So, when in doubt, the title had to be a bad pun. Title: A Pius Man.
Step one, where to set it?
A few years prior, I had wanted to make a murder mystery set in the Vatican. I had never gotten past page one, but I wanted to have the scene open with a dead priest and a knife in his back.
So, when dealing with the Roman Catholic church, go to Rome. Check.
We need a conspiracy—what fiction with the Catholic church in it doesn't have some kind of deep dark conspiracy? Not counting The Exorcist.... few. Who's behind it? Well, the standard options are the government, the Church, or intelligence agencies.... I came up with a fun combination of all three.
Next step: who was I going to use in this mischegas of a plot?
One character was someone I had already invented—Commander Giovanni Figlia of the Vatican Office of Vigilance. His job is to protect the Pope. But if the Pope is guilty of a crime, or of conspiracy to commit murder, then what can he do? And just how do you arrest a pontiff anyway?
… But what could possibly get him involved in a conspiracy going back decades?
Oh, that's easy. Kill an academic. Someone going through the Vatican archives. The “secret” archives, even though that's a bad translation error. Kill someone looking into Pope Pius XII.
Now, are we going to kill this guy in the Vatican? Really? Because I can't imagine how else we're going to involve Figlia...
Oooooh, wait, a bomb can fling a body a good distance, right? I can work with that.
Next, we need a fish out of water who we can explain stuff to, someone who fell down the rabbit hole of European Catholicism ... how about an American Jew? Enter Wilhelmina “Villie” Goldberg. Immediately, I had a vision of a short Italian acquaintance come to mind. She'd do for a physical model—about 4'11”. She'd have to be part of a security service, and making her American would make her a Secret Service agent. Though she would be a little short for a human shield … so, she's simply provided technical support. Have her be there when we drop a body on Figlia... or his general area, at least. Check.
But, if the Israelis wouldn't be interested in this subject, who would? So, send in Mossad. And have a dead terrorist with no confirmed killer—it looks a bit suspicious. And a second dead body connected to Pius XII, seriously suspicious.
The Germans would be involved anyway, given the subject matter—they are sort of touchy about the 1930s and 40s. So, throw in someone from German Intelligence. Two spies, check.
A neutral party would be good; someone who has no investment in Pius XII being guilty, innocent, or not guilty by reason of insanity … if the Pope were to tour the Middle East, there would be a security specialist to coordinate with Figlia. But it would be too easy to have him be visibly neutral and good. Hmm... oh, yeah, it seems that he stoned his wife to death. That'll work.
Check one investigative team: Papal Security, the Secret Service, and someone from, oh, Egypt.
And we need a wild card. Just to make everyone wonder what the hell goes on at the Vatican ... well, the man who shot Pope John Paul II was first jumped by a nun. And if that should ever happen again, I would sure as hell want to train the priests and the nuns of the Vatican … Enter mercenary Sean A.P. Ryan. Wild card, check.
And what good is a mystery without a murdered witness? They have Vatican trials for saints. Witnesses appear. Make it an Irish witness … I had another character all ready and sketched out: Interpol Agent Maureen McGrail. And I had given her a previous professional dislike of Sean Ryan. We get to have some more fun that way. And her arrival will confirm that the events were all about Pope Pius XII—a dead academic may be accident, a murdered terrorist coincidence, but a murdered witness is enemy action.
Now, we're in a thriller with the Catholic church, we must have a highly suspicious looking pope, someone so invested in the reputation of Pius XII, he'd do practically anything to see it's protected. Hence Pope Pius XIII, who wants to make the World War II pontiff a saint, make him a figure to rally around....for...? Oh, something. Make it Darfur. And make him somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun. He's using Pope Pius XII as a banner, Pius XII as hero and saint.
But, the Pope needs something every good Evil Overlord requires—a lackey. We need another priest. Make him former special forces. He has martial training, kicks ass, and he has silver hair, and pale skin—no one would ever take him for an albino. Of course not. Suspicious looking lackey, check.
A three-layered plot with a wandering priest tying them all together. Conspiracy, check. Characters, check.
Now it has to be written … Oh, shoot me now …
During that winter break, I had gone through great pains to finish my thesis. That made up three credits of a semester where I had only two other classes, and no social life. The paper was mostly finished before the semester had even begun. I was even more finished when I pounded out two term papers before the first month was out. What part of “no social life” do you not understand?
I started writing A Pius Man in February, 2004. I was finished with it by April. There were a lot of nights where I was up until three in the morning. The story wouldn't get out of my head or leave me alone. For the first time in my life, instead of making it up when I went along, I did an outline. I drew sketches and diagrams. I even footnoted the darned thing.
And it all came naturally to me. The spies look into a dead terrorist research the Vatican archives, and they discover yet another dead researcher—a crime investigated by Giovanni Figlia. They would have to find Figlia and company. “Sinister looking priest #1” would have to keep up as well, to make certain that nothing inconvenient would be discovered. The Interpol cop from Ireland would have to fly in and confirm that all this was, yes, linked together to Pope Pius XII.
And, thanks to maps on the internet, I can make the bus terminal arriving from the airport be one point on a straight line from the Vatican to the Spanish steps. And for some reason, I couldn't get one image out of my head—an armored SUV going down the Spanish steps.
After that, the characters had to connect the dots, do the research, and most of all—what is worth killing over for a secret over sixty years old? If someone proved that Pope Pius XII was a Nazi, or that he was a hero, who would kill for that?
End result: the book was eight hundred pages long. Two hundred thousand words, when the average novel was only one hundred thousand. And I had brought in EVERY, SINGLE, CHARACTER I had ever written, over a dozen books, excluding the science fiction ones. Because what had started with a simple and straightforward murder turned into an all out war, and I needed every person I could conceive of to support what protagonists I had standing. A very small army of light against a large army of darkness, and I didn't even have Sam Raimi.
From 2004-2007, there were several variations on the story. The first had an additional character. One had a character introduced from the very beginning who was used to bring in most of the history; he didn't disappear, but he was shifted. One version took out about 50% of the story and made it around five hundred pages.
Then there was the easy version. Split it up into three books. One character gets deleted, one gets transferred into book two, several sequences get shifted so that the character moments aren't all in one place or another, and ta da, instant trilogy.
Two major plot points in the story became a matter of what intelligence agencies call “blowback.” Blowback means that an operation has come back to bite you on the ass: either an assassination went wrong and the target wants to return the favor; some dictator dislikes you blowing up his favorite weapons research facility and would like to bury you, that sort of thing.
If I used the blowback as the basis for completely different books, then dang, book one is only over a hundred thousand words. Excellent. Fill in details and character in books two and three, not to mention “previously, in A Pius Man” moments that I can use to pad the book.... or keep the audience up to speed. Either way.... I still had too many people. Book had nine characters— the opening cast of the Lord of the Rings. Book two had more to come. I still needed to take out people IN ADDITION to those I had already shot, stabbed, and blown up.
After looking through book two (tentatively titled A Pius Legacy), I looked for the person who had the fewest amount of lines. Who could disappear from the book with no problem at all? I found one character who had been mentioned a whopping half a dozen times. Suddenly, upon a review of A Pius Man, this character had a shiny new target on their back.
In my usual description of A Pius Man, things slip through the cracks. It's a thriller. It's a war story. It's apologetics with bullets. It's a political techno thriller. There's a shootout down the Spanish Steps. We shot up the Vatican, blew up a hotel, blew up an airport, waged war against mercenaries, the Swiss Guard, killer priests, a dozen nations, have some fun with the UN, the World Court, and everything short of killer robots.
Oh, yeah, I have a love story in there too.
Don't look at me like that. I wasn't going to fill every page with shootouts, chase scenes, and explosions. None of my characters remotely resemble Bruce Willis. They all have hair, for one. Nor are they some sort of bloodless, passionless plot device—none of them look like Tom Hanks.
As strange as it might seem, I am a romantic at heart. That said, if someone hands me something that even has a mild tinge of a romance novel, it better have a fantastic, original plot, or I will smack that someone with the novel. And possibly make them eat it.
I am uncomfortable and suspicious of any book that has a hero and heroine fall in love inside of one book. It has to be done well, or take place over a good period of time. That said, there are circumstances I can believe. It's common knowledge that high stress situations can lead to intense emotional bonding. In Stockholm syndrome, it happens over the course of hours, if not days. And that takes place between terrorists and their hostages. It shouldn't be too unreasonable that it should happen between two allies.
I had one character I had designed previously—Scott “Mossad” Murphy, first member of the Goyim brigade of Israeli Intelligence. I wanted his attention dragged to Rome from a tip by a German intelligence officer.
Designing this German was easy—I wanted the exact opposite of Murphy. Scott Murphy, the perfect spy, was short-ish, pale, with almost no distinguishing features. Slap on some makeup, he's whatever he wants to be. Therefore, physically she had to be beautiful. All eyes could be on her while he slipped into the background.
But how do I create a woman who was believably beautiful without turning her into something out of a fantasy novel? Simple—I use the physical features of someone I know. And what do you know, the previous year, I had someone who had to match that description perfectly. Her name was Manana Kull.
Enter Manana “Mani” Shushurin of German intelligence... she was raised in East Germany, hence the last name.
Murphy could blend in and disappear. However, when I made him, he had a disdain for weapons. He was spy—he was not Jason Bourne, he was not James Bond, though he could pass for George Smiley. He didn't do weapons. If he needed a weapon, he wasn't doing his job.
Therefore, Shushurin had to be the expert in weapons and hand-to-hand combat.
I would bear no idiots in my books, so they were both smart, capable professionals, with complimentary skill sets and equal intelligence.
And somewhere along the line, two people who existed in a very lonely profession wound up falling in love in the middle of my thriller. Obviously, they weren't busy enough getting shot at. They were too good at keeping their heads down.
Ironically, this was part of the story I hadn't planned. The characters did it themselves.
Yes, for those of you who are wondering, writing fiction has been described as a form of schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder—usually by the authors themselves. Then again, when you generate an entire character biography in your head, have to decide what is perfectly in character for them to do at any given moment, make their reactions consistent... having another person in your head is the easiest way to put it.
Thankfully, I managed to tie the romance subplot into the overall story fairly easily. It even became critical to the book. How can two people falling in love save the world?
Well, you'll have to read the book to find that out.