Steel Breeze Origins

Here’s a post that first appeared in JournalStone’s Hellnotes newsletter, which you can subscribe to here.

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The samurai armor exhibit at the Boston MFA was excellent.

It came to me in the shower one morning. Showers and mindless chores like mowing the lawn and washing the dishes seem to be good for inducing the sort of light trance state where stories are born. In the case of showers and dishes I have a hunch that the warm water has something to do with it—some kind of amniotic trigger that brings us closer to dreaming.

Anyway, I was standing there with the suds rolling down my shoulders when I slipped into the mind of a serial killer for a minute. I could see him spying on a widower and judging how the man was coping with the loss of his wife. Nothing too inventive there, but what sparked my imagination was the knowledge that this killer was more interested in the survivors of his handiwork than he was in the victims. He wanted to know if the loss had changed the man. Had it jarred him awake from his petty priorities and caused him to value his remaining relationships more? It was a weird lens for a killer to be peering through. I wrote a murder scene that morning from the killer’s point of view.

Time passed and I misplaced those pages, but the character stayed with me. He also changed and became part of a partnership with another villain whose motives are not quite the same. When I finally sat down to write the book, the widower became the main character, and the murder scene I’d written was only referenced as backstory.

For me, the spark required to make a story idea worth writing has to come from juxtaposition. There has to be some dissonance and resonance between two different things. When those disparate elements are overlaid, it feels a little like holding a pair of magnets about an inch apart and rotating them. You can feel the push and pull. That’s when I know I’m onto something.

In the case of Steel Breeze, I felt it in the juxtaposition of a Zen worldview with the skillset of a brutal killer (one of the great paradoxes of the martial arts). I also felt it in the gulf between my daily life as a modern American family man and my own martial arts practice.

In 2005 my wife signed up for Tae Kwon Do, and, knowing that I needed some exercise, dragged me along for the ride. I’ve never been very athletic, but I soon discovered that the muscle memory and mental focus of martial arts training can induce a trance state that’s different from the daydreaming one where stories come from, and more like where I go when I’m jamming on the guitar. It didn’t take long before I was hooked. Several years and a couple of black belt degrees later I decided to branch out and satisfy my sword fetish (all boys raised on Star Wars and Tolkien have one, don’t you know), and I moved on to studying Iaido, the Japanese sword art.

Somewhere along the line that whole “write what you know” thing kicked in and I realized that I’d spent a couple of years immersed in first hand research on samurai sword culture. I started wondering what it would be like to be hunted by a true modern day samurai. Scary as all hell was the answer of course, and combined with that fragment from the shower, it became something I knew I had to write.

Over time the book grew historical roots that I found equally fascinating, requiring research of another kind, but I’ll leave that topic alone for now to avoid spoilers and just say that I’m very happy with how it all came together. I wrote the first draft in something of a blaze for me, with one overriding intention: to put the pedal to the floor on a high-tension thriller and to keep it there straight to the end. The twists and turns that rushed out of the dark at me on that road kept me enthralled the whole time. I hope they do the same for you.

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