The Heroes Behind the Pages

July 6, 2021

For the past six months I’ve used this blog space as a chance to give you some behind-the-scenes looks at the process that went into writing Steel Fear, and to explore critical elements of plot, character, and theme.

Today marks the one-week countdown till our on-sale date — which means this is your last Tuesday blog post before the book comes out! So I thought I’d make this one pure fun, and take you behind the curtain. Call it a little dessert after the meal.

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Steel Fear is a novel, which means strictly speaking it’s all made up. Fiction. Never happened. Except … strictly speaking, that’s not entirely true.

The only reason novels work, the only reason stories work, is that they are so solidly rooted in the reality of our experience. Yes, the specifics of the story may be invented by the teller, but if they ring true, if the story works, it’s because they are true. True in a deeper sense than the specifics of who, when, and where.

They nail the what and the why, warp and woof, of humanity.

But let’s take that one teeny step further. The sneaky fact is, most pieces of fiction are inspired, in whole or in part, by real events. Inevitably, bits and pieces of real life will end up woven into the fabric, bringing their own threads of real-life texture and meaning with them — just like the articles of clothing sewn into Monica’s best friend Kristine’s quilted blanket in chapter 41:

Kris had brought her own blanket on deployment, a quilt she’d patched together from remnants of outfits from her teen years. High school skirts, biker jackets, Goth pullovers, the sweater she’d worn (briefly) the night she lost her virginity . . . how the four of them had howled with laughter together the night Kris gave them the tour!

Monica ran her hand over the variegated cloth.

Chapters of a life.

Every story is a quilt of variegated cloth, and Steel Fear is no exception.

Here, in no particular order, are some “Easter eggs,” little foil-covered tidbits of real life that we sewed into the cloth of Finn’s story — real places, real people, and real events. (And by the way, there are no major plot spoilers here, I promise!)

PLACES

It should go without saying, but let’s say it: the USS Abraham Lincoln is quite real, all 90,000 displacement tons of it. Brandon spent six months there in 1995; I spent a day there nearly a quarter-century later, in January 2019. Aside from some simplifications (and a few intentional obfuscations for the sake of OPSEC [operational security]), we did our best to represent it as accurately as possible.

The Lincoln is huge. Enormous. In chapter 2 there’s a brief story about two brothers who deployed at the same time on the same ship. From the day they left port to the day they returned seven months later, the two never once bumped into each other.

True story.

The locations on board, from “Precinct 72” (brig) to “Jittery Abe’s” (onboard Starbucks) to “The Sixpack,” “The Crotch,” “The Finger,” and other flight deck parking spots, are all real, right down to the nicknames. The Captain’s “Lincoln room” decor really was created by aping the set of Spielberg’s 2012 movie during the ship’s recent overhaul.

Finn’s “broom closet” is not from the Lincoln but it’s real; it’s modeled after a tiny stateroom I saw on a visit aboard the USS Intrepid, and yes, there is a tiny head just a few feet away.

The “Rules to Live By” Finn sees posted in the Lincoln’s library in chapter 8 are real, right down to the wording. As is the Harry Reasoner passage about helicopter pilots that hangs in Monica’s office (chapter 9).

The daily “fodwalk” happens exactly as we describe in chapter 7 — and there really was a fodwalk that started with Ozzy Osborne and Iron Man blaring over the Voice of God’s PA system. In fact, you can watch it yourself (minus the Southie accent) in the excellent 10-part miniseries CARRIER, which documents a 2005 tour on the USS Nimitz, a ship in most ways identical to the Lincoln.

And by the way, the whole “GET OVER IT!” scenario mentioned in chapter 63, of the Lincoln having to turn around from Australia and steam back to the Gulf in ’03? Happened exactly as Finn describes.

PEOPLE

None of the characters we meet in Steel Fear are kidnapped from real life, but the echoes of real people hover over the story throughout. For example, during his 1995 deployment on the Lincoln, Brandon was friends with a helicopter pilot named Mona, who became the inspiration for Monica, the helo pilot we meet on page 1.

Lieutenant Kennedy, whom we see only through Finn’s memories and is basically Finn’s best friend, is based on Glen Doherty, Brandon’s real-life best friend, who was one of the four Americans killed in the attack on the compound in Benghazi in 2012. (If you want to meet the real person, we wrote an entire chapter about Glen, called “Everyone’s Best Friend,” in Among Heroes.)

There he is, above, the photo on the left.

Finn and Schofield’s reminiscences about “Captain Tom,” the captain of the Kitty Hawk, are based on the actual commander of the Kitty Hawk back in the nineties when Brandon did his WESTPAC on that ship. (Whose name was in fact Captain Steven John Tomaszeski, later Rear Admiral Steven John Tomaszeski, now retired.) We wrote about him in The Red Circle. There he is, above, on the right. And yes, sailors really did call that ship both “Battle Cat” and “Shitty Kitty.”

Both of these characters, Kennedy/Glen and Captain Tom, were bright lights in Brandon’s past.

There are also a few darker characters in the story who share some characteristics with real people.

Captain Eagleberg is a composite of a number of terrible leaders we have known, and especially a few that Brandon bumped into during the course of his military career. (If you comb the pages of The Red Circle with that in mind, you’ll bump into several of them yourself.) But his fragile ego and imperious insensitivity are traits we’ve probably all seen at some point in our lives, in bosses, managers, and captains of all stripes and job descriptions.

The killer took his initial inspiration from a one-time acquaintance of Brandon’s, about whom I’ll say nothing more, except that he never (so far as we know) actually killed anyone. However, here I also drew on a bit of odd personal history: I grew up in Westfield, New Jersey, not far from the home of John List, one of the nation’s more notorious mass killers. In the fall of 1971, as I was just meeting with some friends on a project to start our own high school, that other Westfield John was quietly butchering his wife and three children nearby. At the time, none of us had a clue. No one even noticed they were missing till a month had gone by. They didn’t catch him for another 18 years.

And Finn? I spent a few years spinning ideas for his character in the back of my brain before we began work on the book. He had two starting points: first, we wanted him to be as opposite as possible from the popular Hollywood concept of a Navy SEAL. And second, I knew he was profoundly scarred by early trauma. We don’t learn what that trauma was until near the end of the book, but it was the very first story element I jotted down.

From there, I also threw a bunch of Brandon’s history into the Finn mix. I’ve known Brandon for twelve years and know a hell of a lot about his life. (Writing seven books together will do that.) Most of Finn’s past is invention, but it’s colored here and there with elements from his biography, blended with a massive dose of trauma and childhood conflict from another military guy whom I knew second-hand. So that’s Finn: a composite of real-life attributes wrapped around an anti-concept.

EVENTS

Chapter 1 mentions Kara Hultgreen, the first female Navy aviator to die in a crash, which took place right off the Lincoln’s deck. That, of course, is true — in fact, the crash that killed Lieutenant Hultgreen happened in the fall of 1994, just six months before Brandon stepped onto the Lincoln’s deck for his six-month WESTPAC.

And yes, that’s her in the photo.

Except that Hultgreen was actually just one of the Navy’s first two female F-14 Tomcat fliers. The other, Carey Lohrenz, is alive and well, and I leaned heavily on her excellent book Fearless Leadership for our description of Kristine “Biker” Shiflin’s “night in the barrel.”

Finn’s sniper school memory of helping his shooting partner Boyd “who sucked at stalking” (chapter 13) is loosely based on Brandon’s work as an instructor with a young Marcus Luttrell, which we described in The Red Circle. (I’m not telling tales out of school here; Marcus says as much in his own book, Lone Survivor.) Finn’s tragic experience with Boyd during their diving exercise off the San Diego pier (chapter 22) did not actually happen to Brandon while on one of those dives, but the description of the exercise is real, and deadly mishaps like the one we describe have in truth been known to happen.

The helo crash that killed four of Monica’s squadron mates is based on a very real incident Brandon experienced in a helo over the Gulf, which we chronicled in both The Red Circle and Mastering Fear. The real-life version of the incident was the result of a sudden panic attack in the pilot; their quick-witted copilot managed to pull the chopper out seconds before they would have crashed and likely suffered the same deadly fate as the crew in the book. That quick-witted copilot’s name was Kennedy; if it weren’t for him Brandon wouldn’t be here and this book wouldn’t exist — so we borrowed his name for Finn’s revered lieutenant in honor of his heroism.

The Crossing of the Line ceremony in chapter 52 is real down to every detail, and the first-timers really are called “pollywogs.” And here is a very strange fact, which you may enjoy when you reach the point, late in the book, where you bump into a scene from Finn’s childhood memory that prominently features tadpoles: I originally sketched that scene, in all its creepy detail, before learning about the Line Crossing ritual and its nomenclature — one of those happy accidents that sometimes drops onto the page like a gift from above!

The terrible event in Mukalla, Yemen, that haunts Finn’s memories is fictional, but war crimes very much like the ones that took place there are quite real and have been in the news in recent years. (We’ll learn more about the events of that pivotal Mukalla night in book 2, Cold Fear, which I’ll be resuming work on the moment I press Publish on this post!)

Finally, there’s the main event that inspired the story of Steel Fear in the first place. The idea of a series of murders on board the Lincoln grew out of Brandon’s first-hand experience on a similar tour on the Lincoln when there really was a serial sexual predator, as we explain in the Authors’ Note at the end of the book.

Unlike the killer in Steel Fear, that perpetrator was never identified nor apprehended.

For all we know, he could be out there right now.

Photos, L to R: Glen Doherty, Kara Hultgreen, Steven J. Tomaszeski


NOTE: You still have one week to preorder STEEL FEAR and thereby qualify to get the Bonus Package, which includes a set of unpublished “Deleted Scenes” — it’s something like seeing the Director’s Cut for a movie you love! For details, go to SteelFear.com.

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