Writing strategic plans for nonprofit organizations requires searching through scientific and academic journals for relevant statistics. There are so many unique academic studies that explore social inequities and scientific breakthroughs. In today’s Write Now interview, Matt Miksa discusses using research studies and academic journals to fuel his thrillers. Enjoy today’s interview and check out his website.
Who are you?
Matt Miksa, former FBI counterintelligence analyst and bestselling author based in Chicago, Illinois.
What do you write?
Much of my writing is inspired by my experience serving as an FBI counterintelligence analyst. At the Bureau, my job was to prevent enemy spies from stealing America’s secrets and to root out moles within the U.S. government who tried to help them. I loved the complexity. Nothing was quite what it seemed, and the truth was almost always just out of reach. Sometimes the work was like assembling a jigsaw puzzle in the dark with half the pieces missing. It could be frustrating but also supremely satisfying when even a couple of pieces snapped together, revealing more of the full picture.
I began writing thrillers about ten years ago, and my plots are often multi-layered with distinctly duplicitous characters. I like to give readers bits of information along the way, mix in a few red herrings, and then let everything fall into place with a big twist they (hopefully) didn’t see coming.
Where do you write?
Quiet rooms stifle me. White noise is like a blank page — maddeningly empty. I prefer to write out in the noisy, colorful world, preferably somewhere with caffeine nearby. Coffee shops are great, and you never know who you’re going to bump into. One afternoon, a particle physicist sat at the table beside me. She graciously explained the complicated science of detecting neutrinos for the next hour, which I eagerly wove into my latest thriller, DON’T GET CLOSE.
I use Microsoft Word to draft my manuscript and keep notes. My novels often have complicated timelines, so I keep a meaty spreadsheet to track each character’s journey through the story. DON’T GET CLOSE includes four historical time periods, plus scenes in the present day. The massive Excel file for that book nearly set my laptop on fire.
When do you write?
When I started writing, I would pop open my computer anywhere and everywhere, trying to sneak in a few words wherever possible. I wrote much of my first novel on airplanes and in hotel rooms while traveling for work. Truth be told, such a haphazard approach wasn’t very efficient, and that book took over five years to finish. Now, I’m more disciplined about my process. I wake up early and aim to put down at least five hundred words before launching into my day job. Evenings are for research. My novels often weave in history, politics, and science, so I’m always working through a stack of non-fiction books. I treat it as a challenge; How much can I learn about quantum mechanics in thirty days?
Balancing writing and a full-time career can be exhausting, but strangely, sometimes the words pour out when I’m tired. The filters come off, and the is-this-even-any-good anxiety fades away, clearing the air for creativity. I never mix alcohol with writing, though. I had to toss out a ten-page dream sequence I wrote after two (okay, maybe three) mojitos. I promise that chapter sounded amazing at the time.
Why do you write?
Storytelling is one of the oldest and most important human activities. I read voraciously as a child and made up all kinds of bizarre tales to entertain my family. It’s one of the most fulfilling crafts I’ve encountered, and I enjoy the process of learning and improving a little each day.
Ideas for stories can really come from anywhere. Sometimes all it takes is a nugget, and then you just let the imagination shape and polish it. I just finished an entire novel inspired by a fifteen-minute NPR podcast I listened to at the gym. When something catches my attention like that, I might climb into the rabbit hole. For me, that usually means pouring over academic journals, especially if I’m researching a new scientific discovery to use as the backdrop for a novel. Scholarly journal articles get into the nitty-gritty of some pretty wild experiments, often years before Newsweek publishes a layperson-friendly version. Reading Nature or The Lancet, I almost always find myself saying, “Why don’t more people know about this?” I use novels to get people thinking about these big, exciting topics.
How do you overcome writer’s block?
When I’m hung up on a particularly sticky section of my novel, I have a few tricks. First, I’ll skip ahead, sometimes leaping forward many chapters in the story. I’ll plop into a dramatic scene and then challenge myself to think about how the characters would’ve gotten into that situation. If that doesn’t work, and I’m still struggling, it’s probably because I need to research more. Diving deeper into a topic almost always shakes loose some new ideas. Lastly, I try to remember Raymond Chandler’s advice: “when in doubt, have a man come in with the gun.” It works wonders for thrillers.
Bonus: What do you enjoy doing when not writing?
I was a musician before joining the FBI, before becoming a writer, before any of it. To unwind, I tinker on the piano, sing, and write funny songs with my six- and eight-year-old daughters. “A Pig and a Friend” is their favorite. It even has a dance to go with it.
My thanks to Matt Miksa for today’s interview.