On Creating The Unknown

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Write what you know.
That’s the first rule of writing every author learns. Another rule, usually learned not long after, is that what you know isn’t always enough.

During the writing of Shocking Circumstances, I had to learn about botnets and military drones. With the help of a friend and Google, I had a nice stack of material on everything known about botnets and Predator drones. I ran into a few random hurdles other than those throughout the trilogy, but they were easily jumped with improvised wordplay. The rest of the story was created based on experiences during my eighteen years on the street, and from knowledge accumulated from books, magazines, logic and imagination during my seventeen years as a convict.

Sharp as a Razor took more effort. I still had plenty of fresh material of my own to put into the story. The protagonists are retired criminals making a living as small business owners and engineers. So I included several of my own concepts, based on current technology, to give those characters full, interesting lives on the pages.

But that wasn’t enough to create a thriller to match Shocking Circumstances. I needed even more new material, to create characters that readers wouldn’t forget immediately after reading them.

I used to do business with Vietnamese gangsters, knew just enough about their way of life to pen a serious effort with them playing a large part. But to make them real to readers they needed to speak Vietnamese. And not proper, Google-learned Viet; it had to be gangster. My experience with that language was exactly zilch… but I knew someone who was an expert on the language, culture and lifestyle of Viet crime families and drug gangs: Thong Le.

He went by “Tony” on the street. We both know a lot of the same people from the street, but had never met out there. In the county jail we called him “Jet Le”. The first day I met him I remember thinking, Damn, he might be one of Dong’s guys. Then he introduced himself by saying, “I got no beef with you, man. My clique was banging with Dong’s clique.”

I was not expecting that.

That was in 2002. He was on trial for a triple murder. I was back in the county for a new trial hearing. We both lost; my murder conviction was denied another day in court, and he got three death sentences. He was placed in a solitary confinement per the rules of a fresh death sentence, and I was placed in solitary because administration didn’t trust me in general population. A friendly officer let us out together in the dayroom of the lockdown cell block to play cards. I told him about Parchman, Unit 32, and he schooled me in Booray poker.

I didn’t see him again until 2005, when I was classified as High Risk and housed with Death Row after my first escape. Our living conditions changed drastically when Unit 32 was closed in 2010 and we were transferred to Unit 29. Instead of the separate, hallway tiers isolated from each other, we now live on a two-story open zone, with twenty cells on the bottom, twenty up top. The cells have bars rather than doors, which doesn’t provide much privacy but is convenient for socializing.

The High Risk Incentive Program allows guys like me to work our way to more freedoms through good behavior, on a level system. By the time I began working on Sharp as a Razor in 2012 I was on Level 3 with general population privileges.

Every day Le and I worked out together – me in front of the zone gate, looking upstairs where he exercised in front of his bars – and afterwards I would sit or stand on a table and tell him my latest progress on the story, what I planned next, and listened to his suggestions for developing the Viet characters.

In Sharp as a Razor Book II, Anh Long (Elder Dragon), the leader of the Dragon Family, reveals his backstory to the other main characters. He and his wife escaped Vietnam on a fishing boat after selling all their possessions for a bar of gold, which was hidden on the boat. They took other couples and some children with them. During the voyage to Thailand, they were attacked by pirates.

I won’t spoil the scene with details, but it was based on what actually happened to Le’s parents during their escape from the Vietcong. Le’s father, Hong, was deposed by Le’s attorney as a witness for an appeal. He told the story of their family’s history of hardship, and how Le knew nothing else growing up. I recall reading the legal document in awe of the man and how he survived to raise his family as a shrimper in Biloxi.

I’ve forgotten most of the words and phrases Le taught me, though I’ll always remember how I learned them.Chris Roy
During the sixteen months it took to write Razor, I accumulated a couple dozen pages of notes on Vietnamese language, names, places of worship and business in Biloxi, and a complete listing of Viet Mafia hierarchy from the main families down to the street gangs and their allies. A huge portion of the notes were written by Le. Du ma (the equivalent of “motherfucker” or “that’s what’s up”, depending on the context) and cac (shit) are words I still use.

We had no agreement regarding financial compensation, and he had no expectations other than a promised paragraph in the acknowledgments if it was ever published. In addition to teaching him boxing, I got to mentor him on his own writing efforts. A win-win for us both.

I’ve studied Spanish and have retained much of it. Compared to learning Vietnamese it’s like the difference between algebra and calculus. I’ve forgotten most of the words and phrases Le taught me, though I’ll always remember how I learned them.

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