Friday, November 15, 2013

Facts Build Good Fiction—The Truths Behind Dying to Know

By Tj O’Connor, author of Dying to Know
 THROUGHOUT THE PAST thirty-plus years, I’ve been an anti-terrorism operative, criminal investigator, security consultant, and now author. One thing I’ve learned—at least for myself—is that the best stories I can write come with a hefty dose of my past. That is to say, many of the characters, places, and storylines are based, at least in part, on my life’s adventures. Some not as subtly as perhaps they should be.

Except the being dead part—so far.

Dying to Know, and its sequels Dying for the Past and the pending Dying to Tell, are the cases of Oliver “Tuck” Tucker, a dead-detective hunting murderers in the rural Virginia city of Winchester. All the Dying novels have a historical subplot intertwined with the present day. Like all my novels, Dying to Know is based around places I’ve lived and worked, real-life plots I’ve been intimately involved with, and people I’ve known. At least in part. Oh, I’ve glued it all together around some Frankenstein-like characters who are an amalgamation of different people I’ve known, but, in the end, much of the components of Dying to Know come from my memory, not my imagination.

Let me explain.

Many of my characters are based on the real-life characters I’ve met in my past. One of them is most important—we’ll call him Mr. F.—and he’s one of the last surviving Office of Strategic Services (OSS) operatives in the world. He is also a retired big shot from the CIA. Mr. F. has seen and made history for going on 90 years. I have the fortune to have him as my closest friend and mentor.

Mr. F. is a brilliant man. He is a lawyer by education, an adventurer by personal experience, and my editor, mentor, and butt-kicker for more than twenty years. He fought the Germans in Northern Africa and Italy, guerrillas in Greece, communists around the world, and dozens of politicians and CEO’s on Capitol Hill and throughout the U.S. He is also the basis for two of my characters in two different novels—Spy Master Oscar LaRue, from Double Effect, an as yet unpublished story about terrorism in a small town (yes, Winchester), and as Doc Gilley, the affable and smartass spirit-surgeon in Dying to Know and other Oliver Tucker stories.
How could I not base characters on him?

Dying to Know—the story of Oliver “Tuck” Tucker, a dead detective who returns to solve his own murder—and others, is not the only story stolen from my past. Double Effect is the story of a rogue intelligence operative returned to Virginia to find his brother’s killer. At home, he finds that terrorists are trying to take root there and he and his former spymaster, Oscar LaRue, must stop them. Again, Winchester is the venue, terrorists from my past the antagonists, and the spy master, Oscar LaRue, is of course, Mr. F., my mentor. And, the real-life threat of terrorists operating from our neighborhoods is the theme. The truth can be scarier than you know.

New Sins for Old Scores, another as-yet unpublished novel, is about a Virginia detective, Richard Jax, and the spirit of a long-dead OSS agent, Trick McCall. They must stop a killer and reveal the truth behind a generations-old scheme—smuggle human cargo out of war zones in France and Afghanistan—separated by seventy years! The story takes the real World War II Operation Paperclip—missions by the OSS to secret German Scientists out of Nazi control to the U.S.—and updates it to the Middle East conflicts today. The truths behind New Sins are easy. Operation Paperclip was real. International outrage and wrongdoing has occurred from secret missions and operations in and around the Middle Eastern conflicts. Many of these are solved with the basic, fundamental crime solving skills of humble detectives and stalwart thinkers.

When in my novels is now and in the past. All my Oliver Tucker novels, along with two other murder mysteries as yet unpublished—New Sins for Old Scores and The Killing of Tyler Quinn—take place in the here and now. Each also has an historical subplot that intertwines a significant event from the past: In Dying to Know, it’s the Civil War battlefield and events leading to the discovered graves; in the first sequel, Dying for the Past, it’s 1940’s gangsters who worked with the FBI to uncover Nazi and Soviet spy rings; and in New Sins for Old Scores, it’s the 1940’s OSS Operation Paperclip. The past always influences the current plot in the story. The outcomes are often inseparable.

Dying to Know unfolds in Winchester, Virginia, and the surrounding Frederick County—Tuck’s home and mine. Winchester is a beautiful rural city with 19th Century charm and all the modern facets of life. It is steeped in hundreds of years of history and boasts many heroes and historical events. Among them are a headquarters of George Washington, dozens of battles during the Civil War, the rampages of John Mosby and Stonewall Jackson, the infamous Patsy Cline, and dozens of others. For a small place, it’s busting with lore and real-life adventure.
Winchester’s history also plays a vital role in Dying to Know.

One of the plotlines in Dying to Know is the discovery of Civil War skeletal remains during the excavations for a highway project around town. This discovery has a significant role in the story. True to fact, battlefields and historical markers are as prevalent in Winchester as any city in Virginia. Also true  is that a long-running debate in this area has been the development of land around Winchester for the construction of a highway bypass project that’s been heavily mired down by, among other reasons, historical preservation. This real-life battle has been waging on and off for years. And, at times, it’s become very heated. Having watched from the sidelines, I can tell you that land developers and historians mix like gasoline and matches. So far, though, no one has buried anyone in the hills outside town. Not that I know of anyway.

The discovery of the Civil War bones in Dying to Know and the underlying plot they bring in my story is also based in fact. Some twenty-seven years ago, I was a young OSI agent assigned in central Ohio when a building excavation on a military base unearthed a human skeleton. Stop the backhoes! At first, the history behind the site concerned us. During the 1st and 2nd World Wars, the ground under construction had been occupied by military barracks for soldiers and airmen. Had there been an unreported or unsolved murder? Was some long-forgotten soldier just now being discovered?
No. Thank God there was not.

Instead, we called in forensic experts from Ohio State University, whom we thought could shed some light on the age of the victim and provide us with some tips on how to handle such a dated and decaying find. Back in the 1980s, few CSI or other on-hand experts could swoop in and solve the murder in an hour while never losing their sunglasses. Yet, oddly enough, the forensic folks sent us down the hall to the archeology department where we met with scientists researching the Mound Builder Indian cultures. That’s where the trouble started.  
Within an hour of our meeting with the archeologists, we found ourselves at the beginning of a major controversy. At first, the archeologists believed our discovery was that of a pre-historic Indian from Mound Builders history—Ohio is laden with American Indian Mound Builder culture discoveries. And, after their initial speculation, they swooped in with court orders and papers that froze the scene for months while they sorted out the dig site. In the end—many, many months later—it was discovered that the poor soul in the site was a mid-19th Century farmer; probably a family burial left unrecorded. Oops. The lawyers, historians, government officials, and developers were in a mêlée over what to do. It got ugly.

My partner and I quietly exited stage left.

In the end, my stories, like many other authors, are truth smothered in a stew of imagination, storytelling, and what-if plots. It’s the reader’s job to figure out which are which. It’s our job to make that interesting. My past is my story’s subplots. And I’ll steal from them every chance I get.
Tj O’Connor lives in Virginia with his wife and three Labs. Dying to Know is the fourth of his seven novels. He works as an international security consultant specializing in investigations and anti-terrorism. Learn about his world at and Facebook at






1 comment:

Beth Groundwater said...

Great post, TJ! Thanks for sharing your research with us.