What If This Could Really Happen

My new thriller, Free Fall, is the story of Kate Page—a news wire service reporter who is investigating commercial airline disasters in New York and London when she receives an anonymous message from someone claiming responsibility and threatening an even bigger airline catastrophe.

In crafting Free Fall, I wanted to build a realistic plot to give the story a feel of authenticity, and then wrap it with the big “What if this happened?” moment. How would the story unfold? It's an approach I've taken with a number of my thrillers. Of course, that usually means research, drawing on reality, and drawing on my experiences, all while infusing a lot of ”credible” fiction.

In Free Fall, I wanted the avionics and navigation systems for the book to ring true. I read several books on airline disasters. I studied federal investigation reports into airline accidents issued by officials in several countries. I studied the exam questions for aviation engineers at MIT to ensure things sounded right, and I sought the help of a former NTSB accident investigator.

With a background in reporting, I’m inclined to ensure my stories are grounded in reality. I mean, credible fiction evolves from the truth. Still, you have to constantly measure the research you put into the story to avoid overwhelming the reader. You could say Free Fall does drift into the realm of a techno-thriller, but the technical information is critical to the detective work propelling all the characters who have been carefully drawn. Once you build a good technical foundation, then you can let the characters, with all of their dimensions, grapple with the “what-if” cards while time ticks down on them.

One of my earlier thrillers, The Panic Zone, concerns the story of Emma Lane, a young mother who survives a car crash that claims her husband and baby boy. In the confusion, she thinks she sees someone rescue her son. But, in the hospital, she’s told she’s enduring trauma and that her husband and baby are dead.

A few nights later, while grappling with her grief, a stranger calls, telling her: “Your baby is alive.” Eventually, Jack Gannon, a wire service reporter based in New York City, helps her search for the truth about her baby. They learn that the tragedy may be tied to a deadly conspiracy that reaches around the world, with chilling implications, and their pursuit becomes a panicked race against time.

The story for The Panic Zone came from a spectrum of sources. As I do with most of my books, I drew on my times as a reporter and my experiences as a human being—I observe the world around me, always thinking, wondering, “What if?”

With The Panic Zone, I recalled reading a news story years ago about a mother whose baby died in a house fire—was incinerated with nothing left. For years, the mother had always believed in her heart that her baby was alive somewhere. Somehow, a child later surfaced and DNA proved it was her child and they were reunited. I thought of that when I created my fictional mother, Emma Lane.

For Gannon’s assignment, I drew on my own time working at the Calgary Herald when the school shooting at Columbine broke. I was dispatched to cover the story—told to get on the next plane to Denver with nothing but a laptop and a credit card to buy what I needed in Colorado. My stomach was in knots at the magnitude.

When I left, the fear was 10 deaths. When I landed in Denver, President Clinton was on the airport TVs offering his condolences and the fear was 25 dead. My knees nearly buckled. I drew upon that tension for Jack Gannon when he’s dispatched from New York to fly to Rio de Janeiro to cover the breaking story of a cafe bombing—I used my experience of being thrown into chaos with a clock ticking.

Now, for part of the science in The Panic Zone, I recalled the time I was on assignment in Africa when I was bit in my lower leg by a dog in a village in Ethiopia. We were in a 90% exposure zone and doctors were extremely concerned. They feared that a bat could have infected the aggressive dog. Because it was in my lower leg, I got a pre-exposure shot for rabies in Addis Ababa. That got me thinking about bats carrying diseases, and I imagined clandestine scientific expeditions into remote African jungle caves to collect lethal saliva from bats carrying a new lethal strain. That led to further research and some chilling scenes in the book.

I also read a number of books on the history of secret, often troubling, research. Throughout history, there are horrifying cases of people subjected to experimentation without their consent. Poor people, people in prisons, mental hospitals—look at the Nazi experiments on concentration camp inmates. In recent years, there have been reports of disturbing efforts to create biological weapons that target specific races or genes—a genetic attack. And, just go online and you’ll find all kinds of conspiracy theories about any kind of questionable experiments—but The Panic Zone is all fiction.

My standalone global thriller, Six Seconds, took shape by refining a number of unrelated scenes, dramas, and events I had observed during my time as a reporter; such as the heart-wrenching anguish of interviewing a mother whose child had vanished.

Then, there was the time I was on assignment in Nigeria, not long after the September 11 attacks. I was in the Abuja, where I saw a boy in a slum wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with Osama bin Laden’s picture and a message calling him #1 Hero. On that African trip, I also visited Ethiopia, where I watched old women who lived in some of the harshest conditions on earth weaving fabric on a loom in the slums of Addis Ababa. Prior to that, I was in the Gulf, where I talked to British aid workers, and at Kuwait’s border with Iraq. I also talked to peacekeepers from Canada who were concerned about the toll land mines were taking on children who plucked them from the dunes.

And, I’ll never forget the big-city homicide detective back home who confided that he was haunted by the case he couldn’t clear. Then, I remembered years back, when Pope John Paul II visited my city where I was attending university. I went out to see him and met an international student who joked about assassination as the papal entourage passed by our group near the campus.

It all got me thinking.

What if I took these elements and twisted them into fictional threads that were all connected? What if ordinary people from different parts of the world became ensnared by extraordinary events that could alter history as a clock ticked down on them? Suppose it all came down to six seconds?


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Rick Mofina is a former crime reporter and the award-winning author of several acclaimed thrillers. He's interviewed murderers face-to-face on death row; patrolled with the LAPD and the RCMP. His true crime articles have appeared in The New York Times, Marie Claire, Reader’s Digest and Penthouse. He's reported from the U.S., Canada, the Caribbean, Africa, Qatar and Kuwait's border with Iraq. For more information please visit www.rickmofina.com

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