strong at the break

Writing Caitlin Strong

on June 29th, 2011 in Blog Posts, Normal by | 8 Comments

Caitlin saw D. W. Tepper standing in the shade cast by the Intrepid building through the lobby’s glass entry doors.  She joined him outside in the early spring heat and watched him stamp a cigarette out under his boot.

“Captain?” she said, stopping just short of him, something all wrong about his being here.

Tepper handed her a sheet of paper that was already dog-eared and smelled of tobacco.  “This came in a few minutes after you left.  No one else has seen it yet.”  And then, as if feeling the need to say more, “It’s about your friend Masters.”

Caitlin read the single-spaced type running nearly the whole page beneath Texas Department of Public Safety letterhead.  The piece of paper shook in her hand, as if ruffled by the wind.

“This can’t be right.”

She looked up to see Tepper’s weary eyes boring into her.  “Maybe so.  But it’s gotta be handled all the same, Ranger.  And that means by the book.”  Tepper stopped and looked down at his crushed cigarette, shaking his head.  “I figured you deserved a heads-up.”

“Masters just called me.  His oldest son’s missing.”

She could see Tepper’s expression tighten, the deep furrows seeming to fill in a bit.  “We talking foul play?”

“Could be,” Caitlin told him, elaborating no further as thoughts churned in her head.  “I just don’t know for sure yet.”

Tepper smacked his lips, watched the piece of paper in her hand flapping about until she folded it back up.  “Not a good idea you handling this, Ranger.”

Caitlin stuffed the paper in her pocket, holding Tepper’s gaze the whole time.  “It is if you want to avoid bloodshed, sir.”

Strong at the Break by Jon Land

Writing Caitlin Strong, as you may have noticed from the excerpt above from Strong at the Break, is truly a labor of love.  But the truth is I don’t really write Caitlin; she writes herself.  Her own dialogue, her own responses, her own emotions.  I have no idea really where it all came from, only that she took over the page almost from the first time I typed her name.  That said, once in a while I have to make Caitlin’s life easier by putting her situations and predicaments that allow her character to shine through.  How do I do it?  Glad you asked!


As you saw in the excerpt, things aren’t easy for Caitlin and they never are.  Her entire existence is about having stuff thrown at her she has to deal with; obstacles to overcome and challenges to confront.  Every scene I write is tense in its own way and based on its own definition.  Whether that scene is a gunfight, and there are plenty of those in Strong at the Break, or a simple conversation, there needs to be something that Caitlin is trying to resolve.  Otherwise the story, and the writing, fall flat.  It’s easy to create conflict when the scene is action-based.  The trick lies in maintaining equal levels of tension, suspense and pacing in scenes containing nothing more than two people talking.

Scene Setting:

But where are they talking?  The best advice about writing I’ve gotten in the past decade was “When writing a scene, always know where the light is coming from.”  Caitlin is such a rich character that I try to place her in equally rich settings, again even if that setting is as simple as an office, a car, or a restaurant.  The scene in Strong at the Break where she confronts the villainous right-wing militia leader plotting a second Civil War is a perfect example.  There’s no violence, not even the suggestion of violence, but it’s a seat-squirmer all the same because of the way I’ve framed the scene.  I never use the omniscient narrator; every scene is told from a character’s viewpoint, so you see and feel what they’re seeing and feeling.


Great stories make us feel something because we’re vested in the characters; we truly care about what happens to them.  The fun of writing Caitlin Strong lies not only in coming up with a plot structure worthy of her, but also an emotional arc to what’s confronting her.  How she deals with the people who are most important to her.  The great John D. McDonald (author of the Travis Magee books) once defined story as “Stuff happens to people you care about.”  Thrillers always have stuff happening but nearly as often contain people we really care about.  The outcome of a gunfight should be no more suspenseful than the outcome of where the relationship between Caitlin and Cort Wesley Masters and his two sons to whom she’s become a surrogate mother.  It’s those relationships that define her much more than bullets and in Strong at the Break they are fully on display.


How Caitlin Strong Was Born

on June 14th, 2011 in Blog Posts, Normal by | 18 Comments

The origin of Caitlin Strong, arguably my greatest and most complex hero ever, owes itself to a conversation my editor Natalia Aponte had with one of the heads of sales at Tor/Forge, my publisher.  They were discussing the state of the genre and bemoaning the fact that with all the thrillers out there, bought predominantly by women, there wasn’t a single female thriller series hero.  Not one.  Sure, there were lots of women heroes driving less action-oriented mysteries, but nothing akin to what I like to call a female Jack Reacher after Lee Child’s seminal creation.

Well, after Natalia relayed this conversation to me, a light bulb went off in my head.  I was looking for a new theme and potential series hero, something dramatically different than the Michael Tiranno “Tyrant” character I was coming off of in The Seven Sins.  That was truly an over-the-top-book, as many great thrillers are, and the last thing I wanted to do was another just like it.  I wanted instead to work with a character who was more conflicted, flawed, down-to-earth.  I’d always wanted to write about the Texas Rangers, having long been fascinated by their well-earned reputation for being badass lawmen and gunfighters.  So the light bulb that went off shined squarely down on the notion of featuring a female Texas Ranger in the first of what I already envisioned as a series.

Making Caitlin a Texas Ranger, and a fifth generation one to boot, provided instant credibility for her character as an action hero.  She’s got a past she’s not too proud of and the first book in the series, Strong Enough to Die, opens with her sorely searching for some form of redemption she finds by going up against an evil Haliburton-like company called MacArthur-Rain for reasons more personal than professional.  As always, I knew very little of this when I got started.  Things just started falling together and if you asked me where it all came from, I honestly couldn’t say. But I knew I had something here that I’d never experienced before and Strong Enough to Die left plenty of room for Caitlin and Cort Wesley Masters, a man she wrongly put in prison and ultimately falls in love with, to grow and develop.


The second book in the series, Strong Justice, as a result, was even easier to write. And this one similarly allowed me to introduce another staple in the series:  a historical flashback subplot woven into the fabric of the story and intricately tied to what’s happening in the present.  In Strong Justice that subplot featured Caitlin’s legendary Ranger grandfather Earl Strong ridding a lawless Texas oil boomtown of criminals and, finally, gangsters dispatched by Al Capone himself.  Strong Justice also featured a renegade Mexican colonel plotting a guerrilla war against the United States and, just as importantly, Caitlin’s ever-deepening relationship with Cort Wesley and his two teenage sons.

Which brings me Strong at the Break, the latest and best of the three so far, featuring a radical right-wing militia out to start a second Civil War.  The politics of that aside, this is an intensely personal tale for Caitlin since as a teenage girl she witnessed her father kill the leader of a similar separatist movement.  Years later, it’s that man’s very son she has to stop from spilling blood in streets all across the country and the nature of their conflict takes the book to a whole new level.  Strong at the Break also features a parallel investigation Caitlin’s conducting into drugs being smuggled through Indian Reservations over the Canadian border (Did you know that more drugs come into the country that way every year than over the Mexican border?  Not many people do!).  There’s also this young Iraq war veteran at a rehabilitation facility in San Antonio claiming the army’s trying to kill him, and a white slavery ring operating out of Mexico.

Yup, a lot going on for sure and everything, ultimately, ties neatly together.  That’s my tried and true formula but it’s never worked better than in Strong at the Break.  In fact, let me go out on a limb and promise this will be the best book you read all summer.  It’s taut, exciting, and altogether impossible to put down.

So happy reading and let me know if you agree at

What’s it like writing Caitlin Strong?

Strong at the Break Book Trailer

on May 2nd, 2011 in Blog Posts, Normal by | 3 Comments

The official book trailer for STRONG AT THE BREAK is out today!

Female Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong races to a stop a second Civil War being orchestrated by a right wing militia group led by Malcolm Arno. Twenty years ago Caitlin’s father gunned down his to prevent a similar debacle and now history is about to repeat itself with thousands of lives at stake.

Head to the Book page for more information!