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.