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David Baldacci on writing a best-selling crime novel

David Baldacci tries out many of the adrenaline-inducing experiences in his books in order to write about them authentically

  • Best-selling crime writer David Baldacci
    Baldacci’s advice to aspiring writers is to read a lot. Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Best-selling crime writer David Baldacci
    "I watch life, listen intently and immerse myself in every environment," says BaldacciImage Credit: Supplied picture

Can one man have two successful – and credible – personas comfortably sharing the same space? If it is David Baldacci, the answer is yes. He is both extremely well-adjusted as a writer and is an experienced lawyer. Though his success story as a writer is the stuff of dreams, the American author gives it an almost casual nod as he talks about his latest best-seller, The Sixth Man.

“Yeah, it’s been number one on the New York Times best-seller list the last couple of weeks, and is still on it,” he drawls on the phone from his office in Virginia. “I think people really appreciated Sean King and Michelle Maxwell [recurring characters in many of his novels] being back,” he explains. “This is the fifth book they have been in. It’s quite a series, very popular; it’s like revisiting old friends.”

So there’s nothing casual about the reason for his success, then; he works hard to infuse his characters with warmth, credibility and a realness so his readers can appreciate them and await their reappearance. “Yeah, that’s part of the appeal,” he agrees. “If you don’t care about your characters, why should the reader?

There are some techniques Baldacci employs in his legal thrillers that are common to others of his ilk – inventive plotting, appealing characters, the charm of luck and the comfort of consistency. And there is a technique that is less common – his reliance on his characters’ relationships with each other, rather than showcasing technology or plot twists, though there are plenty of the latter in his novels.

While readers obviously love his books – his 21 novels have sold more that 110 million copies – critics have been harder to please. “Most of the reviews for The Sixth Man have been positive,” he says. “Maybe they like Sean King and Michelle Maxwell very much!” But that’s where his enthusiasm for critics ends. “Over the course of my career I have learnt to discount reviews. Sometimes I get good reviews and I feel people like me, and sometimes I get bad reviews and I think people don’t like me. I certainly don’t write for reviewers, they are a very small part of my audience. So I’ve decided, good reviews are good and bad reviews are bad, but who cares!” he says, laughing as he ends the sentence.

Perhaps critics are ambivalent towards his books because they believe thrillers are to literature what fast food is to dining, I suggest. This kind of comparison exasperates Baldacci. “I think some reviewers feel if a book is really popular and a lot of people like it, how good could it possibly be?” he says. “That’s obviously crazy. Some of the popular books are also some of the best books out there. When people read a book, enjoy it and tell their friends about it, for me that’s the mark of a good story. But

I don’t want to really get into that battle with the reviewers, they can have that ground. I’ll move on to other things.”

A novel’s purpose

What he is more interested in upholding is the true appeal and merit of a good thriller and its function. “What I do in my thrillers is to try and tell a story with characters you care about,” he says. “A thriller can’t be just plot or just characters, it has to be a combination of both. I could concoct a really great plot but if I put in characters readers don’t really care about, they are not going to finish the book.”

Baldacci’s aim is not just to capture the imagination though; “I also try to inform and educate people about issues that I think are important in my books,” he says. “I do a lot of research for my novels, so they find out interesting tidbits and information about other parts of the world they may not know a lot about. I think I have done my job if, when they close the book, they feel a little bit entertained and smarter than when they first opened it.”

Research brings us to the other issue critics have with Baldacci – his prolific output. He is said to publish a novel every seven months. “Yes, I’ve been following that routine for the last four years,” he says, his voice stripped of any trace of an apology. “For the first 13 years, it was one novel a year.”

He’s also said to do a lot of research, much of it the physical kind. “My research starts with reading a lot,” he says. “Then I do a lot of interviews with people, I go out on to the field and get the feel of it first hand. For instance, I’ve jumped out in parachutes, rolled over in Humvees, done fitness training, learnt to use all kinds of firearms, been with soldiers and toured military bases. I’ve done as many things as I could so that when I wrote about that stuff in my novels, I’d already experienced some of them. It’s not like sitting at your desk and writing a book solely using your imagination. I keep getting out on the field, travelling to places I write about. I have to see it for myself, do some of those things myself so I can write a better book.”

What’s the most dangerous thing he’s done for research? “Probably when I went on a patrol with a police officer,” he offers. “There were just the two of us and we were going through some high-crime areas. He was looking for criminals and we came across several of them. I didn’t have a gun nor did I have a body armour on, but he did. So if anything had happened to him, it would have been just me.”

Experience pays off

I ask Baldacci how believable the legal facts are in a book when a lawyer turns author. “You have to put it in perspective,” he says. “I think as a lawyer I was paid to do what I am being paid to do now. You have to take the same set of facts and write persuasively, argue persuasively that my side is the correct one. I couldn’t change the facts when I was a lawyer, I had to work with them. I do the same as a writer.

I build a story a little by little. I did the same thing when I was a lawyer. You really have to make people believe, whether it is fiction or the facts of the case. I tell people that some of the best fiction that I ever wrote was when I was a lawyer and I said that only partly in jest. Lawyers will understand exactly what I mean, and I believe it was good training.”

There is no fixed schedule for his writing. “I need let the plot crystallise,” he says on his methodology. “The plot lines may need to be worked on. Even after that when I sit down to write, every day is different. It’s only towards the end of the book that I do a lot more of writing. So yes, I do many hours of writing for many days, but that is only towards the end.”

Now he’s a ‘best-selling author’ does he still need to pitch ideas to his publishers? “When I think about an idea I want to write about, I’ll pick it apart in my head to see if it would sustain a novel. I then write a couple of chapters and send it to my agent, show it to my wife and my publisher for their opinions. If they say it reads cool, I then write about a 100 pages and again show it to them for their feedback.”

I ask him what his advice to aspiring writers is? “Read a lot,” he shoots back. “Whatever genre you want to write in, just read a lot of it. If writers want to be successful, they need to be infinitely sure about what they are writing about. You don’t necessarily have to write only about things you know. You can write about things you would like to know, that gives you the passion to find out more.”

He has an unfailing mechanism to know what you should be writing. Think of the slush pile, he says. He is referring to the unsolicited stuff that pours into publishers’ offices, then sits unnoticed for ages, before eventually being dumped. “You need to ensure your manuscript is not heading for the slush pile. Books remain in the slush pile nine times out of ten, but people keep writing because they think they can make a lot of money writing a novel that will turn into a movie and their whole life will change as a result of that. Those are the kind of books that make the slush pile. So, ask yourself, where is your book heading?”

You can read excerpts from Baldacci’s novels on his website at