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Navy Commander Rick Campbell Makes Waves by Penning Military Thrillers

Rick Campbell [1]Unboxeders, I hope you’ll join me today in welcoming retired Navy Commander Rick Campbell to Writer Unboxed for a brief interview about his writing.

For more than twenty-five years, as we slept on pillow-topped queen-sized mattresses, he claimed a rack aboard one of four nuclear submarines, working to keep us safe. On his last submarine, he was one of the two men whose permission was required to launch the submarine’s nuclear warhead-tipped missiles.

He finished his career with tours in the Pentagon and in the Washington Navy Yard. Upon retirement from the Navy, Rick tried his hand at writing and was offered an initial two-book deal from Macmillan / St. Martin’s Press. (Since expanded to another two-book deal.)

His first novel, The Trident Deception, was hailed by Booklist as “The best submarine novel since Tom Clancy’s classic – The Hunt for Red October”.

Rick’s second novel, Empire Rising, is due out Feb. 24th and critical praise has been equally profuse. Publishers Weekly said of it: “Another riveting military action thriller by Rick Campbell. A MUST READ for fans of this genre.” And Booklist? “The story rockets around the globe and the pages cannot turn fast enough. Readers who miss Clancy will devour Campbell.”

Here’s the blurb for Empire Rising as described by Barnes & Noble:

Very much in the spirit of Jack Ryan, Campbell has crafted a tightly plotted and horrifyingly believable story in which China, desperate for access to oil in a near-future where supplies are running low, declares war and reveals itself to be much better prepared than anyone expected. After a military disaster that sends the United States reeling and leaves the Chinese free to act, a trio of well-written characters work to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Combining thrilling espionage-style adventures, detailed naval battles, and incredible SEAL Team missions, Campbell has created what might be the perfect military thriller.

Rick lives with his wife and three children in the greater Washington, D.C. area. You can find him at his website [2] and on his Facebook page [3].

Jan: Welcome, Rick!  To begin with, shall we establish the interview ground rules? Given your background as a college wrestler and your impressive military career, if my questioning gets out of line, do I need to be concerned for my safety or ability to travel?

Rick: Only if you’re flying over the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans.  :)

The Trident Deception and Empire Rising are the first military thrillers I’ve read, and I was immediately struck by the balancing acts you’re require to perform. To begin with, civilian-readers such as myself require ongoing education about technical details, military history, and jargon so that the narrative makes sense, and so that we might appreciate the challenges facing your characters. At the same time, you don’t want readers choking on information. How do you ensure you hit the sweet spot between information and overload?

Rick: You’ve identified a critical issue I struggle with. A crucial element in thrillers is pacing, and you can’t spend too much time explaining the ship, tactical system, and weapon capabilities, but the reader needs to know TRIDENT Cover [4]enough to visualize the scene and understand what’s going on. The challenge is to impart the necessary knowledge as unobtrusively as possible, without stopping for a dissertation that brings the story to a halt. This is really a no-win situation, as there will be too much detail for some and not enough for others, or as they say – you can’t make everyone happy all the time. But my writing is geared toward those who know very little about the Navy, while adding a few details so experts will appreciate the authenticity and realism of the scenario.

You’re dealing with three audiences with perhaps three different expectations around technical accuracy: civilians, uniformed personnel, and national security agencies. How do you keep the information basic enough to engage civilians and avoid giving away military secrets, all while entertaining and challenging your expert readers?

Rick: I think this is the same challenge as above, coupled with the requirement to keep everything unclassified. This creates problems when those on the expert side of the spectrum read the book and identify where I’ve simplified things so the average reader can understand.  For example, I modify the dialog on occasion so it’s not chock-full of Navy acronyms, so the dialog is understandable by the average reader and I don’t have to stop and explain what the character just said. There are also cases where the tactical response isn’t correct – for example, torpedo evasion on submarines.  I can’t have the crew maneuver and deploy countermeasures as they would in real life because those tactics are classified. But I keep things as accurate as possible without crossing over into classified capabilities or operations.

Were you required to have your fiction vetted by any service personnel? Is that a contractual requirement, or would any thriller writer have the same constraints?

Rick: I didn’t need to get my first two books reviewed, since I write fiction.  The only requirement is to ensure no classified information is included. My third book will need to be reviewed by the Navy because I had to get their approval to access expertise I couldn’t obtain through my contacts. Their review will ensure no classified information is included by mistake.

I’m boggled by the level of research you must have done to write these novels, particularly Empire Rising, which required knowledge not only of submarine warfare but expertise about the functioning of aircraft carriers, SEAL teams, and fighter jets, to name just a few. Then there are the geographic and political details about the Israelis and Chinese, the alphabet soup of acronyms military personnel toss around in conversation… Can you describe your research process?

Rick: About one-third of my time writing is spent on research. Thank God for Google. There’s still plenty of information I need that not’s available on the Internet, so I interview one or two subject matter experts in each field to ensure I’ve got the details correct. I also provide the written scenes applicable to them for their review, to make sure I haven’t misunderstood anything.

I do most of my research ahead of time as I outline each novel.  Writers tend to be broken down into Plotters and Pansters, and I’m the ultimate plotter.  Before I begin writing, I have each chapter outlined, and my books average 80 chapters.  I actually outline in Excel, with each chapter having 17 columns of information, ranging from basic events to a more detailed outline, the location of each scene, which major characters are present, and whose POV the scene will be written in.

How do you organize all your research material so it’s accessible? Do you use specific tools or have a savant-like memory?

Rick: I start by collecting information in a Word document, collated by topic, since early on I’m not sure what information will be required to write each scene.  Once I have a better understanding of what will happen in each scene, I populate each chapter in the Excel file with the required information.

I count 108 named characters in Empire Rising and a similar number in The Trident Deception. A significant portion of them look to be recurrent, series characters. Given the operatic scale, how do you keep track of a character’s physical description, educational history, relationships, etc?

Rick: This is a great question, because the challenge in writing a thriller that requires so many characters is to avoid all of them coming across as cardboard cutouts.
Unfortunately, I can’t stop to describe every person’s physical features, their background, or their motivations. That would be a thriller-killer from a pacing perspective. So I describe only those physical features the reader needs to know to understand subsequent events. For example, in The Trident Deception there’s a physical encounter between two main characters, so I let the reader know early on that Christine is relatively small – a former gymnast – and the man confronting her is over six feet tall and two hundred pounds. That lets the reader know up front that the encounter is not likely to turn out well for Christine.

My editor is even stricter on this issue than I am. During the revisions to my first novel, he struck EVERY physical description. I added back in those details the reader needed to know, but took his cue to keep physical descriptions to a minimum. As far as background and motivations go, I rarely provide the back-story on a character. Instead, I let the reader gain a sense of each character’s personality and motivations by what they do and say. As the saying goes, Show, don’t tell.

Christine O’Connor, the President’s National Security Adviser, is a consistent protagonist in both your novels. Quite often her actions set up a storyline, the consequences of which fall on a geographically remote secondary character, thus necessitating frequent point-of-view shifts. Between that and the technical content of your novels, it strikes me that a military thriller could easily devolve into an intellectual exercise and feel more like a chess match than a story. Yet in a short space you somehow manage to evoke empathy for your cast and keep the reader’s emotions engaged in the larger conflict. What are your secrets?

Rick: You’re correct in that it’s an intellectual exercise at the plot level, starting with how to organize the plot so the reader wants to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next. One of the columns in my Excel file is simply a color code, with each “thread” given a particular color, so I can visualize at a high level how the scenes Empire Rising [5]flow and how long it’s been since I brought the reader back into each story line. You’ve hit the nail on the head with respect to the challenge of creating reader empathy when you have so many characters. I try to accomplish this by having as many scenes as possible told from the POV of the main characters. This isn’t always possible, since I have to be realistic and the main characters can’t be everywhere that the necessary events unfold.

Marketing can be a bit of a dirty word among authors, but your genre and connections have meant unique opportunities and I’ve watched you zealously pursue them. Can you describe your outreach efforts to both civilians and service personnel? Which methods proved most effective?

Rick: St. Martin’s Press takes care of reaching the average reader, getting my books placed in Barnes & Noble and other retail outlets, and they manage social media and Internet publicity and marketing. My efforts are focused on reaching the military demographic, because I think they would enjoy my novels and also because the military networks are more response to a veteran like me than to a big publishing company like St. Martin’s.

The key issue (and challenge) in self-promotion efforts is how to affordably reach your demographic in large numbers. My approach is not to connect with readers, but with networks, and each network point-of-contact then forwards my information to his membership. For example, when I reach out to my network, one of the nodes forwards my email to 12,000 military veterans. Another reaches 28,000 veterans. Not all are this big (they probably average 500 people) and not all are as responsive, but with my current network size of 300 nodes, the word gets spread much more effectively than with my eNewsletter, for example, which reaches only 1000 people. Those interested in this type of approach need to identify networks whose membership are predisposed to reading what they write, and who are also willing to help.

Finally, your characters battle large ethical issues. Does one have a responsibility to avoid violence which would solve a huge problem, especially when there’s no chance of discovery or blame? In the final moments, will duty to family or duty to country prevail? And so on. What questions do you want to prosecute in future fiction, Rick? Will you explore them with Christine O’Connor and crew?

Rick: My goal in writing a thriller is simply to entertain, and I’m very careful to avoid trying to influence a reader’s political or moral convictions. However, in The Trident Deception the characters had to deal with several moral issues for which there was no right or wrong answer. Each character had to weigh the pros and cons of each option, and some of them were gut-wrenching decisions.

All my novels going forward feature Christine, Captain Wilson, and a new character introduced in Empire Rising – a SEAL named Jake Harrison, who was engaged to Christine when they were seniors in high school, adding a little bit of sexual tension between the two. Harrison is married to another woman now, which poses a problem. However, if my editor lets me, I plan to take care of that problem.

Have any questions for Rick, fellow land lubbers? Take ‘em to the space below. Also, Rick will generously be providing a hardcover copy of Empire Rising to one commenter. (To qualify, leave a comment by midnight February 23rd and possess a mailing address within continental North America.) 

About Jan O'Hara [6]

A former family physician and academic, Jan O'Hara [7] (she/her) left the world of medicine behind to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. She writes love stories that zoom from wackadoodle to heartfelt in six seconds flat: (Opposite of Frozen [8]; Cold and Hottie [9]; Desperate Times, Desperate Pleasures [10]). She also contributed to Author in Progress, a Writer's Digest Book edited by Therese Walsh.