Writing Political Thrillers When You Work in Politics

One of the reviews on my first political thriller, BORDER TROUBLES, on Amazon picks up on the fact that I’ve worked in politics for a long time, and questions the links between real life and my writing:

“What distinguishes this book is that it benefits from Mr. Turner’s personal knowledge. Many of the characters in this book are in roles that he undoubtedly encounters in his “day job,” which adds to its believability and its description of details. I can imagine that there was some risk in writing this book. It would not be surprising if the real-life people in the positions he writes about wonder, “Is that what he thinks of me?” Hopefully, his personal and professional relationships have not suffered from the publication of this book; our lives are definitely enriched by it.”

I love this review – one of my all-time favorite that I’ve gotten. Why? Because it wreaks to me of authenticity. In my story, set in the city of Niagara Falls, renowned for being a historical hotbed of less-than-stellar politics, I was trying to put my reader in the trenches of local politics. For one reviewer, at least, I feel like I got the point across.

When I get talking to people in my life about my novels, and particularly the political thrillers, invariably the question comes up, “Am I in there?” While I doubt that I’d ever tell anyone that, yes, there is a character based on them, I’d be willing to bet that most of the people I’ve worked with could relate to something in my stories. You don’t work in politics and media for more than 20 years without tucking some things into your subconscious for later use.

Recently, I read a great novel by Steve Berry (www.steveberry.org ), THE LOST ORDER, published in 2017. I am very pleased with my timing – that I read the book in the aftermath of the 2020 election, because some of his political topics, mostly centered around U.S. Senate rules and The U.S. Constitution, could have been pulled from today’s headlines. I was blown away by his foresight – and he was writing fiction. Great thriller, by the way, timely or not, and the link to reality makes it relevant and important.

I also think there’s an opportunity when writing political fiction to give people a look under the hood at a world they know exists, but probably don’t want to know too much about – the old, “Politics are like sausage – you don’t want to see how either is being made,” adage.

I think there are plenty of stories to be told that highlight both sides of the equation: yes, sometimes things are as ugly as you think they are, and, yes, sometimes there are great people whose hearts are in the right place and are working hard on behalf of their communities. To me, both are equally as compelling.

So, yes, of course, in writing fiction based in the arena you live in, you need to take an extra step to separate yourself. In BORDER TROUBLES, one of the main characters, the mayor of Niagara Falls, is a well-meaning guy, but has a dirtier side. In real life, while working on that book, I happened to have a great relationship with the actual mayor of Niagara Falls at the time (a relationship good enough that in the middle of a meeting once, he slid his open phone across the table to me so I could read an e-mail he’d just received). Obviously, in putting a book into the public there was a sensitivity there that I had to respect to keep my day job. It worked out in the end.

There are plenty of stories I’ve accrued over the past couple decades in politics that are beautiful fodder for fiction – and that’s before even pulling from the ridiculousness of recent elections. What went into bringing those stories to life is all about personal motivations, influence and strategy. I’m thankful to have had those experiences, and appreciate the influence they’ve had on my writing.