As an author, do I plan the plot or not?

Aha – the plot thickens! Well, so it should. I was once asked whether the plot for 3 WISE MEN was clear before I started writing, or did it grow as the word count increased? It is best to answer this in two ways:

  1. The two basic ideas were floating around in my mind for about 2 years.
  2. My wife and I visited locations in the south of France, but I did not start writing the book until we were taking the train from Nice to Paris a few days later. It may have been the sunshine, or the lovely swims in the Mediterranean that set the writing wheels in motion – or, it could have been the train wheels engaging with the writing cogs? Originally, I hoped to have the book largely written before embarking on the trip. This approach simply didn’t work for me. There are so many details that are needed for an authentic thriller, that I needed to see the main places firsthand. Here is one brief example of a cafe that we came across one day, but it was a Sunday and it was closed. So, we made a point of visiting it the next day, and it proved to be a great meeting place for Jak to catch up with an old teaching colleague of his. They both taught together at the University of Milan, which if the pinkish-red building on the left in this photo.
    [novel extract: “His favorite café – the Bar Arcibaldo – was just across the street from the university entrance, and Jak was delighted to enter and finally shake off the cold air. Not only was this a good place to relax, but it was also an opportunity to enjoy the company of fellow university students and lecturers who frequently gathered here between classes and at the end of their academic day.] Note: “Nun Te Pago” means “Not paid.”
  3. When faced with a “what do I write next?” scenario, I tended to wait a few days until the basic ideas flowed. This was usually in the morning. Once I had the next step in the plot worked out I would type furiously to get it all down. Sometimes, things happened that I had not expected in the plot. Hopefully, neither will the reader be expecting them!

Turbulence strikes Jak Colins

Turbulence is a flow regime in fluid dynamics characterized by chaotic changes in pressure and flow velocity.” What a perfect way to describe the chaotic and dangerous journey that Jak Colins takes when he attempts to deliver his secret formula to the Galimard Company in Milan. And, just when he thinks that the turbulence is over, it seems to get worse! Of course, writers normally like their readers to be kept on the edge of their seat. In 3 WISE MEN, I would hope that my readers leave their seats – as happens when an aircraft strikes really severe turbulence!

The Flight to Milan – one Jak will never forget

Flying is usually a tedious excuse to do nothing for a few hours, so why include a flight in a thriller? Well, it just so happens that flying is the easiest way for Jak to get to Milan. But, what a minute (or longer) you may ask – isn’t he on a train to Milan? Yes, he is, but he wasn’t the day before.

[novel extract: “Ladies and Gentlemen. This announcement is for Flight AZ1026 to Milano. We are now starting boarding. Please have your boarding pass ready for checking.”

Jak closed his laptop and joined the line. He found his way to seat 20A, a window seat near the center of the aircraft. Today, despite this being such a popular route out of Rome, seat 20B was also empty. As usual, Jak thought about the number ’20.’

“It’s the sum of the first four even numbers, 2 + 4 + 6 + 8.” Some scholars, he recalled, knew 20 as the ‘God Number.’ He settled back, feeling somewhat comfortable in such an interesting seat.

“I really should have majored in Mathematics and not Science,” Jak thought, gazing outside at the last preparations for their flight.

However, for Jak, the Seat 20 would be involved in an ‘Act of God’ all too soon.

Flight 1026 taxied for a few minutes and then lifted off runway 34L, heading northwest out over the Tyrrhenian Sea. In the control tower at Fiumicino airport, Don Giovanni frowned as he paused longer than normal at his radar screen. A low pressure system was moving over the French and Italian Alps, drawing moist air from late summer heating of the Mediterranean. Such conditions can result in a powerful downward blast of air known as a ‘föehn’ wind. In southern Europe, it is called the ‘mistral.’

Don turned to his supervisor. “Sir, we might have a Met situation south of Malta. Moretti left a few details in his log.”

“Don’t worry about it,” came the confident reply. “It’s too far away from us to cause any problems, but keep an eye on those thunderstorms building near Tuscany.”

Don made contact with AZ1026.

“Fiumicino tower, Alitalia ten twenty six. Climb and maintain thirty two thousand.”

“Up to thirty two thousand, Alitalia ten twenty six,” Captain Bruno replied.

“Roger, flight ten twenty six. Head three two zero to Genoa to avoid the build up of cumulonimbus over Tuscany. Genoa will guide you into Milan. Have a pleasant flight ten twenty six.”

“Copy, Fiumicino. Roger and out.”

When they leveled off the Captain came on the intercom.

“This is Captain Bruno speaking. We have now reached cruising altitude and are heading up the coast to Genoa to avoid some bouncy air over the Apennine Mountains. Although we have clear skies ahead of us, we do advise all passengers to remain seated and keep your seat belts fastened. Expected landing time in Milan is now 4:15pm and local weather is overcast with rain expected later in the day. The present ground temperature is 15 degrees. I will give you an update closer to our arrival. Now please sit back and enjoy your flight.”

He turned to the co-pilot. “It’s all yours from here.”

“Thank you, Captain.”

Captain Bruno released the controls and sat back in his seat. He scanned ahead and noticed a large area of open, blue sky. To his left, a bank of dark-gray clouds rose above the horizon – their billowing, serpent stalks appearing angry and stark through his polarized glasses. However, for Bruno, they seemed too distant to bother them.

“It should be a comfortable flight,” he announced confidently, unaware of the severity of the brewing storm.]

Jak has no interest in Picasso

[novel extract: “I wanted to see the Picasso museum. It’s quite impressive.”]

Yes, it is an impressive museum, but Jak had no interest in it. In fact, he became very frustrated at the Museum, despite its importance.

[novel extract: “Crossing the narrow lane, he climbed the long, cobbled ramp past an imposing stone wall that led to the entrance of the Musée Picasso. A huge portrait of the artist hung down, with one eye observing Jak as he made his way up the ramp. “I’m pleased that someone is looking after me,” he mused. When he arrived at the ticket booth, Jak was the only person in line.

The official handed Jak his ticket and asked, “Is this your first visit monsieur?”

“Yes,” Jak replied, annoyed that he was being delayed.

“Well,” continued the official, “In the 1600s this building used to be the home of the Grimaldi family. It later became our town hall and, just after the war, Picasso made his home here. It was the first museum in the world to be dedicated to him. I hope you enjoy our fine collection.”

“Very interesting. Thank you for the information,” Jak replied before making his way quickly up the stone stairs from the entrance. Old brick floors laid out in herringbone patterns acted like arrows, clearly pointing the way forward to each main gallery. Jak followed them, walking right past the wonderful examples of Picasso’s diverse art – paintings, sketches, paper drawings and several ceramics.

“Abstract art really doesn’t interest me,” he thought, “but where can the guitars be?”]

Picasso’s Guitars in Antibes

Jak is pleased to be leaving Antibes and on his way to Milan. However, he is not too happy making conversation with the stranger who keeps asking him so many questions. Then, there was the strange note that he got from his wife. Jak cannot figure out what went wrong in Antibes, despite carefully following the directions he was given.

It all unfolded at the statue of Picasso’s guitars. Was he too gullible? If he had plucked up more courage would he not be looking over his shoulder at the shadows that seemed to be following him? Picasso’s guitars – a jumble of broken pieces – do, in many ways, symbolize the chaos in Jak’s own life at this point, a little over one day since he left the comforts of home.

[novel extract: “I know that I asked this before Jak, and I don’t mean to pry, but do you mind telling me what brought you to Antibes?”

“I wanted to see the Picasso museum. It’s quite impressive.”

“Oh, it has such a wonderful collection. Which was your favorite?” She asked.

“The sculpture of guitars. I spent most of my time there.”

“Yes, they are rather iconic.” Her voice trailed off and they journeyed in silence.

Jak watched the lights of each coastal village sparkling brighter into the night. A few minutes before they arrived in Genoa it had become ink-black along the coast with no moon to brightly paint the ocean. The dark atmosphere contrasted with the exquisite appearance of his fellow passenger, who now seemed more interested in reading than talking.

“What a relief,” he thought.

However, Sasha was far from ignoring him.]

I Spy …

[ novel extract:  “I think I’m far too quiet to be a spy,” Jak suggested.

“Oh, many spies are quiet types,” she informed Jak.

He gave her a quizzical look as she continued. “And Graham Greene wasn’t the only spy to be busy writing on the French Riviera. Somerset Maugham came here earlier, and lived in luxury at Cap Ferrat, just south of Antibes. He employed thirteen staff at his fabulous residence – the Villa Mauresque.”

“13 is also a prime number,” he noted.

“Of course,” Sasha continued. “It was well known that Maugham worked for MI5 – the British domestic secret service. He used to say that that this coast was a sunny place for shady people.” Again she giggled, but this time for longer, and Jak felt drawn closer to this captivating woman. ]

Aha! So this thriller is about spies is it not? Well, don’t get too excited yet. Perhaps, but perhaps not! However, not only does the introduction of conversation about spies increase our interest, it creates some real question marks over this woman “Sasha” who joined Jak on the train. This is an excellent thriller to try and spot the spies! Whether they do or not, this novel location is obviously a “sunny place for shady people”- even at night!

Why Antibes?

Why does 3 WISE MEN begin in Antibes? Why not start somewhere else, like the morning that Jak left to make his presentation? This would keep the plot linear, like most thrillers.

As starting points tumbled through my mind it seemed to me that Antibes was ideal for one main reason – it was the crisis moment in Jak’s journey; the point where his one final hope became hopeless, the point where he begins to feel very vulnerable. Jak found something in Antibes that got his hopes up, and then he lost something very important to him.

So, Antibes – with its beauty and literary history – is a pivotal marker in 3 WISE MEN. Antibes does, if you like, begin to put the wire of suspense under tension – ready to be released and continue to vibrate through the rest of the novel. Part of this tension is sprung when Jak finds out that Antibes was once the home for a famous spy – two actually! There is also a large arrow striking the ground in Antibes. Perhaps it is pointing to the start after all? The funny thing is, Jak spends about as much time in Antibes as my wife and I did while doing the research for 3 WISE MEN.

[Novel Extract: “Yes. Many rich and famous people escaped to Antibes,” she continued. “Winston Churchill painted part of the old town, and Picasso and Matisse loved it there too. Did you know that the English writer Graham Greene lived quite close to the train station? His simple apartment was full of books and had a commanding view over the yacht harbor. You may have passed it this afternoon?” Before he could reply, Sasha lowered her voice as if she was sharing a secret. “Some say he was also a spy.”

“I have heard of him, but I had no idea that he was a spy,” Jak replied. An awkward silence followed the word ‘spy’ so he looked away. ]


It should have been a quiet  journey for Jak, but his peace and quiet was soon interrupted as the train pulled out of Antibes. A woman joined him and seemed very keen to make conversation. Jak ignored her for a while but was intrigued by her similar interests. She soon came around to the topic of his visit…

[Novel Extract: “So what is ‘just a scientist’ like you doing in Antibes?” she asked. “After all, the town has been more popular with artists than scientists.”

“Really? I didn’t know that.”

“Oh, yes,” she replied, with an air of confidence. “Antibes has been the social whirlpool for many famous writers, including Hemingway and Fitzgerald. They often gathered at the popular Hotel Eden Roc – its perfect location seemed to give them literary inspiration. I stayed there once, along with a group of friends. We had a wild party and I remember its beautifully manicured gardens, and diving off the rocks into crystal clear ocean below the huge infinity pool.”

Jak had noticed Sasha’s fine athletic figure and could imagine her making graceful dives into the sea. “I didn’t know that Antibes was so popular,” he said. “But, who is this woman?” he wondered. “If she can afford to move in high society, why is she on this train? By the way she is dressed she could afford a private taxi all the way to Milan!”]

The most agonizing part of writing is the first paragraph

A search of a hundred websites, or a quick read of a Hemingway novel, will inform you that the first few lines in a book are the most important. But how do you gauge that? Easily. Just work out how many times you needed to edit/change the opening lines in Chapter One and there it is all before you – the most critical part of your novel. In 3 WISE MEN, the initial Chapter One quickly got discarded and replaced with new text that helped inform readers of “Character, Location and Conflict.” After several re-writes (including a drastic change in the order of events), 3 WISE MEN finally started like this:

[ Novel Extract from Chapter One:

“Jak hesitated, his heart still thumping. A few passengers noticed his tortured expression before he slinked low into seat 21 and the train doors finally closed.

As they gathered speed out of Antibes, he wiped perspiration from his face – taking care to avoid the purple-red wound over his right eye. With a shaking hand he sipped some water and shaded his face from the outside glare to search a vignette of fleeting images – the crowded car park merging into splotches of grass and graffiti, and the rustic walls of old Fort Carré towering proudly above the headland.

“Where is my wife?” he wondered.

The train gently swayed along parallel to the coast, its rhythmical ‘cli-clack’ … ‘cli-clack’ calming his frayed nerves. At last, the numbing fear that had been rising to choke him began to subside. The sun’s rays gathered into a fiery orb and, as he watched spellbound, they were swallowed abruptly into the tranquil Mediterranean.” ]

So, what do we have? Well, we have our protagonist, “Jak,” on a train and rather uncomfortable about it too. There is something going on here that needs further reading to find out exactly what happened earlier – which is always a good thing in a novel! So, a train is leaving from Antibes and, for the observant reader, they will know that it is traveling east, simply because of the order of images that Jak sees from his window. For readers unfamiliar with this part of the French Riviera, they will be relieved to learn soon enough that the train is heading towards Milan. Why a train you might ask? Perhaps more explanation in the next post … But, first, a question about Jak – he “slinked low.” Why? Why not “sit low” or “slump low” or …? I really struggled with this adjective for some time. I think the reasoning I finally made was that Jak was being hunted like an animal and animals are the best ones at “slinking” are they not?

Yes, the train from Antibes does indeed make a “cli-clack” sound as it tracks towards Nice. My wife and I caught 14 trains in total during our trip to the main locations found in 3 WISE MEN. Each train  and each track makes a slightly different sound, but “cli-clack” seemed the most common, especially when leaving a station at lower speed.

To sum up – Jak is in trouble, scared and cowering in a train that is making a leisurely (cli-clak) journey along the French Riviera. Let’s hope it all works out OK for Jak but, I am not too sure!

3 WISE MEN – A New Thriller!

3 WISE MENA New Thriller!

Jak Colins flies to Milan to share his priceless discovery – a powerful formula with the potential to disrupt a multi-billion dollar industry that has attracted men and woman since ancient times. But, he soon becomes the object of unscrupulous rivals who take drastic measures to unlock his secret. Will the modern-day 3 Wise Men be able to ensure that Jak’s formula – based on a genuine 4,000 year old manuscript – remains in safe hands?

3 WISE MEN weaves an intellectual thread into the cloak of intrigue and danger that envelops Jak. 3 WISE MEN is a contemporary thriller at just over 82,000 words. It is set mainly in Milan, Tel Aviv, the French Riviera and on the Italian coast.

Author insights for 3 WISE MEN, plus novel extracts, will be posted here. Subscribe for updates on this blog or use LEAVE A COMMENT below to ask any question directly to author James Hayden about 3 WISE MEN!

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