Craig Parshall

Craig Parshall is Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the National Religious Broadcasters Association, and the author of six legal–suspense novels: the five books in the Chambers of Justice series, and the stand–alone Trial by Ordeal. He speaks nationally on legal and Christian worldview issues and is a magazine columnist. He has coauthored five books with his wife, Janet, including the historical novels Crown of Fire and Captives and Kings.

What’s with the White Knuckles?

We bumped along in the military jeep, heading through a lonely stretch of sandy geography that marks the end of Israel’s official land control in the south. As we passed burned-out cars, rusty junk, and outbuildings that had been blown up months before, we saw the place looming ahead. That chaotic, violence-racked city-state called Gaza, under the control of the Palestinian Authority, marked by tall, forlorn-looking apartment buildings, barbed wire, and squalor.

Our driver, a young female officer with the Israeli Defense Forces, was riveted, hawk-eyed, at something we couldn’t see. I glanced down at the weapon just to her left, in the space between the front seats of her IDF jeep. Just within reach of her left hand was a Tavor short-barreled machine gun. I’d handled some firearms, but never one of those. Then for a fleeting moment I had that obvious thought—Hmmm, I wonder if we’ll have to use it today. That’s when she rammed the jeep to a halt. Leaning forward, motionless, she faced a hidden enemy out there—like my border collie who freezes as she spots some threatening wildlife deep in the woods that my sloppy pedestrian instincts simply can’t detect.

Then the IDF officer slammed the jeep into reverse, skidding us backward, gravel and sand spitting from the tires. But something had changed. The machine gun was gone from between the seats. With her left hand she had grabbed it and slung it over her lap. Her finger rested on the trigger guard. I look up to one of the buildings. A gun barrel pointed at us out of a window. Uh oh. We’re being fired upon.

This is no first chapter in a new novel. This is a dramatic (okay, maybe overly dramatic) retelling of a trip my wife, Janet, and I took to Israel. We’ve traveled there numerous times over the years, and we just led another tour group there in June 2009. But that one particular trip was different. It was just the two of us, spending a week broadcasting from Jerusalem at night with our wonderful media-savvy Jewish friends Michael and Felice, who set us up with trips out in the “field” during the day to survey the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The road trip into Gaza was one of them. Fact-check: the shooter was probably two football fields away. Happily, I think the guy was a lousy shot to boot. But at the time, the risk felt bigger than it probably was. After all, when it’s your hide you think is going to be tanned, things feel different. Very different. Memo-to-creative side of the brain: Remember that feeling. Could come in handy in a story.

Then my analytical brain kicks in and says, “Just think about the brave American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. They take fire every day.” Compared to them, my pitiful little sniper incident is almost a joke, really. But that’s not the first-order issue for the fiction writer. The threshold question is: How did it look, taste, feel when it was happening? That provides the narrative energy and first-person heart-thumping to then plunk all that into a story where you force your hero to face a truly mortal, life-and-death kind of danger.

I’ve found myself writing almost exclusively suspense-genre novels, seven of them to date, the only exception being the three-book historical series I wrote with Janet. And even there I found myself looking for opportunities to ratchet up the

suspense. So, I ask myself, What is the deal with all this white-knuckle stuff you keep writing? But then I recall experiences like the Gaza trip. Atmospheric realities that literally dunk you into them as if you were an ice-cream cone getting one of those chocolate coatings at the frozen treat stand—only the dunking really feels more like a sweat bath at the time.

God has provided Janet and me with a challenging, and often exciting, life together. I’m sure that has shaped some of my writing. When I started my law practice in 1975, I privately bemoaned that I was not practicing back in 1775 when all those lawyers were debating and fighting for the great freedoms of independence and liberty of conscience. Looking back, I wondered how I could have missed the forest for the trees.

As it turned out, a decade or so later I was representing pro-lifers, having to move them through screaming mobs of pro-abortion advocates. One pro-life leader’s case ended up taking me to the Supreme Court. Then I started taking on religious liberty cases for Christian ministries who were being attacked. Later I thought back on my early impatience and could only shake my head. Jefferson had said something about of those two fundamental notions in the Declaration of Independence, beginning with “life, liberty . . .”

God was patient with me and ultimately let me experience the thrilling challenge of some of that. But there were also other, darker experiences. Like the young client of mine in jail, facing a serious criminal charge dealing with his own personal demons. I knew he was a suicide risk and pleaded with the jailers to keep a close watch. They didn’t and he hung himself in his jail cell. You don’t forget those things either.

So then, it’s all about a writer’s personal experiences that shape his or her genre? Well, for me not entirely. There is also another, more transcendent influence too. As I read the Bible, I find a tremendous amount of authentic suspense in the God’s real-life redemptive story as it unfolds. Just take a look at the beginning verses in the gospel of Mark. Out of nowhere, in the burning desert, appears the lone figure of this eccentric, sold-out-to-God prophet named John: “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness . . .” Or the heartrending description of the resurrection of Jesus in John 20. The reader travels a full thirteen verses, the disciples running, Mary weeping, hearts breaking in anticipation, until Mary Magdaline finally meets her Lord and Savior face-to-face in verse fourteen.

Which brings me to my last point. For me, suspense is the choice of vehicle to get the reader to the end. The point of all of it, though, is to compel you forward to the resolution. If the pay-off is good, realistic, and creatively cogent, the energy expended in the chase will all be worth it. Just look at the real-life ending in Luke 24:52–53. The disciples had followed Jesus through riots, death threats, a corrupt trial, and a harrowingly awful crucifixion. But as the resurrected Christ finally ascended to His Father, they knew that God had wrapped it all together, just in the nick of time, and just as he promised. And then the cheering began: “And they, after worshipping Him, returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising God.”