Wednesday, June 07, 2023

The Story Behind the Story: The Nik Byron Investigations, by Mark Pawlosky

(Editor’s note: This is the 95th entry in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series. Its author is award-winning reporter, editor, and media executive Mark Pawlosky. A former reporter for The Wall Street Journal, editorial director for American City Business Journals (ACBJ), and editor-in-chief of, he oversaw financial news channels in the United States, London, Munich, Paris, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. He successfully helped launch several media operations nationwide, including MSNBC, American City Business Journals, and Biz Magazine. A graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri, Pawlosky and his family spent the past 20 years living on an island in Washington state before relocating to the American Midwest. Below, he writes of his transition from journalist to fictionist, and about the two thriller novels—Hack [Girl Friday, 2022] and Friendly Fire [Girl Friday, 2023]—that have resulted from that evolution.)

(Right) Author Mark Pawlosky. (Photo ©Evan McGlinn)

It was a little past 9 a.m. on a cool mid-April morning in 1995 when, while at my desk of The Wall Street Journal’s Dallas Bureau, a bulletin moved over the wires: A massive explosion of unknown origin had ripped through downtown Oklahoma City. There were reports of multiple fatalities. My bosses at the Journal didn’t wait for confirmation on the cause of the blast before acting and ordering myself and another reporter immediately to Love Field in Dallas to get the next flight out to OKC. Two hours later I was standing at the edge of what looked like a bombed-out city as rescue workers, police, FBI, and military personnel swarmed the area around the pulverized Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, searching for survivors and clues as to the cause of the explosion. Over the next 48 hours, rumors of foreign terrorists would be floated and knocked down before a state police patrol officer, on a routine traffic stop, arrested the mastermind behind the bombing that killed 168 people, including 19 children, in what was at that time the deadliest domestic terrorist strike in U.S. history.

Little did I know then that that experience would, some 20 years later, be the spark that inspired the creation of reporter protagonist Nik Byron and a series of books, beginning with my debut novel, Hack, and its follow up, the recently published Friendly Fire.

It was in the news trenches in Dallas, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Kansas City, and a small town in Indiana that I honed the craft of journalism that Nik Byron now practices and carries on at Newshound, a feisty online media operation, where he is a reporter, podcaster, and sometimes editor.

In a true art-imitates-life moment, there are sections in both novels that closely parallel events I experienced as a journalist.

In Hack, for example, the book opens with two characters, Cooley and Nukowski, driving away from a devastating explosion they set off in Washington, D.C., much as I would have imagined the two perpetrators of the Murrah bombing, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, escaping as they fled OKC and the scene of the crime.

In Friendly Fire, the young wife of one of the world’s richest individuals shoots and kills her husband in the first chapter in what appears to be self-defense, when, in actually, it is a cover-up. This scene, while not a perfect parallel, was inspired by a story I covered years ago in the Midwest. In that instance, a woman, distraught by the kidnapping of her daughter by escaped convicts, blamed her husband for the girl’s fate and killed him and then burned down her home with his body in it to cover up the murder. Somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind, that story lived on and only surfaced when I set out to write Friendly Fire, the second book in the series.

I also drew on my time in Seattle for Friendly Fire. How could a journalist live in one of the world’s greatest high-tech centers and not be influenced by its surroundings? The company at the heart of Friendly Fire, Yukon Corp., is the world’s largest artificial-intelligence firm. While AI is now all the rage, that wasn’t true when I began writing the novel; nonetheless, I had plenty of inspiration and insight regarding how mammoth technology companies and their leaders operate, thanks to my having worked in around Microsoft Corporation on and off for several years as an executive producer for [the Internet news side of] MSNBC, and later as an editor for MSN.

Both novels are set in Washington, D.C, where I lived and worked as a journalist in the late 1980s and early 1990s. D.C.’s ambience—political backroom deals, cutthroat journalism wars, power-hungry men and women—permeates the novel and drives its plotlines forward.

And while I’ve drawn on my reporting experiences to shape narrative, and many of my characters share similarities with journalists I’ve known, novel writing and journalism operate on two separate planes. Both are hard in their own ways. Journalism deadlines are more exacting and daily. Then there’s the hot breath of the competition on the back of your neck and the constant fear of getting something wrong. Authors have lengthier deadlines—a year or oftentimes much longer—but that can prove crippling, as procrastination, writer’s block, and ennui snare and sidetrack the novelist.

Fiction writers have license to shape facts to their own liking, while reporters, at least the good ones, do not. One might think that would be to the benefit of the novelists, but oddly, not so. The advantage goes to the reporter, since facts act as guardrails, keeping the story on the straight and narrow. Authors are free to chase the story wherever it wants to go, which, more times than not, is over the cliff.

I thought I had the best job in the world as a reporter and could never imagine doing anything else.

I feel the same way about being an author.

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