Sunday, September 18, 2011

Thank You, Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wyke-Fiennes!

Tom Swan
Several successful mystery writers began their careers as advertising craftsmen. James Patterson won the 1977 Edgar Award for Best First Mystery Novel with The Thomas Berryman Number. He had had a highly successful career as an advertising executive. So did Chris Grabenstein, a gifted multi-genre writer, who also served as President of MWA-NY. Another MWA-NY President was Tom Swan. After a distinguished career in corporate advertising, Tom produced a delicious trio of art-world-based thrillers that bear re-reading – The Cezanne Chase, The Da Vinci Deception, and The Final Faberge. (Tom's death left us with an empty space no current author fills.)

Another veteran of the Manhattan advertising world, John Verdon, has made a remarkable advent into the world of intelligent, gripping thrillers.

When the Sept. 12 New Yorker arrived, I lingered for a poignant moment over the artist's meditation on the Twin Towers, the cover titled "Reflections." Before dashing to my usual fare, Talk of the Town and the cartoons, I thumbed through the ads. Creativity? Information? Advice? Or hypnotic fairy tales?

I relish frequent doses of others' creativity and my daily intakes of information and free advice. And sometimes a comfort-laden fairy tale to counterbalance accounts of global death and destruction.

I flipped through the colors, artwork and verbiage of ads for Rolex, IBM, Louis-Roederer, Credit Suisse, T. Rowe Price, but my mind's eye stuck to the Dunhill ad, with its arresting photograph of Sir Ranulph Fiennes, that is Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wyke-Fiennes, 3rd Baronet, OBE – a prolific writer and often called the world's greatest living explorer!

His words struck a familiar chord: "Selecting the right team is crucial to the success of any expedition. And the number one rule when choosing is that you can teach people skills, but you can't change their character . . . in interviews I never asked candidates questions, I just talked to them about the expedition . . . Then I came across a saying about how we have one tongue but two ears because we should do more listening than talking. I've made fewer mistakes in the selection process since reading that little phrase . . ."

A well-executed ad should not merely encourage us to buy/use the product. Or just support the advantages and superiority of the product or service. It should educate us - as in e-ducere – lead, teach, develop our innate faculties and powers.

The explorer's words matched much of my own background and expericnce. Many crime novelists come from a professional background or work force, where part of the job was in selection, hiring, training or assessing colleagues or clients in the academic, business, social service, health care fields or any number of civilian or military environments.

I spent years putting bread on the table in professional assessment or as a management consultant, where my team and I needed to size up a client or potential colleague rapidly. This process of quick, accurate evaluation was part of my job in creating an assessment center for a U.S. based Fortune 500 corporation, lecturing at the Yale Graduate School of Management, as a consultant/workshop leader at Drake Beam Morin Inc. and Oliver Human Resource Consultants Inc. as well as in my private executive outplacement firm.

Our bible was Assessment of Men, the manual developed by noted international scholars of the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services. The process, known generally as the assessment center method, was successfully applied in major U.S. corporations such as AT&T, Standard Oil, General Electric and IBM. Psychologists and managers developed and established this method of selecting people and teams in numerous manufacturing and retail organizations as well as government and non-profit organizations.

In a nutshell, the assessment center method boiled down to evaluating interpersonal kinds of behavior gained from live, interpersonal interaction with others, including asking questions, listening, evaluating. Originally developed for selection of management personnel, the process is often used for individualized counseling, management development and organizational development. It used to be installed only in large organizations with great manpower needs, but has become a staple in selection, hiring, training for civilian and military agencies, colleges and universities and many small orgamizations.

In selecting a member of a team the assessment process postulates that an individual often shows the same habitual reactions over a range of similar situations. In other words, if Mr./ Ms. Smith reacts in one way in situation A, there is high probability he/she will react the same way in situation B.

Most people possess relatively enduring characteristics that influence their behavior in various settings. Key to selecting a person on your team are these proven behavioral observations: The person will probably have the same or similar patterns in analyzing problems, planning and organizing his/her work, resisting stress and in dealing with various personalities.

For a crime fiction writer, who often deals with the very basic character qualities of a loner versus a team player, the criminal mind or the honest Joe/Jane type, these assessing principles are very helpful to the writer's mindset, especially in the plotting, characterization and constructing of a thoughtful work of fiction.

Back to the ads, I may never buy or use a Dunhill product, except maybe to outfit my protagonaist Byington Bailey. (Though I confess I did buy Dunhill cigarettes in another life!) But at the next session with my WIP I will try to listen more to my characers, their thoughts, their desires, their directions.

So, thank you again, Sir Ranulph Fiennes!!!

T. J. Straw


  1. And thank you, Thelma. Having been a managment consultant and writing Performance Planning and Appraisal and Never Work for a Jerk really did have something to do with my writing mystery novels. I never knew the connection. Until now, I just thought I was schizophrenic. I even have two names! BTW, I wish my middle name was Twisleton!

  2. You can always change your name. How would your family and friends like that name change? Thelma

  3. Thanks, Thelma, for that pix of the OSS Manual; love the name 'Selection of Personnel for Clandestine Operations: Assessment of Men'. I can see Alan Ladd parachuting into Occupied France while Marta Toren on the ground holds aloft the beacon to guide his descent...Love that stuff!

  4. Love this article!!! I always find it fascinating how the development of characters is seen from different angles.