Richard Castle and the Motivational Power of Spite

Promotional image for Castle season 2 (ABC Studios)

NOTE: This post was originally published on Medium’s Writers’ Blokke.

Richard Castle is a New York Times bestselling author, responsible for such memorable characters as Derrick Storm and Nikki Heat.

Richard Castle is ruggedly handsome (in his own mind, at least). Looks an awful lot like that actor from the short-lived space cowboy show. You know, the one Fox showed out of order on Friday nights and then canned.

Richard Castle is a consultant with the New York Police Department, helping the Homicide unit solve some of New York City’s most bizarre murders.

Richard Castle is also…not real.

That’s right. Mr. “Is that Nathan Fillion or Jason Bateman?” is a fictional character, the namesake of an ABC police procedural titled, appropriately enough, Castle. For eight seasons, Richard Castle shadowed NYPD homicide detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic), solving cases while gathering material for his next series of novels.

Oh, and along the way, they fell in love. Because beyond the murder and the humor, Castle was a love story. For seven of its eight seasons, anyway (we don’t talk about season 8).

So, imagine my shock several years ago when, while browsing the shelves at my local Barnes & Noble, I saw a copy of Heat Wave. As in, Richard Castle’s Heat Wave, the first book in his Nikki Heat series. His name, Nathan Fillion’s mug on the dust jacket. An actual author bio and an honest-to-goodness actual story within.

These books…actually exist?!

Yep, it’s real.

To say I was incredulous would be putting it mildly. The Barnes & Noble associate’s reaction told me I wasn’t the first to react that way.

As it turns out, ABC churned out the novels in real life as they came out on the show (12 novels and three short stories in total, between Nikki Heat and Derrick Storm) to help promote the series. The books are, for the most part, entertaining enough. Solid fare (most of the time), but not necessarily something you’ll remember once you’ve finished. Half the fun of those books came from spotting the TV references.

But think about what I’m saying here: a fictional character has books out. In the real world.

A fake person was writing and publishing real books.

That more than anything contributed to me finally finishing the manuscript for Bounty and publishing it in 2015. I tell people all the time Castle was an influence on my own mystery series, and it was…but not for the reasons people think. Yes, there are similarities between Jill Andersen and Kate Beckett, but those are the product of coincidence and the female cop archetype more than anything.

No, Castle’s true inspiration came about because I could not believe someone who doesn’t even exist was out there, writing and selling books. Selling well, too, by all accounts.

So if nothing else, I wanted my books out in the world because I was not about to be outdone by a fictional character. Not in my world. Not in the land of People Who Actually Exist. If Nathan Fillion’s second most famous role could churn out actual books, then dammit, so could I.

Never underestimate the motivational power of spite.

Spite can take many forms; most people assume it involves proving the doubters wrong. Giving the haters the middle finger and doing the thing they’re convinced you couldn’t do. But that’s micro spite — there’s also macro spite. Where you direct your middle finger not at a person, but at the entire world.

Because I would be damned if I got outdone by a fictional character.

(Granted, Richard Castle still outsells me by leaps and bounds. But he had Disney [parent company of ABC and, presumably, the companies publishing the Richard Castle books] in his corner — not to mention a TV show starring the space cowboy guy and the pretty cop lady. I have…none of those things.)

Still, I had a creative epiphany that day, standing in the middle of Barnes & Noble.

If a fictional character could churn out relatively decent fiction at semi-regular intervals, then what the hell was my excuse? I had none. I’m real. He’s not. So if he’s sitting there writing novels for actual public consumption, then why couldn’t I?

Answer: I can. So I did. And I have. To the tune of six novels, a short story collection, three anthology contributions, and a non-fiction book.

I’m not quite as prolific as the dude who had a bulletproof vest custom-made that read WRITER, but that’s not the point. I don’t need Richard Castle’s storybook life or only-in-TV romance. I just need to sit down and write books, because that’s what I’m good at, and dammit, Nathan Fillion is not going to be better than me at that.

Have you ever read a book, and while reading it thought to yourself, I can do better than this? My attitude upon discovering Richard Castle’s books actually exist was a lot like that. It was the slow-dawning realization that whatever excuses I had made for myself didn’t matter. Here was proof that literally anyone could write and publish a book.

I don’t mean that in the “Ugh, who gave Glenn Beck a book contract?!” sense, either. I mean that in the “Well, if this is happening, then I really have no reason not to do it, either” sense.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed Castle (the first seven seasons, anyway). Kate Beckett is one of my all-time favorite characters, and I try to watch the show any time it’s on syndication. It’s one of the few love stories I can invest in, and as the product of a single-parent home, I appreciate the way the show depicted single-parent relationships.

But the entire concept of a fictional character publishing books in the real world, promo material for a TV show or not, rubbed me so wrong that I had no other choice than to finish my first book, publish it, and get to work writing the second one. And the third one. And the fourth one. And so on and so forth…

So, whoever really wrote Heat Wave and Storm Front and all the rest…thanks. Because of you, I got off my pasty butt and actually got to creating.

Because if Richard Castle can be an author in this world, then so can I.

About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books and art, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Reintroducing Myself…

160425-news-castleFor the unfamiliar, this is Detective Kate Beckett from the TV show Castle. I discovered the show — and her — about five or six years ago, and she’s the big reason why Bounty finally got written and published back in June 2015.

Readers have noted that Jill and Kate are very similar — and that’s not an accident. Kate Beckett inspired a lot of what Jill became (and there were a lot of similarities that were already there). The murder mystery element rounded out the narrative, but it was Beckett who, in a roundabout way, gave Jill the missing element she needed. It’s been a while since I’ve seen an episode of Castle (the show did not end on good terms), and I find myself struggling with the fifth book in my series.

So why not remind myself of what made these books — and Jill — work in the first place? Why not reacquaint myself with the perfect blend of badass and compassionate that made Kate Beckett the great character she was?

Beckett’s strength never came at the expense of her femininity or her personality — if anything, all of those facets enhanced and strengthened each other, and that was what I hoped to infuse in Jill through my writing.

And while Castle was very much about the growth of Beckett’s relationship with Castle, she was always very much her own person, her own character. When the show was at its best, she never lost who she was in service of the plot (we’ll ignore season 8…).

So I need to reintroduce myself to Detective Katherine Houghton Beckett, NYPD Homicide. I need to remind myself of the things that made the Jill Andersen books such a joy to write in the first place — and maybe I can finally finish Betrayed.

But it’s good to know where inspiration has struck. Jill Andersen did not start with Kate Beckett, but the latter wound up doing a good bit to shape who the former is. And maybe reminding myself of that will help get me out of this creative funk I’m in.

Besides, Kate Beckett once pistol-whipped a United States Senator and walked out while he cradled his bleeding head and ran away. How badass is that?!

(I mean, yes, he was a very, very bad man. But still!)


I trust everyone had a great holiday season, rife with plenty of new reads (including my work, perhaps?). I now bring you all my latest crop of book reviews, including a pair of magnificent fantasy books and a new entry into a long-running series that’s not as strong as the others.

Dangerous Ways: The Books of Winter by R.R. Virdi

Why do wedangerous-ways read?

Do we do it for simple entertainment? Do we do it to escape the stress of our lives? Do we do it to learn something about ourselves, about the world in which we live? Or perhaps we do it for all of the above reasons.

Whatever the reason, when we are transfixed by a phenomenal tale, one so well crafted that it grabs us and transports us to an entirely different world, it’s a magical thing. Dangerous Ways, the first book in R.R. Virdi’s The Books of Winter series, is one such experience — as vibrant and evocative and intense as the myriad of gateways leading to other worlds.

This book takes place in the same universe as Virdi’s Grave Report series, and there are satisfying callbacks, but this tome is a being all its own. Its a massive one — not quite troll massive, but close — and yet Virdi’s quick-witted first-person style is so free-flowing that you’ll push your way through hundreds of pages without truly realizing it.

Where the Grave novels are gritty, street-level thrillers with a healthy dose of the freakish, Dangerous Ways is grand, bordering on high fantasy. The numerous worlds are fantastical and well-developed; for all of Virdi’s skill at weaving through the English language, he is equally adept at creating entire worlds — and something tells me he’s only scratched the surface.

Of course, none of that matters if the characters fall flat. But they don’t; Jonathan Hawthorne and Cassidy Winters are a joy to be around; despite the fact that they’re constantly threatened with certain death, you can’t help but be with them step for step. They’re individual characteristics — bravery, determination, sarcasm, wit, and smarts, just to name a few — make them easy to root for, and the supporting cast is equally delightful in its own right.

As much as I’m eager for the next Grave Report book, I’m just as excited at the prospect of the next Book of Winter. There is no cliffhanger here, but there are enough threads to fill several more volumes… and with writing this clean, this crisp, I can definitely see myself devouring more of this genre.

Fantasy fans — urban, high, and everything in between — should definitely add Dangerous Ways to their collection. This is a fun, engrossing, entertaining read — and I would argue, the best book I’ve read in all of 2016.

Rating: *****

Buy Dangerous Ways on Amazon (available in Kindle, paperback, and hardcover)

A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

a-torch-against-the-nightIf An Ember in the Ashes was a solid introduction to the horrific and oppressive world of Elias and Laia, then Sabaa Tahir’s follow-up, A Torch Against the Night, is a fantastic follow-up that builds on what we already know and constantly raises the stakes.

Everything that made Tahir’s first book such a hit is back for the second installment, and the biggest change is the fact that Torch features three protagonists: the aforementioned Elias and Laia, as well as Helene. To me, the addition of Helene’s POV was reason enough to give Torch the full five stars; whereas Helene felt a bit one-note and love-triangle-y in Ember, her perspective and character arc add a tremendous layer of depth to both the character and the novel as a whole.

Along the way, all three characters face seemingly impossible odds with varying degrees of success. Nothing is ever truly as it seems, even in the gripping final pages that take place in the dark prison Kauf. I enjoy Tahir’s way with words, the way she can simultaneously paint vast, sprawling pictures with the intimate personality of the characters themselves.

Large though this tome may be, Tahir deftly transports you from character to character, unfolding plot twist after plot twist in such a way that hundreds of pages will fly by before you come up for air — and as an added bonus, I was not nearly as uncomfortable reading Torch as I was reading certain passages in Ember.

That’s not to say there aren’t moments in this book. There are, and they are gutting and fantastic all at once. I’m probably not the target audience for this series, but I’m a sucker for stories in which the heroes refuse to stop in spite of the odds. As a favorite TV show of mine once said: “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.”

That is the guiding philosophy behind Tahir’s books, and it works regardless of the scale of the moment. Moments big and small resonate equally in A Torch Against the Night, and the result is a sequel that surpasses its already impressive predecessor in just about every way.

Rating: *****

Buy A Torch Against the Night on Amazon (available in Kindle, paperback, hardcover, and Audible)

High Heat by Richard Castle

high-heatCastle may be history, but Nikki Heat is still going.

For the uninitiated, a primer: Richard Castle is a fictional mystery writer, formerly portrayed by actor Nathan Fillion on the ABC procedural Castle (which was just canceled this past spring after eight mostly-quality seasons). As part of promoting the show, the Nikki Heat series was published in real-life, along with select stories featuring Derrick Storm. High Heat is the eighth installment in the series, and it will likely prove just as divisive as the TV show’s eighth season.

First, the good: these books have, for the most part, been better than expected. They are essentially little more than promotional material, even if the thing they’re promoting now only exists in syndication and on DVD. High Heat moves along at a brisk pace, unraveling two distinct storylines: the ISIS-style beheading of a journalist, and its resultant threat on Jameson Rook, and Nikki Heat’s continued dependence on and obsession over the death of her mother.

For the most part, High Heat weaves between the two almost effortlessly. There is enough intrigue and action to keep things moving, and this book being less than 300 pages makes it one of the easier reads. There are callbacks to the show — part of the fun of this series has always been playing “Spot the Castle reference — and there are real-life callbacks as well.

Including a presidential candidate who seems to be some freakish combination of Donald Trump and Ross Perot.

Now the bad: This book needs another editor.

For all the crap independently-published books get for poor editing — fairly or otherwise — this is a traditionally-published book that definitely could have used at least one more lookover. It almost feels as if, now that the show itself is over, the people behind bringing these books to life aren’t putting in as much effort as before. Disappointing, but ultimately not that surprising.

Also… for those of you who didn’t like the direction season 8 of the TV show took (specifically, what occurred at the end of the season-opening two-parter)… well, you’re not going to like the end of High Heat either. Without specifics or spoilers, it is almost a word-for-word rehashing. I know these books normally play close to the TV vest, but it’s not normally this blatant.

Still, High Heat is an entertaining read that doesn’t require too much from the reader — which is about par for the course when picking up a Richard Castle book. It’s certainly not the best in the series, and some will despise the direction it takes at the end, but the series has gotten away with much worse.

Rating: ***

Buy High Heat on Amazon (available in Kindle, hardcover, Audible, and audio CD)

An Ode To Kate Beckett

In less than a month, one of my favorite characters is going to be going away. With Stana Katic leaving the TV show Castle following this season, Kate Beckett will be no more.

This sucks, for several reasons — most of which have nothing to do with writing. But in a lot of ways, I have Kate Beckett to thank for my books, Bounty and Blood Ties.

More than one reader has told me that Jill Andersen, my protagonist in those novels, reads similar to Kate Beckett. That’s not by accident, either; when I discovered Castle a little more than a year and a half ago, something triggered whenever I saw Beckett on-screen.

See, Bounty has been a labor of love since I was in high school… emphasis, more often than not, on the labBeckett gunor part. Constant re-writes, reboots, do-overs… I could never really get the character, or her stories, right.

But along came this sometimes-lighthearted procedural about a mystery novelist who followed around a cop under the pretense of research… and everything just started to click. Jill started to click. I started to click.

I wasn’t in a writing funk before discovering Castle, but that show really turned up the proverbial wick. Adding the murder mystery element to Jill’s universe really helped things fall into place, and Jill herself was suddenly far more well-rounded and dynamic than she had been before.

In a lot of ways, Jill is similar to Beckett… but in a lot of ways, they’re also polar opposites. But were it not for Beckett — and Katic’s remarkable portrayal of her — I’m not sure I’m sitting here with two published novels under my belt and several more in the works.

I’ll be sad to see Beckett go — and take down a show that I had come to love in the process. But I’m thankful for the character and the actress, because they really helped bring forth a creative renaissance on my part. I’m a better, more confident writer because of Castle, and thanks to Beckett, Jill is a much more interesting character than I could’ve ever dreamed.

Besides, now that Katic is leaving Castle, maybe she could take the role of Jill should Bounty 
wind up on Netflix.

Hey, a guy can dream, can’t he?