How author Terry Shepherd brings his characters to life
by Timothy Pike
Terry Shepherd has spent most of his life not being a thriller author.
Previous career roles—or “incarnations” of himself, as Terry calls them—include broadcaster, corporate executive, entrepreneur, and author of four non-fiction books in the self-help genre.
But despite being a late arrival to the fiction party, this Ann Arbor native, who now makes a home in Jacksonville, Florida, caught up remarkably quickly—and in 2020 released his first thriller novel, Chasing Vega.
Terry knew that in business, one of the best ways to get ahead was to ask advice from those at the top, so that’s exactly what he did. “I always look for the best people and ask them how they did it,” Terry explains. “So I made a list of successful authors I liked and reached out to them. To a person, they responded and have been incredibly helpful in guiding me as I learn ‘The Craft.'”
Trying something new is never easy, but Terry’s corporate experience taught him that sticking his neck out could bring great rewards. “I saw that the bosses got the bucks for taking risks,” he explains. “You figure out what you need to do feed your family. For me, that meant creating a charismatic personality and learning how to lead.”
Some of that charisma has apparently rubbed off on the characters he’s dreamed up. Anyone who’s read Chasing Vega and the next in the series, Chasing the Captain, is already familiar with how Terry has brought two of his fan-favorite characters, Detective Jessica Ramirez and Officer Alexandra Clark, to life.
They’re so lifelike, in fact, they even help write the books. “Jess and Ali are real to me,” Terry says. “If I’m pondering a particular plot point or some dialogue, they both weigh in.”
Detective Ramirez even has her own Twitter page. It’s Terry who runs the account, as you can imagine, but the purpose is to give readers insight into what the character is thinking and feeling, even when she’s not at work. “Understanding motive,” Terry says, “is another reason to love or hate a character. If I’m doing it right, they see some of themselves in Jessica Ramirez and can’t help but get attached to her.”
One person who sees quite a bit of Jessica Ramirez in herself is the real-life cop the character is based on. “Traci Ruiz, my role model for Jessica, is her real-life incarnation, a 25-year law enforcement veteran,” Terry says. “She says I give Jess too much emotion. Compared to Traci, who is a master at compartmentalizing what happens on the job, Jess is definitely more emotionally driven. But my beta readers like her that way. They want to know what’s going on inside her head, the things the people around her might not perceive.”
“The most important daily metric for me,” Terry says, “has always been how I’ve helped someone else.”
Terry ended up in Florida during one of his past incarnations. “Jacksonville was our longest stop during my corporate career,” he says. “Our kids graduated from high school here and put down roots. When you get to be our age, proximity to your grandkids is the primary driver.”
Still, it doesn’t hurt that the Atlantic Ocean lies sparkling just steps away from his beachfront condo—even though Terry admits he doesn’t spend every waking moment sitting on his balcony. “My wife, Colleen, loves the sunrises, and the views are breathtaking,” he says. “But I’m just as happy locked away in my home office at our apartment in town.”
Happy, also, that a rather dark time in his life is now in the rear-view mirror.
“I had a painful departure from my last corporate experience,” Terry says, “that triggered the clinical depression gene that’s common in many families like ours.”
Fearing he might have nothing more to contribute to the world and would only be a hindrance to his family, Terry sought professional care. “I have a gifted psychiatrist who helped me understand that in my case, it’s a brain chemistry thing,” he says, “and that I would need a combination of effective meds and the will to heal.”
Terry gives the rest of the credit to his wife for helping him power through. “My wife is a two-time ovarian cancer survivor, and taught me a lot about facing a monster with both grace and determination. She’s my definition of a true heroine.”
It also helped to write, but what really made the difference for Terry was the people in his life. “Writing is a tool to apply a magnifying glass on your own adventures, and we all end up writing something autobiographical at some point,” he says. “But the friends I’ve made as a writer have made a huge difference. We realize we’re all in this together and try to help each other navigate the maze from ideation to publication. We’re put on this planet to help make it better, and the most important daily metric for me has always been how I’ve helped someone else.”
“Once a story is told,” Terry says, “I can’t wait to discover another one to tell.”
Even with a tight-knit circle of supportive writer friends, Terry admits to a fear that one day, the well might run dry. “Each day is another blank screen that needs to be populated with words that attract an audience,” he says. “And the fear that our most recent book will be the last one anybody buys seems to be nearly universal.”
To get around this fear, Terry stays as busy as possible, and would advise anyone to do the same. “Write every day,” he says. “It’s a profession. Writer’s block isn’t allowed in the rest of the world, and you have to learn how to keep the content moving forward even on days when the muse isn’t singing. There are rules. But aside from good grammar and the ability to tell a story, everything else is up for grabs. Write what you love. Keep learning and growing, and eventually, you’ll find an audience.”
And realize that getting there is half the fun. “While holding that finished product in your hands often feels like that first moment with your newborn,” Terry says, “the adventure happens during the journey of creation. The classic chestnut, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey,” is very true. When I re-read Chasing Vega, I think about all the people I met during its creation and am excited to start another chapter.”
“Once a story is told,” he adds, “I can’t wait to discover another one to tell.”
Terry Shepherd writes thrillers for grown-ups, and is the author of Juliette and the Mystery Bug, a book that helps kids stay safe in a Covid-19 world. His website is TerryShepherd.com.
You can also connect with Terry on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
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