Guest Post: Jon Land, author of Pandora’s Temple

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What Makes A Thriller?

My guest today is thriller author Jon Land. I asked him the following question:

Bookstores and libraries love to categorise. Generally ‘crime’ gets its own spot, whereas a ‘thriller’ will get placed within the ‘general fiction’. So what separates ‘crime’ from a ‘thriller’ and when do the bookstores and libraries get it wrong?

Here’s what Jon had to say:

JonLandThat’s actually my absolute favourite question in the world. Could take a whole book to answer, but let me try to give you the gist of things here.

First off, some background: For much too long, thrillers were the bastard stepchildren of the publishing industry. Denied a firm placement of their own, they have struggled to carve out an identity and definition separate from mysteries and crime stories. Sure, there’s some overlap, quite a bit sometimes, but for our purposes today, let’s review the primary criteria that define what makes a thriller distinct.

1) STAKES: In his first book, Killing Floor, the great Lee Child introduces his iconic Jack Reacher character stopping over in a town where his brother, coincidentally, was just murdered. Now if Reacher was concerned only with finding his brother’s killer, we’d have a mystery. Along the way, though, he uncovers a massive counterfeiting plot that his brother had been investigating. So the book isn’t just about investigating a murder, it’s about seeking revenge on the perpetrators and bringing down their crime ring in the process. That’s a perfect example of how a book’s stakes figure into defining what that book is. Think back to James Bond’s cinematic debut in Dr. No and the great line where Bond, lighting a cigarette, responds flippantly after the evil genius villain has just sketched out his plan: “World domination . . . Same old plan.” Maybe so, but stakes as high as that are what help make a thriller a thriller.

2) A HERO IN JEOPARDY: Another key element in distinguishing a mystery or crime novel from a thriller is the plight of the hero. In a mystery, we follow the investigation through the eyes of the hero who is chasing the perpetrator while not always being threatened by that perpetrator or larger forces surrounding him. But a thriller places the life of the hero at risk, in danger. In order to survive, he or she must get to the bottom of what’s going on. The villains must not just be caught, they must be stopped. See, thrillers are at their heart quest stories in the grandest tradition and for that reason they are often intensely personal. Remember the great Hitchcock film The Man who Knew Too Much? Jimmy Stewart’s son is kidnapped to stop him telling the authorities what he knows, so the only way to get the boy back is to stop the bad guys himself. The ultimate quest with the lives of his entire family hanging in the balance as he gets to the root of an assassination conspiracy.

3) AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION: Jumping off a bit from the point above, thrillers are almost invariably about stopping something really bad from happening, not just investigating something that already has happened. It’s not a mystery, so much as a puzzle where the hero must fit all the pieces together in order to pre-empt a truly evil plot sure to harm lots of people. In that sense, the thriller form is interactive, asking the reader to play along with the hero in assembling all the clues. The villain, in turn, is determined to stop the hero’s efforts which creates the kind of nail-biting suspense that lies not only in wondering whether the hero will survive, but also whether he or she will succeed in preventing the Really Bad Thing from happening.

4) SETTING: Thrillers, for the most part, are defined by their rapid-fire pace. And that kind of pacing tends to move the heroes around a lot as they embark on their quest to stop the Really Bad Thing. The great tales of James Rollins and Steve Berry take us all over the world, any number of countries per book. While there are plenty of exceptions to this, Lee Child’s books foremost among them, the nature of the thriller has long been defined by characters shifting about settings both dark, mundane and exotic in a staccato-like fashion. Like a treasure hunt, where each clue leads to another that takes the hero somewhere else. This is in stark contrast to mysteries or crime tales which normally take place in a single city or, even, town.

5) HOLDING UP THE MIRROR: Mysteries and crime tales are seldom motivated or defined by societal concerns. Contrast that with the modern evolution of the thriller. The great paranoid conspiracy books by Robert Ludlum, like The Holcroft Covenant and The Matarese Circle, were spawned by the Watergate era where government became the enemy. Ronald Reagan restored trust to government but also reignited the Cold War, giving birth to the likes of Tom Clancy and a whole spat of thrillers more interested in machines than men. The end of the Cold War that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s pretty much killed the thriller form for a while. Sales plummeted, as thriller writers sought a new identity, a new enemy. We got both on 9/11. Suddenly a whole new generation of bad guys were born in Islamic terrorists, obviously capable of doing the Really Bad Thing thought to be only the product of fiction until that fateful, redefining day. The post 9/11 era, that birthed the likes of Vince Flynn, Brad Thor, Daniel Silva, and Alex Berenson, reinvigorated the thriller form and planted the seeds for the explosion of the genre’s popularity today. All of a sudden, we needed heroes again, and characters such as Mitch Rapp, Gabriel Allon and Scott Harvath more than fit the bill. If we couldn’t kill the boogeyman in real life, at least we could kill him in fiction, and the new wave of heroes was more than up to that task. But thriller writers are also ahead of the curve as well. Before he created Hannibal Lecter, Thomas Harris foresaw 9/11 in Black Sunday, his brilliant book about a terrorist attack on the Super Bowl. The Really Bad Thing in Ian Fleming’s 1961 Bond novel Thunderball was nuclear terrorism. Who could have known?

I could go on with this forever, but any writer needs to know when to stop, when enough is enough. There are no absolutes in this business and exceptions surely to every rule. Thrillers are as broad as our imaginations, elegantly encapsulating what the great John D. McDonald defines as a story: “Stuff happens to someone you care about.” To that, let me add “lots of” stuff and someone you care about “who’s in danger.” Now, that’s a thriller!

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Guest Post: Vincent Zandri author of The Disappearance of Grace

FINAL_Grace_3authorpicbylauraMy guest today is Vincent Zandri, author of the Disappearance of Grace, as well as a number of other thrillers including the standalone Concrete Pearl and the Dick Moonlight series. I had a few questions for him about his latest book and also what his up and coming plans are. Here’s what he had to say:

 

 

Q: You really nailed Venice for the reader with the detail in The Disappearance of Grace. Did you decide to use the City before your recent visit or as a result of it? Was there somewhere else in mind? You’re also currently in Egypt, can we expect to be reading a book set there in the near future?

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Venice a few times over the past twenty years. Once during Carnival which is its own unique, dream-like experience. It’s such a mysterious maze of narrow alleys and stone walkways that actually light up in the rain. On occasion, those paths lead to nowhere but water. You can’t help but get lost. You also want to get lost. Or, you should anyway. Navigating Venice is kind of like walking a forest in that what you see when walking one direction doesn’t always resemble what you see when walking in the opposite direction. Venice creates wonder and awe in the people who see her for the first time. But it just might be one of the most beautiful places on earth that also causes great fear. Out of my own anxiety I wondered how it would feel to lose someone you loved very much in a city of water, love, art, and mystery.

 Yes, I’m in Egypt researching a new project called CHASE which will initially be a Kindle series for Thomas & Mercer, and then a book. It’s possible Egypt will be included in a future stand-alone novel as well.

Q: Your principal character suffers from a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which you managed to make very real for the reader. How did you research this and was there anything in particular you were able to use to make it feel so real for the reader?

I did some research, academically speaking. But mostly I talked to real people who have suffered PTSD under various circumstances. I come from a long line of combat infantry soldiers so I was able to witness the effects of prolonged combat to a certain degree. Years ago many of my friends were Viet Nam vets who underwent some horrible combat situations which mimic much of what happens in the Afghanistan portion of the novel. Sadly, most of the vets are dead now, having died early from self-medicated the malevolent effects of the PTSD. Even today, I make a point of listening to the stories of soldiers currently fighting in Afghanistan or who have fought in Iraq. I also meet many of them on my travels.   

Q: I felt that Grace was a bit of an enigma for a large part of the book, meaning that I was never quite sure what her fate had been and why she had disappeared. Was this intentional on your part or just a lucky coincidence?

Absolutely intentional.  Without spoiling, I wanted to create the effect of viewing this story entirely through the eyes and mind of Nick. In doing so it’s possible the reader might actually consider Grace a figment of his imagination. Part of the PTSD. Her name is not coincidental either. She is more than a woman to Nick. She is a state of being, and a necessary part of who he is as a complete, but damaged, human being.

Q: Over the last year, you’ve signed some major deals with publishers and we’re starting to see some of your earliest books being republished. What are your plans for the next year in terms of new books, or are we going to have to wait and see?

In two weeks my next major book, Murder by Moonlight will be released by Thomas & Mercer of Amazon Publishing. A few months after that, Moonlight Sonata will also be released. The third in the Marconi series is also coming. It’s called The Guilty. Just now I’m beginning to outline a stand-alone called, The Ashes. Also, I’ll be working on the new series CHASE which will probably see the light of day in early 2014. So, yes, lots on the fire.

Guest Post: Ethan Cross, Author of “The Prophet”

 

My guest on the blog today is Ethan Cross, author of The Prophet. I asked Ethan:

“Serial killers seem to capture the readers imagination. Why do you think this is? A morbid fascination, seeking a thrill-ride or is it something else?”

Here’s what he had to say:

 

Serial killers are like aliens among us. They think and act in ways that most

of us cannot begin to comprehend, which in turn makes them fascinating. When we
turn on the news and see headlines describing the deeds of a serial killer, we
immediately wonder “How could a human being do something like that?” and “What
drove him over the edge?” When trying to unravel these mysteries, investigators
often look to the person’s past. They search for an event or series of events
that led this seemingly normal person to their ultimate fall from the realm of
the socially acceptable into the world of the criminally insane. But then, we
wonder if there is more at work behind these actions than a traumatic childhood
or series of bad experiences. Was this person born broken? Are they evil?
Most researchers accept that the deviant behavior of serial killers is a
combination of many factors. When questioned about nature vs nurture, one
psychologist asked, “Which contributes more to the area of a rectangle, its
length or its width?” And yet, there is no simple answer, and some maintain
that the circumstances into which a person is born determines their personality.

In my novels, The Shepherd and The Prophet, I touch upon the concept of nature
vs nurture as I place the reader into the mind of a twisted psychopath named
Francis Ackerman. Ackerman’s father was a psychologist who wanted to prove that
he could create a monster by subjecting his seemingly normal son to every known
traumatic event that had occurred in the lives of modern day serial killers.
His thinking is obviously flawed because by trying to prove his theories, he
establishes that there must be something broken within himself that he could
have passed onto his son, giving credence to the very concept he set out to
disprove. While this is only a small piece in the grand tapestry of the novel,
it’s still an important factor in understanding the twisted thoughts and
character of a man like Ackerman.

In a study conducted by the FBI, researchers found that 74% of the killers
surveyed experienced some type of abuse, whether physical or psychological,
during their childhood. 43% reported that they experienced sexual abuse
firsthand. The abused child growing up to become a serial killer has become a
cliche within our society, and yet there is a definite link between abuse at a
young age and violent behavior later in life. However, the fact remains that
most people who were abused as a child don’t grow up to become Ted Bundy, and
there are many killers that had a normal childhood. So, while abuse and
circumstance is definitely a factor, there must be more behind the madness.

We like to think that we are the masters of our own fate, but the truth is that
much of who we are was determined before we spoke our first word or even took
our first breath. The intricate make-up of our genes had already laid out a
certain path before us. We can overcome this and change our fate, but that
doesn’t negate the fact that certain barriers or advantages exist from the
moment of our births. A five-foot-four man can play professional basketball,
but he has a much greater barrier than someone born to be seven-foot-one. And
beyond the physical characteristics, there are certain mannerisms and behaviors
that we seem to inherit as well. Since my daughter was a tiny baby, she has
tucked her thumb into her palm and held it with the rest of her fingers. The
gesture seemed strange to me at first, until I realized that I do that
constantly. She obviously didn’t learn this behavior from me, and it’s
fascinating to think that such a small action could be coded within her genetic
sequence. It stands to reason that a person could be born with an inherited
pre-disposition to violent behavior, but is there even more than genetics and
circumstance at work?

There are also certain religious or philosophical issues to consider. Is there
an evil or negative force at work in the universe beyond what we can see and
easily quantify? These factors are often dismissed by the psychiatric
community, but since most of us believe in some sort of higher power, we can’t
help but wonder at the existence of evil. Although this is an area that is even
more difficult to study and classify, I believe it’s where the true key to
deviant behavior may be found. I believe that all serial killers, regardless of
varying circumstance and genetics, share one common trait. They all harbor a
darkness inside themselves, a darkness that shines through in their terrible
deeds. But the truly scary thing is that I believe we all carry this darkness
or capacity for evil to some degree, and this is where genetics, knowledge, and
the events of our pasts come into play. These factors contribute to our ability
to hold the darkness at bay. We’ve all learned from a very young age how to
manage our impulses. Otherwise, we would allow that sudden animal instinct of
anger or lust to elevate into rape or murder and our society would quickly
crumble.

I’ve always found this concept of darkness and the questions that go along with
it to be fascinating. Can the worst killer overcome the darkness and find some
form of redemption? Can they learn to control the darkness despite the barriers
working against them? What happens to a good man who embraces the darkness with
the best of intentions and under a banner of righteousness? It’s these
concepts, along with others, that I explore within the pages of my novels.

Author Q&A: Giacomo Giammatteo, Author of Murder Takes Time


Today my guest is Giacomo Giammatteo, I recently read and reviewed his book, Murder Takes Time, and was given the opportunity to ask him some questions:

 

Murder Takes Time, spans quite a chunk of time in terms of the main characters in the book. Was it your intention to do this, as this is the first book in a series, or was it the way you’d always intended to tell the story?

I don’t want to give out too many details for those who haven’t read it yet, but let’s say that because of the way the story unfolds and the actions of a particular character, this story presented a huge problem in determining how to tell it. After a lot of racking my brain—and a few glasses of wine—I determined that the only way to tell it was the way that I did.

What’s funny is that early in the process, when I was trying to go the traditional route of publishing, I had two agents interested but they insisted I tell the story in a linear fashion. I knew that wouldn’t work, so I opted to do it myself.

I think to sum it up best—I was forced to do the story this way because I had to draw out certain reader emotions that otherwise would have left the ending unsatisfactory.

Personal values and relationships are a key part of the story, were you particularly keen to use these to help tell the tale or did they evolve as you wrote?

Those personal values and relationships aren’t just a tool or a plot device to tell the story, they are the story.

I didn’t set out to write a mystery book. I was actually writing fantasy books. My kids kept pestering me to write a book that would use some of the stories about my life growing up. I tried to determine what kind of story that would be and ultimately decided it had to be wrapped into a mystery story of some kind.

I played the old “what if” game. What if we (my friends and I) didn’t separate when we were young. What if we stayed together as friends and let life interfere?

There are lots of nicknames for the characters. How did you come up with them, and are any of them based on people you know?

My whole family is laughing about this one. Because if you knew our family, or for that matter almost any large Italian family from one of the big Northeast cities, you’d know that nicknames were a fact of life. Nobody got called by their proper name. Everybody had to “earn” their name, just like in the book.

As far as the names being based on people I know. I tried to steer clear of real people in most cases, but some I didn’t. The character named “Doggs” was my older brother, down to the “colorful” language he used. Doggs was the only person I knew who could transform the “f” word into every part of speech. But just like the characters in the book, we never used that word around women. A lot different than it is nowadays. I’ve been married to my wife for 43 years and she still doesn’t hear that from me.

The one thing that was constant though, was the way the names were earned. That I kept true. A person’s nickname is what defined them, not their given name.

Who lives, who dies. Did you decide before you started to write or did you just see what happened?

I usually know all of the key points of the book before I start writing. I always know the ending, and I normally know things like who’s going to die. I did have one huge problem though, and that was how to kill one particular person. Since you read the book you know who I’m talking about. I ended up writing that scene three different ways and finally opted to keep it the way I wrote it the very first time, which is the way you see it now.

This is book one in the series. How many do you think there will be in total, and do you have any teasers for us in terms of the later books?

I know exactly how many will be in the series—six. One for each of the “rules of murder” listed in the book. The second one, Murder Has Consequences, will be out later this year. Murder Takes Patience is the third book, and it will be out next year.
In the meantime, I’ve got two other series that I’m working on; in fact, the next book that comes out, A Bullet For Carlos, is the first in the Blood Flows South Series. That features a female protag, which made for quite a change in how I wrote it. It will be out in September or possibly October. I’ll have the first book in the Redemption Series out next Spring. Old Wounds, it’s called, and it will feature yet a third protag.

Author Q&A: Vaughan Sherman

I recently reviewed Sasha Plotkin’s Deceit by Vaughan Sherman, naturally I had a few questions, and I had the opportunity to put them to the author.

 

 

1 You developed a relationship between the characters of Chris and Sasha that acted as both plot and subplot and transcended time. Did you always intend for them to be the core of your story or did you have other ideas that didn’t make the final draft?

The first driver for plot ideas came while I was posted in Sweden and learned about Gammelsvenskby (Old Swedish Town). I was taking a correspondence course for fiction writing, and thought what a great idea it would be to include a Russian character who is actually an ethnic Swede from Gammelsvenskby. This was an idea that cooked many, many years before I got serious about writing the novel, and it never changed.

2 Sasha Plotkin’s Deceit reminded me of some of the classics of spy and mystery fiction. What do you consider to be the classics of this genre, and did you take any inspiration from any of them in generating the ideas for your story?

My favorite author in the genre is John le Carré, whose novels include The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker Tailor, Soldier Spy, and The Little Drummer Girl. Unlike spy thriller writers like Robert Ludlum (the Bourne series), le Carré concentrates more on believable relationships and less on unbelievable car chases and shootouts.

Having said that, I have to add that another author of popular fiction, Tom Clancy, rises to believability with his Patriot Games, a novel that I think of as a classic in the genre he writes. Clancy seems to do a lot of research, which makes his plots believable. The Hunt for Red October and A Clear and Present Danger are two works that show his attention to real detail.

And finally, including mystery fiction, I like John Sandford’s Prey series for dialogue. In my CIA career I worked at times with law enforcement, including both active and former FBI agents. Sandford does a great job of capturing their lingo, a talent that adds greatly to his well-plotted and well-written novels.

I make an effort to use my own voice in writing fiction, but there is no doubt that my voice has been influenced by reading these classics.

3 Do you sail? Your descriptions of the Valhalla were accurate and sounded like the classic vessel you portrayed. Does she exist outside of the pages of your book?

Boating has been central to my life, beginning with my father teaching me to run an outboard skiff when I was barely in elementary school. I built a twelve-foot outboard skiff when I was fifteen years old, did a stint in the U.S. Navy between high school and university years, worked on Fish and Wildlife Service boats in southeast Alaska for four seasons, and have rarely been without a power boat for all my adult life.

I sailed one of the early catamarans when stationed in Formosa, have sailed small dinghies and sailing surfboards., but never a large sailboat like the Valhalla. I had a friend in Denmark who owned one of the world’s classic large sailing yachts, and heard many tales about his experiences.  The Colin Archer boats are legendary in Scandinavia.  While spending almost ten years there I heard much about them, and did research for descriptions in the novel.

4 What are your plans for your next book? What are you writing at the moment?

I am outlining another novel, using some of the same characters as in Sasha Plotkin’s Deceit (the twin, Matthew, along with his brother Mark and dad Chris), that will be on the theme of shipping in Puget Sound and the danger of a damaging explosion in Elliot Bay, where downtown Seattle is located.

Guest Post: Jen Estes; Author of Curveball

Jen Estes is my guest on the blog today, I recently reviewed her new book, “Curveball”, a story of baseball set on a tropical island. I asked Jen

Baseball and the colour of a tropical paradise; what prompted you to write a series with the background of baseball, and why did you select the second one to be based in ‘Santo Domingo’ rather than a more familiar surrounding?

Here’s what she had to say:

When it comes to choosing a setting, there are three popular methods. The first is choosing a location close to your heart — maybe your hometown or current city. (Not only does this familiar route give your story the ring of truth, you’ll save oodles of time on research.) But sometimes familiarity isn’t an option, so you have to choose a setting based on your story instead. (Just because you’ve never been outside of Kansas doesn’t mean your mermaid detective has to fight crime in her underground city beneath a local water treatment plant.) Now if neither of those methods tickle your toes, you can always close your eyes, give a globe a big spin and point, then throw your characters in whatever city your finger landed. For Curveball, I chose the second route. (Mostly because my finger landed in the middle of the Pacific when I spun the globe.)

While my first book in the series, Big Leagues, was set in Las Vegas, Cat McDaniel’s career as a sportswriter kept her on the move — I was constantly creating new stadiums for her to visit and new characters for her to meet. That was a lot of fun, but in the sequel, one of her obstacles is being saddled with chaperoning the general manager’s daughter, Paige Aiken. As such, I didn’t want to give Cat a way to “escape” from Paige’s antics. Putting her in the Caribbean training camps during the offseason was my way of chaining her to Paige.

Timing also played a factor in my setting. Curveball directly follows the introduction in the series, Big Leagues, which concluded as baseball season was toward its end. By the time Curveball begins, it’s late November — which is when many Latin American players return home to train in their team’s camps and aspiring ballplayers are being scouted.

Authenticity was key too. The Dominican Republic is a baseball nation and Major League Baseball has a huge presence within the city, with real-life training facilities just like the one in my book (though Cat’s team is the fictional Buffalo Soldiers.) When I visited Santo Domingo, I fell in love with the city’s passion for baseball. There’s actually a chapter where Cat goes to a local baseball game that very much echoed my experience at a Tigres del Licey game. The atmosphere is spellbinding and I knew then that I had to get Cat down to this baseball paradise.

Though I was writing an unfamiliar setting, it helped that my main character is supposed to be unfamiliar with it. She’s a tourist. She’s not expected to know local lore or regional traditions. Though an everyday citizen might not even pay attention to Catedral Primada de América, the famous landmark leaves Cat breathless. Like me, Cat saw Santo Domingo through the romantic and strange eyes of a tourist.

 

Author Guest Post: John Worsley Simpson

I sent the following prompt to author John Worsley Simpson as part of his virtual tour with Partners In Crime Tours:

Is crime fiction keeping pace with crime, or are criminals learning a few tricks from crime writers?

Here’s what he had to say:

Crime fiction is really murder fiction. With the exception of “heist” novels, few, if any, modern crime novels don’t involve murder. Other crimes, like robbery or theft, in the main lack the punch that makes the reader either want the criminal to be caught or wants him or her to get away with it.

Given that most murders are committed by family or friends of the victim, and involve no intrigue or complications of literary interest, the murderous works of crime fiction writers hardly provide blueprints for real-life killers. Most other killings are of the random variety — muggings and the like — that are equally bereft of the qualities that a crime fiction writer would adopt in his or her efforts. In other words, crime fiction is unlikely to offer anything that might be copied in a real crime of homicide.

Heist novels, on the other hand, seem to offer the potential of suggesting methods to a would-be perpetrator of such a crime, but the reality is that the knowledge that would be required to pull off a successful, complicated robbery (the kind that would be the fodder of a heist novel–an alley stick-up and similar fall far short of the dramatic requirements for interesting fiction) is case specific. You could write a generic plot about breaking into a generic bank vault, but that would be useless to a real criminal interested in breaking into the vault of a real, specific bank. What is more likely is the reverse: crime fiction authors may use real cases as the foundation for their plots: the details of an almost got-away-with murder or a complex robbery that emerge at a trial could be the meat of a novel for a mystery writer. So, I would say the few criminals who might inspire crime fiction are far ahead of the genre’s authors, while it’s unlikely that a mystery story could be a how-to for a potential criminal.