ThrillerFest Notes: Research is vital.

As usual, Thrillerfest’s Craftfest offered some amazing guest lectures with information other than just focusing of the craft of writing. This year’s talks included representatives of the US Marshal service, arson experts, ATF officers, and behavioral analysis investigators. I love these kinds of sessions because they help point out what TV and movies often get wrong, and the people are always open to questions. As an author, I think it is critical to get the facts correct as much as possible. Readers will notice any errors or inconsistencies and that makes them twice as likely to throw down an unfinished book and walk away.

So here is a list of research possibilities that I gleaned from this year’s ThrillerFest and past ones.

  1. Experience the event first handDavid Morrell, author of the Rambo novels and more, has often said that experience helps writers pick up on all the nuances of an action or occasion. This includes going to a gun range to try a particular gun or rifle; taking a walk through a city and noting all the sights, sounds, and smells; or trying a hobby that your character might have. There are tons of ideas to put you in the same moment as your character when they are doing a specific action.
  2. Google EarthKen Follet, creator of the Pillars of the Earth and many other books, spoke at a Thrillerfest conference a few years ago. After talking about writing while using an old travel guide in the 1960s, he said he now uses Google Earth to get the lay of the land without the expense of travelling there.
  3. YouTube – I never thought of using this option until Jeff Ayers mentioned it at his seminar this year. The author of Voyages of Imagination: The Star Trek Fiction Companion pointed out that so many video diarists love to record the details of their lives. Therefore, if you need to know what to a Russian hotel looks like, you might find a video of someone walking down a hotel hallway in Moscow.
  4. Academic and other professionals – Area experts are all around us. If you need historians, economists, or scientists, look to local universities. Probably for the price of a lunch, they would be glad to discuss any questions you might have. Professors usually love people learning about their subject matter. In addition, some towns have Coffee with a Cop meetings or Citizens Academies that can provide a great time and place to talk to law enforcement people. Contact your local police department or sheriff’s public affairs office for these kinds of opportunities.
  5. FBI, U.S. Marshal Service, and other government agencies – A few years back, The ITW organization offered a day with the FBI before the actual Thrillerfest started. I signed up for it and was amazed at what I learned. The main factor I walked out with was that they want people to ask questions. In fact, they have public affairs offices that will answer questions and provide support to curious writers. They hate the bad information showing up on TV and in movies. Don’t be shy. Do a Google search and then pick up the phone and call.
  6. Librarians – Mr. Ayers also mentioned another underutilized resource: librarians. He stated that these people are the kinds that love to do research, and they would know what their institution has in terms of newspapers, photos, microfiche and more.
  7. Fellow authors – This last one took me by surprise but then made so much sense once I thought about the writers I’ve known. Most had first career and their writing is their second one. Therefore, they have some expertise in another area along with their writing career. For instance, most people don’t know that I have a degree in molecular and cellular biology. I can’t stand it when an author fails to distinguish between viruses and bacteria. For one thing, it is very difficult to “cure” a virus. At best you usually treat the symptoms and come up with a vaccine. While at Thrillerfest, I met ex-police, financiers, lawyers, political experts, and accountants. They were also all published writers. So when in doubt, check out an author’s website and ask your question. What is the worst thing that could happen?

Research by being in the moment and at the place is always going to be the best. However, it is also often going to be the most inconvenient and expensive option. Don’t let that stop you from writing though.  With some computer research and some phone calls, you can make your information the most accurate it can be.

For instance, when I worked on Independence Day Plague, I walked all over the Smithsonian Mall, the subways and parts of Virginia. I collected maps and took tons of pictures because we were already spending the summer there. However, I could not do that in South Dakota, but I had a friend that grew up there. I used her as a resource to make sure those scenes rang true.

These suggestions are not a comprehensive list. If you have other suggestions, I would love to hear them. Regardless of how you do it though, researching your book’s locations and facts will give your stories a texture that your readers will appreciate.

Thoughts From the 2018 Thrillerfest

I had quite a whirlwind week in New York City while attending Thrillerfest. It was my first time back in four years and I didn’t realize how much I missed it.  I would like to use this week’s blog to share impressions and information gathered from listening to established writers, publishing house CEOs, agents, and information experts.


The stone head is the normal decoration inside the Grand Hyatt, but combined with the Thrillerfest logo, it made a striking visual statement.

One catchphrase that seemed to crop up a lot was “great plot can overcome bad writing, but great writing can’t overcome a bad plot.” I like to think this idea of “plot is king” refers to a few books that have become hits despite mediocre writing. Publishers are hungry for great, original plots. One of the impressions I got was that they are more willing to work with newbie authors to shape up the writing in order to publish a great story.

Information from Established Authors

Along with these lines, a panel of authors that included Brian Andrews, Steve Berry, Mark Dawson, Robert Dugoni, Bob Mayer, Jenny Milchman, and Jeffrey Wilson all answered questions on traditional publishing. The first question commented on “what was the point where you knew you had ‘made it’ as a writer?” The answers mostly focused on not having to put on a suit or working by the pool, but the one that struck a cord with me was “the answer is a moving target.”

I agree with that. My goals and ideas for success have changed since Independence Day Plague was published in 2009. They will change again with the next book’s publication because becoming a career author involves climbing a ladder rung by rung and not just sprinting towards some end goal.

Steve Berry in particular remarked on the three points to success in publishing: platform, product, and promotion. He related a story where he was quizzed by a more famous author (at the time) about his sales numbers for different books in different markets. He couldn’t answer any of the man’s questions and was chewed out for it. What he learned from that was the mantra, “know the business, know the numbers.” We are in a self-promoting business and we shouldn’t leave our success or failure with anyone else.

One piece of Advice Each

Finally, each of the authors was asked for one piece of advice that they would offer to a new writer. I’ve summarized them below. I would love to attribute them to specific people but I couldn’t hear them that well. If any of my readers also attended and can tell me who said what, please let me know.

Don’t give up, and revise and resubmit. Be ready to throw away  a manuscript and start all over again because you are learning about and improving your craft every time you write a manuscript. However, also be prepared to listen to expert advice and fix mistakes as well before submitting to the next editor or agent.

Learn along as you write and (different author) go learn the craft. Good novel writing is a skill that you must develop. The way you learn is through books, seminars, other writers, and conferences and constantly write. Critically review your work to make it the best it can be.

Don’t try to write like Steven King. Write like yourself and find your own voice. Your writing will be stronger that way.

Network all that you can. Writers support writers with information, help with research, and sometimes collaborate on projects. Although I don’t remember if this was said or not, I would add here to be an active part of organizations like the Indiana Writers’ Consortium, other local writers’ groups, and even national organizations like International Thriller Writers (or whatever your genre’s organization) simply for the support and sharing of information.

Break the rules. One author said know the rules and more importantly, know when to break them.

Write what you love but not necessarily what you know. An example of this is that you may know all about something like finance or courtroom procedures but you don’t love it. Instead, you love modern art or raising unusual chickens. The passion that you feel about your subject will come through in your writing.

Keep writing. We all know people who say they can write but somehow never finish a manuscript or others that give up because they can’t handle rejections. Getting published is hard. The success usually goes to those are doggedly determined to win that book contract or connection with an agent. Find the time and place that works for you and keep hammering at the keyboards.

More information to come. In the meantime, happy writing!