March 19 – 25: “How have your readers shaped your books?

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week ITW Members Saralyn Richard, Phillip Donlay, Karen Harper, Gordon McAlpine, Kirk Russell and Alethea Kontis describe how readers have shaped their books? Scroll down the ‘comments’ section below to follow this thrilling conversation!


Mystery and children’s book author, Saralyn Richard, is a writer who teaches on the side. Some of her poems and essays have won awards and contests from the time she was in high school. Her children’s picture book, Naughty Nana, has reached thousands of children worldwide. Murder in the One Percent, her debut mystery novel, pulls back the curtain on America’s wealthy and powerful elite. A member of International Thriller Writers and Mystery Writers of America, Saralyn is revising her second mystery.


Gordon McAlpine is the author of Woman with a Blue Pencil and Hammett Unwritten and numerous other novels, as well as a middle-grade trilogy, The Misadventures of Edgar and Allan Poe. Additionally, he is coauthor of the nonfiction book The Way of Baseball, Finding Stillness at 95 MPH. He has taught creative writing and literature at U.C. Irvine, U.C.L.A., and Chapman University. He lives with his wife Julie in Southern California.


As a young man, Philip Donlay’s life was shaped by two distinct events. At the age of seventeen, he earned his pilot’s license, and at eighteen was published in a national aviation magazine. The combination of these two passions, flying and writing, has led to successful careers as both a professional pilot and best-selling novelist. Donlay has been a flight instructor, flown a private jet for a Saudi prince, and for twenty-eight years flew a corporate jet for a Fortune 500 company. His travels have taken him to over forty countries on five continents. He divides his time between Montana and the Pacific Northwest. SPEED THE DAWN is his eighth thriller in the best-selling Donovan Nash series.


Karen Harper is the New York Times bestselling author of 80 books. Published since 1982, she writes contemporary suspense and historical novels. After living in South Florida for 30 winters, she decided to set her SOUTH SHORES series there and in the Caribbean. A former Ohio State English instructor, Karen now writes full time, which gives her and her husband time to travel.


Kirk Russell is the author of ten crime novels and three series, Marquez, head of a California undercover wildlife team, Raveneau, a San Francisco homicide inspector, and FBI special agent, Paul Grale, of the Las Vegas FBI domestic terrorism squad. Russell’s novels have received numerous starred reviews. He lives in Berkeley, CA.


New York Times bestselling author Alethea Kontis is a princess, a voice actress, a force of nature, and a mess. She is responsible for creating the epic fairytale fantasy realm of Arilland, and dabbling in a myriad of other worlds beyond. Her award-winning writing has been published for multiple age groups across all genres. Host of “Princess Alethea’s Fairy Tale Rants” and Princess Alethea’s Traveling Sideshow every year at Dragon Con, Alethea also narrates for ACX, IGMS, Escape Pod, Pseudopod, and Cast of Wonders. Born in Vermont, Alethea currently resides on the Space Coast of Florida with her teddy bear, Charlie.



International Thriller Writers Inc represents professional authors from around the world. Learn more about them, their work, and the sources from which they draw their inspiration at the Official ITW Organization Website.

Interested in becoming a member of the International Thriller Writers? ITW offers Active and Associate memberships.
  1. Although I love feedback from readers, in person at talks or signings or through my website or fb page, I always think of my first readers as my agent and editors. (I must admit, though, my husband does proofread for typos or stupidities. Timelines are the bane of my author existence: I once had a minor character pregnant for 11 months.) But as I was cleaning out files lately, I found some first reads by my agent and early editors, and they were staggering. I’ve been published since 1982 and had forgotten how much I had to learn and they had to teach me. My revision notes, thank heavens, are no longer 4 single-spaced pages as when I started writing suspense/thrillers. I even had a so-called ‘book doctor’ help me with pacing once. Anyone other writers who have relied on “skilled reads” from professionals to help them along the way?

  2. The great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges addressed this issue as follows: “I do not write for a select minority, which means nothing to me, nor for that adulated platonic entity known as ‘The Masses’. Both abstractions, so dear to the demagogue, I disbelieve in. I write for myself and for my friends, and I write to ease the passing of time.” I came across this quote at an impressionable age and it has indeed influenced and inspired me. I too write for myself and to “ease the passing of time”. And I also write for my friends, which, of course, is where the essential challenge lies. Writing becomes more than a “pastime” when, with every turn of plot, every revelation of character, every damn sentence, it is informed by the prospect of eventually sharing the finished work with those whose literary sensibilities one most respects. My friends, then, represent both challenge and inspiration.

    1. Hi Gordon,

      I love the Borges quote that inspired you so much. I write to entertain myself. For almost 10years, I wrote just for the fun of it. Then a friend encouraged me to publish. In my opinion, my best work happens when I write to entertain myself.

  3. Hello, everybody! I’ll kick this off:

    My first book (AlphaOops: The Day Z Went First) was published 12 years ago. It’s no surprise that my writing process has evolved over the past decade. But I’ve consciously made a shift over the last few years with regard to my friends and readers…and I blame it on L. Frank Baum.

    In his various introductions to the Oz books, L. Frank Baum talks about some of the fan letters he received before writing the latest volume. He thanks fans and answers questions. A few times, however, these letters inspired him so much that they changed the focus of his stories. TV shows and movies today do this too—some cameo role becomes a “fan favorite” and suddenly that character is given lines in the sequel, or an action figure, or is placed more into the spotlight in future episodes. As connected as fans can be in the twenty-first century, why not bring this aspect back to the writing world?

    Sometime back in 2014, I was working on a new fantasy novel. I needed a bunch of country names right off the bat—which meant my writing stopped dead before it even started, and I was super annoyed about this. I just needed SOMETHING, didn’t even matter what. I could change them all later. So I turned to social media (as authors often do in times of turmoil) and realized I had answered my own question. My feeds are full of authors and artists and librarians and fans who read lots and lots of fantasy. Who better to ask than this brilliantly curated braintrust? I put out the call to Facebook and Twitter and received so many fabulous suggestions that I wrote them all down, in case I needed them later. But the floodgates had opened.

    I still do some heavy research for the names of my major characters, but when I need a troll name, or a goblin name, or the name of an alternative indie rock band, or “shops that would be run by a witch,” or “best school pranks ever,” I turn to social media. Not only do I now have a WEALTH of fabulous names, but I get to honor my dear friends and fans in the process!


  4. I read the reviews good and bad. If a book sucked, okay, but tell me why. In a series readers get a feeling for recurring characters so when a reader says you should think about doing this, I listen and maybe it changes the next novel. Or when a reader has lived somewhere and can pass on things you wouldn’t otherwise know, the bent sign with three bullet holes and a coyote skull at the base of it four miles out a desert road. Sure, you can as easily make all of it up and the story rolls on, but there is a kind of magic in verisimilitude. Sometimes the better details come from readers who’ve read previous books with the same protagonist. If a reader get a feel for a character’s world and then share things they know will be relevant, that helps.

    1. It’s interesting to hear you say this. I’ve been a book and audio reviewer off and on for the last 15 years, so I’m far more jaded when it comes to reviews. The way I see it, a review says far more about the person reviewing than it does about the book. I might read them from time to time, but they don’t inform my writing process this way.

  5. I absolutely listen to my readers, they’re the people I work for, and so I’ve always taken the time to contemplate their comments, but cautiously. Never mind the critics, I filter out the highs and the lows, and focus on the comments that I tend to hear over and over. In the early years, I heard how much readers appreciated the fact that I rarely use profanity in my novels. It was an early choice and a good one. I’ll use a few misdemeanor swear words here and there, but over eight novels there isn’t a single f-bomb, and there never will be. Thanks to readers, I’ve also been able to zero in on what they value most about my books. The pacing, the realistic relationships, the global geographical settings, and as a result, as I craft my rough draft, I take extra care to make sure I’ve done everything possible to enhance these elements. Readers matter, they’re smart, and my books benefit from their observations.

    1. This is a good point – I’ve noticed similar trends in my readership. The most recent is that they prefer a “cleaner” romantic relationship. That’s good, as it means I don’t have to spend time writing a bunch of sex scenes (teenage sex being problematic in its own way), but it also means that the contemporary romance novel ideas I’ve been sitting on for ages will molder in “the trunk” for a while longer.

  6. As a teacher, I always tell learners to know their audience and to tailor everything from topic to word choices to the reader. That is fairly simple to do when one is writing nonfiction articles, but less so when writing fiction. For one thing, people who read mysteries are quite diverse. Tastes run from gritty, bloody, hardboiled to cozy, humorous, and romantic. So what is an author to do?

    I suggest telling the story the way that suits the author’s own style and taste. Too much focus on what the reader wants will distract the author from the story, especially in a first novel.

    After that first novel is published, however, reader feedback flows forth, and the author starts to build a picture of what readers loved most. That feedback is worthy of attention.

    If readers want a sequel, more of a certain character, more surprise endings–it’s a pleasure to give the readers what they want. Using character names similar to those of readers is one way to get their attention. Readers look for authentic details that place them within the milieu of the book, so using names of real people, places, and things helps. Even the name of a specific sorority can draw positive attention toward the book. Another way to tickle the reader’s brain is to place a “nod” to another author in one’s book. It might be something as small as a certain piece of music playing in the background or a book that a character is reading, but the careful reader may pick it up and revel in it.

    If doing these things seems like a distraction from telling the story, then I would discourage an author from even considering them. But if it sounds like fun, go for it!

  7. Well, all reviews with a grain of salt, right, but still, if somebody writes “loved the ending,” or “bogged down halfway,” “couldn’t keep track of the characters,” “hate the title,” “looking forward to the next one,” something communicates and when there enough you can get a sense of where the book lands. I put more weight on reader’s reviews than magazine or newspaper reviews. I don’t mean that pejoratively. I just think if there are enough readers they’ll tend to get it right.

    1. The one I don’t put a lot of stock in is when a review says that the reader was “confused” by the book. I’ve come to realize that this feedback is typical of someone who reads very fast and/or not closely enough. Which is a shame…but there are other books out there made for them! (Those books just don’t happen to be mine.)

  8. In one of my earlier sweet romances I tied up all the threads resolved the character’s love lives and gave them their happy ever after BUT I left it with the heroine rushing off to France to meet her man. Readers loved the book but told me I should have written a final scene where she arrives in Paris. At the time of writing I thought that was overkill but I was wrong apparently. A similar thing thing happened with another of my romances (which still sells reasonable well as an ebook) but my editor told me to write a coda type scene at the end showing the happy family. She was right.

    So now I make sure I write that last final end scene even though I might think I’ve finished the story already and have had enough of them all. I guess readers feel cheated of their satisfaction–bit like that Keira Knightley movie version of Pride and Prejudice where there is no kiss when they finally declare their love. Big mistake!

  9. About Elizabeth Rose’s comments on tying things up neatly at the end. I have always done that in the past, but in my latest suspense series I tried ‘cliffhanger’ endings at the end of the first 3 of 6 books. No, not just to make the reader want the next book (the first 3 came out every other month, so that helped) but because I had a longer plot line than one book. That story actually ended with book 3. I would say about 20% of the readers were ticked off, but the others understood and hung with the series. However, that 20% is important, so I may not try the longer-than-one-book plot again. I might listen on something like that, but I think it’s still author choice on subject and style, no matter what the feedback or trends are. Sometimes I guess it’s write at your own risk.

    1. I think romance readers have different expectations to perhaps thriller or mystery readers. Romance readers want their happy ever after and if they don’t get it they’re very cross. A romance without the HEA is a love story–a whole other thing.

      I had an odd review of one book that said something along the lines of ‘the writer kept switching between first and third person.’ I don’t think she knew what that meant. I’ve never written in first person and certainly haven’t randomly moved between the two. That’s one reader I ignored.

  10. Thrillers often focus on threats and the ending is a resolution of that, successful or not. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending. It can end badly and still be a good story if the protagonist has done all that they could. Thrillers are in many ways more a test of character than anything else.

  11. Hands down, the best place for an author to get direct and wide ranging feedback is a book club. One of my favorite events is a remarkable group of readers I’ve been talking with for years. I’ve been there for all of my books but one. It’s one of my favorite events of the year, and I get so much to think about. I always walk away a little surprised at some of the readers perceptions and hopes for my characters. Great fun and highly recommended for series writers.

  12. A book club you’ve gone to for years is probably hard to beat for honest feedback. I get it from a more dispersed group but they’re candid as in, I read your new one and it’s good but liked the one before it more and here’s why. That’s often useful.

  13. Another aspect of this topic is whether an author is influenced by readers to actually put some aspect of that person in a novel. I also write historical novels about real British women, so I don’t mean that kind of faction. (As author Alex Haley called the mix of fact and fiction.) I have never actually ‘copied’ a real life person into a contemporary suspense novel, but have used speech patterns, personality quirks, and, of course, real life plot ideas ripped from the headlines. But the truth is, anyone an author meets, observes, overhears, etc. can end up in the story one way or the other. I have twice used a specific person quite closely (name and physical description change, of course.) She read the books where she ‘appeared’ and never realized it was her.

    1. Oh, absolutely–I do this ALL the time. The funniest one was when my brother didn’t realize he was totally Peter Woodcutter, but everyone else in my family recognized him immediately. It was exactly the sort of thing Peter would do!

  14. I agree with Kirk Russell that crimes are about character. Sure the mantra of the criminal’s opportunity, proximity, etc. must be there but his/her background, psyche are all important. Crime is character, I remind myself when I write (or read.) That makes me pay attention to the why of the crime–a whydunnit–not just the how it happened–the whodunnit.

  15. Like most writers, I have had readers, personal friends or even strangers tell me, “You have got to use this idea I have for a book!” I have enough of my own ideas, but sometimes one is worthwhile or at least sends me down a particular path. I was getting a haircut once in Naples, FL where we used to live in the winter, and the stylist told me she had a client whose son had tragically disappeared while he was on a wave-runner. He had rescued a girl whose wave-runner had stalled, told her to take his into get help while he sat on hers. She came back with help–wave runner there, no rider. No body washed in (he was a good swimmer) and no one passing by the Marco River had seen him. NEVER found! Of course, when I turned that into a thriller, with some changes to that ‘plot’, he was found under strange circumstances. But listen to everyone. You just never know.

  16. Hi Gordon,

    I love the Borges quote that inspired you so much. I write to entertain myself. For almost 10years, I wrote just for the fun of it. Then a friend encouraged me to publish. In my opinion, my best work happens when I write to entertain myself.

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