August 20 – 26: “The Science Thriller: How do you get your science right? Does it matter?”

This week ITW Members Angie Fox, C.E. Lawrence, Laurie Stevens, John Wayne Falbey, Joseph Amiel and Amy Rogers discuss the science thriller: “How do you get your science right? Does it matter?” It’s a can’t-miss week for thriller writers!


Laurie Stevens is a novelist, screenwriter, and playwright. A graduate of UCLA Theater/Film/Television, she started her career working in sales and marketing for Columbia Records. Laurie has written for television and for film. Her stage play, “Follow Your Dreams”, co-written with writer/director Ronald Jacobs, ran for eight weeks in Los Angeles. Laurie’s articles and short stories have appeared in numerous national and online publications, and her new novel THE DARK BEFORE DAWN is the first in a psycho-thriller/detective series based in the Santa Monica Mountain near Los Angeles. The novel has earned the coveted Kirkus Star and was also named to Kirkus Review’s “Best of 2011”. Psychology and forensics interest Laurie so the book is rich with both. Married, with two children, Laurie has been known to sneak into the county morgue and her favorite research is to pick the brains of therapists! (How’s that for a twist?)

John Wayne Falbey is a modern Renaissance man: attorney, martial artist, real estate developer, triathlete, university professor, competitive cyclist, lecturer, downhill skier, author, and adventurer. He wrote his first novel in his “spare time” as a student at Vanderbilt University School of Law in order to counter the regimentation of law school. His latest novel, SLEEPING DOGS: THE AWAKENING, a techno-political thriller, is the first of a planned trilogy.

Amy Rogers is a Harvard-educated scientist who switched from teaching biology to writing science-themed thriller novels. Her debut novel PETROPLAGUE is about a biotechnology disaster in which oil-eating bacteria contaminate the fuel supply of Los Angeles and paralyze the city. Her website attracts readers who enjoy science, medicine, and technology in their leisure reading with book reviews, author interviews, giveaways, and more related to science in fiction.

C.E. Lawrence is the byline of a New York-based suspense writer, performer, composer and prize-winning playwright and poet whose previous books have been praised as “lively. . .” (Publishers Weekly); “constantly absorbing. . .” (starred Kirkus Review); and “superbly crafted prose” (Boston Herald). SILENT SCREAMS, SILENT VICTIM and SILENT KILLS are the first three books in her Lee Campbell thriller series. Her other work is published under the name of Carole Bugge. Titan Press recently reissued her first Sherlock Holmes novel, THE STAR OF INDIA.

Angie Fox is the New York Times bestselling author of several books about vampires, werewolves and things that go bump in the night. She is best known for her Accidental Demon Slayer series. She is also writing a series about a group of paranormal M*A*S*H surgeons. The first book in the Monster MASH trilogy, titled IMMORTALLY YOURS, is due out from St. Martin’s Press in August 2012.

Joseph Amiel is an internationally best-selling author, whose novels include STAR TIME, BIRTHRIGHT, DEEDS, HAWKS and A QUESTION OF PROOF. He has also won awards for screenwriting and for his comedy-mystery web series Ain’t That Life. A graduate of Amherst College and Yale Law School, he is married and lives in New York City.

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  1. I don’t write science thrillers per se, but I did write a play about string theory (the title was “Strings”), and I spent an entire summer with physics books. It was based on a true event, too, so I felt a responsibility to get the details right.

    So yes, I personally felt it was important to get the science right. I was lucky enough to have the physicists I was writing about as advisers, so that helped a lot.

    In fact, two nights before we opened, one of them, Paul Steinhardt, called me and gave me a couple of corrections, which went in to the script in time for opening night!

    I also think you have to do a LOT more research than will ever show up in your work, but if you don’t do it, readers will smell a rat. Speaking of which, I have another mouse corpse to sweep up this morning…. my cat is a killer. Serial kitty……

  2. Nearly all of us work in some business and the better part of our waking hours is often spent engaged in that work, so placing my novels in an industry has always felt to me to be a natural extension of life. The industry in STAR TIME (coming out this Wednesday) is network television. In my legal thriller A QUESTION OF PROOF, the victim is a newspaper publisher. BIRTHRIGHT (being published soon) is the saga of an investment banking family. The amount of research that I had to master to be able to write knowledgeably about those industries was often daunting. If one is not a scientist and, more specifically, a scientist in the specific discipline in which a novel is to be set, the research can be even more daunting. Exposure to the science can be fascinating to readers, but that will prove inconsequential to creating a compelling novel if the characters and their concerns do not fascinate as well.

    Years ago, I conceived of a science-based thriller. The science was cutting edge and, I thought, would be a revelation to the general public: immortality that might just be scientifically possible. First I had to find the few texts that mentioned the new discovery. Then I had to look up nearly every word in the texts, but I kept doggedly at it because the stakes were high: First, I wanted to write a compelling science-based thriller and, second, I wanted to live forever. My agent eventually dissuaded me from pursuing the book any further because the characters and their concerns did not seem anywhere near so gripping to him as the science. But now that I think about it – and he is no longer among those of us who can still benefit from that area’s advances – I wonder if perhaps he had a prejudice against science-based thrillers. The science is still cutting edge and still not that widely known. Maybe if I went back and plumbed those characters and concerns anew, maybe, just maybe . . .

  3. In a science thriller, it’s critical that the author get the science right; otherwise, it’s science fiction, and that’s an entirely different genre. So, the question is: How does the author get the science right? The answer is deceptively simple – research. But that leads to more questions, such as:
    When do you do it – before starting the book or during the writing of it?
    Where do you conduct the research?
    How much research is sufficient?

    When is subjective, although obviously it needs to be done before you begin writing about the subject to which it pertains. Jim Rollins, the noted NYT best selling author shared his perspective with me. Jim writes fictional tales about science and technology. He does all his research up front. He gives himself 90 days to complete it, after which he begins penning the story. With my novel, Sleeping Dogs: The Awakening, I did the bulk of my research on genetics – an underlying theme – up front then researched other topics such as the toys of the über wealthy, sophisticated weaponry, etc. as I wrote the book.

    For my first novel, The Quixotics, written years ago, I did most of my research in the library. Now I do most of it online. But there is a well-regarded caveat: don’t rely largely on a single source. For example, Wikipedia is very easy to use and covers just about every topic you can imagine. But it’s open-source, meaning that anyone can contribute to it and they may not be accurate.

    How much research is sufficient? You should be able to discuss the topic intelligently and in some depth with experts on the subject. Your readership may include some of those experts. If a reader recognizes that the author has no real grasp of the subject, you won’t get the kind of word-of-mouth and reader reviews you need to help sell the book.

  4. Contemporary thriller readers expect authors to get their facts right. Whether a thriller has legal, medical, scientific, political, historical, or other themes, the facts underlying the story must stay close to the truth, especially at the beginning of the novel. Yes, we’re writing fiction, but readers are sophisticated (they will notice and be displeased if the author gets facts wrong) and readers of science-themed thrillers in particular expect to learn something while they’re being entertained. To get the science wrong in a science thriller will disappoint readers savvy enough to catch the errors, and will mislead readers who can’t tell where truth ends and make-believe begins.

    Thus authors who write science-themed thrillers must first understand their chosen scientific subject themselves. Not everything the author knows or learns should be included in the story–that’s boring to read–but the author’s depth of understanding must be sufficient to create a technically plausible story line. If not, they’re writing science fiction (to learn more about the difference between sci-fi and sci-thri, see my blog post on what is a science thriller?).

    I’m a scientist so it’s easier for me to do the research required to write a compelling science thriller. Because of my training, I can read original research papers to glean most of what I need to know. The idea for my debut science thriller PETROPLAGUE, a scientific disaster story in which oil-eating bacteria contaminate the fuel supply of Los Angeles and paralyze the city, came out of my work teaching undergraduate microbiology. But if an author lacks the technical prowess to hone her scientific story ideas on her own, I think it’s imperative that she consult a real scientist with knowledge of the field. A great science thriller does more than list facts that you can cross-check on Wikipedia. A great science thriller, in the style of Michael Crichton, posits a complex situation with a scientific basis (such as cloning dinosaurs in JURASSIC PARK, or alien microbes in THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN). You can’t do an internet search to educate yourself about the plausibility of such a scenario. You must consult someone with a deeper knowledge.

    Fortunately most working scientists are positively giddy to be asked to consult on a novel (a hint of glamour and excitement!). My advice to writers who have a tech idea but need help with tech accuracy: Email someone in the relevant department at your local university. 9 times out of 10 they will be happy to help you, or give you the name of someone who can.

    I’m a writer, reader, and critic of science-themed thrillers. I’ve read and reviewed over 60 such books at my website, where I give science thrillers an overall rating and also a “biohazard” rating for scientific content. I understand that if a book is 100% technically accurate it’s called a textbook, not a novel. Textbooks are boring. I love it when authors take a compelling scientific fact, weave a story around it, and then blur the line between fact and fiction. What drives me crazy is when an author tries to write a science thriller but gets the fundamental science or the logical consequences of the science wrong. Writers, don’t do it! Run your ideas by a scientist early in the process, and then ask a scientist to read a draft of your manuscript.

    Do you read science thrillers? If so, do you have an expectation that the author knows more about the science than you do, and therefore can be trusted with the facts? Do you like to learn something new when you read? Have you ever read a science thriller and thought the author put in too much scientific detail, or on the other hand, dumbed it down too much?

  5. I have to agree with John’s comment about not relying on a single source – not only can Wiki get it wrong, but sometimes one book puts thing in a way that is easier to understand than another book.

    I found this to be true in physics – there are many ways of explaining quantum and M-theory, and some writers had a knack for making it crystal clear. So a wide reading list is a great idea!

  6. It’s interesting what John says above, how he gives himself 90 days to do the research before he starts writing. I don’t have a set time period, but I do the bulk of my research before writing as well.

    For example, my newest series is set in a MASH camp (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital), and one of the first things I did was research the layout of various army MASH units. I saw where there were similarities, where there were differences and postulated why. Then I made a working diagram of my own camp. I took into account the desert setting in my war (it does change things) and then postulated further since my thriller has paranormal elements. Still, those paranormal facets had to work within the structure of a real MASH unit, or else none of it is believable.

    And that’s the key to solid fiction: your facts have to line up, or else nobody is going to believe the things you make up.

  7. I believe the word that most applies in this discussion is verisimilitude. It’s kind of like: “So real, you almost think you’re there”. It’s achieved when the reader suspends disbelief because the characters and story line seem real or almost real. The only way for an author to achieve it, in my opinion, is to thoroughly know the subject matter. That requires research, even for those already schooled in the topic.

    Crafting a story around it may be a discussion for another day. After all, what writer wants his or her readers to skip over whole passages because the presentation of the science in the novel is a real snoozer.

    A discussion involving genetics could easily become mired in that La Brea tar pit. One of the two essential themes of my current techno-political, Sleeping Dogs: The Awakening, involves genetics. In an effort to avoid that bottomless pit of boredom for all but a genetic scientist, I created a special scenario for presenting that theme. I did it in a discussion between the geneticist who had co-developed the theory and a very non-scientifically oriented FBI agent. The agent made the scientist explain the theory in layman’s (or near-layman’s) terms. Further empathizing with readers, I gave the agent a crushing headache as a result of the discussion.

    Did it work? So far no one who has read and commented on the novel has said anything about the role of genetics in the story.

  8. Well said, John – “verisimilitude,” or “a writer’s right to lie to a willing audience.”

    Seriously, I agree with you and also want to point out that Michael Crichton pulled off a similar feat in Jurrasic Park. After the scene where the Richard Attenborough character explains dinosaur cloning so convincingly, you’d have to be a real heel not to give into the premise.

    And if you did resist, it would spoil the fun for you anyway! So in that way, we have (hopefully) a willing audience for our little white lies…..

  9. Using a non-scientist character to make a scientist character explain technical elements in a lay person’s terms is a widely used–and successful–strategy in science thrillers. Other types of thrillers use this technique too, such as historical thrillers that require the reader to understand something about, say, ancient Babylon.

    Anybody have any additional techniques they use to convey technical information to the reader without boring exposition or authorial intrusion?

  10. Amy,
    In answer to your question about conveying information, I like the old tried and true argument. Two characters who don’t agree on the science can have a rollicking good argument and the reader absorbs the information painlessly as the two experts have a go at it.

    If there’s something at stake (cf. man-eating dinosaurs), so much the better!

  11. From all the comments, I guess we can say that the majority feel getting the science right is important. It’s also fun. I snuck into the morgue once (not that most people would find that fun). But I had to do research, and, like these authors are stating, we want our facts correct. Plus, can you ever expand your brain enough? I’m very interested in forensics and I’ve read just about every book by Dr. Baden (forensic medical examiner). In the second in my series, bugs play a real part as a clue. I really enjoyed learning about entomology and how helpful it is in solving crimes. Gave me a new appreciation of flies. I’m not kidding! If you read up on this, you will look at insects in a whole new light.
    This is how I approach research. First, I get most of my questions answered online or in books. Then I reach out to professionals who actually do this work. I take them out to coffee or lunch and get the personal side of the story. I’m fascinated by what they do and most everyone is happy to talk to a writer. People like to talk about themselves, right? I no longer have to sneak into the morgue because my niece is studying to be a forensic anthropologist so I pick her brain now. You can imagine what our family parties are like. You’d think nobody would like to hang around my niece and I, but they do! People like this weird stuff.

  12. I like Carole’s suggestion of having two experts in a given scientific field carry the narrative with conflicting points of view. It’s not like that doesn’t happen in real life – think global warming.

    I also second Laurie’s methodology of doing the heavy lifting up front the old fashioned way, via online, print media, etc. With that as the foundation you now know the specific issues to pursue. Laurie’s point is well taken that, at this point, you can drill down to those specifics through in person, telephonic, or email conversations with the appropriate experts.

    However it’s done, we all seem to agree on one thing – get it right.

  13. I agree with John and Laurie about doing research up front, though I find it also continues as I write, becoming a feedback system that informs and shapes the writing.

    Laurie, to answer your question, I did invent a little bit of “fantasy physics” in my short story “The Vly,” which will appear in the MWA anthology What Lies Inside, edited by Brad Meltzer. The process was weird; I just sort of made it up as I went along. It’s kind of a horror/ghost story, so there had to be some dark outcome to the physics. It was just a question of what bad thing would happen, but since it was fantasy, I didn’t have to do research! ( :

    I can be more specific if that didn’t answer your question.

  14. That must have been a lot of fun to create your own science, but challenging, too. Not only did you have to create the science, but make it seem real enough for a reader (average human!) to consider it valid. Would you consider your work science fiction?

  15. Good question, Laurie – no, I’d have to say it was pure fantasy, because there really wasn’t any hard “science” involved, and there was no “techno-babble” – in other words, I never explained how and why demons could ride through the sky, etc.

    I always think of true science fiction as needing that moment where the “science” is explained (as in Jurrasic Park, for example, or every Star Trek episode ever made.) My story didn’t involve technology as such.

  16. I agree that if the writer “invents” the science for the story, it probably changes genres to science fiction. Sometimes, however, a writer has to embellish on the known science. For example, in my novel “Sleeping Dogs: The Awakening, which is a techno-political thriller, I struggled with the use of stealth helicopters in the story line. We know they exist because the Navy SEALs used them to kill bin Laden. The problem is there that this is top secret technology. Finding information was very challenging.

    There is information available regarding stealth bombers, which, among other things, utilize special coatings and odd angles in the fuselage to defeat radar. But bombers fly at extremely high altitudes where the noise generated by their engines generally doesn’t create a problem. Helicopters, on the other hand, have the added issue of noise to contend with. This is where the research got tricky.

    I was able to determine that Eurocopter makes a bird that has various modifications designed to dampen noise. Also, there are a few articles from cognoscenti concerning the photos from the chopper that was left behind in the bin Laden raid. They speculated on design and technology factors that may have contributed to the stealth aspects. From there, I assembled the pieces, connecting them with poetic license where necessary.

  17. John, that is so cool! Sounds like you did exactly what was necessary – taking what you already knew to be true, and then filling in the rest. And if you had known anymore, but CIA would have to take you out, so I’m glad you let sleeping helicopters lie…..

  18. Thanks, Carole. I have to admit that there have been times when I researched online for information on the FBI, CIA, sophisticated weaponry, military bases, and other near-classified information. I used Google Earth to scope out a fictional attempt at a political assassination at the Capitol in Washington. I would not have been surprised if I had been visited by “Men in Black” from the Secret Service, FBI, or other agency. Oh, the travails of the thriller writer.

  19. I got a little scared just reading your comment, John. Oh, the BRAVE travails of the thriller writer!
    Believe me, when I think someone in cyberspace has the capability of tracking a computer’s history, they should get a load of some of the websites I’ve visited to do research. Think along the lines of amateur bomb-making and the like. Especially if you are trying to get your facts right. The good news is that I haven’t yet “won” something from a friendly neighborhood psychopath or ended up with frightening pop-ups on my monitor. Writers tend to fling themselves into research (“I’ve just gotta find out how this works!) and we don’t give much thought as to being safe about it. Maybe there is no safety in doing research!

  20. You guys are right about doing online research–there are hazards! While the feds might not come knocking on my door, search engines have become so “smart” that your searches will affect the ads you see, the rankings of pages on your searches, even the price you are asked to pay to buy things like hotel rooms.
    Fortunately most of my online research is on hard-core science topics which labels me as a geek rather than, say, a billionaire pedophile.

    Another question: do you all think there is a difference between “science thrillers” and “technothrillers”? The names most strongly associated with each are Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy.

  21. In response to Laurie’s and Amy’s posts, it seems to me that in this era of incredible technological advances a writer’s online research could result in being placed on a “watch list”. I can’t imagine that research into subjects such as certain aspects of jihadism or the construction of IEDs would go unnoticed, even if it was for background for a thriller. There’s good and bad in this. The bad is obvious. In addition to becoming a potential suspect of some kind, there is the bigger picture of lost personal freedoms and invasion of privacy.

    On the other hand, it’s good to know that the genuine bad guys (never writers, of course!) are being watched by the appropriate authorities. Also, there can be a silver lining for the writer. For example, I believe Brad Thor was asked to join a DHS panel as a result of the knowledge base he has developed from his research efforts in writing his thrillers.

    The bottom line seems to be that the research is necessary in order to effect the realism needed by the novelist to craft a good story and demanded by the readers; even if it can draw unwanted attention.

  22. Amy,
    What a great question! I guess my answer is yes. Though there is a sub category of science fiction that is “techno science fiction,” not to mention Steampunk, etc., a techno thriller doesn’t necessarily have elements of science fiction – it doesn’t even have to have science per se, I guess.

    Unless you call weapons technology science, which I guess it is….. oy. Even thinking about this genre makes me want to go to yoga class. SO not sexy to me…..

  23. You may not be able to escape even in your yoga class. Think: Physiological Thriller.

    As John suggested, we’ll risk research even if it means getting on a “watch list.” I think that we may not have the choice. Writers have a natural curiosity about the world anyhow, otherwise we wouldn’t bother making a commentary on it in some form or another.

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