April 8 – 14: “In a world with fast turnarounds in technology of all types, how do authors equip their characters with the most modern devices?”

This week we join ITW Members Jonathan Maberry, Thomas M. Malafarina, Nancy J. Cohen, Starr Gardinier and Helen Grant to ask:  “In a world with fast turnarounds in technology of all types, how do authors equip their characters with the most modern devices? How do writers explain technology without boring readers?”


Jonathan Maberry is a NY Times bestselling author, multiple Bram Stoker Award winner, and freelancer for Marvel Comics. His novels include EXTINCTION MACHINE, FIRE & ASH, PATIENT ZERO and many others. His award-winning teen novel, ROT & RUIN, is now in development for film. He is the editor of V-WARS, an award-winning vampire anthology. Since 1978 he’s sold more than 1200 magazine feature articles, 3000 columns, plays, greeting cards, song lyrics, and poetry.

Thomas M. Malafarina is an author of horror fiction from Berks County, Pennsylvania. He has published four horror novels 99 SOULS, BURN PHONE, EYE CONTACT and FALLEN STONES as well as for collections of horror short stories; 13 NASTY ENDINGS , GALLLERY OF HORROR, MALAFARINA MALEFICARUM Vol. 1, MALAFARINA MALEFICARUM Vol. 2 and most recently GHOST SHADOWS. He has also published a book of often strange single panel cartoons called YES I SMELLED IT TOO; CARTOONS FOR THE SLIGHTLY OFF CENTER.

Nancy J. Cohen is the award-winning author of eighteen romance and mystery novels. Her humorous Bad Hair Day mystery series features hairdresser Marla Shore, who solves crimes with wit and style under the sultry Florida sun. Several of these titles have made the IMBA bestseller list. Nancy’s paranormal romances are also popular with fans. Currently she writes the Drift Lords series combining Norse myths, magic, adventure and romance in a contemporary setting.

A paralegal by day, she’s an author by night. Reina has appeared in a blaze and made her mark on the literary world. Because of her unique style, she is known for her works’ distinctive voice, making every book’s character stand out. Reina is a member of ITW and of Sisters in Crime. Reina is also an executive editor for Suspense Magazine. Read more about Starr on her website or visit her blog.

Helen Grant was born in London in 1964. She read Classics at Oxford, then worked in marketing for ten years to fund her love of travelling. In 2001, she and her family moved to Bad Münstereifel in Germany. It was exploring the legends of this beautiful old town that inspired her to write her first novel. In 2008 she moved to Flanders, where Silent Saturday is set. Helen Grant is a highly acclaimed YA author. Her debut novel attracted praise from critics and readers alike and was shortlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal.

  1. I have to put my hand up here and say that my books are not technology-heavy – I’m not trying to write a rival to Digital Fortress. I tend to draw on local history and folktales for inspiration and the settings of my first three books were fairly rural. All the same, the issue of rapidly-changing technology has affected me.
    Over the last 12 years I’ve lived in small-town Germany, Brussels (Belgium), and now Scotland. My first three novels are set in and around Bad Münstereifel, the German town where we lived from 2001-2008. I can’t speak for the larger German cities, but in Bad Münstereifel I know quite a few people who aren’t particularly technologically savvy – they don’t use social media, or Skype, and one or two didn’t even have their own email address as recently as 2008. So technology was not really an issue when I wrote my first book, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, which is set in 1999. The heroine, who was only ten, didn’t even carry a mobile phone, and this was not unrealistic. When I wrote The Glass Demon, which is set about ten years later, things had moved on and the heroine, who is seventeen, obviously did have a phone – what teenager wouldn’t by that point? However, the plot partly relied on the fact that there were still areas of the rural countryside where the mobile network coverage was poor and her mobile phone wouldn’t work. Again, this was entirely possible.
    All of this suited me pretty well because I was trying to create a timeless, “Gothic” kind of atmosphere which wouldn’t fit well with a lot of modern technological stuff.
    However, when I came to write my latest book, Silent Saturday, I was pretty clearly going to have to take a different tack. It’s set in and around current-day Brussels and there was no way that the heroine, Veerle, and her friends would not have gadgets like mobile phones, laptops or tablets. And now, of course, those things are evolving at an incredible speed. When I began the very first draft of Silent Saturday, Veerle had a flip phone because that was what I had. Whilst I was working on that draft, my daughter had to have a new mobile phone and it was at that point that I realised that all the cool kids at school had slide phones, so I amended the MS to reflect that. By the time I got to the editing stage with the book, slide phones were yesterday’s news and everyone had phones with a touch screen – cue another update!
    At some point, obviously, you have to go with whatever is the most up to date technology at the time of writing the book. It’s extremely risky to predict what is going to come next unless you are writing speculative fiction (which I’m not). That hasn’t always deterred writers – for example, Stella Gibbons’ fabulously funny book Cold Comfort Farm, published in 1932, is set in the near future and makes reference to video phones. The book has a very 1930s ambience however, so the video phones feel like a real anachronism.
    I think the answer to this issue is to fix the novel very firmly in its setting, both time and place. If the reader is aware of that chronology they are able to accept the technological limitations. Nobody reads the novels of Charles Dickens and thinks that it is odd that people communicate by handwritten letter rather than email (at least I hope they don’t!!!). Just as I am to give my novels a strong sense of the physical location (by including details of local buildings and topography, local foods and customs, and snippets of language) I try to give them a sense of period too. The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, being set in 1999, predates the introduction of the euro to Germany, so I have made reference to the tiny pre-euro ten pfennig coin. Silent Saturday was written in 2011 when Belgium had been without a government for over a year, so I have made reference to that topic being covered endlessly in the news.

  2. While I’m no authority on this subject, my thoughts are directed to who the author’s target audience may be. For example, if you are writing for older adults, it may be more challenging to enlighten most of them on today’s technology than it would be for young adults and those in their twenties. In fact, many younger [I call them] kids today know more about technology than the rest of us ‘adults.’ Ipads, iPhones, and many of the social media websites such as Pinterest, Twitter and the like seem to be semi-permanent in today’s world. I say semi-permanent because there will come along something to replace them. Our technology is full steam ahead and I don’t see it stopping anytime soon.

    However, let’s say I’m describing an intrinsic piece of technology to readers who may not be familiar with them and what they can accomplish. To this, I repeat the often-heard cliché: ‘less is better.’ If I go into too much detail I run the risk of offending the reader. They could think I believe them to be stupid. Yet, they need to know the item’s relevancy and capability fitting to the scene. It could be done with a bit of wit: ‘I pulled from my briefcase the offensive, necessary evil kids are calling iPads. My kids tell me I need to get with the times, ‘grow up’ and deal with it. I prefer just going back to the old way: send a letter, drop off a note, whatever. Sighing with resignation, I flip open the cover and the miniature laptop comes to life. I pull up my email…’ Here, many already know what a ‘laptop’ is, so they can equate the iPad to it.

    That may be a novice’s outlook on equipping characters with modern devices, but I’ve always thought about the K.I.S.S. theory: ‘keep it simple stupid.’

  3. We have to be careful not to outdate ourselves when writing technology into our stories. Recently, I began revising an older novel and I noticed my heroine flipped open her cell phone. Oops. I thought about changing the device to an iPhone but wondered how long that might take to become a thing of the past. So I just had her punch a number into her cell phone and left it at that. Less is better.

    If we get too descriptive about a device, we could be dating our story. Technology is in constant flux. It’s better to use generalities unless you don’t care that what’s new and exciting today will be old hat tomorrow. As for explaining how the tech works, I don’t. My characters use it in passing, and that’s that.

    Here’s an example of how you can make it simple: “She went online and did a search for copper mines in Arizona.” A more tech proficient author might write instead, “She opened her Firefox browser and did a Google search for copper mines in Arizona.” You see the difference? When I started out on the computer, I used Netscape. Mention that browser today, and young people won’t know what you mean. Generalities are better, although no matter how hard you try not to be specific, likely if you read your work ten years from now you’ll still find things to update.

  4. This is often a real challenge. First you have to keep up to date with what technologies are currently available. Next, if you are venturing into the world of sci-fi, you have to imagine believable new technologies which likely realistically could be created in the future. Then you have to describe and explain with enough detail to give the reader an accurate picture of what you are showing him, yet you can’t go into so much detail that he falls asleep reading your book.

    My background in technical writing and manufacturing engineering helps me to accomplish this. As such my job is to takes complex technical concepts and explain them in a way virtually anyone can understand. This has proven to be a great benefit in explaining technological elements of my stories.

  5. For my scifi stories, I don’t go into detail. For example, my Drift Lords carry in their pockets a device called a PIP or Portable Intel Platform. It has scanning and sensor capabilities. Think of it as an updated Tricorder. It does whatever I need it to do. They also wear comm units on their wrists. This needs little explanation. On the other hand, I do go into more detail when explaining the reason for the dimensional rifts in these stories.

MATCH UP: In stores now!


ThrillerFest XVI: Register Today!



One of the most successful anthologies in the history of publishing!