November 18 – 24: “Holidays and Thrillers, how can we combine the two concepts to up the ante in our writing?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5With Thanksgiving on the horizon we turn our focus to the holidays and thrillers. This week we ask ITW Members Karen Harper, Matthew Quinn Martin, Harold Bernard, Amy Lignor and Don Helin how can we combine the two concepts to up the ante in our writing?


heros companionAs the daughter of a career librarian Amy Lignor grew up loving books; ‘Patience & Fortitude’ at the NYPL were her heroes. Her Tallent & Lowery series has been a huge hit with readers – and is growing with each new puzzle she offers. Working as an editor in the publishing industry for decades, she’s now the Owner/Operator of THE WRITE COMPANION along with a new publishing company that will begin in November of 2013. A reviewer and writer for many, Amy contributes to SUSPENSE MAGAZINE, AUTHORLINK, THE FEATHERED QUILL and many others.

SupercellH. W. “Buzz” Bernard is a writer, retired Weather Channel meteorologist and USAF veteran.  His debut novel, EYEWALL, became a number-one best seller in Amazon’s Kindle Store in 2011. His second novel, PLAGUE, was published in 2012 and ascended to Kindle best-seller status last month. His third novel, SUPERCELL, a fast-moving drama set against tornado chasing on the Great Plains, was released earlier this month. Buzz is vice president of the Southeastern Writers Association.

UPON A WINTERS NIGHTKaren Harper is the NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author of contemporary suspense and historical thrillers. Her most recent suspense is UPON A WINTER’S NIGHT, which has a holiday theme and is set among the Ohio Amish. A former university and high school English teacher, Harper has been published since 1982. Her books are also available in e-editions and audio as well as many foreign languages. She and her husband divide their time between Ohio and Florida.

Nightlife CoverMatthew Quinn Martin was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania and raised in New Haven, Connecticut. However, it wasn’t until he moved to Manhattan that he realized he was a writer. These days, he lives on a small island off the North Atlantic coast of the United States where it gets quiet in the winter…perhaps too quiet.

DevilsDen_CoverDuring Don Helin‘s time in the military, he spent seven years in the Pentagon. These assignments have provided him background for his thrillers. His first novel, THY KINGDOM COME was published in 2009. His second, DEVIL’S DEN has been selected as a finalist in the Indie Book Awards. Don lives in central Pennsylvania where he is working on “Secret Assault,” to be published in Spring 2014.

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  1. I appreciate this invitation to participate in the Thriller Round Table and look forward to the discussion during the week.
    What a great topic. The holidays, a time for gathering, a time for fun and enjoyment with family and friends. Perhaps a trip to grandmother’s house, maybe spending New Years Eve in Time Square, watching the Boston Marathon, or visiting the tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Veterans Day. A time for high emotion or perhaps even depression if you’ve lost a loved one.
    Holidays provide predictibility, large groups of people moving to certain locations at certain times to celebrate or mourn.
    Setting and timing are critical in thrillers. Suppose you’re angry at someone, maybe at another country. The holidays can serve up a recipe to rain revenge for real or imagined hurts.

    1. This sounds like a fun question, but one I’d actually never thought about until it was proposed as this week’s ITW discussion topic.

      Curiously, I’m using a holiday setting, the Christmas season, in the thriller I’m currently working on, BLIZZARD. As the title would suggest, it’s a drama set against a blockbuster snowstorm. So my choice for the late December time frame was, in all honesty, climatologically driven.

      But as I wrote my scenes, it dawned on me that the domestic holiday setting–the fragrance of a Fraser fir, the familiar melodies of carols, the warmth of a crackling fire, the bonhomie of friends and family–would provide a razor-edged contrast to the deadly quest my protagonist was about to embark upon.

      On a 400-mile trek through a once-in-a-millennium blizzard, my hero is going to face more than head-high snow drifts and Arctic winds. His journey will take him further from the safety and
      warmth of his comfortable holiday home than he could ever have imagined.

      What’s your take on combing the two concepts in the the world of writing thrillers?

      1. I think with every novel you have written, you have combined natural meteorological events/storms with the human story. You cannot have a hurricane, tornado, terrorist Ebola threat or, now, a blizzard without the human drama. Weather effects all around it. What you write about can really happen, heck, it has. You cannot have one without the other. If a tree falls in the forest and we are not there to hear it, does it make a noise? You bet. And it will affect us in some way or another, even if we are on the other side of the world.
        Buzz, you are the best!

  2. The Holiday season brings with it a sense of serenity. And when it comes to utilizing the holidays in a novel, writers will find that creating a scary or action-packed story set in the ‘serene’, causes readers to jump on board far more quickly. Why? Because readers love a character who’s human. Whether that character is living in 1800’s London or 3,000’s New York City, the hustle and bustle of Christmastime; the decorations on the streets, the twinkling lights veiled by the falling snow – all of these facets can be used to create amazing scenery that can draw a reader into the book. They can identify with the character more because Christmastime is something they see in their own neighborhood. In addition, using the holiday season for a horror or a massively scary suspense novel can turn the plot into a work of art. When the author takes the serene, happy time and inserts say, a killer, that presence will make the reader jump from their seats. I mean, let’s face it, when a killer jumps out from the kitchen doorway it’s much less scary than if your beloved character is strolling down the white-covered street, hearing children laughing and bells jingling; everything is right with their world until…that killer appears from behind a Christmas tree to make sure that they’ll never celebrate another New Year’s Eve again.

  3. Over the three decades I’ve been published, I’ve done several Thanksgiving/Christmas suspense novels, including my current one, UPON A WINTER’S NIGHT, set in Amish country. Other holidays could work also, but this time of year has the most impact. I’ve found that it really lures, then surprises the reader to have the built-in contrast of what we expect at that lovely, happy reunion time vs. a crime story. This jolts the reader–which is just what the writer wants. Scary Christmas!

  4. I like what writers are saying about the idea of contrasts catching the reader off guard. Of course, holidays vs. a crime at that time is one big contrast no one expects. Others include our use of weather: Sure a “dark and stormy night” can work for a thriller scene, but how much greater will the impact be if the crime happens on a lovely, sunny day? Regional settings: I’ve had great fun writing Amish settings because readers expect quaint, quiet, picturesque scenes, not an arson or an ugly murder–not cops and klieg lights amid the buggies and horses.

  5. A lot of the action in NIGHTLIFE is set in, and around, a nightclub. Halloween is probably the second busiest night for drinking establishments (after the day before Thanksgiving…when people who have returned home for the holiday need a break from family…draw your own conclusions, people).

    So the mix of busy nightclub and halloween––where people are all dressing up disguises––seemed like a perfect mix for a horror book where the monsters project illusions to their prey.

    Actually, thinking about this is giving me even more ideas…hopefully someone will make use of them:

    -an Easter-themed thriller where a devout Christian detective stumbles on a cadre of pagans engaging in human sacrifice to awaken the old bunny gods. We can call it: HARE RAISING

    -a crime caper where the mastermind sends April Fool’s pranks to the local police to distract them while they get away will the ultimate heist. Title: ONLY A FOOL

    -a race against the clock where an archeologist and the last descendant of St. Patrick have to discover the secret of how the snakes were driven from Ireland before they come back…with a vengeance! How about: SAINTS PRESERVE US

    -a murder mystery where the prime suspect is a groundhog who refuses to come out to confront his shadow…I can see the cover now…THE GROUNDHOG ALWAYS LOOKS TWICE (OK…maybe that one is a bit silly)

    …any other ideas?

  6. Come to think about it, the real-life tornado tragedies of yesterday (Sunday) provided exactly the kind of “boogeyman-in-a-bucolic-setting” surprise that several of my fellow writers mentioned above.

    There we were, the tornado season supposedly long past with our thoughts turning to Thanksgiving preps, family gatherings and football playoffs, and BOOM. Death from the skies. Ugly but true. (My prayers are with the victims.)

  7. Another things that works well for the “winter” holidays like Christmas, maybe even Thanksgiving and the New Year, at least in the northern reaches of North America or Europe, is the sense of isolation. Of course, we can be with family and friends, but sudden snow storms can strand someone, cut characters off from “civilization” and help.

    Even phone lines can go down; without electricity, cell phones run down. Strange footsteps in the snow outside a window, facing in… You name it. My current novel begins with the heroine finding a frozen body in the snow, one which sets her on a path toward trouble and terror.

  8. What a list of great ideas. Holidays are usually much worse for someone who has lost a loved one. Add to Karen’s list of winter holiday issues a person who is depressed over the death of someone dear. Or maybe it’s being fired from his job, he feel unfairly, or maybe his spouse has left him for someone else. These frustrations can set someone off psychologically.
    Now he sees that everyone else is having fun and celebrating the holidays. This multiplies the frustrations. Crowds are gathered in one place like time square. A tempting target to take out his hatred and frustrations.

  9. Good point, Don, about Merry Christmas being sad for people who have lost those dear to them. It can be the ‘most wonderful time of the year’ or the most depressing, stressful day to get through.

  10. Holidays have become deadlines – we have so much to get done beforehand and then throw threats and murder into the mix. And afterward, all is supposed to get back to “normal.” I used Thanksgiving as a deadline in Interruptions, a story about a woman fighting a losing battle against a cross-island road in Alaska.

  11. I like Susan’s idea of deadlines. Any deadline can be a real kick for a thriller, especially if a person is depressed and doesn’t want to do anything. All of a sudden, that person can pop and do something really crazy – like shoot up a mall. And your hero has to find out in time and stop it.

  12. We just had a multiple shooting in Columbus, Ohio (a child at one site; a woman at another; and a cop when they surrounded the shooter across town.) People who knew the “suspect” and were interviewed said, “He just snapped.” Now I doubt if “he just snapped” and if they study his past, they’ll come up with reasons. It doesn’t really work for a book to do “he just snapped,” and we need to motivate our characters, but what better frustration, as others have said here, than lots of pressure–including lots to do and people to see during the holidays.

  13. Good point by Karen regarding the pressure-inducing possibilities of the holidays. My stepson died just after Thanksgiving a number of years ago, so my wife, to this day, finds December a rather tough month emotionally.

    But on to “happier thoughts.” The holidays, I discovered this afternoon as I drafted another chapter of BLIZZARD, allowed my protagonist to have a nightmare involving Santa Claus, wolves and a shotgun. I mean, in any other seasonal setting, I couldn’t have gotten away with something like that. (And who knows, after my editor sees it, maybe I didn’t.)

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