February 24 – March 2: “How do news events shape your plots?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week join ITW Members Stephen Carbone, Lisa Von Biela, Daniel Suarez, Barry Eisler, Reggie Ridgway, William Lashner and J.T. Ellison as they discuss how news events shape their plots and answer the question that everyone is wondering: “How closely should thriller writers follow the news?”


THE JANUS LEGACY coverLisa von Biela worked in Information Technology for 25 years, then left the field to attend the University of Minnesota Law School, graduating magna cum laude in 2009. She now practices law in Seattle, Washington. Lisa’s first short story appeared in The Edge in 2002. Her short works have appeared in various small press venues, including Gothic.net, Twilight Times, Dark Animus, AfterburnSF, and more. Her debut novel, THE GENESIS CODE, was released in 2013. Her second novel, THE JANUS LEGACY, is due out in February 2014, and her first novella, ASH AND BONE, is set for release in May 2014.

endgameReggie Ridgway is a full time writer and author of three recently published thrillers which have garnered a number of great reviews. In The Midnight Hour was published by Echelon Press in 2012 and Moon Shadow and Endgame published recently by Bookrix. From Reggie: I have many free short stories and flash fiction offerings free on my blog. I was a finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Author contest. I am a member of International Thriller Writers. I earned a BA from National University Vista in Computer Science. I am a Viet Nam War veteran and retired after forty years working in the medical field as an x-ray technologist. I am currently a full time novelist. And I also act in hollywood and have appeared in TV episodes, like Dexter and The Office.

INFLUX_web_smDaniel Suarez is a New York Times bestselling author and former systems consultant to Fortune 1000 companies. His books include Daemon, Freedom™, Kill Decision, and Influx – works that were informed by his nearly two decade career developing software for the defense, finance, and entertainment industries. With a lifelong interest in both IT systems and creative writing, Daniel’s high-tech and Sci-Fi thrillers focus on technology-driven change.

Stephen Carbone is new to the novel writing world. His literary experience comes from penning regular articles for several aviation journals, a sort of open-door series. His thirty plus years in aviation were on both sides of the table – airline and government. Stephen has investigated major airline accidents; this first book, an aviation techno-thriller, closely parallels his first hand experiences with such disasters. Stephen and his wife of thirty-one years live in Virginia.

The Barkeep by William LashnerWilliam Lashner is the NEW YORK TIMES best-selling creator of Victor Carl, a character BOOKLIST called “one of the mystery novel’s most compelling, most morally ambiguous characters.” The eight Victor Carl novels have been translated into more than a dozen foreign languages and are sold all over the world. He is also the author of the best-selling thrillers THE ACCOUNTING and BLOOD AND BONE, as well as the novel KOCKROACH, which he published under the pseudonym Tyler Knox. Before leaving his job to write full-time, Lashner was a criminal prosecutor with the Department of Justice in Washington, DC.

Graveyard of Memories by Barry EislerBarry Eisler spent three years in a covert position with the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, then worked as a technology lawyer and startup executive in Silicon Valley and Japan, earning his black belt at the Kodokan International Judo Center along the way. Eisler’s bestselling thrillers have won the Barry Award and the Gumshoe Award for Best Thriller of the Year, have been included in numerous “Best Of” lists, have been translated into nearly twenty languages, and include the #1 bestseller THE DETACHMENT. Eisler lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and, when he’s not writing novels, blogs about torture, civil liberties, and the rule of law.

When Shadows Fall by J.T. EllisonJ.T. Ellison is the NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author of eleven critically acclaimed novels, multiple short stories and has been published in over twenty countries. Her novel THE COLD ROOM won the ITW Thriller Award for Best Paperback Original of 2010 and WHERE ALL THE DEAD LIE was a RITA® Nominee for Best Romantic Suspense of 2012. She lives in Nashville with her husband and is hard at work on her next novel.




  1. Posted on behalf of author Daniel Suarez:

    How do news events shape your plots?

    I don’t choose my plots as much as they choose me. I naturally follow news on a broad array of subjects (I always have), and occasionally one or two developing trends grab my interest above all others.

    In the case of ‘Kill Decision’, my book on autonomous drones, there was no single drone news item that piqued my interest — instead it was a wave of seemingly disconnected items appearing in all sorts of places that convinced me there was an important shift taking place. These items I collected into folders and pinned on bulletin boards like an FBI task force looking for connections. They could be anything from a fascinating article on ant colony logic in a logistics trade journal or a new remote controlled toy in a retail catalog. But eventually the story accretes around that original knot of interest — some aspect of culture that I’m convinced will form a worthwhile story.

    Thus, I’d say I follow not individual events in shaping my plots, but minor tributaries of current events — tributaries that I attempt to follow to some figurative headwater.

    How closely should thriller writers follow the news?

    I think there’s a high bar for technical realism in thrillers today — more so than just about any other genre except sci-fi. And this requires keeping abreast of new developments. The added benefit of keeping informed, of course, is more ideas for stories.

    I’m not speaking strictly of cyber thrillers. Police procedurals, for example, require a detailed knowledge of investigative operating practices, which are changing all the time due to new technologies. And with readers just a Google search away from checking your facts, there’s really no way to fake it. Thus, authors need to constantly be learning new things.

    That said, I’m willing to bet the whole question of news is moot for this audience. We’re probably all news junkies.

    One thing I would recommend to authors is subscribing to one strange new magazine every year on a topic you know nothing about — something like ‘National Hog Farmer’ or ‘Cranes Today.’ It might sound ridiculous, but these are insular, specialized worlds that always hide something interesting, and knowing how the hidden professions of our world operate can open unexpected avenues in a story.

    *****END ROUNDTABLE POST********

  2. Since the end of the Cold War, there’s been much discussion in the thriller world about whether the thriller, at least the contemporary version, is still a viable form. Despite then Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey’s admonition that “We have slain a mighty dragon, but now find ourselves in a jungle filled with snakes,” villains seemed scarce during the “peace dividend” years of the Clinton administration. Nine-eleven and the explosion of al Qaeda in the popular consciousness, of course, changed all that, and Islamic fundamentalism provided a new treasure trove of contemporary villains and plotlines.

    For thriller writers interested in realism, though, the familiar “Islamic Terrorist Villain” plotline has a serious shortcoming: terrorism, of whatever stripe, poses far less danger to America than does America’s own overreaction to the fear of terrorism. To put it another way, America has a significantly greater capacity for national suicide than any non-state actor has for national murder. If thrillers are built on large-scale danger, therefore, and if a thriller novelist wants to convincingly portray the largest dangers possible, the novelist has to grapple not so much with the possibility of a terror attack, as with the reality of the massive, unaccountable national security state that has metastasized in response to that possibility.

    This is of course a challenge, because unaccountable bureaucracies—what Hannah Arendt called “Rule by Nobody”—make for less obvious villains than do lone, bearded zealots seeking to destroy the Great Satan, etc., etc. The trick, I think, is to create an antagonist who is part of the ruling power structure but who also maintains an outsider’s perspective—who personifies and animates an entity that, destructive and oppressive though it is, is itself is too large and cumbersome to ever really be sentient.

    1. The Winter Olympics this year is a case in point. Every night we were warned by the news outlets about a possible terrorist threat. It is the grist for a fantastic novel, but so far nothing has happened. I wonder how many Americans avoided attending out of fear. How many athletes spent sleepless nights wondering when and if an attack would come? Clearly the threat of an attack had a profound effect and the terrorists are probably jubilant.

  3. Myself, I like to stay one step ahead of the news and sort of crawl underneath it. I used to edit a weekly newsletter on biotech developments when I was in law school, and the things that are on the horizon are truly amazing–and also have the capacity to go oh, so terribly wrong. My thrillers so far have been of the techno/medical ilk, and I feel like there is endless fodder for this sort of thing.

    So you hear these days about DARPA experimenting with implantable brain chips in soldiers? Well, I wrote about that in The Genesis Code several years before. The Janus Legacy takes organ generation and cloning a number of steps further than we know is going on today. Will it come true? Maybe.

    I like to take developments and coming developments, examine them for “what can go wrong” and craft a novel from there.

    1. There is a new TV show called Intellegence about a man with an imbeded computer chip. The idea must be relevant and a possibility. Good use of news worthy ideas in your novel Lisa.

  4. I steal from the news unabashedly. I write mostly crime thrillers and the best source material for crime stories is the local newspaper. In Philadelphia, every day in the local news section there are scores of story ideas ripe for the plucking. The key is finding the angle that speaks to the writer.

    About a decade back, there was a very notorious local murder. A woman dead, a family grieving, the husband a very prominent rabbi in New Jersey. It turned out that the rabbi hired a congregant to kill his wife so he could marry a local radio personality. The details were juicy, and it was the rabbi angle that got all the press, but what struck me through the whole process was the relationship of the children to the father, especially the son, who turned out to be instrumental to getting his father convicted in a second trial. When I decided to write the story, the headline details — the rabbi stuff and the radio personality stuff — all were jettisoned, but the father and son relationship, with all its tortured emotions, became the heart of my novel THE BARKEEP.

    The story of the murder was again in the news recently because the congregant hit man is about to be released while the rabbi remains rightly imprisoned. He still protests his innocence. There’s a moment in the novel where the son, visiting his father in prison, asks him what he does in jail.

    “I seethe,” says the father. I bet.

    1. So I took Daniel’s advice and started looking for specialty publications for inspiration, and I found “Sheep! Magazine,” dubbed “The voice of the independent flockmaster”. I always wanted to be a flockmaster. And I actually found an inspirational article entitled “Lambing Positions: Notes on Assisting.”

      I tried to get a book out of it, but I have to confess, all it did was make me hungry. So I started reading “Mint Jelly Aficionado” and I got this great idea.

      Six hours later I devoured it with a nice Chianti. Sometimes reading the obscure does pay off.

      1. Lol William Lashner. I love you’re humor. Have to try one of your books. Just a side note. Trolling the news lately has been found lacking of late. Hard to be inspired by Obamacare and the lackluster performance of our government. Global warming and the polar vortex has some possibilities for story ideas. Any thoughts out there or are we going to keep our inspirations close to the vest.

  5. My wife used to ask me before I started writing, “Why don’t they [‘they’ being the upper echelons in my job] listen to you? You usually prove out to be right.” I wish I could say I gather from the media, but I find that my writing is proving right and is backed up by the media. I’m reminded of Tom Clancy’s vision of a 747 being used to attack Washington in ‘Debt of Honor’. Imagine a commercial aircraft being used as a weapon of mass destruction! The point is that it was always possible, yet nobody thought something so fantastic could be pulled off.

    After I began my first novel an airliner crashed in Buffalo followed by another in San Francisco, both affirming my thriller concept which no one cared about … until it happened. I agree with Lisa in looking at the developments and seeing what can go wrong. I think the news is full of fantastic stories like terrorism, government corruption, or corporate greed. However, writers should be careful for story lines can reach critical mass, a point where they are overdone, e.g. zombies, vampires, more zombies, teenage wizards and finally, even more zombies. It’s the commonplace item that scares the pants off of people, like J.H.’s remote control toy car, Lisa’s out patient medical procedure, or William’s dysfunctional family life; they all hide in plain sight.

    But also J.H. raises another important factor: realism. I’m sure that when a doctor reads Lisa’s novel, he/she is struck with the realism. They can sit back and relax while the novel moves smoothly through real-life procedures with real-life technologies without coming to a screaming halt with something untrue. That’s why I started writing about aviation – a subject I’m trained in, because you can’t fake the technology; it has to be real. According to the audiences we separately appeal to, the realism is a must while media attention is not necessary. The story could be the most incredible ever written, but if it isn’t believable, it won’t stand up to scrutiny.

    1. They always advise writers to write about things they are familiar with. My first novel took place in a hospital. I worked over 40 years in the medical field so it was a logical choice. Now I am writing about guns and high tech weapons that I know little about. Research is key. That is weird how Tom Clancy had precognition about using an airplane as a weapon.

  6. I have to agree, I am very influenced by the news. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. I can’t count the number of times I’ve found myself in the middle of crafting a new book and the scenario I’m writing about becomes front page news. It worries me, actually, that my readers will think I’m just cribbing from “ripped form the headlines” stories, but in this world, the thriller world, it’s hard not to have life initiate art.

    I’m with y’all on the realism. I spend a lot of time researching, asking experts, doing ridealongs and autopsies, so I can make sure the words are authentic. Nothing tears me away from a novel quicker than egregious errors. I know my search history is quite damning.

    It would be fun, I think, to write a book in a world entirely of my own making, where there weren’t any limits to reality.

    1. JT,

      Just set it in the future…that’ll help as far as setting in a world of your own making. It’s a blast! That’s what I had to do in my upcoming novel, Blockbuster. It has to do with BigPharma, and some associated skullduggery. I know a bit about FDA law, and I know drug development takes years. I couldn’t have it take years for this plot, so I set the whole thing in the future and “created” a computer-based system that speeds the process up–big time. Of course, that meant I had to envision *everything* from that time, even everyday electronics. So I thought of new cell phone developments happening now and envisioned them out, etc. It was fun, and the challenge was to make all these things seem like a progression from today’s tech that could happen–and make sure they were consistent throughout the book. I also had to envision social change, political change. Again, I tried to take current issues to their natural–or *a* natural–progression.

  7. I have to admit. I’m a news junkie. I need my daily fix and would undoubtably go through some sort of remission if I were marooned on a deserted island. Since becoming a writer, I’ve frequently used current events to inspire me. I think splicing in something that really happened into a story can give it more realism, and sets the timeline. It also helps if the newsworthy item is a hot topic and therefore relevant and interesting. Terrorism and new scientific developments are hot topics in the Action/Adventure genre. The Internet has opened up a cornucopia for authors as a resourse. I’m writing about Somali Pirates at the moment. I know much more than I ever did after reading news reports and the like. I’m glad we live in a time where we don’t have to travel to far off and to decidedly hazardous locals in order to immerse ourselves into a topic, and be seen as an expert on the subject. At the same time, an author should choose carefully the current event. Unless new blood is injected into the story in the form of a fresh slant, it may come off as merely rehashing old news, that is, after changing the names to protect the innocent.

  8. Lisa, exactly. Take something that hasn’t happened yet and build the world around it.

    I’ve only used one real case in my work – JUDAS KISS was based on the murder of a pregnant mother in North Carolina. I was struck by two things that made me decide not to do this again – my own the fear that her mother might read the book, and how people reacted and said it couldn’t have ever happened the way it did. It’s kind of amazing, no matter how sick and twisted and weird our imaginations allow our books to be, real life trumps it, every time.

  9. Just happened on this discourse and thought I don’t write in the same genre (I do YA fantasy) the news has been a great inspiration for some of my novels. My newsest is a dystopia, so you can imagine how the news would shape the plot! This is a great collection of helpful advice. Thank you!

  10. Dianne, I can only imagine. I think some of the best thinking comes out of the science fiction world – the horror, and sublime. The relation of those stories to current (and impending) news is clear.

  11. I don’t read many science fiction books. Just a preference. At the same time I like to watch sci-fi movies and TV shows. I love the fact that many things we take for granted, originaly came from the imagination of writers. Space travel of course, submarines, cell phones, computers, Internet, GPS, Voice activated devices, robots. And now we hear of cars that drive themselves and have crash avoidance abilities. Airplanes have been using auto pilot for years. Pilots have forgotten how to manually fly passenger jets. We have a remote controlled robot roaming Mars and a spaceship has traveled outside our universe. Some day we may travel at warp speeds. We have weaponized drones deployed in the mddle east. All of these far fetched ideas were first proposed in science fiction novels and films. CAT scans and MRI machines look similar to the medical bays onboard the Star Trek Enterprise. I live up in the mountains, and the small hospital I go to has a telesite robot connected to a live doctor in LA. It seems so strange to sit in front of a robot and tell him my symptoms and get a remote diagnosis. Before long they might develope tricorders, like on Star Trek. Imagine what the world would be like if we have flying cars, transporters and time machines. I never thought I’d see the day when I could make a live face to face telephone call to my son in Afganistan. It bogels the imagination of us old timers who were around before TV.

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