April 14 – 20: “Is fact really stranger than fiction?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Is fact really stranger than fiction? This week, ITW Members Daniel Suarez, Laura Griffin, Phillip Donlay, Tom Wilde, Michael McBride, Colin Campbell, Paige Dearth, Tim Waggoner and Kathleen George will answer that question while exploring how weave the two to make a really compelling story.


FAR GONE cover Laura GriffinNew York Times and USA Today bestselling author Laura Griffin started her career in journalism before venturing into the world of suspense fiction. She is a two-time RITA Award winner as well as the recipient of the Daphne du Maurier Award. Her newest book FAR GONE is out April 15 and received a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly. Laura currently lives in Austin, where she is working on her next book.

burial groundMichael McBride is the bestselling author of Bloodletting, Burial Ground, Predatory Instinct, The Coyote, and Vector Borne. His novella Snowblind won the 2012 DarkFuse Readers Choice Award and received honorable mention in The Best Horror of the Year. 2014 will see the release of three new novels: Ancient Enemy, Fearful Symmetry, and Sunblind. He lives in Avalanche Country with his wife and kids.

deadly echoesAs 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 novelist. Donlay divides his time between Montana, and the San Juan Islands. He is the author of four novels, Category Five, Code Black, Zero Separation, and Deadly Echoes.

The Johnstown Girls by Kathleen GeorgeKathleen George lives in Pittsburgh where she is a professor of theatre and writing at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of the acclaimed novels  TAKENFALLENAFTERIMAGETHE ODDS (nominated for an Edgar(R) award for best novel by the Mystery Writers of America), HIDEOUTSIMPLE, and A MEASURE OF BLOOD (2014) and also a non-series novel, THE JOHNSTOWN GIRLS, a non-series novel about the Johnstown Flood.  Kathy is the editor of PITTSBURGH NOIR, a collection of short fiction, the author of her own short story collection THE MAN IN THE BUICK, and of scholarly theatrical books and articles. She is married to writer Hilary Masters, who asked her out twenty years ago because he figured she, a theatre director, would be interesting—he was tired of being around writers. On the first date, she told him she had begun writing (or more accurately had taken it up again, having said from the time she was seven that she wanted to be a writer).

Montecito Heights (2)Ex-policeman. Ex-soldier. International tennis player. And full-time crime novelist. Colin Campbell is a retired police officer in West Yorkshire, having tackled crime in one of the UK’s busiest cities for 30 years. He is the author of UK crime novels, Blue Knight White Cross and Northern Ex, and US thrillers Jamaica Plain and Montecito Heights featuring rogue Yorkshire cop Jim Grant. He counts Lee Child and Matt Hilton among his fans.

When Smiles Fade by Paige DearthPaige Dearth was a victim of child rape and spent her early years yearning desperately for a better life. Living through the fear and isolation that marked her youth, she found a way of coping with the trauma of her past and the angst that scarred her present: she developed the ability to dream up stories grounded in reality that would prove cathartic for her and provide her with a creative outlet. Paige’s novels are a fine balance between what lives on in her imagination and the evil that lurks in the real world.

The Blood of Alexander by Tom WildeTom Wilde has worked as a government criminal investigator on cases that range from homicide to child abduction, and in that service traveled across the United States, as well as Germany, Romania and Mexico. Wilde is qualified as an instructor in police firearms and weaponless defense training.



Say That to My Face by Bernard MaestasBernard Maestas lives in paradise. A police officer patrolling the mean streets of Hawaii, he has a background in contract security and military and civilian law enforcement. When not saving the world, one speeding ticket at a time, and not distracted by video games or the internet, he is usually hard at work on his next book. You can learn more about SAY THAT TO MY FACE, Bernard Maestas and his work on his official Facebook Page.

the way of all fleshShirley Jackson Award-nominated author Tim Waggoner has published over thirty novels and three short story collections of dark fiction. He teaches creative writing at Sinclair Community College and in Seton Hill University’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction program.



  1. I got my start as a newspaper reporter and my stories had to be comprised of facts. If I ever got the facts wrong, I would hear about it. Writing fiction is a completely different challenge. I have the freedom to invent people and scenarios and to exaggerate details to suit the story, but I have to strike a balance. I want my stories to have that ring of truth.

    What makes fiction seem real to me, as a reader, is the details. The more specific the details, the better. When a writer layers enough specific and even unexpected details into a story, it begins to feel real to me. I start to believe the writer knows what he’s talking about, that he’s been there. Then when the story throws me a curve ball and something outlandish happens, I’m more willing to go along.

  2. First of all, hi, everyone! This is my second Thriller Roundtable and it’s great to be back, I’m looking forward to this.

    As for fact being stranger than fiction, I would definitely say that it is. In my career in law enforcement, I’ve seen some unbelievable things, things that I don’t think would ever fly if I put them in a story, haha. That said, when I started out writing my INTERNET TOUGH GUYS series, I wanted to make it as authentic as possible. As I went along, though, I found that there are many facts and realities, particularly in combat, that don’t fly in fiction. Readers have certain things that they expect and no matter what the truth is, they won’t buy anything less. So, I had to make some concessions for the sake of readability.

    As for how to weave the two together, I think that’s the easy part! You can take whatever facts you want, mix them with whatever you want to make up, and put them together into the best story.

  3. Yes, Laura, details make things work. You are so right. As I mulled this question over, I thought about the recent incident in Pittsburgh of a school stabbing. We’ve heard a lot about school shootings and unfortunately there have been many. The recent incident in Pittsburgh was a stabbing–multiple. The boy who was responsible had no prior trouble so nobody guessed at the level of anger that would propel him through a hallway stabbing 21 people. I think if a writer came up with this idea (or say if a friend suggested it as a plot idea) our imaginary writer would either pass on the idea or stop at five or eight injuries. It would take a lot of moment by moment specifics to make credible the fact that nobody stopped him, that he kept going, etc. The puzzlement and surprise of people, especially the victims and their friends, is a major part of the scene. I don’t want to write it, not even as an exercise. It’s so awfully upsetting. But it occurs to me it might make a very good exercise for a class in suspense writing. What do others think?

  4. Kathleen, I think you make a good point about your imaginary writer and this exercise. However, I’m going to flip it around and use the example of serial killers, so very prevalent in fiction and thrillers. Real life serial killers are, in some ways, stranger, more terrifying (and on a somewhat disturbing level, more fascinating) than their fictional counterparts.

    My classic example of this is THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Groundbreaking book, well-executed, but really just changing a few names and circumstances from the real-life story of how Ted Bundy helped catch the Green River Killer. Both of those characters are much stranger, more disturbed, and more horrifying than the two killers that appeared in SILENCE. At least in my opinion.

  5. Truth is absolutely stranger than anything a fiction writer can devise. And that’s where a writers balancing act comes in: We have to make the reader believe (or at least suspend their sense of disbelief) while our Heroes and Villains perform the most outrageous acts and fall into the most bizarre experiences.

    Now, I know for a fact that two bullets can hit each other in mid-air; there’s an example at the Ripley’s Museum. But if I were to use the occurrence of that fact as a basis to save my Hero from the minor inconvenience of a gunshot wound, I’m afraid my readers fling my book across the room. So while we hear real life stories of amazing coincidences and miraculous occurrences, those things are best left to the real world. Our story worlds are crazy enough as it is.

    1. I think that’s what I was getting at. There are some strange realities out there that readers just will not accept and there have to be some fantastic, fictional elements to it to make it believable.

      Something I always bring up is that the realities of gunfights and car chases are actually… boring, in a way, to the spectator. My first chase lasted all of 20 seconds. If I tried to write, I could maybe stretch it to half a page, maybe-maybe. So there has to be a certain amount of fiction thrown in there to make a readable and palatable slice of a story.

    2. Tom, you mention suspension of disbelief and I think that’s so important. For it to happen, I think the reader first has to trust the author. If the author has provided enough realism and believability early in the story, then I am much more apt to suspend my disbelief if the plot gets far fetched. Sometimes I will finish a book by a favorite author and realize how crazy the ending was… and yet somehow the author was able to pull it off.

  6. The word “fact” is interesting. By definition it is “a thing that is indisputably the case,” and yet how many times have we seen facts disproved? Entire disciplines of science have been built upon that very premise. So if any given fact is actually open to debate, then is it not better defined as a statement universally believed to be true? Without that belief, any fact is little more than a truth of convenience. And that’s what makes things so interesting. If no fact is absolute, then is not every fact a potential fiction?

    As an author, it’s my job to ask the reader not only to suspend his disbelief, but to believe in the possibilities. I see fact and fiction as mirror reflections of one another, the differences between them being a matter of perspective. For a story to be compelling, it has to put the reader in the position of not being able to tell one from the other. Facts must be meted out in such a way that the fiction is the logical conclusion of the progression, for if the lie were stranger than the truth, would anyone believe it?

  7. Fact can definitely be stranger than fiction. Some of the things I read (especially history based) are just too bizarre to be made up.

    In doing research for my books I find some crazy things. In particular, when I’m writing violent scenes my research reveals people from around the globe do unthinkable things to others.

    At times, I weave violence from factual occurrences into my stories. The way I do this is I take a fact, twist it with my own creative juices, and turn it into fiction. I fully believe that fiction has to be as close to real-life as possible, otherwise, it becomes unbelievable. The risk of not making fiction shadow fact is that you can lose your readers if your stories aren’t grounded in some reality.

    It’s often our own lives or the lives or others we know that generates unique ideas. Weaving fact and fiction is one of the most enjoyable things I do as a writer.

    I’ll end with this…is fact really stranger than fiction? You bet it is. I have read some weird things that make me shudder and say, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

    1. I think what you say here is a perfect description of it, that fact can be the basis of an idea, that gets twisted with the writer’s creativity. That’s probably the essence of thriller writing, is taking an idea and putting your own spin on it. My above-mentioned comparison between the semi-true store of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

      I know I did this with my second novel, GODWIN’S LAW, I took a somewhat disturbing idea from my real life and used it as the seeds for this story that blossomed into an orchard from there. The relationship to the reality takes some tracing to find, but the book itself turned out great.

  8. It’s always been said that the difference between fact and fiction is that fiction has to be believable.

    As we’ve all seen recently, fact is by far stranger than fiction. Take for example the missing Malaysian Boeing 777. At the time of this writing it still hasn’t been found, and the clock is ticking on the locator beacon inside the black boxes. As a former professional pilot and an author of aviation thrillers, I have a similar scene in my novel, Zero Separation. An airliner goes down in the ocean in the middle of the night without a distress call. The debris field is located and the story moves onward. Two years ago I could never have written a story where a commercial jet goes missing for over a month without employing some sort of science fiction. Today it’s science fact, and that scene could be written any number of ways because our reality has changed. I go to great lengths to create realism out of events that have never happened, and hopefully never will. My approach in engineering the needed suspension of disbelief is to weave as many connective truths into the fiction as I can. I believe the best fiction is a story that is rooted in fact. It’s not that it can’t happen, it just hasn’t happened yet.

  9. Bernard,
    Don’t know what you mean by turning it around. Sounds more like yiou agree with me to me. But . . . Serial killers, another subject. They exist, apparently in greater numbers in fiction than in life. It’s just that they are so handy for narrative momentum.

  10. True. But as they say in the theater business: “What’s my motivation?”

    The strangest, craziest actions still need to have a believable and relatable foundation. Something the reader can empathize with.

  11. Wow. You’re quick off the mark. I blame the five hour time difference (eight on the west coast). Got up this morning and you lot have nailed it already. So, here’s my two-penneth. (Yorkshire saying. Google it.)
    I don’t think there is anything I could write that is stranger than some of the things I’ve encountered in the police. Much of it found its way into my first two UK crime novels. Some of it hasn’t yet. I remember when I was a Scenes Of Crime photographer being asked to take a picture of a breezeblock behind a horse. In a field round the back of some houses. Turned out one of the locals had been having intercourse with the horse and stood on the breezeblock to make it a level playing field. Almost.
    When it comes to books, I think story is king. Truth or fiction, if you write it well the reader will be carried along and willfully suspend disbelief. Ian Fleming once said he filled the James Bond books with everyday details so that the more outlandish parts of his stories would be more acceptable. Because he’d created a real world for those fictions to live in. Bottom line, tell a big lie and keep a straight face.

  12. Michael. I’m sure I stole that from somebody but not sure who. Or maybe I’m thinking of, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Of course it’s all grist to the fiction writer’s mill. Trick is to make it sound believable.

    1. Hitler’s credited with saying “Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.” While I’m reluctant to hold him up as an example, when it came to selling fiction to the masses, he was in a league all his own. Descent from a superior race that escaped the sinking of Atlantis and settled high in the Himalayas? Really? The mere idea is absurd, and yet that’s the backstory of the Aryan race he sold to an entire nation, which is the perfect example of reality being stranger than fiction and begs the question…Which is of greater importance to the persuasiveness of the fiction, the lie or the person who tells it?

      1. Godwin’s Law achieved!

        Actually, now that Hitler has been mentioned, I think the entire premise of World War II proves the rule. The purely evil empire with technology 40 years ahead of the rest of the world miraculously defeated by a bankrupt nation? You can’t make that up. It’s as unbelievable as people accuse Star Wars of being.

        And, speaking of Star Wars, for that matter, the destruction of the Death Star, as ridiculous as that is, is also based on an even stranger real event. The Nazis had a battleship known as the Bismark. It was the biggest, heaviest, most powerful ship the world had ever seen and was destroyed by a shot as improbable as the “thermal exhaust port.”

  13. “History is a pack of lies that others have agreed to.”

    Napoleon Bonaparte

    Who also tried that whole ‘Hey, let’s invade Russia’ thing.

  14. Hi, everyone! This is my first Thriller Roundtable, and I’m honored to be here.

    A lot of my best story ideas come from some strange things that I see or overhear in real life. For example, I live in an apartment complex, and one day while taking the trash down to the dumpster, I saw what looked like a human head nestled in a pile of garbage bags. I was certain it couldn’t be a real head, yet I picked up a twig and used it as a tool to examine the head, just in case. As I pushed aside the hair, I could see that it was a plastic head. I used this as the basis for a short story called “None So Empty.” Another example: At the college where I teach, a man was walking through the halls with a baby, and he kept holding it up to people and asking, “Does this baby look like me?” I haven’t used that in a story yet, but I’m sure I will one day.

    What I like about these odd bits of truth is that I never could’ve imagined any of them on my own, and the odds are that no one else could have either. They happened in real life, in real time, and I was the only person who noticed them — or at least the only writer who did! Incidents like these are wonderful jumping-off points for stories that not only spark my imagination but help make my fiction more original.

  15. We’re a weird bunch to be having dinner with that’s for sure. How can anyone trust us not to subvert what they’re doing and turing it into some baby head in the dumpster storyline? Mixed your anecdotes I know Tim. But there you go, not trustworthy at all.

  16. Tom, I love the quotes you’ve provided. Wisdom in haiku. And I wanted to say to Colin that the police detective I consult with tells the most amazing stories and makes me wish I wrote like Wambaugh because it would be so much fun to spin those stories for entertainment. Perhaps in my future I will turn to comic novels. But for now I’m playing close to the heart. And that means allowing little spec between characters and readers.

  17. Kathleen, thank you for the poetic compliment. And you’ve raised a point that I’ve wrestled with. Namely, the fact that the reader has certain expectations regarding the way police detectives act.

    Truth be told, some of my gang were the worst (im) practical jokers around. Shooting one of our own in the crotch with a high powered water pistol while the target was on a phone call with a lieutenant was a minor occurrence.

    In short, if I were to introduce some of the real life stuff, it would be considered comedy writing.

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