September 15 – 21: “Describe how your readers have shaped your books?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week we talk about arguably the most important people in an author’s life: readers! Join ITW Members Sharon Linnea, Arlene Kay, Michael McBride, C.E. Lawrence and Toni L.P. Kelner while they discuss how readers have helped shape their books.



Plagues of Eden by Sharon Linnea and B.K. ShererSharon Linnéa is the co-author of the bestselling Eden thrillers (CHASING EDEN, BEYOND EDEN, and TREASURE OF EDEN), as well as the mystery THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS and award-winning biographies. She lives outside of New York City with her family.



Man Trap by Arlene KayAn artful combination of humor, sex and savagery make Arlene Kay’s mysteries unique. The published author of INTRUSION; DIE LAUGHING; The ABACUS PRIZE; and this year’s Boston Uncommon Series (SWANN DIVE; MANTRAP; GILT TRIP; & SWANN SONG), is a former federal executive with one of those alphabet agencies who traded the trappings of bureaucracy for the delights of murder most foul. She wisely confines her crimes to fiction.


Sunblind by Michael McBrideMichael McBride is the author of ANCIENT ENEMY, BLOODLETTING, BURIAL GROUND, FEARFUL SYMMETRY, INNOCENTS LOST, 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. He lives in Avalanche Territory with his wife and kids.


The Skeleton Takes a Bow by Leigh PerryLeigh Perry is Toni L.P. Kelner in disguise, or maybe vice versa. As Leigh, she writes the Family Skeleton mysteries. As Toni, she’s the co-editor of New York Times best-selling anthologies with Charlaine Harris. She’s also the author of the “Where Are They Now?” mysteries and the Laura Fleming series (all available as e-books and audiobooks), and an Agatha Award winner for short fiction. Leigh/Toni lives just north of Boston with her husband and fellow author Stephen P. Kelner, Jr., their two daughters, and two guinea pigs.


silentCarole Bugge (C.E. Lawrence) is the author of nine published novels, award-winning plays, musicals, poetry and short fiction.  A two time Pushcart Poetry Prize nominee, her most recent Lee Campbell thrillers are Silent Slaughter and Silent Stalker, under the pen name C. E. Lawrence.  Her short stories were selected for the two most recent Mystery Writers of America anthologies.  Her Sherlock Holmes novels, The Star of India and The Haunting of Torre Abbey, have recently been reissued, along with her Claire Rawlings mystery series.



  1. I am truly blessed to have such a loyal and ravenous readership. Cutting my teeth in the small press allowed me to get to know many of them on a personal level and my work has genuinely benefitted from that intimate level of interaction. When you’re writing for a core audience of smart and well-read people, you have to be exceedingly careful not to insult their intelligence. For example, one of my longtime readers is a science teacher, so while I’m writing a scene involving anything scientific, I know I’d better do my research or I’m going to hear about it. Another is a retired FBI agent who’ll bust my chops if I don’t do the profession justice. Others have medical or technical or law enforcement experience beyond the limited amount of knowledge I can accumulate in the process of researching a single book, so I know I need to make every detail count if I’m going to ask them to suspend disbelief for any length of time. My research needs to be meticulous!

    Still other readers are simply so generous and enthusiastic that I often find myself adding character traits or bits of dialogue that I know certain people will enjoy. These are the kinds of people who’ll drop me an email just to point me in the direction of something cool they found on the internet or send me magazines they think I might find inspiring, which, in many cases, has led to ideas for stories. No author can achieve any measure of success in this business without the support of some truly wonderful people. In my case, I’m indebted to a large number of amazing readers, all of whom I consider my friends.

    1. Isn’t it great to have intelligent, well-read readers? They keep you (and your research) honest.

      And truthfully, one of my hedges against “writer’s block” is putting in plotlines or scenes I know certain people will really enjoy–then I have to keep going to get it finished so they can see it.

      1. Sometimes readers have conflicting views that are impossible to reconcile. I write Romantic Suspense and walk the tightrope between mystery lovers who urge you to 86 the “mush” and romance readers who grouse about the lack of emotion, (even after a particularly rigorous scene). I consider both points of view and try to write scenes that are true to the plot and characters. That results in lusty sleuths who pursue murderers with passion!!

  2. As most people know, Sherlock Holmes fans can be rather . . . well, thorough. Luckily for me, they are also much smarter than I am, and certainly better read in the Doyle Canon. So when my very first novel was published (The Star of India, St. Martins Press), I was stunned to see several corrections of my research appearing in fan letters, reviews, etc. It seems I had made a few period errors (one of them in women’s fashion, never my thing.)

    Fortunately for me, Titan Books in the UK recently reissued The Star of India, and I was able to correct these mistakes in the second printing. So thank you, Dear Readers, for being so clever and thorough! I am most humbly grateful.
    C.E. Lawrence
    aka Carole Bugge

    1. I worked for many years with accountants a group that is often perceived as worthy but essentially dull. Readers were taken aback when I portrayed the sex, avarice and cunning lurking within some CPAs. Comments ranged from “fascinating” to “Unbelievable.” One woman became fixated about clever uses for calculators. (but that’s a different story).
      My task was to strip away the dull facade and create intriguing characters with whom readers could identify or at least recognize.

  3. It’s true that writing is a solitary occupation, and honestly one of the things I like best about the job is that I get to work on my own. I have never played well with others. That doesn’t mean I don’t ever let my readers play along and affect my books. Sometimes it’s because they catch mistakes and omissions, sometimes it’s because they want to sneak into a book as a character, and sometimes it’s because they’re so darned enthusiastic.

    Take when I was writing the Laura Fleming novels. A reader posted a review saying that she really enjoyed the most recent book, but she thought my characters grinned an awful lot. “Pfui,” I said with a grin. To prove that she was just flat wrong, I grinned in a superior way, went to my work-in-progress, and searched for the word “grin.” Then my grin faded. Ten chapters in, and grins were up to the double digits. So while my characters do still grin occasionally, I do my best not to overdo it.

    Another time a reader pointed out that my protagonist Laura and her husband Richard never fought, even when in the midst of a tension-laden murder investigation. (Probably because they were busy grinning.) She thought this was unrealistic. I thought it over, and decided that she had a good point. Every couple I’ve ever known has tiffs. So in the next book, the stress of chasing clues gets to Laura and Richard enough that they have a snipe-fest.

    Then there are the Tuckerizations, which is using a real person or name of a person as a character in a book. I’ve auctioned off a slew of naming rights for charities, and given names as gifts to others. (Yes, I’m a cheap gift giver.) Sometimes I stick the name on an established character, but it’s more fun to let the recipient design their character, even when that makes it harder.

    In one case, I told one of my daughter’s teachers that I’d use his name in a story. He was delighted, but instead of just calling him Bob, he wanted his nickname: Captain Bob. Which was tricky since my story was set in an inland amusement park. But in figuring out how I could make it work, the whole story started to revolve around Captain Bob, and the result was my story “Pirate Dave and the Captain’s Ghost,” where the spectral Captain Bob haunts the protagonist.

    I’ve even killed people by request. My sister asked me to kill off her husband’s old boss—fictionally, I hasten to add–and a friend asked me to kill her ex-husband. Both of those literary hits shaped their respective books. (To avoid hurt feelings and legal issues, I changed the names and filed off the serial numbers so only my sister and my friend recognized the victims’ origins.)

    Finally, there are those readers who are just excited about the books and characters, and make suggestions. This has really shown up in my latest series, the Family Skeleton mysteries. The books feature Sid, a walking, talking skeleton. (Think of him as the Thin Man gone a step further.) He’s kind of a goofball character, as one might guess from the idea of an ambulatory skeletal sleuth, but people really get a kick out of him. I don’t think a day goes by when a reader doesn’t post something on Facebook in homage to Sid: a link to a dancing skeleton puppet video, a cartoon about skeletal selfies, a picture of a mirror with skeleton mermaids. Today I’ve already received a picture of a crudite plate in which the vegetables are arranged to make a skeleton.
    So of course that enthusiasm is going to make its way into the books. My readers keep making great suggestions. In the latest, Sid makes a joke supplied by a reader. In my work-in-progress, I’m already planning to insert references to Bones from STAR TREK, Bones the forensic anthropologist from the show of the same name, and Aaron Elkins who created fictional Bone Doctor Gideon Oliver. (The last suggestion came from the copyeditor at Berkley Prime Crime.)

    So no matter how much I hole up in my office, writing alone in the wee hours of the morning, readers are going to affect my work. And that’s a good thing.

    NOTE: This is for the lady who rightfully pointed out that my characters grinned too much in my earlier books. Sid, being a skeleton and all, has no lips. So he grins 24/7. Sorry about that.

    1. Great stories! I think it’s important to involve readers in the creative process as much as possible, and I know it means the world to them. Considering our careers are entirely dependent upon them, it makes sense to find as many ways as possible to help them connect with each project on a personal level. That’s how you earn fans for life and generate word of mouth.

    How have readers shaped my books

    When I wrote my first series I was stunned by the reaction of women to my protagonist. Many considered her pushy, conceited and generally unlikeable. Since I based a good deal of her personality on me that really stung!
    I added dimension to her character to make her more sympathetic. Specifically, I made the man she loved a womanizer. That really backfired. Terms like “door-mat,” “weakling” and “wimp” were hurled at me. A trial by fire can be a learning experience. Mine led me to create more nuanced heroines and to realize that not everyone appreciated or understood my snarky sense of humor.

    1. Lol, Arlene, you aren’t pushy or conceited! But it does feel kind of naked to base a character on one’s self and then find readers don’t warm up to her! I always think of Flaubert’s famous “Madame Bovary, c’est mois.” I find it very hard not to put a lot of myself into my protagonists.

  5. Now this is a fun question. The truth is, as much of a loner as we writers must be, we write for ourselves first, sure–but we really want to tell a story. To someone else. And that becomes a relationship.

    Often, readers choose your novel because you’re writing about something that interests them–you’re a guest in their wheelhouse. Michael and Carole have referenced the free fact-checking element that comes with the territory. PLAGUES OF EDEN, our latest thriller, takes place partly in wineries in China, California and France and Italy. It was lots of fun researching the different locales and emerging trends…but of course, wine aficionados chimed in–not on facts, but on whether two characters would phrase dialogue in a certain way since it referenced both Champagne and Cognac. I take this as a fun opening to an interesting discussion.

    Writing fiction, if nothing else, has shown me how much I’ll never know about some things. I write the Eden Thrillers with a co-author who is active-duty military. Through writing them for the last 7 years, I’ve come to realize I could never write thrillers with a military protagonist (Jaime Richards is an Army chaplain) by myself. Lord have mercy, military readers are hawk-eyes. I’ve seen one in the midst of a thriller (not ours, thankfully) say, “WRONG UNIFORM!! and throw the book across the room, never to pick it up again. Fortunately, since B.K. knows her stuff, we often get emails from active duty folks saying the equivalent of how glad they were to realize the author knew her stuff and they could relax into the read.

    But for me, the best way readers shape the books is experientially. They let you know what works as far as an intelligent read, yes, but also if the book gave them a cathartic, or at least, satisfying, experience. THAT’S what I most want to hear. “I never cry reading a book,” said one reader of BEYOND EDEN, “but I had to put the book down and just go at it.”

    Often, though, when the Beta readers come back to you, it’s with interesting points. One beta-reader for PLAGUES said, “There are EXPECTATIONS of an action-hero, even if he’s secondary.” Now, we’re not writing books along the lines of traditional character expectations, but I saw her point. Changes were made.

    The writer-reader relationship is always intriguing, and is really the reason I write. So, thanks.

    1. That’s an interesting point about expectations. You don’t want to write the same book over and over, nor do you want to simply rehash genre conventions, but readers do expect a certain measure of both. It’s challenging to keep things fresh while giving readers what they want.

  6. Mostly we’ve been talking about the happy parts of how readers affect their books? Anything on the less happy side? Arlene mentioned that she has to write that tightrope between the romance half and the suspense half of her romantic suspense.

    In my case, I had people get very irritated when I dropped the f-bomb in my book CURSE OF THE KISSING COUSINS. Their complaint was that a cozy should not have such words. I had two explanations. One, it was for comedic affect. (Though I guess not everybody was amused.) Two, I didn’t necessarily write the book as a cozy. It was originally published just as a mystery, but then the mass market edition was repackaged for a cozy line with a cozy cover. To be fair, there was no way for random readers to realize that.

    For the next two books in the series, I toned down the profanity substantially. By then, I know how the publisher was marketing the books, and I wanted to respect reader expectations. Besides, I’d made the joke once and didn’t need to make it again.

    I don’t THINK I was wimping out by making that decision, but sometimes I wonder.

    1. Leigh,
      I don’t think you wimped out – there’s a fine line between giving readers what they want and violating your own ethos. Cutting out a few swear words seems like a reasonable response. Actually, I cut out profanity at my editor’s suggestion – and that’s in thrillers, not even cozies! So go figure…

    2. Our challenge with language is explicit simply in the person of our protagonist: an Army chaplain. We had one reader complain that we didn’t have enough bad language to be realistic to an Army setting–though my co-author notes that even soldiers tend to clean up their language around chaplains. However, Jaime, our chaplain does some swearing herself, which caused one reader to deem her a “godless cusser.” And on we go…

  7. You’re “F BOMB” experience made me chuckle, Toni. One Amazon reviewer was irate because she found the “F WORD” on page 276 of my novel. (DIE LAUGHING). I couldn’t even find it!! Anyhow, I’m against the gratuitous use of profanity but sometimes it reflects the character. If that offends someone, so be it.

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