January 19 – 25: “What’s your favorite thriller genre?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week we join ITW Members Jerry Hatchett, Lisa Von Biela, E. M. Powell, Bill Loehfelm, Victoria Griffith, Kenneth Newman, Alex Gordon and Nancy Cole Silverman to discuss what their favorites thriller genres are, and why.


Blockbuster coverLisa von Biela worked in Information Technology for 25 years, then dropped out to attend the University of Minnesota Law School, graduating magna cum laude in 2009. She now practices law in Seattle, Washington. Lisa began writing short, dark fiction just after the turn of the century. Her first publication appeared in The Edge in 2002. She went on to publish a number of short works in various small press venues, including Gothic.net, Twilight Times, Dark Animus, AfterburnSF, and more. She is the author of the novels The Genesis Code and The Janus Legacy, as well as the novella Ash and Bone.

devils workBill Loehfelm is the author of five novels, including The Devil in Her Way, and The Devil She Knows, the first two books in the Maureen Coughlin crime fiction series, as well as the stand-alones, Bloodroot, and Fresh Kills. He lives in New Orleans with his wife, the writer AC Lambeth, and plays drums in a rock-and-roll cover band. Look for Doing the Devil’s Work, the newest Maureen Coughlin novel, in January 2015.


SPACE-1MB-COVERJerry Hatchett grew up in the creatively fertile Mississippi Delta, and loves to craft thrilling tales that the reader can’t put down. He writes from near Houston, Texas.



tvime_fcKen Newman has loved stories of the supernatural since listening to his grandmother’s tales of witches, haints, boogers, and catawamps when he was a child. Author of urban fantasy novels, The Paladin, The Ark, The Voice in My Ear, and the upcoming Black Opal Books, Forsaken, his fiction mixes folklore with modern themes, reflecting his love for all things-that-go-bump-in-the-night. When not sculpting or plotting to take over the world, Ken resides in East Tennessee with his wife Christian and their three daughters.

Powell_Knight_Cover_Template_UK.inddE.M. Powell’s medieval thrillers The Fifth Knight and The Blood of the Fifth Knight have been #1 Amazon bestsellers. Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she lives in northwest England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. She blogs for English Historical Fiction Authors, reviews for the Historical Novel Society and contributes to The Big Thrill.

GIDEON_tp_cover artAlex Gordon, author of the supernatural thriller GIDEON, resides in Illinois. She is currently working on JERICHO, the follow-up to GIDEON. When she isn’t working, she enjoys watching sports and old movies, hiking, and the company of her dog. She is not the Alex Gordon who has written several books about English footballers. She also has never played for the Kansas City Royals.


amazonVictoria Griffith is the author of the award winning non-fiction picture book The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont (Abrams, 2011), which won numerous awards, including the prestigious Parents’ Choice. The book was recently translated into Portuguese for the Brazilian market and was also released in audio book version.


SHADOW OF DOUBT cover 1Nancy Cole Silverman credits her twenty-five years in news and talk radio for helping her to develop an ear for storytelling. But it wasn’t until 2001 after she retired from news and copywriting that she was able to sit down and write fiction fulltime. Much of what Silverman writes about today she admits is pulled from events that were reported on from inside some of Los Angeles’ busiest newsrooms where she spent the bulk of her career. In the last ten years she has written numerous short stories and novelettes. Today Silverman lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Bruce and two standard poodles.


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  1. What is my favorite Thriller genre and why?

    I love a psychological thriller. A page turner that sucks me in with a likable protagonist that is caught up in a seemingly innocent situation that suddenly turns deadly. Where the hero or heroine is forced to make choices that have me second guessing what he’ll do to survive.

    Thrillers are based on conflict. Man against man, man against nature and man against himself. There are variations of that theme. But in the course of telling the story, it all comes down to some type of conflict, and for me the greatest conflict is that that we face within ourselves.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love crime, action, romance, and some supernatural thrillers. Stephen King’s Carrie is one of my favorite. And there’s nothing wrong with a shootout, blood and guts spilling out across the page, like Lee Childs does so well in his Jack Reacher novels. But, the psychological thriller, like Gillian Flynn’s, Gone Girl, excelled with her description of a character in a bad marriage and what a twisted, vindictive mind might do to keep it together. I like those thrillers that mess with the reader’s head. Where characters are driven to make choices that challenge the very code we think know them by. Books that cause readers to gasp and to question their own values, those are the stories we remember. That’s what keeps me turning pages.

    1. I have never considered reading a psychological thriller until I read your description. Outstanding job by the way. I guess I never saw it that way before. Any recommendations?

  2. Given that I write medieval thrillers, what could it be except historical? Now, poor old historical fiction gets a bad rap from those who don’t read it. There are men-in-tights sorts of accusations, or a general, ‘Well, it’ll be just like Downton Abbey’ type of response.
    I can guarantee it will be nothing of the sort. For us historical thriller writers love our murder and mayhem as much as the next thriller writer. Except it’s even better. History is full of the most appalling murders and crimes against the person. So, often, we don’t even have to make it up. We just have to build a story around what’s already there.
    If you’re still not convinced, then let me share with you a few of the details from eye-witnesses to the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral on a dark December evening in 1170. Four knights broke in, armed with swords and axes, and surrounded Becket. Their first strike took off the top of Becket’s skull and glanced off, injuring a monk who was trying to protect him. The other watching monks fled in appalled panic, as Becket took another blow to the head but still remained standing. He managed a few words, gasping: ‘I am ready to embrace death.’ Another knight thrust his sword through Becket’s head with such force that the sword shattered on the altar stone. A cleric who had accompanied the knights smeared the Archbishop’s brains across the altar, declaring, ‘Away! He won’t get up again.’
    Do we now have images of bonnets firmly erased from our minds?

  3. I tend to go for the medical and psychological thrillers–undercover ops thrillers as well, as long as they’re not heavily military in nature. I think it’s because they’re closer to home–that makes them scarier to me!

    1. I have to say that medical thrillers are not my cup of tea due to my ignorance of the medical profession. I just can’t relate. I am more on the level of medical rattling beads and chanting. If I knew more about the subject I would no doubt enjoy it.

      1. Or maybe, Ken, you share my older brothers view. It was he, as a young adult, who got up from the female relative occupied dinner table and announced:’If you’re going to talk about operations all night, I’m going to eat in the kitchen.’ 🙂

        1. That is funny. I myself am the sole thorn in a house full of roses, but when discussions get too feminine I counter with hockey or football, I can’t possibly win, but I like to go down swinging.

  4. The best term I can think of to describe my favorite thriller genre is supernatural/preternatural. Everyone has his/her own definitions of these terms. Supernatural to me means ‘beyond current scientific understanding,” so under that umbrella I include SFnal technothrillers like Crichton’s Jurassic Park to more horror-tinged work like del Toro & Hogan’s The Strain. Something we don’t understand or cannot control has gotten out in the wild, and even if we play it to a draw by the end of the story, the threat never really dies. Under preternatural, I would include books like Silence of the Lambs because of characters like Hannibal Lecter, who possesses an almost demonic ability to manipulate, plan, and escape, and the Bourne novels featuring the übercompetent Jason Bourne. I have read critiques stating that real-life psychopaths don’t possess the abilities to plan and manipulate to the degree that Lecter possesses, that he is an idealized version of an extreme, and that fits in with my definition of preternatural: beyond the natural, exceptional, transcendent.

      1. Interesting in that the medievals defined their science as ‘natural magic’, but ‘demonic magic’ was derived from the Devil, whom they believed to be real. Their accounts of such demonic magic would sit comfortably in modern horror stories.

        1. It is interesting how people think. I always had trouble with good magic vs evil magic in stories. Wouldn’t magic be neutral constant and its manipulator’s intent determine good or evil? Much like a gun can defend a person from a robber and at the same time, can be used to snipe from a school book depository.

          1. In terms of real life events, absolutely. A person who was perceived to have cured someone in medieval times using natural magic could just as quickly be then accused of demonic magic. The flawed reasoning behind this was that the person was already deemed to be skilled in these arts.

            Such accusations often led to charges of sorcery against the individual. Sorcery was of course the forerunner of witchcraft and the rise of the witch trials. It’s estimated that between the fifteenth and eighteenth century around 50,000 people lost their lives through burning at the stake or hanging.

            So mixing up some powders in a glass of wine, putting a wood carving on a threshold, being seen to chant over a well: all of these could lead to a trial at which there could be little or no defense.

            All because the powerful in society held a belief that had no bearing in reality and were yet free to impose it and construct a regime of terror around it.

  5. One of my favorite thriller genres – I like them all – is psychological suspense. To commit a horrific deed like murder, I believe someone has to be at least a little bit crazy. Yet criminals are all manic in different ways. The best psychological thrillers are about relationships – hatred, envy, but also, invariably love. What motivates someone to kill? Does everyone harbor the capacity for violence, or just certain people? What makes a murderer different from everyone else? I love books that explore these questions.
    My new release, AMAZON BURNING, is not strictly psychological suspense, although the characters have complex motives. Maybe all thrillers have an element of psychological drama? What do you think?

    1. I would agree that what makes a psychological thriller suspenseful is the idea that they antagonist is creatively unbalanced. Whether they might be in real life or not I’m not so sure, but for characters the more unusual they are the more interesting they are and the more opportunity we as writers have to make them likeable or at least believable to our readers.

      1. I know this sounds a bit melodramatic and overly simplified, but I have found that the villain makes or breaks the story. To me the most important character to develop fully is the “bad guy.”

  6. My favorite thriller genre would have to be urban fantasy. I find that bringing to life old myths and legends and placing then in current times irresistible. I don’t think there has been anyone who hasn’t at one time or other wondered if the world around us is more mysterious and bizarre than what we are told. Witches, werewolves, vampires, undead Elvis, the possibilities are endless. As a writer it is a subject that is very fertile and I feel inexhaustible.

    1. I agree, Ken. What surrounds us and that whose history we tend to forget about is frequently fertile territory for mystery. I’m working on a sequel to Shadow of Doubt, and I’ve had an opportunity to dig back through some old Hollywood archives for information that I will use in this new novel. The fact that it based in truth adds to the believability and shock value.

      1. I am a firm believer in basing as much as I can in reality. In that way I give my readers a place in which they can relate…before I spring my surprise on them! As you say reality really does add shock value.

  7. We all seem to prefer different variations on the thriller theme, and I think it converges a bit with, iirc, the Roundtable question of a couple of weeks ago–is there too much overlap between thrillers and mysteries? As a reader, do you care if the historical elements, or explanation of psychology, or the UF world building, gets in the way of the thriller aspects? Do you notice, or does it serve to enhance the plot?

    How about when you write? I sometimes struggle with the urge to lay down more foundation brick beneath my world building when back brain tells me that the plot and story need to move forward and fast.

    1. I think the better you know the subject the easier it is to slip in details without overwhelming the reader or drowning them in dialog. I find less is more and try to pepper the facts about time and history throughout the manuscript.

    2. Thrillers are like rollercoasters. All supply thrills, chills, and a whopping good time. However thrillers, like rollercoasters, no two are the same. Each has its own special uniqueness, that certain quality that makes it special and one of a kind. The fun thing is to find the one that is special to you. Have a good ride.

  8. Interesting questions, Alex!

    I think as readers we’re really, really quick to spot when the info dumps are happening. The sort of clunky dialogue where a character asks a particular type of question. As in: ‘I’ve never been to London before. Can you tell me how the Tube system works?’

    As writers we argue, ‘Oh, but there’ll be the most amazing chase later on in my novel where John Hero chases Alex Villain through the Northern Line tunnels. People need to know how the line splits into different branches!’ (Note to All: I have made this up. Please don’t try to sue.)

    Trouble is, as writers, we get so attached to our research. I think this is especially true of historical thrillers as that’s a potential pitfall in the genre generally. We research the heck out of our time period to make sure we don’t throw our readers out of our worlds with any mistakes. The temptation then is to put lost and lots of interesting information in. Clearly it’s an issue for other genres too as it’s been raised in this discussion. That actually makes me feel a lot better! I thought it was only a headache for the history heads.

    But it should all be about the characters and a dynamic plot. The world-building aspect is a really delicate balancing act in support of those.

    1. I agree. I once read a very entertaining story where an innocent man was chased by police. The chase was marvelously written, then out of nowhere the writer suddenly describes in extreme detail the surrounding flora and the fauna. By the time he resumed the manhunt I had lost interest.
      It was a classic example of knowing when to kill your darlings.

      1. Hah! Loved your comment, Ken. I could hear the screech of the action brakes slamming to a halt. And of course, you, as a reader, lost interest.

        I had the same thing reading a big sword fight. It should have been very exciting. But the hero was just sort of standing there…watching? It boiled down to writing where the novelist hadn’t got to grips with point of view (POV) in the scene.

        But the effect was the same as your flora and fauna pause. It lost me as a reader.

        1. Excellent point. The best action scenes aren’t bogged down with historical description. Setting and location, in my opinion need to be established, woven into the story, before the action begins. It can be tricky but that’s what keeps us all coming back to the writer’s table.

          1. Yes as in a sword fight I want to hear the steel sing, smell the blood and sweat and not get bogged down by the description of what the knight had for breakfast.

  9. Tough balancing act, indeed! Probably made a little harder for me. Legal writing requires a lot of justification/support for everything asserted, so I find myself wanting to make sure I provide enough detail to make sure things hang together and are justified in my fiction writing.

    For example, in THE JANUS LEGACY, I researched Crohn’s disease to understand the mechanism and currently available treatments and how they functioned. Even though I took some liberties for the sake of the plot, I wanted to be sure there was some foundation for what I did. That was a tricky line to walk, to lay the foundation while keeping it moving and not going into infodump territory.

    1. I really struggled with over-explaining in fiction when I worked as a chemist and wrote scientific reports. Scientific/technical writing is often very specific–every word needs to mean one thing and nothing more, because otherwise the reader may assume that the data back up a conclusion that is in fact not supported. So I would strip sentences of all nuance and pick over every detail, and it would take days for that to wear off.

        1. Yep! I get like that with history research. A fellow hist fic writer summed it up so well for me: ‘We’re Storians, not Historians.’ I’m afraid I don’t have a similar snappy definition for chemistry!

  10. I’ve been thinking about the other half of our question: not just what my favorite thriller genres are, but the ‘why’ part.

    Yes, I love historicals. I think I can trace that back to reading Agatha Christie’s DEATH COMES AS THE END as a teenager.It’s not one of her Poirot or Miss Marple novels but a stand-alone set in Ancient Egypt. I read that book over and over and the important lesson was that a historical novel isn’t boring, with people just sat around asking who’ll be king next.

    But I also love contemporary thrillers. Among my favourites are Tess Gerritsen, Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell. You can probably see a medical thriller theme in there! Yet the first book in that genre that grabbed me (again as teen) was Robin Cook’s COMA.

    So that’s my ‘why’. I wonder if it’s the same for other people? Or did you come to love a genre later?

    1. I enjoy supernatural/preternatural because it opens up whole new worlds, states of being. The protagonist and antagonist are larger than life. Characters from song and legend come alive and cause trouble and need to be stopped, or delayed, or otherwise dealt with. The stakes are often very high, as in ‘will the town/country/human race survive?’

    2. I came to love urban fantasy through the stories of my granny when I was a child. From her tales half the town was haunted and the other half on the verge! She instilled a love of the “what if? at an early age. When I started writing I naturally gravitated toward those kind of stories. I suppose I was warped at an early age and loved every moment of it!

  11. I think my favorite is the place-based crime drama, something along the lines of Lehane’s Kenzie & Gennaro series, James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series, or Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series. I like books that are character-driven, and I’m less interested in twisty, puzzle-like plots where the characters are just pieces on a chessboard. I want to know the place where the story happens, and the psychological and emotional landscape of the characters.

    1. I feel this way about Ian Rankin’s Rebus series. I have visited Glasgow and Edinburgh, so I do retain some sense of them. But Rankin brings those cities to life on the page.

      1. When I read a thriller, which I do several times a week, “sense of place” is critical to my enjoyment. I like the action to be influenced by surroundings. I like characters to be stymied and harassed by geography and architecture, weather and terrain. This is all so important to me as a reader that it carries over into my writing.

        So much so, in fact, that I completely rewrote my new book, “The Someday File,” to move it to Chicago from its original setting in another state. Chicago is a delicious city, full of ghosts and legends, myths and mysteries. It is almost impossible to write a story set in Chicago without the city becoming a key character.

        There is so much in Chicago to feed a book’s “sense of place” that it becomes necessary at times to weed out detail load that threatens to overwhelm and kill story momentum. Finding the right balance can involve cutting material I really like but don’t really need.

        1. Brave decision on the rewrite, Jean! But absolutely the right one. If something is going to make the book better, then it should be done.

          And you murdered some of your darlings too.:) Again, the right thing to do but it can be so hard.

          Of course I’m curious now. Would you like to share what some of those darlings were/are?

          1. I think I can mention a few of them without creating spoilers. I’ve always been fascinated/repulsed by Chicago’s historic stockyards, which closed for good in the early 70s. The history, and what remains of the operational acreage today are fascinating, but exploring them to the extent that I did when I was “just letting it all fly” stopped the story dead in its tracks. It had to go. Though a reference to Bubbly Creek survived. You’ve probably never heard of Bubbly Creek. Neither have most Chicagoans. It’s an amazing place.

            There was a point where my characters got way too far into the Blues scene in Chicago, a facet of the city I adore. After loads of research and weeks of writing, I realized my exploration added nothing to the story, and I took it all out. But I saved it for a time when it might be useful in another Deuce Mora book.

            It was also very tempting to delve much deeper than I did into the city’s mob history. Some of it was necessary. But my inclination here, too, was to over write. So big chunks of it are gone.

            I despaired of all those cuts. But they were decisions that had to be made.

            I’m going to go to my room now and cry.

  12. I can imagine, Jean: especially as those examples provide such rich material for thriller writers!

    But as you say, you may be able to use some material in other books. Plus all that knowledge and research will colour all of your writing.

    Another really useful aspect of having that depth of factual information about the background to your books is that it provides great material for blog posts. It can also make for interesting and engaging material to put on your Facebook Page or Pinterest or Tweets.

    But I’m intrigued even more now. What is Bubbly Creek?

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