June 15 – 21: “Can writers play fast and loose on politics, foreign relations, technology, careers and personality traits?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Readers of thrillers appreciate realism. This week ITW Members discuss how much can writers play fast and loose on politics, foreign relations, technology, careers or personality traits? Join Tim Lees, Alex Dolan, John Farrow, Eric Red, Adam Mitzner, Lisa Von Biela, John Palisano, Adrian Magson, Paul Dale Anderson, Jerry Amernic, Andy Boot, Jean Heller and Melanie Surani!


WHITE KNUCKLE book coverEric Red is a Los Angeles based novelist, screenwriter and film director. His first novel, Don’t Stand So Close, is available in hardcover and trade paperback from SST Publications. His second and third novels, the werewolf western The Guns Of Santa Sangre and the sci-fi monster novel It Waits Below, are available from Samhain Publishing. Recent published short stories have been in Weird Tales Magazine, Cemetery Dance Magazine, Shroud Magazine, and the Dark Delicacies III: Haunted anthology. He created and wrote the comic series and graphic novel Containment for IDW Publishing and the comic series Wild Work for Antarctic Press. His films include The Hitcher, Near Dark, Cohen and Tate, Body Parts, Bad Moon and 100 Feet.


DustOfTheDead cover fixedJohn Palisano‘s non-fiction has appeared in FANGORIA and DARK DISCOVERIES magazines. His first novel from Samhain Publishing, DUST OF THE DEAD, will be released in June 2015. John Palisano’s short stories have appeared in anthologies from PS Publishing, Terror Tales, Lovecraft eZine, Horror Library, Bizarro Pulp, Written Backwards, Dark Continents, Darkscribe, DarkFuse, Dark House, and more. His stories have twice been Bram Stoker Award Nominees.


Storm CoverJohn Farrow is the “crime” pseudonym for Canadian novelist Trevor Ferguson. His series with Sergeant-Detective Émile Cinq-Mars was called the best of our time by Booklist, and the best of all time by Die Zeit in Germany. The first novels were published in seventeen countries. The Storm Murders is the first of a new trilogy of Cinq-Mars thrillers, published by Minotaur, and has received starred reviews in Kirkus, PW and Library Journal.


losing faithIn addition to being the author of three critically acclaimed legal thrillers (including a Suspense Magazine book of the year), Adam Mitzner is also the head of the litigation department of Pavia & Harcourt LLP, a Manhattan law firm. He lives in New York City with his wife and children. Adam graduated from Brandeis University with a B.A. and M.A. in politics, and from the University of Virginia School of Law. Most importantly, he is an avid Pez collector and a lover of all things Batman.


hellerMost of Jean Heller’s career was as an investigative and projects reporter and editor in New York City, Washington, D.C. and St. Petersburg Florida. Her career as a novelist began in the 1990s with the publication of the thrillers, “Maximum Impact” and “Handyman” by St. Martin’s Press. Then life intervened and postponed her new book, “The Someday File,” to publication in late 2014. Jean has won the Worth Bingham Prize, the Polk Award, and is an eight-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.


The Euthanist cover_smallAlex Dolan is a writer and musician based in California. His first book, The Euthanist, is published through Diversion Books and represented by the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. He has recorded four albums: Americana, Move, Owe Me One Cannoli, and Cherub Conga Line (with Crash 22). In addition, he specializes in pro-social communications, using marketing techniques to drive progress on social issues and with mission-driven organizations. He has a master’s degree in strategic communications from Columbia University.


nodovesAndy Boot has spent most of his career in the shadows as one of the writers behind the series ‘Deathlands’ and ‘The Executioner’, having written 28 novels in these franchises. He also created the ‘Dreams Of Inan’ series for Abaddon, as well as co-creating three other series, writing one novel, and being series consultant. He has written four non-fiction books under his own name, including a seminal work on British Horror films (‘Fragments Of Fear’). He has worked in TV and new media, and just likes writing. He lives just outside London.


Close Quarters by Adrian MagsonAdrian Magson is the author of 17 books and hundreds of short stories and articles. His various series include the Gavin & Palmer crime novels (5), the Harry Tate spy thrillers (5), the Inspector Lucas Rocco crime novels set in France in the 1960s (4), a YA ghost novel, The Lost Patrol, and The Watchman – the first in the highly successful Marc Portman spy thriller series. The sequel, Close Quarters, is out in April. He is currently working on a new series, the first of which, The Locker, is due out in 2016. A regular reviewer for Shots Magazine, he writes the ‘Beginners’ and ‘New Author’ pages for Writing Magazine, and is the author of Write On! – The Writer’s Help Book (Accent Press).


devilTim Lees is a British author living in Chicago, which is where much of his present book is set. Devil in the Wires will be available as an e-book in May and as a mass market paperback about a month later.




skinshiftLisa 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, THE JANUS LEGACY, and BLOCKBUSTER, as well as the novella ASH AND BONE.


Meat Cleaver cover (series)Paul Dale Anderson has written more than 17 novels and hundreds of short stories, mostly in the thriller, mystery, horror, fantasy, and science fiction genres. Paul has also written contemporary romances and westerns. Paul is an Active Member of SFWA and HWA, and he was elected Vice President and Trustee of Horror Writers Association in 1987. He is a current member of International Thriller Writers, Author’s Guild, and a former Active Member of MWA.


last witnessJerry Amernic is a Toronto journalist who writes historical thrillers. His riveting novel The Last Witness is about the last living survivor of the Holocaust in the year 2039, a time when people are abysmally ignorant of the past century. His newest book QUMRAN is a biblical-historical thriller about an archeologist who makes a dramatic discovery in the Holy Land. It explores the Dead Sea Scrolls, Holy Grail, Holy Shroud and all the Arab-Israeli wars.


awakeMelanie Surani is a blogger, hair stylist, and author with a heart for international travel. When she isn’t cutting hair, Melanie is thinking about ways to kill people (for mystery novels). She lives with her husband and cat in New York City, where she is hard at work on her next book with Booktrope Publishing. You can follow Melanie’s adventures on Facebook at MelSurani, on Twitter @melsurani, and Tumblr at MelSurani.



  1. I think instead of thinking “fast-and-loose,” we should be thinking “credibly.”

    Long ago, I adopted the proposition that if I make a mistake with something factual, if I bend the truth too far, if I expand credulity too much, someone will notice. At that point, the bubble of trust and believability I created with reader would burst.

    I might be more sensitive to this than some authors because I’m a former journalist, for whom playing fast and loose with facts was a ticket out the door. But when I read in a book something that I cannot accept, even when I give the author some latitude for dramatic license, I might as well put the book down for good, because it is ruined for me.

    Now, having said that, I nonetheless have a high tolerance for dramatic license. There are books, such as Ian Fleming’s wonderful James Bond series, where the stories aren’t meant to be realistic, just fun. And they work wonderfully in that regard, as opposed to books that are meant to be a realistic but are brought down by stretching facts too far.

    Examples: Somebody gets shot and seriously wounded and is back in the thick of the action a day later. Someone is in a vehicle that tumbles into a ravine and bursts into flame but nonetheless walks away with only a few scratches and a headache. Really?

    I am rereading the first in Nelson DeMille’s John Corey series, PLUM ISLAND, and it opens with John still recovering from gunshot wounds he received three months earlier. That I can accept. One week, not so much.

    Personality traits are much easier to bend to a writer’s whim. There generally are no limits to what the havoc the human brain can make of an individual. So character’s heads and traits are easier to mess with. If you think you might have gone too far, ask a shrink.

    With politics, it depends on whether you’re talking history or speculation. I wouldn’t mess too much with history unless I were injecting a heretofore unknown twist central to the story, something, for example, that had remained top secret until my character found out about it. If I did that, the outcome would have to mimic the truth, or create a new truth that has been top secret. Complicated but doable.

    Which brings me back to how I opened this. You can let your imagination run rampant if you answer this question: If I were reading this in someone else’s book, would I believe it? It the answer is yes, you’re good to go.

    1. I agree. The criteria should be, “If you were reading someone else’s book, would you believe it?” Reality is often subjective. So is belief. But if you believe it to be real, it very well may be.

  2. Pick your poison and drink the Kool-Aid down.

    That’s true for readers and writers alike.

    Let’s come at this initially from the extremes. Obviously, if reality’s door is to have its hinges blown off, then that should be indicated entering and going deeper into the novel and not come as a major confabulation. If reality is to be the guiding light, or perhaps I should say the gathering gloom, then a demand for consistency and real knowledge is justified. Here’s a metaphor for the ages: don’t wear mismatched socks. Once the story states a preference, politically or with respect to foreign relations, careers or the rest, own it.

    Now for what’s pertinent to me personally, which may be different from the extremes but familiar to the norm. “Truth is stranger than fiction,” they say, but doesn’t that give the novelist license to stretch the boundaries of truth? I think so, given that they’ve already been pulled taut and to the breaking point by reality. My baseline runs through what I know to be true, then I bend that reality while staying close to the bounds of experience and logic, and my design in that is intended to both benefit the story and, believe it or not, serve reality.

    To explain: probably the highest compliment I’ve been paid was by a top cop in the RCMP in answer to a person’s interest in biker gangs in Canada. He responded to the query by suggesting non-fiction books at first, but then said that if someone really wanted to know what the scene was like, he’d recommend City of Ice, which happens to be a novel of mine. Later, an elite unit officer stated that how the novel predicted things would evolve had proven correct. Continuing in that vein, when the Canadian government was working on legislation to combat organized crime, I was called to a meeting where everyone present was either a politician or a top cop. I really don’t mean to blow my own horn here (I really don’t), but I do mean to blow the horn of what fiction can do. Honest and intelligent speculation, and pushing the boundaries, can interpret a situation with a crafty eye, and anticipate how things might go down. Fiction can do that. It can be as wise, and at the best of times, more wise than storylines that adhere only to the facts. It can be prophetic. Serious imagination has a place in the world, not only to invigorate our stories, but to cast an eye on current situations and contemplate what has been, what is, and what might yet occur.

    I think it’s one of many demands on writing thrillers, to not only explore the facts, but also the possibilities. Enjoy the Kool-Aid.

    1. Interesting point. I often think fiction can tell us more about the way things work than any amount of carefully-researched studies. A good imagination can provide a special insight – though it’s the very thing, as Jean pointed out above, that can’t be used in (serious) journalism.

    2. John, interesting stuff there about biker gangs in Canada and your meeting with top cops and politicians. I’m Canadian and my last non-fiction book was the memoir of Julian Fantino, former Commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police and Chief of the Toronto Police. He may very well have been at that meeting. But the fact that one of these top cops recommended your novel about setting the scene for biker gangs is high praise indeed. So back to the question about writers playing fast and loose. I agree it’s all about credibility, and fiction allows you to do a lot of things you can’t do in non-fiction. I like what John says about fiction pushing the boundaries. Of course, it all goes back to the reader and if the reader buys what you’re selling. Does the reader believe it? Is it credible? Novelists are free to create characters and situations to their heart’s content. But in the end you must ask yourself this question: Does it work? I write books with a large dose of history and am a stickler about being historically accurate with things. Aside from that the sky’s the limit.

  3. I agree with Jean about credulity (although it is fun to make stuff up – it’s what we do, after all).

    I think writers can play as fast and as loose as THEY individually feel they can get away with. But for me, I’m guided by the knowledge that readers are very savvy and want to feel there’s an element of reality behind what they see on the page. Too many mistakes and the book achieves horizontal flight. And heaven knows, there’s a lot of competition out there!

    In the main I prefer to use real backdrops on which to hang a storyline, purely because it helps me write the book. That doesn’t mean I fictionalise real events – I still prefer to make stuff up for a living!

    For example, in one of my Inspector Lucas Rocco books, ‘Death on the Pont Noir’ (set in France in the 1960s), I used the constant danger of assassination attempts on President de Gaulle’s life – there were very many – as a backdrop, although my portrayed hit wasn’t the major event in the book; it was merely part of the story.

    On a more modern take, in my latest Marc Portman spy thriller, ‘Close Quarters’, set it in Ukraine, I have a US State Department official caught up in the troubles over there and having to be rescued. Topical research was easy, with so many facts and details available daily, and the situation seemed to ‘fit’ the kind of modern mission my central character would be asked to carry out.

    By its nature, it meant I had to use realistic terms and details for political thinking, technology and so forth, because readers would soon be turned off by anything suddenly too off-the-wall or bat-shit crazy.

    That said, it is great fun playing with reality. After all, it is OUR reality.

  4. Realism, like reality, is over-rated. Many, many thrillers ask you to swallow a bit of hokum, somewhere along the way: whether it’s the secret conspiracy or the clever serial killer, or just the cop with quirks – and, from Holmes to Hannibal Lecter, unlikely but entertaining figures have always been a mainstay of the genre. It’s what the writer does with them that counts.

    I write the Field Ops novels (The God Hunter, Devil in the Wires), and in those books, I ask you to swallow a pretty large chunk of hokum, including a premise that is pure, untrammeled fantasy. But after that, I promise to play it straight. We’re in the real world here. You won’t find elves and fairies, but you will find put-upon employees, struggling cops, corporate go-getters and, I hope, a fair number of engaging but essentially ordinary people trying to deal with an extraordinary situation. That, to me, is where it gets interesting: some ordinary guy, not much different from you and me, asking, “How do I cope with this?”

    There are various factors which I think can lend a book verisimilitude. One is geographical setting. I’ve set these books largely in places that I know, or have at least visited, and if not, I’ve done a ridiculous amount of research to try and get things right. (That doesn’t mean you can use them as guidebooks, though – I’m happy to bend the truth when it suits me to.) Here and there, I’ve had to include a little specialist or technical data. Leaving aside the stuff I just made up, I’ve tried to get it right – because there will always be a reader out there who knows it far better than I do.

    I’ve tried to create credible relationships between the characters. I love the old Len Deighton novels in which office politics are almost as important as global politics. That’s real. That’s believable. And, from a writer’s point of view, it’s a good source of comedy, too. So in it goes.

    Most important, though, are the characters themselves. They can be odd or ordinary, providing they’re engaging. Principally, though, they have to be consistent. Nothing is more guaranteed to turn me off than a character who suddenly acts in an unprecedented way, simply because the plot demands it. For me, your characters dictate your story, not the other way around. So if your hero is about to eschew all help and go off alone to face the bad guy, you have to set this up, and preferably early on: that he’s the sort of person who would do this, and that circumstances dictate he should. People change (another matter to remember, especially where sequels are concerned) but they don’t turn into someone else.

  5. My novel Abandoned (part of my Winds-series of supernatural thrillers) is about as real as it gets. I set the novel in real cities, and most of the action takes place in Rockford, Illinois, my own home town. I name names, places, and events. The technology is real, the animosity between Palestinians and Israelis is real, the workings of military bureaucracies in the United States and the Peoples Republic of China is real, and the political thinking of radicalized militias is real. The story itself, of course, is fiction. The characters are inventions of my imagination. The hacking of the electrical grid and defense systems, however, is a very real possibility. I worried about putting ideas into terrorists’ heads, and I worried about alienating readers with religious and political ideals decidedly different than those my characters fought for. So far, I was wrong to worry. I have received no death threats, no one has sued me for libel, and religious fanatics chose to debate my premises—which led to lively discussions online and at book signings—rather than to picket my works. The second, third, and fourth novels in the series are also set in real places that are readily recognizable by readers. The military situations and step-by-step procedures are artifacts of my twenty-some years as an Army Warrant Officer. The internal conflicts of the characters came from my graduate studies in developmental and abnormal psychology.

    The novels in my Instruments of Death series from Crossroad Press are based on my years working for the American Society of Clinical Pathologists and discussions with my Uncle Eric Ekebom, a former detective sergeant and Criminal Identification Specialist. It is a fact that people kill other people with a variety of instruments: claw hammers, meat cleavers, axes, icepicks, and whatever else is handy. Although the cases are based on actual events that made newspaper headlines, the characters, places, and events in these novels are figments of my overactive imagination.
    I appreciate realism in novels. I need a starting-off point I recognize. Once I’m, into a story, however, I can suspend disbelief for small leaps of imagination. Get me involved with the characters and I’ll go along for the ride because I care about what happens to them.

  6. My novels are legal thrillers, and so I’m a purist when it comes to not stretching the law at all. Luckily for me, the law doesn’t need to be stretched. It can be pretty unbelievable even when it’s true. Also, because I’m still a practicing lawyer, I feel an obligation to make sure that the law is correct in my books – to the point that I do legal research for the legal scenes the same way I do them for my clients. The bottom is that if I’m wrong about the law in one of my books it’s not because I was stretching; it’s because I made a mistake.

    I follow that approach on the non-legal issues too. When I’m reading a novel, I assume that the “facts” are true. So when I’m reading about a restaurant that serves a $26 burger, the next time I’m there I expect to be able to order that burger. Otherwise, I think the author should make up the restaurant and then the menu can be fictional too.

    My books are set in New York City, and that’s where I live, so I visit most of the locations that are in my books to get even the smallest details right. My wife likes it because it allows us to eat out in a lot of fancy restaurants in the name of “research.”

    I will say is the one area where I believe realism can be stretched to support the narrative is in character choices. Here, I don’t think it’s so much as “stretching reality” as showing the extremes of reality, and so it still has to be believable. For example, most people don’t commit murder to avoid paying alimony or out of jealousy, but these are classic motives in fiction, and it’s believable because it does happen in real life too. Whenever I hear someone criticism a book because “a character that smart wouldn’t be so reckless or careless” I remind them of Bill Clinton.

    1. My novel The Last Witness is about the last living survivor of the Holocaust in the year 2039 when most people are abysmally ignorant of the previous century. When my agent was shopping it around, one publisher turned it down because he didn’t buy the premise that one generation from now there would be such widespread ignorance of the Holocaust. Really? I’ve taught a lot of young people in college and know that where history is concerned, they are sadly lacking. So, inspired by that publisher’s rejection, I went out and made a video. We interviewed university students and asked them questions about World War II and the Holocaust. Guess what? They know practically nothing. And this isn’t one generation down the road. This is today! So even though my novel is about the near future, I wanted it to be realistic. In short, it had to be credible for the reader. (Though maybe not for that particular publisher). Adam just said it has to be believable. Exactly. If the reader doesn’t believe what you’re saying, what’s the point?

  7. I’m going to give the classic lawyer’s answer: it depends.

    I think it depends on how central the particular “thing” (personality, location, career, etc.) is to the story–and how much detail you use.

    For example, I’ve set some tales in a particular (real) town, but deliberately didn’t get too specific so I could take liberties and invent my own local bar, etc. In THE GENESIS CODE, I did a little of each. The IT technology was pretty much real, taken from my own personal experience as someone who’d worked in IT for many years. However, the brain chip technology was a takeoff on where I thought reality was going. I tried to make it as real as I could medically/biologically, but at the time it didn’t exist. (Now it does, thanks to DARPA.)

    For BLOCKBUSTER, drug development was central. And reality was too limiting. It takes years and years for a new drug to see the light of day, and that would have killed the plot. So I set the entire thing 15 years in the future so I could “make up” lab equipment that would speed the process up considerably. Of course, then I felt responsible for making up “everyday technology” for the characters to use that would at least seem plausible for a time 15 years out. I should get patents on all that stuff, darn it!

    1. That’s interesting, Lisa. In The Last Witness, I went 25 years into the future, and while it’s not sci-fi at all, the book did need a few things on the technology front. I consulted a friend who’s a real techie and with his guidance had things like palm readers that open doors for you, self-starting cars and fMRI machines that study your brain. But the technology for this stuff is here right now, of course, so it wasn’t such a stretch. But again, no matter when you set your novel, it has to be credible for the reader.

      1. Hah. I’ve begun to pride myself on my “predictions” that have come true since release. While the book wasn’t published until 2013, I actually completed the manuscript for THE GENESIS CODE in 2006, right before beginning law school. The short story that was the seed? I actually wrote that around 2000/2001. DARPA is testing a brain chip now–to cure PTSD in soldiers by replanting memories–that is mighty similar to the technology I “invented.”

  8. It’s funny you say that because I received a similar criticism about my second novel, A Case of Redemption, which was published in 2013. The story concerns the trial of a rapper and the major evidence against him is the lyrics of a song he wrote. Several readers who were lawyers said that they couldn’t accept that someone would be indicted on such little evidence. Last year, the New York Times ran a series about how often young men were being tried and convicted on little more than rap lyrics.

  9. Realism is the thing that keeps the reader in the story instead of sitting back to think about whether or not the author is full of it. And if you’re like most of us, one person doesn’t have a law, police, and medical background from which to pull facts.

    Thankfully, my friends and family have plenty of different backgrounds and are sometimes happy to help with research questions (and occasionally they aren’t snarky with their answers).

    For a book like Awake, my latest, I had to do more than my regular what-does-the-inside-of-an-ambulance-look-like research: I needed to know what would happen to a building left alone for 10 years under special circumstances. Spending the time to be as real as possible, even in a story with fantasy elements, helps gain the reader’s trust and keeps them focused on the story.

  10. Hi fall somewhere between’s Jean’s stance on credibility, and John F.’s “Enjoy the Kool-Aid” sentiment. I think it depends on the book.

    In the early 70s, there was a TV show called “MacMillan & Wife” about a police commissioner who solved crimes and lived in a mansion in San Francisco. I personally think it’s funny that the show was written without any real clue as to what a police commissioner did on a day-to-day basis (hint—it’s not chasing criminals, but it might have been less exciting to watch Rock Hudson in budgetary review meetings), or what a police commissioner earned (hint—not enough to afford a mansion in San Francisco). But the nature of the show was campy, and it was more about the romantic chemistry between Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James than about credibly portraying law enforcement. The bottom line—the show ran for six seasons, and people didn’t care if the writers took liberties with accuracy.

    I think it’s forgivable to stretch accuracy, so long as you’re aware you’re doing it, and so long as it fits with the nature of the book. However, I do think it’s important to know that you are playing it fast and loose, and you’re not just making up facts about politics, occupation, or technology out of laziness.

    I also think that writers will do themselves a favor by doing their research. When I was writing my last book, I was reluctant to write one of the characters as an FBI agent because I was worried that I’d get it wrong. And unlike MacMillan & Wife, my book wasn’t intended to be campy. So I did as much research as I could, including reading training manuals on the agency, talking to members of law enforcement, and watching YouTube videos that featured FBI agents to get a sense of how they spoke and carried themselves. The research helped me define the character, because details came out of the research that gave me a sense of how to build the character. For example, the FBI has a mandatory retirement age of 57 (although the agency has limited ability to extend this to 65). As tiny a detail as this is, it told me I needed to keep my character within a certain age range. The more you know about what you’re writing, the more the research can help you create the work, rather than forcing yourself to make up that character or that world entirely from scratch.

  11. In concert with pretty much all of the above, I’ll just mention that the reader and writer usually (unless it’s a pure legal drama, in which case the law must be right, of course) understand that fiction carries with it reality and hokum in some sort of measure. James Bond is hokum from beginning to end, and does any reader/viewer want or expect anything less? Of course not. Sherlock Holmes didn’t know everything he knew but it was fun to pretend otherwise. So there’s that end of things. And many of us, as indicated in this discussion, work with reality then bend space and time and personalities to suit the narrative, while creating a sense that conforms to reality. But I like to undermine my reality, even geographically. In novels I have taken what used to exist in a city and put it back, and I’ve added what might or should exist in a city, and readers come upon that I expect them to say, hey, that’s not exactly right. Sometimes that’s damaging, and sometimes the reader knows realizes that a fictional layer covers the real, and the two commingle. Risky, sometimes, but fun. Having established that, it also allows me, I feel, a little more latitude in how everything goes down.

    1. For me there is always a lot of research in my novels. They tend to be historical with flashbacks and I want to make those flashbacks as realistic as possible. For example, The Last Witness is about a near-future Holocaust survivor. The very last one, in fact. He was born as a hidden child in a Jewish ghetto in 1939 and when he was a little boy he, along with his family, were sent to Auschwitz. How he survived is, well, the stuff of novels. (You’ll have to read it to find out). But to get things right I read everything I could find about that particular Jewish ghetto I was writing about. And about life in Auschwitz, especially for children. But that wasn’t enough. I also met people who were real-life, child survivors of the Holocaust when they were kids. Every one of them had a unique story to tell, and it all went into the mix. What I like to do is take a time and place, and put the characters I create right there. I don’t play ‘fast and loose’ with history, but my characters are free to do what they want within that history. I suppose some writers may take more editorial license than others when it comes to things like that, and with stuff like technology too. But it depends what you’re writing. If it’s sci-fi, that’s a lot different than what I do.

  12. I often play fast and loose in my first drafts, and then I go back and do research to add verisimilitude. For me, the real writing is in the rewrites. That’s when I add consistency, flesh out personalities, and do a fact-check along with proofing my typos. I use my first draft to explore possibilities. I will skip over some of the details I’m uncertain of and just keep writing to keep the storyline flowing. The first draft tells me what I don’t yet know that I need to know. I check my own reference books, do online searches, and order books from Amazon, B&N, or my local library. My second or third draft is when I fill in the blanks. My fourth draft is when I refine the language, wax poetically, or cut mercilessly.

  13. I have a question, following Jerry’s comment that he went out and talked to Holocaust survivors as part of his research. I’m relatively new to things, and tend to draw on characters and experiences I’ve already had. But how many of you conduct your research like a journalist, interviewing relevant people, investigating specific areas before you write about them? And how do you go about it?

    1. Most people enjoy talking about themselves and their work. Take us, for example. When people you want to interview hear you are a professional writer, they tend to open up in person or over the phone. I have, from time to time, sent an e-mail to an authority and asked for answers to specific questions. I have never had anyone refuse.

      1. Thanks, Paul. I’ll remember that! I usually try to stay quiet about the writing in non-writerly situations, just in case people think I’m mining them for copy. This may be a mistake…

        Anyone else?

  14. I think the discussion demonstrates the vast range of the form. Almost full-on reality (Jerry, Adam, Melanie) to seat-of-the-pants fantasy (Sherlock, Bond). I wholly respect those for whom research is vital. My choice is to get enough research to be able to create the world of the novel as a real world, but not so much that it dominates my creative input to where I can’t weave in my storylines. Part of the issue is that I don’t want to be limited to time and place, but I do want to honour time and place, while still allowing the story to make use of what goes on in other places and other times and bring all that into the world of my novel. In other words, I like to make use of the real place and real time but I also like to make it larger than it is. As another said so long ago, I don’t like the facts to get in the way of a good story. Any look at the form demonstrates that one size does not fit all, readers love their flights of fantasy and other readers demand verisimilitude. It comes down to what attracts the writer and whether or not that work attracts readers. But I’m repeating myself: you pick your poison.

    1. That old saying about not letting the facts get in the way of a good story was always taken as a poke at journalism. But in fiction it’s very true. Authors who do a lot of research for their novels sometimes wind up doing too much (I am guilty as charged) and it slows down the story. For a thriller, this is a death knell.

  15. As Dale says, people do like talking about themselves, and never more so when they think it might end up in a book. If I seek advice, I always make sure to credit the person (unless there’s a reason that might not be possible), because it’s a fair exchange. After all, they’ve given me some credibility in my writing – and quite possibly enough info for another book!

    I learned a valuable lesson years ago with my first book, when a lady came up to me at a signing and said how she recognised from my descriptions where a particular stretch of road lay in Spain (near where she lived).

    Fact was, I’d never been there… although I’d travelled lots of roads like it. However, she was clearly so delighted to have a common point of reference, I didn’t have the heart to tell her.

    But it shows how the reader’s imagination can fill in all manner of blanks and create a recognisable picture.

    It comes down to us providing the framework and the readers filling in the detail.

  16. There’s also that odd thing, which I think happens with a lot of writers, in which the totally fictitious passages seem somehow more real than the scrupulously researched (or even lived) sections.

    I was writing something about ’60s LA, and based it all on books I’d read and internet research, till the time came when I thought I should actually go and take a look at the place. OK, I know there’s a historical discrepancy there (I can’t actually go back to the ’60s, nor would I want to) but I found the stuff I made up seemed far more authentic than anything I could extrapolate from being there. The only thing the visit actually taught me was about the size of the place, and that some of my scenes simply wouldn’t work because it was an hour’s drive from a to b.

    The value of research? Well, it was a really fun visit…

    1. When your background is that of a journalist, as in my case, it tends to make you take a journalist’s approach to things. That means you research and investigate before you actually start writing your scene. If you happen to be a lawyer who then started writing novels, I imagine it would be different. But the key for us all, I’m sure, is the rewriting. I liken writing a novel to an artist who is sculpting something. You keep going back again and again, constantly making improvements. There is a comment attributed to none other than Michelangelo who was asked how he sculpted his masterpiece the David out of marble. He said it was easy. He said he just removed everything that wasn’t David! I love that.

      1. True, Jerry – rewriting’s the main part of the work. And putting it away for a few days or weeks until you can look at it with fresh eyes. Deadlines notwithstanding…

  17. I stay grounded in reality by moving between various projects every hour or so during early drafts. But, during final rewrites, I dedicate all my time to one story. If the characters and events are engaging, I become fully involved and time and pages fly by. If I fail to remain fully engaged, it’s back to the drawing board.

  18. It’s a bit off-topic, but I’m fascinated to see all the different methods of working here – all trying to sneak up on that elusive beast, the story.

  19. It is great to hear how different people work. The novel, after all, is meant to be novel, that is different, unique. So the novel as a form celebrates the differences of approach, intent, style.

  20. I believe an author has to know the rules before he or she breaks them, so even if technical liberties are taken for the purposes of dramatic storytelling, I always heavily research the subject to know the facts.

    My new novel, WHITE KNUCKLE, is about a female FBI Special Agent hunting a prolific serial killer truck driver. Both the details of FBI and long haul trucking operations were intrinsic to the book, so I spoke at length with Bureau personnel and rode around with truck drivers during the writing. Later, I had an FBI agent I knew review the book for general accuracy regarding how the Bureau would deal with a similar situation. Like several other authors here have mentioned, I think readers sense the verisimilitude of these kind of technical details, and it adds to their suspension of disbelief about the book itself.

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