November 16 – 22: “Oh, the Holidays…can we integrate them into our plots in a seamless way?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Oh, the holidays…this week we’re joined by ITW Members Paul McGoran, John Hegenberger, Patrick Kendrick, J.D. Horn, John Gaspard, Judy Penz Sheluk, Elizabeth Edmondson and Nina Mansfield to discuss whether or not the holidays can be integrated seamlessly into our plots?




A Question of Inheritance coverElizabeth Edmondson writes what she likes to call Vintage Mysteries, since they’re set in the nineteen-thirties, forties and fifties. They’re stories of love and marriage, families and friendship, in which the loyalties, feuds, secrets and betrayals of the past cast long shadows into the present. She’s fascinated by characters who are quirky, mysterious, funny, unexpected and interesting and wants readers to share, as she does, in their joys and sorrows. With dramatic and glamorous settings from icy lakes to Italian villas, from wintry Budapest to fashionable France, from Cornwall to the Lake District, the landscapes are as powerful as the stories are complex. The tense realities of life mingle with supernatural elements : ghosts, prophetic dreams and voices from the past, but fun and humour also dance in and out of the light and darkness of the stories. Elizabeth’s aim is to enthrall, delight and amuse readers as they are transported to a different era.


SHIVAREE COVER FOR ITWJ.D. Horn was raised in rural Tennessee and has carried a bit of its red clay with him while traveling the world, from Hollywood to Paris to Tokyo. He studied comparative literature as an undergrad, focusing on French and Russian in particular. He also holds an MBA in international business and worked as a financial analyst before becoming a novelist. Along with his spouse, Rich, and his furry co-authors, Duke and Sugar, he divides his time between Black Butte Ranch, Oregon, and San Francisco, California.


The Savants Cover_Final_Online (2)Patrick Kendrick is an award winning author of several thrillers, including: Papa’s Problem, a Florida Book Award and Hollywood Film Festival Award winner. Extended Family, which earned a starred review from Booklist. His newest crime thriller, Acoustic Shadows, was published by HarperCollins in June and is a Royal Palm Literary Award Finalist. The Savants, a sci-fi, political thriller is his first YA novel, and is published by Suspense Publishing. A former firefighter and freelance journalist, he lives in Florida close to the sea.


hanged manJudy Penz Sheluk’s debut mystery, The Hanged Man’s Noose, was published July 2015. Her short crime fiction is included in The Whole She-Bang 2, World Enough and Crime, and Flash and Bang. In addition to the ITW, Judy is a member of Sisters in Crime, Crime Writers of Canada, and the Short Mystery Fiction Society.



SPYFALLcover (2)Born and raised in the heart of the heartland, Columbus, Ohio, John Hegenberger is the author of several upcoming series: Stan Wade LAPI in 1959, Eliot Cross Columbus-based PI in 1988, Tripleye, the first PI agency on Mars, and Ace Hart, western gambler in Arizona in 1873. He’s the father of three, tennis enthusiast, collector of silent films and OTR, hiker, Francophile, B.A. Comparative Lit., Pop culture author, ex-Navy, ex-marketing exec at Exxon, AT&T, and IBM, happily married for 45 years and counting.


Layout 1Paul McGoran lives in Newport, Rhode Island. In his lives before fiction, he was a Russian language interpreter for the Navy, a marketing executive, a management consultant, and a day trader. The most satisfactory aspect of fiction writing for Paul is disappearing into the heads of his characters. Writers like him suffer from a kind of multiple personality disorder–minus some of the negative clinical implications. Made For Murder, a noir thriller, is his first novel.


THE MISERS DREAM front smIn real life, John Gaspard’s not a magician, but he has directed six low-budget features that cost very little and made even less – that’s no small trick. He’s also written multiple books on the subject of low-budget filmmaking. Ironically, they’ve made more than the films. His blog, “Fast, Cheap Movie Thoughts” has been named “One of the 50 Best Blogs for Moviemakers” and “One of The 100 Best Blogs For Film and Theater Students.” He’s also written for TV and the stage. John lives in Minnesota and shares his home with his lovely wife, several dogs, a few cats and a handful of pet allergies.


SwimmingAlonefrnt (2)Nina Mansfield is a Greenwich, Connecticut based writer. Her debut novel, SWIMMING ALONE, a young adult mystery, was published by Fire & Ice YA in August 2015. Nina began her writing career as a playwright; she has written numerous plays, which have been published and produced throughout United States and internationally. Nina’s short mystery fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Mysterical-E.




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    Since this is mid-November, let me assume the topic relates to the grand nexus of fall/winter holidays, Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year’s. That said, I think other holidays have a use as seasonal markers that can be employed as transitional devices (“It was Memorial Day, and the beaches were open.”).

    While some non-holiday but widely-observed days such as Halloween, Valentine’s Day and Easter will have a built-in emotional resonance for many, it falls to Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s to arouse an extraordinarily wide range of feeling in western culture. From anticipation to joy, or from apprehension to dread—the big three call up a mix of contradictory emotions. As far as seamlessly integrating holidays into a plot, what’s the problem? You can go for predictable:
    “The smells of roasting turkey and cinnamon-laced apple pie filled the house.”
    “Ellen and I watched the shining faces of the little ones as they dashed to the tree.”
    Or you can go for contrast:
    “The turkey carcass sat forlorn on the table’s edge and the sink was stuffed with dishes.”
    “Red was the color of Santa’s suit. Dark red like the pool of blood around his chair.”

    Writing a thriller? Go for contrast.

    And what about holidays in other cultures? Diwali? Eid al Fitr? Dominion Day? Feast of Tabernacles? Now there’s a problem for seamless integration if you’re writing from a western culture viewpoint to an audience of the same persuasion. My guess is you’d have to stop long enough to talk about the holiday and what it represents, thereby bringing the story to a halt and risking the loss of your reader. That might work for a literary novel, but would be tough going for a thriller.

    As for myself, I’m a single guy who always gets melancholy around the holidays. And that’s the mindset I bring whenever I introduce one of them into a plot.

    1. I love the idea to “go for contrast.” The unexpected always draws me in as a reader.

      And the holidays can be melancholy for all of us. But for me they tend to be a bit hectic and maddening… so much to do!

    2. I think the holidays can be difficult for lots of people, Paul. I always feel as if I’m disappointing the people I can’t visit with, the ones I have to leave sooner than they’d like etc. etc. There’s such high expectation. When you think about it, that could make a good thriller plot. Thanks for sharing your melancholy memories!

      1. Must be those high expectations that are the root of the problem. We love what the holidays stand for, but we hate the unreasonable expectations they excite.

  2. Integrating the holidays into plots:

    Yeah, yeah, yeah. Holidays are all festive and merry and bright. But we all know holidays are also days of heightened expectations, mirrors that magnify a hundredfold each resentment and every fear. (If I’m alone on New Year’s Eve, will I be alone my entire life? The Tiffany’s box contained a key chain, not a ring. Should I get a divorce?)

    Holidays are microscopes that allow a writer to examine characters on a cellular level, delve into their earliest memories of joy and disappointment. Holidays allow a writer to glean how a character sees himself in relation to the world around him. Faced with a microwave dinner for Thanksgiving, will a character turn inward, or will she reach out? It doesn’t have to be anything bigger than that, but the holiday provides a crisis that wouldn’t arise on the average day. And when it comes to writing, crisis is a good thing.

    If you distill each holiday—be it Christmas, Valentine’s Day, or Independence Day—to what you see as its essence, you’ll find that they’re great sources of inspiration, not just a problem you have to write around.

    1. Insightful post, J.D. You’re right, it’s how our characters react to the holiday, not the holiday itself. LOVE the Tiffany box example. I might just use that 🙂 Of course, I’ll changer the key chain to something else but BRILLIANT idea!

  3. Oh, the Holidays…can we integrate them into our plots in a seamless way?

    Absolutely! As a playwright, a question I was trained to ask while writing is: what makes this night different from any other night? One playwriting teacher of mine called this the “Passover Rule of Playwriting.” In other words, while writing a play, there should be a compelling reason why you are choosing to set it on a particular day: a recent death, a wedding, some serious event that compels the characters into action. And yes, a holiday could work too.

    This rule works for writing fiction as well. Usually, in a mystery or thriller it is the commission of the crime, or the attempt at the crime that sets the stage for the action. But certainly, as writers, we are always looking to raise the stakes for our characters. Holidays raise the stakes in life; they can certainly raise the stakes in our writing.

    When using a holiday, however, it is important that it isn’t just tacked on. Don’t simply strangle someone in the Christmas lights and forget all the other sights, sounds and smells of the holiday.

    1. “What makes this night different from any other night?”

      That is such a simple concept and yet it is essential to good storytelling. Thank you for summing it up so succinctly.

    2. “When using a holiday, it’s important that it isn’t just tacked on.” Great rule, Nina. The major holidays are very much like a setting, and we need to get the details right.

  4. Ah, the holidays! The Stan Wade, LA PI series is tied to a specific year: 1959. And each story sequences forward through time from the beginning of 1959 to that of 1960. So by the time we reach Halloween, it’s not surprising that my detective encounters Rod Serling who is working on the Twilight Zone TV show which premiered in the fall of 1959.

    And right around Christmas on that same year, Alfred Hitchcock is finishing up his movie, Psycho. It’s also important to give your characters a birthday party, which is not only a holiday for them, but often for the story and your readers as well.

  5. Oh, the Holidays…can we integrate them into our plots in a seamless way?

    Of course you can and it can be a very marketable and critical facet: Thinking of, say, “A Christmas Carol”? When you think of Dickens’s classic you don’t necessarily think of a thriller but isn’t that what it is? At the least it is a ghost story, more if you allow. Sci-fi (TIME TRAVEL, ETC.)

    In Dickens’s classic, it is definitely integrated in what I feel is a seamless way.I think its success is because it pulls the readers into the story through the experience of the characters.

    The experience of the characters is their assessment of another character’s values and beliefs. And, when it comes to holidays, which are related to individual and cultural beliefs, it allows readers to “buy into” those beliefs as they see the correlation to their own beliefs. Examples( condemning the poor): “Are there no prisons, no work houses?” Scrooge.

    Conversely: “Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The deals of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” Jacob Marley.

    Beautiful writing!

    1. There’s a reason A Christmas Carol has survived so many generations and remain beloved. Beautiful writing and an imaginative plot. Thanks for the example, it provided the fuel for my post!

  6. The use of holidays helped me to ground the timeframe in the first Eli Marks’ mystery, “The Ambitious Card.” The story started on Halloween afternoon … and then, in the last scene, Eli and his new girlfriend are discussing their upcoming plans for Thanksgiving, as snow began to fall around them. Those holidays bookended the story nicely, communicating how much time had passed in a seamless manner that didn’t get in the way of the storytelling.

    Since the books are set in Minnesota, the seasons play a bigger role in the later books, as opposed to specific holidays. In the most recent book, “The Miser’s Dream,” the near-constant snowfall and hazardous driving conditions almost becomes a character unto itself, giving Eli Marks even one more adversary to deal with.

    For me, I like something like a season or a holiday to help ground a story and give the reader a greater sense of the environment and the time frame of the story.

  7. Not a thriller, but a classic example of how to do this well is Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol.” Consider that it was first published in December 1843 — not only does the story still hold up today, it is revered as a classic and has been remade into a number of movies over the years.

    In the mystery lane, I’ve always loved Agatha Christie, and her 1938 novel, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, has the classic Christie plot:

    When multi-millionaire Simeon Lee unexpectedly invites his family to gather at his home for Christmas, the gesture is met with suspicion by many of the guests. Simeon is not given to family sentiment, and not all of the family are on good terms with one another. To make things worse, he has invited the black sheep of the family, Harry, and Simeon’s granddaughter, Pilar, whom none of them has ever met before. Simeon is intent on playing a sadistic game with his family’s emotions. An unexpected guest – Stephen Farr, son of Simeon Lee’s former partner in the diamond mines – means that the house is full of potential suspects when the game turns deadly.

    So the short answer, is yes, you can!

    1. Whoops, seems I posted my reply in the wrong spot! Both fantastic stories. And true, while I wouldn’t call “A Christmas Carol” a thriller, it is certainly filled with suspense!

  8. It seems we all tend to think of Christmas-of course the timing of the question pushes us on the direction-but can anyone remember some great novels centering around other holidays?

    There are a lot of movies using Halloween and I can even think of some Thanksgiving movies but what about some other holidays? Can anyone tell me a famous novel based on say, Easter? Other than Christian based?

  9. Maybe it comes from being a writer and completing projects, but I tend to treat holidays, or weddings and job events, as deadlines. I need to finish certain tasks or I won’t enjoy myself, and the same goes for my characters.

  10. My apologies for not contributing so far to the discussion. I’m presently in rural France and have only just managed to connect to the internet – sitting in a 13th century chateau, built by Edward !. The internet has a definitely thirteenth-century feel to it, as though shielded from the outside world by a suit of armour.

    Re holidays, they’re a boon to mystery writers, since holidays so often bring families and friends together, and exiles return home.

    A perfect set-up for conflict and malfeasance.

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