August 29 – September 4: “Do thriller writers have a responsibility not to put ideas into the heads of would-be criminals?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week we’re joined by ITW Members Lynn Cahoon, Michael Byars Lewis and Christina Hoag to answer the question: Do thriller writers have a responsibility not to put ideas into the heads of would-be criminals?




A Story to Kill book final compLynn Cahoon is the author of the New York Times and USA Today bestselling Tourist Trap cozy mystery series. Guidebook to Murder, book 1 of the series won the Reader’s Crown for Mystery Fiction in 2015. She’s also the author of the soon to be released, Cat Latimer series, with the first book, A STORY TO KILL, releasing in mass market paperback September 2016. She lives in a small town like the ones she loves to write about with her husband and two fur babies.



unnamedMichael Byars Lewis, is a former AC-130U ‘Spooky’ Gunship Evaluator Pilot with 18 years in Air Force Special Operations Command. A 25-year Air Force pilot, he has flown special operations combat missions in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. His first novel, SURLY BONDS, won three awards and his second novel, VEIL OF DECEPTION, has won four awards.



SkinofTattoosCoverSmallChristina Hoag is the author of Skin of Tattoos, a literary thriller set in L.A.’s gang underworld (Martin Brown, August 2016) and Girl on the Brink, a YA romantic thriller (Fire and Ice YA, August 2016). She also co-authored Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence (Turner, 2014). Previously, she was a reporter for the Associated Press and Miami Herald and worked as a correspondent in Latin America writing for major media outlets including Time, Business Week, Financial Times and The New York Times.




  1. So we’re back to the you can’t listen to rock and roll because it will kill your morals?

    We write fiction, people. Sometimes it’s graphic and technical, but it’s always fiction. How does an author control what a reader does with their books? If a person is contemplating murder, there’s nothing to stop them except their own moral compass and maybe lack of means.

    A unusual murder technique in a thriller, shouldn’t be considered a guidebook to murder. Murder happens in real life. Writer’s make sense of the randomness of real life. And typically, the perpetrator is caught. Which is another factor the would be criminal might want to take a look at because, no matter how smart you think you are, someone’s going to figure it out.

  2. Firstly, I don’t think writers should censor themselves. They should be free to write whatever they want. Secondly, you can’t control what people do with what you write. (That actually might be an interesting concept for a futuristic thriller – writers rule the world!), although this the argument gun makers use.
    There are, in fact, cases where life imitates art. I’m thinking of the “Slender Man” killing in Wisconsin a few years ago where a teenager murdered because she thought this horror video game character was telling her to do so. But obviously, she was quite mentally disturbed, and that seems to be the case with similar incidents. But I know if I wrote Slender Man, I’d feel a bit guilty, and there’s some inevitable finger-pointing, but ultimately, it’s not the author’s fault.
    However, it’s a different case with non-fiction. Some years back, a Colorado publisher, Paladin Press published a how-to manual on carrying out a contract killing written by a hit man. It got sued twice, by families of victims who said the killer had used the book. They eventually pulled the book and settled out of court, although they did have a feasible First Amendment defense. It would’ve been interesting to see how that turned out in the legal arena.
    I’ll be interested in other thoughts on this.

  3. If fiction writers restricted themselves based on what an unbalanced person might do with the fictional material, the thrill would go out of thrillers. We wouldn’t be able to write anything gripping because readers are gripped by the threat of violence and death. Fiction presents what is possible but not actual. Its source is the imagination, and imagination is a powerful and sometimes dangerous source. There may be valid reasons to restrict content (for example, child pornography), but if the writing of fiction is a valid enterprise, then the risks inherent in its production are worth taking. Writers should be guided by common sense, not fear.

  4. On a turn-the-tables note, a mystery writer I know of was actually contracted by the CIA to come up with the most implausible, out-of-the-box scenarios for possible terrorist attacks ie. flying planes into skyscrapers. Things that security eggheads would never think of. Sounded like a pretty interesting gig!

  5. I think the criminal mind, whether it is disturbed or insane or “play for pay” can come up with enough of its own ideas on how to terrorize or take advantage of people without the help of authors who, quite frankly, do better tracing the outlines of reality where their own minds lack in the truly sociopathic realm.

  6. This is true, maybe we’re actually not imaginative enough when compared to the criminally insane! The problem, of course, with fiction is that it has to be plausible. Real life doesn’t.

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