October 17 – 23: “How do you develop scientific / technological plots?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5“How do you develop scientific/technological plots? How far can imagination go and not fall into the realm of science fiction?” These are the questions on tap this week when we’re joined by ITW Members Benjamin Dancer, John Hegenberger, Stephanie Osborn, Rich Zahradnik and James Marshall Smith.




superfall-coverAward-winning author, John Hegenberger has produced more than a dozen books since mid-2015, including several popular series: Stan Wade LAPI in 1959, Eliot Cross Columbus-based PI in 1988, and Ace Hart, western gambler in Arizona in 1877. He’s the father of three, tennis enthusiast, collector of silent films, hiker, Francophile, B.A. Comparative Lit., ex-Navy, ex-marketing exec at Exxon, AT&T, and IBM; and happily married for 46 years and counting. Active member of SFWA, PWA, SinC and ITW. His novel SPYFALL won a 2016 award at Killer Nashville.


patriarchrun_front_final_rgbBenjamin Dancer is the author of the literary thriller Patriarch Run, the first book in a series that will include Fidelity and The Story of the Boy. He also writes about parenting, education, sustainability and national security. Benjamin works as an Advisor at a Colorado high school where he has made a career out of mentoring young people as they come of age. His work with adolescents has informed his stories, which are typically themed around fatherhood and coming-of-age.


a_black_sailRich Zahradnik is the award-winning author of the critically acclaimed Coleridge Taylor Mystery series (A Black Sail, Drop Dead Punk, Last Words). The second installment, Drop Dead Punk, won the gold medal for mystery/thriller ebook in the 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPYs). It was also named a finalist in the mystery category of the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Last Words won the bronze medal for mystery/thriller ebook in the 2015 IPPYs and honorable mention for mystery in the 2015 Foreword Reviews IndieFab Book of the Year Awards.


french-quarterStephanie Osborn, the award-winning Interstellar Woman of Mystery, is a 20+-year space program veteran, with multiple STEM degrees. She has authored, co-authored, or contributed to more than 30 books. She currently writes the critically-acclaimed Displaced Detective Series, described as “Sherlock Holmes meets The X-Files,” and the new Gentleman Aegis Series, a Silver Falchion winner. She “pays it forward” through numerous media including radio, podcasting and public speaking, and working with SIGMA, the science-fiction think tank.


silent-sourceJames Marshall Smith is a physicist whose critically-acclaimed thriller, Silent Source, was an international finalist for the Clive Cussler Grand Master Award. James was a chief scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta for two decades and has served in consulting or advisory roles for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, the G7 Global Health Security Action Group, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.


  1. I think the first rule of thumb in developing scientific or technological themes or plots is to really know your stuff.

    You might be writing in your own technical field—that’s a good start, but can still require a boatload of background research to get all of the details right. (Emphasis on all.) For most of us, however, knowing your stuff means hard-core research. I think the best way to start that is to talk with experts. I didn’t say interview; I mean sit down and spend time, not just asking questions, but listening with a view toward understanding in depth. Keep in mind that you can get a biased slant on any field of knowledge, depending on whom you talk with—take a wide swath whenever you can. Most scientists and technology experts are more than eager to chat at length about their work and usually with passion. But don’t stop there: dig into the subject, delving into books, magazine and journal articles, and blogs. I have found it best to blend the approaches. Read and dig into the literature on the one hand, and talk with experts on the other, in an iterative fashion.

    After you’ve done all this, then you can pick and choose those details you want to stretch a little for the sake of plot or character. After all, you’re writing a novel not a textbook! But that one requires careful judgment.

  2. Robin Cook used to write medical thrillers that stretched the contemporary reality ahead a few years. Michael Crichton did the same thing with Andromeda Strain, Westworld and Jurassic Park. In the book near-future novel that I’m currently writing, The Pandora Block, I created a billionaire character who proposed flights to Mars. Damned if, two weeks ago, Elon Musk proposed the same thing.

    The production time between when a book is written and when it is published is commonly a year and lots can change in the real world during those 12 months. In the same book, I thought it would be cool if we could destroy the Zika virus by beaming vibrations at it which would shatter the virus without harming human tissue. Upon researching this concept, I found that a patent had been applied for this concept and a device to accomplish it…five years ago. Suddenly the future became the past.

    1. I have had that problem with novels. In one of the earlier Displaced Detective books, I used some out-there particle physics, specifically as regards Higgs bosons. While the book was in the pipeline for release, suddenly the LHC comes out with that, “We think we’ve discovered superluminal neutrinos.” Now, that doesn’t sound like it would have anything to do with my concept, but by that point I’d researched it enough to know that such a discovery meant that the Higgs boson (which hadn’t been discovered yet) would not exist.

      I sweated bullets! On one hand, the scientist in me wanted the discovery to be for real, because it would have been a real game-changer. But the author in me was tied in knots, because it would have obsoleted the tech in my book before the book was even released!

      In the end, they announced it was a spurious, incorrect finding, and I was disappointed even as I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

  3. This is always a difficult process I think. How much info is too much; how much is too little. Boredom vs confusion. The advice I always give students is to remember that the story isn’t about the science but rather about the characters. The cool science is merely the milieu in which the characters play out the story. When plotting, focus on the characters and their goals and conflicts.

    1. Great advice for handling any exposition: descriptive, historical, backstory, or forensics. You can pack a lot of this tech info into an argument between two characters. It can be a royal pain, eh? But fun to figure out.

      1. Absolutely agree with that one, John. I always first try dialogue to explain techie things. Then maybe add a few sentences or a paragraph to wrap up. Of course, Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton seemed to break that rule a lot. But maybe after you sell as many books as they did, you’re allowed to do anything? 🙂

  4. Well, I DO write science fiction. I tend to blend science fiction and mystery genres, usually with very strong thriller elements. So I don’t have a problem if it goes into science fiction! That said, I also tend to write near-future or present-day fiction, so I’m not off a few centuries into the future, doing it.

    But I am also a scientist (now retired) who worked for many years in the civilian and military space programs, so I probably have a little advantage.

    The first thing I do is to figure out what it is I’m trying to do in the book, and why. That usually tells me what branch of science I need to research. And then I research it! I go all the way out to the cutting edge of that particular field, if necessary. And then I try to extrapolate it to the point where it reaches where I’m going (or what timeframe I’m using). Frankly, any time you go beyond the cutting-edge to extrapolate something for your book, you are technically delving into science fiction. Which is not a bad thing — these days, many aspects of science fiction are mainstream; just look at the current steampunk fad, or the preponderance of science fictional TV series and films. Based on comic books? Sure, but science fiction/fantasy. It’s all speculative fiction.

    That said, I have degrees in several sciences — but am NOT an expert across the board! So I have beta readers who ARE scientists in fields where I’m not expert. These include a particle physicist, a neuroscientist, a CSI team lead, and more. (So no, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to do this! But knowing one can help!)

    I’ve been asked how much research I do for my books. My answer is that I, personally, probably end up spending as much time researching as I do writing. Do I dump all that info into my books? NO! I’d bog down my readers in nothing flat. If there is a pertinent detail they need, there are ways to slide that into the manuscript without making it an info dump. Sometimes small info dumps work nicely, though, if there is a character who needs to know that information from the expert character. But no, most of the time I use all that research in order to set a scene — to describe the protagonist’s surroundings as s/he fights through some bizarre, life-threatening phenomenon, or the like. It tells me how that particular aspect of my scenario behaves, sufficient to paint a picture in the reader’s mind’s eye. And once I’ve accomplished that, then all those hours of research have paid off.

    1. Yes, I write SF, as well. But there, especially with hard SF, it’s allowed and almost required to integrate the facts with the fiction. In Thrillers, not so much. The term, “thriller,” itself tells the reader that suspense is at the core the novel. Suspense can, of course, live in science fiction tales, but usually after the concept of “what if.”

  5. In my eco-thriller I borrowed from reality. One of the things I learned in writing this story is that our civilization has unwittingly evolved to become absolutely dependent on a vulnerable critical infrastructure. What I mean by that is that if the power grid were to go down today and not come back up again most of us would die.

    To contextualize a statement as bold as that it might be helpful to go back a hundred years to when there were only 76 million Americans. At that time, you didn’t need electricity to meet the basic needs of the population. Food was grown outside the urban centers, and just about everybody ate locally.

    Fast forward to today. There are 325 million Americans and that number is growing. Many of our urban centers have outstripped the carrying capacities of their surrounding landscapes. As a consequence, food and basic goods are shipped over long supply lines, all of which are powered by refined fuels which, of course, are manufactured with electricity.

    So how is it we’ve managed to expand, in the last 100 years, the carrying capacity of the planet from about 2 billion to about 7.5 billion people? Ironically, the answer is electricity. The advent of reliable, widely-available electrical power has made possible several key technologies that have allowed us to expand Earth’s carrying capacity. Those technologies include fertilizers, pesticides, mechanical irrigation, refined fuels for farm machinery and transportation, infrastructures for clean drinking water, infrastructures for sanitation, advanced medical care, etc. Everything in that list is made available through electrical power.

    So imagine a large urban center devoid of electricity. No food. No safe drinking water. No sanitation. No transportation. What we’re talking about is an apocalypse.

    What’s really scary is that there are several mechanisms of destruction that have a realistic potential of bringing about that apocalypse, including a sophisticated cyber-attack, which is what the bad guy is up to in PATRIARCH RUN.

    1. There are also several natural events that could bring about such a situation, such as a modern-day Carrington event. An artificial version thereof, an EMP attack, would be slightly more localized — rather than taking down the planet as a Carrington superflare would do, an EMP attack would likely only take down a continent.

      So…yeah. This is a serious danger. I haven’t written a novel about it…yet…but have done some popular science writing on same. It’s a good concept. For a book, that is.

    1. Near SF usually takes place under five years from the book’s pub date. The one I’m writing now is set in 2020. If I’m lucky, it’ll be hyper-real in a year or so when published… and then in a few years obsolete. That’s the way it goes, but the publisher sometimes stretches it, adding a few more years.

    2. A story with a strong tech/science plot versus science fiction actually has a surprisingly unfuzzy demarcation line: Did you have to extrapolate the science at all?

      If not, it is a STEM plot. You can throw in elements of thriller, mystery, what have you. But it will not be true science fiction.

      If you DID have to extrapolate the science, then it becomes science fiction. What do I mean by that? M theory is a real thing. It is a theory in physics which purports to explain certain cosmological aspects by invoking n-dimensional structures. If you have a modern-day scientist (or even near-future scientist) trying to explore, let’s say, the structures of galactic superclusters using M theory, with some plot overlaid, then you have a science-oriented plot. But if you extrapolate M theory to, say, invoke the ability to communicate, or even travel, through n dimensions, then you’ve just written science fiction. (I did the latter in my Displaced Detective series.)

      Stop and look for a moment at two movies: Armageddon and Deep Impact. Both involved the concept of a comet/asteroid on a collision course with Earth. There’s your scientific connection.

      But Deep Impact looked at the straight possibility of “What have we got that might stop it, and what will happen when it hits?”

      Armageddon took then-existing tech (Space Shuttle, nukes) and extrapolated them to be able to do what they can’t currently do (leave Earth orbit, detonate explosives in a vacuum). Deep Impact was a drama, Armageddon was (bad) science fiction. [The reason I qualify it as bad SF is because it made these extrapolations while pretending NOT to do so — I still get questions about why we didn’t just send the Shuttle back to the Moon and such like, all as a result of that film.]

      BOTH films invoked dramatic tension and thriller aspects, but one was SF and the other wasn’t.

      Does that make sense?

  6. My work in progress involves a hurricane hitting a New Jersey barrier island as the good guys are trying to escape murderous drug dealers (or worse). I did a lot of hurricane research plus read up specifically on Sandy to decide on the size and scope of my storm. I wanted real and dangerous conditions, not some sort of storm that never could exist and didn’t follow the science of cyclones. To reverse the idea of the discussion, I set my current series in 1975 so as to avoid the semi-sci fi of some current crime fiction. By that I mean, instant DNA matching, seven-second facial recognition and video of what’s going on available whenever the protagonists or antagonists need it. These tropes are often found on TV, but they’re in books too, and readers have been taught to expect technology that’s not available. I wanted a shoe-leather and phone booth story.

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