January 16 – 22: “What is the riskiest thing you’ve done in the name of research?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5To research, or not to research, has never really been the question, but this week we’re joined by ITW Members Alison Joseph, Linda Lee Kane, Patricia Smiley and Vincent Zandri to answer the question: “What is the riskiest thing you’ve done in the name of research?”


Alison Joseph is a London-based crime writer and award-winning radio dramatist. She is author of the series of novels featuring Sister Agnes, a contemporary detective nun, and also ‘Dying to Know,’ a crime novel abut particle physics featuring DI Berenice Killick. Her new series features a fictional Agatha Christie as a detective, published by Endeavour Press. Alison is a member of Killer Women, and was Chair of the British Crime Writers Association from 2013- 2015.


Linda Lee Kane, MA in Education, PPS, School Psychologist, and Learning Disability Specialist, is the author of The Black Madonna, Witch Number is Which, Icelandia, Katterina Ballerina, Cowboy Jack and Buddy Save Santa, and Chilled to the Bones, 2017 release date, Clyde: Lost and Now Found, and Bottoms Up, A Daisy Murphy Mysteries. She lives with her husband and three dogs and six horses in California.


Patricia Smiley is the best-selling author of four mystery novels featuring amateur sleuth Tucker Sinclair. Pacific Homicide is the first of a new series about LAPD homicide detective Davie Richards and debuted on November 8, 2016. Patty’s short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Two of the Deadliest, an anthology edited by Elizabeth George. She has taught writing at various conferences in the US and Canada. She served as Vice President for the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America and as president of Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles.


Winner of the 2015 PWA Shamus Award and the 2015 ITW Thriller Award for Best Original Paperback Novel, Vincent Zandri is the New York Times, USA Today, and Amazon Kindle No.1 bestselling author of more than 20 novels including The Remains, Monnlight Weeps, Everything Burns, and Orchard Grove. He is also the author of numerous Amazon bestselling digital shorts, PATHOLOGICAL, TRUE STORIES and MOONLIGHT MAFIA among them. Recently, Zandri was the subject of a major feature by the New York Times.  In December 2014, Suspense Magazine named Zandri’s, The Shroud Key, as one of the Best Books of 2014. He lives in New York and Florence, Italy.


  1. Risk or danger is relative of course.
    Hemingway needed to place himself in some of the riskiest situations possible in order to write his fiction. War, bullfights, big game hunting, deep sea fishing, and eventually, a double-barrel shotgun barrel pressed against his forehead. If it were physically possible to have written about the experience after he tripped the double triggers and blew the entirety of his cranial cap away along with most of his face with only the lower jaws intact, I’m sure he would have. It would have been the ultimate dangerous research act conducted with the utmost grace under pressure.

    Mailer adhered to a different opinion about risk and the human condition. He once said that bravery isn’t just limited to placing one’s self in perilous situations. Ultimate bravery can be the little old lady who is half blind and half hobbled who must walk two blocks in downtown Manhattan in order to purchase food. Every step is wracked with anxiety, every time she crosses a busy street, she fears she might not make it to the other side alive. Mailer went to war in order to write a novel. He also got arrested for marching on the Pentagon.

    Some writers go to dangerous places in order to create, not in the physical sense, but instead, the psychological. Stephen King delves deep into the frightening and the bizarre and I’m sure that, at times, he frightens himself almost to death. There’s serious risk in delving deep inside the over-active imagination. Noir writers like David Zeltserman explore the deep, darkest, places a man or woman can go. His characters are often nonredeemable. Such as the murder of an innocent child or children and not feeling a thing about it. When you write on such disturbing topics, you risk making yourself insane.

    Others like Hunter S. Thompson, experimented with drugs and in particular, hallucinogenics in order to come up with his brand of prose…his gonzo journalism. In the end, it left him battered at a relatively young age and like so many writers who have lived life on the edge, he took a ticket to ride by swallowing a semi-automatic pistol barrel.

    I’ve taken some risks in order to research my novels. I’m a firm believer that researching on Google just ain’t gonna cut the mustard. You need to see, smell, touch, the place you are writing about. The keen reader always knows when you’re cheating (so too do Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Book Reporter, etc.) When researching my first big novel, The Innocent (formerly, As Catch Can), I spent days inside Green Haven Maximum Security Prison and even a full night locked up in a cell at Sing Sing Prison. The novel was praised for its realism by the trades and even the New York Post called it “Brilliant…” An auspicious debut, but at the same time, I’d set the bar high for myself. I could never again research a novel without talking on a certain amount of risk.
    As time went on I began to take more and more chances. Exploring the bush country of West Africa where my fixer and me managed to get our 4X4 stuck in a swamp. The temperature was somewhere around 100 degrees F, and the humidity enough to make my bush jacket stick to my skin. The ants were as big as my thumb, the snakes poisonous, the mosquitos relentless. We were eventually recused by a band of mercenaries who, along with their band of voodoo practicing workers, pulled us out of the swamp with their own 4X4. One of the men was convinced I’d killed many men because of the leather bracelet I wore around my right wrist. When I gave him the bracelet, my fixer got pissed off. “You’ve made a connection with him now,” he said. “A physical connection. He can practice his voodoo on you.”

    Once, on the border with Nigeria when the bloody civil war was at its peak, a solider wearing fatigues, a black beret, and wrap-around sunglasses stood in the middle of the road, both his hands gripping an AK-47. He signaled for us to stop our 4X4 which was occupied by myself and three Christian mercenary women. He demanded papers and money. We were surrounded by bush country for miles and miles. If he raped the women and killed us, no one would ever find our bodies. Not long after that, when I was trying to get the hell out of the country, the soldier who manned the exit at the tin-roofed airport shack that served as a terminal, demanded a bribe in exchange for my freedom. I gave him everything I had. It was quite the experience, and worth the risk.

    Soon after that I would dodge bullets in Cairo’s Tahir Square at the tail end of the Arab Spring. The Muslim Brotherhood and their AK-47 sporting bandits prowled the streets, making the police useless. They were a big fan of Obama, but at the same time, hated Americans with a ferocity that was palpable. I was forced to ID myself on the street as a Canadian to which a native might reply, “Don’t die Canada dry.” Good times.

    I stupidly went out for a jog in the early morning, and ended up surrounded by pack of wild dogs. One of the policemen guarding my hotel came running out, swiping at the dogs with the butt of his automatic rifle. “Don’t ever go out alone in the morning,” he scolded. I took his advice from that moment forward. Too bad he wasn’t around when my truck was run off the highway by another truck occupied by armed bandits. As we sat in the ditch, the driver desperately trying to restart the stalled engine, I was sure were about to be shot to hell. But lucky for us, the bandits motored on.

    There were the bomb scares in Istanbul, getting lost in Shanghai, avoiding bombs and indiscriminate stabbings in Jerusalem, climbing a slick cliff-side on Machu Picchu in Peru, breaking my foot in several places in the Amazon Jungle, standing in the cockpit of a prop job as it flew beside the summit of Everest in Nepal, sleeping beside the camels under the open sky in the Sahara Desert, and of course, missing Mr. Putin by only a few moments outside the RT news offices in Moscow’s Gorky Park.

    But perhaps the riskiest moment came when I was exploring the upper Ganges by boat along with two other women and a fixer. The wood boat was small and cramped, it depended upon the wind for its propulsion. When there was no wind, which was almost always the case in June, a young man rowed while his fellow workers manned a kitchen boat that followed us. We were camping along the shore for a few days but monsoon season storms nearly blew our camp away during the night. It was a hell of a night, let me tell you. On the final day on the river, the heat was so unbearable, I decided to strip down to my boxer shorts, and jump in, much to the dismay of my fixer. But he too was so hot he could hardly move. “Let’s do it,” he said. Even the girls stripped down.

    Swimming in the Ganges is a strange experience in that the current is swift but the river is very shallow in places. But then the shallow parts become very deep, dark water pools that can extend for hundreds of feet. Little did I know it, but my fixer was an Olympic swimmer, both girls were also no stranger to the water. When they decided to swim across a deep pool, I didn’t want to be the one to discourage anyone. After all, it was my idea. I run and lift weights daily, but I’m not much of a swimmer, at least when it comes to distance. I didn’t make it half way across the pool when I began to feel myself going under. Panic kicked in and I considered turning about, and going back. But even that was too far away. No choice but to move forward. But I knew I would never make it. Realization took over. Fear and panic was replaced with total peace, if not serenity. I knew I was going to die. Die on the Ganges, the river of death but also the river of renewed life. I had come to India to die.

    But then, maybe thirty feet ahead of me, I saw my fixer stand up tall atop a sandbar. Just seeing him standing there filled me with renewed hope. Flapping my arms and kicking my feet, I made it to the other side, exhausted, my lungs straining and burning. But I was alive.

    Later on I would write the third novel in my Chase Baker action/adventure series, Chase Baker and the God Boy, and I poured all my life-and-death experiences into it. Was the risk worth it? I think so. Readers can sense that I’m not only writing fiction, but that I’m writing fiction based on a specific reality. If you’re a writer, and wish to be considered the real deal, get out of the house for a while. No one ever wrote great prose by sitting on the couch all day and Googling your research. No one ever wrote great books without taking risks.
    Vincent Zandri is the bestselling winner of the 2015 Thriller Award and PWA Shamus Award for Moonlight Weeps. He is the author of The Remains, When Shadows Comes, Orchard Grove and the newly released, The Ashes. The Corruptions, the fourth novel in the Jack Marconi PI series, will be published in hard-cover on January 31 from Polis Books. He lives in New York and Florence, Italy. For more go to http://WWW.VINCENTZANDRI.COM

  2. One of the first books I read was Truman Capote’s, ‘In Cold Blood’. I soon discovered that Capote began his research on anew literary art form that he called a non-fiction novel. He traveled to Kansas, which was not in his comfort zone, small town, untrusting people that were afraid of strangers after the horrific murder of their neighbors. He interviewed hundreds of townspeople, including murders, murderers, and the criminal mentality to give him perspective on Perry and Dick who were tried and convicted of the murder of the Clutter family. My point is that in order to understand what you are writing about sometimes you have to immerse yourself in their world.
    While working as a college counselor by day and author by night I came across an article about the sex trade and was horrified that it was being done in my own back yard. I wanted to understand why women would put themselves in such a dangerous position. I went to the area to see the house, and living conditions. After a few weeks I began getting groceries in a small market where women from that house would go and I would strike up innocent enough conversations, over a few weeks, one woman, Victoria told me a little of how she came to be in the situation that she was in…drugs, she had been abused horribly as a child, found a pimp, obtained more drugs and the rest, sadly is history. Another young woman was of Hispanic descent was forced into having sex with ‘Johns’ because her family was under threat of death in South America, this woman, and many others like her didn’t chose to be here in this capacity.
    There was a positive ending in both the above women’s stories. I was certainly out of my element, and certainly afraid. I kept myself as unobtrusive as possible, for their sake as well as my own. I think the story is worth writing about and people knowing and understanding about regarding this industry.

  3. I think my response is more generally about life and risk and writing and how they’re connected. I can’t say I’ve researched war zones or put myself into direct danger for the sake of my work. On the other hand, I absolutely agree that trawling the internet doesn’t really count as research, and that going out to the places and people that you’re writing about will always be enlightening for a story. For my Sister Agnes series, I knew that I had to know about the world she inhabits, as a contemporary nun in an open order, working in chaplaincies, or with homeless young people, or in one case finding herself living up a tree protesting against a road building scheme. I’ve absolutely loved having the opportunity to immerse myself in those worlds to find out the heartland stuff of my stories. For my standalone thriller novel about particle physics, I got to spend a day at the Large Hadron Collider learning about particle physics and the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Again, it was a hugely enjoyable and rewarding visit, but hardly risky. And now I’m also writing a series set in the past, featuring (a fictional) Agatha Christie, my research is more likely to involve dusty tomes in libraries than any kind of direct firing line. Where I have taken risks is more to do with actual activities – riding horses, learning how to ice skate, the afore-mentioned tree-climbing… all of which goes back to my opening point, which is about risk and seizing hold of opportunities with both hands. It may be a cliche, but I actually believe that the act of writing itself involves taking a risk, believing in the story, embarking on a new venture not knowing how it will turn out, which is in my life connected to a similar kind of behaviour that I might show at the riding school or the ice rink. I know this isn’t quite the same as parachuting into war zones! I guess in the end, I am very clear that the danger in my novels comes from human behaviour, from an apparently ordinary person finding themselves so cornered by their circumstances that the act of killing someone comes to seem like a solution to their problems. So where there is risk in my work, and danger, it’s likely to be internal, psychological, and I hope, believable. And I’m as likely to find that in the darkest recesses of my imagination as I am from driving across deserts – much as I love driving across deserts.

  4. My friends used to ask me if I was ever afraid of getting killed. I’d always laugh and say at least I’d die having fun.

    I volunteered for the LAPD for 15 years, the last five were spent working with detectives as a burglary/theft investigator. Those experiences were the basis for my latest novel PACIFIC HOMICIDE, including working undercover on a couple of assignments. There were only a few times I felt uncomfortable but I always knew there were real detectives close by who had my back.

  5. In fiction, as in life, one has to walk the razor’s edge in order to experience it fully. This has always been a bone of contention with me concerning authors that write about the gritty, nasty side side of life without ever having tasted it. I’m truly in awe of Vincent and Patricia’s experiences and yes, agree completely with Alison that the most insidious danger of all lurks within the darkest recesses of our minds.

    My next novel, Muncy, the first in a new series, is set on the grimy, dangerous streets of Baltimore. He is the ex president of an outlaw MC turned bounty hunter and is based, in part, on my life as the former VP of a Brooklyn MC. Lived in B’more for nine years before I moved to NYC and was there for ten. Now I live in Los Angeles and was fortunate enough to have directed the astounding actor, Scott Wilson, who portrayed Dick in the film version of In Cold Blood. Linda, Scott told me that Capote was opposed to him playing the role, but after the screening, came up to him and thanked him for a realistic performance.

    Really enjoyed reading the comments but Harry and Sam, my terriers, are nipping at my heels to go for a walk.

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