March 13 – 19: “Do apartments, cottages, McMansions or hotel rooms work best for thrillers?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Homes in thrillers? Do apartments, cottages, McMansions or hotel rooms work best for thrillers? This week ITW Members Phillip Donlay, Lynn Chandler Willis, David Sakmyster, Michael Niemann, Debra Webb, Merry Jones, Nathan Walpow and Paul A. Barra describe how a home for their protagonists shapes the story.


Merry Jones is the author of non-fiction (including BIRTHMOTHERS), humor (including I LOVE HIM, BUT…) and suspense (including the Zoe Hayes, the Harper Jennings and the Elle Harrison novels.) Her work has been translated into seven languages and has appeared in magazines including GLAMOUR, CHILD and AMERICAN WOMAN. Jones taught college level writing for over a dozen years, has appeared on local and national television and radio to promote her work. She is a member of ITW, Mystery Writers of America, The Authors Guild, and the Philadelphia Liars Club. She lives with her husband in Philadelphia.


Michael Niemann grew up in a small town in Germany, ten kilometers from the Dutch border. Crossing that border often at a young age sparked in him a curiosity about the larger world. He studied political science at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms Universität in Bonn and international studies at the University of Denver. During his academic career he focused his work on southern Africa and frequently spent time in the region. After taking a fiction writing course from his friend, the late Fred Pfeil, he switched to mysteries as a different way to write about the world. His first fiction publication was the story “Africa Always Needs Guns,” which appeared in the 2012 Mystery Writers of America anthology Vengeance, edited by Lee Child. Valentin Vermeulen, his protagonist, first appeared in that story. Check out his latest adventures in Legitimate Business and Illicit Trade.


Lynn Chandler Willis has worked in the corporate world, the television news business (fun job) and the newspaper industry. She keeps coming back to fiction because she likes making stuff up and you just can’t do that in the newspaper or television news business. Her forthcoming novel, Tell Me No Lies, is the first in the three-book Ava Logan Mystery Series published by Henery Press. Her novel, Wink of an Eye: A Gypsy Moran Mystery, was a Shamus Award finalist and winner of the St. Martin’s Press/PWA Best 1st P.I. Novel competition. She is also the author of The Rising, a Grace Award top winner for Excellence in faith-based fiction, and the best-selling true crime, Unholy Covenant. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, and the Randolph Writers. She lives in the heart of North Carolina with her shelter dog, Finn, a happy border collie who lives for the dog park.


David Sakmyster is the award-winning author of more than a dozen novels, including Jurassic Dead, Blindspots and The Morpheus Initiative, a series featuring psychic archaeologists (described as “Indiana Jones meets the X-Files”). He also has an epic historical adventure, Silver and Gold, the horror novel Crescent Lake and a story collection, Escape Plans. His screenplays, Nightwatchers and Roadside Assistance have been optioned for production.


Debra Webb is the award winning, USA Today bestselling author of more than 130 novels, including reader favorites the Faces of Evil, the Colby Agency, and the Shades of Death series. With more than four million books sold in numerous languages and countries, Debra’s love of storytelling goes back to her childhood on a farm in Alabama.



Nathan Walpow’s The Logan Triad, out this month from Down & Out Books, includes three novellas about urban vigilante Logan and his crew of young apprentices. His Joe Portugal mystery series includes four novels, with a fifth coming in 2018. Nathan is a past president of the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America and a five-time Jeopardy! champion


Philip Donlay learned to fly at age seventeen and was first published at eighteen. In the aviation world, success came quickly and he’s been flying jets since he was twenty years old. Whether flying a Saudi sheik, nighttime freight, or executives of a Fortune 500 company, Donlay has logged over six million miles while spanning the globe. Donlay burst onto the literary scene in 2004 with the publication of his first novel, Category Five, followed by Code Black, Zero Separation, Deadly Echoes, Aftershock, Pegasus Down, and Seconds to Midnight. He is an avid fly fisherman and divides his time between Montana and the Pacific Northwest.


Paul A. Barra is a high school chemistry teacher. Barra was also a reporter with state newspapers and magazines, and was the senior staff writer for the Diocese of Charleston, winning many awards from the S. C. Press Association and from the Catholic Press Association. He is a decorated veteran (Bronze Star with Combat V and the Combat Action Ribbon). He and his wife Joan have eight children and live with their burro, two alpacas, 25 chickens and a Catahoula Leopard hound in Reidville, Spartanburg County, South Carolina. Barra’s publications include four supplementary science readers (Houghton-Mifflin), “St. Joe’s Remarkable Journey” (Tumblar House), “The Secret of Maggie’s Swamp” (Brownridge Press), and “A Death in the Hills” (Argus Books).


Latest posts by ITW (see all)
  1. Each setting lends itself to a certain atmosphere. McMansions are creepy with lots of rooms for bad guys to hide while cottages evoke a sense of warmth and security so would play well into a sense of violation. An apartment, in my mind, plays well on either end of the age spectrum. The young who haven’t settled into homeowership yet or seniors downsizing. Whether victim or bad guy, the ages would matter. Or someone wishing to keep a lower profile – like a really bad guy. A hotel room – well – that screams uncertainty. Who slept in that bed last night? Whose germs are scattered about the bathroom? Eeek!

  2. Good morning! I look at setting as another character in the stories I write. Providing a good sense of place is important to me. As I prepare to delve into a story, part of the research is to determine where the main characters will live. A person’s home, in most cases, reflects some aspect of who they are, how they feel about life in general, and what they like to do in their spare time. A historic style home with lots of character and elegantly decorated will reflect differently than a one-room spartanly furnished flat. In No Darker Place, Bobbie Gentry has lost her husband and her child as a result of being a cop. She has only one thing on her mind: revenge. So, for Bobbie, I chose a small rundown rental property in a crime-infested neighborhood. It suits how she feels about her self-worth and it makes her more accessible to the serial killer she wants to lure into a trap.

  3. With Bobbie feeling quilty for her families death. I see why you picked her run down apt. I lways wondered what was the process… excellent series….

  4. For my Donovan Nash series, I often employ a global setting, and bouncing from country to country means the typical route to go is hotels. This offers a great deal of flexibility, and if I do it correctly, the action is usually right outside the door. There are also the unusual settings: Donovan has spent the night aboard a submarine, he’s been tied up in a tent deep in the jungles of Venezuela. Spent a frigid night in a cabin in the frozen north near the Arctic Circle, and of course, more than one night has been sleepless. In a thriller, sleep is often hard to come by so no typical bed is required.

    In contrast to all of the traveling in my series, there is always Donovan’s family estate outside of Washington DC. It’s Donovan’s favorite place on earth, and as far flung as my books can get, I always try and circle back to this century old setting at the end of the story. The house goes back generations and represents family traditions, history, a hope for the future, and sanctuary. All of these elements help balance out the adrenalin rush that is a thriller, and leave my characters settled, and in a safe place until the next book.

    1. It seems our protagonists have similar itineraries, which also require a home base to recuperate. Valentin Vermeulen doesn’t have a family estate to come back to, but his apartment on Gansevoort Street in the West Village, NYC, is a similar refuge for him. He loves its location, close to shops that carry his favorite Belgian beer and French cigarettes. No car necessary

  5. I set most of my crime fiction in the Los Angeles area, and when they think of L.A. people tend to concentrate on either the homes of the stars or the homes of the poor. I like to have most of my characters live in regular old residential areas, neighborhoods with nondescript single-family homes and duplexes. Joe Portugal lives in a house in Culver City that his father owns. He waters his lawn and saves spiders and in the early books he tended his succulent collection. My new series character Logan lives in a slightly bigger place in Mid-Wilshire, two stories, with a guest house. I find it grounds me to have them both have comfortable places to return to, sanctuaries where they can think and plan.

    Though it was not my intention, most of the residences both Joe and Logan visit are also “plain old” houses and apartments. I like laying the turmoil of crime on top of the normalcy of residential neighborhoods.

    One of my murder victims was a Hollywood producer, with a big home up in the hills, and though I felt it necessary to the story, I felt a bit lost whenever we visited there. I wanted to get back to my nice little three-bedroom 1000-square-foot world.

  6. My protagonist works for the United Nations and therefore travels around the world for his assignments. His usual accommodation is a hotel, but since he is merely an investigator, his per diem isn’t enough for the fancy hotels. He sees a good amount of hotels that are just on the other side of sleazy. Occasionally, he lands in a better place.

    The choice depends mostly on the location. The first novel takes place in El Fasher, Darfur, Sudan. There he stays at what’s called a guesthouse of the World Food Programme, which is an aluminum shed in a compound that, mercifully, also includes a shed with a shower, fed by a large plastic water tank sitting on a scaffolding.

    Fortunately, his choices improve in later novels. But sometimes, evading his pursuers, he’ll need to take cover in a small pension.

  7. A room at a historic inn is home to my protagonist for the duration of my current work in progress. Since I try to visit all settings at least once it was very nice to enjoy a lovely breakfast with other travelers from around the country. Of course, from there things went down hill with the more gritty research in the old insane asylum and a few graveyards!

  8. If there’s any throughline developing so far, it’s that many of our protagonists need their home/refuge to retreat to during and after a case. Given all the death and horror they’re always encountering, I suppose that makes sense.

    By the way, I did an interview many years back which touched on this same question. Since I was writing my “botanical mysteries” then, it covered gardens as well as homes, but there’s plenty of home stuff too. Here’s an excerpt:

    Are your characters’ homes windows into their souls? Can you think of one of your mysteries where that’s the case?

    I don’t think of homes in those terms, and I really can’t come up with a good example. I suppose Dottie with her greenhouse comes about the closest, especially because as Joe passes through the house on his way back there he sees her Wedgwood collection and World War Two photos of her deceased husband and I felt I’d kind of summed up her life.

  9. Sorry to join the discussion so late–Daughter got a new puppy and it’s completely overtaken life.
    But as to the question of the week: I agree with Debra that setting can be treated as a character in the book. It relates to other characters. It affects their actions and thoughts. It sets the norms for behavior. Etc.
    But I also believe that a writer can make any home–from the most elegant estate to the shabbiest shack–as eerie or as comforting as he/she wants. Homes can give insight into our characters by revealing their preferences/personalities/quirks/needs. (If someone lives in a mansion, we assume certain things about her. If she lives in a carton under a thruway, we assume others.) But if we’re talking about homes not as reflections of characters but as settings for thrillers? Anyplace will do. A nook in an abandoned subway track. A penthouse in a high rise. A castle. A cubby. It’s not the place, but how we paint them, what happens in them, who inhabits them that makes the thriller.

  10. Location is everything…hence the delay in my posting here, as in upstate NY (and many other places this week), we’ve been buried with snow right after digging out from fallen trees after a massive storm, and I just got internet back…

    Which leads me into this discussion. For my main character in the Morpheus Initiative series, (‘The Tesla Objective’ being book 4), his childhood home was a key factor in everything that came after. Son to a lighthouse keeper on Sodus Bay, NY, Caleb Crowe had to endure his father’s obsession with lighthouses–namely the great wonder of the ancient world, The Pharos Lighthouse. Believing the ancient structure and architectural marvel stood for more than just a beacon of safety, his father instilled in Caleb a thirst for knowledge, for the desire to illuminate the darkness and uncover secrets, and to stand for wisdom and security. Home (a symbolic stand-in for the Egyptian wonder) was also, by its location, a dangerous spot — on a cliff buffetted by winds, snow and weather (not unlike this week); but it also forged a strong sense of responsibility in my character.

    So in this respect, the central location and ‘home’–which in later novels serves as the base for the group’s operation, really would not have worked in any other type of residence or structure.

    I have found that setting is–and should in most cases–be like another main character, one full of deep personality, tantalizing backstory and a great deal of promise. Another example is in my supernatural thriller, Blindspots. Most of the story takes place in a remote Vermont hospital, all but inaccessible during the winter–a trap, and refuge for the seven patients who all arrive within a few days of each other, unknowingly drawn to a deadly fate.

    Those are my initial thoughts, and sorry again for my home’s limitations this week. Glad to be here!

  11. I have a question for everyone. If you use a hotel/motel, have you ever stayed the night to get the feel of the place? I did with my current novel, but that’s a first for me. It was fun and interesting.

    1. Are you speaking of a particular hotel or motel? With a made-up one, I think I’ve stayed in enough places over the years to invent believable details. But a specific one … I don’t think I’d spring for a night in a hotel just for use in a book. Not to say it’s a bad idea, just not one for me.

      Of course, I’m the guy who schlepped up to Santa Barbara for an orchid show in order to do research, so what do I know?

      1. Nathan, I would much rather go to an orchid show! What a great research trip! Springing for the hotel was necessary since I was out of town doing research.

    2. Not yet… but…I’m going to be staying on the Queen Mary ship/hotel in Long Beach next month and I have a feeling I’ll be using that soon in a story!

  12. How many of our characters live alone versus with others? My hero has a wife and a six year old daughter, these are variables that come into play when it comes to where to live.

    1. Joe Portugal lived alone for the first few books. (Although he did take over a cageful of eight canaries after the first.) He got married between the third and fourth and his wife Gina moved in with him. I’m pretty sure the two of them are moving to another house for the fifth book.

      Logan lives alone, but between the first and second novellas one of the 20-something members of his Mod Squad of apprentices moved into his guest house. I wrote a short story set in 2040 (for a science fiction anthology) in which Logan is MIA and Annie (the apprentice) has taken over the main house and turned it into a fortress of sorts.

  13. Debra–To answer your question above about staying in the hotel/motel of our settings: Yes, I’ve done that several times. ELECTIVE PROCEDURES, eg, is set in a hotel in Mexico where I stayed for research. And OUTSIDE EDEN is set in places I stayed in Israel, selected because of specific events in the plot. I find that basing the setting on actual places can add specificity to my writing and texture to my details. I’ve set most of my books in Philadelphia or upstate NY simply because I’ve lived in both places and have a feel for their character.

    Only one of my protagonists (Elle Harrison)lives alone. Home for her and the others, whether it’s a narrow urban townhouse or a rambling rural Victorian, is a place the character has chosen for its nurturing, restful and comforting aspects–which is not to say that “home” doesn’t take on grisly qualities when it reflects the protagonists’ dark moods or gets invaded by dangerous characters. Being physically alone might seem to make a character more vulnerable in suspense novels. But it’s also possible for someone to be vulnerable–and in some ways alone–even when surrounded by and responsible for others.

MATCH UP: In stores now!


ThrillerFest XVIII: Register Today!

One of the most successful anthologies in the history of publishing!