May 16 – 22: “Is it advertising?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Some writers love inserting highly specific brand names and editors often pull those out. This week ITW Members Walt Gragg, Dave Edlund, Sam Wiebe, Alan Jacobson, Lynne Constantine and Sasscer Hill discuss what works and when? Is it advertising or are these an instant indicator of one’s personal wealth or whims?


Walt Gragg lives in the Austin, Texas area with his wife, children, and grandchildren.  He is a retired attorney and former Texas State Prosecutor. Prior to law school, he spent a number of years in the military.  His time with the Army involved many interesting assignments including three years in the middle of the first Cold War serving at United States European Command Headquarters in Germany where the idea for The RED LINE took shape.


Dave Edlund is a graduate of the University of Oregon with a doctoral degree in chemistry. He resides in Bend, Oregon, with his wife, son, and four dogs (Lucy Liu, Diesel, Murphy, and Tenshi). A member of the International Thriller Writers, his debut action/political-thriller Crossing Savage introduced the Peter Savage character and received the 2015 Ben Franklin Silver Medal for Popular Fiction, and was a 2015 INDIEFAB finalist for Best Suspense/Thriller. The sequel, Relentless Savage, was an iBooks pick for best new mystery & suspense, and was a Clue Award finalist and a 2016 INDIEFAB finalist. The adventures of Peter Savage continued with the publication of Deadly Savage in 2016. Soon to be released, Hunting Savage (April 2017) is praised by New York Times and International Best Selling author Steve Berry: “With a hero full of grit and determination, this action-packed, timely tale is required reading for any thriller aficionado.”


Sasscer Hill, formerly an amateur jockey, was an owner and breeder of racehorses for decades. Her multiple award-nominated mystery and suspense thrillers are set against a background of big money, gambling, and horse racing. Her new “Fia McKee” series, to be published by St. Martins, Minotaur, won the 2015 Carrie McCray Competition for Best First Chapter of a Novel and was a runner up for the 2015 Claymore Award.


Sam Wiebe is the author of the Vancouver crime novels Last of the Independents, Invisible Dead, and Cut You Down (forthcoming, February 2018). Wiebe’s work has won the Arthur Ellis award and the Kobo Emerging Writers Prize, and he was the 2016 Vancouver Public Library Writer in Residence. His short fiction has appeared in ThugLit, Spinetingler, and subTerrain, among other places.


During his twenty-four year career in publishing, USA Today bestselling author Alan Jacobson has learned a thing or two about writing engaging stories and creating characters we care about. Jacobson has embedded himself with law enforcement officers across a range of agencies, including a multi-year stint with the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit in Quantico; the DEA, US Marshals Service, ATF, NYPD, SWAT, and local bomb squads. In addition, he’s worked extensively with the US military, Scotland Yard, criminals, armorers, helicopter and fighter pilots, CEOs, historians, combat surgeons, astronauts, rocket scientists, and Navy SEALs.


Lynne Constantine’s love of the written word began early. An avid Nancy Drew reader in elementary school—the highlight of her week was going to the store with her father and buying the next book in the series. When the day arrived that she was able to solve the mystery half way through – she reluctantly set them aside and moved on to other books. For as long as she can remember, she has been prodded to “get her nose out of the book” when vacationing with friends. Her love of mystery and suspense is as strong today as it was back then, and she is a voracious reader of thrillers and suspense. She wrote her first book, Circle Dance, with her sister Valerie. Circle Dance was a legacy of love fueled by the desire to pass on to their children the traditions and experiences unique to them as second generation Greek Americans. Lynne was raised in a close-knit family surrounded by extended family and “adopted” family through the Greek community. Both she and her sister wanted to leave a legacy for their children and future generations of a bygone era. Lynne is a social media consultant and speaker, and is the managing partner of Sound Solutions Consulting Group. She is a contributing editor to International Thriller Writer’s magazine THE BIG THRILL, and a monthly contributor to Suspense Magazine.

  1. I think the story dictates whether brand names are appropriate. I used very few in my last book, THE VERITAS DECEPTION, aside from a few ubiquitous brands like iPhones or certain car models. My editor even had me pull brand name beer from the book. But in my upcoming thriller, THE LAST MRS. PARRISH (co-written with my sister), the brand names are numerous. It takes place in an upscale town where the people are dripping with money. It served the story to include designer’s names, high-end food and drinks, and expensive cars. The story would have suffered if we tried to use generic descriptions. I don’t think of it advertising, but creating a realistic story world.

  2. I agree with Lynne to a large degree–when brand names are used (or not) the plot should be the primary consideration. As a fan of action thrillers, firearms are common place in the stories I read and write. Here, specifics are important–but not to the extent that the brand, caliber, and other features drags down the pace of the story. For example, it is more meaningful to say Glock 17 rather than say pistol, or even worse, gun. But this doesn’t mean that every reference to said weapon need be in such detail, once the detail is established.
    Another place I like to use brand names is when my characters are indulging in beverages–whiskey in particular. There are many categories of whiskey–American, Irish, Canadian, Scotch, Japanese, and more. And within these broad categories, there are important difference: bourbon v. sour mash; Scotch v. Canadian; and so on. To know what a character prefers (or dislikes), even going so far as to name a brand, tells the reader much about the character and, in some cases, builds another bridge between the reader and the fictional character. I think it can help to make the character more real.

  3. Didn’t personally go overboard with brand names. Believe I used four brand names in THE RED LINE. None were removed by the editors at Penguin Random House. In fact, no one said a word about any of them. Two were essential to the story. The final two were a bit more gratuitous although one only appeared once and another maybe a couple of times. One was the name of a specific hotel and another of an airline. They weren’t put in to favor those companies but to simply provide a location (in the case of the hotel) and to give a morsel of flavor to another scene by letting the reader visualize a little more vividly what was unfolding as the soldiers loaded onto aircraft. Certainly, writers can go overboard with brand names, but where they are germane to the story don’t think it’s a problem whatsoever. It certainly wasn’t for me.

  4. I am one of those authors who often use specific brand names in my novels. Thankfully, my editors have never deleted or flagged them. So why do I do this? There are a number of reasons:
    1- I don’t write generic stories and I certainly don’t write generic characters — and using a brand can tell you something about the people in your novel. For example, if your protagonist drives a Mercedes, he has a well-paying job and is therefore well-educated; he’s a successful entrepreneur; or he lives paycheck to paycheck, beyond his means. Conversely, she could be a wealthy business owner but drives a Ford Escort—there’s a reason why she made such a choice. However, if your character drives a beat-up VW bus, that can likewise tell you something: is he homeless and lives in the back? Is he a former hippie who’s never grown up? Specific branding in this manner can help paint a picture about that individual. It’s a detail that can be used to great effect.
    2- Verisimilitude: why not be true to the reality of the situation? Until a few years ago, the FBI used Blackberries — so that’s what my main character, FBI profiler Karen Vail, used. I could’ve had her just use a smartphone, but why dumb it down? My readers deserve better. (One Amazon reviewer, who thought she knew what she was talking about, complained: “Blackberry? Blackberry? Who uses Blackberries anymore? Obviously, Jacobson doesn’t do his homework.” Well, I do, and did, my homework. Who still uses Blackberries? At that time, and for a few years after, the FBI did.)
    3- It helps avoid bad writing. Wait, what? Building on #2, consider this sentence: Vail pulled the phone from her pocket and began dialing — at the same moment her phone started vibrating. What’s wrong with it? It contains an echo — the word “phone” — and it could’ve easily been avoided: Vail pulled the Blackberry from her pocket and began dialing — at the same moment her phone started vibrating. I could have used “cell” or “mobile,” but when you’ve got an ongoing scene in which Vail is using her phone, it gives you an added way of referring to the device without the dreaded echo.
    4- Sometimes it’s just the writer’s personality. I’m a detail person so it’s my natural inclination to be specific. I don’t go nuts with it — if Vail grabs a tissue, I don’t refer to it as a Kleenex, unless it gives me some kind of advantage (see #3).
    That said, one Amazon reviewer accused me of “obviously getting paid by these companies” to use their products in books. Sorry, but no — that was someone making assumptions without facts. Hollywood studios get paid by companies for “product placement” in movies and television shows, but I don’t know of a single author who has ever been paid to mention a company’s product in his or her book (and that includes me).

  5. It’s tough. Using a brand name can be a sort of shorthand, like saying a character listens to a certain type of music–but then you get into stereotypes. Stephen King is good at using brand names to create a more sharply defined world.

    The publishing world is so slow that by the time the book comes out, the brand you reference could be gone, or have a totally different meaning. In my first book I referenced Michael Keaton being a better Batman than Christian Bale–well, now we’re at least two Batmen and thirty years removed from Keaton. So I changed it up.

    I think overall it’s good to use the details that help to create a portrait, but too many bog the story down. Ever read a bad James Bond knockoff? They’re usually full of page-long descriptions of which luxury brands the spy-hero is wearing. Who cares, really?

    Pick one or two details, and remember that not everyone will bring the same cultural knowledge to your work that you do.

  6. In my first novel, I had a character in a TV speech mentioning the three rating agencies (Standard & Poor’s, Fitch and Moody’s), but in the text I wrote “(names of three rating agencies deleted; trademark issues).” A few lines later, I had one drunk character, who was watching the speech in a bar, blurt, “Who the F___ is Fitchmoodies?”

    Throughout the novel, I was playing with different layers of fiction and reality, as well as literary rules and conventions,* and that was a small dig at the occasional lawsuits by trademark holders (or their greedy lawyers) against authors who’d disparaged their brand names in novels.

    (*In my second novel, I had a character arguing with the author.)

  7. There is much confusion surrounding trademark and copyright–they are not the same thing. Trademark is protection provided to a brand name or product name. Trademarks may be used in writing and public speaking without fear of retribution provided the trademark is so indicated–that’s the purpose of the superscript, uppercase TM or circle R following a product or brand name. One may receive a letter from the trademark holder, requesting proper identification of the trademark, if they use the name and do not include this identifier. If that happens often enough, trademark protection is lost. Kleenex is a well-known example where trademark protection diminished greatly over time because the word Kleenex became synonymous with tissue (“do you need a Kleenex?”, as opposed to “do you need a tissue?”, or “do you need a Kleenex-brand tissue?”). Legal repercussions from using a trademark name and failing to add the TM of circle R are rare unless one is attempting to manufacture or sell knock-off goods and apply the real brand name.
    Copyright is another matter entirely. The author of an original creation (lyrics, novel, photograph, movie, screenplay, etc.) is the singular controller of rights to reproduce, perform, publish, and sell that original creation. Authors may run afoul of copyright by pasting a line from a song into their novel without first obtaining permission from the copyright owner or legal representative. Same for using photographs. Titles, and names are NOT subject to copyright protection, and may be used freely.

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