May 22 – 28: “How accurate must thrillers be to stay plausible?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week ITW Members Dave Edlund, Dana King, Sam Wiebe, Sherry Knowlton, Anna J. Stewart, Sasscer Hill, Jeff Layton, Maris A. Soule, Danny Gardner and Bob Doerr discuss telling the story right: “How accurate must thrillers be to stay plausible, and yet still include imaginative tech or devices not in existence today?”


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.”


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.


Sherry Knowlton, author of the Alexa Williams suspense novels, Dead of Autumn, Dead of Summer and Dead of Spring (release April 22, 2017) was born and raised in small-town Pennsylvania where she developed a lifelong passion for books. She was that kid who would sneak a flashlight to bed at night so she could read beneath the covers. All the local librarians knew her by name.


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.


Maris Soule had 25 romances published and 2 short stories before switching to mysteries. Her books have won or placed in numerous contests, been sold in more than 25 countries, and translated into more than 18 languages. She and her husband officially live in Michigan but spend their winters in Florida. Her latest thriller, Echoes of Terror, is set in Skagway, Alaska, and features police officer Katherine Ward, who was kidnapped as a teenager and must now, seventeen years later, face her own memories as she searches for two kidnapped teenagers.


Before becoming a full time author, multi-award winning author Bob Doerr specialized in military counterintelligence and criminal investigations for 28 years. His published works include nine mystery/thrillers that have garnered a variety of awards and three fantasy novellas for middle grade readers. One of his Jim West mysteries, No One Else to Kill, was a winner in the 2013 Eric Hoffer Awards. The Military Writers Society of America selected Bob as its Author of the Year for 2013. In very short fiction, Bob came in second in the Writers Police Academy Golden Donut Award in 2012.


USA Today and national bestselling author Anna J Stewart can’t remember a time she didn’t have a book in her hands or a story in her head. A geek at heart, Anna writes romances featuring strong, independent heroines. RT Book reviews says Anna’s romances are “refreshingly unique, quietly humorous, and profoundly moving” and NYTimes bestselling author Brenda Novak says “The talented Anna J Stewart delivers every time!” Anna’s first foray into the romantic suspense genre “Rocks” according to NYTimes Bestselling Author Allison Brennan. Anna lives in Northern California where she deals with a serious SUPERNATURAL, STAR TREK, and SHERLOCK addiction and tolerates an overly affectionate cat named Snickers (or perhaps it’s Snickers who tolerates her). When she’s not writing, you can usually find her at fan conventions or at her local movie theater.


Dana King has two Shamus Award nominations, for A Small Sacrifice and The Man in the Window. His Penns River series of police procedurals includes Worst Enemies and Grind Joint, which Woody Haut, writing for the L.A. Review of Books, cited as one of the fifteen best noir reads of 2013. A short story, “Green Gables,” appeared in the anthology Blood, Guts, and Whiskey, edited by Todd Robinson. Other short fiction has appeared in Spinetingler, New Mystery Reader, A Twist of Noir, Mysterical-E, and Powder Burn Flash.


From his beginnings as a young stand-up comedian (Def Comedy Jam All-Stars vol. 12), Danny Gardner has enjoyed careers as an actor, director, and screenwriter. He is a recent Pushcart Prize nominee for his creative non-fiction piece Forever. In an Instant., published by Literary Orphans Journal. His first short fiction piece, Labor Day, appeared in Beat to a Pulp, and his flash fiction has been featured in Out of the Gutter and on Noir On The Air. He is a frequent reader at Noir at the Bar events nationwide. He blogs regularly at 7 Criminal Minds. He is a proud member of the Mystery Writers of America and the International Thriller Writers.


Jeffrey Layton is a professional engineer who specializes in waterfront and coastal engineering. He received his B.S. and M.S. degrees in civil engineering from the University of Washington. Jeff is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Marine Technology Society. He is also a member of the Authors Guild, Pacific Northwest Writers Association, and International Thriller Writers, Inc. Jeff uses his knowledge of diving, yachting, offshore engineering and underwater warfare in the novels he writes. He lives in the Pacific Northwest.


  1. To me, a thriller needs to be at least as accurate as the author forces it to be not to overly strain the readers’ suspension of disbelief. A lot of authors bring on their own problems here. If you’re not sure about the properties of a Sig Sauer P226, then don’t specify it as the gun. Just say, “gun,” or “handgun,” or “semi-automatic.” Depending on how the book is structured, that might be all the reader needs to know.

    There are also ways to work around reader assumptions. I write a series that deals with a lot of police procedure in a small, impoverished town. I don’t ignore the capabilities of forensics and CSI effects, I also make sure the reader is aware the town can’t afford state of the art stuff. They make do with what they can afford to send out to other labs, which affects how quickly the results can come in. In my mind, this actually adds to the tension, as the reader is wondering if certain pieces of evidence will come through in time.

    1. Verisimilitude is what I strive for–as David Mamet said, the point is not to write a manual on how to be a cop, but to tell a story. Some stories demand more details and research than others.

      Private eyes don’t generally solve murders, so there’s always a little breaking of the rules to get the detective involved. Rather than make the story less realistic, though, I think it’s acceptable dramatic license so long as it’s credibly motivated.

      To me, what’s important is to always go with what THIS character would do in THESE circumstances. That means not suddenly bestowing invincibility or the ability to dodge bullets on a hero, just to get her out of danger. If you’re telling a story where the character is a lethal weapon, that’s one thing, but that should be established up front.

      As Danny and Dana already said, it’s about the rules of the fictional universe. If you suddenly change those in the character’s favour, it will ring false.

      1. Speaking of fictional universes, the best answer I’ve heard for many reader complaints comes from Adrian McKinty, author of the Sean Duffy series of novels set during the Troubles in Ireland. When someone points out certain factual errors—say that road hadn’t been built in 1980—Adrian’s answer is, “True, but this story exists in a parallel fictional universe where that road HAD been completed in 1980.” I use that at every opportunity with the Penns River books—which take place in a fictionalized version of real places—and just fess up when I flat out get something wrong.

        1. It’s funny, I like McKinty’s response, but I think ANY human response is appreciated. The worst thing you can do is get indignant, but just saying yeah, I did the best I could, I think readers appreciate that.

  2. I think this genre of fiction in particular demands authenticity and accuracy. The readership is pretty savvy and they tend to know when we get things wrong. Sometimes, the less is more tactic works wonders (like Dana said above). While my romantic suspense novels focus a lot on the relationships, I try to pay extra attention to those aspects of the stories where I know die hard readers will be paying attention. I’ve found the advice of other authors who write in this genre to be particularly helpful and I’m so grateful I have a few I can reach out to when I hit an “uh-oh, what would they do here” situation.

    Also, things can change as far as how things are done in various law enforcement agencies (from lab tests/forensics to how an agency handles things). What I might find doing Internet research could very well be outdated, so on things I’m really uncertain about, always good to have a backup procedure checker.

    All in all, I think as the author, I have a responsibility to my readers and to the story to get things as “right” as possible…while still allowing for the escapism to remain firmly in place.

  3. If I’m describing a weapon or method that is common, I want to make certain what I say is accurate. If I don’t, there will always be readers who catch my errors. On the other hand, if I’m working on a story where my characters have access to weapons, techniques, or devices not yet invented (at least as far as most of us know), I don’t think accuracy is as important as convincing the reader that the technique or device is plausible. I want the reader, if necessary, to suspend disbelief.

    It’s when this background is not developed and the characters suddenly have at their disposal imaginative weapons or abilities that the writer loses credibility. Ian Fleming, with his James Bond series, handled this situation perfectly by including scenes with Q where a weapon ahead of its time was introduced to Bond, so when it was used later in the story, the reader accepted its reality.

  4. Maris makes a good point: the author’s credibility is key. If we’ve done our homework and due diligence to build reader confidence, then we’ll get more leeway with certain things. I like to imagine the reader thinking, “I’m not sure about that, but he got everything else right, so…”

  5. Dana, I also agree with what Maris said about Fleming, with his James Bond series. “. . . handled this situation perfectly by including scenes with Q where a weapon ahead of its time was introduced to Bond, so when it was used later in the story, the reader accepted its reality.”

    Not only must our stories be clever, we must be clever in finding ways to make things work as Fleming did. For me, diligent research on the internet, on the phone, and in person is a must. In my most recent novel, I was unsure about Baltimore police procedure, so I called the Baltimore PD public affairs guy. I wanted my police officer alone in her squad car, so I was delighted to learn that most police officers in Baltimore travel alone. While I had him on the phone I asked about their service weapons, and about the make and model of the Baltimore squad cars so I could put the information in the story.

    I also talk to, or meet with the heads of security at the racetracks where I set my novels. It’s amazing how helpful members of law enforcement can be to writers.

  6. Because I write horse racing mysteries, drugs play a big significant role in my books. For FLAMINGO ROAD, I wanted to write about the drug horse trainers call “Frog Juice.” I knew this drug, Demorphin, was used to fix races in the Southwest and that Oklahoma State University was the first to develop an accurate test for the drug.
    So I called the head of pharmacology at the university and asked, What if there was another, rare frog discovered in South America? What if it had similar but as yet unidentifiable enzymes that produce a drug that, like Demorphin, is up to 100 times stronger than morphine?”
    We had a great conversation and came up with a character who could have starred in “Breaking Bad.” This character, a chemist, became one of my favorite subplots in the novel.

  7. Sasscer you do exactly what I think all writers should do. (And, thank goodness, most do.) In addition to using the Internet for research, you interviewed, either by phone or in person, experts and/or professionals. Not only can we verify what we’re writing is correct, those in the field can often come up with ideas or alternatives we haven’t even thought of. I’ve also discovered, talking in person with the police (and other professionals), they love to tell stories about their experiences, and I can usually work some of that into the story. In ECHOES OF TERROR, I was able to spend over an hour at the Skagway police department discussing what procedures would go into play if a teenager disappeared after getting off a cruise ship, and I saw exactly what the facility looked like–what features it had or didn’t have. I feel those extra facts made the story more realistic.

  8. Perhaps accuracy is relative to the reader. For example, ages ago I read Dean Koontz’s highly imaginative LIGHTNING, the plot of which is based entirely on the notion that nature will not allow a paradox, therefore, time can only be traversed into the future. Having been a sci-fi head, avid comic collector and Dungeon and Dragons enthusiast, that went against all my familiarity with time travel concepts. Thing is, the story was so tightly wound around the idea that the Nazi’s had figured out how to move forward in time and rob the future for what they needed to dominate the past, it worked for me. If I were, say, a learned cosmologist or theoretical physicist, I may have launched that bad boy across the room and into the fireplace, but for what I wanted from a good thriller, I got it.

    Recently I penned a story for Crime + Politics: The Obama Inheritance, edited by Gary Phillips and coming soon from Three Rooms Press, that speculates a future based upon current US presidential politics. I changed the American landscape according to the easing of trade and environmental regulations and US Foreign Policy. Information technology plays a big part in the story so I speculated advancements in the personal computing and communications tech of today (in a past life, I was something of an engineer.) For the big technological drivers in the plot, I used devices that we’ve already encountered in fiction to some success: the ansible, a superluminal communications device imagined by Ursula K. Le Guin and employed by authors such as Orson Scott Card, Anne McCaffrey, and even Issac Asimov; and the jaunt, which is a teleportation device created by Stephen King in a short story found in Twilight Zone Magazine and republished in SKELETON CREW. I wanted to enter the conversation with greater authors than myself, and I figured readers would be able to onboard my story with some fictional tech they were already familiar with.

    Or maybe it’s like Roger Ebert said: a story isn’t really about what it does, but HOW it does what it does. Or something. Haaaaaa!

  9. Maris, those law enforcement folks do love to tell stories. I was lucky enough to meet with a DEA agent and he told me a story that was so darn funny, that using dialogue, it went right into my novel, THE SEA HORSE TRADE. I love when that happens. Not only does talking to professionals make the story more accurate, it is such a cool way to get motivated and have my muse start singing in my ear.

  10. I believe that accuracy is important in suspense and thrillers – up to a point. My Alexa Williams series is set in the present day, but each book includes a parallel historical story that intersects with the contemporary plot. I want both the modern-day and historical stories to be accurate in the details, so I do a lot of research to ensure that I have it right. For example, hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for natural gas is at the heart of my most recent novel. The historical story takes place during the Three Mile Island nuclear crisis in 1979. Both of these subjects required considerable research, including talking with experts and visiting fracking country in Northeast Pennsylvania to see the process in action.

    Accuracy can give your story credibility. I also believe it’s a tool to ensure that your readers stay engaged in the plot. How many times have you read a book or seen a movie or TV show where the character uses a phrase that’s out of step with the era that they’re living in? Or, spied a gadget or appliance that didn’t exist in the story’s timeframe? That “Wait a minute, that’s not right” moment can jar a reader right out of the suspense that’s building in your plot. So, that’s something I try to avoid.

    But, of course, in fiction, an author has considerable leeway to invent people, places and things that aren’t real. Invention is our stock in trade. I’ll give you my thoughts on imaginative tech and other devices in a follow-up post.

  11. Danny’s comment is well taken. In regards to science fiction/time travel, the author has a great deal of leeway in creating the universe. Once created, “realism” is based on the rules of the universe, just as the realism in a police procedural is based on current practice. When one creates an alternate reality, what’s :real” is different. it’s all in the set up.

    1. Brilliant way to put it, Dana. Readers will arrive at whatever world/universe you’ve created for them, but once they’ve accepted that the world, changes to it better work within the undergirding of rules that make it real. Perhaps accuracy is commensurate to relevancy.

  12. The thrillers I write often feature underwater technology, both military and civilian. I rely on my experience as an engineer to incorporate high-tech authenticity into the equipment and gear used by the characters in my stories.

    Cutting-edge technology has always been a part of the espionage genre, especially in underwater settings. Intelligence gathering operations conducted by submarines are at the highest levels of secrecy. Autonomous underwater vehicles also conduct espionage missions. These unmanned craft are capable of spying on military and industrial marine installations with astounding stealth.

    The offshore oil and gas industry rivals the military in terms of subsea technology. Development of an oil well five thousand feet below the ocean surface is a daunting technological proposition because of ultra-extreme pressures at depth. In some cases, the equipment and systems employed to extract deep oil exceed the technology used on the International Space Station.

    I sometimes look ahead one or two generations beyond current marine technology and try incorporate future innovation into the equipment and systems presented in my stories. This is fun because it allows me to be creative in the gear my characters get to use. However, this is somewhat of a gamble on my part. Technological advances can easily catapult beyond my imagination. And if I get something wrong or propose technology that is too far out, I will hear about it from readers. Nevertheless, I enjoy incorporating pioneering high-tech into my thrillers.

  13. The author better know what she/he is writing about–on this we agree. Many months ago I began a fast-paced thriller that was developing nicely; until payoffs were made with $1,000 and $500 US bank notes, and the protagonist used a magnum 30-30 for sniping. Done!
    The importance of research, interviews, and (face it) first hand experience is a given.
    And then we venture into the realm of science fiction–which might better be termed science unproven. Whether it be Q’s weapons a generation before they are real, or underwater engineering that is state-of-the-art and largely unknown to the public, or hard-core sci-fi where new laws of physics are invented, it has to be believable by the reader. In my opinion, Michael Crichton absolutely nailed this in Jurassic Park. The way he blended actual science advances in cloning and DNA research with the invented insertion of amphibian DNA into corrupted dinosaur DNA was… well, masterful.
    When pulled off, the reader, even those knowledgeable on the topic, are left wondering, when was fact stretched into fiction? I call this science plausible. It is a powerful technique, and an added bonus is (maybe) leading the reader to ask questions and poke around in subjects and science/engineering advances they might otherwise not pay a second thought to.

  14. I agree with what everyone has said so far. Thriller writers have to get the basics right with regard to weapons, science, etc. Added to that are the specifics, such as Sasscer mentions regarding horses. My protagonist Vermeulen works for the United Nations. So I better get that particulars of his job right. Ordinary readers might not notice errors, but those who do would and that matters to me. As to the actual crime, all that matters to me is that it could have happened. The book I’m working on right now takes place in southern Turkey and involves Syrian refugees. There’s not indication that the crime I’m contemplating has actually occurred there. The reports I read point out the exact opposite. But if could have happened. That makes the difference.

    1. Michael- I like your characterization of a crime that could have happened. I think a lot of what many of us do in thrillers and suspense is write stories about plausible events. In my latest novel, I pushed the envelope a bit in imagining a technology that doesn’t exist (as far as I’m aware). But if the technology for hydraulic fracturing through shale exists, is it implausible that a new technology could be designed to expand its use? I decided that, yes, it could have happened.

  15. Back in 1998 I had a romantic suspense published where the protagonist had invented a fuel cell better than what was (in real life) being currently used. I did a lot of research for that book, and as far as I know, I had everything right. The book did quite well and was a finalist for the Romance Writers’ RITA. I have the rights back and would love to publish it as an e-book, EXCEPT today’s technology is so far ahead of what I have in that story, I’d have to totally rewrite the book. I feel I was ahead of my time. That pleases me, but buries the book.

  16. I’ve read a few books where small errors by the authors have totally ruined my view of the entire story.
    I try to stay as true to the facts as possible- even though my books so far have been set in the 1970’s, and the characters are fictitious, the surrounding set pieces have to ring true.

  17. I agree that books set in the past must ring true. My novels are contemporary suspense, but each has a historical subplot. Technology has to be accurate for the time and place. But, it goes beyond that to character names, slang, curent events, cultural norms, and more.

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