November 13 – 19: “Can holidays like Thanksgiving be effectively used as the backdrop in thrillers?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5We’ve got a full house this week with Thanksgiving right around the corner. ITW Members Mark S. Bacon, Jessica Bayliss, Alex Lettau, Linda Lovely, Scott A. Lerner, Tim Waggoner, Terence McCauley, Clive Rosengren, Patricia Gussin and Michael Stanley are discussing whether or not holidays like Thanksgiving can be effectively used as the backdrop in thrillers? Scroll down to the “comments” to follow along!


New York Times and USA Today best-selling author Patricia Gussin is a physician who grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, practiced in Philadelphia, and now lives on Longboat Key, Florida, with her husband Robert Gussin. She is the author of seven novels including Shadow of Death, Thriller Award nominee for Best First Novel, and After the Fall, winner of the Florida Book Award.


Hundreds of mystery/thriller writers have met Linda Lovely at check-in for the annual Writers’ Police Academy, which she helps organize. Lovely finds writing pure fiction isn’t a huge stretch given the years she’s spent penning PR and ad copy. Writing lets her “disappear” the types of characters who most annoy her without the need to pester relatives for bail. Bones To Pick is her sixth mystery/thriller and the first in a new humorous mystery series.


Tim Waggoner has published close to forty novels and three collections of short stories. He writes original fiction, as well as media tie-ins, and his articles on writing have appeared in numerous publications. He’s won the Bram Stoker Award, been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the Scribe Award, and his fiction has received numerous Honorable Mentions in volumes of Best Horror of the Year. He’s also a full-time tenured professor who teaches creative writing and composition at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio.


Terrence P. McCauley is an award-winning writer of crime fiction and thrillers. The third novel in his University Series – A CONSPIRACY OF RAVENS – was published by Polis Books in September 2017. The other novels in the series, Sympathy for the Devil and A Murder of Crows were also published by Polis Books. Terrence has also written two award-winning novels set in 1930 New York City – Prohibition and Slow Burn.In 2016, Down and Out Books also published Terrence’s World War I novella – The Devil Dogs of Belleau Wood. Proceeds from sales go directly to benefit the Semper Fi Fund.


Stanley Trollip writes with Michael Sears under the name Michael Stanley. Their novels, featuring Detective Kubu, are set in Botswana, a fascinating country with magnificent conservation areas and varied peoples. The mysteries are set against current southern Africa issues such as the plight of the Bushman peoples of the Kalahari (DEATH OF THE MANTIS, shortlisted for Edgar and Anthony awards, won a Barry award in 2011), the pervasive power of witch doctors (DEADLY HARVEST, shortlisted for an ITW Thriller award in 2014), blood diamonds, the growing Chinese influence, and biopiracy. The latest book in the series is DYING TO LIVE.


Author and attorney Scott A. Lerner resides in Champaign, Illinois. He obtained his undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Wisconsin in Madison and went on to obtain his Juris Doctor degree from the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign. He is currently a sole practitioner in Champaign, Illinois. The majority of his law practice focuses on the fields of Criminal law and Family Law.Mr. Lerner lives with his wife, their two children, and their cat Fern. Mr.Lerner collects unusual antiques and enjoys gardening, traveling, reading fiction and going to the movies. Cocaine Zombies is his first published novel. Coming soon, the sequel: Ruler of Demons.


Alex Lettau is the pen name of Ludwig Alexander Lettau MD, a former medical epidemiologist with the CDC’s Division of Viral Diseases and current infectious disease specialist in Charleston SC where he lives with his wife Lisa, two daughters, and a Bouvier. His special interest as an author is infection-related medical thrillers. In his Indie award-winning thriller Yellow Death, the protagonist Kris Jensen becomes accidentally infected with an unknown lethal hepatitis virus and has only five days left to find answers to its origin.


Clive Rosengren is the author of the Shamus-nominated novels Murder Unscripted and Red Desert, featuring Hollywood actor/private eye Eddie Collins. Third in the series, Velvet on a Tuesday Afternoon, was released on November 1. Clive spent most of the last forty years as an actor, pounding many of the same streets as his fictional detective. A favorite television credit is “Cheers,” where he played the only character to throw Sam Malone out of his own bar.


Jessica Bayliss is a clinical psychologist and fiction author of BROKEN CHORDS (Leap Books, October, 2017) and TEN AFTER CLOSING (Sky Pony Press, spring, 2018). Her agent is Dr. Uwe Stender of Triada US Literary Agency. She is the creator of PsychWRITE, a service that offers consultation and coaching for writers along with craft workshops and webinars.


Mark S. Bacon began his career as a Southern California newspaper police reporter, one of his crime stories becoming key evidence in a murder case that spanned decades. After working for two newspapers, he moved to advertising and marketing when he became a copywriter for Knott’s Berry Farm, the large theme park down the road from Disneyland. Experience working at Knott’s formed part of the inspiration for his creation of the Nostalgia City theme park. Desert Kill Switch is the second book in the Nostalgia City mystery series that began with Death in Nostalgia City.


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  1. Can holidays like Thanksgiving be effectively used as the backdrop in thrillers?
    Absolutely. Most readers associate certain emotions with certain holidays. So when a thriller takes place with a holiday in the background—Halloween, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Easter, Christmas, New Year’s Eve—readers often arrive with some pre-set mood expectations. The author can then build on these emotions or play against them. Die Hard is an excellent example of a thriller movie set at Christmas, a time of good cheer. This brings the evil into stark contrast.

    1. I recently read “The Fifth Reflection” by Ellen Kirshman. It started in Nebraska at a Thanksgiving dinner. Then, of course, it veered quickly off track into a missing child case, child pornography, and a police psychologist who meddles in crime cases.

  2. When I think of Thanksgiving my mind wanders to a warm fire and the smell of turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce. I picture my family surrounding the table like a Norman Rockwell painting. Instantly the reference to the holiday provides mental images and taps into memories. Perhaps, some people associate Thanksgiving with negative emotions. It might remind people of the slaughter of innocent Native Americans. Yet, a big obstacle for authors to overcome is tapping into the emotions of their readers. I think holidays provide an instant connection. Habit for Human Remains was released on Halloween and takes place during the holiday in part for that reason.

  3. Big public holidays can also add difficulties for the characters in the way of closed businesses, crowds of travelers at airports etc, busy roads, overstretched emergency services and hospitals. Everything is disrupted. Also parades and large groups of people at churches or public celebrations such as New Year’s Eve make for good targets for the evildoers.

  4. I would agree that holidays make for an effective backdrop for thrillers. The mood is festive and people come together to relax, enjoy, and celebrate. So when the antagonist activates his or her nefarious plan to unexpectedly spoil the holiday, it magnifies the terror of the celebrants. I also thought of Die Hard for this roundtable but I’m not sure that Christmas season was essential to the plot as opposed to some other reason for having the after-hours office party.
    Another feature of holidays that may be used to amplify endangerment in thrillers are the large crowds that gather. Examples are any airport full of travelers, Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade, Time Square on New Year’s Eve, and so on.
    Certain holidays also lend themselves to a specific type of thriller. The Fourth of July would be a natural date for terrorists hating America to activate their plan.
    Certain holidays offer opportunities for killers to dress up in costume. These would include Mardi Gras, Halloween , and even Christmas. When the killer dresses up as a normally friendly type such as Santa Claus or a circus clown, it magnifies the terror and the thrill.

  5. I think holidays certainly lend themselves to be easily used as settings for thrillers. However, choosing to set your story during a specific holiday tends to limit the audience. For example, people might not want to read a Christmas story in July. People of other faiths might not understand the particular stresses or purposes of a holiday like Purim without preknowledge and may choose to skip such a story. One also runs the risk of slipping into cliche when writing about the holidays. A murder at Christmas featuring the drunken uncle and the senile aunt. The argumentative family around Thanksgiving. And, God help us, the prodigal relative returning home for the holiday after a long absence to face the demons of the past. Unless it’s for a specific anthology, I tend to try to avoid setting stories in holiday periods.

  6. Holidays highlight the extremes. Family bliss-the promise of comfort and togetherness. Abject depression-desolation and loneliness and no where to go. Either end of the spectrum is a good set up for a thriller. Happy setting goes terribly off track. Dark setting gets hopelessly worse. Using a holiday make it easier to evoke the dimensions of emotion.

    1. Your comment made me think of Dickens’ “It was the best of times…” and then of A Christmas Carol. I’d like to poll the Roundtable group. Could his tale of Ebenezer Scrooge be considered a thriller?It is certainly a ghost story. Can Scrooge be thought of as an antagonist who character-arcs 180° into the protagonist?

      1. Oh my, that’s a stretch! But this type of stretch going back in history reminds me of THRILLERS: 100 MUST READ, an ITW publication, edited by David Morrell and Hand Wagner. This is a collection of essays written by 100 of today’s most famous thriller-writers about the best thrillers in history. The opening essay is written by Lee Child about Theseus and the Minotaur. (1500 BC)

      2. I don’t know that “A Christmas Carol” could really be thought of as a thriller, despite its supernatural elements. But I definitely think Scrooge fits the definition of an antagonist turning into a protagonist…although it may require a sequel to see how he carries through on his benevolence.

  7. I think Thanksgiving is a fabulous backdrop for a thriller novel. First off, big family holidays provide plenty of opportunity for funny moments, and I love humor mixed with my thrillers and horror. But, even if the book is meant to be serious, holidays like Thanksgiving give the author a chance to portray a lot of emotion. Maybe the character is disconnected from family, maybe there are memories about what they might be missing right now if not embroiled in some crazy scenario. A moment like that is where character depth can be established in a very quick, but meaningful way. It can show personality, longing, sadness, maybe even regret. Maybe there can be a memory of an argument from the past that somehow triggers thoughts about the current thriller scenario and can be a way to tie character development to the main action plot. And since Thanksgiving is so iconic, ties to tradition will resonate very strongly with many readers.

    So, yeah, Thanksgiving could give different authors a lot of inspiration. Now I need to write a book that happens on Thanksgiving!

    1. Because Thanksgiving is only a US tradition, I think Christmas covers the sometimes strained compulsory get togethers for many of us but I bet every culture has a similar celebration where family disasters are just waiting to happen.

  8. I would definitely say yes. An overriding image associated with the holiday is the proverbial knife used to carve the big bird. Possibilities are endless as to how that instrument could subsequently (or previously) be used. Holidays are stressful times for a lot of people. Combine that stress with a deluge of family and friends and it bodes for a toxic environment. Get together a roomful of people with divergent sensibilities, foibles, and prejudices and a writer can conjure up all sorts of holiday mischief and intrigue.

      1. Christmas is equally good. I think it’s fairly common that holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas are depressing times for many people. Depression can lead to lashing out at family and friends. And out comes the proverbial gun and…Katie bar the door.

        1. Yes. On a serious note, November and December are the worst months for clinical depression: sadness often with suicidal thoughts. . . .or perhaps homicidal thoughts.

  9. Can holidays like Thanksgiving be effectively used as the backdrop in thrillers?

    Although we have not used holidays in any of the Detective Kubu series, I think that they provide an excellent background for mysteries or thrillers. The wonderful thing about them is that they come with a rich tapestry that an author can tap. Christmas, for example, is a time of good cheer with a focus on children and gifts. Readers know that and are emotionally connected with it. A story that threatens to disrupt that belief probably evokes a stronger reaction than a story that is set at some other time of the year. Think of the possibilities – a killer dressed as a Santa; a gift under the tree that has no greeting card; and so on.

    As a writer, however, one has to be careful about the assumptions around holidays. Fourth of July has immense significance for Americans, but not for people elsewhere in the world. Thanksgiving is also primarily an American holiday – certainly in how it is celebrated. It doesn’t mean that people outside the USA won’t enjoy books set around these holidays, but their emotional connection will be very different.

  10. It seems like holidays are getting a generally positive response. Like the rest of you I think holidays can be used to enhance a thriller. At the same time holidays can feel a bit tired if over used. Generally Arbor Day and Flag Day have avoided this problem. Yet,some of the more popular holidays can feel overused if not addressed carefully. One need only look as some movie titles to support this position: Halloween (1 through 10), The IMDA lists the 100 best Christmas movies ( don’t forget Thankskilling (1 through 3).

    1. I agree with you Scott. A popular holiday–especially Christmas and Halloween–needs to be approached with extra care to make certain the background doesn’t seem like a cliche. But there are possibilities for twists and surprises, too.

    2. Arbor Day is a very underrated holiday. Just ask my husband; he’s an arborist! But these lesser holidays don’t pull for the same depth of emotion. That said, I’m thinking of GROUNDHOG DAY, and how that film took a relatively well-known holiday and created such a rich tradition around it, it still carried that FEEL of nostalgia even though I’ve never celebrated it in any public way. So, I suppose even Arbor Day can work. And my husband and his friends would be happy too!

        1. It seems like in an attempt to keep Christmas from being a cliche that movies are taking a different approach through comedy and horror. Such as Bad Santa, Krampus, Santa’s Slay, and Black Christmas.

  11. Toxic environments as Clive says, are good–for a thriller/mystery. I like toxic environments. But I also agree with Terrence that holiday settings/themes can promote cliches. To get beyond the ordinary I would not rely too heavily on turkey and stuffing or mistletoe and holly, but look for microcosms within the larger holiday setting.
    Years ago I think Jane Langton did a good job with a Christmas theme murder.

      1. Actually, the heat of cooking the stuffing would probably kill all of the usual pathogenic bacteria or viruses. But a murderous microbiologist might come up with bacterial spores that would be hardier and would survive the cooking process.

  12. I almost never use holidays as settings in my stories and novels. In general, there’s something about having a story take place during a holiday that seems awkward to me. Maybe it’s because every TV show I watched growing up had holiday episodes, and he idea of stories centered on holidays came to seem like a cliché to me. I think if the focus isn’t on the holiday so much as the characters and the story, that came help, but then it begs the question why set the story during a holiday at all? ARSENIC AND OLD LACE does a good job with its Halloween setting without overdoing it, but the play could easily be set at any time of the year. Movies like HALLOWEEN and KRAMPUS work well, and both need their holiday settings. HALLOWEEN is partially a meditation on what scares us, what’s behind the mask (of humanity), how can you recognize Death when it walks among us looking like everyone else, what is real evil? Halloween — with ancient traditions contrasted with the modern playfulness of the holiday — is a deep part of the story. And KRAMPUS is a darkly comic anti-holiday special which uses the theme of family togetherness effectively. So while using holidays as settings in fiction can work well, I think it has to be handled very carefully.

    1. We’ve never used holidays either. If we did, I think there would few of the usual trappings of whatever the holiday is, but rather work on the mindsets associated with it.

      1. The next book in my Brie Hooker Mystery series takes place the week before Halloween but the time frame was determined by the run-up to an election and pro football schedules. However, I did take advantage of a Halloween-themed party because it made sense. Yet I tried to avoid any Halloween suggestion of “horror” rather than a good-old-fashioned attempt to murder someone and not get caught. If you have a good reason for setting your novel at a specific time of year, I think you can incorporate holidays/events without overdoing it or having them dominate.

        1. Good point. If the holiday means people are not where they normally are or are away from home so no-one notices they’re missing for a while, it can be handy for a murderer. also means the murderer can legitimately be somewhere unusual or use crowds and delays to his/her alibi advantage.

  13. Thanks to this discussion, I’m thinking of getting cookie molds of my recurrent characters. I feature families in my novels (domestic suspense) so I can have Mommy and Daddy and little kids and the big bad villain(s). Then decorate them appropriately and bring them to events!

  14. Halloween has possibilities and not just because of the scary aspects. But when you dress up as someone else, a ghost or a pirate or even a celebrity, you can do and say things you might not otherwise do. Take chances, flirt, cast off your inhibitions. Of course murder at a costume party is an awful cliche, but there may still be options left to mine.

  15. It seems that there is general agreement that holidays offer a variety of appealing options for setting a thriller, as long as it does not become clichéd. It just occurred to me that perhaps another use for holidays may be as misdirection. I haven’t had the chance to think much about this, but the threat of something bad happening usually generates a lot of tension. Having a family event, for example, could make the reader expect that something bad was going to happen. Perhaps that could be used to divert attention from what was actually happening. Thoughts?

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