February 5 – 11: “Is fact really stranger than fiction?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5We’re kicking off the February Roundtables with ITW Members Alex Shaw, Chris Malburg, DiAnn Mills, Lisa Black, John Lutz and Martin Roy Hill. This week’s questions: Is fact really stranger than fiction? How do you weave the two to make a really compelling story? Scroll down to the “comments” section to read what they have to say!


Lisa Black has spent over twenty years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police dept. Her books have been translated into six languages, one reached the NYT Bestseller’s list and one has been optioned for film and a possible TV series.


DiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. She combines unforgettable characters with unpredictable plots to create action-packed, suspense-filled novels. Her titles have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists; won two Christy Awards; and been finalists for the RITA, Daphne Du Maurier, Inspirational Readers’ Choice, and Carol award contests. FIREWALL, the first book in her Houston: FBI series, was listed by Library Journal as one of the best Christian Fiction books of 2014.


Chris Malburg is a widely published author, with over 4 million words published in 22 popular business books and four novels. Simon & Schuster, Putnam, Wiley and McGraw Hill all publish Chris’ work, which is consumed in most western countries. After classes at Stanford Writers School, Chris began the fun side of his career. He has crossed the chasm into fiction with the fourth installment in his Enforcement Division series. Chris is known for his meticulous research of the material presented in his books. MAN OF HONOR is an example. While preparing this book, Chris took the same aircraft accident investigation courses at USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering that the NTSB and FAA accident investigators take.


Alex Shaw is an active member of the ITW (The International Thriller Writers organisation) and the CWA (the Crime Writers Association). He is the author of the #1 International Kindle Bestselling ‘Aidan Snow SAS thrillers’ COLD BLOOD, COLD BLACK, COLD EAST and the new DELTA FORCE VAMPIRE series of books. His writing has also been published in the thriller anthologies DEATH TOLL, DEATH TOLL 2 and ACTION PULSE POUNDING TALES 2 alongside International Bestselling authors Stephen Leather and Matt Hilton.


John Lutz is the author of over 50 novels, and the winner of both the Edgar and Shamus awards. His novel “SWF SEEKS SAME” was made into the major motion picture Single White Female. A New York Times bestselling author, he has written in all the major genres of crime fiction, including private eye, serial killer, and psychological suspense. With THE HONORABLE TRAITORS, he turns to the espionage genre.


Martin Roy Hill is the author of the Linus Schag, NCIS, thrillers, the Peter Brandt thrillers, and the award-winning short story collection DUTY, and EDEN: A Sci-Fi Novella. Martin’s short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, ALT HIST: The Journal of Historical Fiction and Alternative History, Mystery Weekly Magazine, Crimson Streets, Nebula Rift, Devolution Z, and others. A former national award-winning investigative journalist, Martin is now a military analyst.



  1. Is fact really stranger than fiction? How do you weave the two to make a really compelling story?

    Fact is stranger than fiction, and writing fact in fiction means the information has to be a necessary part of the plot. By viewing the obscure facts through the eyes of a trusted POV character, the reader is convinced the information is valid. This also means the character has to have researched, proven, or experienced the information, leaving no doubt to its usefulness.

    An exception to the above is a facade story where the character believes something is true. When the character learns he/she has been misinformed or deceived, the reader learns the truth too.

  2. I write fiction—thriller fiction. Some say I’m a professional liar. I wouldn’t dispute that. Indeed, I try never to let the truth get in the way of my writing. But here’s the rub, every tale—no matter how tall—begins with a plausible grain of truth. For my work, I want to establish both my credibility and that of the characters involved and the story from the start. So I offer up the real thing for a while. Then, once I’ve seduced the readers’ trust, I slowly depart from that truth. If I’ve done my job, readers don’t realize they’ve been oh so gently duped.
    That’s how my latest cyber warfare thriller, Man of Honor, works. My interview in this month’s The Big Thrill magazine reveals I took several real life aircraft accident investigation courses from USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering to learn how the real NTSB and FAA investigate air disasters. With that as a real life, absolute truthful base to build my readers’ trust, I was free to begin spinning the tale and embellishing the truth where and when needed.
    There are times, however, when the truth is actually less plausible. I’ve met authors when questioned about something claim, “But that’s what actually happened”. Even if true, it sounds unbelievable. So, as a writer, I’d spin it so that it makes more sense than what actually happened. Who cares anyway? I look at my job as a writer to entertain my readers. I will use whatever device, technique, or lie that’s required to accomplish my mission. At the end of the day, readers realize this is fiction. It’s untrue. It’s entertainment. That’s all it is.

  3. It’s amazing how often some ridiculous true situation or event is exposed in politics or the military which turns out to be a screw up by some one.

    eg We have a crazy situation here in Aus at the moment where someone bought a filing cabinet at a government furniture disposal store–an opp shop– used a drill to open two locked drawers which had no keys and discovered a whole bunch of classified govt documents. It’s caused no end of ranting and carry-on with the PM saying ‘heads will roll!’.

    It’s a good opener for a story but could you use it midway? Probably but it couldn’t be info vital to the protagonist. Too fortuitous otherwise.

  4. Is fact really stranger than fiction? How do you weave the two to make a really compelling story?
    Fact is often stranger than fiction and has to be made less so otherwise, it can derail a believable and well-crafted narrative. As a thriller writer, I see part of my job as bringing real-world facts into the surreal world of fiction in a compelling and believable manner.
    For me, this always starts with getting the facts right with regards to the ‘fictional world’. There is nothing worse as a reader than suspending one’s disbelief only to find the narrative rendered unbelievable because the author has put a landmark in an incorrect place, has the character using outdated currency, the wrong language or eating food that simply is not readily available where the scene is set – the fictional world.
    Let us look at pizza as an example of this. I read a scene, set twenty years ago, where a labourer in a remote Russian town ate an American, imported, microwavable, salami pizza. What an error, you may say. Well, the fact was that microwavable pizza was available in that town, all be it equivalent to more than a day’s wages. However by choosing to include this pizza, rather than a local Russian dish the strange fact made the fiction less convincing.
    Had the character been attempting to impress, display a new found wealth or treat himself, I may have understood the pizza’s inclusion but no, it was meant to be merely a meal.
    Sticking with the pizza how would I have included this strange fact – ‘the availability and price’ of imported pizza? I would have had the character notice the pizza and its price whist shopping at the Gastronom (Russian convenience store/supermarket) for his dinner.
    The example of ‘pizza’ may seem trivial, but replace ‘pizza’ with type of car, weapon or landmark and you will see other examples in fiction where strange facts have not been fully integrated.
    My thrillers are, in part, set in Kyiv. As someone who has lived and worked in Ukraine, I am somewhat au fait with the country and have learned many odd and interesting facts about the place, its history and its people. For example, Ukraine is the largest country in continental Europe, the McDonald’s next Kyiv’s main train station is the third busiest in the world and it Kyiv has the world’s deepest metro station – Arsenalna, which is 105.5 metres below ground. All facts which may sound stranger than fiction. How would I incorporate these into a compelling story? You’ll have to read my Aidan Snow series to find out.

  5. I work at a police department, so in my opinion truth is stranger than fiction, but in smaller doses— somehow never enough to sustain a whole book!. Just in my little very low-crime town, we’ve had a guy dismember his father, put the parts into suitcases, and then represent himself at trial. We’ve had a fight break out at a Buddhist meeting. We’ve had a brutal double murder solved after nearly thirty years by a CODIS hit, and after an exhaustive investigation, countless suspects and conspiracy theories, the killer turned out to be a complete unknown never before considered. Okay, that one would make a great true crime book, but not a novel…readers would never forgive you if the killer came out of the woodwork at the end.

    I think a lot of truth makes a story stronger and more believable. It’s not necessary, of course, but especially in crime fiction I hope it makes my books more compelling to use real facts and history and science. My character is a forensic scientist, so of course I have to get that right, it’s my raison d’etre. But I like to use as much reality as possible, real places, streets, historical anecdotes, medical conditions. I’m sure we all only use about a quarter of what we learn while researching a book, maybe more like one-sixth. I try to put in only what serves a plot point or what is especially interesting. Discipline is required to keep from dumping everything in just because I did so much bloody work accumulating all the information in the first place. My rule is to remind myself that I’m not writing a textbook.

    1. Lisa, like you, I believe the facts are intricate to story. In writing, I want to verify the unusual or eccentric then move forward into the POV character’s mind and see what he/she does with it.

  6. From John Lutz

    When I was starting out, I thought I’d better get the facts, or I’d make mistakes and the readers would laugh at me. On the other hand, if I used only my imagination, I’d come up with something more exciting than dull reality. I was wrong on both counts. The late Elmore Leonard used to tell a story. He wanted to write about a big department store heist. He went to a department store and asked them how they handled their cash. They refused to tell him. So he made up an elaborate system. When the book came out, the department store guy called and said, “That’s exactly how we do it. Who told you?” I too have found that I can fake it and get it right. When I do research though I find that reality opens the door to more imaginative storytelling. In THE HONORABLE TRAITORS, many of the plot twists were inspired by the wild turns of WWII world history. First, Americans viewed Soviets as evil, scary Commies. Next, they became our valiant allies against the Nazis. Then they became evil, scary Commies again–all within a few years.

  7. What interesting timing for this question! I just finished reading Jack Higgins’ The Valhalla Exchange, which is an excellent example of fiction being inspired by strange fact.

    The Valhalla Exchange involves a fictitious an attempt by Martin Bormann, one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany, to use prominent Allied POWs as a bargaining chip in the waning days of WWII. It concludes with American and German soldiers joining forces in a last stand against a SS assault force led by Bormann.

    American and German soldier joining together to fight the SS? Hah!

    In fact, Higgins’ book was inspired by two actual incidents from WWII—the mystery surrounding Bormann’s fate, and the Battle of Castle Itter. The latter is considered the strangest battle of the war, and involved a small force of GIs and Wehrmacht soldiers who actually did join together in the last days of the war to protect a group of POWs from the Nazi SS.

    In a forward to the novel, Higgins discusses Bormann’s disappearance and his reported escape to South America after the war. He concludes the forward rather humorously with this: “As for the remainder of this story, only the more astonishing parts are true – the rest is fiction.”

    This is the type of story I love to read. James Rollins, Bob Mayer, and Robert Masello are a few of the writers who blend history with fiction in their thrillers, and who always send me to the Internet to read more about their historic inspiration. They have a knack for taking a historic event—often an obscure event—and using it to inspire and propel a story forward.

    Not surprisingly, therefore, much of my own work finds its inspiration in true life events.

    My second Peter Brandt novel, The Last Refuge, was inspired by news reports that came out during Operation Desert Storm that American corporations were secretly negotiating with Saddam Hussein to rebuild his military even as our troops were still engaged in combat with Iraqi forces. In the novel, a battlefield murder intended to keep those negotiations secret leads to more murder on the home front.

    The Butcher’s Bill, my latest novel, involves the true life theft of nearly $9 billion in U.S. cash from Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The theft was the largest heist in history, but it was never investigated by our government. I use this event as the launching board for a fictitious story about one man’s effort to expose the secret of the real world crime.

    Another true yet bizarre event—the mysterious and still unexplained disappearances of four submarines from four different countries within an eight week period in 1968—was the inspiration for my current WIP, a military sci-fi thriller called Polar Melt. In the novel, the fictional cause for those sub losses leads to a confrontation between U.S. and Russian interests and a mysterious sea anomaly in today’s nearly ice-free Arctic Ocean.

    The art of applying factual events to your writing is to treat them like seasoning in cooking—a little is good, too much not so good.

    1. Martin certainly has the knack of beginning with a true piece of history, then weaving the fictitious story he’s telling around it. It’s a great technique in that it establishes immediate credibility with the reader. They know this is true. With this trust and bond between reader and author the more creative part of the fiction begins. Nicely said.

  8. There are many phenomena in the physical and biological sciences that are incompletely or not at all understood as to their pathogenesis. Such facts can also be woven into fiction to enhance plausibility.
    I offer 2 examples from my current work in progress.

    “Night Plague” is the story of a virus that causes insomnia which spreads through a small town in Tennessee. The escalating violent behavior of sleep-deprived gun-owning citizens threatens to destroy the town.

    Now it is a fact that 10% of people who get infectious mononucleosis due to EB virus, stay tired for months afterwards even though all of the original manifestations of the infection have resolved. I am sure that in these cases the EB virus triggered a sustained poor quality of sleep. So why not a new virus in that herpes group – one that causes a sustained disruption of sleep?

    Then I had to figure out where this insomnia virus came from. I was looking for an exotic animal source when I learned an interesting fact about lemurs in Madagascar. Most lemurs are diurnal and most of the rest are nocturnal, especially the smaller species. But a few species are cathemeral meaning irregularly active both day and night – and no one knows exactly why. Aha! I had my source of the insomnia virus which could plausibly explain cathemerality.

    Actually cathemerality probably isn’t that rare. I’ve had several pet cats that definitely exhibited tendencies – irregularly up prowling at night and taking naps during the day!

  9. This morning at a speaking event, one of the attendees spoke about how to write fact that no one would believe. How timely. Turned into a lively discussion and my opinion remained the same: if the situation is important to the character and the storyline, then the information needed to be written. I’ve read some strange happenings, so perhaps writers should determine if their brand will deepen or dive to the well of done-with-that-writer.

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