April 8 – 14: “What are the advantages or drawbacks of setting a novel around a holiday?

thriller-roundtable-logo5Setting a novel around a holiday, good idea, or not? This week ITW Members T. R. Kenneth, Cathy Ace, Bob Bickford, Gary Haynes, J. H. Bográn, Nicole Bross and Lynn Cahoon will discuss the advantages and drawbacks of using a holiday as the setting of a novel. Scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along. You won’t want to miss it!


When he was little, Bob Bickford haunted the library. He hunted for good stories, found himself lost in pages, and daydreamed about becoming a writer. When he grew older, real life got in the way and paychecks became more urgent than classes or degrees. The dream was filed under ‘impossible things’, and nearly forgotten. After years spent in various corners of the United States and Canada, he dusted off his imagination and became a writer-by-night. He hunts for good stories once again, and he still haunts the library.


TR Kenneth has long been focused on the Nazi regime and Reinhard Heydrich in particular, who was a main architect of the Holocaust. In A ROOM FULL OF NIGHT, the author takes the reader from modern flyover America to deep inside the darkest reaches of the Third Reich where everyman hero Stag Maguire is forced to confront the shadowed corners of human infamy. She divides her time between London, Singapore and the U.S.


Lynn Cahoon is the award-winning author of several New York Times and USA Today best-selling cozy mystery series. The Tourist Trap series is set in central coastal California with six holiday novellas releasing in 2018-2019. She also pens the Cat Latimer series available in mass market paperback. Her newest series, the Farm to Fork mystery series, released in 2018. She lives in a small town like the ones she loves to write about with her husband and two fur babies.


Cathy Ace’s latest novel, The Wrong Boy, is her thirteenth. Luckily for her it’s also her first ever Amazon #1 bestseller. Why not write a psychological suspense standalone, even though you’re known for an award-winning series of traditional whodunits, and another featuring cozy British PIs? She migrated from Wales to Canada at the age of forty, where she now lives on, and tends, five rural acres – aided by her green-fingered husband and green-pawed chocolate Labrador.


Gary Haynes studied law at university before becoming a commercial litigator. He is interested in history, philosophy and international relations. When he’s not writing best-selling thrillers or reading other people’s novels, he enjoys watching European films, traveling, hill walking and spending time with his family.



J. H. Bográn is an international author of novels, short stories and scripts for television and film. He’s the son of a journalist, but ironically prefers to write fiction rather than facts. His genre of choice is thrillers, but he likes to throw in a twist of romance into the mix. He currently divides his time as Resource Development Manager for Habitat for Humanity Honduras, teaching classes at a local university, and writing his next project. He lives in San Pedro Sula, Honduras with his wife, three sons and a “Lucky” dog. His motto is “I never tell lies, I only write them!”


Nicole Bross is an author from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where she lives with her husband, two children and one very large orange cat. When she’s not writing or working as the editor of a magazine, she can be found curled up with a book, messing around with her ever-expanding collection of manual typewriters or in the departures lounge of the airport at the beginning of another adventure. Past Presence is her debut novel.


  1. I think a great deal depends upon the holiday in question. If it’s what I think of as a “major holiday” then I feel readers have an expectation for that holiday to play something of a central role in the story, with all the connotations attached to it. Of course, each of those holidays opens many wonderful doors for crime writers – the family tensions surrounding Thanksgiving get-togethers, the horror of Halloween and the expectations and disappointments of the Christmas season etc.

    From that flows the chance that readers might only want to read a book firmly anchored to such a holiday at that time of year – so I suppose that offers sales opportunities, but also can prove detrimental to the book being picked up or selected at any other time. But there are so many other holidays celebrated around the world – which would not necessarily offer either that opportunity or possible problem – that I think it’s fun to play with them.

    Picking a holiday that can also act as a cultural touchstone is also a wonderful way to add layers to a plot. For example, Guy Fawkes’ Night in Britain has multiple opportunities attached to it; the history of political uprisings, firework displays, bonfires, and family and/or community groups gathering in dark places with lots of unusual sights, sounds and smells…all these can act as useful cover for a whole host of nefarious deeds. I used Guy Fawkes Night and its associated bonfires as a background to the discovery of a pile of burned bones in my latest novel, but I don’t think it’s the sort of “holiday” that would make folks only want to read the book on November 5th.

  2. Holiday settings? A cheat, plain and simple. Cheats can get you over the top, but they can also backfire, badly.

    The hardest part of this storytelling gig is picking up a reader and plunking them down into a scene. If you do it well, you wake up their memories without interfering too much. You start—they take over. “The sound of surf at night” or “the smell of smoke” or “her soft voice” will mean a lot of different things to a lot of people, and the better a story is written, the more various the movie versions that start playing in other people’s heads.

    Good storytellers are guides—they don’t need to be the boss.

    Here’s the trick: when does your setting and description wake up imagination and let the reader take over, and when does it become too much, so their vision is being reworked to adapt to yours? It’s delicate business, and nobody ever gets it perfect. Tickle the reader’s subconscious just enough to make scene is vivid, and don’t worry too much if their carousel-in-the-park or woman-in-a funny-hat doesn’t look like yours.

    Now, let’s cheat in a holiday.

    Put me on a street corner on Halloween night—I instantly smell burning leaves, feel the nip of cool night on my face, hear the gleeful trick-or-treaters running by. I don’t need your description—at all, at all. Set me in a living room on Christmas Eve, and your work is done. I have a choir on the phonograph, colored lights, the smell of cinnamon, and the crinkle of wrapping paper. The snow outside is getting heavy, isn’t it? Give me the Fourth of July, and the next-door neighbors start blasting fireworks in my head. I can taste beer and barbeque.

    That’s the rub, sadly. Just like magic, you started a movie playing in my head, without having to work for it. It’s powerful imagery, an incredibly effective way to create scenery. Trouble is, I’ve got my own movie playing in my head, and now you’re going to have to drag me into yours. Worst case, the story you’re telling me is vaguely intrusive.

    Tremendously effective—tempting—terribly dangerous.

    Final thought: Imagine me on holidays, sitting beside a blue swimming pool and reading your book. The sun is bliss. I’m smelling suntan oil and sipping something cold, when you magically transport me into a snowy Christmas. I threw your damn book in the pool.

    1. All good points but as an Aussie, Fourth of July conjures no personal imagery for me same as perhaps Anzac Day wouldn’t for you. I quite like reading about other culture’s festivities. Snowy Christmases are exotic for us–we’re used to flies, heat and barbecues.

      Holiday periods can be very frustrating for characters–crowds, holiday closures, traffic etc especially if it’s a foreign country. Some foreign friends told us they arrived in Aus on Jan 26th not realising it was Australia Day and nothing was open. Happened to us in Germany. Arrived in Regensburg on Regensburg Day to find all the streets closed off and the whole town centre turned into a party.

      We eventually found a place to park, walked to the hotel with the bags, back to the car, drove to the rental place in the deserted outskirts, dropped the car off then wondered how we’d get back to the hotel with no public transport running and no taxis around.

      We weren’t in a thriller but the holiday caused us problems albeit minor. The street party was great fun when we made it back. Our little hotel was right in the middle of the action. Champagne stalls and bands, German bratwurst and beer. Happy people everywhere.

    2. I don’t think it’s a cheat. I think it’s a way for you to tap into your audience. But we probably don’t write for the same type of reader. Where my cozy readership loves the lighter take on a holiday, yours might not find it even relatable to the plot. Or may not be your readers’ cup of tea.

  3. I’ve never set a novel around a holiday, mostly because I feel it constricts the plot to a feel-good or darkly funny kind of story that I don’t write. The other disadvantage is that sales will probably drop off sharply after the holiday the book is set around. But the upside is that seasonal sales will be boosted for a holiday-themed book, and you might have real TV or reprint interest every year. Also there’s nothing better around Christmas than reading book set during the holidays. I do love curling up with those!

  4. First, I’d say that I haven’t written a novel set around a holiday. I can’t remember reading one, either.

    As far as advantages are concerned here are my best shots:

    1. The protagonist immediately experiences change in their life in the holiday setting. Adding a thriller element to this will ramp up the sense of vulnerability and otherness that the protagonist experiences.
    2. Anywhere in the world is available as a setting for the thriller, without the need to create an elaborate backstory as to why the protagonist is there. They’re on holiday!

    Turning to disadvantages:

    1. The plot is limited in scope to the part of the world the holiday is set in, at least as far as the protagonist is concerned.
    2. On the assumption that the holiday destination is not the novelist’s home town, a significant degree of research will be required in terms of place to give the thriller the necessary authenticity throughout the novel. Smells. Buildings. Food. Locals etc.
    3. The novelist will have to come up with a plausible reason why the thriller element happens when the protagonist is on holiday, in order to create the required credibility. The protagonist could have chosen anywhere in the world, right?
    4. This may also limit the options in terms of plot. Was it a random attack or something pre-planned?

    In conclusion, I would not limit myself to this scenario. Conversely, it could solve a lot of issues at once, although the novelist will likely have to rely more on psychological factors rather than large set scenes. The scenario may be better suited to thriller film, than a thriller novel.

  5. I looked at this week’s topic from two different definitions of holiday: the first, where holiday represents a cultural celebration held on a specific day, like Christmas or Halloween, and the second as a vacation or trip away from home. So here are my thoughts on both.

    I’ve never set a story around a Christmas-type holiday either, nor have I even mentioned one in passing, I don’t think. My characters haven’t celebrated birthdays, either. It’s a bit of a distraction from the main plot, I think. Stories don’t usually have to be specific to a particular date to work, so that extra layer of a holiday doesn’t have to be there. That said, I like the idea that for thriller writers, including a holiday like Christmas can really emphasize the twisting of mood and atmosphere–what’s (for most families) a happy, celebratory time becomes dark, dangerous, full of suspense. If done well, it can make a compelling contrast. Most of us have our own memories and experiences of holidays like this, and having them turned on their head by a story can affect the reader deeply. This discussion has actually made me consider whether my WIP needs to broach the topic of Christmas for my main character…

    If we’re working under the definition of holiday as vacation, then I’m all for setting a novel around one. An unfamiliar destination, being amongst strangers and maybe a new language and culture as well, makes for great tension if you add mystery, murder and mayhem on top of that. Navigating these things are hard enough at home; throw the protagonist into a foreign country and watch the tension explode! In addition, everything is unfamiliar to the protagonist, so it gives writers the opportunity to really dive deep into sensory experiences and get the reader immersed in the setting.

    1. Characters don’t have to be on holiday. I’ve read plenty of thrillers/ mysteries where the main character/s follow people or clues to another country–prime example James Bond. If they unwittingly find themselves in the midst of another country’s celebrations it can add an extra element of tension.

      eg I recently read a Jo Nesbo, the first Harry Hole book, set in Australia. Not during a holiday period though.

  6. One of the most recent novels set around a holiday that I remember is Ken Follett’s Whiteout, which is about a family trapped in the snow around Christmas. Part of the plot relied on the lack of services, or their lateness due to the Christmas. Also, I learned there what Boxing Day is. To be honest, first time I read the term it brought images of Mike Tyson, not gift wrappings.
    Anyway, sometimes the holidays can work well.
    The best example I can recall is probably Nothing Lasts Forever, a 1979 thriller by Roderick Thorp. Most of us learned of it through its film adaptation: Die Hard.
    Last year there was a big debate because Bruce Willis said the film is not to be considered a Christmas movie although it’s usually refereed as one. Public seemed to agree to give him a pass for that blunder. Die Hard IS a Christmas tradition. 🙂

  7. Hi there!! Back from camping/ trail riding in Tennessee this weekend and internet service was spotty.

    Anyway, setting stories around the holiday? Well, since I have a whole mini series (the Tourist Trap Holiday Novellas) that have that exact premise, I guess I love them. LOL It’s easy to fall into the structure of the holiday – Like Santa Puppy where I focused on the giving portion of the season. And threw in a little holiday magic.

    Since I write light cozy mysteries, that makes this fun part easier. And, since they’re novellas, sometimes the mystery isn’t a murder, which helps. Now if you were writing dark NOIR maybe setting it around the holiday maybe either be a problem, or add to your setting in a way.

    The problem I’ve run into is when you use a holiday that some people may not celebrate or has painful memories attached – like Mother’s Day. Some of your readers aren’t going to read that book no matter what.

    But my Halloween novella? It hit a chord with readers. I think the funner or the darker you could make the setting, the better.


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