July 15 – 21: “What was the most difficult thing to research in your last novel?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5ITW Members Jodé Millman, Sheila Lowe, Mike Houtz and Hilary Davidson join us this week to discuss researching their novels. Inquiring minds want to know, What was the most difficult thing to research in your last novel? Scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along!


After a career in medicine, Mike Houtz succumbed to the call to hang up his stethoscope and pursue his other passion as a writer of fast-paced thrillers. Consuming a steady diet of Clancy, Flynn, and Thor, Mike loves series writing with strong characters, fast pacing and international locations, all of which explode into action in his debut novel, DARK SPIRAL DOWN, a Zebulon Award winner. The Rockies are right outside the office window.


Jodé Millman is an attorney who lives in and writes about the Hudson Valley. Her debut thriller, THE MIDNIGHT CALL was short-listed for the Clue Award and named “Best Police Procedural” by Chantireviews.com. Also, she’s a podcast cohost/producer (Backstage with the Bardavon), writes a publishing law column for InSinC Quarterly and the bestselling theatre guide, “Seats:New York.”


Hilary Davidson has won two Anthony Awards as well as the Derringer, Spinetingler, and Crimespree awards. Her latest novel, One Small Sacrifice — published by Thomas & Mercer — received a starred review from Library Journal, which said, “Fans of Karin Slaughter, Tana French, and Lisa Gardner will devour this new police procedural, which boasts a strong female detective and an intriguing antagonist. Sheryn [Sterling] will draw in readers, and Davidson’s complex storytelling will keep them wanting more.”


Like her fictional character, Claudia Rose, Sheila Lowe is a real-life forensic handwriting examiner. The mother of a tattoo artist and a former rock star, she lives in Ventura, California. She is the author of five nonfiction books on handwriting psychology and seven in the Forensic Handwriting Mysteries series. Her new series is the Beyond the Veil Mysteries. Sheila frequently appears in the media when handwriting is in the news.


  1. My latest novel, Proof of Life, is the story of a young woman who for five years has resisted listening to the voices in her head. Jessica is not crazy; the voices are dead people trying to get her attention. Her reluctant journey into mediumship begins when she is called on to help find a missing child. Since I’m not a medium, researching the Other Side presented some unique challenges and opportunities.

    My interest in the afterlife began nearly 20 years when my daughter was the victim in a murder-suicide. Since then, the many books I’ve read helped expand my mental database, as did readings with world-class mediums including John Edward, James Van Praagh (he taped a show at my house), Suzanne Giesemann and others (yes, I am a medium junkie). But that wasn’t enough. We can research all kinds of stuff through Uncle Google and Aunty Youtube, but for some things, you just have to be there. So, I attended the Afterlife Research Education Institute Symposium in Scottsdale, where 800 people gathered to discuss the scientific evidence of what happens when we leave the physical body. The seance demonstration I attended at the Symposium gave me a different view from what I’d always thought seances were like–it’s a lot more fun than in looks in movies. My research convinced me that there is no death, just life after earth.

  2. I ran into a significant issue which actually changed the course of the novel’s setting. In my book, DARK SPIRAL DOWN, the main storyline takes place at the border of southeast China and the far western edge of North Korea. Two main characters are from Dandong, China, situated on the west bank of the Yalu river with the north-south waterway separating the two countries. The bad guys are North Korean commandos. Initially, I’d hoped for an incursion into North Korea, as part of the plot, but because the information is scarce from an open-source perspective, I worried about the accuracy of what I uncovered in my research.

    Because of a lack of verifiable data, I felt forced to move a chunk of Act II back across the Yalu into China. Certainly, I could have developed a believable environment on their soil, but I’m a stickler for accuracy and didn’t want to be proven wildly inaccurate when the curtain eventually drops on their Hermit State.

    I did find significant source material for the North Korean characters in relation to their backgrounds and felt confident I’d portrayed them as accurately as one could without being an expert on secret DPRK military units. In the end, my initial idea took a significant detour from what I’d planned, but I stayed flexible enough for the storyline to work well.

  3. When I started to write ONE SMALL SACRIFICE, I knew I was going to explore posttraumatic stress disorder. I’d written nonfiction pieces about PTSD in the past, because it was an issue I understood intimately: at my first job out of college, a mentally disturbed veteran tried to murder everyone in my office. In the aftermath, I started having paranoid thoughts in public, certain that a stranger was about to attack me. I had nightmares and insomnia. It took me a long time to understand and accept that I had PTSD.

    First-hand experience was incredibly valuable, but it didn’t feel like enough when I started working on the book. While I had insight into certain issues, PTSD is an incredibly fluid disorder. It can last for months or years, be acute or chronic, and can manifest while a person is awake or sleeping. There’s no definitive course of treatment: the cognitive processing therapy that eventually helped me might be useless to someone else. I realized that I had to expand my frame, so I decided to do what I’d do when researching any significant subject: seek out experts, read every bit of medical literature I could find, and talk to other people who’d experienced it. That last one was a tough task. For an earlier novel I’d written that involved opioid addiction, I’d found several people willing to talk to me. This time around, no one was interested in any conversation that wasn’t completely anonymous.

    Ironically, that reminder of how much stigma and shame was attached to PTSD was genuinely helpful to me. It was a reminder of the terrible shame I’d felt when my mind betrayed me. (It wasn’t hard to talk about the nightmares, but the waking delusions were a subject I kept quiet about for a very long time.) Representations of PTSD in popular culture tend to be terrible, with a common theme that people who suffer from it are ticking time bombs. It made me remember how vulnerable I’d felt, and how far I’d been willing to go to avoid my triggers.

    In ONE SMALL SACRIFICE, two of the central characters have experience with PTSD. One is Alex Traynor, a war photographer haunted by what he’s seen on the battlefield; the other is NYPD Detective Sheryn Sterling, who grew up in a military family with a father who returned home from war with PTSD he refused to acknowledge. Sheryn believes that Alex may have gotten away with murder in the past, when a female friend of his died in a fall from the roof of his building. When Alex’s fiancée suddenly goes missing, Sheryn fears the worst. The novel switches back and forth between their perspectives (and a couple of others) so the reader understands what drives them… and what haunts them.

  4. In researching for The Midnight Call, I had to disregard my attorney’s hat. I needed to think like a writer to approach unfamiliar disciplines, such as medicine and police procedures, as it was imperative to get the details correct. Since The Midnight Call is a legal thriller, and the story was inspired by a true crime occurring in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., I was able to quickly put my fingers on the necessary court files, newspaper articles and the court procedural rules. However, my protagonist, Jessie Martin, encounters medical issues. The antagonist, Terrence Butterfield, suffers from mental health issues and there’s an arrest at the beginning of the novel. Fortunately, I was able to call on friends – doctors and police officers – to make sure that I was on target.

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