Eventually, You Have to Bring Order to the Story Stuff

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Last week my lovely wife and I were in New York for ThrillerFest, and as usual found time to enjoy some of the city. We did the Strand bookstore (where I scored an autographed Mickey Spillane from a spinner of used paperbacks), then walked up Park Avenue to my favorite building in all of New York: Grand Central Station, the beaux-arts beauty of midtown.

Why do I love it? Start with the clock tower sculpture, because it captures the robust spirit of classic New York, back a hundred years ago when the city was the unapologetic colossus of commerce. That’s why you have the three Greek gods above the clock. Mercury, god of merchants, dominates the piece, with Hercules (representing strength) and Minerva (representing the arts and professions) on either side. I love coming out of the subway stop, looking up and seeing this magnificence.

Inside Grand Central, the main concourse always seems larger than I remember. You can’t help thinking of Cary Grant at the ticket window in North by Northwest, or any of a number of movies from the 30s and 40s featuring New Yorkers getting on trains. There’s a dining concourse below, with our favorite oyster bar. Cindy and I shared a dozen, along with a nice chardonnay.

And we attended the International Thriller Writers Awards banquet, where I was honored to receive the award for Best E-Book Original (for Romeo’s Way). (And thank you for all the kind comments that have already been posted here at TKZ.) It was a delight for Cindy and I to share a table with the amazing Joanna Penn and her husband, Jonathan (Joanna, writing as J. F. Penn, was a Best E-Book Original finalist for her novel Destroyer of Worlds.)

The coolest thing about ThrillerFest is all the off-the-cuff conversation with fellow writers, usually at the hotel bar following the day’s proceedings. That, in fact, is where I caught up with brother John Gilstrap and one of our longtime TKZ commenters, Basil Sands. We were soon joined by weapons expert Chris Grall, and it wasn’t long before John and Chris were instructing us on the best way to cut people to ribbons with a sharp knife … and exactly what a body does when hit by a blast from a shotgun.

Also got to chat with TKZ emeritus Boyd Morrison and current blogmate Mark Alpert.

Reed Farrel Coleman (photo by Adam Martin)

Another guy I always like to see at these conventions is Reed Farrel Coleman. Reed was an ITW Award finalist for his novel Where It Hurts. At the Awards “after party” I had a chance to ask him about his writing method, as I’d read in interviews that he describes himself as a pure “pantser.”

I started by asking what his novel was about, and Reed gave me the backstory of his lead character, Gus Murphy. How he was a cop with a family, but now is divorced and off the force, working a low-end job, drowning in grief due of the death of his son. “That’s where the book starts,” Reed said.

“So you start with a character and a set-up, and then start writing?” I asked.

Reed nodded, then added that he goes “over and over” the first fifty pages until he feels they are just right. Then he moves on.

“How many drafts to you do?”

“One,” he said, with a definite twinkle in his eye. Then he quickly added that he revises and revises as he goes along, so in effect he’s doing multiple “drafts” by the time it’s all wrapped up.

I wrote Reed a follow-up email. “My thought is that as you are making your way through after those first fifty pages, your brain is starting to come up with future scenes. IOW, the ‘outline’ is taking shape organically, in your imagination, and you start to write toward those scenes.”

Reed answered, “Yes, unconsciously, at least, knowing those early pages cold lets my mind work on an outline for the rest of the book. I don’t think of it that way, but it’s a fair assessment of what’s going on.”

And Reed, of course, understands beginning, middle, and end. He knows what has to happen for a character to pass through the “Doorway of No Return” and into the confrontation of Act 2. When I teach, I tell students the main character better be through that doorway, at the latest, by the 20% mark, or the book will start to drag.

Guess what happens at the 20% mark of Where It Hurts? Yep:

When I heard the sirens, I went back around to the front of the house and waited. But I was through waiting to make up my mind. I was in now, with both feet.

And just to amuse myself, I went looking to see if Reed, by way of his storytelling DNA, had included a mirror moment. You bet he did, and right in the middle where it belongs:

Was this, I wondered, what it was like coming out of a coma? Is that what Krissy, Annie, and I were doing? Were we coming around at last? Had enough time elapsed? Had we all finished acting out? Had we finally proved to ourselves and one another that no amount of pain or grief or self-flagellation or magical thinking or deals with God or guilt or fury would restore to us what we had lost? Was it okay to live again?

My goal as a writing instructor is to “pop the hood” on what writers have technically accomplished (even if they don’t realize how they did it), take it apart, and explain how any writer can assemble similar parts for a similar effect.

Reed’s method is one way to go about things. (See? I come in peace, my pantsing brothers and sisters!) By churning over those first fifty pages, Reed is firming up the foundation for his entire novel. By rewriting his previous day’s work, he’s letting his mind suggest scene possibilities that build upon that foundation. “Plotters” do the same thing, only the churning comes before the writing as they prepare a map, strategy and tactics.

The important thing is that the writer, sooner or later, brings order to the story stuff. That’s what structure is all about. It’s getting things lined up so the readers can best relate to the tale you want to tell them. Even more, the story you want to move them. Without order, no matter how “hot” or “creative” you feel about what you write, most readers are going to be frustrated or, worse, annoyed.

My advice: try to avoid that.

I love New York, but it’s always great to get back to L.A., where I am currently in the process of bringing order to my next Mike Romeo thriller.

What about you? Where are you in the “ordering” process? 

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How to Successfully Put a New Spin to an Old Tale

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane


JBashman_M9B_Predator_REV2_ Final Cover for web (2)


I’m excited to have Janice Gable Bashman as my guest today at TKZ. Her latest release (now available) is PREDATOR with Month9Books. Stunning cover. Janice is a Bram Stoker nominated author and editor of the prestigious International Thriller Writers (ITW) publication, The Big Thrill, and she serves on ITW’s board of directors as the Vice President of Technology. Today Janice will share her tips on how to put a new spin to an old tale and make it fresh. Take it away, Janice—and welcome.


Janice Gable Bashman
I love when an author takes science to its extreme. Often it goes horribly wrong. I devoured early works by Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park and Sphere) and James Rollins (Deep Fathom and Amazonia) during my youth. The books were popular and it’s easy to see why. The authors took old tales—dinosaurs roaming the earth, a 300 year-old space ship at the bottom of the ocean, an ancient power causing havoc in a modern-day world, and a mysterious disease threatening to wipe out the population with the cure hidden deep inside the jungle—and put new spins on them. The stories were fresh and exciting and loved by many. They still are.


So how do you put a new spin on an old tale when readers think they already know how it’s supposed to go and there isn’t anything they can possibly learn?


You have to think outside the box, as the saying goes.


In my novel Predator, I give the werewolf legend a couple of new spins by introducing the Benandanti (an actual folkloric belief that certain families of Italy and Livonia were werewolves who fought against evil) as well as a modern scientific approach to mutation and the science of transgenics. But I take these new spins a step further. The science is used to its extreme, in some cases it goes horribly wrong, and the Benandnati may not be what they seem. How did the Benandanti end up alive today and living in Ireland and the United States? What are they up to and why? Are they good or evil?


By raising new questions, upping the stakes, and using science in a new way, I was able to put a new twist on the werewolf tale. Writing about science or werewolves or super soldiers is nothing new. They are simply a premise. It’s the story elements that give these topics a new twist and makes them fresh and exciting. And it’s the characters that bring them alive.


So how can you do the same with your premise?

Can you combine elements of different genres to create a new idea?

Can your protagonist see things from a perspective different than you ever thought possible?

Can you use your novel’s physical world to put a fresh spin on things?

Can you mash together two concepts to create something new?


Think about it. It’s possible. It’s up to you and your imagination to wow the reader with a new take on an old tale. I know you can do it.


So TKZers—what novels do you love that put a new spin on an old tale, and why?

———————————————————————————–
Janice Gable Bashman headshot-small-slide-246x300 (2)
Janice Gable Bashman is the Bram Stoker nominated author of PREDATOR (Month9Books 2014) and WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE (w/NEW YORK TIMES bestseller Jonathan Maberry) (Citadel Press 2010). She is editor of THE BIG THRILL (International Thriller Writers’ magazine). Her short fiction has been published in various anthologies and magazines. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Mystery Writers of America, Horror Writers Association, and the International Thriller Writers, where she serves on the board of directors as Vice President, Technology.

Links:
Website: https://www.janicegablebashman.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JaniceGableBashmanAuthor
Twitter: http://twitter.com/janicebashman


Book buy links for Janice:
http://amzn.to/1xCYQwO
http://bit.ly/ZsJgFX (Barnes & Noble)

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Writers, Awards and The Journey

James Scott Bell


This past week TKZ blogmate John Gilstrap and I received the lovely news that we are finalists for a 2012 International Thriller Writers Award. Even lovelier, we are not in the same category, so we can root for each other without tight smiles. John’s novel, Threat Warning, is up for the Best Paperback Original. I’m up in the short story category for One More Lie.
Which prompted a few thoughts on awards, kudos and the writing journey.
Of course, every writer––indeed, anybody who does anything––likes awards and recognition. That’s our nature, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Used rightly, it can be a motivation to good work and striving to get better.
But it should never be a dominating drive, in my view, or it might become a snare and a distraction.
One of my heroes is the late UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden. When I was in high school I got to attend his basketball camp, and talk to him a bit. Coach Wooden gave all of us a copy of his Pyramid of Successand taught us more than just the fundamentals of the game.


“Individual recognition, praise, can be a dangerous commodity,” Coach Wooden once wrote. “It’s best not to drink too deeply from a cup full of fame. It can be very intoxicating, and intoxicated people often do foolish things.”
He was just as clear about losses. Never measure yourself by what you lost, but by how you prepared. That’s the only thing within your control and the only thing you can change.
“I never mentioned winning or victory to my players,” Wooden said. “Instead I constantly urged them to strive for the self-satisfaction that always comes from knowing you did the best you could do to become the best of which you are capable.”
That’s his famous definition of success, and it’s rock solid. When we work hard and know we’ve taken whatever talents we have and pushed them further along, that’s achievement. It’s one of the reasons I teach writing classes and workshops. I love helping writers get to their own next level, whatever it may be for them.
So regardless of what happens at this year’s ITW Awards, I will be happy for the trip to New York with my wife, for hanging out with John and other writers I admire, and appreciating the privilege of being included in such august company.
But then it will be time to come back to L.A. and hit the keyboard again, working hard to be the best I can be. It makes each day its own challenge and, in striving, its own reward. Don’t miss that by letting an inordinate desire for recognition mess with your head.
“I derived my greatest satisfaction out of the preparation, the journey,” Wooden wrote. “Day after day, week after week, year after year. It was the journey I prized above all else.”
*Quotations are from Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Courtby John Wooden and Steve Jamison (Contemporary Books, 1997)



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Write What You Fear

By Jordan Dane

Everyone has heard the line – Write What You Know. When I first heard the line, the first thing that hit me was a question. What the hell did I know that would interest anybody, except my mother who is easy to please? Obviously I didn’t listen to that advice. My debut book was about a woman cop, a far cry from my accountant/commodity energy trader occupation.


Lee Child wrote on an email loop I belonged to in 2008 (of debut thriller authors he mentored as part of the International Thriller Authors debut program) that he thought it should be – Write What You Fear – because books are about emotion. Raw emotions resonate with people. We can all relate to what makes us scared or what we can hate or love. That’s not as intimidating as “write what you know” and hope someone buys it. It doesn’t take special knowledge to write about emotions you feel. It only takes an ability to dig deep, write honestly and find words to express those feelings.


Lee’s words have stayed with me.


Lately I find myself thinking about death. It’s not a subject I know a lot about, but I sure know how it makes me feel. My book ON A DARK WING (Harlequin Teen, Jan 2012) stirred these thoughts in me when I had to envision what a conversation with the Grim Reaper might entail and imagine an afterlife and a role for the Angel of Death. A young girl deals with the grief and guilt she feels after the tragic death of her mother in the book. And this week, a blogger (who will be on a tour stop for the promo of my book) asked for an interview with Death. I’ll be the voice of Death on the day of the blog post when I comment, so followers can ask their own questions. Do I have any idea what I will write? Absolutely not, but I think it’s important to keep challenging myself as an author to delve into areas of my imagination, especially when it’s most difficult.


But there’s a reason I wanted to share why writing about Death and imagining an afterlife has been particularly challenging for me. In my own life, my brother-in-law Michael (my husband’s only brother) is losing his battle with cancer. He’s in hospice now and he’s been in my thoughts and prayers for months. I can’t even imagine what that finality is like for him or his sweet wife and their family.


Sometimes the fiction we write becomes all too real…or too personal.


My post won’t be long today, but I would like to hear from those willing to share. Whether you had a personal tie-in or not, what has been the most difficult scene you’ve written or read in a book? What challenges did you face in writing it? Or why did the scene you read stick with you? Readers and/or writers can respond to this. There are scenes in books that I’ve read long ago, that I can still imagine in my head because they touched something in me that has stayed.


Please share those scenes and books that have stayed with you.

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“The envelope, please…”

by Michelle Gagnon

Congrats to Ann Littlewood, commenter extraordinaire and winner of our $50 gas card prize! And now, on to today’s controversial subject…


PBO Award, we hardly knew ye…

There’s been an interesting debate recently regarding changes to next year’s Thriller Awards.

Basically, here’s the scoop: the ITW (International Thriller Writers) organization has eliminated the Paperback Original (PBO) category. Now everyone (aside from debut authors) will pit their books against each other for the Best Novel award.

I’m actually surprised there wasn’t more of an outcry. PBO is a treasured category, in that it gives writers who aren’t necessarily guaranteed a spot on the bestsellers’ lists an opportunity for some recognition.

Writers and reviewers weighed in on both sides. Some claimed this was a fantastic decision, that a “Best Novel” category where only hardcovers are eligible makes the “Best PBO” look like a red-headed stepchild. It should be the content that matters, not the format, the argument goes. Which is a valid point, and one I always wondered about: why isn’t it simply, “Best Hardcover,” since nearly every other awards category is defined by format?

And many who chimed in said they trusted their fellow writers to treat the binding on submissions with a blind eye.

But just to play devil’s advocate, here are some things to consider:

  1. Bias

Allison Brennan made an interesting analogy based on her previous work in the legislature. I’m paraphrasing, but basically she said that when you wanted to talk to voters about the economy, you used a man as your spokesman; if you were discussing education, a woman. Because even when people think they’re completely fair-minded, there are inevitably some biases lurking in our subconscious.

There’s a chance that authors might prove to be more, not less, biased when it comes to formatting. After all, we understand how the publishing industry works. Sure, we acknowledge that there’s an arbitrary element to what kind of cover ends up on a book, and some publishers tend to favor one format over another. But given a choice, most authors would probably opt for a hardcover deal. It’s easier to get reviews, and collectors value them more highly. Also, since the production costs are higher, there’s a chance the publisher might throw some marketing money behind the book. These are all things someone who’s spent some time in the publishing trenches knows.

The average layperson, on the other hand, has no idea what the different formats mean, they just know that certain books are more expensive. But while they wouldn’t necessarily assume that a hardcover is superior to a paperback, an author just might. Even if they don’t think they’re biased.

  1. History

I asked during the discussion if anyone could remember the last time a paperback has been nominated for a Best First Edgar (since that category traditionally pits hardcovers against paperbacks, it’s a good reference point). I was curious, having submitted my debut thriller for consideration despite the fact that in recent memory I couldn’t recall a PBO garnering a nomination (if you know of one, drop me a line). Thanks to a bout of insomnia, I ended up going through the winners of Best First Novel Edgars (and believe me, I have discovered the cure for sleeplessness—this exercise could put Ambien out of business for good).

I got all the way back to 1971 before finally drifting off. For at least the past 37 years, no paperback has ever won an Edgar for Best First Novel. Next time I can’t sleep I’ll trudge through every nominee in that category, but I suspect the story will be the same. We all want to believe our books are being judged on a level playing field. But if that’s the case, then is it really true that for the past thirty-seven years, a hardcover was always superior to every paperback submitted?

  1. Why awards matter

When I’m writing a book, the last thing on my mind is whether or not it’ll end up being nominated for an award. I doubt any author is envisioning that as they tap away at their keyboards (although I have been known on occasion to accept imaginary Grammy awards in the shower. But you should hear my singing voice in there, it’s pure Mariah Carey.)

But we can’t pretend that awards don’t matter. Even my local bookstore (which has on occasion been downright hostile to genre fiction) mounts an Edgar display every spring. Harlan Coben has credited his 1997 Best PBO Edgar Award with keeping his career afloat, in that it persuaded his publisher to stick with him in the face of declining sales.

And again, I believe that a layperson couldn’t tell you the difference between an Edgar and a Barry if their life depended on it. But if they see, “____ Award Winning Novel” on the cover, they’re more likely to select that book over another one. Hey, it won an award, it must be a good read. So eliminating a category reduces the chance that five other books might garner some attention. IMHO, that is not a good thing.

  1. Apples and Oranges

There is inevitably some randomness to award distribution. Books on the whole are subjective little beasties, after all. And depending on the composition of the judging committee, some years noir may be favored over cozies, or vice versa. And really, how do you compare the two? Does the best romantic suspense novel trump the best paranormal? How do you weigh books written in only loosely related genres against each other? There are great books produced every year, across the board, in all formats. Yet it does seem that the more “serious” books (which tend to be hardcovers) have an edge. This is precisely why the Golden Globes feature separate categories for comedy and drama; it gives the comedies a shot, when traditionally they’re overlooked.

The RWA’s RITA Awards acknowledge this issue by having separate categories for Historical Romance, Paranormal Romance, and Romantic Suspense, among other subgenres. And these awards are generally acknowledged to be the romance publishing industry’s highest distinction.


  1. Multiple categories dilute the significance (or “Brand,” if you will) of the award

This claim I really don’t agree with. If anything, changing which books are eligible for an award on an annual basis would seem to threaten its legitimacy far more than keeping or adding categories (not to mention being incredibly confusing for authors and publishers). For example, last year my debut thriller was not eligible in the Best First category since it was a mass market paperback. The year before (2006) it would have been in the running, and it would again this year (2008). But in 2007 it was thrown into the mix with every other paperback author, regardless of whether they were on book one or twenty. Random? Absolutely. I’m glad they reverted to a true “Best First” category, with every debut eligible regardless of format. You only get one first novel, after all.

  1. “The Thrillies”

Personally, I’m all for having your more serious “Thriller Awards,” with gravitas, pomp, and circumstance. But after handing those out, why not have a little fun? Present an alternate set of awards and call them the “Thrillies.” Give a “Best Psycho” trophy (a knife, perhaps?) for the most terrifying villain, or a “Best Sex” prize for the best sex scene (I’ll let you use your imagination when picturing the prize for that one.)
I realize that will probably never happen, but it’s fun to consider. I’ve always thought that the Thriller Awards should be to the Edgars what the Golden Globes are to the Oscars: more entertaining and light-hearted, with someone throwing up in the bathroom by the end of the show. The Golden Globes achieve that by passing out more awards, not less (and by serving copious amounts of liquor). And I
don’t think an actor has ever turned one down because they felt having more categories diminished the significance.

I love the ITW organization, and have volunteered for it because I’m such a believer in their mission and goals. But in this instance I believe they’ve made a mistake.

There are many strong and legitimate opinions on both sides of this debate, and I’d love to hear them. Plus, if anyone has a spare Grammy hanging around, I’m in the market for one…

(my imaginary Grammy)


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Confessions of a true-crime TV junkie

Note: Leave a comment on the blog through Wednesday to qualify for our $50 gas card prize! We’ll draw the winning name out of the hat!

I’ll admit something straight away: I’m addicted to true-crime TV shows.

My TiVo never misses a taping of America’s Most Wanted. I get a rush of adrenalin whenever host John Walsh announces the capture of another “dirt bag.” When he profiles the nasty dudes who are still at large, I study their pictures and video, trying to memorize their features. My only problem is that I actually have a lousy memory for both names and faces, so if I ever spot anyone on the lam in my hometown, which is known for its beach volleyball and beer bars, it’s possible I’ll be fingering, not an America’s Most Wanted, but an America’s Most Wasted Party Animal.

Another one of my absolute favorite shows is The First 48. The show follows homicide detectives during the critical first 48 hours of an investigation. It shows the gritty reality of their routines, and their race against time to find the suspect. The best part of the show is the interrogations. I have to admit I’m always amazed by how easily some of the bad guys confess. If I were a killer (and don’t worry, it’s not in my game plan), I’d be one of those who “lawyer up” and never say a word to the cops.

These true-crime shows fascinate me because as a mystery author, I needto know what makes both sides tick—the criminals and the crime fighters. And I’m always fascinated to learn how real homicide detectives work. What is it, exactly, that makes them able to crack a complicated case with few clues to go on?

In an attempt to find the answer, I once made a pilgrimage to Hollywood, where LAPD Chief William J. Bratton was signing a book of photos for which he had written the foreword. I bought the book, got his signature, and then waited patiently for the Q&A.

Then, I raised my hand.

“What is the major quality that distinguishes a great homicide detective?” I asked. “How are they special?”

The Chief spent a moment considering. Then he said, “The really good ones look at a room differently than you and I do. They can simply see more—the crime, the layout, and how it must have happened.”

Ah, that’s it. A different type of sight—that’s the key, according to Chief Bratton. I wonder how that special vision affects the everyday life of homicide cops. They must see less of a safety zone around the average person’s life than we do. They’re too used to seeing that zone violently assaulted. They’ve got cop’s eyes.

I’ll never be able to “see” the world exactly the way a homicide cop does. But I’ll keep trying. And that’s just one of the reasons I’m a crime show junkie.

How about you—as writers, how do you study real crimes to inform your fictional ones? Have you found any shows or sources to be particularly useful? Anything you can share with me? I’m on the prowl for my next true crime fix.

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Villain week, continued: What I love about bad guys

By Kathryn Lilley

Yesterday Clare asked us to describe our notion of the ‘ideal’ villain in fiction.

I’ll be honest—when I pick up a thriller, I want the slayer to be super-sized. My killer’s got to be so cold and bad-ass, he’s doing the Monster Mash all over the page, leaving behind a trail of bloody footprints.

Fiction-wise, that makes Hannibal Lecter my kind of evil doer. Also Dexter Morgan of Darkly Dreaming Dexter—and Dexter’s actually likeable as he plunges the blade into his victims.

I don’t know why I prefer to read about fictional villains who are larger than life. Maybe it’s because I came of age in the seventies, an era when serial killers seemed to be stalking the nation’s youth as well as our collective psyche via the nightly news. Ted Bundy, David Berkowitz, John Wayne Gacy, and later the BTK Killer—each psycho’s saga chilled me to the bone. I started to dwell on all the ways I could possibly die at the hands of a cold sociopath. I probably got way too carried away with my projections, to the point that I’d scan the faces of charming, needy young men and smiling clowns, searching for signs of a hidden killer within.

It’s the recreation of that goose-bump factor that gets my reader’s juices flowing these days. But I also know that there’s no lack of chill potential in “everyday” murders. To do some research for today’s blog post, this morning I pulled a book off my shelf called Scene of the Crime, Photographs from the LAPD Archive. It’s a picture book filled with vintage images of murder victims and crime scenes.

One photo and its caption from 1951 haunted me all day. A platinum blonde is shown slumped in the passenger seat of an automobile. A black rivulet of blood streams from one ear. According to the caption,her name was Libby. She’d been shot four times by her boyfriend, who’d left a message written on the back of a check:

“She died instantly,” her sweetheart killer wrote. “…painlessly and mercifully, happy with joyous thoughts that could never be brought to reality…The back of her head faced me. I looked at her beautiful new silver blonde hair and I squeezed the trigger…I have no beliefs other than that the end fully justifies the means. And a few paltry dollars made her so happy!”

Now that’s chilling.

Breaking News: Last week’s winner of DYING TO BE THIN

Seanchai won last week’s contest for a copy of DYING TO BE THIN over at the Kill Zone!

Seanchai, send me your mailing address and I’ll mail you a signed copy this week! (I tried to post a notification to your blog but I couldn’t get it to post). Best, Kathryn

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Capturing fear on the page

By Kathryn Lilley

As a young girl, I hated feeling afraid.

But as a grown-up mystery writer (or at least, grown older), I love describing fear.

Like many authors, I’m a professional scaremonger. Give me any type of fear—it can be emotional, physical, healthy, or deluded—and I’ll do my best to exploit it into the stuff of page-turning prose.

Becoming a suspense writer was the only logical career choice for me. My family hails from the Deep South, where the art of self-protection (and its spawn, gun ownership) is a time-honored tradition. During my formative years, while other families were discussing events of the day around the dinner table, my father and I were drafting sketches for an all-terrain escape vehicle—just in case nuclear war broke out. (I believe the final design resembled a cross between a modern-day Stryker and an M48 Patton tank. Among its more notable features was a dedicated flamethrower).

The mission of guarding against life’s dangers, both real and imagined, ranked high in our priority of family values. We had a loaded M-16 hanging on the wall, and a vintage cannon in the dining room. I think it was some kind of Austrian Howitzer—all I know is, the old brass weapon made a truly deafening roar when we fired it on New Year’s Eve at the turn of the millennium. During the celebratory bang, everyone stood way, way back in case the damn thing exploded and blasted off part of the hill.

Gun play features heavily in my family stories and legends. People love to tell the story of my great-grandmother Nell. She left her house one afternoon for a stroll, then was approached by a couple of men asking for directions. Nell pulled a pistol from her fur muff and casually waved it about in the air to indicate which way they should go. Which they promptly did.

Even our ancient family history is fraught with mystery. At some point in time, one of my ancestors was “disappeared” from the family Bible; the man’s name was simply scratched out. For a couple of generations, no one seemed to know what had happened to him, and his name was never mentioned by the living. Eventually, an enthusiastic family genealogist turned up an old church funeral log in Texas that revealed his fate. The log noted that his body had been discovered—beheaded—lying on a train track. Next to the dead man’s name, the minister had written a single-word question: “Murdered?”

With this kind of genetic legacy, is it any surprise that I feel compelled to write novels that feature danger, suspense and murder? I really had no other choiceit’s all in the family.

What about you? As a mystery or thriller writer, what events started your interest in exploring the darker side of life? As a reader, why do you think you’re drawn the genre?

* Win a copy of DYING TO BE THIN *

I’ll send a signed copy to the author of the best comment today, as judged (extremely subjectively) by moi!

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