Negotiation Secrets for Writers


By Debbie Burke



“Make him an offer he cannot refuse.”
Vector image CC BY 4.0

Whether you’re buying a car, arguing with a boss, or making a deal with your kids to do their homework, most interactions in life are negotiations. Each of us wants to get our own way.

Humans live in a constant state of imbalance, jockeying back and forth to gain the upper hand.

That usually translates into attaining power over someone else. That power can be immense or tiny.

Learning to exploit power imbalances is an effective technique for writers to ramp up the tension in fiction.

In most stories, one character has certain goals while another character has different, conflicting goals. That leads to negotiations between characters that can be physical, verbal, social, or psychological.

The goal can be large scale (world domination) or small scale (spouses arguing whether the toilet seat should be up or down).

One character usually starts out dominant; the other is in an inferior position and wants to rise to the superior position. Their struggle creates tension and suspense as the reader wonders who will prevail.

Each scene in a novel is a micro power struggle between characters. Those struggles can be shown in different ways:

  1. A character has superior knowledge, ability, or position that the other character attempts to gain.
  2. One character wants to control another.
  3. A character takes action that appears to mean one thing but actually means something different.
  4. A character’s dialogue is different from what they’re actually thinking.

Seller says: “I’m offering you a fabulous deal on this 911 Porsche.” Seller thinks: The price is ten grand higher than market but he’s salivating. He won’t leave without the car.

Buyer says: “Forget it. I won’t pay a dime over $$.” But Buyer thinks: I’ve always wanted a 911. If he comes down a grand, I’m snapping it up.

Boss says: “Management told me to cut expenses ten percent across the board including your salary.” Boss thinks: With three kids, she doesn’t dare quit. A ten percent cut means a bigger bonus for me.

Worker says: “That’s unacceptable. Besides, I have a better offer with a twenty percent increase and three weeks paid vacation.” Worker thinks: Can she tell I’m bluffing? What if she fires me?

Anyone who’s ever been a parent can fill in their own examples of negotiations with their kids!

In thrillers, mystery, suspense, sci-fi, and fantasy, typically the antagonist is stronger, richer, smarter, more ruthless, or more determined than the protagonist. The protagonist spends much of the story trying to keep from being squashed and defeated.

Character A may start out in control at the beginning of a scene but Character B has leverage because of superior knowledge or ability that reverses the power by the end of the scene. Then in subsequent scenes, A must scramble and come up with new strategies to regain control while B fends off efforts to topple him/her.

One of my favorite stories is O. Henry’s “Ransom of Red Chief,” first published in the Saturday Evening Post. [Note: some language from 1907 is no longer acceptable today]. It is a detailed blueprint of negotiation among characters who jockey back and forth for power. Demands are made. Counteroffers follow. Demands change, resulting in counter-counteroffers and counter-counter-counteroffers.

Here’s the story premise: Two ruthless criminals, Sam and Bill, decide to kidnap the only son of wealthy Ebenezer Dorset and hold him for a ransom of $2000. Surely Mr. Dorset will immediately cave into their demands and pay. Sam and Bill believe their scheme can’t lose.

When the redheaded ten-year-old victim beans Bill in the head with a brick, that physical act is the first hint of a potential power shift. Nevertheless, Sam and Bill are still in control as they subdue him and spirit him off to a cave hideaway.

However, in the cave, the kidnappers discover their hostage is a handful and they must maneuver to maintain physical and verbal control over him. Bill plays a game of make-believe with the boy, who’s dubbed himself “Red Chief.” In the game, Red Chief captures Bill and ties him up. Soon the kid “…seemed to be having the time of his life. The fun of camping out in a cave had made him forget that he was a captive himself.”

“Red Chief,” says I to the kid, “would you like to go home?”

“Aw, what for?” says he. “I don’t have any fun at home. I hate to go to school. I like to camp out. You won’t take me back home again, will you?”

We weren’t afraid he’d run away.

Although Red Chief remains their prisoner and no longer resists, he has verbally prevailed over Sam and Bill.

Red Chief’s physical harassment of them escalates. The kidnappers’ confidence begins to crack.

During the first night, Sam has a dream that illustrates Red Chief’s growing psychological power: “I had been kidnapped and chained to a tree by a ferocious pirate with red hair.”

Later, terrified screaming wakes Sam.

“Red Chief was sitting on Bill’s chest, with one hand twined in Bill’s hair. In the other he had the sharp case-knife we used for slicing bacon; and he was industriously and realistically trying to take Bill’s scalp.”

Red Chief’s attack demoralizes Bill who asks Sam, “Do you think anybody will pay out money to get a little imp like that back home?”

Their prisoner has taken psychological control of the situation.

Sam leaves the hideout and returns to town, expecting to find villagers in an uproar and frantically searching for the missing boy. He had anticipated the kidnapping would give the criminals social control over the community. Instead, all is calm. Their original premise, that Mr. Dorset will be desperate to get his son back, isn’t happening as planned.


Back at the cave, Sam finds Red Chief has further injured poor Bill. Sam tries to regain physical and verbal control.

I went out and caught that boy and shook him until his freckles rattled. “If you don’t behave,” says I, “I’ll take you straight home. Now, are you going to be good, or not?”

Red Chief appears contrite and apologizes. Sam believes he and Bill are back in the driver’s seat.

But the kidnappers’ determination falters when Bill, who can’t take any more abuse, begins to negotiate with Sam to reduce the ransom terms.

“…it ain’t human for anybody to give up two thousand dollars for that forty-pound chunk of freckled wildcat. I’m willing to take a chance at fifteen hundred dollars. You can charge the difference up to me.”

They agree to lower the ransom. Their foolproof, get-rich scheme is losing ground.

Next, Sam delivers the threatening note:

If you attempt any treachery or fail to comply with our demand as stated, you will never see your boy again. If you pay the money as demanded, he will be returned to you safe and well within three hours. These terms are final, and if you do not accede to them no further communication will be attempted. Two Desperate Men.

Although battered, the disheartened criminals are still holding onto their victim and believe Red Chief’s father will agree.

Instead, Mr. Dorset responds with a counteroffer:

I think you are a little high in your demands, and I hereby make you a counter-proposition, which I am inclined to believe you will accept. You bring Johnny home and pay me two hundred and fifty dollars in cash, and I agree to take him off your hands. You had better come at night, for the neighbours believe he is lost, and I couldn’t be responsible for what they would do to anybody they saw bringing him back. Very respectfully, Ebenezer Dorset.

With a classic O. Henry twist at the end of the story, Bill and Sam are out-negotiated. The kidnappers become the victims and must pay Mr. Dorset to take back Red Chief.

To incorporate negotiation in your own stories, ask these questions:

  1. What are each character’s goals?
  2. Which character is in a stronger position and which is weaker?
  3. How do they negotiate with each other to shift power to achieve their goals?
  4. Do they ask, plead, implore, barter, demand, or threaten?
  5. Do they slyly seduce their opponent? Or beat the snot out of them?
  6. Do they feign defeat to fool their opponent into dropping their guard?
  7. Do they bluff and posture, claiming strength or power they don’t actually have?

The more your characters negotiate with each other, the more the power shifts between them, raising tension and suspense. Readers turn pages to find out who wins. When you keep readers interested, they become fans who buy your next book.

Make your readers an offer they cannot refuse. 


TKZers: Please share negotiations and power struggles between fictional characters that made an impression on you. Use examples from published stories, films, or your own WIP.


Debbie Burke is making an offer you can’t refuse:

For only $.99, try out the award-winning Tawny Lindholm Thriller series.

Special price for Thanksgiving week only. 

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Giving Good Book Tour

by Michelle Gagnon

In my last post, I mentioned that I was offering a seminar on book events at a writing conference. A few people requested that I post excerpts from what was, if I do say so myself, a brilliant PowerPoint presentation (At least no one fell asleep. Well, the one guy who did wasn’t actually snoring until the very end).

So here are my tips, in a somewhat random order:

The Basics:

Timing is everything, in life and especially in book tours. When planning yours, a few things to bear in mind…

3-6 months before your release date:

  • Contact stores and libraries to set up your tour. There’s a strikingly long lead time for events at some venues, and it’s important to get on their calendar early
  • Partner up (more on this later)
  • Pitch a “theme” event (also, please see below)
  • Convince the booksellers that you’ll be able to draw a crowd, then do your best to fill those seats. Get in touch with the local MWA and SinC chapters of whatever region you’re visiting, and ask nicely if they’d mind posting an announcement about your event. Work those social networks to make sure your followers know that you’ll be coming to their hometown. Call long lost relatives and demand that they show up and buy ten books to make up for that incident in 1992. Whatever it takes.

The week before your book hits shelves:

  • Call a week before to check details. I learned this one the hard way, when my publicist gave me the wrong date for one event, and the wrong time for another. Hell hath no wrath like a bookseller who promoted an event that an author showed up to an hour late. Trust me, checking the details personally in advance can save everyone a lot of tears.
  • Arrive at the venue at least fifteen minutes early to doublecheck the set-up, and (more importantly), to introduce yourself to every bookseller in the store
  • ALWAYS bring extra books. The only times I haven’t also coincided with the times when I packed the place, the bookseller had only stocked a handful of copies, and they rapidly sold out. Times like that, most sellers are happy to buy the books from you on consignment.
  • Remember to bring promotional materials (bookmarks, magnets, pens, etc.) I always tend to remember this one as I’m sitting on a plane, picturing the stack of bookmarks still sitting in a bag by my front door.


I loathe doing a book event by myself, I truly do. Whenever possible, I prefer to share the burden with at least one other author, which has led to some fascinating experiences with a cast of characters ranging from teddy bear aficionados to reformed bank robbers.
Offering an event with one or more other authors has some key benefits:

  • You can interview each other, do a Q & A, or just talk up each others’ books, which tends to be much easier than lauding your own
  • It’s easier to secure a book signing, since booksellers believe (rightly) that two authors are a better draw than one
  • Cross-promotion; your fellow author’s fans learn about your books, and vice versa (and hopefully, they buy copies of both)
  • Worst case scenario, if no one shows up, you have someone to play cards with

Another option to consider: set up an event with more “unconventional” partners. To date, one of my most successful events in terms of sales was at a cocktail party hosted by a friend. She invited me to sell books, a jewelry designer to sell jewelry, and a rep from a kid’s educational toy company to sell toys. And all of us sold out–people came prepared to spend money, and after a few glasses of wine they shopped like mad.

Theme Events:

Booksellers and readers both love novel experiences (no pun intended). If the subject matter of your book naturally lends itself to a theme, fantastic. If not, get creative. Here are some examples:

  • Rhys Bowen hosted “Royal Tea Parties” at bookstores for the release of “Her Royal Spyness.”
  • Kelli Stanley held the release party for her 1930’s era novel “City of Dragons” at a modern day Speakeasy.
  • Heather Graham hosted a séance for “The Séance” release in Salem, Massachusetts.

So if your book involves classic cars, I’d recommend hitting at least as many car shows as bookstores. Same with any craft-related novels–get thee to quilting bees, scrapbooking parties, the works. The teddy bear guy (and no, I’m not making this up, there is a teddy bear guy, and he’s lovely), told me about teddy bear conferences where he’ll set up a table and sell a few thousand books in a single day.

My books don’t tend to have themes, outside of dirty bombs, kidnappings, and terrorists (and those terms don’t naturally lend themselves to mass attendance). At Thrillerfest one year, a group of us were discussing how tough it can be to land events in New York City bookstores.
The following year, we found a way around it– during Tfest, we organized a mass reading at a local Borders with the theme, “Quick Thrills from Out-of-Towners,” asked the extraordinarily gracious Lee Child to serve as our MC, and we managed to pack the place. Creativity can pay off.

In a nutshell, those are my top recommendations. But I’d be curious to hear from both authors and readers: what’s the best book event you ever attended, and what made it so great?

The Best and Worst Writing Advice I Ever Got

by Michelle Gagnon

On June 12th, bright and early Sunday morning, I’ll be offering suggestions on how to run great book presentations and events at the California Crime Writer’s Conference in Pasadena. Which I’m excited about, despite the fact that it requires me to dust off my poorly honed Powerpoint skills. (And the fact that although I like to believe that I’ve given some great book events, others have been merely mediocre, and there was one memorable time when Simon Wood and I sat alone in a store playing Scrabble for an hour).

But today, I was offered yet another panel at the conference. In my opinion, an even better one entitled, “The Best and Worst Advice I Ever Got.”

The only problem is that it’s a mere hour long. And honestly, after just five years as a published author, I could probably hold forth for at least a few hours. I’m sure that Jim, Gilstrap, and Miller could carry it along for at least twice that long (in fact, perhaps we should host an impromptu version of the panel at the Bouchercon bar in St. Louis).

So I’m going to use today’s post to start consolidating my thoughts. Let’s start with the positive, shall we?

Best Advice:

  • Don’t quit your day job. Of course, if you received a seven figure advance, you might want to consider quitting it. But it’s a good idea to wait and see how that first book sells before you march into your boss’ office and hand in your resignation along with a few choice words about where he/she can stick it. Far too many authors have fizzled out after a few books (particularly those who didn’t even come close to earning out those huge advances).
  • The majority of the marketing burden rests squarely on your shoulders. At the first conference I attended, many of my illusions were shattered when I learned that it was highly unlikely that my publisher would organize (or pay for) a book tour, advertising, or even bookmarks. Sure, it happens. But more often, it doesn’t, which means that much of your writing time gets devoted to figuring out whether or not people really want magnets of your book cover (more on that later, in the “worst advice” section).
  • Don’t spend your entire advance on marketing. Seriously, don’t. There are people who will tell you to do just that (so let’s consider that an addendum to the “worst advice” column). If the advance is just gravy to you, then sure, it might be worth it. But the sad truth is that most marketing dollars end up getting wasted. It’s all a matter of picking and choosing. And hey, you’ve managed to get an advance. Go out and buy yourself something nice with at least part of it, preferably something other than magnets.
  • Use the Social Networks Sparingly. In January, Sisters in Crime released a comprehensive study of what influences mystery readers to purchase books. And the social networks (including book specific sites such as Shelfari and Goodreads) came out at the bottom of the list, below author newsletters and postcard mailings. If you use these websites as your virtual water cooler (as I tend to), then enjoy them. And yes, you will occasionally sell a few books thanks to them. But they won’t help you hit the bestsellers list, and they tend to suck away writing time like an out of control roomba.

Worst Advice:

  • Send a quirky mass mailing to every independent bookstore. This advice came from an renowned author who claimed that sending a copy of a profile piece from a major paper along with a personal note to booksellers propelled him into the top ten on the New York Times list. Who could argue with that? So for my debut novel, I spent a serious chunk of my marketing budget (and countless hours) coming up with a cute, quirky tie-in to my storyline (wood chips burned with runes, if you must know), and a letter introducing myself and the basic plot. It was during the third event on my tour (the tour I organized, of course) that the bookseller gave me a blank look when I asked if she’d received the mailing. She proceeded to pull out an oversized garbage can, pointed to it, and said, “I fill this up twice a week with the crap people send us. We don’t even bother opening it anymore.” Ouch. Lesson learned.
  • Flog that book on the social networks like it’s a half-dead mule carrying twice its body weight up a mountain. Okay, no one actually ever told me to do this, but apparently someone is offering that advice. Because every day someone on Facebook adds me to a group created solely to promote their book, or adds my name to their newsletter list, or tweets repetitively about it. I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for some BSP, but there is definitely a line, and far too many people are crossing it these days. I finally stopped participating in Amazon reading groups because half the postings were shameless plugs. Enough already. As noted above, a grand total of 4% of book purchases can be credited to Facebook and Twitter.
  • Hire a publicist. Oh, how I rue this one. Even more than the rune mailing. Because unless you’ve got a hardcover book coming out with a major hook, and the cash to hire a serious promotional firm (five figures, not four, generally speaking), a publicist is a tremendous waste of cash. Thanks to mine I ended up on a radio call-in show based in Tuscaloosa whose host was a conspiracy theorist with a fondness for sound effects, particularly air horns. And I was a guest on the show for two solid hours before finally asking, on air, how long I was supposed to keep talking. When he said, “All night, baby, we’re just getting started,” I hung up. They weren’t all that bad- but I very much doubt that anything the publicist did helped.

And now it’s time for audience participation. Let’s hear it: the good, the bad, and the just plain ugly advice…

Dueling Manuscripts

by Michelle Gagnon

So I’m currently working on two writing projects at the same time. One of the novels I’m actually getting paid for, the other is a passion project that I started last year and have yet to finish. The goal is to complete both novels in the next six months.

These days, dueling manuscripts aren’t a rarity–in fact, most of the writers I know are doing the same, publishing multiple books a year just to stay afloat.

But a few weeks into this multitasking adventure, I can’t for the life of me figure out how they’re managing it. I feel like I’m trying to nudge two balls up a mountain simultaneously: I manage to move one a few feet, only to discover that the other has slipped down and I have to race back to it.

In the past I’ve worked on short stories while writing a novel, or tackled a screenplay while editing a book. But this is the first time I’ve confronted the challenge of working on two completely separate series simultaneously. Better yet, one is geared toward a Young Adult audience, and I’m still somewhat confused about what limitations that places on it (I don’t generally have much sex in my books, but my characters do tend to have filthy mouths. Is that okay? Do teens say “like” anymore? And what kind of music are the kids listening to these days anyway? You see the problem.)

My agent expressed concern when we first discussed the possibility of signing a new book contract. After all, we’d agreed that I would take my time with the passion project (which will henceforth be referred to as MOPWW, or “My Own Personal White Whale”), working on it without deadline pressure.
“So you’re sure you can write both in that timeframe?” she asked (sounding, in all honesty, a little dubious).
“Oh, absolutely,” I said with confidence. “In fact, I’ll probably have them both done early.”

Ha ha ha.

While contract negotiations were finalized, I did my utmost to finish MOPWW. Unfortunately, I didn’t succeed, and suddenly the “i’s” were dotted and “t’s” were crossed and the September 1st deadline for the YA novel became a reality. I was forced to admit that I’d have to work on both books at the same time.

Initially, I didn’t think it would be a problem. I figured I’d spend mornings on one, and then alternate after lunch. Easy, right?

The problem is, I end up becoming so engaged with one project, it’s hard to switch gears. I find myself really wanting to forge ahead with MOPWW, to the complete neglect of the other manuscript (you know, the one I’m actually getting paid for). Just one more day, I figure. If I can write just a few more scenes, and get within striking distance of the ending, I can set it aside and work on the YA in earnest…

Next thing I know, another week has passed and I’ve primarily made progress on the whale.

Meanwhile, that deadline clock is ticking away in the background, dishes are piling up in the sink, laundry is overflowing the hamper, bills are sitting on my desk unopened (and oh, the mess on my desk–I’m sure it puts Clare’s to shame).
So how do people do it? And is anyone willing to take care of these dishes for me?

Stuck in the Middle

by Michelle Gagnon

So I’ve once again hit my least favorite part of the manuscript: approximately 50,000 words down, 50,000 to go.

This is always the point where sitting down at the keyboard seems to thrust me into another dimension, one where time eases to a standstill and no matter how many hours I log, the word count fights me, barely inching upward. Oh, the saggy middle. How I loathe it. My writing pace slows. Plot points that seemed brilliant 20,000 words ago are now, clearly, just dead wrong. It sometimes feels like I’ll never pull all the disparate elements together into something coherent that readers will actually pay for. These are the days when I dread opening that .doc file, when I’m tempted to do almost anything else (including laundry and cleaning my oven).

So in lieu of more whining, I’ve come up with some tips for surviving the midpoint (or, really, any writing lows):

1. Walk away
This can be accomplished literally: by turning off the computer, heading out the door and walking around the block a few times. Sometimes engaging in real-life activities, like dinner with friends or a movie, actually provides a new perspective on a particularly tricky plot point.
Or figuratively: closing the manuscript file and starting a new document. Writing a short story, or starting the first chapter of a different book. Sometimes to jar things loose, I’ll embark on a completely different project. Lately during breaks from the manuscript I’ve been working on a screenplay. In some ways that flexes a different part of my brain. Then when I return to the manuscript, the well has been replenished.

2. Engage in some positive reinforcement
If I’m really starting to feel as though my writing has taken a nosedive, I dig up some of my earlier work and re-read the stronger passages. Reminding myself that once upon a time I managed to write intelligible sentences is always heartening. It also helps me remember that I’ve been in this position before, and in the end I managed to finish the book, more or less on time.

3. Spend some time with a master
If re-reading my own work isn’t motivating enough, I turn to authors whose writing always blows me away. For instance, I was struggling with a love scene. The prose was painfully purple, the dialogue cliched, I was beyond frustrated with it. So I went back to a bookmarked passage in Tana French’s last book FAITHFUL PLACE, where a love scene was rendered so painfully well, reading it almost felt intrusive and voyeuristic. Seeing how she accomplished that was inspirational.

There’s simply no getting around it: this part of the writing process is always a monotonous, painful slog. It’s like a train inching up a mountain, the going always gets toughest right before hitting the peak, then it’s a race down the other side.

If you have any tips/coping mechanisms for getting through these next 25,000 words, I’d love to hear them.

Freedom from the Virtual Tether

by Michelle Gagnon

Hi. I’m Michelle, and I’m hooked on the internet. Sure, I make all sorts of excuses. I’m only doing it for the marketing. I need it for research. It’s the only social interaction I get, especially now that the UPS guy won’t be showing up daily with Christmas deliveries. I can stop whenever I want.
So here we are in a brand new year. I’m not usually one for making resolutions, but Clare’s post on Monday touched a nerve.
Clare discussed the merits of keeping a writing journal while working on a book. And all I could think was that there was no way I’d ever find the time- I’m barely getting enough fiction writing as it is.
Which then lead to musings on why that’s the case…
When I tabulate it, time spent dealing with emails, social networking groups, and listservs has crept up every year. Every writer knows that this is somewhat of a necessary evil- we’re constantly told that these days online marketing is key, and maintaining a presence in these different forums is critical to our success.
But is it true?

Sure, I’ve made sales via Facebook, Twitter, and some of the lists. But even skimming the group digest deluge that arrives in my inbox every day sucks up precious minutes. Responding to other peoples’ comments and feeds takes even more time. And at the end of the day, I discover that I’ve spent a fairly significant chunk of it on minutiae. It’s as if I spent an entire afternoon hanging out by the watercooler (and yes, I’m fully aware of the irony of posting this on a blog).

So here’s my resolution: I’m signing up for Freedom, a program that will lock me out of the internet for specific time periods. For months I’ve resisted doing this, since it would seem to imply an appalling lack of self-control. But there it is, the sad truth. I’ve tried cutting back on my own, turning off my Airport. And yet when I hit one of those writing lulls, my first thought is, “I wonder if that email came in?” or “What’s happening on Facebook?”

Here’s the companion issue: checking all of those nifty devices. I went to dinner with a friend last week who spent most of our evening together simultaneously checking email, texts, and God knows what else. And I’m not throwing stones–I’ve occasionally been guilty of the same. It’s tempting, after all, to constantly monitor that virtual tether. But it’s also an addiction that appears to be spiraling out of control worldwide.

Two resolutions, then: the Freedom program, and keeping my various devices tucked away the majority of the time. As with all addictions, I’ll be taking it one day at a time. So if I don’t respond to your comments immediately, don’t take it as an affront- rather, a sign that I’ve taken that first step. Wish me luck.


by Michelle Gagnon

There was a lively debate about typos last week in one of the crime fiction forums. This is always a particularly painful subject for me. You see, I’m a bit of a perfectionist, especially when it comes to my books. I’ve gone through each and every one of them with a fine-tooth comb at least twenty times before they leave my hands and head off to the printer. My sister, a talented editor and copy-editor, has also read through each manuscript three or four times by that point. And of course, my editor and copyediting team at the publishing house have played their part in making sure that the final product is as close to perfect as we can get it.

And yet, somehow, someway, they always get in there.

I first discovered this with my debut THE TUNNELS. My book club offered to read the book, which was a real thrill until they sat down and said almost in unison, “Oh my God, that typo!”

Turns out that a particularly glaring one appears early in the book. I was completely mortified. I raced home after the meeting and dug up my final line-edited copy of the manuscript: no typo. How it got there remains a puzzle to this day.

Which is why I adamantly refuse to crack the cover on my books once they appear in printed form. Because one of those little buggers probably snuck in there. And some sharp-eyed reader is going to make a note of it, and think less of me because of it. Which makes me crazy.

My favorite part of the discussion last week, however, involved other peoples’ “worst typo” ever stories. So I took it upon myself to consolidate the really, truly awful, culled both from that site and other sources:

  • Based on a completely unscientific analysis (conducted by me), one of the more common typos involves neglecting to include the “l” in the word “public.” Several people listed this as an issue, including a woman who produced a newsletter sent to 20,000 pub(l)ic employees, supervisors, and the district office. I would argue that there’s a definite Freudian component to this one.
  • Along the same lines…one contributor used to live on St. Denis Street. Unfortunately their Catholic newsletter incorrectly recorded the “D” in “Denis” as a “P.” And yet somehow, the mail continued to arrive at their house. Apparently they had a better mail delivery person than I have ever been blessed with. Or at least one with a decent sense of humor.
  • Penguin Group Australia once had to reprint 7000 cookbooks due to a typo. The recipe in The Pasta Bible called for “salt and freshly ground black people.” The lesson here: spell check and autofill are not always your friend.
  • One author received a note from a reviewer who, “loved the book, but was concerned by the fact that at one point your heroine looks out across a sea of feces.”
  • And finally, one from the history books: A bible published in the 1600s in London omitted the word “not” in the Seventh Commandment, leading to the mandate, “Thou Shalt Commit Adultery.” Perhaps this is the version many prominent politicians were raised on.

So I’d love to hear any great (as in, truly terrible/mortifying/hilarious) typo stories.

The real-life kidnapping that inspired KIDNAP & RANSOM

by Michelle Gagnon

My fourth book, KIDNAP & RANSOM, was released on November 1st. And unlike my last thriller, this time a real-life kidnapping sparked the initial idea for the story.

While researching border issues for THE GATEKEEPER in December of 2008, I stumbled across an article on the kidnapping of Felix Batista. Batista was a security consultant for ASI Global (if you saw the film PROOF OF LIFE, this was the same job held by Russell Crowe’s character).

Batista personally negotiated the release of more than a hundred hostages over the course of his career. That December he was in Saltillo, Mexico, offering advice on how to handle the uptick in abductions for ransom. While dining with local businessmen one evening, Batista excused himself from the table to take a phone call. On his way out of the restaurant to get better reception, he handed his companions his laptop and a list of phone numbers in case he didn’t return (this was a man who clearly knew you can never be too careful). Moments later, an SUV pulled to the curb and Batista was forced inside. He hasn’t been seen or heard from since.

The irony of the story grabbed me—the hero becoming the victim, an expert suddenly forced into the position he’d saved so many people from. Stranger still, his kidnapping wasn’t proceeding normally—there was no ransom demand, and no one claimed responsibility for seizing him. It was a true mystery. (And over the next two years, kidnappings and cartel violence in Mexico became increasingly rampant, spilling over the border to such an extent that related articles appeared in the U.S. media nearly every day.)

So I set off to find out more about narcocartels south of the border, and about kidnappings in general. I fixed on Los Zetas, mainly because their backstory was fascinating. Los Zetas is a gang comprised mainly of former Mexican Army soldiers. They were part of an elite brigade, comparable to the Army Rangers, trained in special operations techniques by the best in the business at Fort Benning in Georgia. Upon returning to Mexico, they promptly left the Army and went to work for the Gulf Cartel. Eventually, they branched off on their own, wresting control of drug trafficking operations from rival cartels. In recent years Los Zetas have become increasingly involved in kidnappings, murder-for-hire, extortion, money laundering, human smuggling, and oil siphoning. They’re suspected of killing the 72 migrants found in a mass grave in Tamaulipas last August, and of the murder of American David Hartley on Falcon Lake last September. The DEA considers Los Zetas to be the most violent paramilitary enforcement group in Mexico.
So when it came to villains, the choice was easy.

Last May, I attended the wedding of a friend from Mexico City who had helped tremendously with my research. At the reception, I was seated with some of his relatives. When they found out that my latest novel was set in their hometown, they were enthusiastic…until they heard the title.

“Oh, no,” one uncle said. “You cannot write about that. Mexico City is very safe.”

“Really?” I asked (in all sincerity, might I add). “I heard that most locals know at least one person who has been kidnapped.”

“Well, of course,” they all agreed. Every single person at the table knew someone who had been kidnapped. But as they explained, it’s much worse up north by the border with Texas. There, it’s really a problem.

Mexico is rapidly supplanting Iraq and Colombia as the kidnapping capital of the world. In the past decade, drug cartels and terror groups have seized upon kidnappings as a relatively low-risk source of financing. During a recent election in Russia, one political party’s entire campaign was funded covertly by ransom money.

Many kidnapping victims are held for months, or years. Some continue to be held even though their ransom has been paid. Many never make it home again.
I dedicated KIDNAP & RANSOM to them, and to people like Felix Batista who devote their lives to freeing them.

Insider’s Guide to San Francisco for the Bouchercon-bound

by Michelle Gagnon

I wasn’t born in San Francisco, but have made it my home for the past fifteen years (and I’m married to a fourth generation native) So if you’ll be visiting our fair city this week for Bouchercon, here are a few tips:

Sightseeing: What makes San Francisco so unique is its proximity to breathtaking natural settings. If you get a chance, make an excursion to Muir Woods, the redwoods really are astonishing. Or head just across the Golden Gate Bridge to the Marin Headlands for a quick, easy hike and tour of WWII bunkers. Alcatraz is also definitely worth the trip (take the audio tour, it’s great), and offers unparalleled views of the Golden Gate Bridge. But be forewarned, you usually need to book a spot on the ferry a few days in advance.

Closer at hand, one of my favorite spots in the city is Crissy Field. Great views of the bridge from here, too, and there’s an easy walk along the shore where you can watch kite-surfers jetting across the Bay. (Also, there’s a hot dog vendor in front of the warming hut that sells organic all-beef hot dogs: delicious, and a far cry from your average sausage). If you keep following the road around the warming hut, it ends at Fort Point, where in the film Vertigo Kim Novak jumped into the frigid waters. Sticking to the Hitchcock theme, take a cable car up Mason Street from Union Square. At the top of the hill you can visit Grace Cathedral, our miniature version of Notre Dame. And at the intersection of Mason and California is The Brocklebank, a historic building featured in both Vertigo and Bullitt (any other Steve McQueen fans out there?)

San Francisco Landmarks you won’t find in any travel guide: Keep your eyes peeled for “The Twins,” elderly twin sisters who dress in matching hats, dresses, and wigs, frequently spotted strolling arm-in-arm around Huntington Park (across the street from Grace Cathedral—also a great place to see Chinatown locals practicing Tai Chi in the morning).

If you’re in the mood for a more serious walk, head to Coit Tower. Interesting art exhibits inside, and great views of the city. Afterwards, walk down the east stairway (on the Bay Bridge side). Halfway down, keep your eyes peeled for the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill, a flock of birds that have escaped their owners (there’s a wonderful documentary and book about the birds).

Restaurants: I love all the restaurants in the Ferry Building, which range from cheap eats to more highbrow fare (there’s a fantastic independent bookstore here too, Book Passage). Try Mijita for the best fish taco you’ve ever had in your life, or the Slanted Door for upscale Vietnamese. Hog’s Oyster Bar makes the best clam chowder on the Pacific coast, Lulu Petite sells delicious sandwiches, and Taylor’s Refreshers has milkshakes and burgers. Or grab fixings from the Farmer’s Market and stroll along the Embarcadero to picnic at the base of the Cupid’s Span (Embarcadero and Folsom Street—tough to miss, it’s a sixty-foot tall bow and arrow.) Houston’s along the Embarcadero has fantastic ribs and a cute outdoor patio in back. And granted it’s touristy, but no stay here is complete without eating chowder from a sourdough bread bowl at Fisherman’s Wharf.

For French food, try local favorite Café Bastille. This restaurant is located on a cobblestoned alley with a slew of other wonderful restaurants, and they close off the street on Bastille Day for a major fete every year.

Best fish restaurant (and one of the oldest eateries in the city to boot) is Tadich Grill. They don’t accept reservations, so there might be a bit of a wait, but the food and atmosphere is worth it.
Best breakfast: line up at Sears Fine Foods (Powell Street and Post) for a terrific and reasonably priced breakfast. Order the Swedish pancakes, you won’t be disappointed.

North Beach is the place to go for Italian. My personal favorite is Da Flora, a bit pricey but very romantic with its muted lighting and fabulous food. Near the hotel, Town Hall in SoMa is fantastic, and closer to Union Square both Masas and Sons and Daughters are excellent. Tucked away in the Rincon Center is some of the best dim sum you’ll ever have in your life at Yank Sing.

Bars: I know, the chances of most attendees leaving the hotel bar are slim. But rest assured, drinks almost anywhere else will be a cheaper option. One of my favorite saloons is Vesuvio, an old beatnik hangout (check out Jack Kerouac Alley which runs along the side of the bar and features an amazing mural, and City Lights Bookstore next door). Right down the street is Toscas, a bar that nearly everyone who has lived in San Francisco for any significant length of time has frequented at least once. There are a lot of decent restaurants along the Embarcadero (running south from the Ferry Building) including Market Cafe and Waterfront Cafe). In my experience, full meals at these eateries is overpriced, but beer and appetizers are reasonable and the views can’t be beat.

I’m more of a foodie than a shopper (in case that wasn’t already apparent) but the best department stores are all located around Union Square. If you’re looking for something out of the ordinary, right behind City Hall is Hayes Valley, where there are a number of boutiques stocking local designers (most of them are located on Hayes Street itself). Union Street (oddly enough, not located anywhere near Union Square) also has high-end boutiques, but you’ll need to cab there (this would partner well with a Crissy Field excursion!)

Safety: Not the most fun topic to close with, but it bears some discussion. The streets of San Francisco are filled with characters, homeless and otherwise. And there’s generally safety in numbers. That being said, 6th Street is to be avoided at night at all costs. Just a few blocks from the hotel, it’s one of the most dangerous spots in the city (as is Market Street for a block before and after it). Then, when 6th Street crosses Market, you’re entering The Tenderloin, so named because in the past cops who worked that beat received a higher salary, enabling them to bring home a better cut of meat in exchange for putting their lives at risk. And not much has changed. The safest bet at night is to stay fairly close to the area around Union Square, or stick to the streets between the hotel and the Ferry Building. And I recommend taking cabs after dark if you’re going more than a few blocks.
That’s all that comes to mind, but if you have any other questions fire away!
Looking forward to seeing you all!

Translating bestsellers to the screen

by Michelle Gagnon

I stumbled across this piece the other day in the LA Times, which dovetailed perfectly with a conversation a friend and I had recently about the pros and cons of getting your novel optioned. Several current NY Times bestselling writers were virtually undiscovered until their book was made into a film (Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child with THE RELIC come to mind. On a side note: great book, terrible movie).

For many authors the possibility of having their work made into a film, whether the end result is a masterpiece or not, is the dream goal. Because if nothing else, the amount of free advertising garnered by a film release exponentially outpaces what most of us receive from our publisher’s marketing departments.

Yet paradoxically, all too frequently a book that was a runaway bestseller on its own flops at the box office.

I can give a few examples. Let’s start with THE LOVELY BONES, hands down one of my favorite reads of the past several years. I thought the adroit manner with which Alice Sebold handled such a difficult storyline was absolutely astonishing. Having a murdered young girl watch her family deal with what happened from the vantage point of heaven could have been unbelievably trite, cliched, and painful to witness. Yet she was so skilled and deft with the story that it worked. It remains one of the only books I’ve ever read that moved me to tears.
When I heard that it was being made into a film, I recoiled. Even though the director was someone whose other work I loved. Because for me, this was a story that I’d experienced so viscerally on the page, nothing onscreen could match it. And so much of what Sebold accomplished had little to do with the actual story, and everything to do with the way in which she wrote it.

THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE is another example. Constructing a linear narrative via a plot that jumped back and forth through time, frequently showcasing different decades on the same page–that was simply astonishing. I became invested in the characters despite the fact that from the opening pages, I knew something terrible was going to happen. But did I want to see Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams as those characters? Not really. Again, they’re two actors whose work I generally enjoy. But it felt as though watching someone else’s interpretation of the book would taint a reading experience that was extremely cathartic for me.

The flip side of the coin is books that actually worked better onscreen. As I wrote in an earlier post, I was underwhelmed by THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. Interesting characters and one interesting plotline (out of two), but any positives for me were lost in what appeared to be an unedited manuscript.
The screenwriter did the smart thing by focusing on the main storyline, eliminating unnecessary details, characters, and red herrings, and condensing it all into something that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Granted, it’s rare, but those few times that a filmmaker manages to improve upon a book, the end result is remarkable (I still think that the cinematic ending of ABOUT A BOY was superior to Hornby’s original). One of the listservs I frequent is currently engaged in a heated debate about the casting for the film version of Evanovich’s ONE FOR THE MONEY. Is Katherine Heigl the right actor to portray Stephanie Plum? She’s not what I imagined for that character, but given her comedic flair, she might surprise me. And how about Angelina Jolie as Kay Scarpetta? Apparently so far Cromwell’s fans are voting 10-1 against the casting. But is the issue that they think she’s wrong for the role, or that they just can’t imagine any actor matching what their imagination conjured up for that character?

So which books would you never want to see on the big screen? And conversely, which movies do you think in the end produced a superior experience?