Open Letter to Readers

Guest Blogger: Lucienne Diver

I’m doing a crazy-obsessive amount of promo…or, at least, guest blogs…for my new novel BAD BLOOD.


I love these characters.  I love this story.  I want people to buy a lot of e-books (and later print) so that I can justify continuing to spend so much of my time with the characters I adore.  Oh sure, I could write their stories anyway, simply for myself, but writing is art.  Maybe I entered too many science fairs in my youth, but I think of it kind of like a circuit, which isn’t complete until it reaches the target audience and meets their interpretations and perceptions.  The success of a piece is in the connection an artist is able to make with her viewer (reader).  Your mileage may vary.

I guess, in a way, this blog is a love note to readers and reviewers—to everyone, really, who not only reads books but takes the time to recommend them to friends, write to the authors, post reviews on blogs, websites,, Barnes & Noble, etc.  Thank you!  You’re the only way we have of knowing whether we’ve accomplished what we set out to do.

Good reviews are gold.  Bad reviews…tarnished gold.  If they’re valid and thoughtful, writers can learn from what readers didn’t respond to and use critiques to improve and grow.  Because most readers and reviewers do critique from a place of love.  They want to be swept away by a work.  That’s really the contract an author makes with a reader.  When you publish your work and someone slaps a price on it, you’re promising that the book will be worth the cost.  If you exceed expectations, your gleeful fans will help spread the word of your supreme awesomeness.  If not, like any consumer, readers might very well express their disappointment.  Will there be differing opinions?  Of course.  Art is subjective.  My father is my own flesh and blood (or I’m his), and I think we’ve yet to agree on a single thing.

My point here is that readers, bloggers and other reviewers  are an integral part of the process.  Without you, we’re like trees falling in the forest with no one to hear them.  So, this is my love note to you all.  THANK YOU to those who care and who support the industry and their favorite authors in wonderfully visible and vocal ways.

To quote Dr. Evil, “You complete me.”

Lucienne Diver does not actually come from circus folk, though you’d never know it to meet her family. She is, however, in no particular order, a wife, mother, book addict, sun-worshipper, mythology enthusiast, beader, travel-junkie, clothes horse and crazy person. She writes the VAMPED series of young adult novels for Flux Books, which School Library Journal calls, “a lighthearted, action-packed, vampire romance story following in the vein of Julie Kenner’s GOOD GHOULS (Berkley), Marlene Perez’s DEAD (Harcourt), and Rachel Caine’s THE MORGANVILLE VAMPIRES (Signet) series.” Her short stories have been included in the STRIP-MAULED and FANGS FOR THE MAMMARIES anthologies edited by Esther Friesner, and her essay “Pulling Your Swing” is included in the 2011 anthology DEAR BULLY. BAD BLOOD marks her first urban fantasy and fourth published novel. Long and Short Reviews gave it her favorite pull-quote of all times, BAD BLOOD is a delightful urban fantasy, a clever mix of Janet Evanovich and Rick Riordan, and a true Lucienne Diver original.”



Cut Off, With Time Running Out

Guest Blogger: Meg Gardiner

Thriller writers grumble that in the twenty-first century, it’s tough to create suspense by isolating a character in dangerous circumstances. For decades, authors could easily strand their heroes in a dark alley, or cast them alone onto a deserted shore, and force them to face down evil forces on their own. It’s a classic way to ratchet up the tension in a story.

But today, everybody has a cell phone. CCTV cameras are everywhere. How could a hero ever find himself alone and out of touch? Characters are never more than two feet from a device that will instantly contact the police, the CIA, or air traffic control, so they can call SWAT for help, expose the terrorist cell, or keep those jumbo jets from colliding.

Yeah, right.

Recently I was scheduled to speak to a local arts group. The group meets at a community center in a neighborhood that’s a fifteen-minute drive from my house. On the day of the talk, I set off early and reached the neighborhood with thirty minutes to spare. I pulled up to the address the arts group had emailed me.

It was a vacant lot.

I doublechecked the street signs. River Street. This was the place. But the place wasn’t there.

And despite having an iPhone in my pocket, despite having the switchboard number for the community center and the cell phone number for the head of the arts group, I couldn’t reach anybody. Nobody answered my calls. And despite having satellite navigation in my car, a Google Maps printout, and an old-fashioned paper map on my lap, all of them telling me I was in the right spot, the community center didn’t seem to exist.

And the street was empty. No cars. No pedestrians. The shops weren’t open yet. The woods beyond them were dense and deserted. It felt like a scene from VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED.

I drove up and down the street, looking for the community center. Looking for a sign, or a demon-possessed child, to tell me what had gone wrong. After twenty-five minutes, with the clock ticking down, I managed to get online via my phone and grab a GPS signal. That’s when I learned that the neighborhood had both a River Street and an Old River Street. Old River was not the address I had been given, but by then I had nothing to lose. I pulled a U-turn and took off for it.

Three minutes later I screeched up in front of the community center, where a lovely woman stood at the curb watching for me, clutching a cell phone. The cell phone that, it turned out, was waiting anxiously for my call, but had a dead battery.

I ran inside and launched straight into my talk to sixty people. All I could say was: Honestly, I didn’t mean to keep everybody in suspense.

Luckily, they laughed. Later, the episode got me thinking. How quickly can we be thrown into a situation where we’re not only out of contact, as I was, but in grave danger?

That becomes a nasty twist in THE NIGHTMARE THIEF.

In the story, a twenty-first birthday “urban reality game” goes wrong and traps a group of college kids in the Sierra Nevada wilderness, fighting for survival along with series heroine Jo Beckett. The mock crime spree weekend is supposed to be the adventure of a lifetime for birthday girl Autumn Reiniger. It’s a high priced version of cops and robbers, played with fast cars and fake guns on the streets of San Francisco. And Edge Adventures alerts the SFPD ahead of time that a “crime simulation” is underway, so the cops can ignore the game—and any emergency calls.

Which is exactly what some very bad people are waiting for.

A gang of kidnappers hijacks the game and grabs Autumn and her friends. They want a huge ransom from her wealthy father. And they’ve timed it so that the police will never suspect that the kidnapping is for real.

Meanwhile, forensic psychiatrist Jo Beckett and her boyfriend, combat medic Gabe Quintana, are investigating the death of a lawyer whose body has been found in a remote part of the Sierras—and they end up on a collision course with Autumn’s party.

After a car wreck, they and the kids end up trapped at the bottom of a gorge. Nobody knows where they are. They have no way to call for help. Some of the kids are badly injured. And killers are closing in on them.

California is America’s most populous state, but its wilderness can be shockingly rugged. And even today, it’s possible to get in serious trouble only a couple of bends away from lattes and wifi. It’s a prospect that scares me. How about you? If you found yourself cut off from the outside world, with danger closing in, how would you protect yourself?

Edgar Award winner Meg Gardiner is the internationally bestselling author of two thriller series set in California. CHINA LAKE won the 2009 Edgar for Best Paperback Original. THE DIRTY SECRETS CLUB was named one of Amazon’s top 10 thrillers of 2008 and won the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Procedural Novel of the year. Gardiner practiced law in Los Angeles and later taught writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She’s three-time Jeopardy champion, recovering mime, and mother of three. Originally from Oklahoma, she lives in London.


Where Do You Not Get Your Ideas?

Guest Blogger: Dan Wells

Every writer in the business hears the question: “where do you get your ideas?” Every convention I go to, every bookstore I sign in, every Q&A session of my podcast –it’s everywhere. And every writer has their own answer for it, assuming they don’t just throw up their hands in exasperation. I have one friend who gives the questioner a confused look and says, “don’t you subscribe to the idea newsletter?” I have another who says that his dog can talk and gives him all his best stuff. The reason writers hate this question is because it’s a hard, often frustrating question to answer, because it implies that ideas come from somewhere specific. Ideas are everywhere; coming up with them is the easiest part of the process.

At a writing conference last month, perhaps more frustrated than I should have been, I answered the question with a flippant “where do you not get your ideas? What are doing all day that you don’t have 80 million ideas crowding around you and clamoring for attention?” We are surrounded by people and conversations and events and disasters and coincidences and discoveries and decisions every second of our lives—everything we do, see, and experience is an idea for a story, or at least for part of one.

The conference forced me to sit down and really think: why are non-writers, and aspiring writers, so eager to ask a question that writers themselves consider a non-issue. It would be incorrect, I believe to say that writers just think differently than other people; anyone can be a writer. I think instead that it’s a matter of practice, or at least familiarity: by the time someone becomes a writer they’ve learned how to recognize all the ideas swarming around them all day, and more importantly they’ve learned how to take those ideas and turn them into stories. The ideal answer for “where do you get your ideas,” then, is not a helpless shrug or a flippant remark but a crash course in how to recognize and use the ideas you already have. To that end, let me offer some basics.

1) Practice. It’s not the easy way, but at the end of the day it’s the only way to really get good at anything. The more you write, the better you will become at turning thoughts into story ideas, and story ideas into actual stories. You don’t wait until you have the perfect idea any more than an aspiring basketball player waits to have the perfect shot: you take a ton of bad shots, and eventually you get good at it, and you learn the subtleties, and something you didn’t even understand starts to become simple and easy.

2) Read/Watch/Experience Everything You Can. Ideas are everywhere, but it’s a lot easier to recognize the big flashy that are already in story form. I got a really good story idea once from driving home in a snow storm, but most of my published books and stories have come from some kind of direct stimulation from a story I’ve read, a movie I’ve watched, an article I’ve studied, and so on. My John Cleaver trilogy is a direct descendant of all the countless psychology studies I’ve read on the subject of serial killers. My book next year, THE HOLLOW CITY, springs in large part from a presentation I attended about ghost hunting—there’s no ghosts in the book, but that’s beside the point. I learned new things, and they sparked ideas. If you want to be a writer, spend as much of your time as possible learning new things.

3) Think About Conflict. Stories are about conflict—without it it’s not a story, just a description or a situation. Conflict causes pain, prompts change, and forces your characters into action. As you go through your day, surrounded by hundreds of people and events and learning opportunities, think about conflict: what kinds of problems could this idea create? What would cause this character the most trouble? Story ideas will start leaping out at you from places you never expected.

Where do ideas come from? A little old lady in Schenectady that every published author follows on Twitter. Or, more simply, from everywhere and everything all around you. You just have to teach yourself to see them.

Dan Wells is the author of several supernatural thrillers, including I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER, MR. MONSTER, and I DON’T WANT TO KILL YOU. He is a co-host on the podcast Writing Excuses, for which he has won two Parsec awards; his podcast has been nominated for a Hugo this year, and Dan has been nominated for a Campbell award for best new writer. He plays a lot of games, watches a lot of movies, reads a lot of books, and eats a lot of food, which is pretty much the ideal life he imagined for himself as a child.

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Guest Blogger: Gregg Hurwitz

The most dreaded question for authors. Because the truth is…we don’t really know ourselves. I suppose it’s like asking anyone where they get their ideas. We mostly have no clue, right? They just sort of show up in our heads. So the where is impossible, methinks, and even the when can be tricky. For me, the storylines for my books are so much a part of how I live and think that it’s very hard to separate out the precise moment when an idea hits.

So it’s exceedingly pleasant on the rare occasion when I can pinpoint the instant when the first notion for a book springs into existence. For YOU’RE NEXT, my latest, I actually can. I remember exactly the night when I was lying there sleepless in the usual insomniatic stew of thoughts, staring at the ceiling. And a scene started to gnaw at me and wouldn’t let go.

A four-year-old boy is dropped off by his father at an unfamiliar playground and told to go play. Climbing out of the station wagon, he notices a single drop of blood on the cuff of his father’s sleeve. But whose?

As morning turns to afternoon, the boy realizes that he has been abandoned. And the notion of that reality dawning on that kid—well, it just wouldn’t let me go to sleep. So I got up and started to write more about that boy, probably in an attempt to redeem him and see what the future might hold for him. Growing up in foster homes, Mike Wingate never learns why he was left. But by the time we hit the second chapter, we know that he’s finally achieved the life he’s always dreamed about. He has a wife he loves. A terrific daughter.

And then.

The most dangerous two words in crime fiction.

Mysterious figures emerge who seem to know about Mike’s past—the past he doesn’t even know about—and he is forced to protect his family at any cost. When he runs out of options, he must reach back into the violence of his rough upbringing. He calls in an old friend from the foster home, Shep, who brings his criminal smarts and muscle to bear. As Mike is dragged into this nightmare, he realizes that he’ll have to face down not just this present danger, but the secret terrors of his childhood, the ones that led him to be abandoned all those years ago. He’s about to learn that the past isn’t dead. It’s just waiting.

My books tend to come from some central fear that creeps into my chest and forces primal questions to the fore. What lengths would I go to to make sure my daughter was safe? What would I do to protect the woman I love?

YOU’RE NEXT is the most emotional book I’ve written, I think because it’s the first book I’ve attacked fully from the perspective of a parent. What do you find are the most emotional topics to read about or write? What are the themes that put a hook in your stomach?

Gregg Hurwitz is the critically acclaimed, internationally bestselling author of 11 thrillers, most recently, You’re Next. His books have been nominated for numerous awards, shortlisted for best novel of the year by International Thriller Writers, nominated for CWA’s Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, chosen as feature selections for all four major literary book clubs, honored as Book Sense Picks, and translated into twenty languages.

Currently a consulting producer on ABC’s “V,” he has written screenplays for or sold spec scripts to Warner Bros., Paramount, MGM, Jerry Bruckheimer Films, and ESPN, developed TV series for Warner Bros. and Lakeshore, written Wolverine, Punisher, and others for Marvel, and published numerous academic articles on Shakespeare. He has taught fiction writing in the USC English Department, and guest lectured for UCLA, and for Harvard in the United States and around the world. In the course of researching his thrillers, he has sneaked onto demolition ranges with Navy SEALs, swam with sharks in the Galápagos, and gone undercover into mind-control cults.

The Hardest Part

Guest Blogger: Jeff Abbott

There are two questions every writer will get once their work is out in the world: how long does it take you to write a book, and where do you get your ideas? What makes me smile about those well-intentioned questions is that they seem to assume the work is effortless—you come up with an idea, and then you draw an X on some distant square of the calendar when the book will auto-magically be done. But what I rarely get asked is: what is the hardest part of writing a book?

And of course there is no one answer to this; every writer is different. Some struggle mightily with beginnings; others pace trenches in the floor trying to tie all the threads together into a coherent ending. Some find the discipline of being alone, of engaging with their work to be difficult; others find researching their books to be a constant headache. Some find the middle to be a torture. But regardless of whichever part of the process is hardest for you, know this: that is your dragon, and you’d best be prepared to slay it.

When I started ADRENALINE—my twelfth novel—you might expect that at some point the process has gotten easier. Well, as Brad Meltzer aptly told us here on Janice’s blog, it doesn’t. It is never really easier. Mostly because as you write more, I think you aim higher, so the bar is never lowered due to experience. My own hardest part is the middle—when I approach it, I can almost feel the ground warming from the dragon’s breath. Doesn’t that sound, well, silly? I’ve written a lot of books,—how hard can it be to get through the middle of a book once you’ve put characters into action? But at a certain point as Act One wraps up and Act Two is underway, I start to feel the steam of the monster’s breath rise. I fret that I haven’t thought out the plot twists and they’ll unravel. I start to feel I don’t know the characters as well as I should. I start to think I have too much action, or too little. The outline I’ve sketched out seems too fragile. For the middle is the long hike, the trail of tears. So there are days where I stare off into space or rearrange my pencils or fall into the black hole of Twitter because I can’t figure out how to keep the book going. Which is terrible, because that means my dragon is not slain. I need to get past the hardest part.

But then it comes. A character does something true to herself, but still unexpected. A surprising connection is forged between two characters who lacked a tie before. A scene that changes everything comes to me in the predawn quiet. The ground cools, I wipe the dragon’s blood off my sword, and I’m back at a run. My wife has figured out I go through this with every book and she gently reminds me it’s simply part of the process—and always will be. Knowing that I have slain this same dragon a number of times before is reassuring. It may be more fearsome and fiery each time but I know I can pretend to be St. George and hack its head off. I have never failed to get through that inevitable wasteland.

The hardest part. For me it’s the middle. What is the hardest part for you?

Jeff Abbott is the international-bestselling, award-winning author of fourteen novels, including PANIC, COLLISION, and TRUST ME. His newest thriller, ADRENALINE, is just out and launches a new series featuring Sam Capra, a CIA agent who must go on the run to find his family and discover the truth about who kidnapped them. You can see Jeff talk about his new series and read more about ADRENALINE here.

Nick Heller’s Boston

Guest Blogger: Joseph Finder

When the time came for me to create a series character, I knew right away that whoever that character might turn out to be, he’d have to be from Boston.

Nick Heller, as he turned out, is, like me, an adopted son, rather than a native — and all the more devoted because of it. Born to great wealth, having spent his childhood on a vast estate in Westchester County, Nick moved to the Boston area as a preteen, after his father was sent to prison for fraud, and the family’s fortune disappeared. Nick’s mom took her sons back to her own hometown of Malden, a middle-class suburb just north of Boston. Nick roots for the Red Sox, and the dirty water of the Charles River runs through his veins.

Almost immediately, however, I ran into a problem. The plot I had developed for VANISHED, Nick Heller’s debut, was an old-school Washington thriller: 1970s-style political conspiracies, kidnapping, corrupt defense contractors and more. It simply wouldn’t work in Boston. VANISHED, therefore, finds Nick living and working in Washington, and ends with his move to Boston to set up his own firm, Heller Associates.  So the second Nick Heller novel, BURIED SECRETS, begins with Nick living in Boston, and taking on a case for his mother’s former employer.

Even though I wasn’t born in Boston and don’t have the accent, I’ve lived here longer than any other place. It’s my hometown.  I root for the Sox and the Bruins and the Celtics, and I defend the city vehemently against the slings and arrows of New Yorkers.  When Whitey Bulger was nabbed a couple of days ago after 16 years on the lam, I felt like old family business had finally been settled.

And of course, Boston is a great setting for a thriller. Anyone who’s seen a movie or watches TV is familiar with its landmarks and the accent and its character and beauty. Boston has a unique look and feel — the cobblestones of Beacon Hill, the three-deckers of Dorchester and Southie, the splendor of Commonwealth Avenue, the North End, Harvard Yard . . . . you name it, it’s got it. Mobsters in Charlestown! Snooty rich people! Vegans in Cambridge!

Granted, I’m not exactly the first to see Boston’s potential as a setting for crime fiction. George V. Higgins was among the earliest, with his legal thrillers and the classic THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE. My old friend, the late and much lamented Robert B. Parker, was right behind him, sending Spenser for hire down Boston’s mean streets. Dennis Lehane, also a pal, gave Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro an office in Charlestown and set MYSTIC RIVER in a fictional town that seemed a lot like South Boston and Dorchester combined.

For the most part, however, these fictional detectives work a darker side of the city than I know. I moved to Boston as a graduate student (yeah, Harvard), and my Boston’s not quite as brutal (except maybe in rush hour traffic). The Boston I know is the tree-lined streets of Cambridge, the historic townhouses of Back Bay, the glass canyons of the financial district, and the middle-class, white-collar suburbs like Framingham and Natick. This is Nick’s Boston, too.

That’s not to say that Nick doesn’t move through other parts of the city as well. In fact, tracking Nick’s movements through Boston is part of the fun of writing the books. When Nick needed to find an office, for example, I decided to find one for him — a real one. I knew just the kind of place he’d want: open, a little rough, semi-industrial, maybe a kind of loft space. I found it at the old Chadwick Lead Works at 184 High Street and described it like this in BURIED SECRETS:

… an old brick-and-beam building in the financial district, a rehabbed nineteenth-century lead-pipe factory. From the outside it looked like a Victorian poorhouse out of Dickens. But on the inside, with its bare brick walls and tall arched windows and exposed ductwork and factory-floor open spaces, you couldn’t forget it was a place where they actually used to make stuff. And I liked that.

It helps me to be able to set fictional characters in real places, although I often change the names so I can give the real-life settings features my story needs. Alexa Marcus, the girl whose kidnapping sets BURIED SECRETS in motion, meets her attacker at a bar I call Slammer, in a luxury hotel that used to be a jail. I call my hotel the Graybar; it has a real-life counterpart in Boston’s Liberty Hotel, the former Charles St. Jail, where the dark and stylish bars are called Alibi and Clink.

Alexa’s best friend is a Senator’s daughter who lives on Louisburg Square, the most exclusive part of Boston’s most exclusive neighborhood, Beacon Hill. One of Massachusetts’ real Senators may live there too, although he shares nothing else in common with my fictional Senator Armstrong. Nick’s search takes him from Louisburg Square to the Boston field office of the FBI, a distance of less than a mile but a world or two.

There Nick meets his old flame, Diana, and gives her a ride to her apartment in Boston’s South End, which is only two miles away but another radically different area: a gentrified place of brick rowhouses and great restaurants. Later Nick heads out to visit his mother in Newton, a suburb on the far side of Cambridge that’s less than 10 miles from downtown but might as well be New Jersey. His client, rogue financier Marshall Marcus, lives in Manchester-by-the-Sea, a town on Boston’s North Shore. Manchester, about 30 miles from downtown, is a vacation paradise for the very wealthy, renowned for its beaches and a world-class yachting harbor. Nick’s colleague Dorothy lives in Mission Hill, a historic district right in the middle of the city that’s become a model for urban renewal, and Nick himself lives in the Leather District—a name that refers to nothing kinky, but to the tanneries and shoe factories it used to house.

In fact, the ambitious reader could map out a walking tour of Boston from BURIED SECRETS alone. If Nick’s career lasts long enough, maybe they’ll even put his office on a Duck Tour someday.

Joseph Finder is the internationally-bestselling author of nine novels, including the ITW Thriller Award-winning KILLER INSTINCT. His newest book, released this week, is BURIED SECRETS, the sequel to the ITW Thriller-nominated VANISHED. Both books feature international security consultant Nick Heller, a “private spy.” Joe’s novel HIGH CRIMES became a hit movie starring Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman, and his 2004 bestseller PARANOIA is currently in development as a major motion picture. His first short story, “Neighbors,” recently appeared in the collection AGENTS OF TREACHERY. Joe lives in Boston with his wife and daughter, and Mia, a needy golden retriever.

Where Ideas Come From

Guest Blogger: Alafair Burke

My new book, LONG GONE, comes out today. I mention that not to plug my work (okay, it was totally a plug), but to explain why I’ve been thinking lately about where ideas come from. I finished writing LONG GONE nearly a year ago. For the last several months, my head has been in an entirely different story as I work to finish the next year’s book. But now that it’s book launch time, I need to bring myself back into the world I created in LONG GONE.

As I re-read my own book for the first time in months, I remembered not only the story on the page, but also the story of my own life as I wrote those words. I remembered where I was in the west village when the idea for LONG GONE first came to me. It was early 2009, when each cold day seemed to bring a new wave of unannounced and abrupt business closures. The familiar diner there on Monday would be replaced by an empty storefront on Tuesday. As I past all those papered-over windows, I found myself thinking about the employees who had suddenly lost their jobs. I wondered what it would be like to show up at work one morning to find your entire professional life… gone. From that kernel of an idea emerged Alice Humphrey, a woman who thinks she has landed her dream job managing an art gallery until one morning she shows up to find the business gone – stripped bare as if it had never existed, vacant except for the dead body of the well suited corporate representative who hired her.

I realize that it wasn’t only Alice Humphrey’s dilemma that had come to me during one of those morning neighborhood strolls. The setting of the novel is almost entirely in the Meatpacking District and some surrounding downtown neighborhoods.  Its modern but gritty tone is epitomized by the design of New York’s new Highline Park running east of the Hudson.

Alice dines from the food trucks lining Manhattan’s streets these days, stopping for a snack at the Wafels & Dinges truck.

When she’s in peril, she finds comfort in the anonymity that can be found on midtown’s crowded sidewalks.

Sometimes I feel guilty about the amount of time I spend walking around the city when I should be at my desk working. But looking back in hindsight at LONG GONE, I realize I was being a writer as I logged all those city miles.

Alafair Burke is the bestselling author of seven novels, including 212, ANGEL’S TIP, andDEAD CONNECTION in the Ellie Hatcher series. A former prosecutor, she now teaches criminal law and lives in Manhattan. LONG GONE is her first stand-alone thriller.

Modern Crime Fiction: Cool Science or Hot Characters?

Guest Blogger: D.P. Lyle

Over the past decade I’ve answered literally thousands of medical and forensic questions for fiction writers. I think last count was somewhere north of 6000. One of the questions I’m often asked is: How much do I need to know about forensic science? The short answer is: Just the right amount. But what is that amount?

If you write cozies or literary fiction or softer crime fiction do you really need to include a lot of forensic techniques in the story? No. Do you need to know what exists out there in the real world? Yes. Even if your story does not include the use of DNA or toxicology or forensic anthropology or any of the other forensic specialties, you have to know what is available and what might be brought into the scenario that you created. Readers know and your failure to understand what is available could result in a breach of faith with the reader. If a killer comes in to a house and commits a murder and walks out and yet you never consider that fingerprints and shoe prints might enter the investigation, the reader will quickly lose confidence that you understand criminal investigation. Maybe your little old lady sleuth would not think of it but the police who were involved in the investigation would. So it can’t be completely ignored.

That said, you do not have to delve into these techniques in any detail. Just know they’re available and know what the results are and then let those results impact the characters in your stories as they naturally would or in any believable fashion that you want.

This brings up another issue. With the exception of the most high-concept movies, your story should never be built around a single cool scientific fact. That’s not a story. That’s an essay. The key is that the scientific fact is not the heart of the story but simply the background on which the story is told. It is the characters that drive the story and therefore it is the effect of the cool science on these characters that make the story rich. For example, rather than spending 10 pages on explaining how DNA analysis is done wouldn’t it be much better to spend those 10 pages on how the result of a DNA analysis affected a character? What if he had an innocent explanation for his DNA being at the crime scene but could not reveal it? What if his DNA had been planted and he knew he was innocent but the investigators felt otherwise? What if it wasn’t his DNA at all but the conspiracy to frame him reached all the way into the crime lab? I bet you can think of a dozen other ways the lab result could alter your story and your character.

It’s the effect of the science on the characters in the story that is important and not the science itself.

In my Dub Walker series, my protagonist is a forensic science and criminal behavior expert. He is the guy who best understands how the bits of evidence relate to one another and what the perpetrator was most likely thinking? Sure I have interesting forensic science techniques in my stories but they take up a very small portion of the verbiage. Since Dub is the type that takes every case personally, each bit of evidence affects him, or one of the other characters, on a personal level. Each piece of evidence either helps prove what Dub believes to be true or forces him to think differently. So the cool forensic stuff is only as good as it pushes the story forward and/or changes one or more characters’ words, thoughts, or actions.

The first book in this series, STRESS FRACTURE, is more a Whydunnit than a Whodunnit. The killer is revealed early to the reader, but of course not to Dub, but the driving force behind his deeds is unknown. Dub has to figure out the why before he can focus on the who. The second in a series, HOT LIGHTS, COLD STEEL, is different in that the unmasking of the murderer (or is it murderers?) does not come until late in the book. Here Dub must use forensic science as well as his understanding of criminal thinking in order to close in on the bad guys. Each bit of evidence changes his thinking and his actions.

I hope you will pick up a copy of both books and I hope you enjoy them. I think you will see that it is not the science that’s the most intriguing (though some of it is pretty cool) but rather how the science affects the characters and pushes each story to its climax.

D. P. Lyle, MD is the Macavity Award winning and Edgar Award nominated author of FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES, FORENSICS & FICTION, HOWDUNNIT: FORENSICS, and STRESS FRACTURE, a Dub Walker thriller. His essay on Jules Verne’s THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND appears in THRILLERS: 100 MUST READS. His next Dub Walker novel, HOT LIGHTS, COLD STEEL, and the tie-in novel, ROYAL PAINS: FIRST, DO NO HARM, will be released June, 2011.

He has worked with many novelists and with the writers of popular television shows such as Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, 1-800-Missing, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars.

Visit D.P. Lyle’s website here and his blog, The Writer’s Forensics Blog, here.

Digging for Treasure

Guest Blogger: Lisa See

I love to do research for my books. Sometimes, and on certain days, it’s my absolute favorite part of the writing process.  First, I never know what I’m going to find.  Second, I truly never know what I’m going to find.  (You can see I’m passionate on this point.) Research is always a grand and exciting surprise.  I remember when I was working on Peony in Love I went to the UCLA Research Library to look up some things on burial rights in 17th-century China.  There I was, minding my own business, when all of a sudden the custom of ghost brides and ghost marriages jumped off the page.  This old Chinese tradition stems from the idea that even in death you should be married.  So if a daughter died before she could marry, then her parents would have an actual marriage ceremony with a procession, a banquet, gifts, a real groom, the whole shebang.  In this way, the dead child would be happy in the afterworld and not cause trouble for her family here on earth.  I read that and thought, Oh, I have to have one of these. Finding out about ghost weddings completely changed the plot of the novel.

Sometimes I do research to confirm one small detail in a novel, and it becomes a big adventure without a huge payoff other than having learned some interesting – but ultimately pretty useless – information.  For Shanghai Girls, I knew that Shanghai was bombed on August 14, 1937.  I knew as well that Pearl and May, my main characters, would flee from Shanghai, head south to Hong Kong, and eventually take a boat to San Francisco.  Members of my own family had made that trip from Hong Kong to the United States on the Pacific Mail Steamship Line, so I wasn’t worried about accuracy or which boat to chose.  Seemed easy.  Nothing to worry about.  Except I am a worrier and an insomniac.  So one night I’m awake and worrying.  How long was the Pacific Mail Steamship Line in business?

There’s nothing like those early morning hours between, say, two and three a.m., to do research alone in your house.  Here’s what I found: The Pacific Mail was sold when Congress decided that railroad companies couldn’t own shipping lines too.  The Dollar Steamship Line bought the Pacific Mail to relieve the parent company of monopoly issues.  Later, the Depression hit.  Things got so bad that the U.S. Maritime Commission eventually took over the Dollar Line.  But just before that happened, Pearl and May, my fictional characters, leave Hong Kong on November 2, 1937 on the last real-life commercial voyage of the President Coolidge.  (This meant, among other things, that I had to figure out what Pearl and May would be doing between August 14 and November 2.) The President Coolidge was later conscripted into World War II and was sunk by the Japanese.  Most of this information I didn’t use, but I loved it.  And I think readers sense that, even though every single detail isn’t in one of my books, I would know the answers if they had any questions.  To me, all the stuff I don’t use is like a hidden foundation that supports the entire structure of the novel.

But no source of research is more valuable than the actual stories of real people.  I’ve relied on oral histories and interviews for every book I’ve written, including my mysteries.  For Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, I interviewed the oldest living nu shu writer.  For Peony in Love, I found first-person accounts written by those who had survived the Ming-Qing Transition and the so-called Cataclysm that occurred in Yangzhou.  For Shanghai Girls, I used the oral history project that the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California had done in 1977.  I knew many of the people who’d been interviewed.  Most of them are gone now, but I could hear their voices once again.  I can’t tell you how many questions they answered for me.

For Dreams of Joy, the sequel to Shanghai Girls, I was challenged by the facts that China was closed in the years I was writing about, that many people in China died from starvation during the famine that resulted from the Great Leap Forward, and that what was written in those days by the Chinese was very much in the rah-rah-People’s-Republic-of-China vein.  But when I start to do research, people and things begin to present themselves in interesting ways.  Out of the blue, a woman wrote to me on my fan web site to say that she’d enjoyed Shanghai Girls, because she’d lived there herself in those years…and even after China closed.  Over the next few months, she gave me incredible details about how her family – Westerners – made bread and butter, bought old cosmetics leftover from the good old days instead of the new pungent Soviet lipsticks and creams, and what they could see on the streets and in store windows of the New China.  This was only the beginning of the help I would receive from total strangers, who were willing to share their stories with me.  Another woman told me about how her mother had escaped China with three small children.  People especially wanted to share their stories of suffering, fear, and escape.  As for those rah-rah-China texts, they came in handy too.  I loved the little pamphlets I found on marriage in the New China, since so much of Dreams of Joy is about the difference between wishful thinking and reality.

Dreams of Joy isn’t even out yet and I’ve already begun doing research for the new book.  I’ve been reading transcripts of interviews of people who were singers and dancers in the Chinese nightclubs in New York and San Francisco in the 1930s and 1940s.  Characters and plot ideas are forming in my head.  And the voices from the past – with all the fun lingo of show business in those days tinged with the Chinese-American experience – are inspiring me to keep looking and digging.  I’m having so much fun.

Lisa See is the author of the critically-acclaimed international bestseller, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (the movie will hit theaters in July). Her other bestselling books include Peony in Love, Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy (in bookstores today). She was named the 2001 National Woman of the Year, by the Organization of Chinese American Women. She lives in Los Angeles.

Funny Search Engine Terms

To throw something a little fun into the mix, I decided to blog about the funniest, unique or most interesting search engine keywords/phrases that brought people to my site and to include others. Here’s what we discovered.

From Jen Forbus at Jen’s Book Thoughts, a book blog that covers the world of crime fiction. All comments in parentheses are Jen’s personal commentary on the searches.

  • Jens Official Smart Good Image (who me?)
  • Do hockey goalies not get enough credit? (what do you want to give them credit for?)
  • Are Elvis Cole and Carol Starkey ever gonna hook up? (let me look into my crystal ball…)
  • Author Robert Crais at home
  • Bryan Gruley Chicago address
  • Is Jo Nesbø single (based on these three…someone thinks I know these authors far more intimately than I actually do!)
  • Betty Boop Booklet of 160 address labels (Uhhhmmm, no thanks)
  • Billy and Jenn ultra runners
  • Jen ultra runner (these two just terrify me…I don’t run unless something very scary is chasing me)
  • Booo saea jay video (sure! whatever you say. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?)
  • Can you hard to death (not that I’m aware of, but I’m no expert)
  • Dirty prune (I simply don’t have words)
  • Do I hem leather pants (far too many people want to hem leather pants…what’s with the leather pants people?)
  • I admire the way you don’t wast your times (this person obviously does not know me)
  • Jenn’s dirty secrets (I will never tell!)
  • Jo Nesbø versus Sandford (I do not host cage matches at my blog. Check somewhere else)
  • Poetry train on the wrong track (Is this kinda like the North train going South?)
  • Print a detective spy themed photo book (I’d buy it, but I’m not selling it)
  • Sell my ramboesque screenplay (No, sorry. One Rambo is enough in my world)
  • solution to three lottery tickets are drawn from 40 for first, second, and third prizes. find the number of sample points in s for awarding the three prizes if no contestant can win more than one prize (I’m NOT doing your homework for you, and HOW did this query bring you to my blog?)

From Don Lafferty. Don’s known for his expertise in social media. As a social media consultant he’s helped authors and major corporations with marketing, business development and public relations.

  • hard boiled eggs on electric stove
  • boiling eggs for dying
  • perfect boiled eggs lafferty
  • how to make the perfect hard boiled egg every time

Jane Friedman’s Writer’s Digest blog, There Are No Rules , covers a little bit of everything the writer needs to know, including the basics of writing, conferences and events, getting published, and industry news and trends. She also has a popular website and blog where she muses about life, love, music, movies, publishing, travel and more. Here’s some search terms that brought people to her site.

  • magazine, brussel sprout, butter (yes, this is 1 search term)
  • people who act too “happy”
  • legal consequences with wedding photos during divorce
  • bog myrtle leaves

The Philly Liar’s Club is a group of thirteen writers who “lie, party, and support independent booksellers, libraries and literature.” They are L.A. Banks, Jonathan Maberry, Keith DeCandido, Gregory Frost, Merry Jones, Solomon Jones, Don Lafferty, Marie Lamba, Jon McGoranEd Pettit, Kelly Simmons, Keith Strunk and Dennis Tafoya. They blog about the writing process and the publishing industry. Search terms from their site are:

  • Maria Lamba girl scout
  • the horror the horror
  • those who can must
  • Gregory Frost catholic

The Writer’s Forensics Blog run by author D.P. Lyle, MD is filled with a wealth of knowledge for the writer on everything related to forensics. DNA technology, autopsies, corpse identification, fingerprinting, forensic dentistry, drugs and poisons, and more. Here’s some interesting terms that brought people to D.P. Lyle’s site. Comments in parentheses are from D.P. Lyle.

  • Inbred Royalty
  • Dead Cosmonauts in Space
  • Where to Stab for a Kill (a writer I hope)
  • How to go from black dye to red if hair has some damage
  • Can the Andromeda Strain really happened
  • Woman covered in blob
  • sperm dumpsters (no idea what this is all about)

From Jennifer Lawrence’s blog, Jenn’s Bookshelves, a book review site that covers “most fiction, including literary fiction, mainstream, women’s fiction, suspense/thriller, horror and YA,” comes these searches.

  • How do I spell a girl screaming?
  • can you tell a killer by hndwritinh
  • imsuregladthatdidnthappen
  • handwriting analsis seril killers
  • can the behavior of a serial killer be controlled
  • canadian writer forkids invisible underwear reluctant readers
  • “fiction novel about a woman released from prison after killing a baby and her sister has a secret”

Janet Rudolph’s Mystery Fanfare, a blog that covers a little of everything in the mystery genre (books, events and news), had some interesting searches.

  • A bird named after Harry Houdini
  • Animals that create fanfares
  • Bones used in art
  • Cereal boxes back health tips
  • Creepy places Italy
  • the incident at the dog’s ball
  • unusual burials
  • “aaron elkins” “nice gorilla”
  • yesterday’s history and tomorrow’s a mystery
  • Bad boy triller
  • Don’t mess with pensioners
  • Murder up murder up
  • dinosaur bookstand
  • gefilte fish stickers
  • waving queen figure
  • solar powered waving queen Elizabeth
  • speaking canine and agatha christie
  • pottery barn in Europa
  • mysery fanfare

And finally, here’s some funny searches that brought people to this site.

  • prettiest authors Jen Forbus Alafair Burke
  • silence of the labs
  • I write in the bathroom
  • hi-point firearms pink grips
  • always watch your back
  • why are the good looking ones always evil
  • bigfoot staring into windows
  • Frankenstein monster boris alive

Have any interesting searches that brought people to your site to share? Which of the above is your favorite(s)? Leave a comment below and let us know.