Sunday, August 19, 2012

Writing the Science-based Thriller

Nearly all of us work in some business and the better part of our waking hours is often spent engaged in that work, so placing my novels in an industry has always felt to me to be a natural extension of life.  The industry in STAR TIME (coming out this Wednesday) is network television.  In my legal thriller A QUESTION OF PROOF, the victim is a newspaper publisher.  BIRTHRIGHT (being published soon) is the saga of an investment banking family.  The amount of research that I had to master to be able to write knowledgeably about those industries was often daunting.  If one is not a scientist and, more specifically, a scientist in the specific discipline in which a novel is to be set, the research can be even more daunting.  Exposure to the science can be fascinating to readers, but that will prove inconsequential to creating a compelling novel if the characters and their concerns do not fascinate as well. 

Years ago, I conceived of a science-based thriller.  The science was cutting edge and, I thought, would be a revelation to the general public: immortality that might just be scientifically possible.  First I had to find the few texts that mentioned the new discovery.  Then I had to look up nearly every word in the texts, but I kept doggedly at it because the stakes were high: First, I wanted to write a compelling science-based thriller and, second, I wanted to live forever.  My agent eventually dissuaded me from pursuing the book any further because the characters and their concerns did not seem anywhere near so gripping to him as the science.  But now that I think about it – and he is no longer among those of us who can still benefit from that area's advances – I wonder if perhaps he had a prejudice against science-based thrillers.  The science is still cutting edge and still not that widely known.  Maybe if I went back and plumbed those characters and concerns anew, maybe, just maybe . . . 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

How Do You Recreate the Legal Thriller?

Having just published A QUESTION OF PROOF, a legal thriller with twists and turns not resolved until the very last sentence, I’ve had some experience with the genre.  And being a lawyer by training, I probably have a leg up on legal intricacies.  But I would suggest that the legal thriller is only effective if it is a story about the people involved, with the legal system, say a murder trial, being the inexorable peril they confronting them.  Peril is the essential ingredient for any thriller, and an all-powerful legal system is a fearsome form of peril with some form of loss at stake for the defendant and, at its most intriguing, those around the defendant.  The threat can run from the loss of something the defendant holds dear to, at its most fearsome, death by a jury’s decree. 

In A QUESTION OF PROOF, Susan Boelter is charged with murdering her newspaper-publisher husband, who was divorcing her and appeared to be on the brink of taking everything from her, including custody of their thirteen-year-old daughter.  She asks Dan Lazar, a renowned criminal defense attorney, to defend her.  But he faces two obstacles to taking on her defense: He is about to lose his license to practice law due to trumped-up charges of witness tampering; and, more important, he and Susan are lovers.  The legal system has provided the hurdles and dangers, but they are only the means for exploring the acts, motives and relationships of the people trapped within it.  I say the story remains unresolved until the very last sentence, but that sentence relates to Susan and Dan and their relationship, not to a legal outcome.  If readers care about their story, they will be engrossed in discovering their fate until the very last word.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Most Extreme Thing I've Done in the Name of Research

Well before 9/11, I had an interesting reason why someone who was not a terrorist would blow up airliners and thought it might make a good mystery at the heart of thriller about an airline in crisis.   On the basis of three chapters containing the fuzziest research, my agent managed to sell my first novel Hawks to a publisher.  

Knowing little more than the average traveler about airliners, airlines, plane crashes, and explosives, I spent several months learning everything I could.  Fortunately for me, a Congressional committee had recently published volumes of testimony delving deeply into the industry and how it operated; and radicals and others were publishing pamphlets on how to make bombs.  To get a sense of what it was like to be in the pilot's seat thousands of feet above solid ground, I took a flying lesson.  But once I had done all of that research and more, had created the characters and plot, I had to be sure that, at least in principle, one could actually plant a bomb in that part of the jetliner I had chosen for the book.  Making certain of that led to the most extreme thing I've ever done in the name of research.
While on a commercial jet flying to a vacation, I locked myself in a lavatory and using only a coin, as I recall, unscrewed a ceiling panel.  There in plain sight, in the area known as the plenum or plenum chamber, running the length of the fuselage above the cabin from cockpit to the stabilizers on the tail, were the hydraulic and other cables essential to flying that plane.  Today, smuggling the constituents for the kind of bomb my villain employed would be somewhat more difficult, but looking at those cables, I became assured that the bomb could destroy them and consequently the plane in flight while he was safely gone.  I had found the plane's Achilles heel.  It felt weird and frightening.  If a writer could figure it out, couldn't someone with single-minded evil intent figure it out as well?  For the briefest moment I debated the morality of revealing the method in print.  But then I realized that I wasn't revealing top-secret information because anyone could figure it out as I had and, to be practical, how many potential bombers are wide-ranging readers.

At that moment, my trepidation at having removed the ceiling panel turned into near panic as it occurred to me how guilty I would look to an airline official: WRITER CAUGHT IN ACT OF DESTROYING PLANE AND PASSENGERS. One of those passengers was my wife, which turned into a sub-headline: DEVIOUSLY AVOIDS COMPLICATIONS OF DIVORCE.  And a third: BOMBER'S OWN BODY NEVER FOUND (okay, survival is a primal instinct).  I'm exaggerating somewhat here, but the fear of being apprehended, with only a flimsy lavatory lock for protection was vividly real.

Heart pounding, I hurriedly replaced the screws, afraid I would drop and lose them.  Then I pocketed my coin and slipped out of the lavatory, too frazzled to remember to use the cubicle for its intended purpose and worried that if I slipped back in to relieve myself, a wary flight attendant would become suspicious: "Only bombers go back into lavatories so quickly!" 

Because of all my research, my publicity campaign centered on my expertise in air crashes.  For years, I was called upon to appear on TV and radio news shows to pontificate about possible causes of the latest crash, while I plugged my book.  Larry King and I spent hours chatting on his late-night radio show.  He wanted the company, and I wanted all the publicity my book could get.  However, my guru status led to my closest call in the talking-head trade.  I flew up to Boston for a TV show and, as we landed at Logan Airport, could see beside the runway the wrecked plane that had prompted my upcoming appearance.  When I arrived at the TV studio, I was surprised to learn that my "counterpoint" would be an airline pilot who was the pilot union's expert on plane crashes. 

For most of the hour, his smug technical assertions were giving him the best of it.   I desperately eyed the achingly slow minute hand on the studio clock.   Miraculously, his final assertion dealt with a crash over Paris with which I was familiar.  To prove that an incompetent foreign ground employee and not American airline expertise was at fault, he said the cause of the crash was the French door handler’s inability to read the directions on the door and close it properly because he was illiterate.  From some hidden synapse in my brain, a small fact wiggled its way into my consciousness.  I responded, "Actually, the door handler spoke four languages and read seven.  The plane took off from Paris.  Why weren't the directions on the door also written in other languages, one of them certainly being French?"  At that moment, the moderator intervened: "Time's up.  We'll have to leave it at that."  And I was out of there, my credibility intact and possessed of the realization that the research we writers insert in our books to make it appear we know what of we speak can sometimes save our asses.

Writing about Hawks has amped my excitement about re-issuing it in a new and updated edition later in the year.  But right now, my attention is focused on my legal thriller A Question of Proof, being launched this week in both digital and print at Amazon ( and, soon after, wherever books are sold online.  But that's a whole other story.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Do thrillers always need to play on a large canvas, or can an intimate story thrill?

            What matters isn't the size of the canvas, but the quality of the story.  That's as true in a novel as it is in a painting.  In the end it all comes down to how much we care about the fate of the participants, and that's always personal, whether we're talking about War and Peace or one individual's personal story.

            I think my courtroom thriller A QUESTION OF PROOF is a good example of a very personal story that grips the reader.  One reviewer, in fact, called it a masterpiece of suspense, yet the fate of all mankind does not rest on the outcome, only the fate of one woman and the happiness of one man.  It's the story of a disillusioned, burned-out lawyer and the woman he defends against the charge that she murdered her husband, a powerful newspaper publisher.  Not only is the lawyer in love with the woman, but he desperately wants to know that he is finally defending one person at least that he can truly believe is innocent -- his happiness depends on both answers.  But is she innocent?  What really happened? 

The lives of the people at the center of the novel are what make for a great story – and how much we care about them.


Sunday, July 1, 2012

Which Comes First Plot or Character?

               What sparks the creative urge in novelists is as individual as our books.  I’ve heard and read writers who said they couldn’t get a character out of their heads and began writing about them and plot followed.  Others will tell you they have a great idea for a book, which usually means “plot.”  In my own case it’s often a combination of a character I’m interested in who is caught in a situation that leads to suspenseful plot.

                In my first novel, Hawks, which was pre-9/11, I had an idea about why someone would cause a commercial jetliner to crash.  The story rose up around that central idea and became a novel about the airline industry and top executives in crisis at an airline.  A new digital version of that book will launch by the end of the year.
                In my legal thriller, A Question of Proof, the protagonist, a lawyer , was so much like me – same background, profession, concerns, values – that character was in many ways a given, so constructing an engrossing plot was uppermost in my thinking.  The plot about his lover charged with murdering her husband had to twist and turn and the stakes had to be the psychic equivalent of life and death before I could even think the character could become the basis of a novel.
                But what I find most intriguing is when an opening  line pops into my head and that starts me thinking in directions, both of character and of plot, I might never have considered before.  Who said it?  What was happening?  What could result?  That obsessive creativity is why we write.  For that and, of course, for money.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Importance of Video Trailers -- and Blogging -- for Selling Books

            "A video trailer for an online book launch?  That's crazy!  I've never launched my novels with a video."
My book publicist cynically replied, "What did you use back then: clay tablets?" 
"But a video trailer for a book?  This isn't The Avengers at Imax with popcorn.  Books are the last bastion of artistic integrity in the mud-wrestling pit of commercial . . ."
"You want to sell books?  Videos are what the hot-shot authors are doing.  We'll put your trailer up on YouTube, embed it on, your website, and attach it to your tweets."
"My teats?  Don't try to tell me Danielle Steele puts up with that."
"Tweets!  Authors are out there tweeting and interacting with their fans."
"I already do that on  All that information you tell me I should be putting up there."
"Not enough.  It's a Grisham eat DeMille world out there.  But you've got an edge: You're also a film-maker.  Don't you have that web series on YouTube about people in prison for life?"
"Ain't That Life is a comedy web series that has nothing to do with prison.  Look, those novelists with videos probably already have loads of fans who'll watch them."
             My publicist wasn't giving up.  "You have fans, too.  We just have to alert them that you have a book about to be released."
"And they'll eagerly crawl out of the burrows and caves where they're hiding."
             "Exactly.  And what better way to announce that you're launching a courtroom thriller than with a video book trailer? Set it in a real courtroom with actors who look like your main characters."
             "It will take a lot of time, but I guess it makes sense."
"And you've also got to blog."
             "Blog?  What could I possibly blog about?"
             "You're not too swift, are you?"
"Ok, I get it: I'll write a blog about creating a video that's about a book I've written.  And I'll tweet about my blog that's about creating a video that's about . . ."
"You're beginning to catch on."
"It seems like I'm doing all the publicity here."
"Check our contract: My title is "Publicity Advisor."
"Just one question: Those successful authors who are making trailers and tweeting and interacting with their fans and blogging, when do they have time to write their books?"
"If you want to hire me as your Writing Advisor, I can try to come up with an answer for that."

In my next blog I start the process of making the video trailer.