Monday, August 31, 2009

Let's Get Ready to Ruuuuumble!!!!

What protagonists would you most like to see in a cage match? Why? Who would win?

If this question was about villains, it would be a lot easier! There are so many protagonists that I like--some use their brains, some more brawn, some a combo.

But I think the ones I'd most like to see matched up would be those who are most passionate. I find that a lot of detectives are dispassionate--they're just doing a job. Yeah, it might be kinda personal, a case that's gotten under their skin, like when Sherlock Holmes goes after Moriarty or Nero Wolfe feels someone has insulted his cooking, but often it's just another day at work for them.

Even knight-errants like Spenser or Jack Reacher (now wouldn't that be an awesome cage-match?) often don't exhibit a lot of passion when they get involved in a case. It's more a duty. They'll risk their lives, that's easy, but show any emotion about the outcome? Not so much. Of course they're studly men and wouldn't let their emotions go so far as passion, but still....

A little passion can spark a big fire in a reader. Take Carol O'Connell's Kathy Mallory. She's a sociopath (she admits it--she's proud of the fact that she doesn't let society's conventions get in her way). She's a computer whiz and reveals very little emotion. Other characters even wonder if she is a computer or at least Vulcan like Mr. Spock (jokes that Kathy soooo doesn't get).

Yet, the bad guys she chooses to go after, she is passionate about them. Not just bringing them to justice (although that will do in a pinch) but destroying them, eliminating them, squashing them like cockroaches under her bootheel until they squirm and cry out in pain that matches what they caused their victims....

This unemotional, logic-driven, anti-social woman shows her passion not through her emotions but through her actions. Through the badguys she chooses to hunt and the way she'll stop at nothing to bring them to justice. Her kind of justice.

Mallory thinks of nothing if she puts herself in danger along the way--she's expendable. She also often recklessly endangers the emotional well-being (and sometimes the physical well-being) of those closest to her because she's that blinded by passion. She's a force of nature.

So, in this corner, wearing designer bluejeans and a tailored jacket, Hurricane Mallory.

And going up against her? Well, I was going to send in someone like Reacher or Repairman Jack or maybe Spiderman or Archie Goodwin, just to see if he could make her laugh.....but then I remembered.

How could I forget? The guy who I fell in love with as a kid, the ultimate knight errant who also allowed himself to be passionate, to not only get involved or risk his life, but also reveal the depths of his emotions.

I'm talking, of course, about Travis McGee.

Now, I haven't read his books in decades, so maybe my memory is colored with sentimentality (hey, as a kid, I was in love with him--along with soooo many other heroes, anyone else remember Leslie Charteris' The Saint? Or Raffles? Or almost any of the guys from Ed McBain's 57th Precinct?)(yeah, I had a warped childhood, let's not go there, lol!) but I think Travis would make a good match for Mallory.

Hmmm....maybe afterwards, they might even get together? Who knows what could happen once that passion is sparked???

So who would you pair up--maybe not for a cage match, but as a fictional couple? Which duo do you think would have the most passion--in the bedroom and in the street, fighting crime?

Thanks for reading!

PS: We here at 7 Criminal Minds would like to nominate Jen at Jen's Book Thoughts for a Kreativ Blogger Award! Enjoy, Jen!!!

About CJ:
As a pediatric ER doctor, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about in her cutting edge suspense novels. Her debut, LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), became a National Bestseller and Publishers Weekly proclaimed it a "breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller."

The second in the series, WARNING SIGNS, was released January, 2009 and the third, URGENT CARE, is due out October, 2009. Contact her at

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Reader's Guide to Ground Hog's Day

Gabriella Herkert, Catnapped and Doggone

Which crime novel would I read again? And again and again and again? I’ll admit, I’m a prolific re-reader even though I have recently discovered that I have only managed to work my way through 31 of the hundred “best” books as determined by the BBC. I’m even more of a dilettante if you check Radcliffe College’s list of the best novels of the twentieth century. No matter. I can’t help but seek the truly exceptional, amazing Christie.

I know. Except for maybe Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, most mystery readers started with Dame Agatha. She was our entrĂ©e into the world of murder, safely ensconced in a billiard room or cozy seaside inn. There was death but little blood, lust while fully clothed and dark secrets that never included a dinner menu of fava beans and a nice chianti. By modern standards, Agatha’s locked door mysteries (now cozies) and purely intellectual sleuthing seem a little quaint. Yet for all the evil put in the world by some amazingly gifted writers, I count Murder on the Orient Express as my turning point – the place where I finally understood that no amount of logic or science could match the ability to make no assumptions and rethink the world. Sir Arthur Canon Doyle tried to describe it when he said when you’ve eliminated the likely, the unlikely and the highly improbable, what you’re left with – the impossible – must be the truth. Sherlock Holmes couldn’t have solved the Murder on the Orient Express. He’s brilliant. A clear match for his nemesis Moriarty. But in the end, once his suspicions have been allayed, he moves on. He’s logical and linear. While Agatha, in the guise of Hercule Poirot, was neither.

It’s literati Clue. List your suspects. Determine their location. Match a weapon. Determine a motive. And check them off your list in indelible ink. Narrow down to a single conclusion. Except Agatha doesn’t. She puts up every character, investigates and concludes only to reach an impasse of plausible deniability and viable alternative suspects. Then, she does the impossible. She makes it work. If it’s not someone, it could be, may be, is, everyone. Even more astonishing, she does what goes against the grain of every justice seeking self-righteous mystery buff everywhere. She takes the answer, by now obvious, and accepts that there will be no real world application. They won’t go to jail. They won’t go on to a sequel where they kill again and give Hercule another shot at the win. They will go on with their lives. Free of their tormentor, maybe even free of their torment. Amazing. Bold. Both unforgettable and fresh upon a new viewing. So, I can’t ride trains with relatives without keeping an eye open while I sleep. It’s a small price to pay.


Saturday, August 29, 2009

Three From A Long List (that keeps getting longer)

Which crime novel do I wish I could read again for the first time?

There are too many to mention, and still more to be discovered. That's the extraordinary thing about crime fiction — a novel can have a contemporary, fresh voice yet still tell a timeless story that you want to come back to, again and again. One foot planted firmly in the traditions of the genre, the other foot swinging out unexpectedly to kick you upside the head and rattle any preconceived notions of what makes a mystery. I've lost track of the number of books I've read more than once, wanting to recapture that feeling of discovery, but here's a short list...

Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard opened new frontiers for me as a reader. It revealed how dialogue can carry a story, and it demonstrated how characters' motivations can be catalysts for mayhem even when intentions are good. And most importantly, how humor and murder can be blended into a seriously addictive cocktail. I've demanded humor in my crime fiction ever since.

No one swings the pendulum from laugh out loud funny to gripping suspense in a single narrative like Joe Lansdale, and Bad Chili is one of my all time favorites. I must have read the opening to this novel ten times, and it's always just as funny and surprising as the first time I cracked the spine.

The late Ross Thomas is an often overlooked giant, a man who seamlessly fused the spy novel with the crime caper. I've written about Chinaman's Chance before for The Rap Sheet. It remains one of the most original crime novels ever written.

But the stack on my nightstand is only getting bigger, and every month I discover a new book or author that raises the bar and changes my expectations. History, romance, science fiction, adventure — they can all be found within the endlessly entertaining category of crime fiction, a classic genre that never gets old.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Shane's Ravin' Faves

By Shane Gericke

So many books. So little time.

But even with all the new crime thrillers calling my name--particularly those from my colleagues here at Seven, whom I genuinely believe are among the best crime writers in the business--I still leave room to re-read a few of my favorites. The plots and writing are so strong that my eyes soak up the familiar words just for the sheer pleasure of the writer's art--not unlike catching up with old friends who were important at different points in your life. They are:

John Sandford: Every two or three months I pick a Sandford book from my collection and re-read it. Doesn't matter which one--they're all sensational. There's 20 books in the series, and each stars Lucas Davenport of the Minneapolis Police. Davenport is tough, clever and relentless, and Sandford brings him to life so perfectly he seems completely real. Sandford, formerly a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper reporter, is a true master writer, and my single favorite novelist of all time, period. How could he not be with gems like this passage, when a cop is ordered onto the graveyard shift to help catch a serial killer:

“My husband’s going to love this,” one of the women cops muttered.
“Fuck your husband,” said the chief.
“I’d like to,” said the cop, “but people keep putting me on nights.”

And crime-scene descriptions like:

“The house looked oddly like a skull, with its glassless windows gaping out at the snowscape. Pink fiberglass insulation was everywhere, sticking out of the house, blowing across the snow, hung up in the bare birch branches like obscene fleshy hair.”

If you haven't tried Sandford, please do so immediately. You'll be glad you did.

The Day of the Jackal: This 1971 thriller by Frederick Forsyth--who, incidentally, will attend ThrillerFest next summer to accept the award as Thriller Master, ITW's highest honor--is about an assassin hired by a French terrorist group in the early 1960s to kill Charles de Gaulle (photo at left), then the president of France. The assassin is never named, and he is hunted mercilessly by French police inspector Claude Lebed. I read this book so many times as a teen that the pages literally began falling out. The writing is a bit dated by today's standards--after all, it was written during the Cold War--but the relentlessness of the hunt for The Jackal still astonishes.

Killing Floor: Lee Child's writing is powerhouse, and there's none finer in the entire series than his 1997 debut. Hero Jack Reacher, an ex-military policeman, hops off the Greyhound bus in a small town in Georgia, hoping to find information about a dead blues guitarist. Instead, he discovers strange and dangerous things that lead to some of the best action scenes ever put on a page.

A Catskill Eagle. This is my favorite installment of Robert B. Parker's "Spenser for Hire" series. Appearing in 1985, Boston private eye Spenser and his friend Hawk--the latter a lethal criminal when he isn't helping Spenser solve crimes--must track down and rescue Susan Silverman, Spenser's girlfriend. This is Parker at his finest, and the dialogue between Spenser and Hawk is both electrifying and side-splitting funny. It's more of a mystery than a thriller, but hey, this is my blog, so it goes in.

Dirty White Boys. This 1994 masterpiece by Stephen Hunter features two brutal killers on the run after escaping a southern prison, and the cops who hunt them with equal brutality. Dirty contains some of the best hard-core crime writing I've ever seen, and the dialogue just hammers you.

There are other thrillers I re-read time to time, but these are the books I go to when I want to be inspired by sheer writing genius. Hope you like them as much as I do!

Shane Gericke has been fascinated with thriller novels since Frank and Joe Hardy unearthed The Tower Treasure. Catch up with the national bestselling author of the Detective Emily Thompson police thrillers at

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Once is Never Enough

By Kelli

"What crime fiction novel do you wish you could read again for the first time?


Remember your first? Maybe you were under the sheets,
sweaty with tension. Maybe you were in the car, almost ripping the paper in your eagerness to get on with it. Maybe you were on the bus or in the library ...

Bus? Library? Well, of course. I'm talking about books, remember?

The first time you read something that has an impact on your life is much like meeting that mysterious stranger across a crowded room some enchanted evening ... (with apologies to Rogers and Hammerstein).

After all, reading is a magical, personal, sensual process. It can turn from a summer fling into a long-term commitment. And while it rarely leads to complete monogamy, readers demonstrate amazing faithfulness to and trust in their most intimately connected-to writers.

It is also the closest technology to a time machine that we possess. Think about it ... the thoughts of brilliant minds long dead, the emotions, the feelings ... and if you can read them in the original language, so much the better. Readers can know and understand writers better than most writers, I suspect, feel comfortable with.

I'm an only child, and spend long years of my childhood and adolescence in out-of-the-way places. Translation: like Peggy in As a Tree Grows in Brooklyn, books were my friends. I read voraciously, obsessively and compulsively. Everything from classics like Poe and Dickens and Defoe and Pyle to Valley of the Dolls (that was a hell of a steamy read for an eleven year old).

I've read too many wonderful books to isolate one, because there's a book for every mood, every age, every season. A remedy or at least a solace for every tear; an answer for every conundrum.

When we think about re-reading for the first time, we're really talking about going back to a different us. Before we learned what the book taught us, before we absorbed the life lessons it dealt. And that's impossible.
Once uncorked, the genie can't be coaxed back in, no matter what Major Nelson did on TV.

So ... I'm going to name just a few of the many books that left their prints on me. Changed me.The magic is still there, in the memory ...

1. Farewell, My Lovely. My first Chandler novel. Breathless, unbelievable prose. I grew up reading books of poetry; Chandler's prose is poetry.

2. The Return of the Native. Maybe it was because I was fifteen, maybe it was because Eustacia Vye lived on a remote heath, far from civilization ... and I lived on a remote mountain top with no electricity, far from San Francisco ... but I found Thomas Hardy's description of nature and setting much more sensual and a hell of a lot more satisfying than Valley of the Dolls.

3. A Streetcar Named Desire. I spent my youth in training for a major in Drama. Tennessee Williams was, and is, my favorite playwright. Blanche's words to Stanley about art and the lies artists tell still make me cry.
If you haven't seen it, watch the original film, which contains (in my opinion) the single greatest performance by an actress ever: Vivien Leigh as Blanche. (Brando got all the press).

4. The Lottery. Shirley Jackson's amazing story was an early read for me ... I was in the fourth grade. What a revelation ...

5. Murder on the Orient Express. A stunning revelation and sophisticated concept of justice and punishment. One of Dame Agatha's very best.

And by the way ... a crime occurs in all of these works! So technically, yes ... they are all crime fiction. And now ... back to the other hat. You know, the one I write in! ;)


News Flash! Criminal Minds has won a Kreative Blogger Award, courtesy of the wonderful shamuses at Gums, Gams and Gumshoes ... the Writing PIs!! Thanks, you guys!! We're honored!! And we hope to be responding to questions and talking about writing for a long, long time to come ...

About Me:
My favorite milkshake flavor is vanilla. (Little Known Fact #439)

My second book, CITY OF DRAGONS, releases February 2, 2010, from Minotaur.

My first, NOX DORMIENDA, won the Bruce Alexander Award and is a Macavity finalist.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

You Can't Make Me Choose

by Sophie

What crime fiction novel do you wish you could read again for the first time?

Oh right, as if.

I'll bet you my kids' allowance money that there's nobody here who's going to admit to having just one of these, one transcendent novel, one book that left them gasping like a gutted fish. Because we don't work like that. We're story addicts, shameless gluttons, unable to maintain a commitment to a single tale.

There's another factor in my infidelity...I'm passionate about voice. If forced to choose between cogent but dull prose and the rantings of a brilliant madman, I'd read nothing but nonsense for the rest of my life as long as the language was beautiful. Like a guy who can't keep his eyes off a woman in a tight red dress, I'm completely helpless in the face of a pretty turn of phrase.

With all of that in mind, I went to the shelf determined to pick the first book I saw that was One of of my heart-pounding favorites.

And I landed on HEART-SHAPED BOX by Joe Hill. Which isn't really a crime novel, but it was nominated for lots of crime fiction awards, so I'm going with it.

Here's what I wrote about this book when I read it (I used to keep notes on books that blew me away). (I was an early Hill adopter, and I didn't know he was King's son when I read the book.)

Finally, a break-out book getting the attention it should.  To choose just one thing JH does really well: his narrative structure is composed of sentences of every length, but every sentence is precisely the right length. Does that make sense? Short and staccato or long and contemplative, the shadows cast by the words serve to underscore the emotions, action and tension in the story.

There's lots more. I think you could use the book to teach a comprehensive fiction class: how do you end a scene, kids? How do you imbue dialog with emotion? Sketch setting with a minimum of words? Create secondary characters who will neither bore your readers or steal the story?

(Naturally that'll never happen, but I'm not going to give genre-bashers any extra fuel by deigning to dip into *that* dogfight.)

The central theme, culpability, is explored in both predictable and unpredictable ways. The one horror chestnut I have the most difficulty with - the notion of true and unredeemable human evil - is played out expertly with the cheif villain and his dreadful henchwoman. But it's also explored with more subtlety in Jude's relationship with his parents (is he a victim?), women (is he a victimizer?), his employee, bandmates, etc. etc. etc. And while, by the end of the book, there is ample redemption and forgiveness, there's enough ambivalence left that there is lingering doubt about the nature of the human soul (a far more interesting and, too me, satisfying notion than mere evil-smiting).

There's a meaty hero's journey here for those who like 'em. By the time Jude makes his first heroic move - kicking the dreadful Ruger's smarmy ass - we've seen enough of the ordinary world to see that the guy has his work cut out for him. And then the stakes just keep getting higher. 

I think many of us who stop reading horror forget that, done well, its nature is the same as any other genre's - the contemplation of human behavior when tested. There's a great little gem in the book: 

"Horror was rooted in sympathy, after all, in understanding what it would be like to suffer the worst."

Put that in your pipe and smoke it, baby.

PS: Doesn't that beard make Hill look kind of like Bill Cameron's dour, underfed younger brother?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Worse than sex scenes

by Rebecca Cantrell

This is the post I’ve been dreading writing. I’d sooner admit to my criminal past (OK, I actually finessed that one), than write about my favorite book.

It’s not that I don’t read. I do. I read constantly. I’m currently reading:

• HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISON OF AZKABAN (aloud. All the Harry Potters are much funnier that way. I’m sure they’d be even better if I could do accents).
• FIVE QUARTS (a great collection of essays on blood. Wonderful historical background and a sweet love story too.)

• THE NAZI OLYMPICS (a museum exhibition catalog I picked up at the Holocaust Museum in D.C. Lots of pictures. Grim ending, I know, even though I’m not there yet)
• THE XIth OLYMPIC GAMES BERLIN, 1936 OFFICIAL REPORT VOLUME I (646 page summary of the games written by the German government for the Olympic committee shortly after the games ended. I’m kind of skimming this as it’s pretty dense stuff, including a list of all the extra subway trains added, number of policemen added to various beats, etc.)
• THE DOOMSDAY KEY by James Rollins (a rollicking fun read and I always want to get some popcorn while I’m reading it)
• THE PAPERCLIP CONSIPIRARY by Tom Bower (a nonfiction book that details the rush after World War II to capture German scientists, whitewash their pasts, and bring them to the United States, Britain, and Russia to work).
• TRAIL SINISTER by Sefton Delmer (a lively and charming autobiography about a British journalist’s adventures in Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s).

Do you see a pattern? Well, except for the research stuff, me neither. And that’s my problem. I read constantly, shamelessly, and indiscriminately. And I always have. There, I admitted that on the Internet. Why do I still feel much more embarrassed than relieved?

I don’t have one favorite book. I have a thousand. And I can’t write intelligently about any of them. I get all bollixed up. I have tons of friends, heck everyone else on this freakin’ blog, I bet, who write beautifully about books. I can’t. For me, that’s as hard as writing sex scenes (and don’t get me started there).

Anyone want to analyze that? What can’t you write about that you feel you should be able to write about?

Feels like the first time....

From CJ
What crime fiction novel do you wish you could read again for the first time?

I don't often re-read books--if you saw my to-be-read pile, you'd understand why! But there are a few that I return to over and over again.

The first is Ray Bradbury's SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. Ever since I was a kid, I've been haunted by Bradbury's evocative prose and fallen in love with his deft portrayals of good and evil and the power of love/family. Talk about primal forces!

Another, not a crime novel per se, but all about how humans create a just society, is Mark Helprin's lyrical and imaginative WINTER'S TALE. Magical realism at its best!

One of the few thriller novels that I've read several times is Thomas Harris's RED DRAGON. While I also enjoyed SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, for me, RED DRAGON is the better and more compelling read. Harris's villain rings true, his good guys are realistically flawed, and Hannibal Lecter isn't the fawning and almost desperate creature he becomes in SILENCE but rather is cunning and saturated with a desire for vengeance at any price. It's a delicious (pun intended!) tale that scares and thrills me every time I read it.

BUT, the book I most wish I could read again for the very first time is Carol O'Connell's JUDAS CHILD. This was my first taste of her unique voice which also carries into her Mallory books (which I also love!). JUDAS CHILD doesn't merely evoke a visceral response in the reader, it also compels you to believe that which you know is not true, to question everything your senses and the narrator tell you, and it leaves you with an indelible admiration for the strength and enduring qualities of love and friendship.

Many people won't read JUDAS CHILD because there are children in jeopardy, but O'Connell's prose, her mastery of a point-of-view that straddles omniscient and deep third person, and her finely-honed sense of place and character make it a winner. It's a book that, as a writer, I learn from every time I re-read it and as a reader I wish I could read it again for the first time and savor the emotional rollercoaster without knowing all the twists and turns that lie ahead.

So that's my list--what's on yours? What book do you return to over and over again? Why?

Thanks for reading!

About CJ:
As a pediatric ER doctor, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about in her cutting edge suspense novels. Her debut, LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), became a National Bestseller and Publishers Weekly proclaimed it a "breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller."

The second in the series, WARNING SIGNS, was released January, 2009 and the third, URGENT CARE, is due out October, 2009. Contact her at

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Mug Shots

Gabriella Herkert, Catnapped and Doggone

Do I control my characters? Have you seen my hair? If I gain the upper hand over anything in my world I’m going to start there. No. I don’t control my characters. At least not the good ones. Well, I suppose that’s only sorta true which I’ll admit is much like being kinda pregnant. Perhaps I ought to explain.

As a new writer, I used the text book approach to character development. Every person who made it onto the blank page only got there after I’d built an entire world for him. I used a written template that gave the facts, just the facts, Ma’am. Birth dates, school attendance, height, weight, astrological sign. An entire life boiled down to one 8 ½” by 11” perfectly uniform data sheet. Every character fit the mold. Then they hit the page and…no one wanted to know them. I know many authors who use these time honored techniques to sketch a new character. There’s a reason schools teach character development this way. It just didn’t work for me. I got so comfortable with knowing the details of my characters that I didn’t know them at all.
Here’s an example. I am female, 5’4” and 110 pounds. Those are my metrics, the sort of thing that would end up on my character sheet. How would that translate to my early characters? Size mattered. Small women were victims. Don’t get me wrong. The world works on those same assumptions. Check out the crime victim statistics sometime. As a storyteller, I was taking my readers (mostly family in the early days) into the world they already knew. Yes, the story read “right.” Accurate. Believable. And totally uninteresting.

Then, I started thinking about why I was an interesting character (if in fact I am which is a delusion I allow myself). How did I get to be interesting despite my unerring ability to fit within the world’s acceptable parameters for people like me? Take the same details. Gender, height and weight. Yes, I can see some criminal deciding I’d make a good punching bag. I fit the mold. Then it actually happened. I was mugged. Some bad character looked at my size, did a mental character assessment and decided to cast me as the victim. What happened? What always happens when the characters are real. The numbers get crunched and 2 + 2 = 5. He grabbed the purse slung across my body . Reached out and touched me. If he’d just looked menacing and demanded the five bucks I had in the wallet, I would have gladly offered it up. Instead, I used my size disadvantage and dove into him – over him -- when he expected me to pull away. He ended up dazed and stupefied from hitting his head on the sidewalk. I don’t know who was more surprised. Then, I did what any woman threatened by a man with an eight inch, seventy pound advantage would do. I ran like hell.

I learned something that day about characters that stay flat on a page, within their templates, and those that don’t. You can know all the details about someone and still get surprised when you mug them. The essence of character, the quirk, the really interesting part, can’t be quantified. It can only be revealed when your perfect prototype surprises you. Grows beyond your control. I still do quick character sheets for my most important people so I don’t forget the color of their hair or shrink them mid-book. Then, I take them out for a mugging. Ever been to a costume party? Go as one of them. Play chess online and chat with your imaginary friend’s voice. Raid your closet to see if you can come up with the clothes your protagonist would pack if she were on the run. They won’t be the same as the ones you pack even if you are exactly the same size. Because you’re not and that’s cool.


Saturday, August 22, 2009

Armchair God

One of the great disadvantages to going later in the week is that most of the cogent observations have already been made, the stronger metaphors taken. But a great advantage is the ability to be lazy and let my fellow bloggers do all the hard work.

As a writer, do you control your characters? Sophie's reference to channeling is closest to the feeling I get when telling a story to myself. I seem to agree with Kelli so often that I'm beginning to suspect we're alter egos, perhaps with me cast as her twisted subconscious or mischievous id. And I love Shane's reference to the red shirts. Who doesn't live in fear of being turned into a cube of salt on some distant planet?

But there's a difference between creation and control. I've recently become addicted to an application for the iPhone, a game called Pocket God by Bolt Creative that is a perversely perfect metaphor for all creation, either in the real or fictional world. You're the supreme being responsible for a tropical island full of natives and can create as many of the little guys as you want. But once you create them, they follow their own impulses. To eat, walk around, fish. But if you get bored with them, or you're just in a vengeful, Old Testament mood, you can hurl them into a volcano. Or feed them to a shark. Or summon red ants to eat them alive. It's sadistic, existential fun at its best.

As a writer you'll create many characters, and if you want them to come to life on the page their personality and motives must feel genuine. So as you get to know them, before long it will feel like you're anticipating their actions as opposed to dictating them. The reader should feel the same way, as if they're following someone's story, a tale driven by the characters' desires and all too human flaws. Just like the game, the characters must appear to follow their own impulses for the plot to make sense.

But if, as the writer, you decide that you don't like where the story is headed, never forget that you're in charge. You can always throw one of your characters into a volcano to remind them who's boss.

Friday, August 21, 2009

"He's dead, Jim."

By Shane Gericke

They were the original Dead Men Walking.

"They" were Redshirts, the poor souls who accompanied Captain Kirk, Scottie, Bones, and other main Star Trek (original series) characters on transporter beam-downs to the planet ... onto the alien spaceship ... into the ice cave ... deep into the heart of the enemy. They were ensigns and lieutenants with no first names. They carried phasers. They wore shiny pants and bright red shirts. They were killed within sixty seconds of landing.

Preferably just before the commercial break.

As Wikipedia explains:

Redshirt is a slang term for a minor stock character in an adventure drama who dies violently soon after being introduced to dramatize the dangerous situation faced by the main characters. The term originated with the science fiction television series Star Trek from the red shirts worn by Starfleet security officers.[1]

I had my own literary Redshirt. His name was Martin Benedetti. He was a sheriff's detective commander in my serial killer series starring Detective Emily Thompson. He was tall, dark and handsome, with a wicked facial scar and a violent streak that he used only for good. Everyone loved him.

In other words, he was born to die.

I created Marty for my debut BLOWN AWAY, to give Emily a love interest. Each would be attracted to the other from the start, and their fondness would grow into love by the middle of the book. Then, Marty would die violently, to make Emily feel that everything she touched in her life, died. Kind of as if Midas turned things into corpses instead of gold.
I wrote the book exactly that way, killing Marty somewhere in the middle. Rather spectacularly, though I forget exactly how. I was proud of my cleverness. I was happy with the book, and was ready to start pitching it to literary agents.

Then, Emily started in with me.

"I need him, Shane," she said, flashing her big emerald eyes. "I want him. You can't take him from me."

Marty chimed in.

"That detective's my partner in crime," he said. "She's gonna be the love of my life. Wake up, Mister Riter Guy, and dig me out of this coffin fore I kick yer ass."


So I did.

When I start a book, I have a pretty good idea of who the main characters are and what’s going to happen to them. But when I'm in the midst of the writing--sometimes right away, sometimes not till I type “The End,” the characters start thinking and acting for themselves. Sometimes they agree with what I'm doing with them. Sometimes, they don't.

And they get demanding when I push them in a direction they don't want to go.

I’ve learned to listen to their voices, because they know themselves better than I do.
That’s what you want in your characters. Independence. Guts. A strong point of view, and the moxie to back it up.

Because if your characters have those qualities, your readers will like them as much as you do.

So, to answer the question, Do you control your characters or do they control you? I control them when I can. I back off when they insist. Everyone's happy.

As for Marty, the detective commander has a starring role in the book that comes out next summer, one that could not be replicated by any other character. Emily continues to need him in her life, and her ability to convince me of that made her ever more complex and dynamic.

I'm glad I listened.

Shane Gericke (pronounced YER-key) is the national bestselling author of the crime thrillers BLOWN AWAY and CUT TO THE BONE, starring hard-charging police detectives Emily Thompson and Martin Benedetti. The third in the series, MOVING TARGET, rolls out July 2010. Shane is an original member of International Thriller Writers and a director of Thrillerfest. He lives in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, where the series is set. He'd love you to visit him at

Thursday, August 20, 2009


By Kelli

"Do you control characters, or do they control you?"

Simple answer: Neither. They just exist, and I channel them.

OK, I was ill last week with an upper respiratory infection and strep throat, and while I came that much closer to mortality, I promise I'm not going to go all Ouija on you.
Not even mildly
Shirley MacLaine. But this week's question about characters made me think about, well, how the hell they are just there, on the page, living a complex life that I know only a little about, that I witness and experience vicariously, painfully at times, and how and why I miss them when I end a book.

One reason I like to write series. And of course, with possibly two on the horizon, when I work on one world, I miss the other ...

And allow me to digress for a moment, for the curious among you who may still wonder where it is that I engage in the process we euphemistically call writing. (Really part sorcery, part exorcism and part subconscious spelunking, with three parts ego and a dash of intellectual discipline. That's what I think today, with copy edits on my desk, but next week I may have a different answer entirely. But I'm still digressing.)

My plotting/planning/loose construction is done on buses, in showers, hotel rooms, cars, planes, restaurants and salons--anywhere, in short, where I have time to think. Formalizing notes and research is done mainly on my heavily- decorated-with-every-tchotchke-known-to-man writing desk, complete with my unopened bottle of Old Crow Kentucky bourbon, in case I run into writer's block. My actual writing is usually done in front of my computer, which is normally in the same room as my desk, in my home, but can be anywhere if I'm traveling. I wrote a scene for CITY OF DRAGONS in a crowded restaurant in Denver when I had to get dinner by myself one evening.

I bring this up because characters speak to me through the act of writing, which can be purely thought (my family is familiar with the "her head's in her book" glazed look) or actual finger-tapping digital words on screen. They speak anywhere, and--as Sophie and Becky and Toni have all pointed out--they demand to be heard.

Actually, not all demand to be heard. Some ask politely, some wriggle uncomfortably, heads down, fussing with shoe laces. Some I have to fool into getting involved, some I have to cajole. Some shrug, and absolutely don't give a damn what I do.

Truth is, whenever someone compliments me on a book, I feel very strange--and after I thank and shower them with a thousand blessings for their kindness, I realize that I don't feel as if I actually created anything. I feel more like a biographer than a novelist. And that's because the characters really do live for me. I open up the channel and they're there.

In CITY OF DRAGONS, my protagonist did something that shocked me, truly bothered me. It's a dark book, but this was much darker than I was prepared for. But it was Miranda's call, not mine. Likewise, a minor character developed into a somewhat tragic figure--I stood by and cried when the words hit the page, a helpless witness.

I guess one of my goals as a writer is to let readers feel the same sense of witnessing, of participating and not controlling, that I do. I live in a kind of dream world when I'm working on a book--the scenes, the dialog, half-remembered glimpses of past and present, outrages unaddressed, slights unforgiven, loves not quite forgotten--all of it playing through my brain like a song I knew a long time ago. It's one reason I can't read fiction while I write. And by the time I end a novel, part of me stays in that world for days, sometimes weeks. And it's hell to reenter the present and the real at times, like falling, burning through the sky.

I'm about to reenter the world of CITY OF DRAGONS ... I have a pile of copy edits staring at me to go through, and soon, in the next few weeks, I'll be working on the sequel. I'm not sure what or who I'll find ... but it will be good to be home again.

My second book CITY OF DRAGONS releases February 2, 2010, from Minotaur.
My first, NOX DORMIENDA, is a Macavity finalist.