Friday, July 3, 2009

The Hydra-Headed Writer

This is a genuine shrunken head, from the Jivaro Indians of the Amazon jungle. No, it's not a gratuitous photo to fill space so Shane doesn't have to write as much. It's germane to our story. Details below in Shane-O-Grams.
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Question of the week: Do you think like the villain, or the hero?


I'm a serial killer, sawing out the heart of a kidnapped cop.

I'm the kidnapped state trooper, screaming on a table as the whirling Skil-pendulum swings closer.

I'm the rookie detective who squeezes the life out of the saw-killer in the last paragraph of the last page.

I'm the detective's steelworker dad, dishing life advice. I'm the detective's lawyer mom, brushing her chestnut hair. I'm the detective's best friend, a doll-size blonde who's also an Army sniper and police SWAT commander. I'm the best friend's nine-year-old daughter, kidnapped by a drug lord to sell into sexual slavery. I'm the cop who rescues her, even as he betrays the girl's family to save his own daughter from death.

And I'm the kid who delivers the pizzas. Extra cheese, no anchovies.

So, do I think like the villian, or the hero?

The only good answer is, Yes.

I write in third person. (Or, to use the technical publishing term, third person close attachment w/side of pasta.) It's the only way to keep track of the multiple characters and locations that populate--some might say infest--my thrillers. But my characters use all their senses. They don't just see something; they feel, hear, smell, taste and touch it. They rage and love. Hate and cry. Kill and rescue. In other words, they act three-dimensionally, just like we do.

To accurately translate that for a reader, I have to make those feelings my own. So I attach myself like a 240-pound leech and see the world as they do. I smell their air, hear their music, taste the person they're kissing, feel their black rage vomit out. When I'm done, I can write the scene, not with the authority of the Writer, but of the character. Which is the whole point of writing fiction--to make you believe those figments of our imaginations are real, flesh and blood that could walk through your front door at any given moment, chuckling.

Method writing, if you will.

Some of what I find in my "explorations" is repulsive--what but a monster could saw out another human being's beating heart? Some is ennobling--who but the bravest could put her life on the line to take out a madman, instead of cowering behind an army of blue uniforms with guns and pepper spray and armored vehicles?

Everything I find is utterly fascinating.

I also think that's why I put more than a dozen characters in my books. Having only a protagonist, an antagonist, and maybe the goofy brother-in-law for comic relief wouldn't be nearly as much fun.

Before I became a thriller writer, I spent 25 years in the newspaper business. I loved it. The reason? I ran into new characters every day. Some were big--Muhammed Ali, President Carter. Others were small--coworkers, bosses, panhandlers, PR people. All were interesting. I had the chance to size them up, feel what they felt, see what they saw, and then transfer their essences to words. In what other business but Riter Guy could I interview Liberace (in person) and Louise Mandrell (by cell, on a tour bus) on the same day, and tell stories about their habitation of entirely different universes?

Now, I get to do it for my own characters.

What a rush.

Which do I have more fun writing? Bad guys, of course. They get to do things most sane people would never, ever dream of, but in our secret hearts, have thought about more than once. Like driving fast without getting tickets.

And, uh, other stuff.


I started a thriller last night that's so compelling I stayed up way past bedtime to finish a few more chapters. It's from James Rollins, and it's called AMAZONIA. Basically, the good guys trek the Amazon jungle to find a wonder drug that could save humanity, facing horrible risks from animals, insects, indigeneous tribes, bad guys trying to steal the drug, and a woman who chops off the good guys' heads and shrinks them for fun. (See, the photo at the top was germaine.) Rollins is a wonderfully evocative writer, with a knack for making the science stuff thrilling. I can't wait to see how this turns out.

Before I leave this topic, here's a few words on head-shrinking. In a nutshell, the headhunter lops off the victim's head, peels away the skin as you would a chicken quarter, tosses the skull and insides into the garbage, boils the skin and hair to preserve it (also making it dark brown), and fills the empty cavity with hot rocks and sand. The heating process makes the skin shrink like jeans too long in the dryer. The headhunter shapes everything as he or she goes, and in a week or so of heating and shaping and shrinking, a tiny little head emerges. I think of it as leather crafts for whack jobs.

Here's a great line I wish I'd written: "The thought of the Nixon gang in the White House still infuses me with a pure and undiluted hatred and makes me consider throwing up things that I don't even remember having eaten." From Christopher Hitchens in

I'm going to ThrillerFest! Hope you are, too. It starts Wednesday morning at the Hyatt Grand Hotel in Manhattan, and runs till the bitter end of Saturday night. I'm deputy director, so I'll be gadding about, helping out. If you see me in the halls, please say hello. I'd love to meet you. If we've already met, we'll renew our friendship. If you've never been to ThrillerFest, think about attending in 2010. It's a great party for readers of the high-energy books all 7 of us Criminal Minds like to write. More at


Kelli Stanley said...


OK, now I KNOW why you're a thriller writer. ;)

Cool post, Shane, and info on head-shrinking to boot!!

It's so fun to hang out with you guys. :)

See you at Thrillerfest!


Jen Forbus said...

Wow! Climbing into the minds of all those characters must be exhausting! I think I was a bit tired after just reading about it!

Sadly, no Thrillerfest for me; it's B'Con in Indy this year for me. But have loads and loads of fun!

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

I swear - I never know what I'm going to find when I drop in here, but it's always interesting!

Shrunken Heads!


Great post, Shane!

Sadly, like Jen, I'll be missing ThrillerFest, but, along with Jen, will see you guys in Indy. Have fun in NYC and I cannot WAIT to hear some stories and see some pictures.

Shane Gericke said...

Hi, Kaye, it's good to see you here! I'm so sorry you won't be at Tfest cause it would have been great fun to catch up with you in person. But I'll see you in Indy for Bcon. As for shrunken heads, I think that's why I created Shane-O-Grams: there's simply too many cool things I run across reading to not want to pass along. The shrunken heads stuff is utterly fascinating, and I would never have looked it up if it weren't for Jim Rollins' book.

Shane Gericke said...

Jen, it can be exhausting sometimes. But seeing the world through all those different eyes sure keeps things interesting! At some point I'll write a book or series that has only a few characters. But till then, it's like living in a big family--with evil brothers and sisters as well as good.

Like the Kayester, I'll see you in Indy, then, for Bcon. Happy summer.

Shane Gericke said...

Liberace was a hoot, Kel. It was like meeting a wax figure that moved and talked. He was wearing a ton of stage makeup, and one of the famous glitter costumes.

He came to Joliet, IL, the city in which I worked for the paper as a fresh minted Johnny Deadline. He was headlining the grand reopening of the Rialto, one of those old Rapp & Rapp vaudeville palaces that closed in the '60s when multiplexes came all the rage. In 1982, the good burghers of Joliet restored it to a crown jewel of a performance center and opened it to the public. It looks like the hall of mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, and it's gorgeous! I volunteered to do the opening night story cause I wanted to meet Liberace. So the few of us in the press corps interviewed him, shook his hand, etc., then stayed for the concert.

He was only a few years from his death, and he looked tired under all that makeup. But geez, could he still play those ivories. It was a great experience. Louis Mandrell was a hoot, too, though that was by cellphone.