“A human head weighs about the same as a large oven-ready chicken,” crime fiction author Peter James told a roomful of rapt listeners at ThrillerFest 2014 in New York City. If anyone felt queasy, they didn’t show it. After all, the panel was called Sick, Sick, Sick: Is it Possible to Write Great Thrillers and Not Be a Secret Sadist? It’s always fascinating to spend a weekend with writers who think a great deal about new and grisly methods to murder someone or how to commit the perfect crime. With my debut suspense novel coming out in two months, and having started a second one, I couldn’t think of a better place to be than this yearly International Thriller Writers event.
The first panel to really capture my attention was, perversely, on how stories end. Moderated by historical author Nancy Bilyeau, the name almost said it all – Happily Ever After & Other Myths: Must Everyone Hold Hands or is a Dark Ending Possible? She noted that endings in romance fiction have an iron-clad happily-ever-after rule, whereas in literary fiction anything goes. What about thrillers? The consensus of the panel was that the reader must not feel manipulated or robbed.
“Steinbeck’s a pretty good writer but he needs to work on his endings.” Romantic suspense author Carla Neggers’ 12-year-old son had just finished reading Of Mice and Men, and he was not happy. But sometimes making readers unhappy means the writer is doing something right, countered thriller author Chelsea Cain. Earning the emotion by going deep and challenging readers’ expectations are important factors to keep in mind. Then there’s the question of how much punishment a villain deserves? I remember at my previous visit to ThrillerFest in 2012, one writer said, “The nastier a killer is, the more terrible an end he or she should meet.” (Advice I took to heart in the next draft of my book.)
Kids in Danger
“Putting kids in danger can be terrifying for readers,” said Michael Sears. His Jason Stafford series features an autistic boy. (More advice I listened to carefully because in my next book…) It’s important to see a child’s capability of dealing with threatening circumstances. Actually harming a child – or perhaps worse, violence inflicted on an animal – was mentioned on several panels as a dangerous tactic for any writer to employ. (Whatever you do, don’t kill the dog!)
Once again, Chelsea Cain took a different view, suggesting her novels should come with a disclaimer: Not to be trusted with children. She once made a book trailer using her young daughter’s dolls, and later that evening was forced to answer an unsettling question no parent has ever been asked before or since: “Why is there blood on the bathroom floor of Malibu Barbie’s Dream House?”
What Scares You?
“My paranormal experience? I’m Anne Rice’s son.” Christopher Rice, nominated for a Bram Stoker Award for his first paranormal thriller The Heaven’s Rise, was on the panel: Is There a Ghost of a Chance? Fitting the Supernatural into the Genre. The popularity of horror elements in thrillers was reflected in the winner of this year’s ITW Award for Best Hardback Novel: The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper. But do the authors believe what they write? “It’s difficult not to believe when every reader has a ghost story,” said gothic suspense writer Wendy Webb, who then proceeded to tell her own: a chilling tale of walking the dog on a snowy afternoon in Minnesota and a little girl in summer garb on a swing who suddenly disappeared, leaving the dog’s hair standing on end – not to mention goose bumps among many in the room. (Okay, myself included!)
“I’m not a believer,” said Rebecca Cantrell, winner of ITW Best Original eBook for her self-published novel What Lies Beneath. She talked about her visit to the recently opened Prague Museum of Alchemy, which boasts having in its collection an actual sample of the Elixir of Eternal Youth. It wasn’t available for purchase in the gift shop, she noted with a twinkle in her eye. “Eternal youth wouldn’t be cheap!”
“There is only one kind of story in the world. Your story.” – Ray Bradbury
Psychotherapist and author Dennis Palumbo led the last panel I attended that provided some seriously thought-provoking discussion: Ego or Id? Unlock your Character’s Psychology. Psychological thrillers have always been my genre-of-choice in crime fiction, as far back as the groundbreaking work of Patricia Highsmith. It’s a genre that continues to grow in popularity. “Everyone has operatic passions,’ said Palumbo (who wrote the brilliant Peter O’Toole film My Favorite Year.) Fellow psychotherapist-author Marjorie Brody spoke about how readers relate to characters as people they might know, or even more intimately. “You wrote my story,” they say.
In a world filled with senseless acts of violence, such as school killings or mass murders, there’s a desire to understand how humans reach such breaking points. “Anyone could commit a murder,” said award-winning crime fiction and non-fiction author D.P. Lyle, M.D. – who has also advised writers of numerous television series. The best advice for writers: mine your emotions, your psychology. The more detailed and idiosyncratic the writing, the more universal it becomes. All these ideas swirled around in my head (my head that weighs the same as an oven-ready chicken.) And later as I walked the streets of New York, rode the subway, and took a bus back to New Hampshire, everyone I saw was a possible murderer or a potential victim.
Time to start writing again.