Thriller Writers Q & A
In a rare web interview, three masters of the thriller genre, Andrea Kane, James Rollins and Lisa Gardner share their innermost thoughts about:
Q: You are all probably tired of getting asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” So, instead, I wonder where you look for inspiration. Is it in everyday things and events, or is the answer more complicated?
Andrea: As soon as I start “looking” for inspiration, I'm in trouble. The only way that inspiration and I seem to get along, is when it finds me. Fortunately, it does that a lot. Unfortunately, it's usually not at opportune times. So I've taken to having a pad with me everywhere (including outside the shower, under the car seat, etc.) That way, I can scribble down thoughts whenever they strike. If I see, hear, or think of something that factors into my novel or resolves a nagging plot problem, out comes the pad. Of course, the words I write down look like chicken scratch and no one but me could ever make any sense out of them. On the other hand, no one else needs to.
As for where the inspiration comes from, sometimes it's from everyday things, news stories I read or see on TV, conversations I have about unrelated subjects that trigger an idea or a “fix” for a problem I'm having with a character or plot point. Sometimes it's in brainstorming sessions I have with my husband, during which nothing concrete is resolved, other than the fact that it gets my creative juices flowing , and later on--sometimes that day, sometimes the next--an idea strikes. What is it that Jiminy Cricket said? “Like a bolt out of the blue…” That's the way it happens.
Jim: I don't actually have a one wellspring of inspiration. Though I'm most often inspired while reading--both fiction and nonfiction. I subscribe to National Geographic, Scientific American, Discover, and a slew of other magazines. And it is while reading articles for pleasure and interest that an interesting “What if?” will pop into my head. But I must say I also am an avid movie buff (often when I'm stymied by a part of my writing day, you'll find me at the matinee with a bucket of popcorn in my lap). For some reason, some of my best solutions and ideas are triggered in those dark theaters, usually totally unrelated to what's going on onscreen. I also enjoy hiking in the foothills and mountains close to Sacramento. I always have to bring a pen and paper to jot down sudden thoughts and ideas. So inspiration arises from countless sources.
Lisa: Most of my suspense novels have been inspired by true crime. For example, for my latest novel, HIDE (available January 30, 2007 from Bantam Books), I started with a real-life case where a grown man stalked a young girl by leaving little gifts on her front porch marbles, etc. It became one of the first stalking cases as the family sought legal protection for their daughter. Sadly, the predator's actions weren't taken seriously and in the end, he assaulted the girl. This, of course, enraged me. It also made me wonder, what if the parents hadn't stopped at seeking legal help? What if instead, they did everything in their power to protect their child? Such as disappearing in the middle of the night. Such as spending the next twenty-five years on the run? What would this do to the family? What would it mean for the girl? And what would happen, if the same stalker, one day found her again?
Q: I'm always curious about where writers write. Do you have an “inner sanctum” office, or do you write anywhere and everywhere?
Andrea: I'm an inner sanctum type. I need either my office or my sitting room (if it's one of those all-night write-a-thons). I also need TOTAL silence and as little external stimuli as possible. The reason for this is that, try though I have, I can't seem to shut things out. I hear every sound (which is great for writing dialogue, not so great for ignoring construction sounds and lawnmowers), and I sense every motion and interaction taking place around me. So, in order to be productive and not go crazy (or drive my family crazy), I'm a “writing recluse.” I stay locked in my “ivory tower”, emerging for sporadic interactions and daily exercise. But, boy, do I envy those writers that can write on planes, in hotel rooms, amid mad chaos, etc.
Jim: I do have an office where about 70% of my writing gets done, but sometimes it does get a bit stir-crazy to be cooped up in there, so I'll grab my laptop and write somewhere else: another room in the house, out on the patio, or even Heaven-forbid, a trip to Starbucks. But I also write on the road. I'm pretty disciplined to keep the momentum of a story going by writing everyday, even if it's only a couple paragraphs or a page or two. This past summer, I taught a writing course at the Maui Writers Convention and stressed the importance of regularly writing. And to practice what I preached, I got up at five o'clock every morning both to watch the sunrise and to get some writing done. Most mornings I missed the sunrise as I was too lost in the story.
Lisa: I have a lovely office overlooking the town cemetery. People always think that's very fitting for a suspense author, particularly as next to the set of windows is a framed blood-letting dagger my family picked up for me in Vegas. I swear, I don't consider myself a blood-letting dagger kind of gal, but then again, I host a Kill a Friend, Maim a Buddy sweepstakes on my website, so maybe my family knows me better than I realize.
Q: What about procrastination? I know I can get pretty creative about it--from reorganizing my files to suddenly deciding I have to get online to discover who won the Best Actress Oscar in 1972!
Andrea: After almost two decades of writing, I have my procrastination strategies neatly divided into 3 separate compartments. Here they are, from best to worst:
(I) Productive, work-related procrastination--This is where I bury myself in non-writing but book or career related work. I do research, make follow-up calls to my consultants to verify information, answer e-mails to my readers, or immerse myself in other publishing-related assignments, such as giving my all to this Q&A. Technology has broadened this procrastination strategy greatly.
(II) Productive, non-work-related procrastination--This is where I frenetically catch up on domestic chores like laundry, return phone calls to my friends (who hopefully are still speaking to me), straighten up my office (which looks like a bomb hit it), read all the pleasure books I've been dying to read but haven't had the time, run errands, recycle catalogues, and (my most favorite) spend time with my family watching a movie, catching up on their daily trivia (the big stuff I always make time for, deadlines or no deadlines), or just plain shooting the breeze.
(III) Non-productive, non-work-related procrastination, a/k/a indulging and/or feeling sorry for myself--This is where I grab a pint of Haagen-Dazs and a spoon, sit down in front of the TV, and watch all the shows I love but never have time to watch. Post-ice-cream-binge, I snatch up the NY Times Sunday crossword puzzle and a book of Sudoku puzzles and do them until the wee hours of the morning. After that, I research nonsensical trivia on the Internet, shop on line, and go to sleep feeling very full (I've followed the Haagen-Dazs with dinner) and very guilty. It's only recently that someone pointed out to me that others actually take things called vacations, where they set aside time to do things like the above. I loved learning that--it's helped me cut down on the guilt aspect of all this. But I never stay away from writing for too long--I feel like a part of me is missing.
Jim: I think the worst and most insidious procrastination for me is research. I will be looking for some bit of fact or figure to include in the novel, and before I know, I've wasted an entire morning delving into that subject matter without a word written. It can be a trap for writers: thinking they're working, when really they are just entertaining themselves with the research. I also have to watch the amount of time I spend reading email or surfing the Internet. Both are insidious time traps.
Lisa: If authors weren't meant to procrastinate, then computers wouldn't come with spider solitaire. It's not my fault!!!!
Q: I know writers do amazing research before they even begin to write. Can you all talk a little about that?
Andrea: I'm manic about my research, because even though I'm writing fiction, I want to create the most realistic plot, backdrop, character backgrounds, careers, etc. that I can--down to the last detail. It sounds daunting, and it is, but it's also exciting and challenging. Every book I write, I learn several new professions inside out. It's one of the most fascinating parts about starting a new book. And being that I hate being bored and I love learning new things, it's a perfect fit.
I also have some unbelievably brilliant and helpful consultants (some on a one-book basis, some who've aided me through many books), who are generous with their time and their knowledge. They range from doctors and medical specialists who've taught me so much about ruptured blood vessels, gunshot and knife wounds, and bleeding out that I think I could play a doctor on TV, to psychologists, who've helped me delve into the human mind (both normal and abnormal), to the one-of-a-kind retired homicide detective who's educated me in the world of the NYPD, and who served as the role model for Pete “Monty” Montgomery (the PI who's on top of the criminal investigations in both WRONG PLACE, WRONG TIME and DARK ROOM). Through my real-life “Monty”, I went on a tour of one of Brooklyn's most dangerous neighborhoods, a/k/a the 75th Precinct, taking a chilling drive through the war zone that was Monty's former turf. I rode shotgun in a cop car, cringing at the continuous stream of radio calls summoning officers. “Monty” had a story for every block and street corner we passed--everything from gang violence in the schools to drug deals and even mob hits. The most memorable part of that trip was when he drove me down a deserted cul-de-sac and showed me the infamous Fountain Avenue dump, where the Mafia used to do its recycling and “all the good bodies were buried.”
Tragically, real life can be crueler than fiction. In 2006, Imette St. Guillen, a young, female John Jay College graduate student was found murdered, her naked body left at the Fountain Avenue dump. It doesn't get any more realistic than that.
Lastly, for me the research doesn't stop when the book writing starts. I constantly need more finite or additional information as the book unfolds--especially since it often goes in a direction I didn't expect. The more complex the novel becomes, the more intricate the details are I need to know. So my consultants and my Internet are on constant stand-by! And they've come through for me every time.
Jim: As I mentioned above, I also love to research, love it to a fault! So I try to restrict my research to a set period of time--both before I begin a book and while writing it. I do a bulk of my research before I set the first word to paper. It involves multiple trips to libraries, reading books ordered from esoteric websites, combing the Internet, making phone calls, and setting interviews. It's surprising how many doors open when you preface a request for information with the words “I'm an author looking to find out…” I even got NASA to hand-deliver the operations manual to the Space Shuttle to my doorstep.
Lisa: I agree with Andrea and Jim: research is the best part of writing a novel. I've been to the FBI Academy twice. Amazing! Toured numerous crime labs, visited countless law enforcement agencies. Now, it's a family affair. For my upcoming novel, I headed to Georgia with my husband and three-year old daughter. As my daughter announced to her preschool class, “My mommy has to find a crime scene, and I'm going to help.” It's all good until DCYF comes knocking.
What Would You Do If…
Q: If you weren't a writer, what would you do?
Andrea: I never have any idea how to answer this. I can't imagine not writing, or at least not storytelling. I've been doing it forever. I guess if I had to answer, I'd say I'd be a psychologist, or something that dealt with “what makes people tick.” The human mind and emotions fascinate me more than anything. They're the foundations for the characters I create, along with the dangers they tackle and the relationships they have.
Jim: I would still write. I wrote for years before I was ever published, and I don't think I could ever stop. That said, I was also a veterinarian before I sold my first book, and I still volunteer my time to help with animal welfare causes. So that is a career I would be happy to return to (while still secretly writing strange stories back in my doctor's office).
Lisa: I would love top play tennis at Wimbledon. Sadly, I have no athletic abilities, so I guess I'll stick to coming up with imaginative ways of killing people instead.
Facts of Life
Q: I would love to be able to be like that man on the Actor's Studio and ask you about your favorite curse word, but this is a family website. So, perhaps you'd be willing to share one interesting fact about yourself that few people know.
Andrea: I don't have a domestic bone in my body. When people swap recipes, I produce take-out menus. When they discuss gardening, I announce that the last plant I bought didn't die for two whole weeks. When they show me the adorable (and complicated) Halloween costumes they made for their kids, I'm forced to admit that the closest I've come to “making something from scratch” is when I started knitting my husband a vest when we were in college. That was a gazillion years ago--more than I care to admit. Suffice it to say that my daughter's already done the college scene, and my husband's vest is still the size of a cereal box. Not that it matters. The wool has faded, the pattern is way out of style, and I've long since forgotten how to knit.
Jim: Hmm…I was once stuck down in a cave for several hours, jammed in a vertical crack, hanging from my rappelling gear. And for some reason, I keep caving. I also have a sixty-year-old parrot named Igor. Not that the two are related, but he's squawking right now, demanding to be included in the conversation. So there you go.
Lisa: My longest relationship has been with my three-legged cat, Friday. Every morning, she comes over and bangs her head against my knee until I scratch her ears. Every morning, she signals she's done having her ears scratched by biting my hand. We've been doing this for fifteen years. I can't decide what it says about either of us that she's still biting me and I'm still scratching her. I guess we're both stubborn.