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Mystery & Thrillers

True Ghost Story from J. Carson Black, Author of "Hard Return"

61MbSreUVtL[1]J. Carson Black, New York Times bestselling crime fiction author of the Cyril Landry Thrillers, shares an exclusive short story with us based on real life encounters with ghosts while doing research for her books in New Mexico.


A True Ghost Story By J. Carson Back

    The scenic old hotel outside the town of Cloudcroft, New Mexico, is proud of its resident ghost, Rebecca, a parlor maid who came to a bad end. In fact, if you go to their website, the literature boasts, “The Lodge Resort at Cloudcroft: It’s ‘Charmed.’”

It’s charmed, all right. The place (burned to the ground in 1909 and resurrected in 1911) is haunted by a winsome red-headed chambermaid—with one hell of a vicious backhand. I admit I didn’t take her seriously when Glenn, my husband, and I dined at the Lodge’s restaurant, Rebecca’s. I got her name wrong and called her “Jessica,” a few times.

In fact I thought it was funny.

          The old lodge has some neat stuff, including a romantic tower—its four sides made of old glass, accessed by a tight stairway and an old-fashioned key. Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent time there. You can look down over the canopy of pine right down to the White Sands of New Mexico.

          The pool’s cool, too--very 1920s. After a dip, I sat on a chaise and for a few moments watched the late afternoon sun glint off the diamond on my wedding ring—refracting at turns royal blue, green, yellow, orange, and ruby-red.

          I really shouldn’t have called Rebecca “Jessica.”

          Twelve midnight on the dot—a loud bang sent my husband and I bolt-upright in bed. The radio blasted gibberish from the bedside table. Tinny voices jabbered on the TV, which was up-all-the-way loud, the screen fuzzy black and white with wavering images in black and gray dots.

          “What do you bet it’s a prank?” one of us—maybe both of us—said.

          Glenn tried to turn off the TV and I tried to turn off the radio. They both kept blaring. Finally, we pulled the electric cords—


          Not that we slept very well. The next morning I asked the two young women at the check-in desk if someone had played a prank on us. They gave me a look that said, “Oh, oh.” They swore the hotel wouldn’t do anything like that, and any employee who would---well, they wouldn’t be kept around very long. Paying guests were paying guests.

          As we carried our bags outside, I said to Glenn, “Prank. Definitely.”


          The drive down the mountain to Alamogordo is precipitous, narrow and winding. The view from the road is a steep drop-off, a deep ravine, and toothy rocks. There’s even a tunnel. Mountain driving doesn’t make either one of us nervous, but abruptly I found myself thinking of Shirley Jackson’s horror masterpiece, THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE. I remembered the woman driving away from the haunted house (thinking she’d made a clean getaway) suddenly wrestling for control of her car with… something, after which she crashed into an oak tree and was killed.

All the way down the mountain I had that awful feeling: what if Rebecca was still mad?

          We made it to the valley floor in one piece. At the foot of the mountain, in the town of Alamogordo, we stopped for gas. I sat in the car and reflected how silly I’d been to think of a red-headed, thin-skinned ghost haunting us just because I’d called her “Jessica.” Of course the TV and radio were rigged. It was just a prank.

About that time I glanced down at my hand--

          At the empty socket where my diamond had been.

It was gone.

Exclusive Q&A with Louise Penny

514Nw1a%2BnaL[1]Louise Penny, “New York Times” bestselling author of the Chief Armand Gamache series gives us an exclusive Q&A about her life and writing process.    

Question: You weave a lot of Quebec setting, culture, and the seasons into your novels.  How long have you lived in Quebec, and do you write mostly in Quebec or other places like Montreal or Toronto?

Louise: I was born and, for the most part, raised in Toronto – but spent several formative years in Montreal as a child.  Later in life, after moving around with my job, I decided I needed to put down roots, to find home.  I thought, and thought and sat quietly with it, and realized that Quebec always felt like home.  So I moved here.  That was thirty years ago.  I have never, ever been made to feel like a stranger.  Despite being anglo in a majority francophone society.  I wanted to bring that sense of place, of belonging, of yearning, of finally finding home, to the books.  As well as what it feels like to live and breathe, and eat, Quebec.

Q: Have you received a lot of comments about the French Canadian vernacular/colloquialisms in your novels from American readers?

L: Yes, especially the swear words.  The English tend to swear using sexual references, or bodily functions.  The Quebecois use a lot of religious words.  I’ve heard elderly women (who were not Ruth Zardo) toss off the ‘f’ word as though it was just an adjective.  But let me say ‘tabernac’ to them (a derivative of tabernacle) they’d be apoplectic.  Of course, merde is pretty universal.  I throw in conversational French words here and there, (oui, non, désolé etc), but never anything that cannot be figured out given the context.  It’s important to give a clear sense of place, and language is part of that.  I also have a pronunciation guide with translation on my website.

Q: Do you do a lot of research about Quebec history before weaving it into your novels?

L: Some.  Like many, I’m draw to history anyway, and Quebec has a very rich and at times bizarre history.  The trick, I find, and something I struggle with, is finding that golden mean – the perfect balance so that it is neither a history lesson, nor is there a lack of context.  Quebec’s motto is ‘Je me souviens’ – I remember.  So past and present meld in this remarkable place.

Q: When you write a long running series as you have, how much to you plan in advance the plots for future books?

L: I do now, but when I started I dreamed it would become a series, but didn’t dare believe it, so I really didn’t think beyond Still Life.  So I felt my way forward, and prayed for inspiration each day.  And each book.  But then as my confidence grew, and my connection with the characters deepened even further, I could suddenly see years ahead.  Not the details, but the broad strokes.  Indeed, I knew how book 9 (HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN) would end when I was writing book 5 (THE BRUTAL TELLING).  The difficult part is writing so that the vital backstory, how the characters got to that place, is clear to those new to the series, as well as those who have read from the beginning.  It’s not simply bringing them up to speed on the sequence of events, it’s making sure the new readers care as deeply for Armand and Ruth and Clara and Gabri as long-time readers.  My books need, I think, to be read through the chest.   

Q: Are there ways that the characters or story lines surprise even you?

L: Constantly.  I can’t begin to tell you how much fun it is to return to Three Pines and know that a scene will be set in, let’s say, the bistro.  With Olivier and Gabri and Ruth….then Gamache and Beauvoir appear.  And they need to talk about x, y and z….  but how they get there, how they do it, what other things they say to each other, is always a surprise.  I have a goal, multiple goals actually, for most scenes – but how it happens if often a complete surprise.  And, it must be admitted, not always a welcome one.  My first drafts are a bit of a mess.  Like Lewis and Clarke slogging through a bog.  In subsequent drafts the story simplifies, clarifies – the characters become more sharply defined.  But I have to have something on the page, in order to edit later.

Q: How do you decide to set the books away from Three Pines?

L: Well, now, the original idea was to set all the books in Three Pines, but then, I didn’t really expect there would ever be 10 or more.  It became apparent after the third book that this tiny village in Quebec would not sustain the murder rate.  And it was becoming more and more difficult to describe it as idyllic.  So I decided to set every second book away from the village.  Though there might be large sections back in Three Pines, it would not be the centre of the action.  This has also allowed me more creative freedom.  And, when I do return to the village, ahhhh.  It feels like a genuine homecoming, rather that growing tired of the ‘same-old, same-old’.

Q: Are you ever tempted to exempt any one character from murder or heartbreak?

L: Tempted, yes.  While I call them characters, I have to say they feel very real to me.  I owe an amazing life to each one of them – to Armand Gamache, and Clara Morrow, and Gabri and Olivier and demented, drunken, brilliant Ruth.  To cause them hurt is horrific.  But these are crime novels, and neither the murder nor the consequences should ever be trivialized.  My books are not about death, they’re about life.  But life includes death, and pain, and despair, at times.  But it also includes love and forgiveness, friendship and goodness. 

Q: How do decide to weave multiple plot strings into one novel? 

L: I think it’s important, if there are multiple plots, that there be cohesion thematically.  I’m often, in fact almost exclusively, inspired by poetry.  Before starting to design and consider a book, some piece of poetry (or sometimes lyrics) will touch me deeply.  I’ll write those down on a post-it note, and stick it to my laptop.  So that when I get lost, (which I often do) I can find my way back.  Even in richness, there needs to be simplicity and clarity.  Never chaos.  The point is not to keep tossing sparkly things out there in the hopes the reader won’t notice that it makes no sense.

Guest Post by Melinda Leigh, Author of "Midnight Betrayal"

51bgMjeqfYL[1]Melinda Leigh, best-selling romantic suspense author of “Midnight Betrayal,” shares with us her top suspense reads and takes us on her version of a date where she draws inspiration for her dark and intriguing reads.   

One day while I was in the initial stages of writing Midnight Betrayal, I was scrolling through Facebook (procrastinating is an art form), looking at pictures my author buddy, Kendra Elliot, had posted of a gorgeous winery she and her husband were touring.  At the exact same time, my husband and I also had a free afternoon. Were we sitting on a lovely hillside patio, tasting wine and enjoying some scenic vistas?

Not exactly.

Midnight Betrayal is set in Philadelphia. I love the city, but I admit most of my time there is limited to chaperoning school trips to the historic sites, shopping, or eating.  Due to his profession, my husband knows the city more intimately. So I asked him for some help researching locations. To be fair, first he took me to a fabulous lunch at my favorite Cuban restaurant in Old City, where the skirt steak and mojitos are to-die-for.

With the story still in its infancy, I was looking for inspiration and detail.  We drove around for a while so I could snap pics of landmarks, homes, and businesses where my plot board suggested I would have scenes.  I also wanted to get the feel of some of the neighborhoods where my characters would live. I described the characters to Hubs. He drove around blocks that seemed to fit. I rolled down the windows to absorb the atmosphere (exhaust fumes).

“What else do you want to see?” he asked.

Now we were getting to the interesting part. “I need a few good places to dump bodies.”

Continue reading "Guest Post by Melinda Leigh, Author of "Midnight Betrayal" " »

Guest Post by L.J. Sellers, Five Things I Learned About Police Work

81V0%2B3jMQ2L[1]L.J. Sellers, best-selling author of The Detective Jackson Mysteries, shared with us five things she learned about police work, while conducting research for her series.

The best part about writing police procedurals is listening to law enforcement personnel describe their work and tell their favorite on-the-job stories. Even better is getting to participate in some of their activities. Here are five things I’ve learned:

1. Forensic work sometimes resembles home life. The processing bay, where technicians fingerprint cars, ATM machines, and other big items looks a lot like a homeowner's garage, complete with a little blue kiddie swimming pool. And inside the lab, there’s a refrigerator, where they hold many things, including entomology evidence (dead flies), and a shower for rising off chemicals.

2. Patrol officers are adrenaline junkies. Just being in a police car in the middle of the night watching for suspicious activity is a rush. I realized this when I did a ridealong. When the officer spotted a drunk driver and chased her at high speeds, with lights and sirens blazing—I thought my heart would burst with adrenaline. I asked the officer what it was like for him after years on the job, and he admitted that cops are all adrenaline junkies.

3. Detectives have less fun. I once had an opportunity to attend a homicide scene, and became giddy with excitement—a true “Castle” moment. But when I arrived, the detectives were all standing around, eating pizza. The reality of processing homicide scenes is much more tedious than you’d expect. It takes about six hours to collect all the evidence, map the coordinates, and interview witnesses. A detective told me they once spent two days in a victim’s house, looking for clues. But they never found any, and the case is still unsolved.

4. Dusting for fingerprints requires a vacuum. Or more specifically, a downdraft table, where technicians use various colors of powder to process fingerprints. The downdraft sucks up the excess powder, which would otherwise go everywhere. I learned this during a tour of the crime lab.

5. Superglue is a crime-fighting essential. Technicians don't really use superglue, only one of its chemical components, cyanoacetate. They put evidence into what they call the superglue chamber, then release steam and cyanoacetate to form a coating all over the objet. The coating reveals latent fingerprints when it hardens.

Author J.T. Ellison's Summer Reads

91hML9y0xiL[1]J. T. Ellison, New York Times bestselling author of When Shadows Fall, shares with us her favorite summer reads.

I’m writing from my Fourth of July aerie at the beach, which has been affected by weather in the form of both hurricanes and tornados, wild weather for this early in the season. Happily, I have a bevy of books to keep me company:

Jeff Abbott – Inside Man

Abbott’s Sam Capra series (Adrenaline, The Last Minute, Downfall) represents some of the finest writing on the market, and the fact that it’s squarely in the thriller genre—which means the story is fast and intense, and the stakes are stratospheric—makes Abbott one of the best writers out there, as his “who’s who” string of awards (Edgar, Thriller, Anthony, Agatha, Macavity) can attest to. Under the framework of King Lear, Capra, an ex-CIA agent who owns bars around the world as a cover for his new life, gets involved with the criminal family who guns down a good friend. With dead friends, mysterious women, snappy dialogue and clever twists, this is stellar work from an accomplished, sophisticated writer at the top of his game. 

Megan Abbott – The Fever

Another Abbott, another great book. Megan Abbott is one of my favorite crime fiction writers. In Dare Me, she delved into the world of high school cheerleaders, showing their base, erotic, deadly side. In The Fever, she’s at it again, this time taking a hard look at the phenomenon of mass hysteria. Abbott got her start in the noir world, and her prose shows the influence—sparse and lean and deadly slick, her observations arch and her betrayals epic. A great read.

Laura Benedict – Bliss House

Looking for a brilliant gothic story? A smart, sophisticated haunted-house novel? An intriguing, alarming, unnerving mystery? Bliss House is your book. Benedict is a beautiful writer, so in command of her story the reader can sit back, relax and trust the ride is going to be a fun one. On the very first page, Bliss House shows itself to be a house with a secret. It’s for sale, forlorn, abandoned by its family. Why would anyone let such a manse go? What horrors hide under the perfect mansard roof? Bliss House itself is a character in this story, a sly and equivocal personality that rewards and punishes as it sees fit. Just excellent.

Joelle Charbonneau – Graduation Day

This book is the final installment in Charbonneau’s The Testing series. This could be just another installment in the hot-as-coals genre of YA dystopian fiction, but Charbonneau breaks all the conventions with a truly unique story that doesn’t follow the typical triptych formula. Cia Vale is a true heroine, reluctant but resigned, and when it comes down to it, the kind of leader we’d all be lucky to have.

Catherine Coulter – Power Play

I write series, so I appreciate just how difficult it is to keep them fresh and entertaining. Coulter is an absolute master at this (and I don’t say this simply because we co-write together.) Power Play is razor sharp and hugely entertaining, a thrill ride from start to finish. FBI agents Dillon Savich and Lacey Sherlock are chasing a ghost from their past—Blessed Blackman, one of the more frightening psychopaths I’ve run across. Great fun, fast read and a perfect summer book.

Diana Gabaldon – Written In My Own Heart's Blood

Gabaldon’s Outlander series (about to be a blockbuster TV show from STARZ) is my all-time favorite set of books. I reread the series every time a new book comes out, which takes a few months, since they’re all huge books. The trick of aging romantic heroes and keeping them sexy and interesting, planting them deftly into the depth of history, and keeping the story fun to read while still educating is a major challenge, and Gabaldon keeps all the plates spinning full-speed. The wildly anticipated newest book in the series, Written In My Own Heart's Blood, does not disappoint—and that’s all I’m willing to say.

Meg Gardiner – Phantom Instinct

The opening of this incredible book absolutely blew me away. Gardiner’s a keen observer and is able to pull the reader into a scene with such intensity you’ll find yourself sitting forward in your chair, eyes glued to the page, jaw literally dropped. I love her prose, but I love her observations and sense of humor even more. When a barfly orders a martini and is charged $14.50, he incredulously asks, “For an ounce of vodka and an olive?” “For turning you into James Bond,” the protagonist, Harper Flynn, responds. This isn’t Gardiner’s first rodeo and it shows. Settle in for a real ride, because Gardiner just keeps getting better.   

E. Lockhart – We Were Liars

I have a soft spot for legitimate teenage angst stories, especially when said teenagers are, as the title clearly states, liars, and the setting is in the world of the upper class. Set in the fragilely beautiful world of the perfectly lithe, perfectly blond, tennis playing, trust-fund spending, who-inherits-because-daddy-loves-you-best sister bickering, über-rich world of the family Sinclair, We Were Liars has one of the best unreliable narrators in years. Cadence Sinclair Easton struggles to put together her life after a head injury, and we the reader never know exactly what’s really happened. The prose is hauntingly perfect, and the story itself will surprise even the most jaded reader.


Guest Post by Aaron & Charlotte Elkins, Authors of "The Art Whisperer"

51UZi7d0MFL[1]Aaron and Charlotte Elkins, best-selling husband and wife author duo, of The Art Whisperer, gave us insights into what’s true and what’s not in four different crime scenarios. Can you guess the truth?












Question: What is wrong with these pictures?

Pic.1 Pic.2Pic.3

Answer: What is wrong is that all these actors are outrunning explosions (Antonio Banderas and Hugh Jackman are so cool that they're outwalking them.) But can you really outwalk an explosion? Nope.  Can you outrun one? Not a chance, and here's why:

The Olympic record for the hundred yard dash is about 11 yards per second.  Let's err on the generous side, though, and assume there's someone somewhere that might actually be faster. So say we're looking at 15 yards per second.

And how fast does the shockwave of an explosion travel? 1.5 miles per second. Even Tom Cruise (the guy in the Iron Man suit) can't beat that.


The most spectacular art theft of the twentieth century occurred in 1911, when a workman named Vincenzo Perugia walked out of the Louvre with the world's most famous painting, the Mona Lisa. (A ironic note: at the time, he had been employed in building a protective box for Mona.) Two year later the painting was recovered and returned to the Louvre, where it remains today.

We think. 

But how do we know that the painting that came back is the very same one that was taken? The Mona Lisa has been copied thousands of times, often by highly competent artists. The great Andrea del Sarto, a contemporary of da Vinci's and a fellow-Florentine, was himself commissioned by Francis I of France to make six of them--of which the whereabouts of none are known today.

The Mona Lisa is unsigned.  It is undated.. (Francis bought it from da Vinci in 1517, years after it had been painted.). Why it had been painted is unknown. There is no record of a commission, nor any reliable record of who the sitter was. Many people believe she is Mona del Giacondo, the wife of a Florentine merchant, but real evidence is lacking, to say the least. She wasn’t even called the Mona Lisa until three hundred years later.  Until then it had no name, being referred to in the court records of Francis simply as “a portrait of a Florentine lady.”        

Question: So how do we know for sure that the picture now in the Louvre is the very one that Leonardo da Vinci painted five hundred years ago?

a) We don't.

b) A fingerprint in the lower right corner definitely identified as Leonardo's.

c) A strand of feather, embedded in the paint, that exactly matches a stuffed owl that he had in his studio.

d) A faded shred of red fabric, embedded in the paint, and shown to come from  the bookmarking ribbon of Rubens' personal copy of Manutius's printing of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.

Answer: (a). Not even today's wonderfully advanced forensic techniques can prove that this or any other picture was painted by da Vinci. Or del Sarto, for that matter. Forensics are terrific at proving that an old painting is a fake--the wrong pigments, the wrong age, the wrong kind of canvas (e.g., made by machine instead of hand-woven), etc. But how would you  prove that a painting is the real thing, as opposed to an expert copy made during the artist's lifetime, e.g., one of del Sarto's?  Thepoplar wood panel would be the right age, the pigments, fixatives, and varnishes would be the very ones used at that time in Florence, and so on.

There is, in nutshell, no way of establishing absolute certainty that we have the right Mona Lisa.  Ninety-nine percent certainty? You bet. You have faith in the integrity and competence of the Louvre in this matter, right? So do I. But would you bet your life on it?

Me neither.

Flash: This very morning, a kindly dealer in antique photographs sold us this amazing picture: the only known photograph of Peruggia in the act of stealing the painting. We're very excited!


Continue reading "Guest Post by Aaron & Charlotte Elkins, Authors of "The Art Whisperer" " »

Excerpt from "Death of a Cozy Writer" by G.M. Malliet

41TYMVMNfsL[1]Agatha Award winning author G.M. Malliet, gives us an excerpt from her award winning book Death of a Cozy Writer.

About Death of a Cozy Writer: From deep in the heart of his eighteenth century English manor, millionaire Sir Adrian Beauclerk-Fisk writes mystery novels and torments his four spoiled children with threats of disinheritance. Tiring of this device, the portly patriarch decides to weave a malicious twist into his well-worn plot. Gathering them all together for a family dinner, he announces his latest blow – a secret elopement with the beautiful Violet... who was once suspected of murdering her husband.

Read the first 25 page of "Death of a Cozy Writer" (PDF)

Guest Post by T.R. Ragan, Author of The Lizzy Gardner Series

Untitled-4T.R. Ragan, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Lizzy Gardner series, shares the backstory to her famed character Lizzy Gardner as well as a few of her favorite kick-butt female protagonists.

Lizzy Gardner’s Story

When Lizzy Gardner was only seventeen, what should have been the perfect night became the perfect nightmare. Kidnapped just blocks from home after a romantic evening with her boyfriend, Jared, she woke up to find herself at the mercy of a depraved serial killer. Imprisoned and tormented for months by the maniac she came to know as Spiderman, Lizzy narrowly escaped, the only one of his victims to survive. But Spiderman escaped too, outwitting police and cursing Lizzy to spend her life looking over her shoulder…

Fourteen years later, Lizzy is a private investigator who teaches self-defense to teenage girls in her free time. She does what she can to help others protect themselves and to forget the horror of her ordeal, yet fears she will always be known as “the one who got away.” Then she receives a phone call from Jared, now a special agent for the FBI, with grim news. The killer has resurfaced, this time with a very specific target—Lizzy. And he’s made it clear that she will not escape him again. So begins a chilling game of cat-and-mouse, a terrifying, heart-pounding hunt that only one will survive.


T.R. Ragan’s Kick-Butt Female Protagonists Recommendations

I have always loved strong women characters in movies and fiction. I grew up with my mother and four sisters. No brothers. Although we didn’t chase criminals, when Mom decided to add on a room, we learned how to frame, install windows, and wire for electrical. We weren’t afraid to get dirty and get the job done. In my stories, I strive to make my female characters strong-minded and daring enough to kick some ass if need be. In the end, my tough female protagonists are like most women I know—compassionate beings who happen to be really good at multi-tasking.

A few of my favorite thrillers with kick-butt female protagonists include.

1. The Killing Hour by Lisa Gardner. Rookie FBI agent Kimberly Quincy must stay one step ahead of a killer if she wants to save a life. Quincy is ultra clever and she breaks some rules.

2. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. Above all, Lizbeth Salander is a survivor. She is also young, smart, and sympathetic, but you better get out of her way.

3. The Hunger Games. Katniss is yet another strong female character I admire. Like all great protagonists, she has flaws, but she can kick some serious butt using her brains and a bow.

4. Allison Brennan’s Lucy Kincaid is a wonderful female protagonist who just keeps getting stronger, smarter, better. Start with Love Me to Death and work your way through to the most recent in the series, Dead Heat.

Guest Post by Tasha Alexander, Author of the Lady Emily Mysteries

TashaImageTasha Alexander, New York Times bestselling author of the Lady Emily Mysteries, walks us through her inspiration for the series and the Counterfeit Heiress Lady Emily.

My parents’ house is full of enormous stacks of books, and one of my favorite things when I was a little girl was having my father take me through our shelves and tell me about the volumes that filled them. Writing has always seemed to me a natural extension of reading, one in which the story turns out precisely the way you want it to, and by the time I was ten, I had spent many an hour scribbling extremely bad short stories.

As I got older, I continued to write, but life (read: the quest to pay rent) kept me too busy to make an attempt at doing much beyond dashing off a paragraph here and there. When (eventually) I realized that the universe was not going to conspire to provide me a convenient opportunity, circumstance, or—heaven forbid—a room of my own, I decided it was time to get serious and make the time to start and finish writing a book. I paged through the notes I had saved and came across a paragraph I had written describing a young, Victorian woman standing on the cliff path in Imerovigli on the Greek island of Santorini. Those few lines provided me with the starting point I needed for what would become my first novel. By asking questions about the woman—Why was she in Greece? How had she come to have the freedom and fortune that allowed her to travel?—I started to form a discernible image not only of her character, but also of what I wanted the book to be about, the parts that would extend beyond the narrative of a single novel and carry through the entire series—the parts of a story that make me love to read.

One of the things that has always appealed to me about Victorian England is the seemingly endless supply of iconoclasts and eccentrics who populated the era. The Industrial Revolution played an enormous role in catalyzing the social changes of the late nineteenth century, providing those with strong personalities the opportunity to push for women’s suffrage, child labor laws, and compulsory education, among other things. It takes more than charismatic leaders or idealists to bring about wholesale social reform. To achieve that, the iconoclasts need to have convinced a significant number of members of the old guard to support them.

What would motivate a young woman of high birth, in possession of a fortune and freedom to decide to rebel against the only society she knows? What would lead her to begin to recognize injustice and to see a broader world? How would she fight for change? The exploration of these questions in a manner that was true to the time period has fueled my writing from the beginning. It is very easy for us to sit back and judge what we (rightly) see as repressive Victorian mores, but it is also important to try to understand how social change actually happened during the era. The late nineteenth century bears a strong resemblance to our world today. They had violent anarchists instead of terrorists, but like us they argued about income inequality and social services, education and human rights. Contemplating these things in the context of historical fiction gives us the distance to consider them without feeling as if we are judging ourselves, and perhaps that can help us to form opinions we can later apply to contemporary life.

Or not. A large part of the joy of reading is that we can take what we want from our enormous stacks of books, choosing to be entertained or enlightened or both as we see fit in the moment. Very few things in life are so richly accommodating. What more, really, could we want? Which reminds me: it’s time to find something new to read...

Guest Post by Barry Eisler, Author of the John Rain Series

BarryEisler_ImageBarry Eisler, best-selling author of the John Rain series, walks us through the thrills of this writing process and how real life events play a role.

I’ve always found the scariest thrillers are also the most realistic, so realism is key to all my novels. The tradecraft is what I was taught in a covert position with the CIA. The martial arts are what I learned earning a black belt at the Kodokan in Tokyo, and training elsewhere.

It’s also critical to me that I get the atmosphere and details of the setting right. I want my readers to know that when I describe a place, I’m describing it not just as it really exists, but as I’ve personally found it, and that means visits to all the places I write about. So in the course of my research, I’ve had to visit Bali, Bangkok, Barcelona, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Macau, Manila, Paris, Phuket, Vienna, and some other great places, too. I try not to complain about my work.

As for plots, I get my best ideas from what’s actually happening in the world. In this regard, I find myself frequently disappointed with the Ticking-Time-Bomb and Terrorists-Trying-To-Kill-Us-In-Our-Beds plotlines that are both cause and consequence of America’s post 9/11 hysteria. After all, you’re far more likely to die in a traffic accident, or from the flu, or by being struck by lightning, or via drowning in the bathtub than you are in a terror attack. So writing a thriller predicated on something that’s almost certainly not going to happen can risk veering off into the cartoonish.

And of course, when it comes to realism, there’s nothing like expert advice. If I’m ever unsure about anything I’ve written regarding unarmed combat sequences, shooting sequences, surveillance and counter surveillance, electronic counter measures, and so on, I run it past people I know in the FBI, the CIA, Special Forces, Federal Air Marshals, and other organizations in the military, law enforcement, and intelligence communities. Initially these were people I knew before I was published. As the books caught on, though, more and more people from these organizations started contacting me to provide valuable insights and information.

As one small example, I had a friend who’s a veteran agent of the FBI review the Winner Take All manuscript. There’s a shooting scene in the book, and I described the rounds ricocheting off the concrete floor and knocking loose chunks of concrete. My friend said, No, you don’t get chunks in a situation like that, you get dust. And I thought, man, imagine knowing something like that first hand! Which this guy does.

More than anything else, my sources help me get the emotional backstory right. Killing is not a joke in my books. Violence has serious consequences, not just for the person being targeted but also for the person carrying out the attack, and there’s a heavy cost to taking a human life. In this regard, I’m indebted to former Ranger and current author Dave Grossman for his book On Killing:  The Psychological Costs of Learning to Kill in War and Society. I’m particularly indebted to two Vietnam veterans I’m honored to count as friends—one who was a Ranger and LRRP (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol), the other an intelligence officer and Silver Star winner. These guys have killed at close range and they live with the consequences every day. It’s important to me that, in their eyes at least, I’m getting things right.

And if, despite all my efforts, I wind up getting something wrong, I can usually count on a fan to point it out. I try to fix those mistakes in subsequent editions and updates, but I like to point them out on the Mistakes section of my website. It helps keep me honest and my readers seem to enjoy it, too. I figure if you don’t make the occasional mistake, you’re not trying hard enough.