Capturing the Thrills

security cameras, street corner

(photo: takomabibelot, creative commons license)

Among the workshops at the Liberty States Fiction Writers’ annual conference last weekend were two directed specifically to writers—and readers—of thrillers, led by highly-rated author Melinda Leigh and featuring Dan Mayland (espionage) and Ben Lieberman (financial thrillers). The first was on “Technical Difficulties”—and the three experts described how the ubiquity of cell phones (especially their GPS capabilities), public and private security cameras, and increasingly sophisticated facial recognition software make it harder and harder for urban bad-guys to evade discovery. (Here’s an example of the many websites and articles focused on defeating facial recognition technology.) While security and cell phone cameras were key to finding the Boston Marathon bombers, they are a black hole for story ideas, if authors want to write an accurate and believable modern-day thriller or crime story.

Similarly, a photo posted on social media may well have embedded geotags that reveal where it was taken—at the crime scene, at the perpetrator’s home, at his/her favorite hangout. This explains, I think, why so many mysteries are set in past decades—even centuries—or in small towns, where such capabilities don’t impose plotting impossibilities for their creators. I’ve had to let a protagonist’s phone battery run out, for example—imperfect, maybe, but we’ve all done it.

Understanding how such technology works, in order to construct a plausible 2015 plot requires research, and, like many authors, I’ve confessed to really loving the research I do for my books. These presenters’ second workshop—“The Thrill of Thrillers”—discussed restraining the impulse to put all that research in the actual book. Technothrillers (of the Tom Clancy/Frederick Forsyth/Michael Crichton variety, to which I am addicted ) are an exception. Too much background research slows readers down, and when they’re skipping over as much as they’re reading, face it, the thrill is gone!

Another advantage of leaving any type of too-detailed information out is, of course, that the reader can imagine a technology (likewise torture) that is more vivid, scary, or powerful (or gruesome) than the author can. You need just enough to jump-start their own creativity.

A side issue: I noticed how Amazon’s author pages for Leigh, Mayland, and Lieberman provide “Customers also bought books by . . .” information, and there is almost 100% gender concordance between the authors’ gender and that of the other authors customers reportedly purchased. Is that true? I like books by men AND women, if they are well done, and most other readers I know are the same. So, do these lists reflect real reader preferences, or just Amazon’s marketing assumption? Signed, Wondering . . . See this related post.