Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, it is my absolute pleasure today to welcome L M WHITAKER (Linda) who is an award-winning author of international thrillers laced with science and technology. Her action-packed novels target the genre of specialty thrillers, which she will be delving into today.
But regardless of the genre you’re writing in, these tips are for you! There’s something here for everyone, and all are welcome as Linda shares her useful advice and hard-won author experience.
What is a specialty thriller?
“You know it when you read it,” is the first thing that comes to mind, because a specialty thriller transports the reader into a unique, but real, world. These thrillers sub-genres include (but are not limited to):
This post will examine how to gain that specific knowledge and create the settings, characters, and stories necessary to write a successful book in one of these areas. You don’t write in these sub-genres? Don’t go away!
The topics and considerations we’ll discuss are relevant to writing most fiction genres, and even non-fiction. For example, suppose I have a character that has an accident or gets sick, and subsequently goes to the hospital. I want the experience of being in that world to ring true, even if it’s only for a few chapters.
1. Where to start? Where to get that first idea?
Immerse yourself in the world you want to write about, because you never know how or when an idea will strike.
“Pay attention to the world around you.” That’s great advice that I’ve gotten from multiple writers. And if you work in the same profession you want to write about, then that might be sufficient. But it’s not always the case for specialty thrillers. I’d venture a guess that most spy thrillers are, in fact, not written by ex-spies. So you have to do the next best thing; you have to immerse yourself in that world by reading nonfiction accounts of actual spies. In my case–writing technothrillers–it’s scanning headlines in the news media and popular science journals, watching science documentaries, and talking to scientist/technologist friends.
For me, my last book was initially inspired by an article on rats getting infrared vision. It spurred me to think about the impact these new technologies will have on humanity, and my heroine in particular. (And don’t even get me started on slime mold!)
2. How to add in the specifics to make the story ring true?
You have an idea for a story, but that’s not enough. The plot has to align with reader expectations, and some of your readers will be experts.
Write what you know – Probably the first advice given to all writers. I write techno-thrillers, because I spent decades in the development of cutting-edge software and artificial intelligence (AI). Even so, I still have to keep on top of it.
Expand your own knowledge – Try to learn as much as you can about the specifics related to the story you want to tell.
● Coursera or online classes – You will get a broader base of knowledge than if you just search for specific things online.
● Read in your subgenre and also related non-fiction, including journal articles.
● If you are lucky – you can find great reference books for writers. Example – Natalie Dale – A Writer’s Guide to Medicine. I can’t recommend it enough.
Always check with Experts – I used data scientists, a neurologist, an ex-soldier, and a microbiologist to fact check my last novel. Experts are more giving of their time than you might think. Experts that are also fellow writers are even more understanding.
Now that you have the knowledge base, is that all the specificity one needs? Aren’t the structural elements of thrillers shared across sub-genres? Yes, but…you are sending your reader into an entirely new world. Don’t forget the characters and setting.
Learn about the people (and hence your characters) that are specialists in these fields. They will have:
● Specific jobs and roles
● Daily routines
● Their own language
How to bring their world to your reader?
Have you ever heard two doctors talking to each other but couldn’t understand what they were saying? Or tried to read a legal document and glazed over a few sentences in? For that matter, can your spouse explain what you do for a living? (It took mine 20 years!)
In specialty thrillers it can be a challenge to have your characters act and speak authentically, but also in a way that is understandable to the reader. One tried and true solution is to have the specialist (e.g. lawyer) explain something to a layman (e.g. client). This also gives the layman the ability to ask basic questions to convey information that two experts would never talk about amongst themselves.
In a specialty thriller, giving your readers unique aspects of setting will draw them into your special world. Relevant and specific sights, sounds, and smells coupled with tools of trade can be dropped in without being overwhelming.
In the people section, we said that character dialogue has to be authentic, and thus care needs to be taken not to confuse readers. This is also true for description. If you want to describe an emergency room, a doctor’s POV will do it differently than a patient’s. And both of these might be really useful. For example, a doctor could notice some small discrepancy in the contents of an operating room, while a person off-the-street might be struck by the smell.
Note on International Travel – The topics we discussed here also apply to writing internationally, and often these stories take the reader to foreign lands. The amount of time your book spends in a foreign land should be proportional to the time you have spent in that place, or a similar location. I don’t think you can write about other places without having traveled some; the world is complex and diverse. And the same thing goes for your characters. Don’t have main characters come from a culture you don’t understand.
5. World Building Thoughts
Limit information dumping – I am always tempted to tell people all about what I think is really cool science and technology, because, well, it’s so cool. But even if I try to do this in easy-to-understand language, I still have to claw myself back. Info dumping is still info dumping. It can detract from your story, especially in a specialty thriller, where pacing is paramount.
Truth versus Fiction in your world building – I think a key differentiator in our thriller subgenres is the ring of truth. The reader needs to feel that the world is real, and all the unique aspects of that world are TRUE or could be TRUE. You can still go near-future for some things – new medical devices and technology, but think cutting edge rather than pure science fiction.
Readers love specialty thrillers because they pull us into a new world, but do so while staying on planet earth. I hope these tips helped clarify some of the unique aspects of writing these specialty thriller sub-genres and inspire you to try one out.
Linda’s stories, including the award-winning Georgia Steele Thrillers, are founded on years of research and decades of work in computer technology, artificial intelligence, and other advanced data science. Working exclusively for international technology companies, Linda has visited or lived in 25 countries.
Linda is the president of the Upstate, SC chapter of Sisters in Crime. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina, USA.
What about you? Do you read specialty thrillers? Have you written a specialty thriller before? Do you plan to? Do you have any questions for Linda?