SPS-184: ThrillerFest 2019 Inside Stories Part 1 – with Meg Gardiner, KJ Howe, David Corbett & Dennis Palumbo

Part 1 of the interview series from Thrillerfest 2019 has James talking to Meg Gardiner about plot twists, KJ Howe about moving from medical writing to writing thrillers, David Corbett about revealing character through moral choices, and Dennis Palumbo about leaving Hollywood to work as a therapist and write psychologically interesting characters.

Show Notes

  • Plot twist definition and specifics with Meg Gardiner
  • Why plot twists should arise from character
  • Why plot twists have to land emotionally for the reader
  • The work that goes on behind the scenes at Thrillerfest with Kimberley Howe
  • On the myth of the overnight success
  • The full-service approach to an author’s career that Thillerfest takes
  • Folding moral dilemmas into thrillers
  • The psychological depth of characters
  • Making characters come alive with flaws and real traits

Resources mentioned in this episode:

PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page

ITW: The International Thriller Writers’ Association

Transcript of Part 1 Interview at Thrillerfest

Announcer: On this edition of The Self Publishing Show.

Meg Gardiner: Suspense means letting them know that there’s a question, there’s a problem, that there’s a mystery. Readers will come along out of curiosity and concern for the characters to find out the answer to that question.

So if you are providing clues, hints along the way, but not revealing the answer yet, that’s suspense and that’s extremely enticing to readers.

Announcer: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers. No more barriers. No one standing between you and your readers. But you want to make a living from your writing, join indie bestseller, Mark Dawson, and first-time author, James Blatch, as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success.

This is The Self Publishing Show. There’s never been a better time to be a writer.

James Blatch: Yes, hello and welcome to The Self-Publishing Show, we are here in New York City for ThrillerFest, and the first of three special episodes from the Big Apple. It’s me, James Blatch and it’s-

Tom Ashford: Me, Tom Ashford.

James Blatch: Can’t help noticing that you’re not Mark Dawson.

Tom Ashford: I’m not.

James Blatch: No.

Tom Ashford: I noticed that about halfway through.

James Blatch: Yeah.

Tom Ashford: Yeah.

James Blatch: About halfway through your life you realized you weren’t Mark Dawson. I think a lot of us realized we’re not Mark Dawson.

Young Tom finally making an appearance on the main podcast. He’s standing in for Mark, it’s the summertime in the Northern Hemisphere, and we’re all trying to grab a week here and there of holiday, or vacation.

Tom, you’re here, you’re going away in August, I’m going away next week, Mark is away this week, so the week we’ve been at ThrillerFest, he’s having a well-earned break, well not that much of a break because he keeps emailing us.

Tom Ashford: Yeah.

James Blatch: Yeah, but anyway, hopefully he’s managed to get some downtime. It’s important to do that in all our busy lives. We’ve had a really, really good week at ThrillerFest.

Now I will say from the outset, and I’ll be very interested, Tom, to hear your views on ThrillerFest through these episodes, it is still without question a quite traditional publishing event. A lot of the marketing advice they give is to do with book tours and signings and stuff that I think a lot of people in the indie world have worked out probably isn’t worth the time, and there’s not a lot about paid Facebook accounts or anything like that ever.

However a large part of it, in fact, the first few days are called CraftFest, and they have been about the craft of writing with some of the most brilliant writers, and that has been extremely good, hasn’t it?

Tom Ashford: Yip.

James Blatch: Is that it? Is that all you’re going to say in this podcast, yes?

Tom Ashford: Yeah, it’s very, very focused on craft, and it is very useful. I think the few indie authors that we met out here have found it pretty useful, but yeah, it’s very much more on the writing side, and less on the marketing.

James Blatch: Yeah, that’s certainly true, but we are going to bring you through these three episodes, a clutch of interviews. I think we may have 14, something like that in all, so what you’re going to get is divided up neatly into the areas that we’ve covered.

You’re going to get the very best of what people have been learning here at ThrillerFest for free, just for being a viewer, listener of The Self Publishing Show.

Should say where we are, we’re actually in Dumbo, I can’t remember exactly what Dumbo stands for, something to do with underneath Brooklyn Bridge, but Brooklyn Bridge is away on that side, we’ll show you a shot of that.

Behind us is Lower Manhattan, the iconic skyline, perhaps the most iconic skyline on the planet. You might be able to see the Statue of Liberty, if we move out the way.

Lady Liberty is out there. There’s a cormorant just flying past, I don’t know if you caught that. And we’re going to be here to record the links, but we’ve been busy in the Hyatt’s, the Grand Hyatt’s, right next to Grand Central Terminal in midtown where we’ve been busy all week.

Right, we’re going to start, we’ve divided up the interviews, as I say, into good subjects for you, and we’re going to start with some ideas to the overall pace and moments that you want to hit in your narrative, in the plot of your book.

So there are a couple of specific talks and sessions on that. The first person we’re going to listen to is Meg Gardiner. Meg has talked very specifically about plot twists. How important they are, how to do them, how to get them right, how not to overload your reader, and we’re going to start with her.

And then we’re going to move straight on to Kimberley Howe. Now Kimberley Howe is actually KJ Howe, many of her will know her as a thriller writer, she’s actually quite a big name in the whole ThrillerFest organization, so we talked to her a little bit about the conference.

And then she talked about pacing, that all-important thing in thriller writing, and she should know, she’s got million book sales behind her. I can’t remember what exactly her figure is, but she’s got a lot behind her.

Tom Ashford: More than us.

James Blatch: More than us.

Okay, so let’s hear from Meg and KJ Howe, and then we’ll be back to give you another segment of fantastic insight from ThrillerFest.

Meg Gardiner: I’m Meg Gardiner, I’m the author of 14 thrillers. I write fast-paced, high octane stories featuring strong female protagonists, and I hope the readers will stay up all night reading them.

James Blatch: Fantastic, well that sounds like a lord of all aim for any novel writer. Okay, so you’ve just presented a session on plot twists, and we wanted to talk to you a little bit about that, Meg, and then we’ll talk about your writing as well.

So first of all, the plot twist I would think from a thriller writer point of view, an essential, right?

Meg Gardiner: Not essential in every single thriller, but readers love ’em. Writers will gain a greater ability to surprise, delight, bring people back gasping for more if they learn how to write a plot twist, which is some unsuspected occurrence or turn of events in the story that radically changes the tone.

James Blatch: We should define what a plot twist is, shouldn’t we? I should’ve asked that first.

How would you describe a plot twist?

Meg Gardiner: An unsuspected turn of events or occurrence that radically changes the course of the story. It’s up to the author to figure out how to surprise which is a pretty sophisticated reading audience and lead them in an unsuspected direction.

James Blatch: Okay, so when we’re writing, we’re often taught to give our characters challenges, to force them to be productive and make decisions and people who don’t plot, who sort of pants away to use that expression, I think will sometimes come up with a plot twist just on the fly, just think, well, what’s the worst thing that could possibly happen to my character now, to get in their way of doing something.

Is that the type of thing we should be looking at? Suddenly creating the death of a key character or something?

Meg Gardiner: It can work brilliantly if you come up with what you think is a great surprise, you need to stop and think how would you logically get your characters to that point.

Again you’re absolutely right, put your characters to the test, the plot doesn’t really develop unless a character is challenged, forced to make choices, unless there’s conflict. So we don’t want things just to happen, especially to the protagonist, that is the death of a story.

You have to have a character who takes control, at some point rises to the challenge, picks up the baton, runs with it, and makes a difference in the story. If your protagonist doesn’t do that, if everybody else is doing that, then you haven’t written a protagonist, you’ve written the dude who’s sitting at the café, having a cup of tea, who needs to go back and do that and have somebody else come in and be your protagonist.

Plot twists, random, like yet another asteroid hitting the ballpark, probably not what you want, you want them to arise out of character, out of the circumstances, out of the conflict between the characters, out of the culture of their world, so you need to think about it.

If you come up with a brilliant idea, pin that to the wall, and think about how you can write backwards and forwards to make sure that that really fits. That it’s set up and that it then launches from that point.

James Blatch: Do you have some good examples of classic plot twists that we should think about?

Meg Gardiner: I will give you some plot twists that are so well known in popular culture that I’m not spoiling them I hope.

James Blatch: Okay. The Titanic sinks and hits the iceberg, we’ve got that out of the way.

Meg Gardiner: Yeah. Titanic is actually a perfect example how not every story needs a plot twist.

James Blatch: Yeah.

Meg Gardiner: Millions of teenage girls, my daughter included, went into that movie, saw it 45 times knowing exactly what happened.

But famous plot twists, you can use misdirection, make readers, viewers think that the story is going along on this level while there’s actually something else happening underneath.

Of course, The Sixth Sense is a classic plot twist where the psychologist has spent the movie helping a troubled young boy, who says he sees dead people. Of course, it’s actually the psychologist who’s being helped by the young boy because he’s the dead person.

You’re shocked, you gasp, but when you go back and think back through the whole film, you see that that’s been set up brilliantly and shown and hinted at all through the movie.


James Blatch: Luke, yeah, I mean I’m a huge Star Wars fan. At 12 years old, I didn’t see it coming.

Meg Gardiner: That’s exactly, I didn’t either. “Obi Wan never told you what happened to your father”, and then you’ve got two movies worth of plot, where you’ve been led to think that Luke’s quest has been driven by this whole disaster, this whole evil event that the man he’s confronting now killed his father.

James Blatch: Yeah, and it turns out-

Meg Gardiner: Turn out that’s not exactly what happened, is it?

James Blatch: No, and that’s a very good example, so you talked earlier about building and building,
working up to it, and then working away from it, because after that point then Luke’s mission changes from wanting to destroy Vader to wanting to save him at that moment.

Meg Gardiner: Precisely. Instead of being a revenge plot, it becomes a redemption story. There’s a lot of redemption you’ve got to do with Darth Vader, but Luke’s going to go try for it.

James Blatch: Yeah, they’re two wonderful examples.

Two thoughts occurs to me; one is the whole concealed reveal. I’m a first-time novelist and my novel’s this year and hopefully at the letter stages now in the revision process, but one of the difficulties I had in my first couple of drafts was not really understanding how much conceal from the reader.

I concealed far too much and hinted at things so that they were a surprise and my editor started to talk to me, started to explain to me how you want to take people on the journey. They want to enjoy the decisions being made, not suddenly discover something afterwards.

So there’s a balance here, isn’t there, with the plot twists?

Meg Gardiner: Absolutely. Suspense and surprise can bolster each other or they can be at odds, and exactly like you when I first started writing, I thought it was brilliant to just withhold all the information and then spring it on the readers at the end, but that meant they just burbled along on a very slow pace-

James Blatch: And it’s less interesting for them.

Meg Gardiner: Much less interesting for them. Suspense means letting them know that there’s a question, there’s a problem, that there’s a mystery. The author raises a question, but then doesn’t provide the answer.

Readers will come along out of curiosity and concern for the characters to find out the answer to that question. So if you are providing clues, hints along the way, but not revealing the answer yet, that will be, that’s suspense and that’s extremely enticing to readers.

James Blatch: And I think maybe Da Vinci Code is a really good example of that because you read the book and you find yourself as a reader ahead of the characters, because they’ve raised the questions, they look at the answers and I think Dan Brown cleverly writes the books so that your readers are ahead of the game.

It’s an extremely clever novel, and that’s a way to create suspense by creating a mystery where the reader at some point is ahead of the characters, because then you become concerned for the characters, “Oh they don’t know that the bad guys are waiting, lying and wait for them ahead”, so you’re biting your nails hoping that they will figure it out or manage to escape some disaster that’s being set up for them. It’s a balance and that’s what rewriting’s for, revision and editing.

James Blatch: Yes. And as you alluded to earlier, you can go overboard with this I’m guessing.

There’s a danger of putting too many plot twists in it.

Meg Gardiner: Of course, If you just are trying to twist, you don’t want people to be on some amusement park ride where they get nauseated, because they’re spinning too fast.

It has to land, each twist needs to land emotionally too. Is it going to be a revelation, a cliffhanger, some kind of escalation in the story, a complication, is the secret revealed, is someone betrayed, is someone’s love professed that you never saw coming.

But it has to land emotionally, otherwise, it will just feel like an amusement park ride, and those are entertaining, but that’s not what gets readers to remember your characters or want to come back to your work.

James Blatch: You are a thriller writer, and we’re here at ThrillerFest so we’re talking about thrillers, but actually, this would go to almost any genre I think, even a romance book.

Meg Gardiner: Yeah, in a romance novel, it’s probably less likely that somebody will be revealed to be an international super assassin, but-

James Blatch: They might be revealed to be having an affair with somebody else, or you know-

Meg Gardiner: Precisely, and the same principles of suspense, plot twists apply in all trauma, and they have across millennia.

James Blatch: Do you plan your plot twists when you’re off doing your first draft, your rough draft, or do you allow it to spill out of you?

Meg Gardiner: Yes, I try to plan them. I outline, so I try to build the story, and as I am developing it, I try to see where it’s becoming predictable and figure out how I could send it in a different direction.

I write a complete outline, but then as I start drafting the story as I am bringing the characters more fully onto the page, hearing their voices as I write dialogue, seeing how they interact in their world, sometimes I come up with what I think is a better idea that will enrich the characters, provide a deeper surprise and lead to a more dramatic plot.

So if I come up with something better, I go with that.

James Blatch: That’s what that process is for as well, isn’t it?

And in your session, how did you teach plot twists? What was the aim of your session?

Meg Gardiner: The aim of the session was to explain what plot twists are, how they work in the story to increase suspense, drama, surprise and to talk to CraftFest participants about how they can learn to, hopefully, create plot twists, and then techniques to build them into the story themselves, do you hide them as clues?

Do you withhold information? Do you use misdirection? Do you decide that anybody can die? Do you use flashback, foreshadowing? Ways to use to cleverly conceal build and then reveal a surprising twist in the story.

James Blatch: I love a bit of foreshadowing.

Meg Gardiner: Yeah.

James Blatch: I love a bit of foreshadowing.

What do you see the main purpose of a plot twist in a book? Is it to do with the character or is to do with the story and the entertainment for the reader?

Meg Gardiner: All three.

Obviously, plot and character are intertwined. Plot is what the characters do. That’s about the push and pull and the conflict between them.

Readers love surprise, it just makes it part of the entertaining experience for them if you can have a surprise that makes them care more about the characters, then they invest themselves into the journey that the characters are on, so it just, I mean come on, it makes it a lot more fun.

James Blatch: Yeah, it does. And I’m thinking some books, mystery books, Red Sparrow, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, books like that, they’re built around their twists, I mean the reader, I’m not sure if Red Sparrow was a book first or a film.

Meg Gardiner: It was a book.

James Blatch: So the reader goes into books, basically because they’re buying a ticket for the twist, right?

Meg Gardiner: They are, and I didn’t have time to talk about it in my session, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, it actually tells you, the title gives away a bit of what the twist is going to be.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, you know that it’s all about hunting a mole, and so you know that pretty much upfront, so the question then becomes how LeCarre builds all of the uncertainty of the hall of mirrors that these people live in to figure out who could be doing this, why, and what’s going to happen.

It’s not just revealing the identity of the mole, it’s about how this affects the entire structure of the people who work for the Secret Intelligence Service.

James Blatch: Keep ’em guessing like this.

Meg, well thank you so much for chatting to us, did you get a good response from your audience today?

Meg Gardiner: They seemed like they’re ready to go write, so that’s about as much as I could ask for.

James Blatch: Perfect, thank you so much.

Meg Gardiner: You’re very welcome.

James Blatch: Kimberly, here we are back at ThrillerFest and I have to say you are looking remarkably calm, considering this is like the top of the mountain now, isn’t it?

A lot of work must have taken place between the end of last year and today.

Kimberley Howe: We work all year long, and try very hard to prepare ahead of time so that onsite, it’s really just execution.

I’m very lucky to have a phenomenal team and we have about 15 staff and over 200 volunteers who help run the conference and also as a conference coordinator, you need to be a deck, very, very calm on the surface and paddling a lot underneath.

James Blatch: Furiously moving underneath.

Kimberley Howe: Exactly.

James Blatch: But it’s a fantastic event.

Kimberley Howe: Thank you.

James Blatch: It’s a place where we, I think we just mentioned it, I particularly enjoyed just rubbing shoulders to some of the great stars and the people who have got fantastic bestsellers after bestseller to their names, film adaptations, TV adaptations and you’re talking to them, and you suddenly realize when you talk to them, they’re just humans who talk about hard work, characters that are compelling and a reason to turn the page.

There’s no magic or secret about it, which is quite inspiring.

Kimberley Howe: I think most people are not overnight successes. To be successful in publishing, you generally have to study the craft for a long time, and then put in the time to build an audience.

Someone like Lee Child, I believe he said it was between book eight and 10 where he started to see enormous success, and CJ Box found his New York Times bestseller on his 11th book. So I think when you see that, you realize that it does take time.

With social media these days, sometimes there can be overnight successes like Gone Girl, but actually if you think about it, Gillian Flynn wrote Sharp Objects before that, so it wasn’t really an overnight success, it was just her most successful book and it blew up and her career has really continued to flourish.

James Blatch: Why do you get involved at ThrillerFest, what brought you into the organizational side of it?

Kimberley Howe: I came to the very first ThrillerFest in Phoenix, Arizona, and I volunteered. My goal was to write thrillers.

I was a former medical writer and for me it was an opportunity to learn the craft because journalistic style writing that is used in medical work is very, very different than the dramatic showing that you need to do with thrillers. So, as a result, I just really wanted to study the craft and I knew that ThrillerFest had an incredible education program and that’s what drew me in, and then before I knew it, I started volunteering and guess what, now I’m lucky to be executive director.

James Blatch: We’ll talk about your writing in a little bit, because I want to talk about your writing. I’m interested to know about the sort of community that’s built up around ThrillerFest, because there’s almost a family atmosphere amongst the people who arrive and attend this event, and I guess that’s what you’ve aimed for, but it’s big, it’s a 1000 people as well.

Kimberley Howe: Sure. There’s an intimacy we have here, and I think it’s because we don’t have a VIP room or green room, everybody’s out on the floor mingling and talking, and that’s what we wanted to create.

We wanted to create caring, supportive, some of our top authors mentor others, give back, help others grow their careers, we have an incredible debut program as well so we really emphasize helping people start their career the right way.

And we also have something for aspiring authors, where they come and they study the craft and then they polish their manuscript in MasterClass, and then when they’re ready they can pitch the agents at PitchFest. So we kinda have, I would say, from A to Z how to get published and how to be successful in the thriller market.

James Blatch: And at the same time, do you feel that you cater for people who want to take the indie route?

Kimberley Howe: A 110 percent. We actually realized that if you look at the statistics, not everyone is going to be traditionally published, and it may not work well for some people, and we encourage those to study both avenues and to decide what would work best for them. Some marketing gurus love the indie route because they do very well.

James Blatch: Yeah, the nuts and bolts of marketing is not for everyone, but for the people who like it, it can be very successful, and that’s what we’re all about really on this show.

But I’m also am reminded that it doesn’t really matter how you get published, the writing side of it, which is what we’re talking about most of the time with people, is the same.

Kimberley Howe: Very true, and I think there’s so much emphasis on writing the best book possible because at the end of the day that’s what readers come back for. If you write a very good book and they’re satisfied at the end, they’ll be looking for your next book.

James Blatch: So Kim, talking about books, so you’re a medical writer-

Kimberley Howe: I was.

James Blatch: What does that mean?

Kimberley Howe: There are many different types of medical writers, but in my case, I did a lot of patient education. So I would take complex medical issues, like about how to handle diabetes or heart or blood pressure, anything like that, and make it very accessible for people to read about.

You know how you go to the drug stores and you get brochures? I would do some of those, I do calendars, I would do a host of different things, just trying to educate people on good health.

James Blatch: Okay.

But there was a desire within you to expand the writing into fiction.

Kimberley Howe: Well, let me tell you, as much as I enjoyed learning about writing medical things and researching that, it’s a lot more fun to make stuff up and blow stuff up.

James Blatch: Sure. Kill people and resurrect some people.

Kimberley Howe: Exactly, it’s very good therapy.

James Blatch: When did that start for you?

Kimberley Howe: A few years ago, I went back and did my Masters in Creative Writing, because I wanted to study how to show or how to dramatize the action properly as I mentioned the different type of writing.

From there I was very lucky to be able to write Freedom Broker, which I was very, very honored to win the best first novel last year. I’ve been studying kidnap and ransom for six years, so I have immersed myself in that world on purpose so that I can write with authenticity about my character who’s a female kidnap negotiator named Thea Paris.

James Blatch: So K and R is your thing.

Kimberley Howe: It certainly is.

James Blatch: Which is a fascinating world and as you say, suddenly it is a little bit more exciting than, although very important to tell people how to take their drugs properly but I can see the allure.

Kimberley Howe: Well I kind of combine the two, because Thea Paris, my character, actually has type 1 diabetes.

James Blatch: Okay.

Kimberley Howe: I noticed that many lead characters didn’t have any physical illnesses other than alcohol or drug addiction, which seem to be the case, and I thought to myself there’s so many people out there with chronic illnesses, I want to be representative of that.

So I thought it would be really good to have Thea have something like this, and she needs insulin to survive, so at the end of the day I think it’s really critical that you have this ticking time bomb. If this character doesn’t get her insulin, she won’t survive.

James Blatch: Yeah, very relatable, unfortunately very relevant because lots of people-

Kimberley Howe: 400 million people across the globe have diabetes.

James Blatch: You’re doing brilliantly, and we should say they have decided to start hoovering the smoke detectors, and there’s one right above you, so I fear that at any moment, it’s going to get even louder, but let’s persevere because these mics are very good at picking this up.

We should tell people you write under KJ Howe.

Kimberley Howe: I certainly do.

James Blatch: And how many books have you published now?

Kimberley Howe: I have The Freedom Broker which is the first in the series, and then the second book is called Skyjack, and I had a great time researching aviation, and that was a lot of fun, and if you want to know how to break into a cockpit, you better read it.

James Blatch: You’re the person.

Kimberley Howe: I have researched and found a way.

James Blatch: That puts us on a watch list just by having this book.

Kimberley Howe: Probably, I am sure I am because of the things I research, and the people I talk to regularly.

James Blatch: That is a really fun thing when you’re working out how to break into a bank vault or open the door to an airline cockpit.

I’d be interested to hear what you found out about that.

Kimberley Howe: Well, I would invite you to read because, but it was very, very intriguing to learn everything about aviation. I benefit greatly from experts from both aviation and kidnapping. I’m very fortunate to know some of the top kidnap negotiators in the world.

There are over 40,000 kidnappings a year and it’s growing, and the main reason is military and police in developing countries are not getting paid and they need to put food on the table for their families. They’ve turned to kidnapping as a way of making a living as well as terrorism, because it’s a great fundraising mechanism, a lot of terrorists like ISIS have used oil for money, and now that that’s dried up, they’ve turned to kidnapping because if you think about it, there’s ample supply of humans which they see as commodities that they can trade for finances.

James Blatch: Certainly is a growing issue, there has been some great true story books on this subject. People who have been on the wrong end of that in recent years.

Kimberley Howe: Absolutely.

James Blatch: So Kim, here we are for 2019, ThrillerFest continue to grow I think-

Kimberley Howe: Absolutely, every year and we’re very lucky, we have over three billion books in print when you count up all of our members, we have over 5,000 members in over 52 countries.

James Blatch: Yes, because we should say there is the International Thriller Writers Association.

Kimberley Howe: That’s correct, yeah.

James Blatch: The sort of umbrella organization.

Kimberley Howe: That is correct, and it’s wonderful because for published authors it’s free to join, and we’re not for profit organization and our whole mandate is to support thriller authors. So everything we can do to help others we will.

James Blatch: So what are the benefits for somebody joining?

Kimberley Howe: Absolutely, there’s multitude. We have an e-newsletter called The Big Thrill that goes out to thousands and thousands of people. We do interviews and features on authors when they have releases.

We definitely support the debut team with the whole support system. We have incredible publicity opportunities for them, basically everything you could imagine you would need to get your book out there in front of the public.

James Blatch: Okay, superb, well we want to thank you for the work that you put in, I know you don’t do it for the money, let’s put it that way, organizing a conference like this and there’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears going into it, we just wander in at the last moment and enjoy it, So we should say thank you to you.

Kimberley Howe: Thank you for coming because it’s really a joy. We call it a summer camp for writers and I hope that you’ll return year after year and spread the word because I think it’s a very positive nurturing environment in which people with the same kind of voices in their head all gather together to share their passion.

James Blatch: Even if those voices are telling them to smash open a cockpit.

Kimberley Howe: So true, I know, but we should find like minded people here, and that’s what we need.

James Blatch: Yes.

Kimberley Howe: So fantastic.

James Blatch: Thank you Kim.

Kimberley Howe: Thank you.

James Blatch: There you go, that was KJ Howe rounding off that first couple of interviews. We started with Meg Gardiner talking about plot twist, KJ Howe talking about pacing and thrillers, and of course we talked to her about ThrillerFest itself.

So Tom, an experienced novelist.

Tom Ashford: Some would say, arguably.

James Blatch: You’ve written nine novels.

Tom Ashford: Yes, experienced novelist, not experienced marketer.

James Blatch: You’re getting into the marketing side of things now, but did that resonate with you, I mean these are critical factors to getting the novel that someone’s going to want to read and turn the page.

Tom Ashford: Yes.

James Blatch: Do you have anything to expand on when it comes to pacing?

Tom Ashford: Well yeah, the sessions were very useful, and obviously you don’t want to create a novel that anyone’s going to want to put down, because as soon as someone puts down a novel, they just go off and do something else, particularly with stuff like Netflix and instant gratification sort of media now. If someone can put down your novel, then there’s always a fair chance they’re not going to pick it back up.

So you want them to be, if they have to put it down because they have to go to sleep or go to work or something they functionally have to do, then you want them to be wanting to pick it up as soon as they get back, not sort of just put it to the side and doing something else.

James Blatch: It needs to be unputdownable to name Mark Dawson’s publishing company. The helicopter’s about to come and drown us out.

It reminded me a bit, Meg’s interview reminded me a bit of Peter James, who’s here again this year, we spoke to him last year, and we’re going to get explicit now, but Peter James said that you need that (beep) me moment in your book, and that’s what Meg was getting at really.

It’s got to be that I didn’t see it coming and we’ve got James Rollins coming up in the podcast after next, and he’s brilliant at that, he’s brilliant at having that moment where you think I did not see that coming and then the whole book takes it at a tangent so very important things.

Okay, now, the next couple of interviews are all about psychology, so this is about layering your characters, it’s about getting not just that one dimensional villain, something we talk about lot, or hero, where do you get those complexities from, where do you get those flaws from and these are two people who talked about how to derive from real-life the sort of things that are going to make your characters become realistic and compelling for your reader.

We’re going to start with David Corbett, I love this interview. David thinks a lot about these morals. When you’re in school and you thought about these ethical dilemmas about the train going down the track, it’s going to kill one child playing on the track or everybody on board, and it’s your choice who you save and so on.

But he’s really taken that on a little bit to play with those ideas and then suggested that that’s what we do to our character, mainly to our hero, our protagonist, we put them in these almost impossible to solve moral dilemmas. So let’s talk to him first, and then we’ll be back for our last interview for this episode.

David Corbett: I’m David Corbett, I’m the author of six novels, the last was The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. I’ve written one book on craft, The Art of Character. There’s going to be a follow up this October called The Compass of Character on Complex Motivation for Long Format TV and Novels.

And I was a private investigator for 15 years before I started writing my novels. I’ve worked on the Michael Jackson case, the People’s Temple trial, the DeLorean case, and a whole slew of cases related to a group of guys out of Coronado, which is near San Diego, it was called the Coronado Company, they were the major marijuana smugglers on the West Coast through the late ’70s and ’80s. Basically Navy brats and Vietnam vets who brought in 50-ton loads at a time unto the West Coast and distributed it.

James Blatch: Wow, so you’ve been there, all the cultural touchpoints of my life. You were in the background of the Michael Jackson trial, and DeLorean, I remember DeLorean happening.

David Corbett: Yeah.

James Blatch: Wow, you were a part of the bust were you, to get over the setup?

David Corbett: The firm I worked with had worked on a previous case with the same DEA agents and the same informant, and they had set up a Lebanese businessman with the same techniques. And there’s a crucial interview that of course the recording disappears and it’s not there, and that’s pretty much what they did.

They set him up, not that he wasn’t stupid, not that he wasn’t greedy, but he did not agree to a cocaine shipment, that wasn’t where all the money was coming from, and once he found out, he tried to get and they threatened him, but of course those recordings are not there.

The informant had basically betrayed absolutely every human being in his life, even his brother would no longer speak to him. So that was pretty fascinating, and that was really the first major case I worked on when I got into the firm.

James Blatch: Now we’re going to see that these experiences have led to your thoughts and your work in terms of novelization and particularly the characters so this morning you had a session, where you spoke about ethical dilemmas I think.

David Corbett: Moral dilemmas-

James Blatch: Moral dilemmas.

David Corbett: And how to create more dilemmas in a story that force the character to choose between two totally terrible unacceptable alternatives.

James Blatch: You like both options to be-

David Corbett: Both options are bad, I mean if there’s a good option the choice is easy. It’s like I’ve got to choose between two evils, and what do you rely on? Is it a code of conduct that you grew up with and that you rely on and you’re a stickler for the rules? Or do you think in terms of consequences, you know well which one will have the worst consequences and for how many people? Do you instead try to live up to an idea of what it means to be a good person and that’s what guides you? Or is it the example of somebody else you knew or is it just sort of a mishmash of all of that, and that you’ve never had to make a really bad decision before and now you have to, and you just don’t know, and you just have to comply by the seat of your pants.

James Blatch: For those of us writing books, what is the advantage of giving your character an almost impossible set of choices?

David Corbett: It identifies them. It makes them recognize who they really are when they have to make that difficult choice and they have to stand by it and face the consequences. It’s totally life-defining, and the decision will haunt them or reward them for the rest of their lives.

James Blatch: We always talk about having layered characters and not straightforward, and in fact, we’ve just spoken about a flawed person who’s never really sure is a much better hero or villain than the one who’s sure of themselves.

This kind of draws it out, because nobody can be certain about these decisions you’re talking about.

David Corbett: No, and especially once you’ve realized that you can’t realistically foresee the consequences of anything, you never know how it’s really going to turn out, and if you really shorten the time, and make it even more dramatic so that the person only has a few moments at best to have to come to a decision, then they have to live with the fact that if I had been given more time, maybe I could have made a better choice, but I didn’t have that and I have to accept that and I have to realize that whatever my gut instinct was, wherever it came from, that decided the moment and that now defines me for the rest of my life, how am I going to live with that.

James Blatch: Because there are repercussions of whichever decision you make.

David Corbett: Oh yeah, but you can’t see ’em, and you never know that. You can guess, but it’s really difficult down the road to realize, like I’m sure that all the guys who are thinking that going into Iraq was going to be real easy and is a cakewalk, and we were going to declare victory and walk home.

Well, guess what? And it’s just that consequences almost always are far more complex, far more unfathomable than you can predict, and yeah, we have to make these kind of decisions every time and the more you can put your protagonist in the position where they have to make that, the more dramatic, compelling they are.

Because we can all imagine ourselves in those situations. We’d like to avoid them but we can’t, and when we see the protagonist having to do that, it’s usually a transformative moment for him and within the story, and it kicks the story into completely different gear. That’s what we sort of covered.

James Blatch: So think about George W. Bush as president and Tony Blair, this day where they are at some point during the day ruminating on that decision that they made, and I’m not going to be cynical about it, I think they had very difficult choices in front of them. It’s easy to hold a placard up and say no or yes, but the truth is they had to make a call.

What’s interesting is for us as novelists is exploring that effect on them later.

David Corbett: That effect on them and whether they’ll address it or not honestly, and that also addresses them.

The problem with huge events like that for public affairs, the realist school is basically designed around the premise that matters of state rise above matters of individual morality. That the concerns of the state are so broad and concern so many people that worrying about individual moral concerns can actually impede the best decision.

This goes back to Machiavelli, but you get it very much in the realist school, which has very much informed, I’d say, US and UK policymaking since World War Two, and yet it’s not as tough it’s above morality, you’re just saying our morality is that we can’t be concerned with the little stuff, we have to see the bigger view, and we just have to make the tough calls.

James Blatch: So is the classic theoretical one, I think I remember this from a play. The train going down the track and there’s a little child playing on one track and the train goes over a ravine with everyone, the 12 people on board killed or you divert it onto the track with the child playing and the child gets killed but you save the people on board, it’s your call.

David Corbett: Right. That’s one of the scenarios. The other one is there are five people on one path, there’s one person on the other, which one do you choose? Most people they say they’d throw the switch to save the five at the expense of the one, they wouldn’t like doing it, but that’s an easy call.

There’s another scenario where let’s say now the tracks are now on a platform above the switch, and you can’t reach it, but there’s a very obese man next to you, and if you push him in front of the train, it will stop it, and only he will die and everybody else will be saved, what do you do?

And people recoil from the whole idea of being physically involved and having to do something that would harm another person. It’s not that one against many calculus, that’s really classic moral conundrum that comes up al the time and I’ll tell you, every time I’ve ever talked to a cop about it, he goes, “Are you kidding? Heave the fat man”.

James Blatch: Yeah, every time.

David Corbett: I wouldn’t hesitate for a second.

James Blatch: And I suppose most of the characters who get written in thrillers probably would.

James Bond would instantly see, because he’s almost amoral and he would push the fat guy I think.

David Corbett: Probably, well I gotta tell you I’ve got a whole nother view of James Bond ever since the audiobooks of all the novels came out these past couple of years.

James Blatch: That’s the original novels.

David Corbett: And they’re by Bill Nighy, and a whole bunch of other wonderful British actors and actresses, and so I’ve rediscovered the books.

My wife’s family is on one coast and we’re on the other, so we’re doing these five-day drives so audiobooks were how we made it through, and we listened to a bunch of those. The books are far more nuanced, and he’s a far more interesting a character than comes across in the films at all. He’s nowhere near the just sort of callous devil may care, he’s actually very thoughtful about things, and far more caring toward women than we see him in the films, and I found that really interesting. Though he’s still a bit of a ’50s cat, but nowhere near as bad as he was in the films.

James Blatch: So to make it more practical then, in terms of our thriller writing, it’s a good device for your character to engineer some, you almost don’t want Dave, do you, when you’re writing?

I find it quite appalling to create a really horrible situation for my character.

David Corbett: Well no, and I brought that up in the class, we naturally resist ourselves wanting to put ourselves in that position, but we have to write those scenes.

Steven James talks about whatever the problem is, make it worse, and we just got to tune ourselves physically and psychologically to be willing to go into this situation, just go, okay, what’s the worst thing that could happen, write them, I’ve got to write that, and I’ve got to deal with however I feel about it and whatever happens, I just got to get in there, because we have a tendency to naturally pull back, just because the uncertainty and the ugly feelings we go through when we’re having to face that, but that what makes stuff interesting.

James Blatch: And the reason we’ll ultimately enjoy this, because it’s a bit like being on a rollercoaster or watching a horror film.

David Corbett: Exactly, and one of the classic examples I brought from a mystery book was Charles Todd’s series where the main protagonist, Rutledge, was a captain in World War One in the infantry, and he had a corporal, Hamish, who refused to send his men over the top in direct defiance of an order from the higher brass. He just said, “We’re going to get slaughtered, I’m not going to do that to my men, I’ll refuse”, and so Rutledge was in a position where he had to have him convicted of insubordination and execute it.

I mean one, that’s the rule, that’s military code of conduct, but two consequences, he knew that if you allow that to happen, I mean nobody’s going to go over the top. Nobody’s going to risk going into harm’s way because everybody hates the brass, it’s going to be chaos unless you enforce this in this way.

So he’s justified it on both the consequentialness and the rule-based grounds. The problem is the consequences for something finds himself over time not being able to live with, ’cause they had a great deal of respect for this man, and he ends up haunting him and he ends up sort of being the spectral sidekick through the course of the series to just remind Rutledge, you’re not the moral man you pretend to be. And maybe you should have more compassion for the people you’re investigating, and it really adds a really interesting psychological and moral complexity of the series that I think is really kind of fascinating.

James Blatch: The unintended consequences of making the right decision.

David Corbett: Yeah.

James Blatch: Do you think about this philosophically as well? Is it a good exercise for us to go through as humans to put ourselves in that position?

David Corbett: Oh yeah, well some of the example I brought up were… the rubber meets the road here, when you actually see a real-life experience. And the examples I gave, you’re told not to lie but then let’s say you’re in a situation, like you’re in an accident with your brother, and your big brother just says, “Look don’t tell the parents, just tell ’em we got sideswiped, it got hit in the parking lot, just don’t do this to me. I mean it would kill me if they think that I actually did this”, and so little brother, you stand by him, he doesn’t get in trouble and from that point on he’s really nice to you, and what you learn is every now and then it’s okay to lie. It’s situational.

And another one I use, this happened a lot in the town I live in, it was a Navy base and guys were walking off the Navy base, and these were all blue-collar guys, who were either carpenters, tool guys, plumbers, so and so forth. And they would just load up their pickup trucks, put a tarp over it and drive it, and there are so many houses in my hometown that were renovated with stuff from the Navy base, and I mean you see it. I hear it from building inspectors that’s going, “Oh yeah, I mean half of the stuff that we had is in somebody’s house in this community”.

And, of course, the way they justify it was Navy was wasteful, obscenely wasteful, so what I’m doing is dropping the bucket and two, I’m really underpaid and this is my bonus, and so there’s always this situational justification.

If you can put something like that in the character’s past where they sort of learn that oh no, it’s okay to bend the rules if you do it like uncle John or if you do it like my brother, there’s a personal connection that seems to justify it. What happens if that thing comes up again and that relative isn’t there, are you going to do the same thing or are you going to do something different this time?

Again it’s life-defining, it defines you and your conscience in the moment in this story.

James Blatch: Excellent, David, really genuinely fascinating.

David Corbett: Thank you so much for doing this, and I’m really glad that you’re here, because they have some wonderful teachers in this program. I was really, really impressed with what they got this year, I just thought it was a great crew.

James Blatch: We’re talking to best of them now.

David Corbett: Well thank you for saying that.

James Blatch: That was David Corbett, and we’ve got one more interview for you in this first of three episodes from New York, and this is Dennis Palumbo.

He has a great background and he is going to talk to us in our interview about the psychology of your heroes, villains, he thinks a lot about trauma, he thinks we live in the age of trauma. We don’t fully perhaps understand the effect trauma has on people, but we get into stuff in the interview about decisions that people make, and then not just the immediate narrative ramifications of decisions but the impact it has on them as characters.

Now before we get into the Dennis Palumbo interview, I must tell you that one of our lovely new cameras decided to focus on a fly on the wall behind him for about seven minutes of this interview, which is not great. So if you’re watching on YouTube I can only apologize, but the interview’s great, the audio is fine but Dennis is out of focus until the seven or eight-minute mark, something like that, but do keep listening. This is Dennis Palumbo.

Dennis Palumbo: My name is Dennis Palumbo. I spent 20 years writing film and television in Hollywood and then changed careers and for the last 30 years I’ve been a psychologist in private practice and my specialty is working with creative people, writers, directors, actors.

I’m also the author of the series of mystery thrillers featuring a character named Daniel Rinaldi, who like me was born and raised in Pittsburgh, went to Pitt, has a beard and glasses and is an Italian American.

He is a trauma expert, and so he consults with the Pittsburgh police, and he specializes in treating victims of violent crime. He himself was a victim, he and his wife were mugged years and years before the book starts. His wife was killed, he was shot but he survived and so he struggles with his own survivor guilt as he goes about treating others, and of course, ’cause he’s an amateur sleuth, he ends up getting involved in a bunch of mysteries.

James Blatch: Sounds like a great setup. Now the psychological side of it you’re talking about there is what you’ve been talking about here at ThrillerFest, so I’m going to talk to you about that with you in a moment.

But just tell us about the early part of your career, because you had a huge success, quite a high profile success in the early ’80s.

Dennis Palumbo: Well I was very, very lucky. I was on a number of television shows. I wrote the first episode of Love Boat.

James Blatch: Loved the Love Boat.

Dennis Palumbo: You know it’s funny because when I tell that to people they always laugh, and then I go, “Yeah but I just got a 13 cent residual check from the Balkans”, which those things are still airing believe it or not all over the world. And I was a writer on a show called Welcome Back, Kotter, which was a pretty big sitcom.

And then I co-wrote a movie, My Favorite Year, with Peter O’Toole, and then I had a couple of other series that I worked on, I think about six series, and then right around that time, around 38, 39, I went into therapy as a patient and fell in love with the process.

So I went back to school, started taking classes, I thought to myself, well it can’t hurt a writer to take classes in psychology, but then I began volunteering at psychiatric clinics and the next thing you knew I wanted to change my career and so I did.

I retired from film and TV and I went not only into private practice, but I went back to my first love, which was writing prose.

I always thought I was going to be a novelist, and through the journeys of life, I ended up in Hollywood writing television and film, but now I get the opportunity to write novels which I’m very, very pleased about.

James Blatch: Okay, well so you are well-positioned to talk about the psychology of your characters.

Dennis Palumbo: Oh yeah.

James Blatch: Which is what you’ve been talking about today.

In simple terms, this is avoiding your characters not having credible motivation or being one dimensional, that psychology is the key, is it not?

Dennis Palumbo: Yeah, for me what’s important is the psychological depth of my characters. I try to make the books as suspenseful as I can with a lot of momentum, there’s a lot of twists and turns, but that doesn’t interest me as much as the psychological underpinnings of my characters, not only my lead characters but the secondary characters because my hero treats the victims of violent crime.

Most thrillers are about catching the bad guy, mine are too, but most thrillers don’t really deal with the victims, what happens to them afterwards, what’s their life like, what are they going through, what PTSD symptoms might they be having. My character is very involved with that, and so there’s a lot of empathy in the books.

And also there’s a lot of information about what it’s like to be a therapist, and the state of the mental health community in modern times, and this against the backdrop of the police, with whom he works, but they have a very uneasy relationship. They think my character is just a nuisance, but they end up grudgingly, I think, having some respect for each other, and I think that’s what gives the books their meat.

James Blatch: This feels quite sort of zeitgeist as well, because I think there is a growing awakening to PTSD and psychological impact.

Dennis Palumbo: One of the leading trauma experts, Bob Stolorow, says that he thinks this is the age of trauma because of the internet and the media, we now know about pandemics and tsunamis in some country we usually never heard about and there’s terrorism, and so there’s this sense that there’s so much more trauma that we have to absorb, and the internet gives us a 24 seven picture of a world going crazy, which it really isn’t but it feels like it is.

James Blatch: Does this bother you?

Dennis Palumbo: Yeah.

James Blatch: I’ve got a 15-year-old daughter, who does have a very bleak outlook on the world I think mainly because of climate change.

Dennis Palumbo: Yeah, I think so too. I think that actually climate change is the biggest issue that people aren’t quite dealing with the way they should because I think it feels too big for people in a way, and I think they don’t want to believe it.

James Blatch: What did you teach this morning, what was your practical lesson to people here at ThrillerFest?

Dennis Palumbo: My lesson this morning was about taking your own experience and issues and using them, mining your own experiences and psychological issues and using that to give your characters relevance and relatability.

Henry James said, “Plot is characters under stress”, and so what I try to do is help people, I did some exercises in the class and then some lecture to get them to see that what goes on inside of them will infuse their writing with a lot more relatability.

James Blatch: And do we all have that in us, even if we haven’t been to war or been in an accident.

Dennis Palumbo: Absolutely, I think we have everything in us. As writers I think you could be a nun or a serial killer. We all have everything, we have all the emotions, anger and yearning and hurt and love and lust and envy, and the way I always put it is you could not like your brother-in-law, but if you write crime fiction, you get to run him over in a car. So you could take the things in your life and just criminalize them.

James Blatch: So it’s those little moments when it’s the sort of the falling down thing, in the moments when we imagine suddenly just shooting everybody who’s annoying us or punching the slow walker.

Dennis Palumbo: Well like I always say to my wife, I don’t want to hurt anyone but there’s certain people whose obituaries I wouldn’t mind reading.

James Blatch: So it’s getting in touch with that, and putting that into the book and exaggerating it.

Dennis Palumbo: And putting that in a book. And exaggerating that and making sure that whatever those, excuse me, those issues are, the plot mechanisms keeps stressing that person, that’s where the stakes come from.

So if you’re, let’s say, jealous because your brother invented some internet sensation and he’s rich, you want to keep stressing your character by saying, “Oh, now he’s building another thing”, “He’s on the cover of Time magazine”, “He’s so famous, you’re now known just as his brother”, and then that builds your resentment and so we understand why you might do something either to the brother or just out in the world to get your own renown.

James Blatch: I think I might be a good pupil of yours already. My first novel is this year, and just on a personal level, my father’s very sort of non-demonstrative, very, very reserved, and my book is about that 1960’s stiff upper lip of pushing stuff down, deliberately burying it, not confronting it and the long term effects of that.

So I think I’ve already started keying into the sort of things you’re talking about. I’m fascinated by this.

Dennis Palumbo: Absolutely. The idea of feelings being suppressed or unconsciously repressed is very important because when we read about a character who’s super expansive to the point of being histrionic, they’re not that interesting.

What’s interesting is when we get this sense that there’s a lot of banked fires there, there’s a lot of feeling that’s barely leaking out, and then what stresses the person enough in fiction to make those feelings start to come out.

James Blatch: Luckily being an oppressed Englishman, I can find my own motivation and understanding for this-

Dennis Palumbo: Yes, you can find your own, yeah absolutely.

James Blatch: So in terms of practical steps, if we’re looking at our writing now, maybe the revision process, what things, you’ve given us some examples already.

Dennis Palumbo: In my class, for example, I said to my attendees take a character in one of your work in progress, some work you’re doing right now, and give that character a trait of yours, either something you like about yourself like you’re punctual or you always pay your debts or whatever. Or something you don’t like about yourself, that you’re always late or that you have a lot of envy or whatever.

Give that trait to one of the characters in your book and see if that doesn’t make the character come more alive. When I asked how was this exercise for everybody, because I gave them like five or six minutes to write a scene with this added trait, and everyone went, “Oh my God, it just came alive.”

James Blatch: Yeah.

Dennis Palumbo: When I used to teach writing at UCLA, I would say let’s take a scene where a spy is being chased down an alley, and people would write these scenes, and they look like everything we’d ever seen in a movie before. I said, “Okay, you’re the spy being chased down an alley”, and they’d go, “oh well, if it was me”, and then all these funny interesting, strange things would come out.

So I always said to them, don’t write a character like you think a spy should be, you’re the spy, make the character come from you.

James Blatch: And of course, we hear this repeated from other people as well; it’s those flaws, those uncertainties that suddenly makes it alive.

Dennis Palumbo: Well look at John LeCarre. What makes George Smiley a great character is he’s essentially John LeCarre, and not only is he that character but he gave him a tragic flaw, that his wife is having a bunch of affairs and everybody knows it.

So here’s a guy that’s supposed to be so smart and so good at rooting out spies and moles and stuff like that, cuckolded constantly by his wife, and she has that great line at the end which she to him at the end of Tinker, Tailor, where she goes, “Life is really a puzzle to you, isn’t it George?” And we think wow, a hero we love is so tragically flawed.

James Blatch: Yeah, perfect, that’s the second interview in a row where John LeCarre, in fact Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has been referenced as well so obviously you can’t go wrong can you?

Dennis Palumbo: Well he’s such a brilliant, brilliant writer.

James Blatch: Yeah, yeah, absolutely love it.

For you now, you’re enjoying your murder mysteries, is that what you would describe your books.

Dennis Palumbo: I call mine psychological thrillers or mystery thrillers, ’cause there are elements of thriller in it, there’s a lot of twists and turns and a lot of suspense. I don’t write cozies, I don’t write the kinds of mysteries that… mine are kind of intense with a lot of dark themes, but because I used to be a comedy writer, the conversations between my hero and the police with whom he works, there’s often a lot of humor because they are the best of enemies in a certain way, and that’s what makes it fun to write.

James Blatch: Any thoughts of film and TV again or is that done?

Dennis Palumbo: We always have someone sniffing around, talking about turning the books into a TV series. I’ve been around the pool long enough to know that interest is terrific and it’s great for your ego but the journey from that interest to something getting on screen is a very tortuous journey so we’ll see.

James Blatch: I often quote Douglas Adams, who put in front of one of his books, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has now been optioned by Hollywood so it’s going to be made any decade now”.

Dennis Palumbo: “Any decade now”, that’s exactly right.

James Blatch: There you go Tom, difficult not to think of Columbo when you introduce Dennis Palumbo.

Tom Ashford: Yip.

James Blatch: And Columbo I feel was a man who understood the psychology of people.

Tom Ashford: You reckon?

James Blatch: You ever watched a Columbo episode?

Tom Ashford: No.

James Blatch: Oh my, he’s never watched a Columbo episode, John. John’s behind the camera operating things. Columbo was a brilliant detective, I guess it was in New York, was he in New York, Columbo, have I got that wrong, maybe it is somewhere else.

John: No.

James Blatch: He wasn’t in New York.

John: No, I think he was somewhere in the West Coast.

James Blatch: He was somewhere else. He was in the West Coast, okay. But he would say, he would go in and ask a couple of things, but what he’d spot was a few things going on in the room. The way the person acted and just before he left, his famous thing was “Just one more thing”, and then he’d ask that key question that unlocked the case.

So I guess psychology and I really liked Dennis’ way that he was talking about like these effects. We talked about Tony Blair and George W. Bush as an example, so we all remember the decision they made about going to war in 2003, very controversial decision, lots of people opposed it, some people backed it. But what’s interesting is the effect it had on them as individuals and to this day, and that’s what going to make your novel work, it’s referring back to that thinking this is not just an event that’s happened for the story, but every sentence you write about that character from then on is informed by the decisions they make.

Tom Ashford: One hundred percent. I sat in both David and Dennis’ conferences or talks, and they both stood out because rather than just talking about how to approach the craft or something, they’re much more about how to think about decisions that will impact your character, and therefore inform your character.

So rather than just going, my character is really strong because of this or my character has got this weakness because of this, putting them in situations or giving them traumas or psychological things that will literally influence the way they behave through the story and definitely fleshing it out more than just, so using your own experience.

James Blatch: Do you know what the great thing about getting this bit right is it actually helps you write the novel.

Tom Ashford: Yip.

James Blatch: When you start to think about, oh how would I feel, and Dennis said how would you feel about that if you were faced with this decision one day at a railway station, and you come home, how would that evening be for you, how would it be a month later, and that allows you to, that gives you the ideas that the content of your writing.

Tom Ashford: Yeah.

James Blatch: Good, well welcome to the podcast the first one down, we’ve got a couple more to go here in Dumbo in New York. We’ve got two fantastic episodes.

I’ve mentioned James Rollins, we have a couple of superstars to interview coming up in the next couple of episode, and I should also say that although this is ThrillerFest, a lot of what we’re talking about pertains to all writing not just thrillers, so don’t worry if you’re a romance writer or another genre, you’re going to pick up plenty of stuff from these episodes.

Right, the ferry is in. That looks like it should be taking us for lunch over there, what do you think?

Tom Ashford: Yeah.

James Blatch: He always says yes to lunch.

Thank you so much indeed for joining us, the first of three episodes, we’re back next week with some more good stuff from New York and ThrillerFest.

Announcer: Get show notes, the podcast archive, and free resources to boost your writing career at

Join our thriving Facebook group at

Support the show at

And join us next week for more help and inspiration so that you can make your mark as a successful indie author.

Publishing is changing, so get your words into the world and join the revolution with The Self Publishing Show.


Support the show at, and join us next week for more help and inspiration so that you can make your mark as a successful Indie author. Publishing is changing, so get your words into the world and join the revolution with the Self Publishing Show.

Leave a Review