Saturday, December 29, 2012

Introducing the "Find an Expert" page

It occurs to me that thriller writers tend to do a lot of research.  Credibility is key to a good story in our genre, which is why I personally know more about San Quentin prison and the botany of ancient Rome than I ever thought I would need to know in my lifetime.  As writers of thrillers and other genres, we read, we travel, and we track down experts to ask.

It occurs to me that many of us are those experts.  So I have created a new page on this site.  Please find a new tab along the top bar entitled, "Find an Expert".  Use it to ask questions of our members about whatever subject you are researching, and please let us know if you have a special skill set that can benefit other thriller writers.

I present here an open invitation, calling for specific areas of expertise commonly featured in thriller novels.  These areas include, but are not limited to...

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Cleopatra: first female chemist: a Stranger Than Fiction true story

The "Stranger Than Fiction" series is a collection of true stories just waiting to be explored in fiction.  The Vesuvius Isotope explores the theme presented here.  This post offers a glimpse into the lesser-known depths of one of the most mysterious historical figures of all time.

Move over, Madame Curie: First female chemist: Cleopatra!

The enigmatic last ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty was ruthlessly ambitious, supremely educated, multilingual, inquisitive and scientifically minded. She oversaw the largest database of the ancient world: the legendary library of Alexandria. She was rumored to have written dozens of books on a wide range of topics, she kept company with physicians, and the majority of legends surrounding Cleopatra involve some form of scientific ability. Yet, she did not leave a single writing behind, so her true contribution to modern science remains a mystery. 

In 2010, one of the most popular legends about Cleopatra was scientifically proven possible. Below is one of the many news stories surrounding the discovery.  From

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Doha 12 now available

A couple of weeks ago I did an interview with Lance Charnes, author of Doha 12.  Today, I'm happy to announce that Doha 12 is on the market!  

Jake Eldar's and Miriam Schaffer's names may kill them.

Jake manages a bookstore in Brooklyn. Miriam is a secretary at a Philadelphia law firm. Both grew up in Israel and emigrated to build new lives in America. Neither knows the other exists…until the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad uses their identities in an operation to assassinate a high-ranking Hezbollah commander in Doha, Qatar.

Now Hezbollah plans to kill them both...

Jake, Miriam and ten other innocents in five countries – the Doha 12 – awake to find their identities stolen and their lives caught between Mossad and Hezbollah in an international game of murder and reprisal. Jake stumbles upon Hezbollah’s plot but can't convince the police it exists. When his wife is murdered in a botched hit meant for him, Jake and Miriam try desperately to outrun and outfight their pursuers while shielding Jake's young daughter from the killers on their trail.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

An interview with editor Susan Hughes

Your novel is approaching completion.  You have worked and slaved over every...single...paragraph.  You have personally edited, and re-edited, and then erased every change you made the previous day.  Your friends have read it and edited for content.  Perhaps they even found some typos.  Now, you're done.  Right?  Wrong.  I'm sorry, but show me a novel that does not require professional editing and I will show you a novel that has already been professionally edited.  

I realized this when Susan Hughes took a look at my website and made a quick correction to the title.  Yep, the title.  After thanking her for the free edit (and making the change on the website,) I would now like to introduce the members of this site to a terrific editor with a passion for mysteries.  Please read below an interview with Susan Hughes.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

An interview with artist Krystle Wright

Yes, you can - and will - judge a book by its cover.  It is well established that cover art is the very first thing that will draw a reader in.  For this reason, it can be argued that the cover artist is every bit as important as the author in the success of a book.  Below is an interview with Krystle Wright of Deviant Art.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.  How long have you been an artist?  What inspires your work?
Art was never a phase that I would grow out of. My father wanted me to be a Nurse but Art always brought such joy to my life. The kind of joy that I couldn't forget. I stumbled into Cover Art Design because my husband needed a great cover for his book. We searched & searched then finally I said "Let me show you what I can do!". I'm inspired by the amazing stories created by talented, creative & highly intelligent Authors. These stories made up of extraordinary moments, discoveries, adventures & characters help me bring light to a cover where it is needed.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Murder Lab expansion

You may have noticed the recent additions to this site.  Having come to the conclusion that there are relatively few consolidated networks out there in cyberspace for thriller fans, I have decided to make this the first.  So I'd like to take this opportunity to draw attention to the additional features that have been added.

Along the top bar of the site are several new sections.  Please feel free to browse around, but to help direct you, here are their functions:

Saturday, December 1, 2012

An interview with novelist Lance Charnes

Imagine that the government of a country you have emigrated from has just assassinated a terrorist leader.  Now imagine that they chose you as the scapegoat.  This is the theme explored in Lance Charnes' forthcoming thriller, Doha 12.  Below is an interview with the author.  If you like Lance's work, please see his links at the bottom of this post and in our "find a writer" section.  Stay tuned for the December publication of Doha 12!

What genre do your books fall into?

I write both thrillers and mysteries. All of them so far involve normal people who are tossed into abnormal situations and have to cope using their wits and what they've learned during their lives. I don't write about superheroes or supervillains.

What other author or books would you compare yourself/your books to?

For my current novel, Doha 12, the closest comparisons would be Daniel Silva and Ken Follett (his modern-day intrigue novels, not the historical epics). For South, my work-in-progress, I'd have to point to Futureland, Walter Mosely's very socially-aware speculative fiction (yes, he wrote SF) mixed with every Cold War get-the-secret-agent-across-the-border tale.

Describe your protagonist.

Well, as the back-cover copy says, both Jake Eldar and Miriam Schaffer grew up in Israel -- Miriam's a sabra and kibbutznik, Jake was born on Long Island and went to Israel with his parents as a kid. He became an intelligence analyst in the Israeli Army's Artillery Corps, while Miriam served in the Border Guards. Both were screwed by the system to greater or lesser extents, which led them to start over in  America.

Jake brought his sabra wife Rinnah with him, settled in Brooklyn, had a daughter -- Eve -- and worked at the Court Street Barnes & Noble. He did everything he could to leave Israel and the Army on the other side of the ocean. He harbors an intense distrust of Mossad. His uncle Gene is an NYPD inspector and deputy commander of the Intelligence Division. Jake's the more easygoing of the protagonists.

Miriam married a U.S. Embassy Marine guard -- a gentile, no less -- and moved to New Jersey. The husband was killed in Afghanistan a couple years ago. She dislikes Arabs, whom she blames for her father's and husband's deaths. She never quite left the Border Guards behind; she keeps very fit except for a gimpy knee (an old service injury) and carries herself as if she's still on the parade ground. She's kind of a hardass and certainly more tightly-wound than Jake.

Their two main antagonists are Fadi Alayan, the idealistic leader of a Hezbollah direct-action team that emulates Mossad covert tactics, and Refael Gur, a veteran Mossad agent who's feeling his mortality and realizes the futility of what he's been doing over the past many years. They're both professionals who do what they do to defend their nations. Each of them has lost family members to the other side, and each considers the other to be a terrorist.

Who will play him/her in the movies?

Jake is a decent-looking guy in his mid-thirties with a normal build, not a superhero type. Both Miriam and Rinnah like his eyes. Joseph Gordon-Levitt might work if he's made a little less handsome (a laLooper). I have to admit that while writing this I kept seeing Rob Morrow in the part, except fifteen years younger.

Miriam is a tall, healthy former farm girl, fit and well put-together, brunette, attractive but not beautiful, also in her mid-thirties. It's hard to find a combination like that among working actresses. Lauren Stamile (Agent Pearce on Burn Notice, the perfect persona for Miriam) can do square-jawed tough but also cleans up pretty well. A suitably deglammed Paget Brewster (Criminal Minds) is also a possibility.

Gur is in his mid-to-late forties and has some miles on him. Javier Bardem (without a silly haircut) would be a good fit. A darker-skinned Robson Green (Wire in the Blood) could be interesting. If Mandy Patinkin lost about fifteen years, he'd be great.

Alayan can pass for being from anywhere along the Mediterranean coast. Waleed Zuaiter fits the bill; he's a Kuwaiti-American who's done guest shots on a number of American TV series.

What inspired this book?

Back in 2010, a Mossad hit team assassinated a top Hamas operative, Mahmoud Mabhouh, in Dubai. They were less-than-slick about it and ended up on a number of surveillance videos. The Emiratis posted the footage on YouTube -- it's kind of interesting to watch. Anyway, the team used for their covers the identities of real Israeli dual-nationals living in Israel. These people's other citizenship countries were extremely perturbed by this. Of course, Hamas was hopping mad.

So I got to thinking: what would have happened if Hamas decided to go after these poor schulbs whose identities were stolen? Voila: Doha 12 was born.

Are you working on anything now?  What is the working title and back cover copy?

My work-in-progress, South, is a near-future thriller. Here's the preliminary back-cover copy (still a bit rough; my apologies):

Luis Ojeda once was a coyote for the Pacifico Norte drug cartel. He guided into civil war-wracked Mexico hundreds of Muslim Americans escaping from or avoiding the remote detention camps where many thousands of their relatives and friends have languished since a horrific 2019 terrorist attack in Chicago. He left that world after he was nearly killed crossing the border. Now, two years later in 2032, the Cartel wants Luis back for a special job.

Nora Khaled is a wife, mother, FBI agent, and Moslem. Her lawyer husband is about to be exiled to a camp, destroying her family, career and freedom. She abandons her comfortable life to spirit her husband and children to Southern California so Luis can lead them south, out of the U.S. to safety.

Luis and Nora face more threats than scorching deserts and brutal border guards. The Nortes are locked in a death struggle with the fearsome Zetas, and someone on the inside is selling out the Cartel’s members. A dogged Immigration & Customs Enforcement agent has Luis locked firmly in his sights. When Nora is publicly accused of terrorism, Luis learns she’s carrying secrets that will blow apart the 2032 Presidential election and reveal that the nation’s recent history is based on a lie. In a future America where everything is for sale and innocence is a liability, Luis and Nora have to learn to trust each other to ensure the survival of the truth, their families, and themselves.

What else would you like readers to know?

I travel a fair amount. I'm a PADI Rescue Diver and cold-water wimp, which accounts for some of that travel (the Pacific off Southern California is just too damn cold). I spent eight years in the active-duty Air Force and another fourteen in the Reserves, had an assignment with the National Security Council at the White House (worker bee, not advisor), and retired as a lieutenant colonel. My civilian career has been all over the map, starting in IT, then doing my midlife-crisis tour as a game artist, then moving to emergency management. I have a very tolerant wife who has a grown-up job, and a large, highly opinionated cat. I wrote my first full-length work when I was 17.

Please provide your website, blog, or other contact information you’d like readers to have.

There are all kinds of ways to keep tabs on me:
Official website
Facebook author page

If you see something you like on any of these, please leave a comment or "like" or "friend" or "follow" me. It can get lonely out here in cyberspace.

Jake Eldar's and Miriam Schaffer's names may kill them.

Jake manages a bookstore in Brooklyn. Miriam is a secretary at a Philadelphia law firm. Both grew up in Israel and emigrated to build new lives in America. Neither knows the other exists…until the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad uses their identities in an operation to assassinate a high-ranking Hezbollah commander in Doha, Qatar.

Now Hezbollah plans to kill them both.

Jake, Miriam and ten other innocents in five countries – the Doha 12 – wake up to find their identities stolen and their lives caught between Hezbollah and Mossad in an international game of murder and reprisal. Jake stumbles upon Hezbollah’s plot but can't convince the police it exists. When his wife is murdered in a botched hit meant for him, Jake joins forces with Miriam to outrun and outfight their pursuers while protecting his young daughter.

Hezbollah, however, has a fallback plan: hundreds of people will die if Jake and Miriam survive.

Inspired by Mossad’s 2010 assassination of Mahmoud Mabhouh, Doha 12 will take you on a chase you won't soon forget.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Dedicated communities to the thriller genre

They say you can find anything on the Internet.  There seems to be one unfortunate exception.

As a reader and writer of thrillers, I have been utterly disappointed in my searches for communities devoted to this genre.  I have found exactly ONE, and this organization charges $95 per year to any participant who is not an author published by a *commercial* publishing house.

This bothers me.  So I post here a question and a solution.  The question: are there any other communities *dedicated to thrillers* that offer readers, writers, bloggers, agents, pets, what have you, a place to gather and exchange ideas?

If so, links please!  I'd love to participate.  If not, please find the first here.

If you read, write, or otherwise have any interest in thrillers, please stop by and become a member.  I will link your page, interview you, promote your book/art/agency, discuss your ideas, techniques and tricks of the trade, recommend a good read, and encourage others to do the same.  All that is required of you is an interest in thrillers.  So you can save your $95 for that forensics class you need to complete your next work.


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Top five things about Zoo, by Patterson and Ledwidge

by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge

As a thrill writer, scientist and animal lover, I can't imagine a thriller plot more fun than animals suffering from biological meltdown at the molecular level and thus going bonkers and sabotaging the earth.  That's even more fun than a barrel of monkeys.  And that's pretty fun.  What a blast.

This book has received mixed reviews, ranging from, "Patterson at his finest" to, "wow, this poor shmuck really jumped the shark.  Stop, James.  Please stop.  I'm begging you."  My review is in between.  I think the book was a bit fluffy, and if you're looking for depth, look elsewhere.  But I still enjoyed it and frankly, tore right through it despite myself.  Following are my top five reasons why:

1) The protagonist is a real scientist:
This book is written in first person (except for the parts that switch into the minds of animals...see #2...) and the story is told from the POV of a scientist investigating the whacky phenomenon known as HAC (Human Animal Conflict).  While many reviewers were extremely bothered by this guy's voice, I have to admit, I loved it.  Why?  Because he's real.  Now, I'm'a let you in on something here: real scientists don't all speak and act like total Poindexters.  Most of us are jaded, sarcastic, grumpy ass ugly bastards who can see the humor in almost everything morbid.  The main character of Zoo, whose name happens to be Jackson Oz (how cool is that?) gets himself arrested and refers to his annoying colleagues as "shitheels."  Thank you, Mr. Patterson and Mr. Ledwidge, for keeping it real.

2) Fun with tense hopping:
While the majority of the story is done in past tense, first person, there are moments that jump into present tense, third person.  This technique (one of my faves) is a great way to jump out of a protagonist's head for a moment, offering some alternate dimensions to the book.  In this case, it also gives animals a voice.  Love it.

3) Short chapters:
Literally, almost every new page starts a new chapter.  There are 98 chapters total followed by an epilogue.  Epic.  My friends - eh, I mean readers - harass me endlessly about breaking sections or chapters too frequently.  But I have noticed that it doesn't take them long to harass me about this once I hand them a draft, because they breeze through it in no time.  So I rest my case.  Long chapters inspire a reader to stop at the chapter break and wait until they have more time.  Short chapters let the reader squeak out one more page, even though dinner is burning and the kids are on fire.  And what writer doesn't want that?

4) Those heart-wrenching moments:
Let's face it - readers of thrillers are so used to wickedness that we can watch a character filter through a paper shredder without being either grossed out or the least bit sympathetic.  But hurt a chimp's feelings and you've just snapped a heart string or two.  Zoo brings the humanity by giving us characters we can feel for - animals.  Excuse me for a moment while I go hug my dogs.

5) We never find out what Zoo means
Sorry about this little spoiler, but it's really no big deal in the grand scheme of things.  Here it is: Early in the book, the protagonist makes some reference to the fact that the word Zoo is an acronym.  Throughout the book, I waited to see what could possibly start with a Z followed by two Os.  Zebras and orangutans and ocelots!  Oh my!?  Zany, omnipotent odor?  Nope.  They never reveal it.  While this was, in all probability, a lazy oversight on the part of an author who churns out 3-4 books a year, I found it utterly amusing.  Sort of like a musician deliberately writing an entire line of gibberish into a song and then waiting to see what his listeners think he said.  Brilliant.

When you have some free time, take Zoo out for a walk.  Don't forget the poop bags.  

Friday, November 9, 2012

Excerpt from Vesuvius

I jerked awake.  The familiar dream began to fade.  I could feel a rocking motion beneath me, and I looked down to see that I was lying in a pool of dried blood on the bow of a yacht.  I rolled over onto my back.  Directly above me was the underside of our bedroom terrace.  I could not remember arriving here.

My left hand hurt, and I realized my fist was clenched.  As I opened it, four tiny trickles of blood seeped from indentations in my palm as my husband’s wedding ring fell from my hand.  The boat rocked again, and a subtle rattling broke the early morning silence as the small, gold circle rolled across the smooth wood of the yacht’s bow.

-From the forthcoming novel, The Vesuvius Isotope

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Do you write? Or do you tell stories?

I have a confession.  I really don't give a crap about being a good writer.  I have no aspirations of winning a Grammatical Grammy or accepting a Diction Doctorate.  Honestly, all I really want to do with my so-called "writing" is to tell a great story.

I just finished reading Zoo, by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge.  I'll write a detailed review later, but the bottom line is, it was a terrible book.  The plot was the antithesis of credibility, and the blatant disregard for rules of writing no doubt had every dead author in the history of ink rolling over in his or her grave.  But I loved it.  Why?  Because I kept turning pages until the end.  And while we are baring our souls here, I'll admit that I also made a few mental notes of writing techniques that I totally intend to steal.

But Patterson and Ledwidge cheated a little bit, in my opinion.  They wrote a book that put no responsibility whatsoever onto the reader.  No thinking was required, just pure permeability, absorption of the story and absolute suspension of disbelief.  It worked, and it made for a fun, easy, quick read, as long as the reader didn't stop to think.

This is where I differ in my personal aspirations.  I want to write a book that makes readers think without realizing they are thinking, because I want them to be having too much fun.  If the gods of storytelling ever bless me with such a work, I will consider the book a resounding success.  Critics and rules of the English language be damned.

The Vesuvius Isotope is nearly complete.  I think it's a great story, and I'll be truly pissed at myself if I fail to show it the way I see it.  Yet, the biggest challenge throughout the squiggly journey of its creation has been conveying the story in a way that makes it readable.  Because I'm all too aware that this story demands a lot on the part of the reader.

I guess that's where writing skills come in.  Crap.

How do you take a complicated plot and strip it down to the critical elements?  How do you weave together multiple sub-plots in such a way that readers can follow them, without consulting footnotes and a map?  How do you keep your characters in character, without creating a collection of one-dimensional stereotypes?  

I guess that's where writing skills come in.  Crap.

I guess I need to hone those skills after all, to continue soliciting tips and advice from the actual writers out there.  Excuse me while I go back to school.  Excuse me while I grovel to the Professors of Punctuation and bow to the Wizards of Words.  And please forgive me if I later disregard bits of their advice, because damn it, the story will be better that way.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Next Big Thing: The Vesuvius Isotope

I have been tagged in The Next Big Thing, by Kim Koning.  What this means is that I answer a series of ten interview questions and then tag other authors.  The questions are around our works in progress, and mine is The Vesuvius Isotope.

First and foremost - I beg you - please click on the link above and check out the WIP of Kim Koning, entitled The Tattooist - Liquid Ink.  It is an awesome premise and one I'm quite jealous I didn't think of myself.  Then, follow her blog, and buy her book when it comes out.  I'm sure you'll be glad you did.

At the bottom of this post, please look for the writers I have tagged and linked.  Their "Next Big Thing" posts will be available between the 18th and 24th of September, so please keep your eyes peeled for those.

Now, without further delay...

What is the working title of your book?
The Vesuvius Isotope

Where did the idea come from for the book?
Personal experience as a drug discovery biologist, an intriguing visit to Pompeii, and a fascination with all things Cleopatra.

What genre does your book fall under?
Historical and medical thriller

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Biologist Katrina Stone is played by Julianne Moore.  She is a strong, smart, occasionally brash redhead with a vulnerability she is very adept at hiding.  Katrina is in her 40s (Julianne is in her 50s!) and both are still sexy as ever.

Nobel Laureate Jeffrey Wilson is a high bar.  He needs to be handsome and sexy as well as brilliant, not too young, a little bit deviant and unpredictable.  I nominate Hugh Jackman.  He and our Katrina make a smoking couple.

Alexis Stone is portrayed by Kirsten Dunst.  This girl's intelligence is piercing, and she goes from sweet to bitch in one smile.  And now that I look at her next to Julianne Moore, I think a DNA test might be in order.  Meet the Stone family.

Maria Bello is perfect as Egyptologist Alyssa Iacovani.  Hollywood needs more smart blondes with a degree of complexity, wit and intrigue.  I think this lady can pull it off.

Aldo de Luca is an Italian Nick Nolte.  Period.  Brush up on your accent, Nick.  We need you.

Young Dante Giordano is played by Emanuele Propizio.  This kid is the perfect combination of youthful innocence and latent mafioso.  He epitomizes Dante.  Propizio will require extensive tattooing for the role.

And last, but certainly not least, is our villian.  Corrupt Naples transit cop Carmello Rossi is played by Ronan Vibert.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

When her Nobel Laureate husband is murdered, her search for answers leads biologist Katrina Stone to a two thousand year old medical mystery, the secret life of one of history's most enigmatic women, and a clandestine modern-day war that will resurrect an ancient plague into the twenty-first century.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Undecided.  I was thinking of consulting She Writes Press first, as this strikes me as a way to form a truly collaborative relationship with those more skilled in the publishing arts than myself.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Too long.  The plot is complicated enough that I had to re-work it over, and over, and over again, and this led to multiple false starts.  I'm thrilled to say that I have now worked out those bugs (finally!) and the result is going to be worth it.  I can't wait to publish.  At present, the story is complete, but I'm still line editing.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
It is like a Dan Brown novel in that historical mystery becomes entwined with modern-day conflict.  It is also like Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death, in that it draws upon the history of medicine and roles played by various cultures in the development of a specific event.  And, it is like a novel by Michael Crichton or Robin Cook in that it introduces technologies widely used in today's medical community, but frequently unfamiliar to the layperson.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
It was really the aforementioned visit to Pompeii that planted the seed.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Katrina chases medicine across Italy and Egypt and through the centuries to solve the murder of her husband.  What she reveals are a legacy of corruption and greed, and a sinister epidemic that threatens the lives of thousands - including her own, and that of her daughter.

Tag, you're it!
Please check back next week for the works in progress by these talented authors:

Sara McBride
Catherine Stine

Friday, August 31, 2012

Most over-used protagonists in today's novel - part two

I'd like to start this post in an unusual way - with a quote, from a comment, from my previous post:

"Curious what your next over-used protagonist will be! Please make it Kickass Fearless Girl. Because she doesn't exist."

Kiersi, I couldn't agree more.  At first I thought, "hmmm...who is a truly, Kick Ass, FEARLESS girl?  She has to be a teenager.  Teenagers are afraid of nothing, because they have yet to comprehend their own mortalities and the mortalities of those around them - and anyway, they wish most of the people around them dead."

But then I had a quick conversation with a real, live teenager, and quickly remembered the truth: they harbor even more fears than the rest of us.  What if I get a zit on prom night?  What if I get an erection (or my period, as the gender may be...) during gym class?  What if that bully calls me a name and everyone laughs at me?

So I'm back to drawing a blank on the real existence of Kickass Fearless Girl.  Show me someone who is really fearless, and I'll show you a damn good liar.

But there is another protagonist who trumps even Kickass Fearless Girl on my over-used list, and who is even more non-existent: The 22-year-old, Female, Supermodel, Head of [name your department] at [name your world-famous hospital or research institute].

This girl seems to be everywhere in fiction.  I understand that it's almost law in modern literature that the protagonist must be young and beautiful (although I also believe in rebelling against the laws of literature.)  But that said, there's a serious credibility issue with this particular woman.

Let's start with some perspective:

A female scientist friend of mine is 38.  She considers herself fairly successful, as evidenced by the fact that many of her peers on the same pay grade are at least ten years older than she is.  But she's still three levels below the head of the department.  She works out of a cube, not an office, and the business end of a desk in an ocean view corner space is something she will probably never see in her lifetime.

Real Female Scientist spent twenty two years in school before getting her first job.  Surprisingly, that job was NOT Head of Anything, Anywhere.  It was a post-doctoral fellowship that earned her something below the wages of your average plumber.  While attending those twenty two years of school, she also worked two or three jobs at a time.  She spent the income from those jobs on rent, food and books - and not a nickel went to skin care, hair care, or designer clothes.  She pulled all-nighters, made it to class, took the tests, and excelled on them without a second thought as to what her nails were doing at the moment.

So while she might have once been quite a biscuit, Real Female Scientist now wears thick glasses because her eyes have gone bye-bye from peering through microscopes for a couple of decades.  Her forehead is permanently wrinkled with that "deep in thought" look.  She has bags under her eyes.  And her hands, following years of donning, removing, donning, removing, donning, removing and donning latex gloves - while being scrubbed ferociously in between each pair - look like the hands of an old woman.

Real Female Scientist chose decades ago to prioritize her career over her looks, and it shows.  But to the real Head of Cardiology, my friend is still a biscuit.  Because the real Head of Cardiology is a 65 year old man with bad, gray combover, Coke bottle glasses, and absolutely no social graces to speak of.  But he is a genius.  Their story can make for some great fiction.  Or better yet, some great non-fiction.

The young and beautiful Head Scientist is a myth.  Perhaps even more so than Kickass Fearless Girl.  If you want to write a book, or make a movie, about her, that's fine.  We write all kinds of fiction about fictional creatures.  But if you want a realistic Head Scientist for your protagonist, Google Image Search "Nobel Laureate" - and then try not to get distracted by making a drinking game out of the combovers and Coke bottle lenses.

Now, Kickass Middle Aged Woman Who Can Compartmentalize Her Fears And Still Whip Ass On The Bad Guy - she is my hero.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Slay the vampire: most over-used protagonists in today's novel - part one

There are books to pick up simply because the protagonist sounds AWESOME!  Cue dragon tattoo.  But there are other books that I instantly lay back down on the bookstore display simply because the main character has already been done, waaaaayyyy too many times, in waaaayyy too many other books.

Number one worst offender?  The vampire. 

Don't get me wrong, I once loved 'em.  As someone who spent her teenage years worshipping at the thrones of Poe and King, I prided myself on an appetite for the macabre.  I secretly wished for fangs and fantasized that wine was really blood (and that I could drink either without gagging).  And I loved the Ann Rice books, especially when they made the first one into a movie starring a barely heard of young actor named Brad Pitt.  

And clearly, I was never alone in this obsession, as anything with a vampire in it seems to sell to teenagers like pimple medicine.  I assume this is, at least in part, the reason why so many authors now want to follow in the Interview with Dracula at Twilight footsteps.

But that said, the vampire has become the default protagonist.  If I see one more, I really might bite into someone's jugular.  I must assume that agents and publishers are getting weary of this trend as well.  Are they?

Evidently not.  The bookstores have entire tables dedicated to them.  The movie theaters are alive with them.  My Twitter feed is crawling with them.  Enough, already!

The vampire has become a zombie - dead, decaying, and yet, impossible to turn one's back on or get rid of.  Would someone please write a novel about a beautiful, young Sasquatch, and the human who wants to have his squatchlets?  Now that would be original. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The heroine of the FDA: a Stranger than Fiction true thriller

This blog is about fiction, but I am a firm believer in authenticity.  A thriller that incorporates slices of truth can enthrall me, as I race through the plot while marveling at or wondering about the non-fictional elements.  If the story is good enough, it can drive me to research the non-fiction laced within.  And I hope to motivate my readers to do the same.  The below is the first in my "Stranger than Fiction" series - a collection of true stories that, like a good thriller, can have us on the edge of our seats.  This is the story of thalidomide, and the one brave woman who narrowly averted a national epidemic in the United States.

In 1953, German pharmaceutical company Chemie Grünenthal first synthesized the drug that was to be termed thalidomide.  They were searching for antibiotics, but thalidomide showed no antibiotic activity.  However, it appeared to be safe.  Extremely high doses did not kill lab animals nor show any obvious side effects.  They began to consider it as a sedative, although no sedative or tranquilizing effects were observed.

In 1955, Grünenthal began distributing free samples of thalidomide to doctors in Switzerland and West Germany.  They recommended it for the prevention of seizures.  Although no anti-seizure activity was found, some patients reported experiencing a deep sleep or a noticeable sense of calm.  Grünenthal began to advertise thalidomide as a perfectly safe, powerful hypnotic drug.

An employee of Chemie Grünenthal brought home samples of the new drug for his pregnant wife, ten months before thalidomide was approved for market in Germany.  On Christmas Day in 1956, their child was born without ears.

Chemie Grünenthal began selling the drug over the counter in Germany in October 1957, under the brand name Contergan.  By 1960, the drug was being sold in 46 countries under at least 37 names, without any additional independent testing.  There had never been any teratogenicity tests (tests on pregnant females); yet, thalidomide became the drug of choice worldwide for morning sickness.

The United States was the exception.

In September, 1960, Richardson-Merrell applied for Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval to sell thalidomide in the United States under the brand name Kevadon.  The approval was not expected to be controversial, and the case was given to the agency's newest reviewer, Frances Oldham Kelsey, who had joined the FDA just one month prior.

At the time, the prevailing US law was the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which required proof of safety be sent to the FDA before a medication could be approved for sale in the United States.  The law did not require demonstration of efficacy.  It also allowed "investigational" or "experimental" use of a drug while approval for its sale was being sought, allowing a medication to be widely distributed prior to approval.  The law gave the FDA 60 days to review a drug application.  If the FDA reviewer told a drug company that its application for a medication was incomplete, it was considered withdrawn and the company would have to submit more data when it resubmitted the application.  With each resubmission, the 60 days started anew.

Francis Kelsey had studied the effects of another drug on pregnancy, and was unconvinced that thalidomide was safe for pregnant women, their fetuses, or children.  In addition to the lack of teratogenicity data, Kelsey wanted to know about the drug's mechanism of action – its effects on human metabolism, its chemistry and pharmacology and its stability.   None of this data had been provided by Richardson-Merrell.  Kelsey rejected the application and requested additional data.

Richardson-Merrell resubmitted the application with no further data.  Richardson-Merrell employees began a campaign of harassing Francis Kelsey, rather than providing the data she requested, even complaining to her superiors that she was being unreasonable in her requests for additional data.  Kelsey continued to reject their proposals.  In total, she rejected the application six times.

Then the birth defects began.  As women worldwide who had been taking thalidomide for morning sickness began giving birth, it became clear that thalidomide was a horrible, horrible teratogen.  Children were born with abnormally short limbs, toes sprouting from the hips, flipper-like arms, eye and ear defects, or malformed internal organs.  Chemie Grünenthal encouraged doctors to withhold reporting of the abnormalities, as they continued to vehemently insist that they could not have been caused by the drug.

On November 18, 1961, the German paper Welt am Sonntag published a letter by German pediatrician Widukind Lenz.  Lenz described more than 150 infants with thalidomide-induced malformations.  The data showed that 50 percent of the mothers with deformed children had taken thalidomide during the first trimester of pregnancy.  Grünenthal finally withdrew thalidomide from the market.

Worldwide, an estimated 8,000 to 12,000 infants were born with deformities caused by thalidomide, and of those only about 5,000 survived beyond childhood.  Due entirely to the intelligence and will of Francis Kelsey, the medication never received approval for sale in the United States.  Nonetheless, 2.5 million tablets had been given to more than 1,200 American doctors during Richardson-Merrell's "investigation" and nearly 20,000 patients received thalidomide, including several hundred pregnant women.  Seventeen American children were born with thalidomide-related deformities.

The actions of Francis Kelsey led to a major change in U.S. law for drug approval.  Prior to the thalidomide scandal, US drug companies only had to show their new products were safe.  Afterward, they would have to show that new drugs were safe and effective.  To this day, informed consent is now required of patients participating in clinical trials, and adverse drug reactions were required to be reported to the FDA.

But thalidomide has been revived.
In 1964, Israeli physician Jacob Sheskin was trying to help a critically ill French patient with erythema nodosum leprosum (ENL), a painful complication of leprosy.  Sheskin searched his small hospital for anything to help his patient sleep.  He administered two tablets of thalidomide, and the patient slept for hours, and was able to get out of bed without aid upon awakening.  Dr. Sheskin's drug of last resort revolutionized the care of leprosy, and led to the closing of most leprosy hospitals.  

Thalidomide has potent anti-inflammatory effects that may help ENL patients. In July 1998, the FDA approved the application of Celgene to distribute thalidomide under the brand name Thalomid for treatment of ENL.  

The very mechanism of action that led to the wave of thalidomide-induced birth defects is also responsible for its efficacy in treating cancer.  Thalidomide inhibits the growth of new blood vessels (angiogenesis).  Angiogenesis is a critical process for cancer growth, and also, for the development of a fetus.  Pharmion Corporation, who licensed the rights to market Thalidomide in Europe, Australia and various other territories from Celgene, received approval for its use against multiple myeloma in Australia and New Zealand in 2003.  Thalomid, in conjunction with dexamethasone, is now standard-of-care therapy for multiple myeloma.

Now that its anti-angiogenic and anti-inflammatory effects are understood, thalidomide is under investigation for prostate cancer, glioblastoma, lymphoma, arachnoiditis, Behçet's disease, and Crohn's disease as well as several AIDS-related conditions.  It is approved to treat leprosy and multiple myeloma.

It carries a black box warning and is not for use in pregnant women or in children.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Subverting authority: don't let those pesky police ruin a good book

One of the first challenges a thrill writer faces is protagonist credibility in reacting to the initial conflict.  John Q. Doe just found a body, or a head, or an eerie note scrawled in the handwriting of a serial killer.  Why doesn't he just turn it over to the police and walk away?  The answer: because that would make for a very short, very boring book.  But that's not a good enough reason.

We need to find a way to deal with authority in nearly every mystery or thriller we write.  If the protagonist is not actually the policeman, FBI agent, or other authority figure on the case, then he has two choices when the conflict ensues: involve the authorities, or have a damn good reason not to.  Because if he simply ignores the fact that law enforcement exists for the purpose of solving crimes, the reader won't buy it.

Here are a few techniques for neutralizing authority - or better yet, using them to up the stakes.

1) Make the protagonist a suspect.  A technique that instantly adds a new subplot, this is also a great way to incorporate Option Number Two. 

2) Corrupt the police department.  No smart protagonist turns to an authority figure who is stupid or incompetent, and especially not to one who has his own agenda.

3) Create a conflict that only the protagonist has the expertise to solve.  The Loch, by Steve Alten, is a great example of this.  Who better to scientifically determine the existence of the Loch Ness Monster than a marine biologist.  Which leads us to...

4) Create a villain who is not human, or a conflict that is not a crime.  Cujo.  The Birds.  Anything with a vampire in it.  In today's world of obsession with the supernatural, the sky is the limit.  

5) Put the action in the middle of nowhere.  Start with a shipwreck, or an avalanche, or anything that isolates the characters.  This can also create a ticking time bomb: the ship is sinking.  They are running out of food.   

What are some of your techniques for neutralizing the authority figure?