Category Archives: Tess Gerritsen

What am I doing in this mystery?

by Tess Gerritsen

It's a question that every amateur sleuth must ask herself.  Perhaps she's the one who discovered the body.  Perhaps it's a friend or a colleague who's been murdered. But once the body's been found and the police show up, why would this mere civilian hang around and insinuate herself into the official murder investigation?  Yet this is precisely what happens in just about every mystery featuring an amateur sleuth.  The sleuth's motivation to get involved, to dig for clues, and perhaps even risk her own life to solve the mystery is the thorniest issue a novelist must deal with.  

And it can't come down to mere curiosity.

I consider myself a curious person.  If I hear about a baffling crime, I'll comb newspapers, talk about it with my neighbors, and tune in to all the local gossip I'm privy to.  But you won't find me conducting my own interviews or sneaking onto crime scenes or following a possible suspect in my car.  You certainly won't find me showing up late at night for some rendezvous with a killer.  That's what I expect the police to do, because they get paid for it, and they're the ones with the bulletproof vests.  

"But," you say, "what if the police are incompetent or crooked?  Then you must step in to ensure that justice is done!"

I'm all for justice, but I'm also a coward. I'd rather skip the shootout, thank you.  So would most people, which is where the problem lies in the amateur sleuth mystery.  We all believe in justice, but it's hard to identify with a  protagonist who risks her life to solve a crime when it's not part of her job description — certainly not if it's merely for the sake of curiosity.  We'd think her foolish, and her motives unbelievable.  And if your heroine isn't believable, you've lost your audience.

So what constitutes a believable motive for the amateur sleuth?  

I think the motives that are most compelling are those that are deeply personal, with stakes that are sky-high.  It's even better if the protagonist has her back against the wall and has no choice but to forge ahead or die.  Back before I started writing about cops, I found that my biggest challenge was coming up with a good reason to involve my amateur sleuths in the mystery.  My heroines were, for the most part, ordinary women thrown into extraordinary circumstances.  Their jobs included microbiologist (CALL AFTER MIDNIGHT), copy editor (PRESUMED GUILTY), nurse (KEEPER OF THE BRIDE), female burglar (THIEF OF HEARTS), and astronaut (GRAVITY). Plus, of course, a few doctors.  None of them were paid investigators.  Rather, they were women who were forced to dig for answers — or they would suffer.  Maybe even die.

What are some of the personal stakes that would force your protagonist become a sleuth?

A THREAT TO HER LIFE. I used this motive in GRAVITY, where the crew aboard the International Space Station has been infected with a bizarre new microbe and they've been left quarantined in orbit while they succumb one by one.  My astronaut-heroine, Emma Watson, must investigate the source of this microbe in order to save her own life.  And her husband must simultaneously investigate on earth, in order to save the woman he loves.  If they fail, Emma dies.  No one would question their motives for plunging into this mystery.  The stakes are life and death.

A THREAT TO SOMEONE SHE LOVES. This is another motive that's absolutely believable, and one that I've used again and again over the years.  In BLOODSTREAM, for instance, my character Claire is a family practitioner who's moved to a small town in Maine, right as an epidemic of teen violence breaks out. Her adolescent patients are acting weird and even killing their own families.  Yes, that alone is a reason for a doctor to investigate, but I wanted the stakes to be even more personal for her.  So I gave her a teenage son who is also beginning to behave strangely.  He too is caught up in the epidemic, and unless she finds out the cause, she will lose him — and maybe her own life as well.

A THREAT TO HER CAREER.  Defending your reputation or your livelihood is another powerful motive.  I used this in HARVEST, where surgical resident Abby DiMatteo is forced to investigate irregularities in organ donations — or see her dream of being a doctor forever destroyed. 

VENGEANCE.  While I've never used this as a motive, I think it's certainly believable.  If someone I love were ever harmed, I would pull out all the stops to make sure the perp was caught.  This is one instance where wanting to see justice served becomes intensely personal — and something I'd be willing to risk my life for.

I'm sure there are others — I'd love to hear from other authors what they've used to justify investigations by their amateur sleuths.

Any of these motivations would work for one book.  And they'd give your character a strong, dramatic arc for the story.  But if you take your amateur sleuth into a second book, or a third, you've got a few  credibility problems.  A reader can accept that your sleuth might wander into a murder investigation one time — but twice?  Or ten times?  Pretty soon you've got "Jessica Fletcher syndrome," where everyone around your sleuth seems to end up murdered.  Authors do this all the time, of course; witness the many amateur sleuth series, some of them quite popular.  They may have a healthy audience, but only because everyone agrees to suspend their disbelief and just go with the fantasy that any one person could be so unlucky as to keep stumbling into crime scenes.

The easiest way around it, if you want to write a continuing series, is to create a sleuth for whom criminal investigation is a job.  When your hero is a cop, a medical examiner, or a private investigator, your job as an author suddenly becomes easier.  Ever since I created the character of homicide detective Jane Rizzoli, I haven't had to twist myself into plot contortions, trying to come up with a  reason why my heroine would investigate.  Now it happens to be her job –and one she will have to do book after book after book.

Good bye, Jessica Fletcher. 

When fiction veers too close to reality

by Tess Gerritsen

Tom Clancy thought of it first.

In Clancy's 1994 novel Debt of Honor, a 747 jet is intentionally crashed into the Capitol building, killing the President, the Supreme Court, and most of Congress.  Seven years after the book's publication, on September 11, a similar scenario came to pass in real life, albeit with different targets and a different set of perpetrators.  Still, the parallels were eerily close enough to make many people wonder if the attackers might have been inspired by Clancy's novel.  

It also made Pentagon officials realize that the government's failure of imagination had left the country vulnerable to attack.  Which is why they turned to storytellers for help.

"Over the last two weeks, a group drawn from Hollywood's talent pool has begun imagining what possible terrorist attacks could befall the nation next, not for the sake of entertainment, but for the sake of national security.

The group, composed of what is said to be fewer than 100 entertainment industry representatives volunteering for the job, was convened at the Army's request to help the military "think out of the box" about terrorism and how to respond.

The idea of tapping fiction writers to dream up the possible parameters of terrorism, a move that once might have seemed far-fetched, no longer sounds outlandish to many. Before Sept. 11, who would have imagined that hijackers would pilot commercial airliners in coordinated attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?"

Chicago Tribune, Oct. 15, 2001

Tom Clancy certainly imagined it. 

And that's a thriller writer's job, isn't it?  To describe hair-raising events that are far-fetched but still seem as if they're possible. When we sit at our desks, we allow our imaginations free reign to wander the universe.  But when it comes time to actually write the story, most of us feel compelled to maintain at least some semblance of plausibility.  We want our readers to believe that our plots, no matter how outlandish, might actually happen.

Sometimes, our stories actually come closer to reality than we ever expect. 

I've been thinking of Tom Clancy's prescient novel because of a phone call I recently received from a criminal investigator.  This investigator was very interested in me, and seemed to know a great deal about my personal life — something which I found a little unnerving.  The reason for the phone call was even more unnerving.  The caller was part of a police team investigating a series of murders, and they wanted to know why I was so familiar with the inside details of these attacks.  "We've read your novel," the caller said.  "You seem to know an awful lot about this killer.  How he thinks.  The victims he chooses.  You even know the details of his technique."  The crimes had started before my book was published, so they knew the killer wasn't being inspired by me.  But the details in my novel were so precise and specific that the investigator felt I must have been in contact with the killer at some time.  The killer might even be someone I know well.  Like my own husband.

Oh yes.  They'd been looking into my husband, too.

Naturally, I freaked out a little, realizing that — however briefly — I'd been considered a possible suspect in a string of homicides. Then I really freaked out, wondering how I'd managed to describe murders that had actually happened. And describe them so accurately that the investigators themselves got chills reading my book. (Or so the caller told me.)  Did I know the killer I described in my story?

The truth is: Yes, I do.  I know him because I made him up. He's not someone I've ever met in the flesh; he's not someone I've spoken to (at least, I hope not.)  But I know him more completely than I could ever possibly know a real human being, because I've been inside his head.  I know how he thinks, what he desires, what he fantasizes about.

I explained to the investigator that when I created this killer, I actually crawled into his mind and lived there for a while. I looked at the world through his eyes, and saw what he saw.  I'd walk through a mall and imagine people as prey. I looked at children and thought how easy that one would have been to snatch. I noticed which women already looked like victims, which ones weren't paying attention to their surroundings, and which ones looked like they'd never fight back. I understood this killer so well that I also knew how he'd hunt. And I knew exactly how he'd kill. It was sheer coincidence that I'd created a monster who was so similar to the real thing.

It probably makes me sound scary.  But I'm not, really.

I'm just a novelist. 

Sometimes it's storytellers who get the closest to truth.  Sometimes we see it before anyone else does.  

Years ago, I sold the feature film rights to my space thriller Gravity, about a killer microbe that gets aboard the International Space Station.  I did a ton of research for the book, and figured out a way to plausibly have that microbe slipped aboard ISS via a security weakness in the Payloads directorate.  New Line Cinema hired an astronaut from NASA to pick apart the story and tell them which parts were implausible.  The astronaut said it'd be impossible for a hazardous microbe to be intentionally sent up to ISS without NASA knowing about it.

Then she consulted NASA's Payloads directorate.  And she was surprised when Payloads told her that my scenario was indeed possible. It was a security weakness that they hadn't considered … until it was proposed in my book.

With my most recent novel, I came up with yet another bizarre premise that's almost as farfetched as microbes in space.  In The Keepsake, a murderer has killed a woman and turned her into a mummy that looks just like an ancient Egyptian relic. I knew it could theoretically be done, but I worried that I might have gotten a little too creative with that premise.  I worried that I'd get slammed by the critics for crossing over into implausibility.

Then I had a conversation with Egyptologist Bob Brier, who told me of a real case he'd encountered in his own research, of a modern murder victim who'd been mummified to look like an ancient Egyptian relic. Not only was my mummy premise plausible, it had actually been done.

The fictional world of crime is a pretty scary place.  But I'm starting to think that it's nowhere near as frightening as reality.


When is a series over?

by Tess Gerritsen

When the movie "Fellowship of the Ring" was first released, I was among the first waiting in line at the theater to see it. I was completely enchanted by the film, but I also dreaded for it to end, because I knew it was only the first installment of the epic Lord of the Rings, and there'd be a long wait until the next one came out. As reluctant heroes Frodo and Sam slowly made their way toward the horrors of Mordor, the film ended. And a man sitting behind me blurted out, "That's the ending?  What a stupid movie!  What the f!*k happens next?" 

He had no idea that "Fellowship of the Ring" was the first part of a trilogy.

I encounter similar bewilderment from readers when they first pick up an installment of my Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles series. Among the reader reviews are these complaints:  The author left too many threads hanging! The love story wasn't resolved!  What the hell happens next?  Does Maura end up with  the priest or what?  Where's the damn ending?!!  

What they don't understand is that a continuing series lives and breathes because of those hanging plot threads. 

I think that a good mystery series is actually one long, continuing saga with characters who grow and change over time. Yes, a particular crime may be solved in the span of one book, but that investigation takes up only a few weeks in a character's life. Do all his problems get solved in that same span of time?  Does he catch the bad guy, find true love, and pay off his debts in 400 pages?  

If your hero manages to accomplish all that in a single book, then you're not writing a series; you're writing a stand-alone novel. And you might as well kiss that character good-bye because there's nowhere left to take him.

I'm often asked, "how long will you be writing the Jane and Maura series?"  And this is my answer: "Until both my characters find complete happiness.  Because once they're happy, the series is over."

My biggest challenge while writing this series isn't about dreaming up new and more grotesque ways to murder people.  It's not about being the first to use some cool setting or forensic detail.  It's about finding believable ways to keep tormenting my main characters. The engine of any good plot is conflict, and I want Jane or Maura to always be in conflict with someone.  

In The Surgeon, which was the first book in the series, Jane was only a secondary character. She was, in fact, supposed to die in that book.  But she refused to surrender to me, her creator, and she survived the story — physically scarred, and psychically wounded, but she did survive because she was a ferocious creature. That was what I liked most about Jane Rizzoli, the fact she was so often in conflict with her colleagues and her family.  

Which made her the perfect star of a series.

As the series progressed, Jane found love, got married, and had a baby.  Naturally, none of it came easy.  (Who else but Jane Rizzoli would give birth while being held hostage at gunpoint?)  But by the time I started writing Mephisto Club, I had a bit of a problem.  Jane's life was happy and settled — which meant Jane's story was winding down.

That's when Maura's life took a sudden turn toward misery. I had introduced Maura Isles in The Apprentice, not realizing that she would later become an integral part to the series. By the third installment, she was front and center in the plot.  Which meant it was her turn to be tormented by her creator.

In the span of seven books, these two women have known heartbreak and tragedy and terror.  They've fallen in and out of love and made decisions they've come to bitterly regret. They are like real women with complex lives and complicated families.  Even if at one particular moment everything seems to be going fine, you just know that somehow, something is about to go wrong. It could be Jane's father walking out on her mother, or Jane's partner Barry Frost having a marital meltdown, but it's always something.

Just like real life.

There are dangers, though, in drawing this out too long.  Throw too many crises into the mix, and the series eventually jumps the shark. How many times can you kill off a lover?  How many times can a character be arrested and accused of murder?  How many nervous breakdowns/head injuries/stabbings/bullet wounds can a hero endure before he turns into a mere cartoon character?  I've watched several good series spiral into silliness because the heroine is no longer believable — or has become so tortured and morose that I can't stand her any longer, and I want the author to put the poor sleuth out of her misery.

When to close off a series is probably the most difficult decision an author will ever face.  Your editor, your fans, and your accountant will all try to talk you out of it.  If you've been earning a good income from your series, then abruptly ending it to start something new could prove to be a career killer. 

But books are more than just about money; they're also about creative integrity.  Dennis Lehane, when asked why he stopped writing his popular Patrick and Angie series, said: "Because the characters stopped talking to me."  He just couldn't force it, so he abandoned them.  For nearly a decade, the series has been dead to him.  He moved on to other projects, for which he's received wild acclaim.

Then something miraculous happened, something he didn't expect.  Dennis says that recently Patrick suddenly started talking to him again.  Now Dennis is writing another Patrick and Angie book.

A series that had ended has been reborn.  

you can’t be just a writer anymore

by Tess Gerritsen

There was a time when all a novelist was expected to do was write books.  One book a year, that was what publishers usually wanted from us.  And that much, I could deliver.

I remember those good old days.  It was 1987 when Harlequin Intrigue bought my first romance novel, Call After Midnight. I had typed it on an electric typewriter.  I photocopied it, page by page, at my local office supply store, and sent it off to my literary agent. Months later, when Harlequin accepted it, my literary agent informed me of this momentous event by sending me a letter of congratulations.  By regular mail. I was living in Hawaii at the time, and I assume he thought that a phone call would be too expensive, but still — a letter!  That's how slowly things moved back in the dark ages. When it came time for the edits, my editor would mail me a revision letter, and I would mail back the revised manuscript. The copy-edited manuscript would follow, and then the galleys would show up on those continuous sheets of printer paper with the side perforations, all of it delivered by the U.S. Post Office. 

The whole publishing process moved at a stately,if glacial pace, and I learned to be patient. While waiting for my book to finally show up in stores, I'd turned my attention to writing the next story. I was raising two young sons and working part-time as a doctor, and just getting that next book written was about all I could handle. And it was the only thing my publisher expected of me.  

Fast forward to 2009. The age of the internet, faxes, email, and Youtube.

Last week, I read an interview with an editor, who was asked: "How much self-promotion should authors be expected to do?"  Her answer: "As much as they possibly can. It's essential to getting your name out there and selling more books."  

She's right.  These days, being a writer is no longer just about the books.  We can no longer slide by like those 1980's slacker writers and turn in one well-written manuscript every year.  Now we have to be novelists, salesmen, speakers, and media personalities.  

We have to have a website.  A fabulous, well-designed website. And since we're now so easily accessible, people send us email — both nice and nasty –and of course we must respond to all of it. 

We blog.  Some writers love doing it, but others do it only because they've been told they must if they want to "get their names out there and sell more books."  Whether you enjoy it or not, blogging sucks up your time — and sometimes your psychic energy as well when your blog sets off a controversy or generates hate mail.  

We maintain Facebook and Myspace pages, and this requires yet more attention and more time away from our writing.  We do it because we've been told — does this sound familiar?– that it will get our name out there and sell more books.  

We waste hours on and, checking our sales index to see how our books are moving, what readers are saying, and whether the latest publicity blitz has resulted in a bump in sales.  And now we feel compelled to blog on those sites as well, because — yes — it will get our name out there and sell more books.

We Google, Technorati, and Blogpulse our names way too often.  To collect reviews for our files and to see if, indeed, we've managed to get our name out there and therefore sell more books.

We're invited to be author guests in online chat groups, and even though we will probably devote an entire hour chatting online to only four people whose faces we can't even see, of course we always accept those invitations because we want to get our name out there and sell more books.

We feel compelled to design and distribute all sorts of promotional materials from newsletters and bookmarks to postcards and cutesy giveaways like tee shirts and refrigerator magnets. We spend hours — and hundreds of dollars — mailing these materials to people who will probably look at them and promptly toss them out.  But we never want to ignore the opportunity to get our name out there and sell more books.

We hear that book videos are now a must-have promotional tool, so of course we have to do one too.  Because everyone else is doing them, aren't they?  We hire a filmmaker and write a script.  Even more important, we write a check.  Sometimes a big check.  But it's all worth it, right?  Because it will get our name out there and sell more books.

We get in our cars and do drop-in signings.  Some of us do lots of drop-in signings.  We spend days or even weeks on the road and use up tanks and tanks of gasoline driving to stores that may have only five copies of our latest book.  We have the address of every Borders and Barnes and Noble within an 8-state radius saved on our GPS.  We shake booksellers' hands, sign books, and slap on hundreds of autograph stickers because it will get our name out there and sell more books.

We turn ourselves into glamour pusses because publishing isn't just about writing now — it's about being mediagenic. We get our hair styled and streaked, we get our faces lifted, we get our bodies toned.  We buy red high heels.  We slather on the makeup for author photos and TV spots.  We hire publicists. We want to be absolutely ready to walk on camera when Oprah calls.  We are determined to get our name out there and blah, blah, blah.   

Meantime, while we're making ourselves insane with all the driving, blogging, primping and Googling, we still have to write those stories. We still have to turn in those manuscripts. 

But now our lives are about to get even more insane.  Because publishers have now come up with the one really surefire way to get our names out there and sell more books.  It's the secret to success, the best strategy for bestsellerdom. And it's this:

We have to write more books.  The old one=book-a-year schedule just isn't enough. Authors are now urged to produce two, three, even four books a year. Because there's nothing that will get your name out there faster, or get the readers to buy more of your books, than to have more of those books on the stands.

God, I miss the good old days.



You stole my idea

by Tess Gerritsen

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
      -Ecclesiastes 1:9  

Years ago, when my husband and I were still newlyweds, we took our first trip to Cairo and hired an Egyptian guide named Abu to show us the sights.  As we stood gazing at the pyramids, Abu described the various architectural techniques used by the ancient Egyptians that are still in use even today.  And he quoted a phrase from Ecclesiastes: "There is nothing new under the sun."

In our archaeological travels since then, whenever we encounter some startlingly familiar feature in an old ruin (the street curbs and ancient fast-food counters in Pompeii, for instance), my husband and I repeat that same phrase that Abu quoted so many years ago.  There is nothing new under the sun.

Which, it turns out, applies to storytelling as well.  Novelists like to believe that their plots have never been used before, that they've dreamed up something completely fresh and original. They can't imagine that anyone else in the entire world could possibly have come up with the same amazing idea.  So when they learn that another author has simultaneously written a book with a similar plot, their first thought may be:  "He stole my idea!"  They'll try to figure out how the thief managed to get his hands on their story.  Maybe some sneaky editor called up a more experienced novelist and said, "I just read this manuscript with a great premise, but the author's a total unknown.  Why don't you write the book for us instead?"  Or maybe someone in the post office snatched the manuscript.  Or maybe the computer repairman swiped it off the hard drive. 

The fear of having one's plot stolen is such an obsession for unpublished authors that some will resort to the literary equivalent of hanging garlic against vampires.  At the top of their manuscript, they'll type in the all-powerful words that are sure to make any plagiarist quake: Copyright by John Doe!!!  And then they'll draw the magic symbol "C" with a circle around it, so that when the manuscript arrives on some big-shot NY editor's desk, she'll know that the writer is not someone to be trifled with.  She'll know that she can't steal his idea. That's what the writer thinks anyway.

But guess what those words "Copyright by John Doe" really tell the editor?  They tell her she's dealing with a paranoid amateur.  

In all my years as a novelist, I've never typed "Copyright by Tess Gerritsen" on my manuscripts.  Nor have I heard of a single instance of a novel being stolen by some sleazy New York editor. The reason these fears exist is probably due to the mistaken belief among newbies that a premise is the same thing as a plot, and therefore easily lifted. They believe that the really hard work of being a novelist is in coming up with the idea — not the writing itself.  (These are also the same people who approach published novelists at cocktail parties and tell them, "I've got a great idea for a book!  Why don't you write it and we'll split the profits?")  Anyone who's actually written a few books will tell you that it's what you do with the premise — how you spin it into a plot, and flesh out its characters — that turns an idea into a story. That's where the craft of writing, and the real hard work, comes in.  

Let me repeat:  a premise is not a plot.  

Just because two simultaneously released books have an identical premise, it doesn't mean someone stole someone else's idea.  Because, weirdly enough, it happens all the time. One romance editor told me she received a sudden deluge of manuscripts featuring race-car driver heroes.  She never did figure out why.  I have a friend who's a script reader in Hollywood, and she recalls when two different screenplays arrived within the same week, written by two writers from different parts of the country.  These scripts had the same wacky premise: a man dies, comes back reincarnated as a dog, and must win the affections of his wife.  How do two writers simultaneously dream up a premise this bizarre?  I don't know.  Maybe it's just something floating around in the ether.  Maybe they both read the same article about reincarnation, looked at their dogs, and thought: "Aha!"  

When ideas simultaneously occur to several authors, the reason is sometimes obvious.  Years ago, after Dolly the sheep was cloned, any editor could have predicted there'd be a rash of stories about cloning to follow.  Sometimes, a premise is so powerful, so elemental, it gets used again and again through the years.  "Romeo and Juliet" became "West Side Story".  "The Odyssey" became Cold Mountain and Brother, Where Art Thou?   When "West Side Story" was produced, writer Arthur Laurents openly credited Shakespeare as his source for the premise of star-crossed lovers.  He took Shakespeare's tale — and turned it into a modern masterpiece all his own.

While I don't worry about my own ideas getting stolen, I do worry a lot about getting accused of being a thief.  A few years ago, I got an email from an unpublished writer who'd attended one of my workshops.  She accused me of stealing her idea.  "I'm considering legal action," she said.  "I want you to apologize and admit you are a plagiarist."  The idea I supposedly stole from her was about criminals kidnapping pregnant women, cutting them open, and stealing their babies.  (Which was the premise for my book Body Double.)  Lucky for me, I'd never laid eyes on her manuscript because it was in the other instructor's pile.  I pointed out to her that there are a number of well-publicized cases in the news of pregnant women getting murdered for their fetuses, so the premise is hardly original.  I also pointed out, as I have here, that a premise is not a plot.  Had I reproduced her story scene by scene, that would be plagiarism.  But a premise that's all over the news, a premise that can be wrapped up in one sentence, is not something you can call all your own.  If she had sued, I would certainly have won.  Nevertheless, I'd have had to pay legal fees and the emotional turmoil would have made my life hell.

Every published author needs to worry about such accusations, which is why so many of us avoid reading unpublished, unsold manuscripts.  I know of one bestselling author who read an acquaintance's manuscript and later got sued for "stealing the idea."  Her literary agent has since forbidden her to read any more unpublished manuscripts. 

If you're an unpublished author, I want to reassure you that no one in New York is out to plagiarize your story.  You don't need to type "Copyright by John Doe" on your manuscript; your work is your work, and just by the act of creating it, it belongs to you.  If by chance your novel is a great read, no editor will ask someone else to take the credit.  Why make another (probably higher-paid) writer re-do the story when it's already written?  The editor would rather draw up a contract and sign you as her writer.  She'll be thrilled she's discovered a hot new talent with a hot new book.  

The last thing she wants to do is ruin that relationship and steal from you.