J.L. Greger is a scientist turned novelist. She includes science and international travel in her award-winning mysteries and thrillers: The Flu Is Coming, Murder: A Way to Lose Weight, Games for Couples; Dirty Holy Water, Fair Compromises, and seven others. For more info, see: https://www.jlgreger.com.
Experts on writing sometimes say, “There are two types of writers—plotters, and pantsers. I think that’s an oversimplification because I suspect ninety percent of writers are both. I also think that mystery and thriller writers do more plotting than romance writers because the details of the plot are generally more intricate. (It will be interesting to see if readers of this blog will disagree with my assumptions.)
Pantsers (people who write by the seat of their pants) often say, “I just listen to my characters when I write.” As a writer of mysteries and thrillers, I think plotting is essential. But I admit, my characters or the location often demand a change in the plot.
Let me give you an example. I knew from the first inception of my newest novel Bungle in the Jungle, that it would be a thriller. I didn’t want to write a mystery like Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile about a small group in an isolated location on a river cruise. I wanted to write about the real world. So, I set the novel mainly in Manaus—a crime-ridden metropolis on the Amazon River—which serves as a gateway for tourists and entrepreneurs to the Amazon biome.
The more I thought about Manaus, the more I realized this thriller had to have lots of action. I couldn’t send my protagonist—scientist Sara Almquist—to a medical conference on tropical diseases (like malaria and Dengue fever) and have her uncover clues over drinks in a bar or on tours of medical labs. She needed to be thrown into the milieux of this gritty city. That meant it was logical for Sara to be mugged. Generally, I avoid writing scenes in which the middle-aged Sara must physically defend herself without the help of professional law enforcement officers, but Sara “thought” it was necessary.
The more I thought about Manaus, I realized it was a bit like the Western U.S. before 1860. The city is isolated. It takes time for help to arrive from the rest of Brazil. Although mid-size ocean liners sail to the port of Manaus on the Amazon, it takes more than three days for a ship to sail from Manaus to major Brazilian cities on the Atlantic coast. (Please note: Manaus is a thousand miles inland on the Amazon River.) The road and railroad systems to Manaus are pathetic. It takes two days to drive from Manaus to Brasília and even longer to reach São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. One of the characters in my novel describes Manaus as “like an island in the South Pacific surrounded by jungle instead of ocean.”
Hence, my characters “told” me they should be free to solve their problems in their own ways. (Please note: Gun control laws in Brazil are almost non-existent. Corruption of all types is prevalent in central Brazil.) The net result was Sara and her boyfriend Sanders participated in more “irregular” actions than in previous novels.
One of the problems with writing a thriller with lots of action is it’s harder to develop the characters. Thus, I started the novel with an argument between Sara and Sanders. I continued this underlying tension between the two main characters throughout the book. The characters “thought “this allowed them to establish a new norm in their relationship by the conclusion of the novel.
Here’s the start of Bungle in the Jungle:
“Your plan won’t work.”
“Yes, it will.”
“No, it won’t.”
Sanders’s upper lip quivered. “It will, if you are your usual talkative, do-gooder self.”
Sara Almquist ignored Eric Sanders’s uppity tone. He’d become more edgy since he’d been assigned to head the U.S. diplomatic mission to Brazil. It wasn’t surprising. He was the temporary replacement for a U.S. ambassador who had become too enmeshed in Brazilian politics. Sanders had been warned not to make the same mistake. The State Department hadn’t even conferred the title of ambassador on him but had given Sanders the title of chargé d’affaires.
Do you agree with the characters that their relationship needs to be fixed?
The bottom line: Plot your story carefully and then take advice from your characters and their location.
I hope you enjoy what my characters “decided” to do after they and I, as the author, accepted the limitations and glories of the breathtaking Amazon River. And the surrounding jungle.
Blurb for Bungle in the Jungle:
The U.S. consulate in Manaus, Brazil, is a Bungle in the Jungle. Can Sara Almquist and the new Acting Ambassador to Brazil figure out how the consulate staff became enmeshed in the illegal international trade of drugs and cultural artifacts?
Bungle in the Jungle is in press and should be available by the time you read this blog. Check my Amazon webpage: https://www.amazon.com/stores/J.L.-Greger/author/B008IFZSC4?
George, thanks for hosting me.
The ebook form of BUNGLE INTHE JUNGLE is available at Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Bungle-Jungle-Science-Traveler-Book-ebook/dp/B0BX7DDLBQ.
We’re still struggling with getting the cover in the right format. Hopefully, th printed books will be available bye next week.
Congratulations, Janet on your new humdinger of a thriller book. Your description of how you worked out the plot is almost like a story in itself. Best of luck with Bungle in the Jungle.
Thanks for the comment.
I should mention that Sanders being appointed the U.S. charge d’ affaires to Brazil is pretty close to the truth. In 2020 there were comments in the U.S. Senate that the U.S. ambassador to Brazil had gotten too involved in Brazilian politics. I guess he wasn’t officially removed but he resigned. The U.S. government appointed a charge d’ affaires, not an ambassador, to Brazil. for those who want to check facts: a permanent ambassador has now been appointed to Brazil
Love the writing and location choice.
Thanks for the comment.
Modern Brazil in general and Manaus specifically are really complex places. I think the reader will get a view of Brazil missed by people who only have seen shots of Rio during Carnival.
“As a writer of mysteries and thrillers, I think plotting is essential.”
I’ve found this true for myself as well. I consider myself a pantser, but there are times when I stop and outline as well so that everything makes sense. Great post, and congrats on your new book release!
thanks for your comments. Sometimes, I think the difference in plotters and panthers is overrated because most of us are a blend. I also think even mysteries vary in how much pre-plotting they need.
I’m looking forward to reading this, Janet. It’s always fun to see what Sara is up to. Hopefully, the issues with print cover are over.
Thanks for the comment. Thank you also for designing the mysterious cover.