Carol Willis received an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She also served as a reader for VCFA’s literary journal, Hunger Mountain. Many of her short stories have been published or are forthcoming in several anthologies, multiple online zines, and print journals, including Inlandia: A Literary Journey, Living Crue Magazine, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and many others. Please visit carolwillisauthor.com for a complete list and links to the stories. She is a member of Sisters in Crime (SinC), The Authors Guild, International Thriller Writers, and Poets and Writers.
How long have you been writing? I came to writing after a long career as a medical doctor (pediatrics and general pathology). It has been quite the journey!
What genres do you write? I write fiction for adults and children across all genres—suspense/thrillers, mystery/crime, science fiction, historical, and romance. And I absolutely love writing ghost stories. You will almost always find a ghost or a dead body (or two) in my stories. Although my focus is on fiction, medicine always has a way of creeping in through character, setting, or situation.
What is your first novel? My first MG novel is about a runaway foster girl. The first novel I completed for adults is a contemporary domestic suspense/psychological thriller. Although it is not a medical thriller, the main character is a pathologist in the prime of her career set in South Chicago at the University of Chicago.
What do you like to read? I have always loved to read. And I read everything. Literary, genre, novel, short stories, poems. You name it. My favorite go-to books are psychological thrillers, especially if I’m looking for an engrossing read for a long plane ride or downtime. I had such a fun time writing mine.
Fun fact: I recently completed an MFA in writing (summer 2023), and for my graduate lecture, I took the opportunity to discuss the genre of psychological thrillers in depth. Instead of discussing the plot of my psychological thriller, I thought I would share a few lessons I learned about what makes a thriller psychological and thrilling.
What is a thriller? Thriller is a genre of literature defined by the primary mood of suspenseful excitement. They aim to make readers unsettled, nervous, and eager to read what happens next. All fiction should elicit some stress in the reader through conflict, but in a thriller novel, the stress is the main feature. They often feel cinematic and involve high stakes and dramatic plot points. In short, if it “thrills,” it is a thriller.
Thrillers are dark, engrossing, and suspenseful plot-driven stories. They very seldom include comedic elements. This genre is a hybrid of mystery and horror, sharing a literary lineage with the epic and myth. Monsters, terror, and peril prevail. There are many elements to thrillers that overlap with other novels of mystery and suspense, typically emphasizing the dangerous world we live in, the vulnerability of the average person, and the inherent threat of the unknown.
Thrillers can occur in exotic settings, but most occur in ordinary suburbs and cities. The main character, the hero, is usually tough and resourceful but essentially an ordinary person who is pitted against a villain determined to destroy them or their family.
The attack on the hero is relentless, with escalating terror and dread. The hero must be vulnerable—not just physically but psychologically. In the best thrillers, the villain targets the hero specifically from the beginning.
What makes a thriller psychological? The biggest questions revolve around the minds and behavior of the main characters. Common elements include plot twists, psychology, obsession, and mind games. They incorporate elements of mystery and include themes of crime, morality, mental illness, substance abuse, multiple realities, and unreliable narrators.
A psychological thriller finds the terror in madness and paranoia. Here, the threat is diabolical but more contained, even intimate—usually targeting the protagonist and his family—and the hero is often a relatively “ordinary” man, woman, or child. The pacing is more deliberate in the beginning as the story unfolds and the tension rises. The third act, however, moves briskly.
Psychological thrillers generally stay away from elements of science fiction, focusing on events that could take place in real life. Most of the focus is on the suspense, dread, and fear of a future crime—instead of one that has already happened. Most mysteries reveal a crime and require their main characters to work backward. In a thriller, the bad guy is often established early, and the main characters must work to stop them from doing evil.
In summary, the common elements of a psychological thriller are the following:
Major plot twists: Psychological thrillers can be ruined by spoilers since so much of their excitement hinges on the unexpected twists and turns that the novel takes.
Atmosphere of menace: Often characterized by setting, weather, and time of day. Think ominous storms and in the dark of night. Usually, something external causes anxiety and uncertainty for the main character (and the reader). Sudden violence, such as crime and murder, characterizes thrillers. The tension usually arises when the main character(s) is placed in a dangerous situation or a trap from which escaping seems impossible.
An unreliable narrator: To be unreliable is another way authors create suspense as the reader tries to figure out who they can trust. Lies, paranoia, and flawed memories are all staples in this genre. Many thrillers are told in first-person POV for this reason.
Familiar elements: Psychological thrillers often take place in the home (aka domestic thrillers) and feature ordinary-seeming characters. This allows thriller writers to get inside the reader’s mind, making them wonder, “What if this happened to me?” Starting with the familiar also allows writers to slowly introduce characters’ backstories, mental health issues, and other elements that create suspense over the course of the novel.
Reader Expectations: Emphasis is on the eerie over the sensational. Twists again are key, with chapters routinely ending in one disturbing revelation after another. Character is more important than pacing, but pacing cannot be neglected. This subgenre demands an ability to reveal dread and panic without explosions or car chases.
Thank you for reading, and happy writing! Carol Willis
Steve Hockensmith’s first novel, the mystery/Western hybrid Holmes on the Range, was a finalist for the Edgar, Shamus, Anthony, and Dilys Awards. His heroes — a pair of 1890s cowboy brothers who solve mysteries using the “deducifyin’” methods of their hero, Sherlock Holmes — have gone on to appear in six sequel novels and more than a dozen stories. (Their latest adventure, “Enchantress,” can be found in the current issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine).
Hockensmith has also written a bestselling zombie novel (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls), tarot-themed whodunnits (The White Magic Five and Dime and its sequels), and a series of middle-grade mysteries (the “Nick and Tesla” books, co-authored with frequent Jimmy Kimmel Live! guest “Science Bob” Pflugfelder). His latest book is Black List, White Death: Two Holmes on the Range Novellas.
What brought you to writing? A complete lack of talent for any other form of human endeavor. Except for making chili. I’ve gotten pretty good at that over the years, but there’s no money in it.
I’ve always had the impulse to tell stories. I remember turning in an English assignment in fourth or fifth grade — writing sentences that show I understand a list of 20 vocabulary words — and having the teacher say to me afterward, “You didn’t have to make a story out of them. I just wanted sample sentences.” And I was like, “Yeah, I know. It was more fun to connect them and have something happen.” So that’s a writer for you: giving yourself extra homework for life.
I didn’t get serious about writing until I left college and failed miserably at being a musician. (I had friends in a rock band, and they were having a lot of fun. Unfortunately for me, I have zero musical talent. I could handle playing the cowbell, but that’s about it.) I knew I wanted to do something creative, and writing had a big advantage: if you sucked at it while you learned how to do it, no one would see you. (Well, except for the editors who reject you. But they’re used to that.) So I sucked at writing for a while, then I stopped sucking and started selling. Voila! I was a writer! It’s not quite as cool as being in a rock band, but I’m proud I made it.
Do you write in more than one genre? The real question is, what genre haven’t I written in? The answer is erotica. Although, now that I think about it, my zombie novels have some pretty lovey-dovey parts.
When I first gave writing a serious try, I focused on science fiction. I’d read a lot of it as a kid, so I figured I knew the genre well enough to write it myself. I even took a writing class taught by the great Gene Wolfe, author of the classic “Book of the New Sun” series. Gene was wonderfully supportive and encouraging and never told me my science fiction blows. Though it mostly did. I sold a few stories, but I could tell it wasn’t working. Then I stumbled onto a cheap copy of The Big Sleep in a used bookstore and whammy. I knew what I should be doing.
Mysteries opened the door for me. Since then, I’ve also written Westerns, zombie romances, and books for kids. Maybe I’ll get around to real erotica one of these days. But I think most folks would prefer I didn’t.
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? I am a big, big, BIG believer in outlining. For me, anyway. I can’t write a word unless I know exactly where a scene is going. I lock up without a road map. Like, “Maybe the characters should start talking about the weather…? Maybe they should decide to get a sandwich…? Maybe one of them needs to go to the bathroom…? MY GOD — WHAT SHOULD THEY DO?!?!?!?”
My mysteries tend to be pretty intricate, with lots of clues and red herrings that fit together at the end, and I definitely couldn’t pull that off without thinking everything through first. I know some writers work by producing draft after draft after draft and fine-tuning by rewriting, but that would drive me nuts. I spend weeks brainstorming, researching, and outlining first, then I write. I also write really, really slowly, polishing as I go. Which I know would drive other writers nuts. But it works for me. When I’m done, I’m done. I’ve never had to do a major revision.
So, in a nutshell, my secret to writing is “Torture yourself by making it as slow and laborious as possible. You’ll thank yourself afterward!” For some reason, it’s advice most other writers don’t take…
Do you have any advice for new writers? Yes: Ignore what I said in my previous answer. That’s what works for me. What works for you might be completely different.
I outline meticulously and write slowly. Maybe you’re the type (and there are a lot of them, I think) who just jumps in and writes fast. Whatever! You can figure out your best approach with just two or three or, a dozen, or thirty years of trial and error.
The main thing is to try. By which I mean write. Type a word, then type more, and then type even more, and don’t stop!
Or do stop if you need to. Everybody’s writing journey is different. Maybe yours involves a three-year pit stop. Don’t let that discourage you. If you’ve written before, you can write again. Writers write. I would tell folks, “Just do it,” but I don’t want to hear from any corporate lawyers.
Has an association membership helped you with your writing?
Absolutely! I’ve been a member of Mystery Writers of America (MWA) for more than 20 years. I let my membership lapse once when I was at a low ebb and thought my writing career was toast — I got dropped by my first agent and contracted an acute case of Imposter Syndrome — but I got over it and rejoined before long. This nutty business has a lot of ups and downs, so it’s nice connecting with the other folks on the rollercoaster.
I recently joined Western Writers of America, too. I haven’t been able to get to any of their events yet, but I’m looking forward to it. They seem like nice, welcoming people. They have a magazine, Roundup, that’s really impressive — jam-packed with tidbits about the state of the genre—Ditto for The Third Degree, MWA’s newsletter. Anyone trying to break into either field can learn a lot from reading those.
Looking to the future, what’s in store for you? Writing! Rough Edges Press is going to publish a pair of spin-offs from the “Holmes on the Range” series in 2024, and the little hitch to that is that I’ve only finished one of them. So I’ve got some work to do. After that, I’ll write another “Holmes on the Range” story for Ellery Queen and then another “Holmes on the Range” novel. Given my writing pace, that means I’m booked up through…oh, probably June of 2025.
After that, who knows? I’ll be writing, but I don’t know what. Maybe it’ll finally be time to get serious about erotica…
How do our readers contact you?
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A student of many interests, Jim Guigli, has been a SCUBA diver, auto-mechanic, and gunsmith . . .toured Quantico as an FBI Citizens Academy graduate and earned BFA and MA degrees in Art/Photography. Jim is an active member of SMFS, PSWA, & Sacramento CWC.
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? Both. Start pants, finish with structure.
Where do you place your settings—real or fictional locations? Real with fictional subparts.
Tell us about your writing process: I get an idea, a title, or one sentence, and then I write.
For example, my short story, Blood on the Stairs, was an idea and a title.
I like the old Dell Map Back mysteries and follow them on eBay. One title, Blood on the Stars, by Brett Halliday (pen name of Davis Dresser) appeared often, but I always read it as, Blood on the Stairs (touch of dyslexia). I put that new title with an idea that came to me after I attended a Left Coast Crime Conference:
What would happen if the attendees at a writers’ conference were encouraged to visit (bother) real local private investigators during the conference?
I already had my PI, Bart Lasiter, and my setting, Old Town Sacramento, with Bart’s fictional building and office. Then I added a murder and some what-ifs to get:
Bart attends a Crime Writers Conference and pencils in a murder.
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? Both. Start pants, finish with structure.
Where do you place your settings—real or fictional locations? Real with fictional subparts.
Tell us about your writing process: I get an idea, a title, or one sentence, and then I write. For example, my short story, Blood on the Stairs, was an idea and a title.
Blood on the Stairs is available from Amazon in the fine anthology Murderous Ink:
Crimeucopia – We’ll Be Right Back – After This!
How do our readers contact you? firstname.lastname@example.org
James L’Etoile uses his twenty-nine years behind bars as an influence in his award-winning novels, short stories, and screenplays. He is a former associate warden in a maximum-security prison, a hostage negotiator, and director of California’s state parole system. His novels have been shortlisted or awarded the Lefty, Anthony, Silver Falchion, and the Public Safety Writers Award.
Face of Greed is his most recent novel. Look for Served Cold and River of Lies, coming in 2024. You can find out more at www.jamesletoile.com
There’s this old saw in literary circles that authors should write what they know. I don’t necessarily agree with that guidance because I often find it more interesting to write about what I want to know. If I’m interested, then maybe the reader will be as well.
But there was a piece of that advice that stuck with me as I wrote Face of Greed. Write what you know, but write it while you can. There is a plotline in the book dealing with the main character’s mother, who is struggling with the ravages of cognitive decline—dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. Detective Emily Hunter is a hard-charging investigator working to solve a complex murder of a political powerbroker who has to balance that demanding job with acting as a caretaker for her mother.
Emily’s burden is something many of us with aging parents have experienced or might have waiting for us in the years ahead. It’s a scary thing, and for the purpose of the story, in Face of Greed, it keeps Emily off balance. She’s sure-footed in her role as a detective with keen instincts and a solid partner in Javier Medina to follow the clues and bring down the bad guy. But with dementia and Alzheimer’s, Emily struggles.
One day, her mother is living independently, and the next, she’s had to move in with Emily because her memory lapses had gotten to the point when she nearly burnt her house down, forgetting the stove was on. It’s an insidious disease. Emily has a conversation with her, and she seems “with it,” aware of what’s happening around her. Then, the next moment, she loses touch and thinks Emily is still in high school.
Emily has to balance her responsibilities to her mother as her primary caregiver with the demanding job of a homicide detective. She has no family to rely upon, and she’s not the kind of person to ask for help. Emily must step outside her comfort zone and not only ask for help to care for her mother but make critical decisions for her long-term care.
So where does all this come from, you ask?
I was once in Emily’s shoes. My mother had dementia in her later years. It crept in slowly, and, as I found out, those who experience dementia become clever about filling the gaps in their memory. They’ll invent an idea that fits, and they’re convinced it’s what really happened. For example, I found Mom dressed and ready to go to a doctor’s appointment when I went to her place. I picked her up, and halfway there, she forgot where we were going and decided we were going to the grocery store instead. Another sign was simple decision-making would cause anxiety, so she found a workaround common to people with dementia. At a restaurant faced with dozens of menu options, the deception is, “What are you having? Oh, that sounds good. I’ll have that too.” It’s a workaround so they don’t have to make that decision. All the sensory input from the menu can’t get through.
As a caregiver for an aging parent, the roles are suddenly reversed. You’re now the parent to the much older child. And that dynamic can create a great deal of friction. Emily experiences it, and so did I. The person living with dementia sometimes realizes their life, who they were, is slipping away. They feel lost, disconnected, and alone. Some experience Sundowner’s Syndrome, where they try to leave wherever they are to get “home.” Their perception of home may be a fragment of memory from the distant past.
Caregiving can be difficult for the caregiver as well. It’s exhausting and mentally draining listening for the next sound of an escaping parent or that phone call that they’ve run off or hurt themselves.
I wanted to bring this into Face of Greed for a couple of reasons. It makes Emily struggle to balance her life. She feels guilt and sadness over her mom’s situation. And she realizes she can’t do this alone. She must bring other people into her life and let them help. Asking for help isn’t something that comes naturally to Emily—wonder where she got that from?
But I also wanted to talk about dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease because so many of us have gone through this—parents are aging, and this is an unfortunate common experience. I’ve gotten feedback from many readers who tell me that Emily’s struggle in this area resonated with them. They’d felt similar demands and struggled to find the help their parent needed.
It makes Emily a bit more multi-dimensional, and as tough as she seems, she’s got a big heart. It opens her up to people coming into her life at the right time—as she’s the better for it. I guess we all need to be a little more like Emily. And we all need to write what we know while we can because we don’t know what the future will bring.
Visit Amazon to meet Emily: Face of Greed (A Detective Emily Hunter Mystery) – Kindle edition by L’Etoile, James. Mystery, Thriller & Suspense Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and in 1969, I was drafted into the U.S. Army. After basic training and military police school, I spent a year with the 557th M.P. Company at Long Binh, South Vietnam, in 1970. Upon completing my military service, I joined the Pleasant Hill Police Department. I retired in 2001 as a Sergeant after 30 years of service. I was then hired as the lead Emergency Vehicle Operations Course (EVOC) instructor for the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office. I have earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Administration of Justice and a Master’s Degree in Public Administration through California State University.
My writing career began when another Sergeant at the police department, a fellow Vietnam veteran, and I swapped stories of our experiences in Vietnam. The other members of the department would listen and began to encourage me to write down my stories. They said it would make a good book. So, taking heed of their advice, I started my first novel. After two years, I began shopping for a publisher, choosing to go the small press route. I was lucky enough to be accepted for publishing by Writers Exchange, and the Vince Torelli series was born with the publishing of M.P., A Novel of Vietnam.
I continued my writing endeavors with my second book, relying on my 30 years of police experience for authenticity. I used the same main character as in M.P., Vince Torelli, now 25 years older and a homicide inspector with the San Francisco Police Department. I have written five books in the Inspector Torelli series, one stand-alone thriller with a paranormal element and a demonic possession horror story. I am currently hard at work on my ninth book, the first in the Detective Sergeant Louisa (Louie) Princeton, Richmond County Sheriff’s Dept, Georgia series.
All my life, I have been an avid reader. I remember my mother taking my brother and me to the local library every two weeks so we could check out books. Reading has always been one of my favorite pastimes, and I have always admired authors who could spin a good tale. As such, I get much more pleasure from hearing a reader say they enjoyed one of my books than the royalties from the sale. By the way, my favorite author is Edgar Rice Burroughs.
I want to thank George for having me as a guest on his wonderful blog. He is an accomplished, award-winning author in his own right, and I am proud to call him my friend.
People often ask me what my favorite thing about writing is. I answer unequivocally—researching places, events, and the history of the locations where the stories take place. By making Vince Torelli a San Francisco PD homicide inspector, it is easy, and exceeding interesting, to research scene locations, like the 19th-century tunnels under the city utilized by the killer in The List, to landmarks like Mt. Davidson, where the climax of Blood Debt takes place, to extensive research into demonic possession and exorcism for An Echo of Lies. I have to say- that was VERY frightening!
When I’ve changed locations to places out of the San Francisco Bay Area and California— as I did in several of my books—to Tennessee, Atlanta, Augusta, Northern California, South Carolina, and others, it sparked my research gene to find real places—hotels, restaurants, streets, highways, etc. Most key scenes in the five Vince Torelli books are in those places. Even in my Vietnam book, a work of fiction based in part on some of my personal experiences, takes place in real places, and all the military units—American, South Vietnamese, Viet Cong, and North Vietnamese are actual units that were operating in the area at the time. Using real places, streets, and buildings in my books, I think, adds a touch of realism for the readers. I have received several comments that they recognized certain places and liked it very much. It adds a visual reference to the scene and drama being played out as they read.
As a fun thing, I’ve used the address of my childhood home in one of my books and the name and address of my best friend, a big fan of my books, in another, and knowing my friend will be reading the book, I didn’t tell him what I had done. I gave him a copy and awaited his phone call when he got to where he was mentioned. I also have dedicated a couple of my books to special people in my life, living and deceased. That is special to their families and me.
So, can you tell how much I enjoy writing?
In closing, If I could advise any aspiring writers, there would be two things. First—sit your butt down and write, write, write—the basic mantra for writers.
Second, have fun doing it! It will make your writing more enjoyable and the finished product better!
Please take a moment to visit my website—currently being updated— where the first chapters of some of my books are posted, along with a couple of short stories. And thanks for taking the time to read this.
Follow me at my Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100023497601286