Writing a Thriller: The Secret is in the Detail

By Jane Isaac*
Guest Post

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No matter what genre you write, every book carries some element of research and, for crime fiction, the weight is a heavy one.

There’s not only police procedure, plotlines, areas and events to study, but also people.

What’s the secret formula behind the great characters in fiction? Research. Investment into creating and layering our characters gives them the depth to become ‘real’.

As writers we are great people watchers. Aside from interviewing people in our chosen genre, we observe the world around us and pick up little traits: the man in the cafe with the six o’clock shadow, the perfectly manicured mum at the school gates, the child with the tuft of hair that sticks up around his crown – all quirks that help us to build the characters in our fiction.

I’ve always been a great fan of studying, a perennial student in many respects, undertaking courses in a plethora of different subjects over the years including law, pottery, even sign language. Consequently, research is one of my favourite aspects of novel writing – a labour of love, one might say.

It’s interesting what directions book research takes. For An Unfamiliar Murder, fire research led me to a wonderful meeting with the former Chief of Northants Fire Service who explained how the structure of our old terraced properties work in the UK, the role of accelerants, and fire procedures.

I also spoke to endless police officers about their role, their aspirations, the politics of the organisation. Then there are all the books about serial killers and psychopaths – the real case studies that kept me awake at night and haunted my dreams.

For my second book, The Truth Will Out, I met up with a former Detective Superintendent, who managed murder squads all over the UK during his 30 year career, for some in-depth research into some of the cases he has managed. Boy, did he have some tales to tell…

The internet can provide a great resource model but, when considering settings, I prefer the hands on approach. I like to visit a scene, if possible, to see what it really looks like, how it smells, what noises I can hear in the background.

There are times when you can’t beat touching the cold stone, breathing the air around you. I spent hours trudging over fields examining disused mine shafts, old pump houses, railway cabins, derelict cottages, in pursuit of deposition sites for a body for my first novel. Something my Labrador, Bollo, found particularly enjoyable!

Often such information provides background material which never appears in the novel, or only converts to a couple of lines. Sometimes it’s edited out. But the details we learn provide more depth to our work, allowing us to describe scenes and people from an informed viewpoint. This not only enables the words to flow, but makes it feel more real, which is particularly important for a psychological thriller.

Ever read a book when you’ve questioned an event, a character, a place because it isn’t quite right? Failing to do your research will show. And with the internet these days, it’s easier than ever to make sure we check our information. I’d never claim for my work to be completely factually correct, but it’s certainly not for the want of trying.


Released on March 1st, 2016, An Unfamiliart Murder, was my first book, originally published in the US, and it’s almost four years to the day that this title was originally published, so it feels very special to be able to share the ‘all new’ version again. Here’s a blurb taster for you:

“Arriving home from a routine day at work, Anna Cottrell has no idea that her life is about to change forever. But discovering the stabbed body of a stranger in her flat, then becoming prime suspect in a murder inquiry is only the beginning. Her persistent claims of innocence start to crumble when new evidence links her irrevocably with the victim…

Leading her first murder investigation, DCI Helen Lavery unravels a trail of deception, family secrets and betrayal. When people close to the Cottrell family start to disappear, Lavery is forced into a race against time. Can she catch the killer before he executes his ultimate victim?”

*Jane Isaac lives writes detective novels with a psychological edge. She lives with her husband and daughter in rural Northamptonshire, UK where she can often be found trudging over the fields with her Labrador, Bollo. On 1st March 2016 she re-released her first novel, An Unfamiliar Murder, originally published in the US in 2012, which was nominated as best mystery in the ‘eFestival of Words Best of the Independent eBook awards 2013.’ Later in the year her fourth book, Beneath the Ashes, will be published by Legend Press. www.janeisaac.co.uk

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The mysterious journey of writing

By Nora Vasconcelos

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Jane Isaac loves travelling, both around the world and through the virtual universe that lives in books. This passion to get to know what’s out there has turned into another one, writing. And even though, she does it part time, her first mystery novel An Unfamiliar Murder has caugth the attention of lots of people and it was nominated as best mystery in the ‘eFestival of Words Best of the Independent eBook awards 2013.’

Now, the sequel, The Truth Will Out, is set to be released on April 1st, and Jane is ready to work on another mystery book.

While she enjoys some time at her home in Northamptonshire, United Kingdom, she talks to me (thanks to the wonders of technology) about her career as an author:

– What can you tell me about your new book?
The Truth Will Out is the long awaited sequel to An Unfamiliar Murder and sees how DCI Helen Lavery faces her toughest case yet. There’s plenty to keep her busy as she clashes with superiors in pursuance of the truth and she has a love interest too! Let me share my blurb with you:

“Everything’s going to be okay.”
“What if it’s not?”
Suddenly, she turned. For a split second she halted, her head inclined.
“Naomi, what is it?”
She whisked back to face Eva.
“There’s somebody in the house…”
Eva is horrified when she witnesses an attack on her best friend. She calls an ambulance and forces herself to flee Hampton, fearing for her own safety. DCI Helen Lavery leads the investigation into the murder. With no leads, no further witnesses and no sign of forced entry, the murder enquiry begins.
Slowly, the pieces of the puzzle start to come together. But as Helen inches towards solving the case, her past becomes caught up in her present.
Someone is after them both. Someone who will stop at nothing to get what they want. And as the net starts to close around them, can Helen escape her own demons as well as helping Eva to escape hers?

The Truth Will Out

– Why do you like to write mysteries?
I set out to write a page turning, rollercoaster ride of a book with characters that feel real, and twists and turns aplenty. Basically, a book that I would like to read myself. I figured if I enjoyed the story, then perhaps others would too.

– Where do you find your sources of inspiration?
I’ve always been fascinated when extraordinary things happen to ordinary people. Most of us live in a bubble, our lives relatively untouched by law enforcement. What happens if we are forced into such a situation? How would we react?

I love people watching, so I guess my ideas come from all around me.

– How and when was it that you started writing?
Almost fourteen years ago, my husband and took a year out to travel the world and kept a daily diary recording our experiences. On our return I found that the copious photos we took drew on memories, but it was reading the diary that transported me back to the sweet smell of Kuala Lumpur, to hear the of street music of Bangkok, feel the thick heat that pervades the wonderfully clean Singapore, see the red earth of Australia. Realising the power of words, it was this diary that prompted me to study creative writing, first at The Writers Bureau and later with the London School of Journalism.

I wrote a few short stories and in 2008 I decided to embark on my first novel, An Unfamiliar Murder. It took about 18-24 months to plan, research, write, edit and complete.

AUM Good small sized April 2012

– Was it difficult for you to find a publisher?
Hmm. The road has been a little rocky. When I finished An Unfamiliar Murder I was still studying creative writing and it was my tutor who encouraged me to submit it to agents. I didn’t expect a positive response (you get so used to receiving rejections in this game) so you can imagine my surprise when two agents expressed an interest!

I signed with a London agent and we worked on the novel to edit it before he submitted it to the major publishing houses and, although the feedback was very positive, nobody signed the book. The rights reverted to me and I decided to try my luck with the independent publishers and quickly signed with Rainstorm Press.

For my second book I decided to pursue a UK publisher to help with the distribution over here which meant I had to plunge myself back into the submissions process once again. Luckily it was picked up by the lovely Legend Press team in London.

– Do you have a writing routine?
As a working mum, my time is finely juggled so I’m afraid I don’t have a regular writing routine. I can often be found poolside typing into my laptop while my daughter is in her swimming class, or jotting ideas down while standing in a supermarket queue.

– What are your favorite books to read?
Goodness, I have so many! Recent books I’ve loved include Alex by Pierre Lemaitre, Before I Go To Sleep by S J Watson and Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes.

– Which have been your favorite travelling experiences?
I loved the mix of glaciers, geysers, fjords and rural landscape in New Zealand. Riding elephants in the rocky Northern Province of Chang Mai, Thailand was pretty special. Also, watching the sun set on Waikiki beach… Oh, there’s so many.

– What country or city you wish you could visit right now?
Reykjavik in Iceland. I think it would be amazing, especially if we got to see the Northern Lights!

– Any ideas for a new book?
My latest work in progress is a crime thriller based in nearby Stratford upon Avon. I’m presently undertaking lots of research field visits which I am enjoying immensely!

-Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Thank you for inviting me on to your travel blog, Nora. It’s been a pleasure to be interviewed by you!

*All images Courtesy of Jane Isaac

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