You typically see the plot of my books through the eyes of several different characters. Stride, Serena, and Maggie are always there – but so are victims, perpetrators, and innocent bystanders. Their stories intensify the emotion of the thriller, because every crime has ripple effects that change lives in unexpected ways.
I want these characters to feel “three-dimensional” on the page, but I’m often writing about people with very different experiences from my own. To bring them to life, I need help.
For example, the characters in MARATHON include an ordinary Muslim family – husband, wife, and child – whose world is turned upside down by a violent attack and its aftermath. This family should feel as genuine and sympathetic to the reader as next-door neighbors. However, my own experience has given me little interaction with Islamic life or culture from which to build realistic Muslim characters.
Online resources are always valuable when doing character research, but I wanted something more personal – so I reached out to members of the Muslim community in the Twin Cities. There was initially some wariness in their response. Too many popular thrillers deal with Muslims only through the lens of Islamic extremism, and I had to persuade them that I wanted to write a story with greater depth and nuance. When they understood what I was trying to do, they were very gracious in sharing personal stories with me.
In the end, I had the opportunity to talk about day-to-day life, culture, and religion with several members of the Muslim community and to observe one of their Friday prayer services. Their generosity in sharing their values, beliefs, and fears was essential to my research. I hope I’ve lived up to their trust by creating Muslim characters in MARATHON who are sincere, flawed, heroic, and misguided in equal parts – in other words, people who are exactly like all of the other three-dimensional characters I try to bring to my novels.
The book tour for MARATHON is set!
Join me in May at events in Duluth, the Twin Cities, St. Louis, Denver, Phoenix, Houston, and Vero Beach. I’ll be talking about the “ripped from the headlines” themes in MARATHON, reading from the book, answering all your questions — and, of course, signing copies for you.
If I’m coming to your area, I hope you’ll stop by and meet me.
Are we more divided than ever before?
Sometimes it seems that way. Tragedy doesn’t bring us together the way it once did. Too often, rather than turning to each other for support, we retreat to separate corners and to our own political philosophies.
The rise of social media seems to have accelerated this divisiveness. If you agree with someone, social media is an echo chamber reinforcing what you think. If you disagree, it’s an information superhighway crowded with road rage. That’s why I chose to make social media an important theme in MARATHON – because sites like Twitter and Facebook have become players in shaping how we react to the world.
Look at Twitter, for example. There’s something about that 140-character limit on Twitter posts that washes away restraint and encourages people to hurl spicy little fireballs at one another. As one of my characters in MARATHON complains to her husband, “I always know when you’re looking at Twitter. Your face gets so angry.” She’s right. Twitter can be a perfect little outrage factory.
Social media not only makes us angrier, it also makes it easier for us to leap to the wrong conclusions. That’s especially true in the aftermath of tragic events. Information spreads lightning fast – but so does misinformation. What starts out as news quickly becomes an online breeding-ground for rumor and speculation, and the results can easily spiral out of control.
Stride doesn’t just have to solve a murder in MARATHON. He also has to deal with a powder keg of online paranoia that threatens to burst from the virtual world into the real world of Duluth.
On April 15, 2013, two pressure-cooker bombs detonated in the crowd during the Boston Marathon. Three spectators died in the explosions, and hundreds were injured.
Every terrorist attack horrifies us with its senseless violence and loss of life – but I think the Boston bombing prompted a special outrage, because it violated an event that represents the best of what people can strive for and achieve, and because the marathon itself is so much a part of the identity of the city of Boston.
It’s not often that I create a plot that is directly “ripped from the headlines,” but no one will miss the fact that the real-life events of the Boston bombing inspired MARATHON. Duluth, like many cities, offers an annual race that plays host to tens of thousands of runners and spectators from around the world. As a result, I wanted my Duluth-based police lieutenant, Jonathan Stride, to deal with all of the challenges and raw emotions of a similar tragedy.
However, the explosion in MARATHON, with its unsettling parallels to what happened in Boston, is only the beginning. The story of this novel is really a story of how hatred in all its forms becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of violence, loss, and revenge.
My books often deal with sensitive themes, and I try to deal with these issues in shades of gray, not just black or white. That’s especially true of MARATHON. I wanted to write a lightning-paced thriller that also deals openly and honestly with issues of anger, prejudice, and extremism, especially when amplified by the echo chamber of social media.
There are no super-heroes or super-villains here, just ordinary people. Some struggle to do the right thing; some do evil things. Most have good intentions – but we know where good intensions can lead. In the middle is Stride, trying to find the truth and bring people together despite their bitter divisions.
Want a quick take on why you should read THE NIGHT BIRD…? Here I am…without glasses…with makeup…talking about James Patterson, Alfred Hitchcock, and The Bourne Identity.
Want the scoop on THE NIGHT BIRD but don’t have a lot of time?