The Key Elements of a Suspense Story

Suspense is a popular genre of fiction writing for good reason. First, suspense is not just a genre, it is an element of fiction that keeps readers reading and continually has them coming back for more. Common elements of suspense include empathetic characters, creating concern, including impending danger for the characters and escalating tension. However, there is so much more to creating a compelling suspense novel. Here are some more key elements to include in a suspense novel that will keep readers turning the pages.


Using foreshadowing is a technique anyone who wants to write suspense fiction should master. Start planting clues early and remind readers that something bad is going to happen. Readers will pick up on the clues and will naturally start to worry about the hero of the story. Foreshadowing can seem small, or they can be obvious and monumental clues.

High Stakes  

When writing suspense fiction, low stakes and low consequences equates to low interest. Make sure your main character’s goals and reasons for achieving them are clear from the outset of the story. As your story progresses, the stakes should get higher to build the momentum and suspense of the story.

The Element of Surprise

Suspense is based on uncertainty. So, make it your friend if you want to write suspense fiction. Think about an expected outcome and flip it around. Maybe something bad happening ends up being a blessing in disguise. If you mix positive and negative foreshadowing, you will keep your readers on their toes, wondering what will come next and surprised by whatever it is.

Withholding Information

Generate interest in your story by requiring the readers to want more. Instead of giving your readers every bit of needed information, leave some important details out. If your readers only know what the main character knows, they will naturally crave additional information and keep reading until they get it. Slowly revealing information to your readers keep them engaged in the protagonist’s journey and will propel them through the novel. Not only is it okay to be vague at times, it will actually help make your suspense story better.

Put Time on Your Side (But not the Hero’s)

You can easily build up suspense and tension by putting time constraints on your characters. If your hero works against a clock while your villain has the clock as an advantage, the suspense will naturally build and will give your story momentum.

Pressure-Filled Situations

Create situations that put pressure on your hero. If you put your hero in situations that seem insurmountable, you create a sympathetic character your readers will root for. It is crucial for you to test your hero to the breaking point, but make sure your hero never breaks, no matter how stressful the situation is.


Use your villain to complicate the progress of your hero. Suspense stories thrive on drama, and creating dilemmas for your hero to deal with is a great way to build it. As your hero deals with and overcomes all the dilemmas you create, your readers will become more endeared and will root for the success of the hero. Give your hero problems with no-win solutions, like a situation where two people are in peril and the hero can only save one. Your readers will be so enthralled with the story  they will keep turning the pages to see how every situation is solved.


No one’s life ever runs smoothly all the time. Use this familiar issue to your advantage in your suspense story. Make your hero go through several unexpected events and have nothing be straight-forward. If your hero must constantly be concerned about every decision that must be made, it adds a bit of intrigue and suspense to the story. Your readers will want to know what tactics your hero takes to overcome the obstacles that are put in the way. The hero’s improvisation will bring interest to the story.

Intriguing Villains

The villain in a suspense story helps to drive the plot. In a suspense story the villain is always present, so you need to create a colorful character. Make sure this antagonist of your story is smart and motivated. Take time to consider your villain’s motivations and character. Let the readers know and understand why the villain makes particular choices. Make the readers believe in and fear the villain, and make the villain a worthy opponent for the hero.

Provocative Heroes

If you are going to put time and effort into creating a fantastic villain, you need to put considerable time and effort to create the ideal hero. The hero in a suspense story is different than a hero in other types of stories. The suspense hero must be believable and sympathetic. Readers need to truly care about your hero. Otherwise, they will not keep reading the story. Also, take time to show your readers why they should care about the hero. Do not simply tell them they should.

Now that you have a good idea of which elements to include in a suspense story, here are some tips on how to write a great one:

Keep the Plot Moving

Keep your readers entertained by providing a suspenseful atmosphere. Quickly move from one scene to another and regularly introduce new ideas to keep the readers hooked.

Make a Big Promise Early — and Keep It

Early in your suspense story you need to make a big promise to your readers. A big promise will captivate readers and keep them hooked until the end of the story. Let your readers know what the payoff will be, and then lead them there. The promises you make lie in the areas between the action. The tension and suspense will build as the readers wonder if and how you will be able to keep the promise you made.

Use Locations for Suspense

Set your suspense story in areas that lend themselves to suspense. Use the location of your story to enhance the suspense by incorporating it into the plot rather than simply having it be the background.

Take Away Helpful Tools From Your Hero

There are many tools your main character can use as weapons depending on the situations you put your hero in. A common trick is to make the climax of the story the ultimate meeting between your hero and your villain. During this scene, make sure your protagonist does not have access to weapons, other tools or even helpful allies. The existence of a precarious situation with no logical way out will build suspense that your readers will love.

Keep Your Readers Guessing

The feeling of suspense is reliant on the unknown. If the readers can predict your ending too early in the book, they will likely not care about finishing it.  So, keep them on their toes and turning the pages to find out what will happen. Throw in a few twists and turns along the way to always keep your readers guessing. But, be careful to not go too far. You want to build suspense, but not at the cost of completely confusing your readers.

Do not Overstep

Writing a suspense story is a fine craft. It is crucial to build the feeling of suspense, but if you are not careful, you can create too much of it and it will lose its effect. Give your readers some calmness between the heaviest scenes, so they do not become overwhelmed with the suspense you have created.

Use Short Sentences

You should vary the length of your sentences throughout your story to have a good rhythm and flow and to avoid repetition. However, when you start writing the most suspenseful parts of your story, use short sentences to increase the pace and build anticipation.

Use Suspenseful Character Development

It is crucial to have strong character development in a suspense story. Do not be afraid to make a drastic change in a character’s situation mid-way through the story. Doing so can help to create drama and make your character more sympathetic and human. Some good ways to create suspense for characters include giving them flaws that threaten to derail their goals or successes, making a character take a step or two backward after making some progression and adding surprises or shocking information to their backstories.

Use Parallel Plotlines

Using parallel plotlines is a great literary device for instantly building suspense. As you write about two different events, your readers will automatically begin to wonder how the two storylines and their characters connect and why they do so. Your readers will be compelled to keep reading to find out how and why the two storylines connect.

Writing a suspense story does not need to be a daunting task. But, it does take a lot of forethought and planning. If you want to try your hand at writing a suspense story, start jotting down ideas and follow these tips. Before you know it, you will have a fantastic story that readers will not want to put down.

Book on fire

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The Key Elements of a Psychological Thriller Novel

To create a truly thrilling psychological thriller takes a deft and creative mind. It is crucial for the reader to be engaged and thrilled by the content. So, the writer must take an extra effort to include specific elements to ensure the goal is achieved. Here is some helpful information about psychological thrillers and the elements that should go into them to make them great reading material.

What is a Psychological Thriller?

At its core, a psychological thriller novel exploits and exposes the unstable or delusional nature of its characters. It has similar features to Gothic and detective fiction, but a primary difference between them is that psychological thrillers are often told through the viewpoint of characters who are psychologically stressed. So, their distorted mental perceptions are clearly exposed. Psychological thrillers also frequently include elements of mystery, drama, action and paranoia.

Write What Your Readers Know

It is easy and natural to write what you know as an author. But, when you set out to write a psychological thriller, it is better to write what your readers know. You can accomplish this goal by setting the novel in a familiar place like a home or a workplace. Also, make the subjects common like sibling rivalry or parenting. Doing so will help the readers place themselves in the story and imagine the action happening to them. To get going down this road, take an everyday situation and ask yourself what could be the worst that could happen.

Make Your Characters Real

Avoid writing about out-of-the-ordinary characters for a psychological thriller. Instead, focus on people your readers may encounter in everyday life. If the main character is a housewife or working parent, they are far more relatable to your readers.

Have Flawed Characters

The best characters in psychological thrillers have flaws. To keep with the theme of having characters be real and relatable, the flaws can be something readers can easily relate to. For example, your main character can be keeping a deep, dark secret from the past or have a dangerous jealous streak. It is a wise idea to give your main character an external problem to solve as well as an internal one to deal with.

Have a Twist

Having a twist is essential for a psychological thriller. Whether you put it close to the beginning, in the middle or at the end, you must include it. A great twist can make or break a psychological thriller, so take the time to craft it carefully and well.

Scare Your Readers

Perhaps the most important element of a psychological thriller is the scare factor. Go beyond typical tactics that have been done over and over again. Instead, think about factors that scare you and use that as your starting point. Go as far as possible to make your characters suffer. Your readers will love you for it.

Make Good Use of Your Setting

Create a setting that promotes the emotions you want your readers to feel, like anxiety and fear. Creating a setting that has a lack of light and a dreary and creepy appearance is a great place to start.

The Difference Between a Traditional Thriller and a Psychological Thriller

The differences between a traditional thriller and a psychological thriller are subtle but important. First, it is crucial to understand that “thriller” is a broad genre of fictional literature and “psychological thriller” is a subgenre or small subsection of the overall category. Therefore, there are going to be several similar traits between the two. In general, thrillers are defined by the moods they elicit and producing feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation and anxiety. They have a tendency to keep readers focused waiting for the next suspenseful moment. Writers of this genre use literary devices like red herrings, plot twists and cliffhangers to keep readers engaged. Thrillers are often villain-centered plot that includes obstacles for the protagonist, or hero, to overcome. On the other hand, psychological thrillers are more focused on the psychological factors or internal flaws the main character must overcome.

Tips for Writing a Psychological Thriller

Now that you understand what a psychological thriller is and what elements need to be included, here are some great tips on writing one:

  • Engage the writer quickly.

When you set out to write a psychological thriller, start it out in a way that will immediately engage the reader. Set the tone from the first page. A good strategy is to write a prologue or backstory for your main character first. Even if you do not include it in the final draft, it will give you a place from which you can start.

  • Put the reader in the middle of the action.

Engage the readers immediately by creating tension and putting them in the middle of the action. Use lots of action verbs and vivid descriptions in your writing.

  • Develop your characters.

Your psychological thrillers will go nowhere if your readers do not care about the characters. Even if your hero is a flawed character, readers will want to root for the hero and be repulsed by the villain.

  • Create emotional connections with characters.

Provide physical details and an emotional backstory for treaders to connect with your characters.

  • Leave the readers hanging.

Include cliffhangers by connecting scenes together and keeping the action going. The end of one chapter should give a glimpse into the next one so the readers are enticed to keep reading.

  • Use time to your advantage.

Look at the element of time as another character in your story. Use time as a catalyst for the action. Giving your hero a lack of time will make your readers uncomfortable and spur them to keep reading to see how the situation is resolved.

Writing a psychological thriller does not need to be a daunting task. If you have the creativity and drive, you can write a great piece of fiction that will have readers on the edge of their seats. All you need to do is start writing!


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How to Write a Suspenseful Thriller Novel

In case you didn’t know, November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). With authors all over the country participating, it got us thinking – how does one go about writing a novel, anyway?

While there are plenty of genres out there to choose from, the fact that Halloween comes just before NaNo starts seems like as good an inspiration as any. So, for this post, we’ll be looking at how to write a suspenseful thriller novel.

A few conditions, though, before we begin. First, this post is meant to be a set of loose guidelines, not hard and fast rules. Writing is fluid and flexible – focus on what works best for the story, not checking off boxes. Once you understand these guidelines, you can break them or ignore them however you see fit.

Second, even by following guidelines, there’s no guarantee that a story will be particularly suspenseful or thrilling. Writing is also subjective – some readers will get into it while others won’t. It’s imperative not to get discouraged, as you can’t write for everyone.

Finally, learning how to write a suspenseful thriller novel is just the first step. We can provide you with all the tools, but you still need to create the foundation and the story itself. Also, this isn’t a guide on “how to make millions by writing suspense novels,” so keep that in mind.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s begin!

By the Book: What is a Suspenseful Thriller, Anyway?

Before we can get into the nitty-gritty of how to write this kind of novel, we should understand the elements that make a suspenseful thriller. Here are the “official” definitions of both suspense and thrillers.

  • Suspense – a state or feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen

  • Thriller – stories that are characterized and defined by the moods they elicit, giving viewers heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation, and anxiety.

Another crucial point to keep in mind is that the term “thriller” is relatively vague, meaning that not all of them can be classified as “suspenseful.” However, using these definitions, we can craft a general outline for how our novel should go.

Anatomy of Suspense

Unfortunately, suspense is something that can be difficult to master, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get into how it works and why. Here are a few core components that should be included when building a suspenseful scene, chapter, or novel.

A Character the Audience Cares About

One of the most valuable pieces of suspenseful writing is the emotion tied to the character involved. Simply put, the audience isn’t going to care if a no-name background extra gets killed. In fact, that happens all the time. Instead, the reader needs to have some kind of emotional attachment for the suspense to work.

Creating Stakes

For suspense to work well, the stakes have to be high. If the dreaded outcome is that our protagonist is late for school, what’s the consequence of that? If it’s nothing major, then we can’t have suspense. Instead, raise the stakes, so the reader cares more. For example, perhaps being late to school means expulsion for our protagonist.

Building Tension

Suspense and tension are somewhat similar tactics. Both are centered around a feeling of dread regarding what “could” happen to a particular character. However, there is a critical distinction between the two.

With suspense, the dread may or may not be based on evidence. If a character we like is creeping around a “haunted” house, the reader may anticipate that a ghost or ghoul will appear, even if nothing like that exists in the story’s narrative.

With tension, however, the reader is presented with enough information to draw a particular conclusion. The tension rises as the character moves closer and closer to that conclusion. Using our haunted house example, we can build tension by showing a serial killer roaming the halls, looking for his next victim. As we see our protagonist and the killer moving closer together, we’re afraid of what might happen, so the suspense (and tension) builds.

Simply put, suspense can be built around the unknown, whereas tension is more grounded.

Creating a Payoff

Writing suspense and tension requires a certain ebb and flow. However, just as crucially as building suspense is paying it off. If our protagonist is in the same house as a serial killer, what happens next?

One excellent way to visualize this is by blowing up a balloon. The more air goes into it, the more likely that it will pop. Eventually, we’ll need a release. Either the balloon pops, and we get that burst of excitement and action, or we deflate it. Obviously, the latter option is much more thrilling, which is necessary for our novel.

So, that means that our payoffs need to be exciting, not dull. Promising high-stakes action isn’t worthwhile if nothing ever comes from it. If our protagonist leaves the haunted house and the killer never knows that he was there, what was the point?

One crucial thing to understand as well is that the payoff doesn’t have to be massive. Our protagonist doesn’t have to get into a final showdown with the killer. Perhaps they come face to face, but something prevents the killer from making his move. So, he plans to murder our protagonist later on. We’ve paid off the tension of the scene without making it climatic, but still preserving some of it for the rest of the story.

Throughout our suspenseful novel, we need to create this ebb and flow. Introduce suspense into a particular scene or chapter, and then pay it off somehow. If we keep “deflating the balloon” of each scene, then the reader will get bored.

Creating a Novel

Now that we understand the core components of suspense, we have to figure out how to incorporate them into our novel. But first, we need to know what it takes to write a book altogether. Here are a few guidelines.

Main Plot vs. Subplot

When writing our novel, we need to have an overarching storyline that moves the reader from one point to the next. The plot can be big and bold (saving the world), or it can be more personal (graduating college). However, because we have a lot of room to explore in a whole novel, we will need to utilize subplots as well.

A subplot is a secondary (or tertiary) storyline that happens in addition to the main plot. While our protagonist is trying to graduate college, his sister is trying to be a stage actress. Creating multiple plotlines in a novel can make it more enticing to the reader. In all cases, you need to create some kind of payoff, rather than leaving plot threads hanging by the end.

A Progression of Events

To make a more compelling novel, one has to have elements that drive the plot forward. Scenes should build upon each other, delivering the reader to the next one naturally and logically. Otherwise, we’ll have a collection of scenes with a loose association, which can feel meandering and boring.

Using our haunted house example from above, that scene could feed into another scene where the serial killer starts stalking our protagonist. From there, our protagonist starts noticing the killer in different areas, so he starts to get paranoid and nervous. He calls the police to report the behavior, only to discover that the killer is an officer!

In that case, the progression of events makes sense and moves forward smoothly. Usually, when a writer hits a wall, it’s because nothing is driving the plot to the next scene. What can help alleviate this situation is to outline the main story and subplots so that you know where everything is going. Then it’s just a matter of filling in the details.

Bringing it All Together: Writing a Suspenseful Thriller

By this point, we have a bunch of different elements that can come together to create our novel. Here are a few additional tips to help you flesh everything out.

Characters Drive the Plot, Not the Narrator

In many stories, it’s easy to move the protagonist from one place to the other because that’s how things are “supposed” to go. However, the protagonist should be acting on his own. An excellent way to address this problem is to ask, “why?” Why is he at the haunted house in the first place? Why does he call the police?

It’s also crucial to answer these questions for your antagonist as well. Why does the killer want our protagonist? Why does he keep killing? Figure out the answers from the character’s perspective, not yours as the writer.

Stagger Your Suspenseful Moments

If you have a story with non-stop suspense and tension, it will become too overwhelming. Don’t be afraid to take a break with some comic relief or less-stressful situations. You want to have moments where your protagonist and antagonist are “at rest.” Just make sure that these breaks don’t slow the plot too much.

Use Conflict to Move the Plot

One of the best ways to advance your story is through conflict. The best way to use this is to have it be a catalyst for change. If our characters are in the same spot they were before the conflict, then what was the point? Otherwise, it was just drama, in that it didn’t affect the plot.

Build Toward Something

Finally, to make a good suspenseful thriller, there has to be a climactic moment when everything comes to a head. Our protagonist faces off against the killer in a cat-and-mouse game, where only one can emerge victorious (and alive).

The key to creating this do-or-die moment is to eliminate all other possibilities. The killer has trapped our protagonist in a warehouse, where the only escape is a key on the killer’s waist. Rescue isn’t an option because no one knows that our protagonist is there. Each of these elements is another blow into the balloon. Eventually, it has to pop.

Overall, writing a suspenseful thriller is all about finding the right balance of tension and payoff. Experiment with different scenarios, and keep in mind that your plot may change or adjust as you go. Having a clear endpoint in mind is good, but you don’t want to get locked into it. Let the story dictate how it ends.



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Allied-Occupied Germany: How Four Zones Became Two

Few things can unite people like a common enemy. It seems that when the chips are down, nations will work together for a unified goal, even if their cultures and methods are wildly different.

Nowhere was this truer than the alliance of Russia and the Western powers during World War 2. Compared to Britain and the US, Russia was trading one mad dictator for another. If it wasn’t Hitler controlling the Motherland, it was Stalin. However, the Allies needed Russian tanks and the massive Red Army to secure victory, so it was an alliance of necessity, not idealism. After all, Russia was once loyal to the Nazis.

This uneasy truce came to a head when it was time to decide what to do with Germany when it fell. All sides knew that it was necessary to prevent another war from breaking out, so allied occupation was a must. However, each country knew how vital it was to secure some portion of the former Reich, lest they cede too much control and influence to the others.

The Yalta conference in 1945 divided the country into four zones. France would control the southwest, America the middle, and Britain the northwest. The Soviet Union would control the eastern third of the country, with Berlin smack dab in the center of their new territory.

However, as a measure to ensure allied cooperation, Berlin itself was divided into four zones as well, and the idea was that the Allies would still run the country from its capital, all in equal shares.

Unfortunately, divisions between Western powers and the Soviets began almost immediately, starting with reparations. The Soviets had suffered innumerable casualties during the war and extracted a heavy price on the German people during occupation. This mentality caused tension between the two sides already, but it was a trade deal that helped spark a more fierce division.

Initially, the Soviets, having control of most of Germany’s agriculture in the East, were supposed to provide food to the other three zones, in exchange for reparation payments from those areas. Instead, the Soviets didn’t fulfill their side, so Britain and the US had to feed Germans with taxpayer money.

Because of this, the Western powers decided that it was better to help Germany rebuild its infrastructure so that Germans could feed themselves. The Soviets, however, disliked the idea, fearing a unified Germany.

Further causing tensions between East and West was the way that elections were handled. The Soviets consolidated their power, merging the Social Democratic Party with the Communists, creating the Social Unity Party (SED). The SED swept elections in the Soviet zone while getting less than half of the vote in Berlin.

By 1947, it was clear that the Communists were in control and seeking to expand their influence. In response, the Western powers decided to unify power in their zones, forming a coalition called Bizonia. That same year, President Truman issued his doctrine, outlining America’s plan to contain Soviet expansion throughout the world.

Both of these events helped spark the Cold War, and Germany was soon split into only two zones: East and West. Berlin remained occupied by all Allied powers, but tensions continued to mount throughout the coming decades, until the final collapse of East Germany and the Warsaw Pact in 1989.

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Lessons from Steve Berry Pt. II

Continuing from the last blog, these are more key takeaways from suspense/thriller author Steve Berry’s History Matters seminar for fiction authors.

Some General Points/Themes for Suspense/Thriller Writers:

  • Outline Entire Novel – keep approximately 100 pages ahead of yourself. Steve believes that for a complicated suspense/thriller storyline, it’s more efficient to have at least a rough outline of where you want the story to go.


  • Start as Close to Ending of Book as Possible – Don’t waste your reader’s time with unnecessary build-up. Go to where the story gets really interesting and that’s where you start. You want to grab the reader as quickly as possible.


  • Prologs – “Before the Story” If you use a prolog, keep it short, tight and concise. It must be relevant to the main story. If the reader skips it, they should be completely lost.


  • “Shorter/Tighter” is Always Better – Don’t try to showoff your huge vocabulary or as one of my old bosses said to me, “Bill, don’t use a $10 word when a 50 cent one will do.” Write in conversational English.


  • Object of Fiction à To Entertain – Remember, your overarching goal is to entertain the hell out of your reader.


  • Find Strong Opening Sentences that Catch the Reader – Start off chapters and paragraphs with strong opening sentences.



  • Avoid filler and unrealistic dialog


  • Avoid direct Questions & Answers in dialog


  • Never use “!” to convey excitement


  • Use Tags “John said…” replied, asked, made clear, etc…


  • Keep dialog short (2-3 finger widths)


  • Break up dialog with “Beats”, example “Malone rubbed his head, then…” to convey a movement


Some of Steve’s Do’s and Don’ts

  • You can never overuse the senses – All 5 of them.


  • “False suspense comes from the accidental meaningless occurrence of events. Real suspense comes from creating a moral dilemma for your characters and their courage to act.”


  • Do not use colons or semi-colons in fiction


  • Limit use of commas – Use only when you want the eye to break


Steve’s 11 Rules of Writing

  1. 1. There are no Rules as long as it works
  2. 2. You cannot bore the reader
  3. 3. Do not confuse the reader
  4. 4. Do not “get caught writing” – avoid author intrusion
  5. 5. Do not lie to the reader – avoid the unreliable narrator
  6. 6. Do not annoy the reader
  7. 7. Writing is Re-Writing
  8. 8. Writing is Rhythm
  9. 9. Shorter is always better
  10. 10. “Story” does not take a vacation
  11. 11. You have to tell a Good Story


Good Writing References

  • Stephen King
  • David Morrell
  • Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White
  • The Guide to Self Editing by Browne & King


Steve Berry is one of America’s top tier Suspense/Thriller authors consistently appearing on the New York Times Best Seller’s List. He also excels at teaching his craft to aspiring authors. If any of you have an opportunity to take a Steve Berry class, I highly recommend it.

And remember – History Matters…

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Lessons from Steve Berry Pt. I

A few years ago I experienced a special treat as a writer and a lover of history. Suspense/Thriller author, Steve Berry and his wife Elizabeth appeared at a History Matters Event held at Liberty Hall on the Keen University campus in Union, New Jersey.

Steve and Elizabeth created History Matters several years ago to raise money for historic preservation and conservation in various communities. So far, the most popular choice is a 4-hour seminar that Steve and Elizabeth teach where writers, aspiring writers, and readers buy their way in with a contribution. Usually, that’s somewhere between $75 and $150. All of the money raised from the workshop goes to the particular historical project that has invited Steve to be there.

No expenses or appearance fees are charged. In fact, Steve pays all of those himself. History Matters offers a way to raise money from a group of people who might not normally contribute to historical preservation — writers — with Steve acting as the conduit, providing education and expertise that might not normally be available in your area. So far, Steve and Elizabeth have taught over 3000 students. They have hosted over hundreds of events and raised more than $2,000,000 for local historical settings.

At the Keen University event in October, I attended the luncheon, followed by a 4-hour lecture on the Craft of Writing. Steve talks for three hours on the craft and mechanics of writing and Elizabeth spends an hour on the business of writing.

Steve covers topics such as character development, how to create conflict, develop a story arc, how to use main and subplots, use of point-of-view and many others. If any of you future or current authors have the opportunity, I highly recommend Steve’s course. He also gives a shorter version each year at the ThrillerFest conference held in New York in July each year.

In addition to sharing his expertise in writing honed over many years, Steve and Elizabeth are both incredibly nice and approachable people. A trait I have noticed in almost all of the top tier authors that I have personally met.

Here are a couple of key take aways from Steve’s lecture (if you want more – take the class):

  • Start your story as close to the end as possible. Don’t waste the reader’s time with unnecessary build-up. Go to where the story gets really interesting and that’s where you start. When I was working on The Torch is Passed (sequel to The Pharm House), I re-worked it based on this learning. I threw out the first 30 pages and started at a point where it will be hard for the reader to put down.

Above is an outline for the structure of a suspense/thriller novel. Of course, every author and novel are different, but this is a good starting reference point.

This is a lot to absorb, so I’ll leave it here for now and wrap up in next month’s blog. I hope you enjoy and find useful

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Greystone State Mental Hospital – NJ

Originally opened on August 17, 1876, the hospital was known as the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum at Morristown. The asylum officially received the familiar Greystone Park name in 1924. The idea for such a facility was conceived in the early 1870s at the persistent lobbying of Dorothea Lyne Dix, a nurse who was an advocate for better health care for people with mental illnesses. Because of her efforts, the New Jersey Legislature appropriated $2.5 million to obtain about 743 acres of land for New Jersey’s second “lunatic asylum.” Great care was taken to select a location central to the majority of New Jersey’s population near Morristown, Parsippany and Newark. The land Greystone was built on was purchased by the state in two installments between 1871 and 1872 for a total of $146,000.

At this time in history, New Jersey’s state-funded mental health facilities were exceedingly overcrowded and sub par compared to neighboring states that had more facilities and room to house patients. Greystone was built (673,706 ft²), in part to relieve the only – and severely overcrowded – “lunatic asylum” in the state, which was located in Trenton, New Jersey. In fact, Greystone’s initial 292 patients were transferred from the Trenton facility to Greystone based on geographic distribution, setting precedent for Greystone to become the facility that would generally accept patients whose residences were in the northern part of the state. This proved to be the very reason why Greystone quickly became overcrowded in the heavily populated North while the Trenton facility’s number of patients remained relatively stable in the comparatively sparsely populated South.


In just four years after Greystone opened, it was already accommodating around 800 patients in a facility designed for 600. By 1887, the exercise rooms and attic space were converted to dormitories to create extra rooms for the influx of new patients. In an attempt to relieve the further overcrowding, the Dormitory Building was built behind the Main Building in 1901. It, however, wasn’t enough to alleviate the problem and thus in the same year the dining rooms on each floor had to be converted into dormitories as well. 13 years later, in 1914, the facility housed 2,412 patients, but now had an absolute maximum capacity of 1,600.

The next few decades saw a flurry of construction as supply was scrambling to meet demand. Of note was a new reception building named after the influential Greystone superintendent Marcus Curry in 1927. Patient numbers are believed to have peaked in 1953 with an impressive 7,674 people packed into spaces designed for significantly fewer. An explanation for this dramatic increase can be found in the fact that World War II had ended and left many soldiers requiring treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, which included procedures such as insulin shock therapy and electroconvulsive therapy. Greystone was one of the few places in the country capable of treating such patients.

Modern day

The 1970s and 1980s finally saw some weight lifted from this overcrowded facility because of the trend toward de-institutionalization, which was a direct effect of the use of Thorazine, one of the first drugs that was capable of treating the mentally ill. By 1975, the clinic building had closed with the Curry building closing the following year. Due to the Doe Vs. Klein case, the hospital was required to provide community homes for halfway house-style living. In 1982, 20 independent living cottages holding two patients each were built. By 1988, all patients had been moved out of the Kirkbride building (the main building), and in 1992, the dormitory building closed. For the most part, the main building remained unused except for administrative offices in the center section.

In 2000, Greystone was only a 550-bed facility when then Governor of New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman, announced that the state was going to close the facility by 2003. The decision to close Greystone came about not only because of concerns for the aging buildings, but also due to the recent negative press it was receiving. Specifically, accounts of sexual assault in a hospital elevator, patients committing suicide, patients becoming pregnant, and a twice-convicted rapist escaping did not help Greystone’s public image. Some patients were slowly transferred to smaller-capacity programs, reducing the number of residential patients to approximately 450 in 2005. Then, on September 8, 2005, the New Jersey Health Care Facilities Financing Authority closed a $186,565,000 bond issue on behalf of the State of New Jersey Department of Human Services for the completion of a new, 43,000 m² (460,000 ft²) Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, still with a shortage of about 75 beds.

In 2005, the Greystone campus covered over one square mile (259 ha) and consisted of 43 buildings.

The original Second Empire Victorian style building (Kirkbride Building) was 673,706 total square feet. At the base of this massive building was the alleged largest continuous foundation in the United States from the time it was built until it was surpassed by the Pentagon when it was constructed in 1943.

Each ward was initially set up to accommodate 20 patients. Each was furnished with a dining room, exercise room, and parlor. Most wards had wool rugs that ran the full length of the corridors. Other amenities included Victorian stuffed furniture, pianos, pictures, curtains and fresh flowers. Though not all wards were created equally. Wards that housed the most excitable patients were sparsely furnished – presumably for their own safety – with sturdy oak furniture.

Initial fees were $3.50 per week for a normal patient. For persons seeking private apartment-style living, the rent could be anywhere from $5.00 to $10.00 per week.

During the time that Greystone was built, the predominant philosophy in psychology was that the mentally ill could be cured or treated, but only if they were in an environment designed to deal with them. A major proponent of this philosophy was Thomas Story Kirkbride, who participated in the design phase of the main building at Greystone, though the two main designers were architect Samuel Sloan and Trenton State Asylum Superintendent Horace Buttolph (a friend of Kirkbride’s). The building was constructed and furnished according to Kirkbride’s philosophy, which proposed housing no more than 250 patients in a three story building. The rooms were to be light and airy with only two patients to a room. To reduce the likelihood of fires, Greystone and other Kirkbride asylums were constructed using stone, brick, slate and iron, using as little wood as possible. A street on the Greystone Park campus bears Buttolph’s name.

The Greystone campus itself was once a self-contained community that included staff housing, a post office, fire and police stations, a working farm, and vocational and recreational facilities. It also had its own gas and water utilities and a gneiss quarry, which was the source of the Greystone building material. Below the building, a series of tunnels and rails connect the many sections. For many years, a trolley line, part of the Morris County Traction Company, connected the facility with what is now a NJ Transit rail station at Morris Plains and other parts of Morris County.

In 2008, Greystone was ordered to be closed as a result of deteriorating conditions and overcrowding. A new facility was built on the large Greystone campus nearby and bears the same name as the aging facility. Despite considerable public opposition and media attention, demolition of the main Kirkbride building began in April 2014 and was completed by October 2015.

Greystone holds a special place in my heart. In 1987, I moved about a mile away from the campus and in the 1990s, often my daughter and I would ride our bikes onto the Greystone campus and walk around looking into the abandoned buildings. There was a public effort to get the state of New Jersey to maintain the original Kirkbride building at Greystone as a historical architectural monument, as has been done in other states. But alas, New Jersey, a state that taxes everything and spends money on even more, could not find the funds to maintain this beautiful piece of history and it is now gone forever.


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Book Review – China Rx

China Rx: Exposing the Risks of America’s Dependence on China for Medicine by Rosemary Gibson and Janardan Prasad Singh; 2018, Prometheus Books China RX

I rarely write book reviews for my blog, but China Rx touched a raw nerve and raises serious points regarding the United States pharmaceutical supply chain of which every American should be made aware.

In my first novel, The Pharm House, a fictional thriller set inside the global pharmaceutical world, I used the tag line “Do you ever wonder how drugs get in those little brown bottles? Read The Pharm House and you may give it a second thought.”.

The same tag line could easily apply to China Rx, a non-fictional description of how for the last thirty years, China has systematically and aggressively moved to take control of the global pharmaceutical final product, bulk drug and raw material supply chain.

Birth control pills, drugs for HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer’s Disease, High Blood Pressure, Antidepressants, Antibiotics, Epilepsy, Cancer and many others – often the best selling branded drug products, but particularly generic brands are manufactured in China.

In the 1990s, the United States, Europe and Japan manufactured 90% of the global supply of the key ingredients for the world’s medicines and vitamins/supplements. Now, China is the largest global supplier, with some estimates of nearly 80% of raw drug ingredients coming from China.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authority to inspect pharmaceutical and medical device facilities in China that supply product to the US, however due to limited resources, delay in timing (pre-announced inspections) and language (translators are required), the FDA oversight of Chinese facilities is far less than that of US companies.

Many pharmaceuticals sourced by the Pentagon for the U.S. Military are purchased from China, either the final product or the excipients/raw ingredients. What if during a conflict between the U.S. and China, the source was terminated or worse – intentionally contaminated?

Nearly 70 percent of Americans are on at least one prescription drug, and more than half take two. We are obsessed about where our foods come from; whether they are local, “natural” or “GMO”. Perhaps it is time we paid as much attention to where our drug products come from.

It’s not only pharmaceuticals that we should be concerned about, but also medical devices. Medical device products manufactured in China and sold in the U.S. include, magnetic resonance imagining equipment (MRIs), dental implants, screw systems used in spinal surgery, balloon catheters used to open up clogged arteries in the heart during angioplasty, speculums used during women’s gynecological exams, surgical gowns, examination gloves and wheelchairs. China is the largest exporter of medical devices to the United States.

The argument of the book is not that we should not source materials from China simply because it’s China. The argument is that materials sourced from China should meet the same stringent safety and quality standards as materials sourced within the United States, Europe and Japan.

China Rx is a must read for every American and certainly for our policy-makers in Washington. For decades, our leaders have been blinded by the fantasy that concession after concession made to China will result in them eventually wanting to be and behave like us, a Westernized open democracy. We could not have been more wrong. China has a plan and that plan is for them to dominate the manufacture, distribution and supply chain of pharmaceuticals (both final products and ingredients; both branded and generic) and medical devices. China has now positioned itself to be an existential threat to the health of the American public, our economy and our military (where do you think our military gets most of its pharmaceuticals?).

Do you know what’s in that little brown bottle you get from your drug store? Odds are whatever it is, it came from China where quality controls may be nonexistent, regulations poorly enforced and documentation may be falsified. China Rx is one of the scariest books I’ve ever read.

I gave China Rx a 5-Star Review. If you or anyone you care about takes prescription or non-prescription pharmaceuticals, vitamins and supplements, I recommend that you read this book, and while you’re at it – send a copy to your Congress person and/or Senator.

“The truth is that history will judge free trade with China, rather than fair trade, to have been a blunder of truly historic proportions from which America will never recover.”

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U.S. Color-Coded War Plans

What do most militaries do best and most often? If you guessed fight wars, you would be mistaken. The one thing that most militaries do best – plan to fight. Name a famous war planner you say? How about Dwight D. Eisenhower. During the lead-up to World War II, Eisenhower was one of George Marshall’s (Army Chief of Staff during WWII) top planners. Marshall sent Ike to England to plan for the eventual US –led invasion of mainland Europe. Eventually Marshall and President Franklin Roosevelt selected Eisenhower as Supreme Allied Commander. What makes this fact interesting is that Ike made his bones as a planner in the Army, not a fighter. Eisenhower, unlike many other ranking US military leaders, had never led troops in actual battle prior to World War II!

From the late 1800s until post-World War II, the United States military (Army and Navy) developed a series of color-coded war plans that outlined potential U.S. strategies for a variety of hypothetical war scenarios. The plans were developed by the U.S. Army/Navy Joint Planning Committee, which later evolved into the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In 1904, the Joint Planning Committee adopted a system of colors to represent countries – potential adversaries. Many war plans became known by the color of the country to which they were related; this convention lasted through World War II.

Here are some of the details. First, at some point, the U.S. had plans to militarily engage just about every major power on earth. In fairness, they all had similar plans to engage the U.S.

The plan that has received the most consideration was War Plan Orange, a series of contingency plans for fighting a war with Japan alone that was first outlined in 1919. Plan Orange actually formed some of the basis for the actual campaign against Japan in World War II and included pre-war economic blockade of Japan that the U.S. imposed and the plans for interning the Japanese-American population living in the mainland U.S.

War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897 – 1945 by Edward S. Miller is an excellent read on the subject.



U.S. Color-Coded War Plans – 1938



U.S. Plans for Canadian Invasion

War Plan Red was a plan for war against Britain and Canada. British territories had war plans of different shades of red – the UK was ‘Red’, Canada “Crimson’, India ‘Ruby’, Australia ‘Scarlet’ and New Zealand ‘Garnet’. War Plan Red was kept updated as late as the 1930s and caused a stir in American – Canadian relations when declassified in 1974.

War Plan Black was a plan for war with Germany. The best-known version was conceived as a contingency plan during World War I in case France fell and the Germans attempted to seize French possessions in the Caribbean and launch an attack on the eastern U.S. seaboard. The plan actually called for the U.S. to cede southeastern U.S. territory to an invading German Army/Navy and to make a stand along the mid-Northeastern U.S. coastal area.  

War Plan White involved U.S. military engagement during an internal uprising in the United States. Communist insurgents were considered the most likely threat by the authors of War plan White.

The color-coded U.S. war planning system is still of historical relevance, but militarily outdated. No doubt the U.S. military still very actively engages in war planning, but those plans are kept secret, unless and until needed.

In addition to war planning, there is of course post-war planning.

Why my interest in this? War planning and post-war planning are referenced in The Lost Codicil.


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Ancient Words and Symbols

In an upcoming Harding Family Story (The Lost Codicil) ancient words and symbols are a small, but important part of the storyline. No, I’m not trying to go Dan Brown, but as usual, I’m weaving real history into the fictional story and some of that refers to ancient words and symbols.

Saeculum is a length of time roughly equal to the potential lifetime of a person or of the complete renewal of a human population from a given event or point in time. The term was first used by the Etruscans and adopted by the Romans. Originally it meant the period of time from the moment that something happened (for example a major war or the founding of a city) until the point in time that all people who had lived at the first moment had died. At that point a new Saeculum would start. According to ancient legend, the gods had allotted a certain number of saecula to every people or civilization; the Etruscans believed that they had been given ten saecula.

By the 2nd century BC, Roman historians were using the Saeculum to periodize their chronicles and track wars. At the time of the reign of emperor Caesar Augustus (first emperor of Roman Empire) the Romans decided that a Saeculum was 110 years.

The term Saeculum evolved to common usage in which it stands for a period of about 90 years. The Romans divided it into four “seasons” of approximately 22 years each; these seasons represent youth, rising adulthood, midlife and old age.

In the Romance languages the word has evolved to mean “century”.

I first came across the term Saeculum when reading Strauss-Howe Generational Theory by authors William Strauss and Neil Howe and what they describe as a recurring generational cycle in American history. I thought, I must use this in a story.

Ouroboros is an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail.

What the heck, you ask, is that!

Ouroboros is an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail. The Ouroboros originated in Ancient Egyptian iconography and was adopted as a magical symbol by the Greeks and medieval alchemists and modern symbolism. It is often taken to symbolize introspection or cyclicality in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself. It can also represent the infinite cycle of nature’s endless creation and destruction, life and death and despair.

In The Lost Codicil, Nicholas Harding and his friend Don Marshall run into a group calling themselves the Saeculum who are trying to make sure that a long lost secret remains secret.

If you’re interested in reading more on Strauss-Howe Generational Theory, see the reference below.

  • Howe, Neil; Strauss, William (1997). The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny. New York: Broadway Books.

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