Jon McGoran is the author of the ecological thrillers Drift and Deadout, from Tor/Forge Books, and their sequel, Dust Up, released in April 2016. He is also the author of the novella, After Effects, from Amazon’s StoryFront imprint.
Writing as D. H. Dublin, he is the author of the forensic crime thrillers Freezer Burn, Blood Poison, and Body Trace, from Penguin Books.
His short fiction, nonfiction and satire have appeared in a variety of publications and anthologies, and his short story “Bad Debt” won an honorable mention in Best American Mystery Stories 2014. He is a member of the Mystery Writers Association, the International Association of Crime Writers, and the International Thriller Writers, and a founding member of the Liars Club. He has been writing about food and sustainability for over twenty years, first as Communications Director at Weavers Way Co-op, and editor and publisher of the monthly newspaper, The Shuttle, and later as editor in chief of Grid, a magazine covering issues of sustainability.
On April 19, Tor/Forge Books released Dust Up, the third in my series of Doyle Carrick thrillers. The books in the series are sometimes called eco-thrillers, environmental thrillers, or biotech thrillers, but to me they are really just thrillers. They do have underlying themes — how biotechnology and big corporations are expanding their control over the world’s food and agriculture. These issues are important to me and important to the books, but they are never the most important thing. More important by far is that they never get in the way of the characters and the story.
I love writing about compelling issues, just as I love to incorporate humor and action into my books. But I realized early on that if any of those things ever gets in the way of the story itself, or undermines the reader’s connection to the characters, it has to go. Story wins. Every time.
This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Research is a lot of work, but it’s also a lot of fun (And FYI, it can also be a great way to avoid writing). Delving deep into intriguing topics is often fascinating and it gives the creative mind plenty of fodder to write about. The ideas for many of the books and stories I have written have come directly from research conducted on previous ones. But it can also be dangerous, because it is tempting to try to incorporate too many of these great facts and ideas and stories into the book that you are currently working on.
Much of Dust Up takes place in Haiti, a complex and compelling place with a rich culture and a troubled history. As part of my research for the book, my wife and I travelled to Haiti. It was a life-changing trip that allowed me to describe the place with much greater authenticity than I otherwise could have. The trip also helped me appreciate many subtleties of Haitian society, to sit down with Haitians and discuss some of the topics the book touches on. Just as in the book, during our visit Haiti was experiencing great political turmoil and instability. Some of those experiences made their way into the book, but many more did not. If I had included all the ideas and subplots and descriptions that I wanted to, the book would have become a bloated tome instead of the lean and entertaining thriller I wanted it to be.
Deadout, the second book in the series, deals with honeybees, the mysterious maladies that are making them disappear, and the biotech response to the crisis (fictional when I wrote it, but since coming true). I did huge amounts of research for the book, and while I already knew bees were amazing creatures — that’s partly why I thought they would make a great topic for a thriller — I found them to be much stranger and more impressive and compelling that I had known. But including every interesting factoid would have left the book so swollen my editor would have been reaching for an Epi-pen, as well as an editorial pen.
It kills me to leave all this interesting material out, but those are some of the tough decisions you have to make as a writer. There is an adage among writers, that you must “Kill your darlings.” It means that for the sake of a better book (and one that isn’t thicker than it is wide), you often have to leave out some of your favorite parts. It is good advice. When I share it, I often add that if it eases the blow, you can save the edits in a separate file for some unseen future purpose. (I tell people you don’t have to kill your darlings, you just have to lock them in the basement). And, as it turns out, many of my great little facts and stories gleaned from book research find a second life after all.
I love doing book readings, but if you’ve ever done one (or sat through one), you know that while people might enjoy listening to an author read, their enthusiasm can diminish rapidly. The most rapt audience at six minutes can be snoring or clawing at the exit by minute twelve. But reading to an audience and telling them stories are very different things. This is when it’s great to have a pocketful of interesting and relevant stories that didn’t make it into the book, stories you’ve been dying to share with an audience, and that they’ll be fascinated to hear.
And it’s always great to have a good reason to let your darlings out of the basement.