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You want to write a conspiracy thriller?

THRILLER:   noun—A novel, play, or movie with an exciting plot, typically involving crime or espionage.Oxford Dictionaries

Here’s a checklist to get you started on your future bestseller.

  1. Start with a thriller intro scene that’s plenty…er…thrilling. Gory murders work well here, but kidnapping adorable young children is also acceptable, especially if they cry for their mothers.
  2. Next butchered bodies should start popping up, but local cops/spies/amateur detectives/teenage cheerleaders living over a hellmouth/superheroes/little old ladies with cats can’t figure out what’s happening.
  3. Only your reluctant hero can put the pieces together. And s/he better get truckin because their Dark Moment is looming.
  4. Your hero enlists the help of a spunky sidekick/reluctant love interest/cat who is, of course, kidnapped by the Supervillain/Evil Corporate Exec/Other Side’s Spies—who turn out to be just as ruthlessly amoral as Our Side/Global Conspiracy/Government Agency.
  5. You’ll need plenty of deadlines, frequently exotic scene changes, and the odd cliffhanger. And surely you’ll want a timer counting down to zero before Something hits the fan.
  6. Thriller supporting cast/expendables [image credit: Wikipedia]

    Your reluctant hero will survive, but things aren’t so promising for just about everyone else. In fact, you might as well issue red shirts with the Star Trek logos to the supporting cast, because things don’t look good for them. If your hero is a wandering type who takes on evildoers wherever he encounters them, the love interest in each book should probably just take out a good life-insurance policy and decide how s/he wants the tombstone to read.

Ready to give it a try? Here’s my idea for a sure-fire conspiracy thriller winner (with thanks to the Plot Generator). You’re welcome.

The Mangled Thumbnails

The Mangled Thumbnails

A Conspiracy Crime Thriller
by Hepsiba Heartburn

Mangled thumbnails and bruised puppies have been turning up all over Champaign Illinois and the inhabitants are scared. Ten murders in ten weeks, all committed with a slingshot, and still nobody has a clue who the puppy-kicking killer is.

Kickass Actiongirl is a height-challenged but hygiene-conscious artisan corn detasseler with a fondness for collecting exotic popcorns and antibacterial handwashes. She doesn’t know it yet but she is the only one who can stop the killer, who (rumor has it) is also a very bad tipper who plans to destroy every ear of corn in Illinois.

When her Hot Yoga Instructor, Bruce Geekly, disappears, Kickass finds herself thrown into the center of the investigation. Her only clue is a glittering bellybutton ring that seems curiously familiar. Depressed at the loss of her corn detasseling job, Kickass becomes addicted to binge watching old Walking Dead episodes and stuffing herself with popped corn from her exotic kernels collection. Then, at the bottom of a tin of salt-caramel popcorn that Bruce gave her for Christmas, she finds a matching bellybutton ring.

She enlists the help of Propeller Head, a spunky corn-loving private eye and part-time physics professor at the local community college.

Can Propeller help Kickass overcome her Walking Dead addiction long enough to find the answers? Will they uncover the truth behind the puppy-abusing killer and his deadly slingshot before every ear of corn in Illinois is destroyed?

Genre Notes:

  • If this is made into a BBC mini-series, it will become a British Conspiracy Thriller. Propeller will turn out to be code name for MI-5 operative Horace Mungo. His mission is to stop deranged eco-terrorist Bruce Geekly from destroying the world’s corn crop to protest genetically modified corn strains, thus preventing fancy popped corn tins from being given out at Christmas, and plunging world commodities markets into total chaos (except for Russia, of course, where nobody would eat corn on a bet anyway). There will be lots of panoramic shots of iconic London locations, much international chase scenage, and a special appearance by Her Majesty, who will share a soothing discussion with Kickass of their favorite Walking Dead episodes.
  • If Kickass’ parents and siblings were all killed in a fiery crash on their way to Disneyland, and had to be identified by dental records because their fingers were all missing—she only survived because she was adopted, and was left at home to care for the new puppy—and these new crimes are a horrific echo of her past, and if Kickass is then kidnapped by her mysterious assailant (Bruce Geekly, of course: she’d know that bellybutton piercing anywhere), it’s a Psychological Thriller. Sooner or later, somebody will be locked in a closet.
  • If Kickass is actually a sociopath genius who picks up clues such as the killer’s predilection to spit Old Maid (unpopped) popcorn kernels out of the right side of his mouth when stressed, and if she’s actually been sent by the Deep State to resolve some morally bankrupt situation that they can’t risk going public, it’s a Sherlock Thriller. Kickass’ slightly stupid sidekick Propeller will post it as a flash fiction short on his blog.
  • If Kickass rocks cocktail dresses and/or tuxedos with at least one scene in an upscale international casino, has a license to kill, and a chase scene that wrecks cars which cost more than the entire annual corn crop of Champaign Illinois, it’s a shaken-not-stirred spy thriller.
  • If Kickass and Propeller stumble onto a conspiracy involving ancient societies, puzzle-clues in famous works of art, the phrase “secret passed from one generation to the next”, the Catholic Church, and the basic foundations of everything we believe, then it’s an absinthe spy thriller and Kickass is probably the direct descendant of Adam and Eve (although nobody points out that so is everyone else…) and the Chosen One destined to locate the Garden of Eden on Google Maps.
  • If Propeller wears trench coats and has Seen-Too-Much, leaving him a beer-swilling alcoholic in need of a shave, while still doing morally-icky stuff as demanded by his even more morally-challenged superiors, it’s a six-pack spy thriller. As the girl-of-the-month, Kickass probably won’t make it, and things don’t look good for Propeller either, unless he’s the anti-hero who travels America’s backroads bringing justice and a strong right hook in a multi-book series. Good news for you the writer! Every time Propeller goes vigilante on some redneck/foreigner/terrorist/international banker that local law enforcement just can’t take down, your conspiracy thriller sales will go up. And even better, every time some liberal wuss complains about “Propeller justice”, your sales will explode. Good luck!

For a look at how one writer applies these conspiracy thriller tropes, please see my review of The Planck Factor below.

BLURB: The Planck Factor

What if Einstein got it wrong?

On a dare, grad student Jessica Evans writes a thriller, creating a nightmare scenario based upon the theory that the speed of light is not a constant—one that has a dark application. Her protagonist (the fiancé of a scientist killed in a car crash) is pursued by those who want to use the theory to create the world’s most powerful weapon.

Jessica’s research into the science stirs up concern from an extremist group intending to use it for evil. Before long, Jessica’s life mimics that of her protagonist, as she runs from terrorist conspirators who suspect she may try to stop them from causing a major disaster. As the clock ticks down, Jessica must put the pieces together and avert a global catastrophe.

My Review: 3.5 stars out of 5

WARNING: the following contains references to mathematics and may involve actual instances of calculus.


“Ohhhhh…Look at that, Schuster… English majors and dogs are so cute when they try to comprehend quantum mechanics.” (apologies to Gary Larson/Chronicle Features, 1984)

During Magic 101, my one (required) semester of college physics, the professor assured our class of history and lit majors that there was no such thing as calculus in the real world.

For the most part, that works for me. But every now and then something reminds me that I’m only seeing part of the universe.

Most recently, it was reading The Planck Factor by Debbi Mack, which asks a basic question: what if Einstein got that whole e=mc2 thing wrong? What if the velocity of light was NOT a constant, and thus nuclear devices could be n-times more powerful?

Setting aside the dubious science here, the obvious answer (for a writer anyway) is that government agencies, spies, supervillains, terrorists, and—scariest of all—competing academics would kill for those results. In The Planck Factor, that’s the premise that young grad student Jessica Evans uses as the basis for her first novel. As the book alternates between Jessica’s story and that of her protagonist Alexis, Jessica starts to see terrifying similarities between her own situation and that of her fictional creation. Both are in danger from unknown forces, forced to flee for their lives, while family and friends are also in mortal peril.

Debbi Mack is the New York Times bestselling author of IDENTITY CRISIS, the first book in the Sam McRae Mystery Series, featuring Maryland lawyer-sleuth Stephanie Ann “Sam” McRae. She has also written and published a young adult novel, INVISIBLE ME, a thriller called THE PLANCK FACTOR, and several short stories, one of which was nominated for a Derringer Award. Debbi has written two feature film screenplays, including an adaptation of her first novel. A native of Queens, NY, Debbi currently lives in Columbia, MD, with her husband and cats.

At the heart of both stories is the random scientific “fact” that Jessica extrapolated from a chance footnote. In her novel, that is enough to put Alexis into danger. In Jessica’s real world, research for the novel has cost her friend’s life and sent his killers after her.

There were so many things I liked about this little novella-length book. The converging chapters of Jessica’s life and the developing story of her novel were nicely done. The deliberate similarities between her character and that of her creation might have been confusing, but they were cleverly set apart by the use of different fonts and chapter headings. Then there were the sections from the mysterious Kevin, whose role isn’t revealed until the last pages. And there was a final twist in the very last page that I never saw coming.

Having said that, I have to admit there were things that bothered me as I was reading. The science itself was threadbare and unsubstantiated—but I could live with that. The thinly-veiled but constant discussion of the writing process was annoying in its determination to state (and restate) the obvious. But, given the fact that Jessica is a graduate student writing a thesis on “how genre fiction could have literary value”, I suppose I could also live with that. Even the obvious plot holes such as the observed similarities between ‘fictional’ Alexis and ‘real’ Jessica which seem so significant but are ultimately never explained by anything other than coincidence might just be a literary device. Smaller plot sink holes in the fictional book (such as the part where Alexis is supposed to put herself in grave danger in order to find out where some notes are hidden—while the person who hid them was actually standing right next to her) could be explained by the fictional novel being a work in progress.

But there were two things that troubled me. The first was the gigantic and (as far as I could tell) completely unsubstantiated leap where government agencies go from worries about what might be in Jessica’s book to closing down the Golden Gate Bridge and preparing for ‘the biggest catastrophe in modern history’—without a single fact or substantiated clue to back it up. There were further logic-less leaps that left me scratching my head (but I don’t want to mention them for fear of spoilers).

The second thing that annoyed me was that I just didn’t like Jessica. She came across as self-centered and somewhat whiny. When she gets a phone warning and starts to worry that someone is stalking her, she doesn’t hesitate to go straight to the police. Twice. But when a friend who was trying to impress her by helping with her research is killed, she “doesn’t want to get involved”.

By now, I was down several stars in my appreciation of the novel. And then I came to that last page with its stunning final twist. Wait a minute… Does that mean what I think it means? I read it several times. Then I went back and re-read several sections of the book. And I realized that the entire story within a story had been turned inside out. Back went the stars.

Overall, I’d say The Planck Factor might not be a perfect book, but it does have a perfect final twist.

I reviewed The Planck Factor for Rosie’s Book Review Team

**I received this book from the publisher or author to expedite an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.**

Book Title: The Planck Factor
Author: Debbi Mack
Genre: Conspiracy Thriller
Publisher: Renegade Press; 1st edition (October 29, 2016)
Length: 187 pages

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